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The fuzzy logic of urban commons

Interview with Dr Bhuvaneswari Raman, a researcher who has studied common spaces such as markets in places like Bangalore. She has recently completed her doctorate from the London School of Economics

Urban commons

A generic definition of commons and community is difficult to formulate because the shared interests and values that underpin the production of commons themselves are in flux, often generating fluid and flexible groupings of people and different interpretations of histories and, therefore, claims. This brings up questions like, on whose behalf commons are mobilised, and by whom. 

I view the commons as a contested space or a field where local populations compete among themselves and with actors outside their territorial boundary over the use, control and protection of valuable resources such as land, water and other types of physical infrastructure. As Laurens Bakker, Gerben Nooteboom and Rosanne Rutten (2010) succinctly argue in their article ‘Localities of Value: Ambiguous Access to Land and Water in Southeast Asia’, the various resources that are grouped under the rubric of the commons can be viewed as ‘localities of value’, control over which is shaped through a process of ‘fuzzy logic’.

Contests over resources are intensifying both in urban and rural areas. In my view, the strength of conceptualising the commons is as a field, which in Pierre Bourdieu’s words, is a “social arena in which people manoeuvre and struggle in pursuit of desirable resources”. In contrast, the concept of the commons as a resource, and generating different categories of commons, is limited because it obscures the political dynamics surrounding the commons. 

Limitations in the concept of the urban commons in popular discourse

There are two problems with the dominant conception of the commons. There is the tendency to romanticise the commons, particularly among civil society actors. At one end of the spectrum is the tendency to ‘museumise’ the commons, viewing them as pristine terrains, with efforts to conserve them. A classic example is the view of lakes as a space located outside human influence/interaction. At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that enshrining particular groups’ rights to the commons in law will automatically strengthen their claims, often drawing on history and culture. But there is no single history, rather many histories. And law is a social construct and its violence is reflected, in the words of Nicholas Blomley (Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University), through (limited) processes and mechanisms such as the “survey, grid, and plan”. These attempts may prove counterproductive. 

Both problems can be traced to the conceptual prism through which the commons is constructed, which brings us back to the problematic assumptions of ‘community’, ‘neutrality of law’ and ‘pristine history and culture’. 

Political dynamics of the commons

Missing from many debates on the commons, particularly the one that took place at National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore recently, is the political dynamics of the commons, or viewing the political dynamics as an outcome of structural forces. While civil society groups assume a utopian community with a fixed boundary and harmonious interests striving to control the commons and protect it, the Marxist, for whom the commons reflects a space of dispossession and marginality, attributes it to the role of capitalism. I think there is a problem with both these concepts.    

Production of the commons is shaped by a political process whose trajectory is indeterministic and fluid. The forms in which this competition manifest reflect an ambiguity over the control of resources, where groups with diverse interests compete, form flexible alliances, negotiate, as well as protest to establish their claims over the resources. But its trajectory is shaped by the forces at play at a particular place and time. We come across numerous instances of struggle over street spaces, water, and land in cities. Perhaps we too are part of some of these struggles.  

Actors involved in producing and maintaining the commons

 There is a tendency to categorise actors who participate in the struggle on the basis of their social or institutional location -- for example state and non-state, civil society or political activists. To me this too is a problem, as individuals who form part of a group are embedded in multiple locations and draw flexibly from different identities in the contest to claim resources. Therefore, rather than drawing rigid boundaries for actors based on any one of their locations it is useful to focus on the production of the commons as a process, and explore ways in which they mobilise identity -- social or institutional -- and forge alliances across different spaces to realise their interests.

Challenges facing urban commons

Competing groups mobilise different institutions and conventions to establish their control over resources. In contemporary times, one of the ways in which this competition plays out is in terms of restructuring power relations by enacting changes in law, institutional structure (state) and the role of agents inside and outside the state domain. In short, the political space to manoeuvre claims is shrinking for some groups that often already have relatively little social or economic power. One way forward is to revitalise political institutions, particularly the state, at the lower levels.  

Role of government and civil society in the upkeep of the commons

Government and civil society should strive to realign the levers of the political realm. The tendency to assume bureaucratic politics and civil society above that of electoral or other non-party politics has led to the undermining of political institutions particularly at the local level. I feel it is important to realign the levers of the political realm. -- As told to Rohan D’Souza

Infochange News & Features, March 2011