Occupying the Commons

Interview & Director

Saki is an IUC Faculty Member and Lecturer in Human Rights & International & Foreign Legal Research.  She is also the Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy & Law and a Research Fellow. She received her Juris Doctor from UC Hastings with an emphasis in International & Comparative Law.   In her last year at Hastings she studied Comparative Latin American legal systems and International Trade Policy at the Universidad Católica de la Santissima Concepción, Chile.  Her current areas of research are in International Human Rights & Comparative Law.  She is currently conducting a Common Core of European Private Law study on “Access to Commons” and is also a general editor of the book together with Ugo Mattei and Filippo Valguarnera.  Between 2004-2006, she assisted a study on Access to Justice on behalf of the Academie Internationale Droit Comparé, Paris and from 2008-2010 she was a Visitor of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton.  Her work experience includes property, immigration and environmental law in the private sector and immigration law and development work in the government and nonprofit sector.

Filming & Production

Tommaso Dotti, International University College of Turin, Class of 2012 LLM.

Occupying the Commons

This is a project supported by the International University College of Turin (IUC)(link), a program dedicated to the study and practice of the Commons.  The aim of the project is to explore the connection between the occupation movements of 2011 & 2012 with the paradigm of the “commons.”

The first part of the series begins with an Occupation in Rome at the Teatro Valle, the oldest theater in Italy and one of the most important theaters in all of Europe: http://www.teatrovalleoccupato.it/.

The second part of the series takes place in NYC at the Occupy Wall Street Movement

The third of the series is yet to be decided.


An Interview with: Interviewer & Director of Occupying the Commons Saki Bailey

“What is the relationship between occupation movements and the commons?”

Occupation is understood as a strategy of the commons to: resist the collusion of state and markets which has produced an unequal distribution of wealth of the 99% v. 1%, the reclaiming of political spaces, and the production of a critical culture.So there is a simultaneous use of the commons both as means, for resisting and reclaiming, and at the same time it is also the “end” in the sense that it is through the process of this reclaiming that it produces a new resource of critical culture and new subjects (opposing the subject of right connected to the state, the subject of interests connected to markets), the subject of direct democracy, community, civic society, which then produces the new organizational form and structure of governance and direct participation that the movement seeks.

As Michael Hardt said in an interview the rootedness of the movements allows for things that previous movements never saw before- a critical culture produced by the constant interaction of the occupants.  For example the interactions citizens through general assemblies, through workshops like the ones going on at 16 Beaver in NYC, and through communication via social media.

The widespread effects of the global financial crisis has become an existential crisis for regular people. The world has not seen in recent years, such a diverse and rootted movement of not only young people but people from all walks of life from ex policemen, to catholic bishops, to children to the 80 year old woman peppered sprayed in Portland. All over the world from what I witnessed here at the Teatro Valle to the Occupy Wallstreet movement, to the Indignados, to the people of Greece is the generation of culture, not of a coherently organized political agenda, political parties, and political demands but the reclaiming of the political space, of politics and the generation of a culture of critique.

“What are Commons?”

The question is what are we creating? What is the bene comune as it is called in Italy? To define the commons we may look to the work of scholars like Elinor Ostrom, like Antonio Negri, or Ugo Mattei. But as Ugo himself said very well during an interview: you don’t define the commons in theory but you define it in practice, at the moment in which you become part of the commons.

So the answer to the question “what are the commons?” lies not in what it is but who it is becoming. We are producing subjects, we are producing a sort of hero of our time to counter the subject at the heart of economic governance: homo economicus.

“What do you mean by the subject at the heart of economic governance?”

We see now that we the people are trapped between the markets and the state that sees its only role in governance is to “manage the economy” and administration of its population of homo economicus. In neoliberalism it was not that the political space was dominated by economics but rather it was consciously eliminated as “unreliable,” “unscientific” & “undesirable”  as it was concluded that politics could only produce ideology and that role of government was not to act as the “sovereign will of the people” but to be an economic administrator. And in this neoliberal view the only purpose of the law was not to translate the will of politics but to regulate in a way that would allow the flourishing of enterprise, individual enterprise and the private sector, the administration of a population of homo economicus and it is the success of that story that we face as a tragedy today.

I remember seeing Sui Jianguo’s sculpture “The Sleep of Reason” featuring a chairman Mao sleeping amongst thousands of plastic dinosaurs all stamped with “Made in China” five or 6 years ago or so in San Francisco. What the artist was undoubtedly trying to convey was the dormancy of communism and the explosion of capitalism but what I kept seeing was myself sleeping there amongst piles of plastic garbage. What I saw was man sleeping in piles of plastic garbage that we couldn’t stop producing, overproduced to the point that we suffocated our oceans with it, and then the fish we eat and finally ourselves. At that point I had worked myself into a panic attack right there in the Asian Art Museum and saw an image of myself splayed over Chairman Mao choking on the dinosaurs with the newspaper heading over the image “Woman on the verge of a nervous break down of capitalism” or “Woman in need of structural adjustment.”

Now the point to return to is the strong subject of homo oeconomicus nurtured or rather directed by neoliberal governance which has wiped out the possibility of other subjectivites. In hind site what I saw in this sleeping man in the piles of plastic garbage who was becoming plastic garbage was not the sleep of communism and the explosion of capitalism, nor tragic fate of man losing the ecological environmental battle by becoming plastic by eating the fish that had consumed plastic, or lost in a sea of plastic bottle, but losing the battle of his own subjectivity, his own identity to the logic of a system that overwhelmed all other possibilities so that all he could do was fall down depressed and sleep.  The artist did call it after all “The Sleep of Reason.”

“So you see the enemy of these occupation movements as neoliberalism?”

I don’t see enemies. I see  evolutions.   Neoliberalism understood very well that man was something other than homo juridicus, the version of a subject, of man constituted by the law, by the power of the great sovereign.  It had a vision of man as constituted by something more than the will of the king, or the state, or the law (which is the notion at the center of the concept of the subject of rights).  It had a vision of people as constituted by labor, by what we do, what we make, how we spend our time. Humans constitute themselves over time, producing not only things but in the process, themselves.

So in producing plastic garbage we don’t become the plastic garbage by the process of consuming the plastic garbage but because we have decided to treat our time, our labor time, our leisure time as plastic garbage, the pursuit and enjoyment of plastic garbage, without ever considering in all this time spent in the satisfaction of non basic needs what kinds of facets of the human experience, of our human subjectivity, are being clogged, suppressed, prevented, limited from ever expressing themselves.

“What kind of subject would emerge?”

I think that the repressed subject is the citizen. What space is left for the role of the citizen that it abused as a consumer by the state and as a unit of enterprise by the state.  This seems like the question of our time.

So in looking forward we must not take steps back. Homo oeconomicus at some point was an emancipatory move away from the state. In talking about and engaging the commons we must understand this as the creation of a new subject, one that will save ourselves from the homo oeconomicus not to defeat him but to free him from his slavery to the state and market.  To free him we must produce the subject of the hero, of the citizen engaged in politics, and for me commons and perhaps more apt the verb “commoning” is that process of producing that hero in each one of us, to overcome the economic subjects we have become and demand for the institutional changes to nurture this new subject.  Massive institutional changes were made throughout the world, throughout Europe to transform the state from the socialist state to the neoliberal one we know toda, to produce the homo oeconomicus we have become.  We need to demand the same efforts to create structural changes to nurture the citizen, not the same structural changes of course but the same efforts, not to nurture the state as socialism did nor the markets as neoliberalism did, but the same efforts to create the structure changes for producing homo politicus.