The City as a Commons, by Massimo De Angelis

The City as a Commons, by Massimo De Angelis

In this paper, titled ‘The City as a Commons‘ — through insights from classical cybernetics, within an interpretative horizon informed by Marxism, feminism and ecology — Massimo De Angelis addresses these themes: First, why, in order to seriously address the epochal crises in which we are immersed, do we need so much democracy from below? Second, how is it possible for this democracy from below to govern social cooperation in a complex entity such as a city and in ways that make us ‘stay human’, in order to improve everyone’s life, reduce our impact on the environment, and in a context in which there are huge social forces pushing towards other goals (war, profit or rent above all). Assuming a huge movement to change the power relations and open up the future, how can we organise ourselves to govern a complex entity on a large scale in a deeply democratic and inclusive manner in order to ‘produce human beings by means of human beings’? As Massimo writes below, ‘in these dark times, I believe this is a reflection worth making. I hope that others will add to this reflection, that they will help us to make it clear and intuitive, to detect its weaknesses in a constructive spirit, and to translate its possible insights into techniques for the democratic governance of the commons, of our social cooperation’ in various fields.

(Machinatorium, by Jacek Yerka)

City as a commons

Desire is production of reality” – [Gilles Deleuze]

Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.” – [Fernando Birri quoted by Eduardo Galeano]

“By Asking questions, we walk” – [Zapatistas]


The topic I am going to discuss is a more articulated elaboration of a recent chapter of mine that appeared in the book Post-Growth Planning, edited by Federico Savini, António Ferreira and Kim Carlotta von Schönfeld (2022) that recently came out for Routledge. It is about understanding how a reality as complex as a city can conceive of itself and self-organise itself as a commons, that is, as a social system where the people who are part of it, who live and reproduce their lives there, relate to each other in different forms and consequently relate to their non-human natural environment, well how the inhabitants and (re)producers of this city can also become its rulers. I do not want here to provide utopian imaginaries, or slip into mere technicalities, or take up classic models and imaginaries of decentralisation or municipalism. Instead, I want to problematise how the ultimate rules of complex social organisation can help us understand two things. First, that today we are in great need of a lot of democracy from below precisely in order to face the great crises of our time (in particular the crises of social reproduction, which in my definition also includes the environmental one) and to live with more joy, love and collective happiness, and without this democracy from below, just and lasting solutions cannot be sustained; this is the purpose of the first part of this paper. Secondly, to understand broadly in which broad functional areas this democracy should be organised, without the need to resort to hierarchies of income, wealth, status or power, or at least, to substantially reduce them, and this will be discussed in the second part of this paper. I was helped in this by the ideas of Stafford Beer, whose work in the 1970s and 1980s has become a classic of organisation cybernetics. His work, if read today with an attentive mind and open hearts towards the contemporary sensibilities of the environmentalist movements and for economic and social justice in the present, and if applied to areas far beyond the economy and which put social and environmental reproduction at the centre, allows us, I believe, to affirm that an alternative model of complex social cooperation can and must be built. In these dark times, I believe this is a reflection worth making. I hope that others will add to this reflection, that they will help us to make it clear and intuitive, to detect its weaknesses in a constructive spirit, and to translate its possible insights into techniques of democratic governance of our social cooperation. The complex entity to which I wish to apply my reasoning here is the city, but the choice is made here only to delimit a complex sphere of analysis, and there is no presumption of having defined a privileged sphere in this choice.

Social cooperation and crisis

Social cooperation is the set of different systems of production, incorporating different forms, rationalities and goals, which through their interaction give rise to macro-systems in which hegemonic forces take command and direction over others, thus structuring social cooperation vertically in a hierarchy of aims and objectives.

The general and fundamental character of the crises of our time lies in the profound contradiction between two types of systemic reproduction with their related meta-finalities: the reproduction of capital and social reproduction. Foucault identified governability as power’s attempt to maintain a balance between these two reproductions, a balance that in an increasingly evident way today is absolutely impossible to maintain. The ecological crisis, for example, among many others, shows ever more clearly the incompatibility between the pursuit of growth (accumulation) and the absorption limits of the biosphere. This main contradiction of our time manifests itself in the current social and ecological crises as an effect of the conflicting ends, the meta-ends, and corresponding modes of production of two main areas of reproduction: the reproduction of capital and capitalism on the one hand (both as the social pursuit of accumulation and as a power structure) and, on the other hand, the reproduction of the human components of society and their multiple capacities, within the limit dictated by the configuration of the non-human natural environment, i.e. in the context of what is generally understood as ecological sustainability. What we need more and more is the exponential growth of a plural movement that places social reproduction and its meta-finality above the reproduction of capital, that succeeds in containing it, in drastically limiting its development, in de-accumulating the social relations that constitute it by creating new ones that are an expression of another mode of production, the common.

