September 24, 2010

Three ways of exclusion, three ways of autonomy

Michel Bauwens
We just recently discovered the work of the Croation Pulska Grupa, organizers of the post-capitalist city conference in 2009. Their take on the local situation widely transcends these limitations, as in the following text, which counterposes urban alienation and self-building autonomy. “Such political decisions created a precarious situation in which the population of the coastal region is now facing enormous increases in real-estate prices, a lack of affordable housing, and job deficits outside the tourist season. Moreover, the people on the coast are also under permanent threat of losing their property if the urbanist plan–on which they have no influence–happens to include their land in a future golf terrain. Such insecurity is the direct result of a state repression that is based on three forms of exclusion:

Three Forms of Exclusion

1) Citizens are excluded from the political sphere because the possibility for their participation in the decision-making process is obstructed. They cannot influence political decisions made by the centralized state, while the public debate on the local level remains secondary to the Government decrees. Elections are equally inefficient because the elected representatives do not represent the citizens who gave them the mandate, but the nontransparent interests of various companies. All existing political parties work against their voters and implement similar capital-driven policies. The latest example of such a political trend is the support that the Golf Terrains Law got from the Croatian Peasant Party despite the fact that the Law represents a direct threat to the peasantry, the party’s traditional voters. Such uniformity of political purpose erases differences among the political parties who can reach consensus on all crucial issues. In this form of parliamentary democracy, apparently no political decision has an alternative. For example, all political parties–left, right and regional–immediately reached an absolute consensus around the issue of commercialization of the ex-military areas along the Pula coast.

2) Citizens are excluded from the economic sphere: the decisions about investments on the coast are made by the central government through the master plans, and not at the local level (see above). Economic pressure on the political sphere is most obvious in those master plans that entice investments in the real-estate market. The master plan of Pula illustrates the contradictions brought about by such economic development. In the narrative part of the plan, the statistical data show that the small industry sector is the most dynamic segment of the city’s economy. However, the graphical part of the plan does not offer any locations for small industry. To the contrary, it allows for an increase in the number of beds in the tourist zones and the number of moorings in nautical marinas. Tourism and real estate became the main pillars of economy not through its independent development, but through political decrees. The citizens who don’t have the means or are not interested in speculation must choose low-wage jobs in construction or temporary work during the tourist season. However, even the local speculators are excluded from the plans for the ex-military areas in Pula. The government decided to give a 66-year lease for 180 hectares (445 acres) of such land to only one private corporation. If this idea becomes reality, only one company will manage an area that is the size of a quarter of the town!

3) Citizens are excluded from the coastal zones. The prices of real estate on the seaside correspond to the prices on the global market, since the coastal areas are treated as “attractive locations.” For the people who live on the coast, however, the place they live in is not “attractive,” but simply their living environment. Real-estate prices that aim at global buyers exclude the impoverished local population and force it to relocate inland. Another method of exclusion is physical–erecting wire fences. The newly built “resorts” around towns enclose large tracts of land by the sea and charge for access to what used to be common land. The Muzil peninsula in Pula offers a dramatic example of this trend: after the military left Muzil, the state, cooperating with regional and local authorities, put two dozens of armed soldiers in charge of protecting the area from the citizens of Pula, until the peninsula is taken over by the corporation that plans to build golf terrains there.

What We Need is Autonomy, Not Just Inclusion

Because of these three forms of exclusion, the Initiative for Muzil was formed with the goal of ending the repression described above. However, it is too late for integration of this Initiative in the institutional structures of the state. The state hegemony has already proved capable of absorbing similar movements without radically reconsidering and reforming the modalities of its functioning. The Muzil Initiative demands that the conditions of exclusion be transformed into conditions for autonomy, i.e. that three forms of exclusion become three forms of autonomy–political, economic and spatial. The Initiative starts with the assumption that autonomy is a necessary condition for production, but it is a condition that won’t be given to us–it must be created.

1) The Initiative is an informal group of individuals that are engaged directly, independently from various associations and institutions they might belong to. The purpose of this form of collective action is political autonomy, i.e. political action removed from political parties, government and the state funded model of non-governmental organizations.A description of the Initiative as a form of pressure on the decision-making process of the executive branches of government is thus insufficient. The Initiative creates its own politics, develops it parallel with the ruling one, and makes decisions without contacting executive powers. The opening of the Muzil peninsula was not a decision proposed or accepted by the executive power; it was a decision made by an initiative with no instrumental power. But, it will be impossible to avoid putting this decision into practice. By creating political autonomy, politics is removed from the parliament, currently an instance with an absolute monopoly on politics. Through the form of autonomy, politics appears in the town, in the street, among the people. Thus, a direct democracy is founded, that will allow the citizens to make decisions without the mediation of delegates. A micro-politics is hence created, a politics of concrete local problems.

2) In its work, the Initiative produces value independently from the market. In the current economic relations, this value cannot be recognized. The Initiative practices an autonomous economy. The production of knowledge, communication, social relations, but also newspapers, video and audio material, music events, public discussions and urban studies does not possess value that could be described in the terms offered by the hegemonic economy. All these products are free and available to all. A network of different individuals, with different kinds of knowledge and means of production, creates value based solely on the investment of one’s free time. The basis for the creation of an autonomous economy is trust, solidarity, and the desire for the establishment of a common goal–autonomous politics.

3) In order to practice this sort of economy, however, space is required–that is the third level of autonomy. An autonomous space is one that eludes the dominant logic of property as well as the dominant logic of defining the purpose of space. If the real estate market presents the dominant form of economy, and if property is the fundamental ideal of the capitalist state, then the right toautonomous space represents the most radical kind of resistance to such economy and such state.