Moving Beyond the Right to the City: Urban Commoning in Greece


Written by Theodoros Karyotis


The urban space is the epicentre of social antagonism. At any historical moment, it represents a crystallisation of power relations. While political and economic powers incessantly reform it to better isolate, control and exploit its inhabitants, the latter inevitably seek empowerment through collective mobilisation. After all, this is the space in which people see their social lives unfold, where they form family and community bonds, where they seek self-realisation. Resistance, then, is not the prerogative of radicals or the underprivileged. Most city dwellers are called to confront the neoliberal carving up of urban space if they are to lead fulfilling lives in ecologically sound surroundings.

It is not a coincidence, then, that modern social struggles erupt as urban phenomena with a strong spatial component. While some people may lament the concurrent demise of the workers’ movement, it could be argued that the workplace is but one—albeit crucial—of the domains in which capital exploits human labour. The city is common wealth created by the collective efforts of generations; capitalism tries to appropriate this wealth, turning the city into a terrain of accumulation. Capitalization of human energies has expanded to all spheres of social life. Processes of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2009) are underway in most urban contexts: land grabbing, gentrification, privatisation of shared space, cultural appropriation, commodification of basic human needs such as housing, food, water and healthcare, evictions and displacement, not to mention increasing racism, militarisation and surveillance. Accordingly, the circulation of struggles extends to all fields of life where capital imposes its logic. Many thinkers have tried to conceptualise this shift by examining the relationship between capitalism, urbanism and ecology.1

City dwellers may define their desire for full participation in the city’s socio-political life as a right to the city to be reclaimed against authorities, or they may dive right in and self-manage the urban space as a commons, or they may do both. In turn, these urban struggles—along with the frameworks used to make sense of them—will constitute them as collective subjects. These are, then, some of the issues this text seeks to raise, exemplified in the context of Greek urban struggles over the past decade.


The Right to the City

Since its inception by philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s, the discourse of the right to the city has pervaded struggles against urban exclusion, commodification and privatisation. Even when Lefebvre is not overtly referenced, an intuitive grasp of the right to the city underlies many discussions and conflicts over what kind of cities we desire.

Lefebvre’s take on the right to the city was a radical one. He never conceived the right to the city simply as a legal notion, a juridical defence of specific human needs. Rather, he envisioned an active subject that would enact and materialise those rights, rather than merely demand their implementation. Being a Marxist, he identified this collective subject as the working class (Lefebvre 1996a:154). Not the uniform, industrial working class of the Marxian oeuvre, consolidated in the capitalist workplace, but “a very different kind of class formation—fragmented and divided, multiple in its aims and needs, more often itinerant, disorganized and fluid rather than solidly implanted” (Harvey 2012: xiii). That is to say, a class formed around the everyday production and reproduction of life in the urban space.

As Harvey (ibid: xvi) suggests, the task of this collective subject would be “to imagine and reconstitute a totally different kind of city out of the disgusting mess of a globalising, urbanising capital run amok”. Under this light, the idea of a right to the city becomes genuinely revolutionary, as the question of what kind of city we desire cannot be separated from questions of what kind of social relations, what kind of political organisation or what kind of relationship with nature we desire.

Lefebvre’s “right to the city” is not reducible to access of individual citizens to urban resources (housing, public spaces, services, facilities, etc.); rather, he envisioned the city as managed by its very inhabitants. The radical edge of Lefebvre’s right to the city lies precisely in the implicit conflict between the right to the use value of the city against the right to its exchange value. In other words, it is a concept that empowers the users of the city against the proprietors of the city, who are in most cases not the same people.

Lefebvre’s aim was to rework Marx’s idea of revolutionary change by expanding and enriching the collective subject of this change, and moving the locus of revolution from the capitalist workplace to the field of everyday life. Marx and Marxists, however, had notoriously rejected the notion of “rights” as a limited concept that was too intimately tied to capitalist liberalism to be of any use for revolution. Why, then, did Lefebvre employ this concept in his attempt to refashion revolutionary action? It is important to note that Lefebvre was writing in the late 1960s, when doctrinaire Marxism was coming under fire from many directions. In the following years, many Marxists renounced Bolshevism as totalising and authoritarian, and some even sought refuge in liberalism. By the late 1970s, revolutionary politics was in decline, and the discourse of “human rights” had become dominant in progressive circles as a supposedly “apolitical” mechanism of ensuring for populations a minimum of protection from exclusion and domination, in the absence of a meaningful plan of profound structural change (McLoughlin 2016). The ensuing collapse of the Soviet bloc and the ideological prevalence of capitalism and liberal democracy only served to consolidate “rights talk” as the horizon of progressive politics. Lefebvre’s, then, was one of many attempts at navigating that adverse conjuncture without renouncing the prospect of revolutionary change.