Social reproduction and governance

One of the criticisms made of the reasons for the commons as a mode of production (and of its declinations as common goods, commons, and the democracy from below of which they make themselves the bearers), is the fact that they can mostly be applied to small dimensions, and that the more the spatial and functional sphere of the thing to be managed and regulated as a commons increases, and with it the complexity of things, the more one needs forms of vertical command. These can then be expressed in forms of representative democracy, managerialism or autocracy, depending on the tastes and scopes of application posed by critics of democracy from below, and I am not interested here in discussing these distinctions. Instead, in this paper I intend to pose a simple but very complex question: how do you govern a complex entity such as a city (but it could be an industry, a territory, a region, and so on) if you consider it a commons? I do not want here to re-propose approaches already theorised by, for example, Murray Bookchin’s municipalism (among others), and which prima facie I believe can inform the spatial organisation aspects of democracy from below. Instead, here I want to focus on the functional organisation of a complex entity such as a city, on how different functions of the regulation of social cooperation can be articulated by taking seriously the idea that its inhabitants can govern it through a deep, diffuse and decentralised democracy, for purposes other than addressing the various serious crises concerning both social and ecological reproduction, thus at the same time promoting the conditions for a good life for all.

I call ‘social reproduction’ that sphere of social cooperation that has a corporeal, cognitive, affective, emotional and relational concern for the production of human beings by human beings. The latter is a notion that Marx applies to production in general (and rightly so, since all production, even of material goods, has as its subject the satisfaction of some human need), but which the contribution of feminism has allowed us to distinguish as the sphere of the production of labour power in general, especially through the unpaid labour of women in the domestic sphere [e.g. the work of Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa] .As we shall see, however, social reproduction today is a stratified sphere of social cooperation that cuts across different ‘sectors’ and places in society. It is stratified in a multiplicity of practices at different scales and mobilises different degrees of social power and systems of governance. It is transversal, because the concerns of social production do not only belong to one sector, but to all sectors of social cooperation. There is, for example, a lot of emotional labour inside a factory or office as well as in a restaurant, or in the relationship with one’s children. Social reproduction is therefore a complex of paid and unpaid work, within services, agriculture, homes, industry, schools, in multiple heterogeneous sites of social cooperation in different forms and within different apparatuses of power, a material, immaterial and care work that because of this transversality is potentially an enormous terrain for the social recomposition of the imaginary and of struggles, starting with that of women. Moreover, it is worth emphasising that social reproduction in this sense also means concern for the living in general. It is not possible to produce ‘human beings by means of human beings’ – that is, as we shall see, the ultimate meaning of social reproduction – without relating to the question of the living in general, of the ecosystem of which we are part and from which we derive all forms of energy and on which we expel our waste. Social reproduction also includes a bodily, cognitive, affective, emotional, and relational concern for other forms of the living, for the maintenance of the ecological precondition of human existence, for us and for future generations. Our necessary and vital entanglement with all that is living in general reflects on the need for the balance of means and ends, their processes of mutual adaptation, to also involve our relationship with the living, and it is up to us, as human beings, to bring about such a rebalancing and mutual adaptation between means and ends.

The meaning of the term ‘reproduction’ is to produce again, and to identify the production of human beings by means of human beings in the narrow sense with care work in its multiple forms is to in-troduce what Hardt and Negri in their Commonwealth call a ‘radical circularity’ (Hardt and Negri 2009: 136-137). A circularity that originates from the fact that in the production of human beings by human beings, human beings are conceived as both means and ends of production. This radical circularity implies the need for the establishment of an equally radical design of social co-operation in such a way that means and ends coincide, or at least converge. A design that can only come about through a process, a space for continuous and widespread collective reflection on the socially just forms that are necessary for human beings to be both the means and the ends of social production within the framework of different roles and a division of labour. Hence the important role of the cognitive commoning, the opening and expansive explosion of deep democratic spaces within all the folds of complex social cooperation, but also the problem of their articulation in a cohesive and co-herent form: precisely the idea of the city as a commons.

Now, if a large movement managed to place social reproduction understood in this sense as the main purpose of a city as a commons, as its meta-finality above all others, what form of governance would have to be adopted for this? Let us start with the idea of governance as it presents itself today within social cooperation, that is, with what I call emergent and chaotic governance. In contrast to the predominant idea of governance as a forum between different networked ‘stakeholders’, so-called governance proper (Jessop 2016), where specific issues are often dealt with within the limits of the most powerful rationalities such as those of economics and capital, the idea of emergent and chaotic governance wants to emphasise the fact that the forms of governance within a complex entity such as the city are as manifold as the sites and modes of social reproduction are manifold, and that this emergent and chaotic governance is none other than the set that emerges from the interaction between these multiple forms of governance and the related circuits of social cooperation, a set of forms of governance that often pursues contradictory objectives, a set, let us remember, dominated and/or hegemonised by forms of governance compatible with the reproduction of capital and its forms of command.

