Artículo en ingles publicado por el Transnational Institute en su publicación State of Power 2018. Escrito en colaboración Nuria del Viso.
The main feature of power is that it inevitably creates resistance, a process Foucault studied in detail. There are no harmonious societies. Conflicts of interest between different social groups have been a constant throughout history, and are probably the main driver of social change. Counter-power emerged as a means of collective action whereby the injustices suffered by subordinate or oppressed social groups become politicized, either in the form of silent rebellions that remain latent in everyday life or through challenges that are publicly and openly declared.
The forms this collective action takes have varied over time, due to factors such as technological developments, cultural changes or socio-institutional processes. The idea of counter-power has always been ambivalent: on the one hand, it is defined negatively by its capacity to say NO and prevent the hegemonic elites from carrying out their agenda; on the other, it transmits an assertive strength, a capacity to say YES and deploy new sensibilities, desires, ways of organizing and alternative lifestyles. Destituent and constituent power are two sides of the same coin.
Our cognitive reflexes tend to associate social struggles with images of revolts, mass mobilizations and epic insurrections, where conflict is dramatized. In the urban context, its mythological architecture would be the barricade – an ephemeral construction that symbolizes two worlds in conflict, made of the magic cobblestones that rise up to form fortresses described by Baudelaire.
But what if, rather than the barricade, we were to think of counter-power in terms of a space such as a community garden?
But what if, rather than the barricade, we were to think of counter-power in terms of a space such as a community garden? We would speak of defending the existence of spaces where the lives of local communities and plants are cared for, food is grown and social relationships are harvested, of neighbourhood and environmental ecosystems threatened by the market and urban policies.
Emmanuel Lizcano used to say that metaphors and images unconsciously shape our thought patterns. In our case, this could lead us to think of social conflict in an excessively mechanical way. Counter-power would be reduced to a lengthy process of building hegemony and the accumulation of forces capable of successfully confronting established power, until Gramsci’s ‘catastrophic equilibrium’ is broken and counter-power becomes the new legitimate power.
Let’s think of the workers’ movement with its unions and parties, consumer and worker cooperatives, mutual societies, newspapers and magazines, folk schools, cultural centres and libraries, people’s houses, choirs, bands, excursion clubs, theatre groups, women’s associations, mutual support networks in neighbourhoods… We will find a whole world run according to its own principles and rules – a constellation of community institutions where people could socialize, practise solidarity, and reproduce a culture and lifestyles that operate independently of power. Does it not seem reductionist to think that this complex multiplicity, overflowing with life, was a mere exercise in the accumulation of forces awaiting the day of the revolution?
Counter-power interests us because it refers to inhabiting a conflict without being obsessed with confrontation, and acknowledges that building new social relations can be a gesture of radical defiance. This connects with historical socialist and anarchist tendencies whose efforts were aimed at developing initiatives and projects that foresaw what a non-capitalist society would look like. Long ago, the Labour Party activist G. D. H. Cole wisely stated that the revolution should look as little like a civil war as possible and as similar as possible to a record of events and a culmination of existing trends.
This is why we will emphasize the positive, constituent dimension of counter-power and track experiences that are able to transform our cities and people’s lives, bringing about small-scale radical changes at the same time. We will follow the trail of the real utopias studied all over the world by Erik Olin Wright, where what is pragmatically possible depends on our imagination and takes shape based on our visions of reality and our ways of inhabiting it differently.
Just as the escaped slaves in Brazil founded settlements hidden in the jungle, known as quilombos, in our concrete jungles today there is a wide range of modest counter-powers that are hidden, undervalued and kept out of sight. We will mention a few of them and then focus on one example: community gardens, specifically in Madrid.
Resisting austerity urbanism
The financial crash that began in 2008 put an end to the illusion of a model of economic growth increasingly disconnected from meeting social needs. Cities have borne the brunt of the dramatic social and economic impacts of the crash (household debt, evictions, high unemployment, energy poverty, inability to afford food, deterioration and privatization of public service, etc.), which have given rise to a serious loss of social cohesion.
This process was aggravated by the application of an austerity urbanism that opened the door to the private sector in service provision and management, giving it an ever more important role in the definition of strategic guidelines for urban transformation. This restructuring of urban policies is based on processes such as the promotion of megaprojects and mega-events, public–private partnerships (PPPs), opening up the most interesting sectors to foreign investment, unequal public service provision depending on the purchasing power of different neighbourhoods, gentrification, and the commodification of sectors such as environmental management, green areas or even the public space itself.
Investors, property developers and large corporations have driven the creeping commodification of the city, with the result that markets determine the direction taken by urban governments.
Investors, property developers and large corporations have driven the creeping commodification of the city, with the result that markets – disconnected from social needs and free from political oversight – determine the direction taken by urban governments. And citizens have suffered the dramatic consequences: market authoritarianism and the erosion of local democracies, booming corruption, an increase in environmentally unsustainable processes and an exponential growth in inequality.
This cyclical movement throughout history has provoked the activation of society’s self-protection mechanisms, in what Polanyi defined in The Great Transformation as a ‘double movement’. The threat of a free-market utopia generates antibodies capable of repoliticizing everyday life and deploying multiple alternative projects aimed at subordinating the economy to politics.
The official narrative of the crisis began to be questioned publicly in Spain with the emergence of the 15M movement in 2011, which launched the most intense cycle of collective action in the country’s recent history. The protest camps and assemblies formed micro-cities at the heart of a larger city in a sort of project proposal for other cities, generating an atmosphere more favourable to social change.
