“We need friction instead of consensus and culture instead of economics”

byMark Minkjan

published on 22/2/2016

Pascal Gielen is professor in sociology of art and cultural politics, and director of the research centre Arts in Society at Groningen University. He has written extensively on politics, culture and the city. We talked to Gielen about "commonism" as a meta-ideological framework. 

You seem to be strongly in favour of governing and shaping our cities in a different way. What is the main problem you see today?

The biggest problem with ‘city management’ or governance is that those in charge still consider a city to be ‘organisable’ through a strategic plan. Next to that, you see that in these plans, cities are still divided into homogeneous areas (shopping, residential, etc.). But even ‘organically’, you see that homogeneous groups or communities distinguish themselves from others (white middle class, Chinese, Muslims, Jews, etc.). Because of this, there are too little spaces where people are spontaneously confronted with the other. As a result, public space deteriorates. Space of dissensus is essential to prevent violent outbursts from happening.

During a recent talk at the event Interrupting the City in Amsterdam, you argued that we need to regain our confidence in living together. Why is that and what do we need for that?

First and foremost, we need to get rid of the belief that the ideal form of coexistence is one of harmony. Societal forms today are too much based on ethics: we have the same values and norms, therefore we belong to each other. To me, the ideal society is a political form of coexistence. That is, we should be able to live with differences of opinion, with dissensus. It is precisely this dissensus that can hold a society together, because it presumes a great deal of trust in the other. In the current culture of fear, which is nourished by governments, media, the economy or the ‘management of distrust’ in the workplace, our confidence is harmed. The traditional institutions no longer provide a sense of trust in the societal tissue, so people are left to themselves. 

If you could create a governance model from scratch, what would it look like?

I don’t believe in a policy ‘from scratch’. You always need to take into account local history and the historical layers on which you’re standing. Every policy that pretends to start from scratch is making a huge mistake. I do believe in the possibility of hyper-democratic governance, one that builds on the needs and desires of a city’s residents.

You coined the term 'commonism' as an alternative model. Could you explain what it means?

Of course, ‘commonism’ is playful slang. But it does cover three important issues.

First of all, it refers to the importance of the commons to allow us to organise our economy, social life and ecology in a sustainable way. Historically it refers to a common ground that can be freely cultivated by all. Nowadays, we see it in things such as Wikipedia or creative commons. Such a free, common ground is essential for sustainable developments, especially related to creative and intellectual work. Free, not in the sense of ‘free beer’, but in the sense of ‘free speech’. We need a free zone from which everyone can draw, where people can experiment and bricolage, so that they can remain inventive and resilient in the long term. When you need to calculate and account for all the creative tools before you start, it blocks creativity and innovation. This is why education should be free for all. If students don’t have to calculate maximum revenue in terms of credits, time and competences, they will be able to think more freely and be more inventive. This type of thinking, working and experimenting, in a non-calculated space, free of fear for a loss of time, space, revenue or something else, is crucial for social and economic innovation.

Secondly, the common also refers to a space where things clash continuously. It is a space of dissensus. When a person can speak his opinion or share a peculiar idea, there is a good chance for disagreement. But this dissensus is productive, both economically and politically. It both feeds the human and product diversity, as well as the democracy. This also entails that in a space where contradictory opinions and ideas constantly arise, there will be continuous friction. Therefore, we should learn to deal with dissensus, instead of trying to ‘solve’ everything through consensus. We need to avoid consensus, because it is excluding. Those who don’t fit the consensus, are truly left out. Dissensus, however, respects different perspectives and always holds the possibility that we see or realise something that we hadn’t noticed before. This, as well, is a crucial principle for political democracy, but also for economic or scientific innovation and creativity.

Thirdly, I see ‘commonism’ as a meta-ideological framework. Just as the welfare state used to be such a frame for many European countries, and just as neo-liberalism has this role today. I call this meta-ideological, because at a certain moment in time everybody – from the political left to right – seems to have walked right into it. Just as conservatives recognised the social importance of the welfare state some 20 years ago, socialists now seem to take for granted the need of a free market in order to balance the budget. Commonism, to me, is a proposal to explore the possibilities for a new meta-ideological framework. Contrary to communism, but also contrary to neoliberalism, commonism doesn’t see the economy as the foundation of society (to speak in Marx’s terms), but sees culture as the substructure. Here, the meaning of culture is broader than art. It should be understood as the sense of purpose for a society. Culture consists of all signs that we have at our disposal to live a meaningful life. If this would be the groundwork for society, it would also change the way we exchange, organise the market and do politics. Commonism, with culture as its basis, would create a sense of possibility – something our society direly needs.

What is, or could be, the role of culture in the way cities are organised?

Culture is the foundation of everything. If we take this as a starting point, we put Marx’s thinking upside down. Not the economy is the basis of society (what both Marx and neoliberals believe) – but culture is. Seeing things as such would allow us to continuously develop new ways of giving meaning to ourselves, and everything around us. The way we do politics, trade and perceive ecology wouldn’t be based on economic principles, but on cultural meaning.

This also means that our ways of attributing meaning can continuously change. That way we can escape our current conservative model, which confuses a state of culture with a state of nature, as is happening both in politics and mainstream media. Here, the free market is perceived as a natural given, as well as the financialised society. There must be values that are worthier than a balanced budget. Current acts of terrorism, and least as much governmental responses to it, show that some things are more important than a balanced budget. Unfortunately this doesn’t count for the care of elderly or disabled, to name just one example. If we would look at this from a cultural perspective instead of an economic one, we would understand that the world could always be different. And that’s the point. If we would embrace commonism, we would create an enormous sense of possibility and cultural freedom.


Top image: El Cambo de Cebada, Madrid. Photo: Ars Electronica/Flickr.


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