Emergent and chaotic governance is thus the image of the total number of self-reflexive processes of regulation of the various circuits of social cooperation, a composite intelligence emerging from different forms of rationality and social rule-making, for many purposes that often clash with each other and through a myriad of forms of organisation and power relations. Each governance node within the totality of social cooperation of a complex entity is connected to one or more circuits of social reproduction at different somehow interdependent scales, which it tries to steer in a particular direction and for particular purposes. In this overall context, the crisis of social and environmental reproduction points to the failure of this emergent and chaotic governance, a failure based on the hegemony of forms of economic rationality and power over all others, capital, and in particular over forms of rationality and sensitivity necessary for the purposes of social reproduction as understood above.

But how could one govern a complex entity with social reproduction as its purpose? To begin to answer this question, we must borrow the concept of variety as used in classical cybernetics.

Variety and the need for a diffuse and participatory governance model

In classical cybernetics, variety is a property of complex systems, and the relationship between variety and complexity is fundamental to the regulation of complexity. The greater the quantity and variety of elements that make up a system to be regulated, the greater its complexity. Now, if the complexity of the interactions between the elements of a system generates ‘problems’ or ‘crises’ (ecological destruction, poverty, precariousness, etc.) it means that there is a mismatch, or congruence, between the variety available to the regulator and that of the system to be regulated, i.e. that the variety of the system to be regulated is much greater than that available to the regulator. And here enters what is called Ashby’s law, or the law of requisite variety, which tells us that in order for the regulation of a system to be practicable (and thus its aims pursued), it is necessary for the regulator to possess the same degree of variety as the complex system it intends to regulate. This law offers us a very important insight, namely that in order for the systemic problems faced by a regulator to be addressed, the latter must possess at least a repertoire of answers to these problems with at least an equivalent number of nuances to the problems themselves.

Take for example a system composed of two subsystems, an operations system and a manage-ment/management system. This composite system will have to regulate a given environment in which it is embedded, a regulation that serves a given purpose. Take, for example, the propaganda system consisting of the entire complex of operations required to create and distribute information on a given topic so that a certain editorial line is established and thus that a certain understanding and attitude towards it passes among the population. In this case, as in many others, the variety in the population (environment) will be much greater than the variety of media operations and the latter, in turn, will have a smaller variety available to media management. If we denote variety by V we will have

V(environment to be regulated)>V(operations)>V(management).

To bridge the gap between the regulator’s variety (Management + Operations) and the system to be regulated (and achieve the required variety), the regulator will then apply a series of ‘filters’ to limit the variety entering the system (in practice it will ignore and select a range of information) while amplifying some aspects of its variety towards the environment – see Figure 1:

Figure 1: Relation between the regulating and the regulated system to achieve the requisite variety.

And this will take place not only between the regulator (i.e. Management + Operations) as a whole vis-a-vis the environment, but also within the regulated system, between journalists and other media operators and their management. The same reasoning can be made in countless other areas. Think of the relationship between a company and its environment (understood as a set of potential consumers through advertising or competition, or understood as a set of policies to be influenced through lobbying); or think of the relationship between government and society in the context of economic policies aimed at maximising the growth rate (through, for example, the amplification of exports through subsidies, the reduction of taxes for companies to attract capital, and the filtering/attenuation of redistributive demands or public spending on health services and transfers to the poor). This relationship between the regulatory system and the regulated system should not only take sinister contours. The attempt to regulate one’s environment also takes place in other ways: what is a specific struggle but also a social explosion due to the accumulation of demands and issues which have been ‘filtered’ out (i.e. ignored) by the concerns of the hegemonic regulators of society? What is a movement but an ‘amplified’ response to the filters of power, to their blind spots, and thus an attempt at counter- or alter-regulation?

However, we are interested here in highlighting another issue, in fact two. First, any selection through amplification and filtering of any regulator (or counter-regulator) is necessarily tied to some purpose, some meta-finality above others. Hence it follow the suggestion that social reproduction understood as above and very broadly is clearly posited as the meta-finality of a counter- or alter-regulation in a city understood as commons. Second, it is clear that the larger the gap that exists between the variety of the regulating subject and the subject to be regulated, the larger are the filters and amplifiers that the regulator has to implement in order to achieve the variety necessary for regulation. At the same time, however, the more issues ignored by the regulator and that the regulator’s filters and amplifiers have failed to deal with in time, the more crisis points emerge within the environment to be regulated.

