Reinventing Community through Commoning, by Stavros Stavrides

Reinventing Community through Commoning, by Stavros Stavrides

In this article [‘Reinventing Community through Commoning‘] Stavros Stavrides tackles the question of how, through commoning, a community not only establishes rules for sharing goods, but can also challenge the rationalities of contemporary capitalism by producing emergent forms of social organisation. The article builds from the idea of autopoiesis as in Maturana and Varela, together with the notion of politics in Rancier, and community in Esteva and Esposito, and sheds lights on these alternative social organizations as they have emerged in the practices of movements in Latin America.

Commoners in action

A version of ‘Reinventing Community through Commoning’ appeared in ‘The Rise of the Common City: On the culture of commoning‘, edited by Louis Volont, Thijs Lijster, and Pascal Gielen. For nice printing or reading on different device, consider this .pdf file. Together with an article titled ‘The City as a Commons’, these articles are part of relaunching The Commoner after a longer, (in)voluntary hiatus.

Reinventing Community through Commoning

— by Stavros Stavrides

Commoning is usually considered as a form of goods distribution that is based on rules of sharing rather than on practices of individual appropriation or profit oriented transactions. In such a prospect, conditions of power arrangement and collective choices related to culture are expected to shape commoning since they will directly influence the priorities and the scopes of sharing. 

If however commoning is to become a process that directly challenges the logic of social organization which characterizes contemporary capitalism, then relevant practices are expected to produce emergent forms of an alternative social organization. Alternative ways of goods and services distribution are merely one part of an overall process of power relations rearrangement. 

Could we then possibly attempt to trace one of the fundamental aspects of such a rearrangement, the re-invention of community in the prospect of sustaining a potentially emancipating project? As this paper will try to show, the re-invention of community through commoning will be the result of a collective culture of sharing based on the power of collective creativity unleashed in the context of the project of autonomy.

Creativity will be explored as a collective process that challenges the limits of the possible which are crafted by dominant values and norms. The art of rule-making will be considered as a crucial part of this process that establishes autonomous open communities. Culture is the contested terrain on which such inventiveness potentially flourishes. That is why a critical reassessment of modernity is needed in order to open current urban imaginaries to different visions of the relationship between land and community. Non-western approaches to this relationship see the community as a tender rather than as the owner of territory. And relevant community rituals establish bonds of sharing and equalitarian conviviality both within the community as well as between the community and its environment. Could we, then, by reflectively exploring the potentialities of the world that we live in, see commoning both as a material force that constructs practices of mutuality in sharing and as a value establishing process that creates common worlds of equality and solidarity?

Autonomy as community autopoiesis

One way to understand the project of autonomy is to compare it to what has been known as the autopoietic process which according to certain biologists characterizes living beings. Autopoiesis actually attempts to describe a certain level of autonomy that characterizes the unfolding of life: Tracing a path between the opposing views that either overemphasize the role of environment in shaping life or the role of inherent characteristics that simply develop, this theory suggests that autopoietic systems are at the same time open to their environments and “operationally closed” (Varela 1997, Maturana and Varela 1980). This means that interaction with the environment takes place under certain structural conditions that characterize the living entity which is opened to such a relational condition. Autonomy is such a context does not describe an organism able to reproduce itself no matter what its environment is constituted of. Autonomy refers to a constitutive nucleus that responds to changes in the environment in ways that tend to reproduce the organism’s mode of interaction. 

As Francisco Varela explicitly specifies, an autopoietic system is a “minimal living organization”, that “continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in space and time which makes the network of production of components possible” (1997: 75, Maturana and Varela 1980).

Two important propositions are crucial for this approach to life, to the ‘living’. First, autopoiesis is a process that constitutes the organism’s identity, “a unitary quality, a coherence of some kind” which, however, “is not meant as a static structural description” but as an ongoing process within the boundaries of an “operational closure” (Varela 1997: 73, Maturana and Varela 1987). Second, “reproduction is not intrinsic to the minimal logic of the living… Reproduction is essential for the long term viability of the living, but only when there is an identity can a unit reproduce.” (Varela 1997: 76).

