Great Britain

The commons agenda may seem a long way removed from electoral politics and mainstream respectability.  But we have already seen how the commons sensibility has propelled the Pirate Party to its surprising breakthroughs in Sweden and Germany.  And now we have Blue Labour in the U.K. making a strong bid to re-conceptualize British politics.

A key figure in this transformation is Maurice Glasman, an academic, activist and Labour life peer in the House of Lords.  Glasman has earned wide respect for his community work in London, such as working on a living wage campaign for cooks, security guards and cleaners.  He also worked with faith communities on immigration issues, including a campaign called “Strangers into Citizens” that sought to integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods by fostering social understanding and cooperation among people.

“The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here,” Glasman recently wrote in the Guardian. “The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.”

The "Blue" in Blue Labour refers to its commitment to a “small-c conservatism."  By “conservative,” Glasman and his colleagues mean a commitment to cultural tradition, community and social solidarity – those old-fashioned, “soft” things that are usually treated by politicians as sappy rhetorical inspiration.  What makes Blue Labour stand out from this tradition, however, is the way it brilliantly blends a deeper humanistic vision with a hard-nosed economic analysis, including a staunch opposition to neoliberalism and globalization.

While Bradley L. Garrett may be an anthropologist by training, he prefers to call himself an “urban explorer” or better yet, a “place hacker.”  He recently came into public view after secretly climbing to the top of the Shard, the tallest building in Europe (1,061 feet/309.7 meters), in London.  He evaded security systems and at 2 am climbed to the top of the building, still under construction, earning a spectacular view over the twinkling London nightscape.

The night's adventure garnered wide media exposure for what is legally known as an act of trespassing. Garrett doesn’t consider this mere adventurism, although he concedes it is a thrill.  Rather, he sees himself as a thinking-man’s explorer of the meaning of urban ruins – derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals, abandoned military installations, sewer and drain networks, foreclosed estates, mines, and ruins of all sorts.  Garrett considers it ethnographic research into the physical detritus of modernity – and a statement about the scarcity of public spaces in cities for discovery, camaraderie and fun. 

As a video about place hacking notes, it’s all about the “psychogeography of place.”  It's about the desire to transcend the contrived, commercially constructed facade of the city to reach a rawer, more authentic sense of urban life.  And it’s about creating a community of fellow adventurers who share in discovering and investigating secret or derelict spaces.  Aficionados call such spaces T.O.A.D.S., “temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict spaces.” 

Reading Around: Common Voices and Stir

New issues of two of my favorite journals have come out.  Time to check out some fascinating articles on commons-related themes.  First, an introduction to the two publications, Common Voices and Stir to Action.

Stir to Action – with the tagline, “Anger.  Analysis.  Action” – is a scrappy, fiercely smart quarterly that prowls the cultural and political frontier that few other publications cover.  Stir is published and edited by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh in the UK.  Stir understands, citing Nathan Schneider, that “politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need, not to mention what we hope for.”  While established political journals handicap the horserace with smarty-pants/cynical commentary, Gordon-Farleigh has shown just how much fresh, uncovered political innovation there really is out there.  It's not just that "another world is possible," he writes, but that "another world is happening."

Stir deliberately avoids “the disproportionate fixation on Washington and London [that] produces mere spectators who can only rely on financial and political elites to save them and who can only be disappointed and failed by them.  This read-only political culture dominates our experience of our options and choices, and the German comedian Klaus Hansen expresses this reversible point in terms of commercial sport — “Football is like democracy: twenty-two people playing and millions watching.”  As Stephen Duncombe says in his interview, “It’s not enough to change people’s minds.  You have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live.” 

So Stir gets out of London, avoids the venerable pundits and pols, and gets out on the street, and even ventures abroad.  In the latest issue, cultural anthropologist Marianne Maeckelbergh has a thoughtful piece about the horizontal decision-making process in the Occupy movement.  Maeckelbergh, who has participated in such processes in Barcelona, New York and Oakland, describes the history of participatory decisionmaking models and the rationale for them at Occupy gatherings.  She writes:  “In order to create new political structures we actually have to let go of certain economic relations which we take as given. For example, horizontal decision-making does not work when we assume a) that resources are scarce, b) that we therefore need to compete with each other and c) ownership is an exclusionary relation – a proprietary relation.”

Two recent developments suggest that the reactionary regime of maximalist copyright can still command a lot of raw political power to beat back commoners, flout legal principles and craft the law to its liking. Yet at the same time open networks and default norms of sharing are getting some serious traction these days, as two other developments attest. Could a post-reactionary world of free culture be at hand?

First, the bad news. A few weeks ago the EU extended the term of copyright protection for music recordings by another twenty years – an ignoble replay of what the U.S. Congress did in 1998 for U.S. copyright law. You may recall that the Disney Co. was determined to stop Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain, and the motion picture, recording and publishing industries were just as eager to reap a public giveaway worth billions of dollars.

If the copyright extension had not been adopted, lots of British music recordings from the 1960s from the Beatles to the early Stones and many others were expected to enter the public domain in 2012. Now there's a chilling thought: music that's still popular becoming free!  Alternatively, the artists themselves could begin to distribute the music themselves, rather than having to let the record labels have exclusive rights for another 20 years.

A new British publication, Stir, short for Stir to Action, has released its second issue as editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh bravely tries to give voice to a new kind of post-liberal, globally aware activist readership.  True to its name, Stir features a number of provocative articles and invigorating interviews with iconoclasts.  If we're lucky, this venture from the edge may actually help assemble a "constituency of unrealistic pragmatists," in the words of George McKay, author of a wonderful piece on on “radical gardening.”

In an interview with author Mckenzie Wark, we learn some of the lessons that the Situationists may have for contemporary political and cultural activism.  The Situationist International “was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972,” Wark noted, describing his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street.  “Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.”

That’s a great premise for any movement:  a few trustworthy comrades with the imagination and daring to challenge the narcoleptic conformism of our times.  Even some of the most active activists that I know are half-asleep because they have so internalized the prevailing political paradigm and cultural norms.

Why did Heathrow Airport near London come to a standstill last week after a few inches of snow?  How difficult can it be to keep a few runways clear, remove snow from the gate areas, and de-ice planes?  Scores of airports in snowy regions around the world do it all the time.

Clive Irving, a senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation, offers a persuasive explanation for the Heathrow debacle:  the privatization of airport management.  Writing at The Daily Beast, “The Secret Behind the Travel Mayhem,” Irving argues that “the fundamental reason for this failure is hiding in plain sight” – the transformation of publicly managed airports into privately managed shopping malls: 

Booklet outlining the current crisis in the world's political economy, the need for new sorts of governance, a revival of localism and new types of international sharing and global reform.

The venerable English pub has long been a place where everyone from the businessman to the housewife to the student, factory worker and vicar could meet as equals — a social commons that reflected the neighborhood and its idiosyncrasies. Over the past twenty years or more, however, large corporations have consolidated the ownership of British pubs so that some companies own thousands of them. The trend has accelerated in recent years, forcing hundreds of independent local pubs to close.

Now, as The Independent (London) reports, local beer-drinkers are fighting back. They are buying their beloved local pubs and converting them into cooperatives — and gaining greater control over how the pub is run, diversifying the beers sold, and preserving the pubs for their communities and children. (Thanks to Ally Marks for the tip to this story!)

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