Now, let us summarise for a moment the reasoning up to here, and try to draw some initial conclusions. Through the law of requisite variety, we can understand that the failure of emergent and chaotic governance of social and environmental issues is the result of insufficient variety on the part of the overall regulator in relation to the systems to be regulated. In other words, in our cities and nations, the repertoire of responses to various crises is limited by the power structure and hierarchies of forms of regulation hegemonised by vertical statist and/or market models within the constellation of emergent and chaotic governance, pursued in turn by meta-finalities that subordinate social reproduction to others, such as profit or the accumulation of power. This hegemonic power structure stifles the variety of choices and solutions possible according to private interests and established power structures. The solution is consequently simple and twofold: first, to change the hierarchical order of meta-finalities by placing that of social reproduction above others; second, to increase the variety of responses to socio-ecological crises. How? We must increase the variety available to the regulator. How? Through governance systems that are much more distributed, polycentric, more autonomous and participatory, distributed in a capillary fashion over the territory, with a highly autonomous network of local actors pursuing specific forms and objectives of social reproduction within the different transversal spheres where it takes place: from factories to schools, from housing processes to health institutions. In other words, we have to govern the city through commons, social systems that comprise three elements: common resources, governed by a community of commoners who also regulate their own relations, and processes of commoning, of social cooperation or communal doing (De Angelis, 2017). The reflexive governance of the city takes place from different nodes of social cooperation and the priority of (re)production over accumulation shapes the integration and mutual balances of these nodes. The governance of the city, as a diffuse system, emerges at different scales from nodes that must integrate with each other in order to meet the overall goal of (re)producing a ‘good life’ for all along horizons of social, distributive and ecological justice.

In the context of this type of governance, each commons or regulatory node would face the problem of Ashby’s law, as described above, but due to its proximity to the environment to be regulated and the depth and inclusiveness of democratic practices — I have in mind here commons with porous borders and creating open spaces such as those discussed by Stavrides (2016) — the emerging regulatory system as a whole has the advantage of having a variety much closer to that of the environment to be regulated: the variety gap narrows with increasing democracy, and increasing democracy creates the conditions for the collective emergence of a ‘measure of things’ (i.e. collective questions and answers to the what, how, where, how much, when, who and why of social reproduction) (De Angelis 2017), a measure of things that makes the means and ends of the production of human beings by human beings congruent. The problem at this point is another: how to integrate these reproductive and autonomous nodes, these diverse and contextually defined commons? How to ensure that their different goals are not contradictory but mutually supportive and aligned to serve social reproduction as a whole? How do the commons turn into a (larger scale) commons? Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model or VSM, which is based on Ashby’s law, allows us to hypothesise such an integration and enables us to imagine the emergence of a complex organisation, which internalises principles of coordination and synergy in the articulation between different spheres of social reproduction, realised in different places and on different scales, but where it is still deep democracy that governs these principles of coordination and synergy.

Inside the city as a commons: a general look at Stafford Beer’s model.

The Viable System Model (VSM) was developed by the organisation and cybernetics theorist Stafford Beer (1981). It is based on the organisational structure of a given complex system (a company, a city, a nation, and so on at different levels of recursion) and conceives it as autonomous and auto-poietic, i.e. capable of (re)producing itself in its organisation. The key contribution of VSM is an approach to the design of a system capable of fully articulating the autonomy of its parts without compromising the cohesion of the whole, on the contrary, reinforcing the congruence of the parts while respecting their diversity and autonomy and in relation to a common purpose which, in our case, we have already identified with the meta-finality of social reproduction. VSM, applied to the diffuse governance of a city, requires us to consider two things: firstly, the importance of recognising, in every choice we make, that the governance of our hypothetical city is co-evolving with the social and ecological environment to which it relates, and that every governance choice will trigger effects and responses from that environment; secondly, that the autonomy and self-regulation of each governance node must be accompanied by a mechanism that generates a satisfactory degree of cohesion or congruence between the different nodes. The first point is addressed by VSM through the development of specific techniques for information management (Espinosa and Walker, 2011: 78-90), techniques that in the cybernetic tradition include various ways of representing and managing signals through a variety of indicators, but which could be complemented and even at least partly replaced by the techniques of inclusive democratic management developed by the commons tradition. The second point can be explored through a discussion of the concept of holon (Koestler, 1967) and the distribution of the functions necessary for a cohesive organisation as modelled by VSM. It is on this second point that I will now focus.

Stafford Beer’s model of organisation is a model based on the idea of the holon, an idea proposed by Arthur Koestler in his The Ghost in the Machine (1967), evoked in Elinor Ostrom’s theory of the commons, and used for example in research on environmental sustainability by scholars such as Mario Giampietro who use an approach derived from complex systems. The holon is a way of seeing the layered character of reality, of a whole that in turn is part of another whole. Thus, holons are systems (and thus composed of interacting parts) that lie within other systems, and thus create nested sequences of parts and wholes. As a metaphor, think of the Russian dolls, the Matryoshka. Think for example of the set of atoms that through their interactions and bonds make up molecules. To interacting systems of molecules that in turn constitute cells, and so on, until the constitution of organisms and interacting subjects that constitute societies. In each layer, the parts are autonomous or semi-autonomous, yet their interaction gives rise to cohesive forms of organisation. The structure of the holons gives rise to a conception of hierarchy that is very different from the hierarchies of power to which we are accustomed in much of our social cooperation in capitalism. A functional hierarchy linked to a widely shared purpose, not a hierarchy of power, income or status. In short, the holon model gives us, in the words of Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist fascinated by cybernetics, a ‘connecting model’.

