European Commons Assembly/Gaelle Comments and remarks about the ECA and the meeting in Madrid
In line with the goals discussed in Villarceaux in 2016, the experience of Brussels and the discussions after that, and according to my understanding, our objectives for Madrid were to bring commoners from ECA in Madrid so that they could:
- Work together and exchange about their empirical practices and practical implementations as commoners in specific fields of the urban commons.
- Design together proposals for municipalities (the municipal level of politics) based on their concrete actions and experiences. A sort of equivalent (but in different forms) of the proposals prepared for the European Parliament in Nov 2016 but this time for municipal level, and so much easier for people to produce, to discuss with cities and to promote, as city/local scale typically corresponds better to commoners' actions.
- Exchange about these proposals and about what is happening in Madrid with local civil society (in particular during workshops) and with representatives of the municipality of Madrid in the format of an assembly (horizontal, participatory, etc.): to learn from Madrid/Spanish experiences, to bring to people from Madrid information and proposals developed through other experiences and attempts.
We whole purpose was deep precise discussions and not superficial exchanges. These outcomes were, in my understanding, the specificity and clear "added value" of the ECA with regards to the many other actions that take place around the commons across Europe.
We totally missed this opportunity in Madrid. To me, this is all the more depressing that Madrid was offering us a real chance to come up with concrete advances (not just PR), much more than the European Parliament, where getting things done practically, beside resolutions, is pretty hard.
At first, on paper, it seemed totally possible, even desirable, to work with Medialab and meet our objectives, in a normal balanced collaboration. In the end, it felt to me as a total grabbing of the event by Medialab: we brought people from ECA, they imposed a methodology with absolutely no consideration for what we were trying to achieve. It is still beyond my understanding why it had to be like that.
The methodology using the matrix and mapping to discuss strategies and objectives of movements may be an interesting tool to use in various cases, but implementing it was not the goal of ECA in coming to Madrid, and it did not bring much to a lot of ECA members. It can help people and groups to figure the sort of actions they want to develop together, it can help understand the basis for the development of collective action, it is particularly useful with people who do not have already ideas about what they are interested in doing. In the case of ECA, we had already identified a lot of objectives for our commons action. We did not come to Madrid to start from scratch again, but to move forward with our objectives.
I have to say that for somebody like me, who is often in a position to talk about Spanish social movements and political experiences and expose the positive renewal they bring to politics, this encounter was extremely disappointing.
Things went wrong due to many things, including miscommunication and because most of us are always too busy, but maybe also because we did take the full extent of the fact that collaborative and horizontal work cannot take place spontaneously, it needs to be properly designed and organized.
On the opposite, we went on with working practices that seemed increasingly incoherent, ineffective, and if you think about it disrespectful of the fact that people contributed on a voluntary basis their time to ECA.
Without doing an exhaustive list, lets mention a few: very disorganized conference calls of more than 2 hours that did not conclude in real decisions, calls without proper moderation or agenda, or on the contrary long conference calls where you learn that the decision is being taken already, elsewhere, etc. This can seem like details but it clearly generates a lot of frustrations, erodes the interest of even the most committed people and has a strong centrifugal power effect moving off people. Because we were all so busy, because we were not numerous enough and certainly because we did not agree on some things, the communication pattern became of people not saying anything and avoiding collective exchanges, and talking to Nicoles bilaterally – quite the opposite of what ECA is supposed to be in my understanding. That can not give good results.
At Villarceaux in September it proved very difficult to work on the task set, which was to try to fix the problems to ensure sustainability of the ECA: try to organize the forms of the work and the communication, the way ECA functions, the way decisions should be taken, different aspects of the governance, etc. It was difficult because it requires serious work to design a form of organizing for something like the ECA (if we don't want just an organization with a hierarchical structure). But also because we were a group of people with very diverse experiences of ECA and unequal knowledge about it and how it has functioned until now. Again as we were in a hurry and had only 3 days, we did not take the time to expose in detail all that as happened and what was the state of play. That was probably a mistake. But I am also convinced that we need more than 3 days of work to come up with something satisfactory for all.