However, the “rights” discourse does not come without its complications. With the resurgence of radical thought in the 1990s and 2000s, the concept of rights was overwhelmingly criticised by post-Marxist and radical thinkers as part and parcel of a post-political consensus in which political spaces are closing, giving way to technocratic solutions to social conflicts and demands (ibid.). Most notably, Giorgio Agamben (1998: 126–135) criticised human rights as a concept by which state sovereignty extends to non-political forms of life. In this respect, rights legitimise state intervention rather than limiting it. Moreover, since the concept of rights rests on a distinction between the political and the social sphere, it aids in the de-politicisation of subjects. As De Souza Santos (2014) argues, a “majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights [but] rather the objects of human rights discourses”.

Often, “the right to the city” takes the form of a mini-charter of human rights—that is to say, a list of “commitments” of municipal authorities towards residents, who are entitled to social and economic goods. While there is great “propaganda value and mobilising potential” in such tactics, in that accusing political opponents of “violating rights” is a powerful rhetorical device (Bond 2018), the mere invocation of “commitments” of authorities towards citizens may lend itself to assistencialist policies. These have been historically shown to perpetuate inequality, as they tend to disempower rights holders in front of rights-granting bodies by treating them as passive recipients instead of active subjects (Freire 2005: 12).

Undoubtedly, rights can be—and have been—used as a bulwark against exploitation and exclusion. However, when social needs are expressed in legalese and enter the juridical sphere, they come to form part of a legal system where they are always subordinate to other legal concepts and other rights. That is to say, when the “social need as a right” is not anymore an instrument of struggle but a commitment of a liberal democracy towards its subjects, it becomes part of a hierarchy of rights, on the top of which lies the right to property. Often, the sanctity of the rule of law is little more than a fig leaf to conceal systematic exploitation and plunder (Mattei and Nader 2008). The experience of South Africa (Bond 2018) seems to confirm that courts systematically fail to enforce officially sanctioned rights to the city when they clash with entrenched interests and property rights. A similar situation was experienced in Greece, under the state of exception imposed by austerity policies.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the right to the city has been adopted wholeheartedly by a host of organisations, from local NGOs to UNHabitat, that not only lack an anti-capitalist orientation but are even an accessory to neoliberal expansion (Souza 2010). The right to the city, in this sense, loses Lefebvre’s radical edge and is interpreted as the right of individual citizens/consumers to a better urban life in the context of liberal democracy. At best, it is translated into rights of citizen input—so-called “participation”—in consultations with predefined agendas. At worst, it is used as a pretext for urban segregation policies, as when the authorities repress marginalised populations and exclude them from public space in the name of the citizen’s “right to a cleaner and safer environment”.

“The right to the city”, writes Harvey (2012: xv), “is an empty signifier. Everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning.” However, the question we have to ask here is whether this is simply yet another case of successful appropriation and reabsorption of a radical discourse into dominant capitalist practices, or whether the concept of “rights”, by resting on a distinction between rights-holders and rights-granters, is inherently disempowering. Of course, whether movements opt for restoring Lefebvre’s revolutionary content of the right to the city or for moving beyond it should be entirely up to them. In any case, being aware of the limits and pitfalls of “rights-talk” is essential.


The Urban Commons

In recent years we observe the emergence of a new explanatory framework, that of the commons. The movement of the urban commons has forcefully entered the global spotlight, especially through the practice of occupation of common space (Tsavdaroglou 2016).

The concept of the commons was popularised by the institutional school of Elinor Ostrom, who studied hundreds of communities forming around natural resources (fisheries, irrigation systems, forests, etc.) to selfregulate extraction and thus prevent the infamous “tragedy of the commons”, i.e. the depletion of the resource (Ostrom 2015). While critical of Ostrom’s resource-centrism, autonomist Marxist thinkers2 have taken up the commons discourse, as it allows them to describe empowered communities of struggle that are self-instituted to defend themselves against processes of dispossession, commodification and exclusion.

