The new enclosures: Privatizing the commons

Salon tackles the myth that US cities are safe havens for sanity, progressive politics, and public-centered policy. In fact, for the past few decades, they’ve been at the forefront of privatizing goods and services that used to be seen as properly belonging in public hands. Take Chicago:

Lovely Rita is rich: the lowdown on priviatized parking

In recent years, the Windy City has become “the most aggressive city in the United States in the privatization of public infrastructure,” according to the Public Interest Research Group. Citing the city’s budget crisis, officials have sold off highways and parking meters at cut-rate prices — all to pad the profits of corporate investors (the schemes are now being explored by  other  Democratic cities including Pittsburgh and Los Angeles). Despite this, during its once-in-a-generation contested mayoral election in 2010, the city’s voters chose investment banker Rahm Emanuel over other far more economically progressive candidates, and Emanuel quickly filled his administration with corporate consultants eager to accelerate the privatization already under way.

In the UK, a writer laments that “the privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest“:

One of the most common responses to Occupy London is to question why exactly they are camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. … Shouldn’t they be somewhere else?

The answer of course is that they should; they wanted to; and would be if they could. The original plan was to occupy, not St Paul’s, but the London Stock Exchange based next door in Paternoster Square. … [But] Paternoster Square, despite appearances, is not a public square. It is a private development that is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company …  When the protesters came along Mitsubishi Estate Company, as is their right, decided to close the square indefinitely …

Occupy London then found themselves with nowhere to Occupy. Since St Paul’s Churchyard is one of the biggest truly public spaces left in the City, it’s as good a place as any to set up camp.

Their options are just as curtailed further afield, as well. Canary Wharf, which is almost as big a centre for finance as the City is, has a lovely big park in the centre of it. Unfortunately, that park, as with 99 per cent of the land in Canary Wharf, is owned by the Canary Wharf Group. …

Boris Johnson – and Ken Livingstone before him – has been instrumental in making London the home of international finance. Want to camp outside City Hall? Unfortunately, More London Estates is unlikely to allow that. …

All of these areas were once public land and therefore the public were free (within reason) to protest on them. A private company on private land can deny any person access at any time for almost any reason. That is fine if that private land is, for example, a shop or an office block. But when it is a street, square or park, and when it is indistinguishable from the private land around it, it creates problems.

don't dream of doing it: sign at Zuccotti Park

(In New York, Zuccotti Park of course remains privately owned as well.) Ironically, as the writer points out, plenty of capitalist developers call their shopping malls things like “town hall” or “village green” — exploiting a widespread if buried nostalgia for the commons and the capacity to enjoy public space together, but mocking the lost reality.

Someone writes in the comments, “It’s the Enclosure Acts all over again.” He means the welter of laws passed in Britain since the time of the Tudors, but most steadily in the 18th and 19th centuries, that fenced off land where communities had once had collective rights of access, excised the people’s liberties to graze or farm or hunt on them, and turned the whole country into a regularized grid of private property. The result — some historians would say the goal — was to tear people forcibly from the land and make a mobile, malleable working class.

Cage built for protesters at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Boston

What’s the aim of the present privatizations? Not mobility, surely. Rather, they aim to eliminate unpredictable solidarities by starving them of space, defend the centers of capital against the unworking and unwanted, and create a cowed and penned citizenry with no room to speak or to assemble. It’s the enclosure of the common voice.