Let us return to Stafford Beer and his holon based model of organisation with which we intend to understand our city as a commons. An effective system is a system capable of existing, from an or-ganisational point of view, independently, through adaptation to a constantly changing environment (which requires the maximum autonomy of its parts), while maintaining its identity or meta-finality, which, in order to be pursued, requires precisely a certain degree of overall cohesion of its parts. The basic model envisages the separation and conceptual and operational re-articulation of three elements present in other types of system and which we have represented in Figure 1, namely a set of operational processes, ‘management’ as a set of management functions that we will discuss and not as a privileged group of hierarchies, and the environment, i.e. the socio-ecological systems with which the system composed of operations and management relates at different levels of recursion. In a city, as we shall see, the same model can be applied to different levels of spatial recursion, e.g. neighbourhoods, districts, the city as a whole, and then region/territory and so on. Let us dwell here, however, on the differentiation of functions within the organisation of any spatial level.

Figure 2: Diagrammatic representation of VSM. Source:

Figure 2 replicates the three major areas of Figure 1, operation (O), management (M), and environ-ment (E). The regulatory system (which is also a producer), consists of ‘O’ and ‘M’. Within these, Stafford Beer identifies five fundamental functions that any viable system should find a way to in-tegrate, and to each function corresponds a particular system whose role is to serve that function. In short, these functions and corresponding systems in the VSM are as follows:

Function/System 1: operations, consisting of 1a, 1b, 1c etc., and which in our city as commons we might recognise with thematic degrees, distinct domains of social reproduction: health, education, ecology, culture, urban agriculture, housing and the housing question, and so on. But this distinction I propose is only an illustration, and the division of the domains that make up the operations necessary for social reproduction is also a political problem

Function/System 2: coordination

Function/System 3: cohesion

Function/System 4: ‘intelligence’, research and information gathering on the environment, political/strategic thinking

Function/System 5: meta-functionality

Now, the general idea is that since each function/system is integrated with the other functions/systems as a specific layer of a holon, and since the integration process is based on the maximum autonomy of each level, this implies that each level will contribute in the specifics of its functions to the achievement of the variety necessary to pursue the goals of the system as a whole. Since the operational ellipse “O” is the fundamental ellipse in the system, because its objective coincides with the substance of the meta-finality of the system as a whole, which as we have hypothesised, is social reproduction as a whole, in the system “O” all the operations necessary to this end will take place, operations that as we shall see will be divided by type or sphere. This means that the portion of necessary variety that the functional levels above the operational level will have to pursue, indicated by the set of functions of the Management diamond in figure 2, emerges as residual variety. In other words, it is a matter of identifying which functions are not being performed by the operational level, but which nevertheless remain of crucial importance for the cohesion of the whole, and which must still be fulfilled. The governance of the city system is functionally divided among the five systems and these – with their corresponding functions – are reflected in social activity in a fractal manner at different scales (Espinosa, Harnden and Walker, 2005: 577).

As mentioned, the operational ellipse ‘O’ is the fundamental one in the system, because its goal coincides with the substance of the meta-finality of the system as a whole, in our case social repro-duction as a whole. In this system “O”, all operations necessary for this end will take place, operations that will be divided by type or scope. Thus, the ellipse ‘O’ is composed of a number of operational subsystems. Each of these operational subsystems may in turn be composed of operational subsystems that can define the scale of operations (district, borough, city, territory, and so on). Let us recall from the discussion that at each level of spatial recursion, each sphere of operations is fundamentally self-managed and its management, indicated by squares 1a, 1b, and 1c, is not composed of bosses small or big, but is a function that is performed as an expression of the self-government of the operators in the definition of operations, not of a hierarchical scale. This self-governance is nurtured by organisational forms that must tend to be profoundly democratic and inclusive, not only for ethical reasons, but, as we have seen, for its material power, that is, precisely to allow the variety of the regulator to increase in a manner congruent with the variety of the environment to be regulated.

“Let us imagine an association of free producers,” Marx asked in the first chapter of Capital.

This is essentially what I am trying to do, not in its utopian form, but with reference to a framework that serves as a model for thinking about the organisation and scale of social cooperation in the mu-nicipality, while we are up to our necks in chaos and complexity.

The task of the levels of governance above the operational level is to provide the ‘glue’ that enables and coordinates this autonomy. The meta-management diamond marked M is thus composed of four subsystems (labelled 2, 3, 4 and 5), which we will discuss in relation to their function. The various arrows represent the many complex interactions between the five systems and the environment, interactions that must be subjected to Ashby’s law. Finally, the ‘E’ is the environment of the regulatory system composed of ‘O’ and ‘M’, an environment in turn made up of the many interacting environments with which the different levels of the organisation find themselves interacting.