One thing we may agree upon is that by considering an organized human community as a living organism we employ a kind of analogical thinking that we need to consider with a certain precaution.  Bearing this in mind the central question arising from a need to explore autonomy as a project of social emancipation is this: which relations and what elements of community life are to become the anchors of a community’s autopoietic self-creation if this community is to liberate itself from the dominating power of a social environment that actively aims at controlling community life?

By accepting the fact that inside a community antagonisms of different kind exist, we already partially question the validity of the autopoietic metaphor. Changes may occur not only through the community’s interaction with its outside but essentially because community itself includes forces and actions which develop towards opposing scopes. The “living organism” in this case is potentially torn apart from inside. There is however a kind of force that may retain a community’s “coherence” without equating it (as Varela rightly suggests in his model) to an identity. This force necessarily re-invents community as a process of negotiations that limit the opportunities of power accumulation by some of its members while aiming at an equalitarian future. We may recognize this force in practices of commoning that support equality and mutual care without eliminating differences (Stavrides 2016, 2019). To be more exact, this kind of transformative force will develop through negotiations that will create a common ground between different perspectives, provided that these perspectives want to sustain this common ground as a shared guarantee of equality.  For some non-western cultures, as we will see, this kind of common ground may be defined as an area of complementarity and harmonious co-existence. It is by no chance that such a possible common life-world is described by these cultures as buen vivir (living well) rather than vivir (living). Living well directly challenges the limits of a model aimed at understanding the “living”.

By critically employing the autopoietic principles to community’s claim for self-reproduction, we may actually distinguish between two possible opposing projects. The one tends to barricade a community from outside influences by emphasizing the community’s power to preserve intact its integrity, while the other tends to see community as a collective entity that claims its right to change in ways and directions collectively chosen, produced and supervised. In the last case, the autopoietic structure is not a condition inherently connected to community’s reproduction but a collective choice made in the direction of the collective emancipation project.

In other words, autonomy is in a constant struggle to develop itself in confrontation with powers that tend to control the community’s life. It is not always external powers, what Castoriadis describes as the forces of heteronomy (Castoriadis 1987). Forces developed within the community may also tend to block any change; forces we might call conservative. Autopoietic autonomy should then be clearly connected to a change that aims at transcending community’s reflexes for self-preservation. 

R. Esposito (2013) introduces the term immunization to describe the process through which communities develop these self-preservation tactics. Interestingly, for him the same process is employed to protect the individual members of the community form the very obligations that bind them to all the others. 

            Esposito locates a constitutive contradiction in immunitary dynamics: “that which protects the body (the individual body, the social body, and the body politic) is at the same time that which impedes its development” (2013: 85). The way out of this contradiction lies in a kind of compromise: immunization needs to be effectively controlled so that it will not reach a point which will threaten the community coherence itself. And this may only be accomplished, according to Esposito, if community members struggle to ensure the expansion and maintenance of the common (2013: 89). Here lies “the possibility of a positive, communitarian reconversion of the… immunitary dispositif” (2006: 54, author’s italics).

            In this approach, the common lies at the heart of community’s reproduction. Offering an etymology of the word community that supports his claim, Esposito sees munus at the word’s root. Munus means duty, post and gift. “What predominates in the munus is… reciprocity or ‘mutuality’… of giving that assigns the one to the other in an obligation” (2010: 6). Thus, community, “isn’t the subject’s expansion or multiplication but its exposure to what interrupts the closing” (ibid.: 8). Community, is constituted by the obligation to give and to assume responsibilities (ibid.: 5). Opening oneself to others through offering essentially means sacrificing the individual safety that immunization promises. Immunity encloses, community tends to open individual or shared enclosures towards the proliferation of the common. 

Of course the immunity metaphor that directly connects to a biological mechanism of protection which is part of an organism’s defense against recurrent outside threats, as every metaphor, has its limits. When applied to societies in general or to particular communities specifically the metaphor of immunity needs to be nuanced and related to the historical context. How do specific organized groups of people collectively recognize threats to their collective existence? In what cases perceived or imaginary threats cause splits in the corresponding communities? How is openness experienced and practiced as a force that expands obligations and offerings in different arrangements of power relations?