The commons is an eminently political concept, as its definition includes not only a common “resource”, which may be natural (e.g. water) or immaterial (e.g. knowledge or any aspect of social life), but also an active community that organises horizontally and decides upon a set of rules of coexistence. A commons, then, consists necessarily of an active community self-instituted around a shared “resource”. This political dimension has made the commons a prominent discourse in explaining the activity of the urban social movements of the last decade.3 Rather than relying on traditional tactics of agitprop or forming around concrete identities or demands, urban social movements in recent years tend to erupt as reappropriations of public space by horizontal collectives. Participants in the 2011 wave of protest around the world occupied public squares to form impromptu settlements with their own collectively-run facilities and assembleary decision- making processes. The “square commons” did not dissipate after the protest ended but became the blueprint for the creation of antagonistic social structures to promote popular self-sufficiency and resilience, fuelled by the conviction that capitalism is unable to ensure the reproduction of societies and the planet itself. In recent years, movements have a growing propensity to view the urban space as a commons and to propose solutions to social ills that favour collective forms of ownership, direct participation and self-management, thus questioning existing forms of integration in city life.

Of course, the discourse of the commons is not immune to appropriation. Critics point out that the idea of the commons is appealing to organisations that promote neoliberal globalisation, as the social selfinitiative is compatible with the neoliberal renunciation of state welfare provision, which leaves society to fend for itself. Moreover, commons thinkers have repeatedly warned against “distorted” (De Angelis 2009) or “pro-capitalist” (Caffentzis 2010) commons, which serve to promote the circulation of capital.

However, appropriation by capital is not the only problem the commons faces. What is the degree of openness required of each commons to maintain its character without becoming exclusionary? How are effective commons practices at the city level transferred to the management of more complex systems, such as entire bio-regions? How can the commons become materially self-sustaining without creating dependencies on the capitalist market? What are the effective structures through which different commons can coordinate their actions towards common goals? These issues—access, scalability, viability and coordination—are central in the discussion over the commons. The commons, therefore, should not be viewed as a set of structures or processes, but rather as a disposition of a number of people to define themselves as a group, question their existing circumstances, identify their collective and individual needs, and negotiate their rules of coexistence through mutual respect and recognition. That is to say, the commons become politics par excellence.

In any case, my intention here is not to explore the potential of the commons in tracing socio-political alternatives to capitalism, since I have done this elsewhere (Karyotis 2018). Here I approach the commons as a discourse to make sense of, but also shape, urban struggles. The assumption of initiative by organised society rarely means the renunciation of negotiated rights to healthcare, education, welfare or basic services. The commons is not an alternative to “rights talk”, but rather a way in which rights may be fleshed out, and tethered to contentious politics waged by concrete communities.

In this light, the right to the city and the urban commons are not mutually exclusive strategies of contestation but rather two different vocabularies, two different “grammars of human dignity”(De Sousa Santos 2014), for making sense of urban struggles. The combined use of both discourses brings to mind what Harvey (2012: 87), describes as a “double-pronged political attack, through which the state is forced to supply more and more in the way of public goods for public purposes, along with the self-organization of whole populations to appropriate, use, and supplement those goods in ways that extend and enhance the qualities of the non-commodified reproductive and environmental commons”.

Yet, the two vocabularies give rise to different conceptualisations of social conflict, different tactics and objectives, and ultimately different antagonistic subjects. While it is very common for movements to engage in both rights talk and commons talk, the coexistence of the two discourses is not always as harmonious as Harvey would have us believe. The interplay between the two discourses will be made explicit in the ensuing analysis of resistance against austerity policies in contemporary Greece.


Urban Struggles in Greece

Developments in Greece exemplify the concept of accumulation by dispossession, and specifically the tactic of austerity as an instrument of wealth extraction and upwards redistribution. Austerity is a recipe systematically being prescribed to ailing economies. It is ostensibly intended to do away with sovereign debt by reducing public expenditure, selling off public assets, raising taxes and slashing labour rights, welfare provision and publicsector jobs. In effect, it represents a radical reshuffling of the cards at the expense of the lower and middle classes.

Other than the fact that for the first time such an ambitious structural adjustment program has been implemented in a “developed” country, the case of Greece is nothing new as far as austerity and counter-austerity tactics go. I have, therefore, repeatedly argued that the idea of Greek exceptionalism—both in its “corrupt and lazy” version and in its “heroic and revolutionary” version—is an orientalist fallacy. Nevertheless, it is true that the violent shakeup of day-to-day normality destabilised established identities and thus pushed great parts of the population to a state of liminality (Varvarousis and Kallis 2017; Varvarousis 2018). Liminality is an anthropological concept that denotes an intermediate stage in a transition (between life stages, between groups or between seasons), where subjects have shed their previous identities but have not yet assumed new ones. This state of uncertainty and fluidity has certainly given rise to resignation, depression or regression to reactionary identities, but it has also created creative resistances and admirable experiments in social self-organisation.