Against austerity urbanism, what emerged from civil society was cooperative urbanism, intensive in its capacity to innovate to solve problems, citizen leadership and more democratic ways of understanding the public sphere. In Spain, responses to the crisis have taken different forms: campaigns to stop evictions and recover homes, led by the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por las Hipotecas, PAH); citizen tides in defence of public services such as health and education, bringing together users, professionals and trade unions; the restoration of buildings to set up community centres; the organization of food banks for vulnerable families; neighbourhood support and solidarity networks against the exclusion of migrants from health services; or the takeover of abandoned properties to plant community gardens.
The plurality of resistance is not just defensive action against the loss of rights and the lack of resources and basic services, but a recovery of collective thinking and proposal-making.
The greatest successes of this plurality of counter-powers have been to discredit the story about the crisis; to put a stop to the most aggressive policies to privatize health, education or water; to popularize acts of civil disobedience (stopping evictions, occupations, refusing to pay higher taxes on medicines, medical care for undocumented people); to present popular legislative initiatives aimed at changing the legal framework, the outstanding example being the PAH proposal on the right to housing; and to develop a non-hegemonic use of international law, leading to several condemnations of the Spanish state for human rights violations. This is not just defensive action against the loss of rights and the lack of resources and basic services, but a recovery of collective thinking and proposal-making.
This cycle of mobilization has consolidated a modest, imperceptible geography of resistance that takes the form of different ways of thinking about, imagining and inhabiting the territory.
Whether intentionally or unconsciously, in solving problems counter-powers tend to promote alternative urban models where different lifestyles can develop. They do this by re-signifying and politicizing concepts such as the neighbourhood or the public space, and by producing places where new social and practical relationships can be (re)built: community centres, community gardens, community-run equipment, the reinvention of empty or under-used public spaces.
Living in a different way implies the material construction of arenas where – albeit on a small, fragmented scale – it is possible to reproduce other patterns of relationships among people and between people and their surroundings.
Planting change in the city square
This citizen counter-power was enacted in the protest camps that from 2010 onwards spread to large cities all over the world, from Tahrir Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, from Occupy Wall Street to Gezi Park, as people demanded more democracy and rose up against ‘austericidal’ policies.
With thousands of people living side by side in the protest camps, the public space was seen as a collective, political site. The occupation of this space was ‘potentially permanent and self-managed’, making it a metaphor of another way of inhabiting the city, reinventing the public space as a common space, ‘a performative representation of justice and equality’, where people could protest in common, think in common, live in common and explore alternative values in common.
The protest camps were structured as temporary cities, with different spaces for different activities and needs: children’s areas, libraries, communication and information centres, dining areas, solar panels. In many of these camps, between the tarpaulins and the assemblies, community gardens somehow also found a space that was sometimes symbolic or evocative. Spaces where the community living in the camp imagined itself and made plans for the future, such as in the Huerta del Sol in Madrid, where there was a sign saying ‘if we last 40 days we will eat lettuces’.
A new community is invoked around the idea of the garden, rethinking relations and symbols in places affected by conflict. Thus, Greek and Turkish Cypriot activists from Occupy the Buffer Zone in Nicosia set up camp on the disputed land. One of the ways they took ownership of this space, left a mark on it and gave it a new meaning was the Greening up the Green Line action, which involved building a small vegetable patch and ‘seed bomb’ workshops. These actions sought to give a new meaning to the green of the so-called green line (the demilitarized zone that separates the island), turning it into a cultivated landscape. These were temporary, shifting spaces, designed to highlight political demands and make links with other movements and spaces that were already there.
Thus, in Occupy Rome, the city’s guerrilla gardening groups and community garden (CG) collectives, organized their first joint action with the design and construction of the Orto Errante, based on movable vegetable patches; Occupy Wall Street organized workshops and guided visits to the community gardens in the Lower East Side; in Barcelona, the agroecology movement attended various protests with a nomadic garden, which ended up being seized by the police; and Occupy San Francisco planted an organic garden opposite the headquarters of Monsanto.
Elsewhere, the protest camps led to starting up projects that aimed to be permanent, such as Occupy the Farm, an urban farm on an occupied site in the University of California, Berkeley, or the People’s Peas Garden located in a public park and run by Occupy Gardens Toronto, which was active for five months until it was dismantled. After the camps were taken down, the seeds of ideas planted by these gardens germinated elsewhere, as illustrated by the Puerta del Sol camp, which was dismantled to shouts of ‘We’re not leaving, we’re moving to your conscience’.
So, when neighbourhood assemblies in Spain start to work on their local environments, they often develop community garden projects. This has happened from Madrid and Barcelona to Burgos or Málaga, where the very name of the gardens reflects those origins: Horts Indignats in Barcelona, Huerta Dignidad in Málaga (in reference to the 2014 Marches for Dignity).
Community gardens emerged as one of many forms of protest against the malaise caused by the neoliberal global city and its urbanicidal dynamics (too many institutions and not enough government, exclusion and the dual labour market, the politics of fear, deteriorating public services, unsustainability and so forth).
Urban agriculture has become a means to denounce speculation and demand a new culture of the territory. It has also enabled the creation of social and economic alternatives linking a wide range of social actors and collectives, from green activist groups to unemployed people’s assemblies, from neighbourhood associations to popular solidarity networks.