Autonomy as collective creativity

For Gustavo Esteva in “genuinely democratic politics”, “the art of the possible consists of extending it: the art of making the impossible possible” (2015a: 140). In what seems at first glance a poetic reaffirmation of hope for changing society is in reality a clever statement regarding the limits of social order. Reversing the well-known motto, Esteva seems to suggest that instead of developing the art of finding solutions within the framework of a given society (and democracy allegedly is meant to provide us with this capacity), we need to develop the art to transcend such a framework. Thus, inventiveness and creativity will not be used in order to adapt to the defined social reality but to challenge it, to extend it and to go beyond it. The possible should be disentangled for the dominant framework of imaginaries and behaviors that tend to circumscribe it. 

Jacques Rancière (2010) understands politics in a similar way. For him, politics emerges when the dominant framework, the order of the sensible, is challenged by those who were not meant to have the right to speak, think and express themselves within this framework. Re-staging and thus re-arranging the distribution of the sensible opens the road to emancipation for the dominated ones.

Interestingly, Rancière also talks about art connecting it with the power of politics to transcend the limits of dominant reality. However, he chooses to put an emphasis on the “aesthetic experience” that refers to the specific condition under which art “produces a gap with regard to ordinary forms of experience” (Rancière interviewed in Batista 2017: 251). Distancing himself explicitly from didactic, pedagogic and self-proclaimed critical forms of art, Rancière (2006) supports artistic acts and works that open up possibilities of experiences not already included in the field of the possible defined by the dominant ones.

The opening up of the field of possibilities develops, according to Rancière, not only because creativity expands and transcends the limits of the sensible, but also because those who “receive” the artworks are equally creative (2009). The “emancipated spectator” is the one who uses artworks to express, narrate and depict his or her own stories. Emancipation in this prospect has to do with the opportunity to integrate the creativity of others (producers, artists) to the creativity of one’s own life that acquires, thus, the power to transcend the limits of the possible.

Comparing the two approaches we may conclude that art (literally, as an instituted form of practice or, generally, as the capacity to invent and to create) may be used to explore the possible without even accepting the limits within which the possible is defined according to the dominant forms of the sensible. Either viewed from the perspective of the creative producer or that of the creative receiver, art may potentialize experience, as well as the means we have to give meaning and value to experience. As collective creativity unfolds, the distinction between production and reception as well as that between active creators and passive interpreters is decisively challenged.

Under different lines of reasoning but following similar paths sustained by emancipatory aspirations, Esteva and Rancière use the notion of autonomy in close connection to practices of individual and collective creativity. Rancière talks about “aesthetic autonomy” as “what makes the work available to anyone and thus no longer the expression or signature of its creator” (Rancière interviewed in Batista 2017: 250). Autonomy, thus, frees the work, the product of someone’s creativity, from the burden of its creator’s intentions. It is this kind of autonomy that opens the possibility of the “emancipated spectator’s” experience. 

Esteva explicitly relates autonomy to the creative power of the collective unleashed by the democratic self-government. In contrast to “ontonomy” which is “the regulatory system based on a cultural tradition itself” (2015a: 143 note 15), autonomy “appears when the members of the current generation modify existing rules or create new ones” (ibid). In autonomy, thus, collective creativity expands the limits of the possible.

We may indeed consider the process of rule-making within a community of commoning as an area of shared creativity. Not connected to a prevailing authority that gives them form and determines their jurisdiction, rules become part of a process of an ongoing inventiveness developed by the community’s members. But if rulemaking may be compared to the art of autonomous creation, could it be also related to Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion that “[o]ne day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good” (Agamben 2005: 64)? This is a possibility based on Agamben’s idea about the “coming community” in which “singularities form a community without affirming an identity” and  “humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging (even in the form of a simple presupposition)” (Agamben 1993: 86). As C. Mills rightly points out (2008) Agamben’s coming community is directly related to the play with law through which the constitutive experience of historicity is made possible. By playing, humans experience truly human time, the time of Kairos, the time of contingency, as they are freed from the burdens of sacred time that prescribes the future and interprets the past. Such an experience is meant to give “onto a new communism, in which nothing is shared except the power and possibility of life itself, and life escapes the caesuras and impotence to which law has relegated it” (ibid.: 26). 

Creativity lies, in this prospect, not in the power to collectively explore possibilities of devising new rules that would re-define the common but in the unleashing of the pure, unrestricted and indeterminate potentiality of life itself that will characterize the acts of the “whatever singularities”. Playing with rules is just part of this essential playfulness of life that unfolds against the restrictions imposed by law.

