Militant research and the urban commons

What follows are the notes of a talk we gave as part of the Critical Ecologies panel at the American Conference for Irish Studies which took place in UCD recently. Thanks to Anne Mulhall for organising the panel and inviting us and to Sharae Deckard and Vukasin from the Asylum Archive project who were part of the panel.  

Militant research and the urban commons

Militant research can be situated in a history social movements and their suspicion towards both the power claims of ‘scientific knowledges’ and forms of revolutionary ‘truth’ which have equally authoritarian dangers.

Today the politics of producing knowledge and analyses is particularly important. This is because, as movements across Europe and the world have recognized, things have changed very dramatically. The disintegration of the workers movement, the crisis of the forms of organization associated with that movement (the party and the trade union), the transformation of work towards a post-fordist paradigm associated with the hegemony of immaterial production, globalization and financialization and so on.

As a result inherited practices and, especially, ways of understanding the world are no longer fit for purpose. The question of producing knowledge in radically new context is trickier than might first appear. The challenge lies in putting in place forms for producing knowledge which are genuinely open to novelty, i.e. which don’t in some way or another take as their point of departure certain inherited assumptions and concepts.

I’d just like to give a quick example here from Dublin. In Dublin we had an Occupy movement, called Occupy Dame Street and located outside the Irish Central Bank. It had the features which typified the occupy movement. As was the case elsewhere, many participants argued that they were neither left wing nor right wing – and in some cases that they were not political at all

For many activists who got involved, this was terrible. They insisted that the movement was left wing and that it had to be left wing. What was interesting was the congenital activist inability to be open towards novelty, to be open to the possibility that there might be ways of thinking, feeling and acting collectively which are not contained within the dichotomy left and right.

This is why the kind of sensibility associated with militant research is really interesting. As Marta Malo says, some the questions militant research asks include:

1) how to produce knowledge that emerges directly from the concrete analyses of the territories of life and co-operation?

2) how to make this knowledge work for social transformation?

3) how to empower those knowledges and articulate them with practices?

Militant Research, it is important to add, is first and foremost a militant practice rather than a research practice. Most of the people doing militant research are not academics. Furthermore, it is not a methodology with different steps for research design and so on. It is a political orientation towards questions of knowledge production within social movements and social antagonisms.


Independent Spaces

At the provisional university we became very interested in what we call independent spaces in Dublin.

These are usually buildings which are rented out by a bunch of people and turned into something social and publicly accessible, such as a cultural space or social centre. They hold lots of events like film screenings, gigs, parties, discussions and educational events and so on and they are not commercially oriented so they are very cheap or free. Moreover, they are run collectively by people and there is usually a lot of scope for people to get involved in running the spaces – so they have this strongly participative dimension.

We were involved in this scene as well. We were both unemployed at the time. We used the spaces to work from because being unemployed post-grads is really depressing and lonely, and we thought we’d rather work together on research and applications. We also used the spaces to socialize and participate in community because they are affordable.

But we also thought these spaces had some interesting components in political terms. This relates to a number of things, but mainly to the role of urban space in contemporary capitalist political economy.

Real estate and the financial sector are deeply linked, and both were central to the model of economic growth, aka capital accumulation, during the boom. As a result, the production of urban space was over-determined by the commercial interests of these sectors. This saw what many have called the soulless expansion of Dublin, an intense commercialisation of space. This meant high prices and rents making access to space very difficult for all but the most commercially oriented ventures. It also meant a new urban regulatory regime with forms of behaviour deemed to jar with “brand Dublin” increasingly ostracized, especially independent urban cultures, working class youth and other marginalized sectors. So basically you had an expensive and heavily regulated city.

The spaces themselves had been set up, if not in resistance to, at least in response these dynamics. Indeed many of these factors are explicitly cited by participants in independent spaces as motivations for their involvement. Moreover, independent spaces are developing alternative forms of accessing, producing and valuing urban space and in a sense then intervening in a set of relations which are at the heart of the contemporary capitalism.


Politically ambiguous

On the other hand, the spaces are not explicitly political in any conventional sense. They don’t articulate any critique of neoliberal urbanism, they don’t have any political objectives and they don’t express their activity in ideological terms. Indeed, many of the participants we spoke to emphasized that they are not political and generally described themselves as a pragmatic responses to material needs.