The first difficulty encountered in attempting to define a city as a commons has to do with the definition of System 1, i.e. the definition of the operational units and corresponding units of governance that actualise social reproduction. In principle, the characteristics needed to define System 1 depend on the objectives and actual context of the city in question. As we have seen, the work for social reproduction in a city (whether paid or unpaid) is carried out through a variety of organisational forms with corresponding systems of governance, giving rise to an emergent and chaotic state of governance and its failures. From this perspective, a distinction by domains of social reproduction to consider as objects of deeply democratic self-government would allow us to define the operational domain of the city as commons in terms of different domains of social reproduction: health, education, ecological conservation/regeneration, care, culture, public spaces, housing, urban agriculture and so on. It is the task of public debate and the political action of movements to define the criteria and scope of these and other domains in their respective contexts and to build on this basis a widespread, multi-scalar VSM. But to give a brief illustration of how I envisage such a division into spheres at the moment, subsystem 1a — for example health at the local level of recursion — would include actors from all institutions or subsets of institutions that produce effects at that spatial level (neighbourhood, district, city as a whole, etc.) that deal with health in whatever form. The governance/management function of this subsystem would be performed by the employees and users of local clinics, trade unionists in workplaces, students and teachers in schools, patient groups and so on. The aim of these actors would be to manage (or participate in the management with some degree of power) the health function on that scale in such a way as to explore and implement synergies, evaluate methods, conduct organisational experiments, co-ordinate critical responses, mobilise networks and generally respond to needs in a reasoned and affective manner. It would also be to mobilise in a transversal manner to defend rights of access to health, to scarce resources, and to all the issues that may arise when in the context of our communal operations to safeguard health (what is indicated by environment E in figure 2), because in this context there is capital pressing with its desire to enclose and reduce everything to a possibly productive enclave of its own reproduction, while fighting for its own survival. And among these health issues are not only issues of direct management of care, but also issues of prevention, such as the battle for work safety, harmfulness, inside factories or in platform-managed work. From here one can see how the transversal character of each sphere of social reproduction can potentially become a broad terrain of class recomposition.

Moreover, we should not see these different spheres as closed silos, but interconnected and interdependent spheres. There are also institutions that tend to mix and integrate these spheres at different scales. For instance, affective micro-communities, of which the family is an instance when the dominance of patriarchy does not stifle its operation, are not only a place of care, but also of education, food production, emotional support and so on. The same applies to many territorial associations, such as urban commons. Furthermore, and fortunately, the division of the operational level into different functions through the VSM is, as we shall see, open to integration with systems 2 and 3, which hybridise, coordinate and articulate these different areas and support them to develop synergies. Through the activity of commoning and boundary commoning (De Angelis, 2017), each of these local sites of social reproduction can, in turn, open up: clinics become educational spaces, schools also practice care activities, and factories and offices also become socialisation sites for the communities in the area (as, for example, the occupation and reclamation movement of factories in Argentina, especially in the first phase of the 2001 movement, showed).

Before ascending to the highest functional levels, one wonders: but is all this work of governance and self-management that deep democracy requires free? Conceiving of the city as a commons also means trying to create the conditions, through struggle or deep democracy, for people to participate, not only in the operations of social reproduction, but also in their management, in the knowledge that it is a matter of the production of human beings by means of human beings. Among these conditions, the struggle for a Universal Basic Income and the new monetary forms of the commons that need to be experimented with and developed (Fumagalli 2022), stand out among the most sensible avenues to be pursued for a finance of the commons today, a finance that helps us to free up more and more slices of time enslaved to capital.

Still staying at the operational level, but moving up the spatial scale, e.g. to the level of district, city, province, region, and so on, the model can be replicated, in order to address problems specific to that scale, as well as those related to coordination, organisation, and distribution of resources and structures among smaller scales. I leave the imagination of the constituent horizon open to this spatial room. My intention here is to emphasise how fundamental it is to work for the self-organisation of workers and users for a drastic reduction if not elimination of managers in the traditional sense of hierarchical scales, practices already well documented as feasible in large organisations. Prominent among them is the case of Buurtzorg (Laloux, 2014). Buurtzorg is a care foundation established in 2006 in the Netherlands, in which 10,000 nurses divided into teams of up to 12 members provide district care in a self-organised manner, eliminating all forms of hierarchical management, and even deciding on their salaries and the equipment to be purchased. In its quality of care, the foundation’s achievements far exceed those of privatised care stifled by managerial hierarchy, drastically improving both the working lives of nurses and the care provided (i.e. in line with the congruence between ends and means that we derived from the concept of social reproduction as ‘production of human beings by means of human beings’), simply by abandoning the rigid appointment schedules and targets imposed by managers, but allowing nurses to give themselves the time and freedom to build relationships with colleagues and patients, as well as with relatives and neighbours. In ten years, the foundation has come to represent 80% of the district nursing sector in the Netherlands and is currently providing a model for other hospitals.