Deactivated rules, rules having lost the power to direct and punish behavior, may possibly become toys in the hands of a self-liberating humanity even in the form of a revealing joyous play of obsolete roles (more like children playing pirate adventure games). Such a capacity to inventively play with rules may indeed enhance collective creativity. After all, since antagonistic societies teach their members how to always be fighters by offering them a series of war-games, why should not egalitarian societies play with past laws enriching in this way shared imaginaries of collective emancipation? However, to play with the deactivated products of history that used to explicitly aim at controlling the future (as the laws do by prescribing what should not be done) should not be equated with the romanticized potentiality of “whatever” singularities “sharing nothing except the being-thus of happy life, in which all belong without any claim to belong” (Mills 2008: 26). As opposed to Agamben’s formulation, collective rulemaking creativity needs to be developed in a constant and reflexive redefinition of a mutually imagined and produced common ground. Such creativity may be inspired by the collective playing with obsolete rules but should by no means be reduced to such playing.

In line with Rancière’s suggestion who proposes that we need to suspend or, rather, to transcend the distinction between producers and receivers, we may understand autonomy as a process in which the power to create rules belongs to those who try to collectively define a shared future while being both co-producers and individual interpreters of these rules. Sovereign laws are meant to last and to control the future by banishing certain acts. But rulemaking, understood as an act of commoning, opens the potentiality of change by opening the process itself to a community that keeps on inventing itself. 

Esteva insists that autonomy is not the grand project of a political proposal aspiring to have a universal validity. “In the barrios and pueblos of the world, in Africa and Asia as in Latin America spaces of freedom have been spawning where autonomy and the art of living are being exercised more fully” (Esteva 2013: 140). Autonomy seems to be emerging according to this logic in the context of everyday survival efforts of populations living in the peripheries and poor neighborhoods of metropolises. But, people on the margins (in many cases forming the majority of the relevant megacity population, as f.e. in Mumbai) do not live in conditions of autonomy simply because the state has no interest in imposing its laws and providing its services to those vast “neglected” urban areas. Struggles to preserve “autonomous ways of living” (ibid 136) emerge in such places against invading ‘development projects’ or harsh militarized interventions to control the ‘dangerous classes’. There is a positive potentially emancipatory element in the autonomy of the marginalized populations. And this, according to Esteva but also to other thinkers and activists, can be described as the emergence of “the new commons” (ibid. 136). As Esteva describes them: “They are contemporary ways of life, sound spaces for comfortable living, sociological novelties that activate traditions and reappraise modernity” (ibid. 142).

Collective creativity, directly or indirectly related to art, redefines, extends and develops the common. Both the immunitary dynamics and the autopoietic hypothesis though, not only offer the means to explain an organism’s (be it a living being or a community) self-reproduction but also suggest ways to understand interaction between organisms. Communities may employ collective creativity to explore and develop relations with what lies outside: the common may thus become the fertile meeting ground of different collectivities. The potentializing of experience, the challenging of the limits of the possible and the questioning of dominant reality will in this prospect become not only forces that make communities change but also practices that open communities and build bridges towards what they used to consider as outside, “other”, alien or even hostile.

Beyond tradition and modernity?

Emancipatory potentialities are being produced in urban life through a constant cross-influence of two main sources: tradition and modernity. Tradition may be activated by reference to past experiences or collective memories that certain urban populations carry from their recent rural past. Interestingly such traditions cannot be transferred wholesale to the contemporary urban context: urban space and urban networks, as well as the prevailing neoliberal ethos, privilege individuality instead of community, alienation instead of a feeling of belonging. Such populations, therefore, have to re-invent community and to readjust habits of collaboration and sharing. Above all, they have to deal with extensive and unpredictable forms of differences instead of taking for granted a homogeneous body of dwellers sharing familiar and slowly changing (if at all) living environments. Autonomy in such a context would mean the potentializing of traditions (and not of ‘tradition’) in order to collectively craft a common ground of negotiations. 

According to Virno’s (2004, 2008) and Hardt and Negri’s (2005, 2009) analysis (among others) the city has become a vast and polymorphous site of capitalist production. Production process itself (still centrally depended upon the exploitation of labor) has been expanding to even include private house spaces (as in the case of tele-work).

