Friday, 27 September 2013

Social Centres and the Struggle for Glasgow’s Commons

Inversely, there is also no doubt that the knowledge of urban reality can relate to the possible (or possibilities) and not only to what is finished or from the past (Lefebvre 2008: 94 [1974]).

I have spent the last four years immersed in the world of social centre activism both in Nijmegen (Netherlands) and Glasgow (Scotland). This is an untidy world of once bounded political subjectivities smashed by emotions that actively struggle against the fragmentation of politics, life and the city; emotions that reveal there potential in the presence of others. The result can be a profound collective experience that, as one participant puts it, places “discourse over dogma” (Sarah 2012). This is a world of plurality, complexity and emergence, where the shattered pieces of those once pure ideas are mixed-up-added-to-and-put-back-together-again with no more than a cautionary glance back at technocrats and market worshipers alike; a world where singular and plural are not mutually exclusive categories; a world that grounds the possible in the here-and-now.

The social centre experience is also one of struggle, disappointment and at best partial success. We inhabit a city of sanitized real spaces and headspaces where movement patterns are all too often predictable, obedient, appropriated (Allen 2006). A city where embryonic tastes are always already there, framed within a plan that limits idiosyncratic engagement. In today’s city, just like yesterday’s city, the knowledges of people on-the-ground are debased or contained or co-opted into a system of ‘pre-determined finalities’ (Lefebvre 1996 [1974]). Lefebvre understands this as part of a strategy. “Finality” he writes “is an object of decision. It is a strategy, more or less justified by an ideology” (ibid: 82). He asks, “Where does this finality come from? Who formulates and stipulates it?” (ibid). Lefebvre is clear in his answer. It is capitalism that produces these finalities, as it must to survive, “by occupying space, by producing space” (Lefebvre 1979). But social centre activists and anarchists before them understand that capitalism cannot act alone. It lacks the authority it requires to impose its extractions upon us. Only the state can provide such an authority. We refer to this dual order as neoliberalism and its processes have become prosaic in our cities so as to appear unexceptional, so as to disappear from our view.

I see social centres as places that unsettle that authority’s “system of sensible evidences” (Ranciere 2000:13) that names, categorizes, assigns a value to all things and distributes roles accordingly. In unsettling the partition and distribution of the sensible we are challenging its order and in doing so we are asserting a position of equality: we are saying we are capable; we are well placed to challenge the consensus that the current order of things is reasonable. “Equality” then “is a tactic” (Social Centre Activist 2012). The tactic is to recognize our privileges and share what they afford us with others. The tactic is to recognize that no one struggle should exceed any other. The tactic is to practice politics is to practice democracy is to be seen and heard in the city. This is the raison en d’ĂȘtre of the social centre experience. For social centre participants only through equality can we save, better manage and protect what we have in common.

Johnnie Crossan
PhD Candidate
School of Geography and Earth Science
University of Glasgow