Now let us imagine this kind of self-management, but even more open and porous towards the public, inviting a part of it, also through material incentives, to do, to think and to decide in common. I am now trying to imagine, very tentatively, the working of the ‘association of free (re)producers’.

One last thing, which I have neither the space nor the time to go into here, but it is important to point out that since the city famously produces and exports entropy into its environment as entropic debt — consider that a typical city today imports almost all of its food and energy, and exports almost all of its rubbish. The governance of each operational node should be somehow open not only to the subjectivities of the city’s environment, but also to those of the environment from which the city derives its resources, and deposits its waste. The complexity of this operation will require the experimentation of innovative forms of deep democracy at progressively larger scales.

Inside the city as a municipality: looking up

Let us finally look at the role of the other functional levels of the VSM, those above the operational level. System 2 has the task of coordinating the different areas of subsystem 1, such as health, edu-cation, culture and so on. Coordination is also a function of self-management, but whereas in System 1 it took place within an area, here it takes place between different areas. Coordination that can certainly be supported by protocols and time tabling, but whose purpose is not only to coordinate scarce resources between the different spheres of operation, but also to push for the specific aims and objectives of the different spheres to be increasingly congruent with each other, and to govern the inevitable conflicts or coordination problems. The role of System 2 is to ensure that there are ways to deal with such conflicts, rather than postponing them until they become a real problem, since such conflicts often manifest a tension between the means and ends of social reproduction. This can also be achieved by fostering a culture that is sensitive to the needs of other operational units, of other spheres. This can be done through a number of tools, such as the creation of shared vocabularies, information systems, technical standards and shared protocols for communication and management of commons assemblies. But I believe it is also important to spend a lot of time collectively making, creating and living convivial occasions. Let System 2 then also coordinate the festive and playful dimension of social cooperation between different areas.

The role of System 3 is to search for, integrate and optimise, within the given conditions, the possible synergies between the operational units of System 1, their specific objectives, in congruence with the ethos and priorities that are defined at System 4 and 5 level, which we will discuss. I have used the word optimisation, and I do not mean by this to refer to a desk-based process. Let us remember that we are talking about social reproduction and its governance through deep democracy. In this sense, optimisation means that system 3 promotes a collective process across different areas of system 1 in order to generate a condition or outcome that can be considered the best possible, in that context, with given resources and in a given relationship between social forces. System 3 is the system that continuously pursues a balance between the cohesion of the whole and the autonomy of the parts, so as to ensure that the coordinated activities between the different operating subsystems are more successful than they would have been if these subsystems had worked in isolation. System 3 also establishes a mechanism for the contracting of resources and the auditing of System 1 components. It links the decision-making criteria at the operational level with the strategic criteria of the higher organisational levels, in particular System 5. System 3 can be understood as consisting of all the co-producers of System 1 at different levels of recursion, divided into working groups for specific issues. In the case of diffuse governance of a city, System 3 can also act as a pool of institutional resources at a given level of recursion, where resources would be allocated to the various areas of System 1 in an open and transparent manner to reflect public debates on the priorities and goals of social reproduction in the context of environmental needs. It is clear that System 3, because of its role as a hinge between higher (4 and 5) and lower (2 and especially 1) systems, can turn into a ‘command and control’ trap, which occurs when individuals and dominant social forces coalesce in defiance of the original purpose and ethos established in System 5, and at the expense of the social cooperation networks of System 1. It is therefore crucial that institutions and practices be found to limit and counteract any accumulation of power.

System 4, mobilises the collective intelligence needed to orient the city in relation to what is moving in its overall environment. The function of this system is to try to ensure that the whole can quickly adapt to emerging challenges, creating and interweaving knowledge, forming plans, strategies and proposals for quality and technological standards, as well as alerting the overall system, at different levels of recursion, to changes in organisational viability in a context of co-evolution with the environment. While systems 1, 2 and 3 refer to concrete issues to be addressed with respect to the crisis points of social reproduction emerging at different scales from within the city in an immanent temporality, system 4 looks ahead in an anticipatory temporal framework, which means, therefore, that the overall system implements Janus’ double face at a general level (De Angelis, 2019). It looks to the outside world, anticipating possible challenges, ways and opportunities for the system to adapt to new circumstances. System 4 is thus similar to“the steersman at the back of the boat who sees a storm coming and decides to change the rigging and plot a new course through safer waters” (Espinosa and Walker, 2011: 52), although in our case the decision would rest with System 5. System 4 represents the strategic component of collective intelligence. This role, too, can and should be played in collective and inclusive ways, typical for example of best practice in both academic and non-academic research.