Reappraising modernity in such a context would mean carefully exploring the new conditions of exploitation and the spatialities that they give rise to, as well as the mutations of the modernist imaginary. Walter Benjamin was one of those first to call for this re-appraisal, claiming that an inherent emancipatory potential had to be reclaimed in an effort to redeem the modernist project. In his reading of urban modernity, large cities are not simply symptoms of the modernity’s hopes and failures but, crucially, shaping factors of modernity’s reality. That is why he searched in large cities to locate the potentialities of the modernist project that were blocked or perverted by the capitalist command of the modernization process (1983, 1999).

Contemporary heirs of the modernization mythology insist on the promises for a “brand new world” allegedly guaranteed by a never stopping development. This mythology of “progress” however has entered a severe crisis of credibility as more and more people experience the worsening of their living conditions.

Reappraising modernity needs not be limited to those who have been accustomed to modernity’s dominant normality (although many of them question the premises of such normality). Different collective life traditions had to face the invasion of urbanized modernization to their communities. Resistances, especially developed by colonized indigenous populations, were never simply obstinate struggles to preserve their traditions intact. Zapatista communities, to take a highly indicative example, distanced themselves from a possible Maya fundamentalism while at the same time embracing emancipatory ideas coming from the West. The result was (and this is still a work in progress) a kind of re-invention of community that struggles for autonomy neither with the aim of preserving an absolute otherness nor with the scope of establishing borderlines demarcating an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside’.

Subcomandante Marcos
El mítico subcomandante Marcos

Zapatista territory is territory connected to specific self-governed communities that take care of it and protect it from the ‘bad government’, as they call it. Such a renewed understanding of Mayan territoriality contributes to the re-invention of indigenous communities by the Zapatista movement. What shocks most of the outside visitors is that the territory of an emancipatory rebellion that clashes with the Mexican state’s policies and control mechanisms cannot really be defined by a borderline to be drawn on a map as well as on the ground. Appropriation of feudal land and the use of existing road networks are forms of expanding the territory of autonomy and developing a network of autonomous settlements in cooperation.

Another interesting treatment of tradition in the prospect of community re-invention can be found in the renewed momentum the Buen Vivir indigenous culture has acquired. Buen Vivir (living well) is a view of life in which the indigenous Andean peoples express a harmonious respectful coexistence of human communities with Nature. Buen Vivir includes an understanding of community’s commonwealth as the result of relations of cooperation between its members based on solidarity and complementarity. Cooperation is supported by an ethos that permeates both the human relations as well as the relation of the community with Nature. “Production and work is done with respect for and in harmony with nature” (Prada 2013: 146). Since, however, nature is not considered as a resource but as a sacred entity, as the mother who provides and must be taken care of, “pacts with it are renewed through ritual” (ibid). For Andean people the ritual reaffirmation of Buen Vivir relations is a way of establishing such relations of mutual care between community and nature.

Community, thus, is not the collective owner of natural resources (including land) that are to be found in this territory. Community is more like a tender of its territory, attached as it is to it not only out of need to dwell and survive but also through links that relate community to its past and its future, its ancestors and its collective aspirations. Commoning in this case is more like an extensive participation in exchanges within and through nature that aim to be just, sustainable and based on mutual care.

Buen Vivir principles were in a way integrated to the Constitution of two Andean countries, Ecuador (in 2008) and Bolivia (in 2009). The Ecuadorian Constitution explicitly states “We hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living [buen vivir].” In Bolivia indigenous people form the majority of the population. In Ecuador the presence of indigenous population is less dominant in terms of numbers but equally powerful in terms of culture. But, as R. Prada explains, the adoption of Buen Vivir “as a state and government objective” (ibid. 147) rather attempts to create a meeting place, an area of agreements based on the ethics of pursuing harmony through complementarity. Cooperation thus is elevated to a governance model that will lead to a “plurinational state” which is meant to guarantee and protect an inclusive and equalitarian pluralistic society. 