In order to fix our organizational and functioning problems I support very much the proposal of hiring a person to: 1. Compile existing models and experiences of organizing and governance in initiatives that are interesting for us and look also at the experiences of recent and new political movements and initiatives that are developing (in Spain but also elsewhere, DIEM 25, maybe the Kurdish experiments, etc.). 2. Compile everything that we have written so far about the ECA (the extensive notes about several of the meetings, the call, the principles we developed, the discussion in loomio, everything we reported from the last Villarceaux meeting, etc) and if needed interview some people among ECA to really grasp the various tendencies. 3. Design a proposal that will then be discussed by a new group of 10-12 members from the ECA, in Villarceaux or elsewhere. This group could finalize during that second meeting a proper proposal for all the members, that could then be shared on loomio/by email or other means, discussed, adopted (or not). I imagine that the group of 10-12 would also have to propose a proper mechanism for discussion and adoption. That seems to me to be a reasonable and practical plan that could help us be functional in a limited amount of time (of course the model of governance does not have to be set in stone and can later one evolve). Doing that should be the priority I believe and a good way to have a collective input in designing the governance without spending too much time. I started to work on commons in 2004. My reason to be involved in ECA is political: I strongly believe helping developing a social movement of commoners across Europe is important (a movement, not a new organization, a federation of organizations, etc.). It is one of the few useful things I can think of to help push for real changes and social transformation in the time being in the current political context in Europe. This is why I got involved on the project of the ECA in 2016 and this was my motivation to spend time on it. I kept silent during the meeting in Madrid because I did not want to make a fuss, and I wanted to see what people would think, say and propose. But I will not continue to be invested in the ECA if it does not change, in terms of the way it functions, or, of course, if it becomes something I am not interested with – a form of intervention I do not believe in and that I do not find different enough from initiatives that are already existing.
I think one of the issues we have is that there are different trends inside the ECA: the divergences about whether the ECA should be considered a commons or not is an illustration of that. I am not convinced that they can cohabite or be articulated together. But I may be wrong.
For me considering the ECA as a common is not a matter of principle but a political necessity. It does not make sense and cannot be efficient to "preach" for the commons as a way to transform society and not want to consider commoning as the way we organize ourselves to do it. Contrary to what some people said in Madrid, I do not believe that the ECA should not be considered as a resource, or it cannot be a common because it is hard to see the frontiers of the community. To me the most important thing about commons is the action of commoning, not the resource per se. It is a political form of organization of people to generate and manage things collectively in a fair, equal and sustainable way. And this is a very crucial thing to discuss right now as European democracies more and more show their weaknesses and as neoliberalism gets more and more authoritarian. So, trying to justify that ECA should not be organized as a commons does not make sense to me.
Also, I do not believe in magic bullets or short cuts to bring profound changes in society. Especially if you are aiming at fairness and equality. To put it bluntly, I do not think we will transform our society by pushing a narrative through massive tweeting and lobbying on the elite. I am not saying having an alternative narrative is not necessary. I believe it is and we are building one. I believe propaganda plays a role, some advocacy is needed, etc. But we will not subvert neoliberal capitalism by through massive tweeting and a few videos on the market. We will not bring the "light to the masses" and subvert the logic of the market by putting on the Internet fancy commodities painted with the colors of the commons. And the elite will not change the course of things because we show them how much more sense it makes – among other reasons because for them it does not and what we propose is going against their current interests.
I think our disagreements also have something to do with the way we define what is efficacy (and how to asses it). I will not develop this now, but I think it is worth discussing it.
In order to promote profound changes, I am convinced that we need to develop, spread, reinforce the action of commoning. Help more people do it, do it better, share and improve the practices. It is about a cultural change, and culture is not just about the cultural products circulating around, it is about what people do and how they do it.
I remember a discussion with someone from Transeuropa at Fearless cities in June 2017 where we had a hard time to understand each other. Since Transeuropa is promoting the commons and participants to the festival are very sympathetic to the idea and mobilized politically, it seemed difficult to see the difference between the participants to the festival and the members of the ECA, and in a way between the objectives of the ECA and the objectives of the festival. Indeed, in the end we all want to promote the commons. But in fact there are differences – it is not bad or problematic, on the contrary, it should be useful. It is two different things to organize your life, work and political action around the commons and to be a sympathizer to the cause. We certainly want more of all of them, and clearly the goals set for the ECA were designed to allow the first one to work together, rather than discuss the issue with the second ones – which is not a problem because there are other initiatives, workshops, festivals, etc. that are run for them as well, were they can exchange and learn about the commons.
As we experienced with the ECA (or as some of the social movements have experienced in Spain) the bigger the community the harder it is to maintain the collectiveness and horizontality. The fact that this is challenging should not stop us, because if we really want to make a difference we will have to overcome much more. Without surprise it can only be hard to develop forms of collectiveness that can impose an alternative to the current neoliberal capitalistic way of managing individuals and societies and that can resist the temptations for individuals or groups to take the power. So I believe we should not be afraid of discussing and identifying disagreements. Taking into account the complexity is the only way to make progress and learn from our mistakes. We should also not force things beyond what is reasonable: if we find out that we have two trends that reflect serious differences in political understanding and strategies, we should just have two initiatives. It will be more useful and a better use of our time than to try at all cost to make everything fit the same shape.