What we fight for 2010-2015
The importance of space can be understood through the, somewhat metaphysical, meaning of dwelling. Dwelling and building became two very different verbs even when, as Heidegger explains, they were conceived as one same concept in the Old German language. As if the act of dwelling could not be separated from the act of building. Yet, dwelling has also been closely linked to the being. Ich bin (which in German means I am) was conceived in language as a synonym of I dwell, du bist as a synonym of you dwell. Heidegger’s finding was greater, though. Bauen -to dwell- also meant to take care of something; thus, taking care and protecting were related to building. In the Old German language, the concept of tilling (taking care of) the soil was not so different from the one of constructing or working the land. We can then say that once upon a time there was a human being who took care of the land by inhabiting it. Such link, which can also be traced back to certain cosmogonies of the pre-Hispanic world, does not seem to make sense anymore in our modern world. Nowadays, building is a mere economic activity and dwelling is a form of consumption. Unlike ancient inhabitants who expressed their existence through the way they dwelled, nowadays most of us do not seem to have a say on the design, planning and building of the spaces, both private and public, in which we dwell. Nowadays, building of spaces involves of a series of mediators, which sets the inhabitant or user apart from their right to decide how they want to build their spaces. That is why transforming, building or defending a space based on the drive to dwell –as in being and taking care of- will always be a political cause with philosophical implications.
Space is the new arena for political debate. Within space, disagreement takes shape and ideologies, authoritarianism and democracy come to life. Its importance does not lie on a post-colonial kind of control over land, but on the fact that it creates, or rather recreates, certain links. As a result, rather than referring to a location that we can pinpoint with coordinates or to the concept of location, space, as Henri Lefebvre puts it, is a three-dimensional entity, it is concrete matter –here- and it is an idea – what here means-, but, above all, it is a social practice – what I do here. Thus, when talking about conflicts over a certain space there is much more than a mere fight over a piece of land. Deep down, disagreements are based on the type of link that we want to create with a certain place. In that sense, by defending a certain space we are exercising our right to create realities.
Space is one of the most conclusive political representations. Making a faithful representation of the links that originated it to respond to certain interests should not be a problem, as long as said representation does not belong only to a few. In this way, hegemonic spaces, which do not mean sole or indisputable ones, exercise a ruling power on our daily lives. This can be seen not only in the bureaucratic systems that have to authorize practically every intervention, but also in more volatile concepts, like surplus value or real estate speculation, which turn space into merchandise. Most of the conflicts over space have to do with fighting over a certain right to generate incomes, or simply put, the right to make business, in opposition to the right of well dwelling. This tension has been growing during the last 40 years, especially in those countries or cities where the government bases its policies on accumulation by dispossession, which, in the words of the geographer David Harvey, “has always been a profoundly geographical affair”. Accumulation by dispossession, as the geographer himself explains, is a verifiable practice when it comes to the privatization of public spaces, common resources –such as natural resources- or knowledge, community property, among others. He even labels neoliberalism as a “creative destruction” in the sense that its predominance is based on its ability to destroy, with the support of the government, in order to create new businesses. Deep down, it is the same logic used in war economy, but instead it uses our cities as battlefields. Even when the image of war suggests so, we should not imagine a conflict between two clearly identifiable powers. Fights over space are much wider, and even more unconscious, than the image of two parties facing each other and this is because the favorable decision for one of them will not depend on whether they have the best argument, or on their compliance with the law, but on how coherent their proposal is with the established relationships of production and power. A whole way of being and conceiving the dwelling is being faced. That is why when we fight over a certain space, we fight for the right of imagining it as a possibility, which becomes much more difficult in authoritarian situations.
All this can be verified with specific cases, from the resistance of a small group of farmers against the creation of a gold mine in Rosa Montana, Rumania to a group of youngsters anywhere in the world who defend their football field against the “public interest” of turning it into a parking lot. The number of fights being led everywhere in the world, no matter the form they take, is bringing light to a blind spot of liberal democracy since space is one of the most powerful of political representations and, nevertheless, there are no mechanisms that allow taking collective decisions on them. Henri Lefebvre said “’Change life! Change society!’ These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space.”
On this point, spaces, whether it is the rainforest in Nicaragua, Downtown Tijuana or the sea in Cadiz, Spain, captured by the lens of Alejandro Cartagena are nothing more than common places, stripped off a daily moment in which nothing was going on. WHAT WE FIGHT FOR shows precisely what is usually hidden in the fight for space and what generates an inescapable misunderstanding: space does not say anything about itself; it is us who create it. There are no spaces with one single use, there are no assigned spaces and there is no such thing as a space evolution line. In this sense, the emergence of disagreement should not be an exception, but something hoped for. As Chantal Mouffe argues, disagreement should be seen as a problem that needs to be solved, much less suppressed, but as an expression of life itself within society. That is why unprecedented conflict breaks out, like the opposition to the Via Express in Guadalajara or the demonstrations that cried: We want a stadium, but we want it somewhere else! in Monterrey, reflect more than a democratic moment: a deeply authoritarian society that denies the existence of disagreement until the latter comes to life and is expressed in a certain space.