In many efforts to implement this new legal condition, Buen Vivir principles clashed with extremely strong elite interests as well as with taken for granted hopes in ‘progress’ through ‘development’. True, rural communities in these countries had the opportunity to protect their established customs of collective care for land and their ritual and practical ways of expressing a bond with nature that explicitly clashes with the predominant extractivist ethos (De Sousa Santos and Meneses 2020, Acosta 2013). Urban communities also have the opportunity to use the same legal guarantees to protect their neighborhoods and shared spaces from an advancing urban extractivism (including gentrification, urban expansion, public land grabbing, aggressive ‘touristification’ etc.). The integration of the Buen Vivir approach into constitutional legislation has performative effects in practices that reinvent both urban and rural communities in the context of de-centralization, horizontality and plurality of social organization forms. However, progressive governments in both countries did not choose to confront fundamental inequalities and to limit existing power asymmetries. Without attacking the development model based on extractivism they also became complicit with a governance ethos that gave no room to movements and to organized communities so as to act as organized contesters of developmentalist priorities. There seems to be no way to reinvent communities of commoning that is not based on the power of communities to reinvent themselves.

Space commoning and autonomous community building

In certain indigenous languages in Mexico the word for community and territory is the same. In Tzotsil and other Maya languages the word used is jlumaltik (Baschet 2018). However, this does not indicate an attitude of possession. Land is the common ground to be shared by all. Pacha Mama, mother earth, does not belong to anybody. To say therefore that community and territory are the same thing means that there can be no community without a land to which it is embedded. 

This somehow reveals the powerful connection an indigenous community has to its territory not only as a means to sustain itself but also as a constitutive element of the operational relations this community has with its surrounding environment (both “natural” and “social”). Arturo Escobar suggests that a community’s territory is to be understood as “a system of relations whose continuous re-enactment re-creates the community in question” (2018: 173).

And if in rural communities these relations are developed through practices of cultivation, farming, livestock raising etc., in urban communities these relations are developed by producing the city in its everyday uses and rituals.

Community’s relation to space is multifaceted. It activates practices of care and exchange, processes of production and social reproduction as well as the construction of shared world views. Those shared world views explicitly construct community bonds either by strengthening inherited ones or by opening the field to re-arrangements in power geometries. In such a context, rituals contribute to the reproduction as well as to the re-construction of community and can be taken to consist powerful means of community re-invention. 

Byung-Chul Han explicitly connects the current diminishing importance of rituals (for him “the disappearance of rituals”), with the advance of neoliberalism. According to his approach, neoliberalism shapes a predominant “compulsion to produce” and an ethics of “communication without community” (2020: 1). Both those predominant tendencies destroy community bonds and develop individualism through a “narcissistic cult of authenticity” (ibid.: 21), “an obvious decay of the social” (ibid.: 18) and a “culture of interiority”  in which the public expression gives way to “a pornographic exhibition of the private” (ibid.: 21). In place of this social condition he proposes a rediscovery of play and ceremonial acts as forms that mediate and shape the social. “Rituals… bring people together and create an alliance, a wholeness, a community” (ibid.: 6).

Interestingly, Han connects rituals to a closure in space and time. The experience of closure he contrasts with a continuously escalating demand for developed performances, production, “extensivity” (ibid.: 7) and seriality (“serial habitus”) all of which characterize the neoliberal regime. However, closure, as he admits, is not “invariably positive”, “given the possibility of violence associated with a fundamentalist closure of sites” (ibid.: 32). 

Here lies a challenging potentiality of rituals rediscovered and reclaimed. How can ritual practices transcend the closure of a community as well as the closure of time (trapped in the eternal) in search of a creativity immersed in history? How can rituals support a rediscovery of history as a process of collective creativity in place of the dominant practices of consumption oriented exclusively towards the present? It seems paradoxical to ask for openness in processes essentially based on the production of repeated performances within a ‘magic circle’ (Mauss 2001, Hastrup 2004, Bourdieu 2000). These are processes that seemingly employ a kind of temporality that refutes change (time that stands still in Han’s description) and a kind of spatiality that epitomizes spatial closure – a closure that ignores its outside.

Let us explore the possibility of rituals that play with closure, of rituals that develop through their performed closures the potentiality of open communities. Seen from a certain perspective the mistica ritual of the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabahadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST) is an interesting example. 