Finally, System 5 is where the city’s purpose, politics, ethos and core identity are elaborated and established in the face of changes in its environment. Since this purpose or meta-finality is based on social reproduction, System 5 provides organisational closure within the city system, based on the pursuit of a transformation of social and ecological living conditions. It provides the meta-language needed to interpret and regulate the interaction between Systems 3 and 4, a meta-language that is constantly evolving and must ensure that there is a there is a “balanced debate between S3 and S4 so that the core decisions on strategies and policies are both highly creative (S4 blue sky thinking) and feasible (S3 down-to-earth common sense)” (Espinosa and Walker, 2011: 54). In this sense, System 5 is the ultimate authority of the city as a municipality its policies are put into practice by System 3 and System 4, in continuous communication with each other as they perform their functions. System 5 can be depicted in many ways. It can be viewed through the lens of autocracy or a ‘benevolent’ oligarchy as in modern corporations, or those of representative democracy, and all of these ways, as we have seen, reduce to varying degrees the variety needed for regulation within complexity. In autocratic organisations (such as corporations), System 5 is assumed by a small privileged group of appointed managers. In democratic societies — as in the case of Allende’s Chile, where VSM was first adopted (Medina, 2011) — System 5 was the ‘people’ through the representation of the president, parliament and the functioning of the state’s hierarchical structure. But we can also imagine System 5 as an emergent site of conflict, of agonism (in Mouffe’s words) that emerges precisely in times of transition, when movements of the commons in the city can set up systems of governance that resemble the VSM and pose them not only as a shadow of existing governance structures, but also as a manifestation of a dual power within social cooperation. In other cases, if the politics of the municipality are broadly aligned with the priority of social reproduction and democratic governance and participation, it is possible to conceive of the commons movements and the municipality working together towards a diffuse form of city governance, in which case the organs of the municipality can find appropriate relationships with the different layered systems of a VSM, create conditions for the development at different functional levels of ‘commons-public partnerships’ and participate directly in the work of the system 5. Ultimately, and from an ideal perspective of the municipality, a city’s System 5 can be seen as the combination of all its components at different levels of recursion: a broad horizon of openness, nurturing newer and more interconnected forms of inclusive democracy; an assembly of the city’s multitude.

Looking back, looking forward, looking up and looking down

In conclusion, positing the city as a commons means taking seriously the idea that its inhabitants can govern it and that they do so for social and ecological purposes. But just as there is no model that is totally impervious to the divisive and exploitative flows of capital, so the model presented here could in principle be used to contravene the very democratic and emancipatory ideas that inspired it. We have already mentioned how the VSM, in particular, has two nodes of meta-management that are subject to the danger of being co-opted by power, and having nefarious effects on the whole organisation, namely level 3 and level 5. There is, however, another thing that needs to be made explicit, and that is the fact that the applicability of the model described here is somehow directly proportional to the explosion of a collective counter-(other)-power. The underlying hypothesis of my argument is as follows: the more we collectively take social reproduction away from the processes of accumulation, the more we will be able to reduce our dependence on capitalist markets and become less vulnerable to its competitive, alienating, ecologically destructive and exploitative logic; and the more we will be able to counteract the processes of capitalist subjectivation that pass through individualisation and competition, with the creation of alternative subjectivities through doing and thinking in common, commoning. It is for this reason that I have identified social reproduction as the main meta-finality of a diffuse system of government within a city. Identifying a purpose, a finality of a city government is fundamental. This explosion of a counter-(other)-collective power necessary for transformation is expressed both by large social movements capable of challenging and displacing the constraints imposed on social cooperation by capital, and by the self-governing capacity of the multitude, through the multiple self-organised forms we call the commons. The Common as a mode of production, whether seen within the scale of a city or, at the limit, the entire world, cannot be separated from an instituting and constituent movement that necessarily passes through the creation of a multitude of spaces and systems of profoundly democratic self-government of social reproduction, that is, the commons.

References for ‘City as a commons’:

  • Beer, S (1981) Brain of the Firm. 2nd ed. NewYork: Wiley
  • De Angelis M (2017) Omnia Sunt Communia. On the Commons and the Transformation to Postca-pitalism. London: Zed Books
  • Espinosa A and Walker J (2011) A Complexity Approach to Sustainability:Theory and Application. London: Imperial College Press
  • Fumagalli, A. (2022) Circuiti monetari alternativi e politiche innovative di welfare locale. Available in Altra-parola Rivista
  • Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
  • Jessop R (2016) The State: Past, Present, Future. Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Laloux F (2014) Reinventing Organizations. A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Brussels: Nelson Parker
  • Medina E (2011) Cybernetic Revolutionaries.Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Savini, F., Ferreira, A. and von Schönfeld, K. C. (2022) PostGrowth Planning. London: Routledge
  • Stavrides, S (2016). Stravides, S. (2016) Common Space: the City as Commons. London: Zed Books