To understand modern urban struggles in Greece, we have to look into the history of the urban space. Greek cities were built overnight. In the 1950s, rural populations started to urbanise. In the 1960s and 1970s, constructors took advantage of lax planning laws—drafted by their political patrons—to create densely populated high-rise cities without any provision for public space and infrastructure (Makrygianni and Tsavdaroglou 2011). That was the initial process of enclosure that eroded traditional communities, commodified housing, and promoted a peculiar sense of isolation among the crowd of others. A manifest absence of public facilities, open spaces, and community centres characterises Greek cities to this day.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the prevalent social imaginary was one of individual social mobility and consumerism. The debt-fuelled affluence drove the newly-formed middle classes away from inner-city neighbourhoods, which were occupied by working class migrants and natives. Throughout this era, urban renewal projects were underway, culminating in a construction frenzy leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

In December 2008, the murder of a teenager by the police sparked the first wave of struggles to reclaim the urban space on the part of students, immigrants and the disenfranchised urban youth. The protests served to shed light on the urban alienation, exploitation and exclusion hidden behind the veil of ostensible prosperity. Participants in the protests were fused in an anonymous collective subject that actively transformed the city through decentralised acts of re-appropriation of urban space: public building occupations, barricades, marches, spontaneous artistic events, disruption of traffic and commerce. Interestingly, there was a complete absence of formal demands; protesters were not struggling for rights or reforms, but were actively projecting their collective aspirations onto the urban space.

That collective “scream”4 was a wake-up call for a dormant and complacent society, and has left a legacy of social cooperation and a redefined public sphere. Thousands of collectives were born, ranging from political groups to art ensembles to grassroots trade unions. A whole new generation of youth was schooled in horizontalism, solidarity and direct action tactics, and new spatial practices were adopted by social movements, culminating in the propagation of self-managed squats and social centres.

Navarinou Park is part of “December’s” legacy. Only a few months after the revolt, an abandoned urban parking lot was occupied by neighbours and collectives in Exarcheia; the asphalt was dug up, trees and flowers were planted, paths were laid out, benches were installed. The park has since been self-managed by an open assembly and has been the site of political, cultural and social events. Despite attempts at eviction, the park retains its character to this day. Even if the vocabulary of the commons was not widespread at that moment, we have an early instance of the substitution of “public” space with “common” space; of rigid, aseptic space that serves as a neutral ground between isolated individuals with organic space where individuals can connect and intertwine their desires in the context of community, where they can negotiate the terms of their co-existence. This kind of urban commoning would go on to become a blueprint for urban struggles in the following years.

The debt crisis that broke out in 2010 and the concomitant structural adjustment served to intensify social antagonism and exacerbate conflicts over urban space. A defining moment for grassroots spatial practices and organisational forms was the 2011 “movement of the squares”. A multitude of individuals with different origins and agendas participated in the mobilisations. This diversity was certainly an advantage as it enabled osmosis between different groups and individuals and the emergence of innovative practices. While there was extensive rights talk, since the austerity program was perceived as a rupture of the social contract that threatened social, labour and human rights, the squares themselves were organised as urban commons, with a self-instituted community grouping around the occupied common space. Probably, they can be considered an instance of “liminal commons” (Varvarousis 2018), as the encampments were fluid institutions populated by destabilised identities; the aim of the squares was not long-term resilience as per Ostrom, but experimentation with new spatial practices that could lead to a multiplication of struggles.

Indeed, in the wake of the squares, a multitude of urban commons emerged. It was no longer just youthful protesters who occupied public spaces to turn them into commons, but mixed collectives of young and old, men and women, families and individuals, immigrants and natives. Two examples of such commons were the urban farming at PERKA (“Periurban Farming”) on the grounds of an abandoned military base in Thessaloniki and the Self-Managed Urban Gardens of Elliniko in Athens, on the site of the former Athens airport. Both sites were earmarked to be privatised and developed into luxury housing and commercial infrastructure. In both cases, instead of demanding that their right of access to urban space was respected, citizens’ movements self-enacted this right through commoning.