MST is a movement with a long tradition of struggles including, predominantly, land occupations. It is a very well organized movement and it has successfully established self-governed settlements mostly close to large areas of collective cultivation that are in most cases recuperated latifundios

MST “has been advocating an alternative way of life. It is a struggle that goes beyond land redistribution” (Issa 2007 : 85). So, MST is organized not only to develop the strategy and tactics of struggle but also to promote within its members a collective identity that makes them builders of a new kind of community. The occupation, the temporary camp, and the settlement become important areas of living together in which this emerging collective identity is being shaped. In such “interactive spaces” (Hammond 2014: 383) MST militants share experiences and aspirations and learn from each other’s stories. They become empowered and even raise the identity of the landless poor to a positive marker. Commenting on an activist’s words who proudly proclaims “I am a Sem Terra with capital letters”, J. Hammond notices that “not only does she invent the status of landless from pejorative to proudly acknowledged; she converts it from an attribute to an noun, from an incidental characteristic to the essence of what she is” (ibid. author’s italics).

MST: Reinventing Community through Commoning

Mistica rituals play a very important role in the formation of this emerging identity, which actually radiates as a kind of call to action and participation to all those who will potentially join MSTMistica rituals are not merely identity performances, however. Comprising of expressive acts as diverse as theatrical pieces, flag waving, collective singing, organized sceneries for assemblies, poem reading, commemoration of movement’s struggles and heroes, symbolic arrangements of objects (seeds, candles , rural worker’s tools etc.), mistica rituals actually lack strict formal rules. Nevertheless, they are recognized by MST members as important empowering experiences that give them the strength to continue in struggles that are difficult, dangerous and not always successful. 

Interestingly, one of the movement’s leaders, João Pedro Stedile, declares that MST is open to “all truths, not a single truth” (quoted in Issa 2007: 128 and in Hammond 2014: 375). Such an approach clearly differentiates MST’s cultural and ideological formation from other explicitly Marxist, anarchist or populist movements. Without being a religious movement, it has managed to appropriate both Catholic ritualism as well as Indigenous and African religiosity producing an almost animistic amalgam of belief in the “sacredness of nature” (Issa ibid.). 

Ritual behavior, thus, is meant not only to become instrumentalized in raising members’ self-esteem and morals. It is meant to create, albeit on a symbolic level, the condition of a different social context and a different set of social relationships leading to new forms of social organization. Community building becomes the process of building autonomy not only by commoning the means of a community’s existence but also by reproducing on a ritual level the shared values that constitute a common world. And, as has probably become evident throughout this chapter, no commoning practices and performances can unfold without shaping the space that becomes pivotal in shaping them. Shared land, common ground, common space. An emancipated and emancipatory “we” is being crafted in the materiality of concrete relations with the shared territory as well as with those with who this territory is shared. Common spaces are spaces performed and performative. They participate in the construction of social bonds and shared worldviews as they support all aspects of social life. Being-in-common unfolds as a spatiotemporal set of performances. 

In Buenos Aires, during the days of the 2001 uprising, neighborhood assemblies have become “space[s] of experimentation on the possibilities of producing popular and autonomous forms of administration” (Colectivo Situaciones 2002: 170). Thus, “in the assemblies people [have] put forward practical hypotheses of re-appropriation – no matter how partial – of the living conditions” (ibid. 168).

Isn’t this a well stated synopsis of what it means to collectively re-invent communities by developing the potentialities of commoning? Community re-invention needs to distance itself from practices of time enclosure: should neither succumb to the reification of tradition considered as eternal truth nor embrace modernity as a promise of continuous development. It also needs to question acts of spatial enclosure: autonomy describes the practices and the ethics of commoning communities that should not be confused with a quest for “self-sufficiency” (Escobar 2017). Rather, it is about constructing an “archipelago of conviviality” (a term of A. Gorz to which Esteva 2015b refers). Emergent communities have to rethink about the commons, to re-evaluate forms of defining what is to be shared and how, and to, thus, reinvent commoning by re-inventing relations of equality and mutual support.  Perhaps the words of the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico may express this potential politics of commoning: “We are a web when we are separated and an assembly when we are together” (in Esteva 2015b: 86).

References for Reinventing Community through Commoning:

Acosta, A. (2013) Extractivism and neoextractism: two sides of the same curse. In Beyond Development. Alternative Visions from Latin America. Permanent Working Group on Alternatives to Development (eds.). Quito: Fundación Rosa Luxemburg.

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