Academic journal article Theory in Action

Sustainable Community Systems: Commoning and Spatial Production

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Sustainable Community Systems: Commoning and Spatial Production

Article excerpt

Sustainability has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Originally conceived as the interrelation between the three E's, equity, environment, and economics, it has devolved into justifications for certain types of capitalist development. Arguably, it was never that radical of a concept, merely an attempt to reinvent capitalism in the face of ecological crisis, a common phenomenon in the history of capitalism. However, the notion in sustainability that we can create human systems that will work long-term is one that needs to be taken up by radicals of all stripes, and speaks to the more institution-building impulses of certain forms of radicalism. I argue here that the goal of radicals should yes, be protest, agitation, and direct action, but also the very different work of institution building, and I use two small case studies from decidedly not radical organizations that could lead the way toward how to create processes that produce sustainable institutions, or sustainable community systems.

In this article, I develop a framework for analyzing community common space, or commons, as they will be referred to throughout the article. The root of this approach is Marxist materialist dialectics according to Harvey (1996), Lefebvre's (1974) views on space with a touch of Bourdieu's (1977, 1979, 1979) ideas about culture. I will then use the framework to analyze the process of commoning in two distinct, low-income, almost exclusively black neighborhoods in western Birmingham, Alabama. Through this, I show how these organizations produce spaces that create a relationship between political, cultural, educational, physical, and environmental resources and members of the surrounding geographic area. In other words, I analyze the process of community development.

Dialectical thinking is first and foremost about understanding how dynamic processes undergo change and the resulting "things" that are produced. Much social research looks at the way things like institutions appear, such as who makes them up, what is their structure, and what is their ideological stance. Dialectical enquiry, on the contrary, looks at what processes brought such institutions into being, what is the relationship between the institution and broader society, and how does the institution change. The act of enquiry and the results are both dynamic, leading to a view of social reality as constantly shifting terrain upon which social agents are both embedded and effecting. Because the process of enquiry can only be understood as having an effect on social reality, the notion of an objective observer is impossible. Instead, researchers should engage in dialectical enquiry in order to change the conditions of social reality in which they are embedded. David Harvey's 11 propositions for dialectal reasoning are summarized in Table 1.

As opposed to empiricism and positivism, which focus on the relationship between things, dialectical reasoning focuses on the processes that produce and reproduce those things. Marx clearly states this in the post face, in a letter that he wrote about his own work, to the second edition of Capital:

But most important of all is the precise analysis of the series of successions, of the sequences and links within which the different stages of development present themselves. It will be said, against this, that the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. But this is exactly what Marx denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist... On the contrary, in his opinion, every historical period possesses its own laws... As soon as life has passed through a given period of development, it begins to be subject to other laws (Marx, 1992).

Furthermore, things should not be understood as permanent and unchangeable, but constituted out of their relationship between other things and the processes that produce them. This doctrine of internal relations is fundamental to dialectical thinking and basically states that all things, or more accurately, moments or permanences are the product of their relationship to other things, and that these permanences or moments shift and change in response to shifts and changes in other permanences and moments. …

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