This “performative”—rather than juridical—reclamation of rights through urban commoning became widespread. The state of exception brought about by the crisis meant that most rights of the population were subordinated to the task of “salvation” of the country from debt. Regressive legislation was passed, existing juridical guarantees of human rights remained unenforced, and courts ruled consistently against those trying to judicially defend common wealth against appropriation and privatisation. The urgency of the situation made the abstract invocation of rights seem futile and called for direct, often extra-legal, action.

Local community self-defense initiatives multiplied when the government imposed an indiscriminate land ownership tax—mockingly called haratsi for its reminiscence of a despised Ottoman poll tax—arbitrarily charged through the electricity bill. Homeowners who failed to pay had their power cut; meanwhile, wages had been slashed, and one-third of the workforce was out of a job. This extortionate measure would have created a situation verging on humanitarian catastrophe were it not for the selforganised anti-haratsi neighbourhood committees, which were on call to extra-legally reconnect the power for families that could not afford the tax.

Food provision was another critical area of self-defence. In the previous decade, oligopolistic, price-fixing intermediaries had come to dominate food distribution, making everyday staples unaffordable for the popular classes, while squeezing the livelihood of farmers. The movement to cut out the middlemen started with truckloads of potatoes arriving in central city squares to be sold directly to end consumers. The potato movement soon evolved into a decentralised guerrilla farmers’ market movement, which occupied urban land without permits, trying to bring together farmers and consumers despite the threat of eviction, arrests and confrontation with entrenched interests.

The creation of urban commons extended to other rights: the right to healthcare, with the creation of an extended network of self-managed solidarity clinics; the right to a livelihood, with the establishment of alternative currencies5 and a multitude of egalitarian workers’ cooperatives; or the right to affordable food, through the operation of consumer cooperatives6 and solidarity kitchens.

However, the coexistence of the rights discourse and the commons discourse has not always been peaceful. A case in point was the movement against water privatisation. Under the terms of a memorandum, the water company of Thessaloniki—among others—was due to be privatised. Small citizens’ initiatives organised an opposition to privatisation by effectively mobilising civil society. Within the anti-privatisation block, those conceiving water as a right defended state management of the water company; those conceiving water as a commons promoted an alternative model of social ownership based on self-management and citizens’ participation7. Due to diverging conceptualisations and tactics, the rift developed into a bitter ideological conflict. This was reflected in practical issues, as the first group favoured centralised leadership through a committee composed of politicians and trade unionists—unsurprisingly aligned with the Syriza party, which was expected to win the upcoming elections—while the second group favoured assembleary and participatory organising processes. Despite the inner schism, Thessaloniki’s water movement mobilised thousands of volunteers to organise an unofficial referendum, in which 97 per cent of the 220,000 citizens who voted rejected the privatisation. A fragile and defeated rightwing government was obliged to put the privatisation on hold, until the next government (led by Syriza) brought the privatisation back on the table a few years later.

Another field where an unexamined right to the city discourse may prove counter-productive is the organisation of visibility events such as the Gay Pride March. To be sure, in a country as pious as Greece, the importance of pride marches in reclaiming public space for the full spectrum of identities and practices cannot be overstated; in effect, such events regularly become sites of confrontation with the Orthodox Church and the extreme right. Such events, however, face an additional risk. To the extent that they promote an individualistic conception of the right to the city and fail to adopt an intersectional view of social oppression, they may involuntarily turn themselves into niche markets in the context of urban renewal, under which diversity is prized as long as the overriding social principle remains that of market exchange. Indeed, diversity, creativity and innovation are core concepts of gentrification processes underway in European cities. These exclusionary processes presuppose an individualised recipient of rights, rather than active collectives that affirm their right to self-determine everyday life in the city.

To address the growing commercialisation and co-optation of Gay Pride Marches (see also Ashley Wong 2018; No justice no pride 2018), Radical Pride,8 an “alternative” gay pride event that safeguards its autonomy from public institutions and corporate sponsors, takes place yearly in Thessaloniki since 2017. Radical Pride offers a rich framework to understand how gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or ability intersect in the production of oppression and exclusion. It thus seeks to affirm collective action and connect the struggle of the LGBTQ movement with other urban struggles.


The Subject of Social Mobilization

Social change is not just about the transformation of political and economic structures. Most importantly, it is about the transformation of subjects, of humans as social agents. The smooth operation of capitalism presupposes a specific anthropological type—mockingly dubbed homo economicus by critics—and thus the dominant structures of education, family, the mass media, public discourse etc. are geared towards the creation of this mindset. Accordingly, social struggles aim to create subjects of change, an anthropological type that questions dominant values to become the social agents of a future liberated society.