Maybe the global movement that best captured this approach was Occupy Wall Street. Gaining representation through the electoral and institutional ways had no success and people were desperate because they existed but they were not acknowledged, let alone be seen, so they decided they were going to make others see their indignation by occupying spaces and modifying the relationships that usually took place in the financial area of New York. It is not that the demands taking place at that moment had not been expressed before, but by occupying the streets such demands were made visible in a way in which they could not be ignored any longer. By breaking into one of the most guarded and neatest places in the world, people were also breaking into the monopolistic mantra of everything is fine. All in all, even when it was a fleeting intervention –the occupation finished over the night- after a repression and massive detention that took place in the Brooklyn bridge, the movement managed to provide with consistency and political sense the fight against the oppression and abuse of a minority that could not manage to be seen because of its abstract nature. We have to ask ourselves whether this rupture would have had results if presented through legal, moral or political arguments because in such cases ideas do not land on spaces, they continue to be utopias, i.e. without the topos, without a place or, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos puts it, not yet in a place.
Thus, as reflected in the conflicts over space captured by Cartagena, space deals with the identity matters that we mentioned at the beginning, the link between I dwell and I am, that justify the resistance or the promotion of a determined space. We could then say that space is a means for being and, at the same time, it is a mediator between the being and its reality. Its political relevance is undeniable: I am this person here. As a result, it is hard to imagine that raising awareness about the importance of the democratization of space is possible without going through the identity circuits. I am fine if my space is fine. Oftentimes, this obvious statement is only noticed once there have already been traumatic experiences that reveal to us the importance of space.
Chico Mendes was a leader of the rubber tappers in the Amazonian region of Brazil. His parents migrated from the city to the rainforest looking for a job. He learned the trade of the serengueiros since he was a kid. By making a daily angular incision in the tree’s bark, the tree secretes a milky substance that has been commercialized since the XIX century to manufacture different necessities, such as latex. During the military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985, the State implemented an Agrarian Reform that made it possible for corporations to buy great amounts of rainforest lands for cattle raising or the exploitation of rubber. The new landowners cut trees down and used them up, eliminating the ancient socio-environmental system. Chico Mendes led a movement during the 70’s and the 80’s that did not accept the cutting down of trees or their exfoliation simply because the rainforest was their home and their subsistence depended on the care given to those rubber trees. This absolutely revolutionary approach raised awareness on the right that we have to well dwelling without having to stop being productive. Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988 precisely by the owner of a ranch, brought back an ancient wisdom and integrated it to the new dweller’s identity, i.e. taking care and tilling the environment so that nothing threatens survival.
Nowadays, the challenge is to reintegrate this approach in the context of extreme predation, like in metropolitan areas, where the ideal of building involves market logic and the cityscape is nothing but a monochromatic mass of concrete and steel. How can we conceive and dwell in a space that does not even exist? Boaventura de Sousa Santos brings up the need to see the counter-hegemonic resistance as a growing fight that usually begins with a process that simply destabilizes the everything-is-fine perception, as I like to put it. Turning human suffering into a political debate, making it visible, discussing it, dealing with it as a painful situation that outrages us because it can be changed and that affects our living experience, is a destabilizing image with a huge transforming potential, says Santos.
It is precisely Lefebvre who points out the importance of the dweller’s experience since it is the most sensitive part in the creation of spaces and, paradoxically, the most invisible one to the eyes of the planners and the people in charge of executing the work. We would then have to turn around the order of importance in the process of space creation, putting dwelling in the first place and then building. Of course, it would be desirable to have the support of the State in this endeavor since it would act as a regulator that democratizes the decision-making. Nevertheless, most of the times, and with almost no exception, we, inhabitants, are left alone. This loneliness opens the door to a critical analysis of spaces, which is essential to put an end to, quoting Durkheim, “an illusion which leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed upon us externally.” However, this rupture has to be productive for it to surface. Its fruitfulness is not linked to the excitement it causes but to how deep it is rooted. These productive ruptures as Marc Angenot calls them “are being born, but they always come as chain effects and probably never as something characteristic of a single moment or individual. They arrive untimely, once an ambiguous detour is reinterpreted and then transformed, thus establishing a new space for credibility.” That is what we fight for.