At the same time, the spaces were facing, and continue to face, difficulties. First of all they were frequently being closed – typically by Dublin city Council or the police because of non-compliance with health and safety or planning legislation. Often they were closed by landlords. And in all cases the rent burden reduced their potential and absorbed a lot of time and energy. Most of the time participants are focused on their own space and do not cooperate with each other in terms of responding to these obstacles. It was clear that these problems called for a collective response from the spaces that would involve challenging public institutions and the logic of the real estate sector.


Our research

This is where we became interested in militant research. We were interested in developing a shared language and understanding within and among the spaces that would emphasise the alternative political potential at stake without reducing their activity to pre-existing ideological frameworks with which they did not identify. We felt that developing a set of what we call ‘common notions’ could facilitate the emergence of a more collective cooperation between spaces and to articulate to the outside world, so to speak, the value of their contribution to the city.

So we began the research project with these objectives. The process had a number of steps

The first step was to speak to participants. A certain amount of this happened informally because we hang out in spaces and would chat to people. We made an effort to visit many spaces for events and so on. We also conducted interviews with about ten of the spaces. This was a good way in particular to contact with spaces we didn’t have strong contacts with. By asking people to participate in interviews it was also a good pre-text to explaining to people the project and generating interest in it. The act of spending a couple hours talking to participants and situating what they are doing as part of this wider phenomenon helped to generate awareness that individual spaces are part of something bigger.

Second of all, when there was a development of relevance in any of the spaces we would try to participate and be part of it. So when spaces were closed we would always try to be there and be part of the conversations around that.

Through this process we were able to identify and systematize the understanding of the spaces among participants and the forms of practice they found important and also understand how they viewed relevant agents such as Dublin City Council. Were also able to identify the key obstacles and challenges independent spaces face.

Another big outcome was that we developed a really good network. These kinds of relationships of trust are of course fundamental to any form of political intervention and research is a really good way to generate them.

The second step was to organise a series of meetings or encounters which brought together participants in spaces and the public to address some of the issues which came during the research. The first one focused on spaces being closed down due to non-compliance with the regulations and we got about five or six spaces that had been closed to speak about that experience and then had a collective discussion about how spaces could respond.

The second one of these events looked at questions of challenging behaviour, because of one of the space had been closed due to alleged anti-social behaviour and a few of the spaces had issues around it.

These meetings were very well attended and we wrote up the content of the discussions on our blog. This was all part of the process of building common notions, shared analyses and discourses among the spaces and bringing those analyses and discourses into a more public space. In this sense, the research process was a process of collaboratively producing networks of relationships which grew up and around the process of knowledge production and via the generation of common notions.

The last point I want to make about the process relates to one of the spaces, Exchange Dublin, which was closed by its landlord Dublin City Council in February of this year. In terms of our research project, what was interesting for us was that as soon as the prospect of closure was raised some one from exchange contacted us because at that stage they knew us pretty well and what we were up to. This meant that we were able to attend all the meetings about what to do about the closure and so on. We were also much better placed to participate politically in this process because we were coming at it, so to speak, from inside independent spaces and using the shared languages which we had built up with people over the preceding year. From there we were able to work with the Exchange collective to challenge the closure, for example writing an opinion piece for a newspaper, organizing a letter of support which was signed by over a hundred leading academics and artists and which appeared in one of the newspapers, and taking part in the negotiations with Dublin City Council and other stakeholders.

It would have been completely impossible to be part of this process if we came from a more traditional activist perspective, if we came in thinking for example that these spaces were kind of ‘latently anti-capitalist’ and our job was to raise their ‘consciousness’ so they could see that neoliberalism was their true enemy of whatever, this would have never worked.

To sum up, after all this time – it’s been over a year and a half now – if you were to ask me what the politics of independent spaces are I wouldn’t be able to answer. Nor could I be sure where the whole process is going or what exactly is the critical purchase of the knowledge and discourse we are producing. But that is the whole point of militant research, we don’t know – and we are open to and embrace our not knowing. We think this is a useful to produce what the Abahlali baseMondjolo movement called ‘living learning’ and ‘living politics’

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