Struggles are constituted precisely as formative experiences that can bring about such subjectifications. The liberated subject is not only a prerequisite of contestation, but also a product of it, in a dialectic movement. Often, sectarian leftists and anarchists disregard the transformative potential of struggle per se, and thus tend to dismiss diverse and multitudinous mobilisations, such as the squares movement, as “interclass”, “reformist”, etc. Of course, we cannot deny that the occupied squares have been as much spaces of divergence as they have been of convergence (Simiti 2015). In any case, social mobilisation should not be viewed as a closed club reserved only for the initiated, but rather as a contradictory breeding ground for militant subjectivities.

Indeed, in the liminal period of destabilisation in Greece previous individualistic identities based on consumption, economic rationality, and social mobility were dissolved at a grand scale, giving rise to precarious and transitory collective identities geared towards social change.

A certain degree of abstraction is inevitable when trying to imagine this new subject that will spring from a process of destabilisation to wage the struggle for social justice. Different conceptions of the collective subject have been proposed as part of different liberatory projects: the working class as the unitary subject of Marxian class struggle; the proletariat as a nonidentity, as a class against itself (Holloway 2009; Nasioka 2018); the multitude as a diverse, contradictory, fragmented class of everyone who contributes to the material, affective and cultural reproduction of society under the rule of capital (Hardt and Negri 2004); the citizen as an inclusive territorial identity of those who jointly manage their common affairs in a face-to-face democracy (Bookchin 1999, 2002); and the people as a common identity constructed out of a plurality of demands in the context of a hegemonic project to capture the State (Laclau 2005).

Even if they are nothing more than strategic abstractions in the context of specific schemes of social transformation, all of the above conceptualisations of the collective subject have had their day in the tumultuous years of crisis in Greece. Each of the above abstractions presents specific challenges and problems. Analysing the ramifications of each conception is beyond the scope of the present text; what is of interest is that each presents a different relation of the subject with the political sphere, and thus a different avenue of socio-political transformation. Some envision the abolition of the distinction between the political and the social sphere, either through the implosion of the political or through its expansion to include all areas of life. Others wish to maintain the distinction but offer a fuller definition of the political by bringing disempowered identities to the forefront.

Similarly, the urban commons and the right to the city as two discourses that try to shape urban struggles lead to contrasting conceptions of the political. While both are prone to be appropriated by capitalist forces, the former stresses the formation of a political community, while the latter emphasises certain commitments of the authorities. Hence, while the former favours autonomous political organisation, the latter tends to call for top-down and state-centric solutions to social ills.

The above conclusion does not imply that social movements should cease demanding the enforcement of negotiated rights and the expansion of legally recognised rights. After all, “rights” is the way by which social conquests of the past—for inclusion, against exploitation, domination, racism or sexism—have been consecrated in the legal system and given juridical substance and continuity in the context of the State. Rights are thus a progressive force that is here to stay, and the demand for legal reforms that safeguard the commons is an indispensable aspect of urban struggles.9

Rather, in this text I have tried to point out that when a technical juridical conception of rights becomes the centrepiece and horizon of progressive politics, the discourse of rights tends to ratify existing systems of domination by subordinating lived, contentious politics to impersonal juridical constructs, thus legitimising state power rather than curbing it. Despite their weaknesses and ambiguities, commoning practices serve to empower subjects and revitalise democratic practice beyond the confines of liberal parliamentary democracy.



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1. Notably Bookchin 1999; Lefebvre 1996; Harvey 2012.
2. See, e.g., De Angelis 2017; Hardt and Negri 2009.
3. See, e.g., Stavridis 2013.
4. As per Holloway 2002.
5. Notably, TEM in Volos, Syntagma Time Bank in Athens, Koino in Thessaloniki, Faircoin internationally, and a dozen more.
6. A noteworthy case is Bios Coop in Thessaloniki (, which unites some 500 families in “taking food in their own hands”.
7. In particular, Initiative 136 ( promoted a citizenfunded bid in the public tender, with the aim of managing Thessaloniki’s water company through a socially controlled non-profit cooperative that would integrate all water and sanitation users through 16 local chapters. The bid was controversially rejected by the tender authorities, but mobilisation proved sufficient to freeze the tender process altogether.
9. In this respect the work of Italian legal scholar Ugo Mattei is invaluable (e.g. Capra and Mattei 2015, Ch. 9; Mattei 2015).

This text is an excerpt from the book “Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities”, containing the proceedings from our 2017 conference in Thessaloniki. Read more about the book here.


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