Free Trade and the Occupation of Urban Spaces

The innovative initiatives of occupation of (nominally) public spaces, which have arisen here and elsewhere at the start of the 21st century, are still quite biased against trade and commerce. They imagine that an event (or program) that intends on promoting togetherness in public squares and city streets is not supposed to be profit motivated; otherwise, it cannot be legitimate.

Thus, they organize trade swap meets, but not proper fairs. They set up libraries (to lend out books free of charge), but not book stores (to sell them). They pool their money to buy beer at the boteco (cheap bar), but not to set up a stand to sell foods and drinks. They promote picnics (where each person brings one type of food), but they cannot seem to want to open a restaurant to sell meals. They put together workshops to fix all sorts of things (bicycles, for example), but all has to be free. It is as if allowing someone to sell a good or service in these would take away the legitimacy of the act, which should be always a collaboration. It seems that charging for a product or service is not something good and uninterested, but some sort of degeneracy, something tainted by economic interest — by definition egoistic rather than altruistic.

However, one thing does not conflict with the other. We can have collaborative environments in which there are both free and paid things, where there are both donations and commerce of goods and services.

I believe that happens because we conflate markets and capitalism, even though markets have existed for millennia and capitalism itself only arose a few centuries ago. Even though markets have nothing to do with a market-centric view of the world (such as seen by economic liberalism or the so-called neoliberalism), which seems to favor the imposition of its (economic) rationality to other institutions (such as the state and civil society). Yet, capitalism is not the market, and was not created by the market. Capitalism was born out of the collusion (rather incestuous, as it turns out) between the monarchic enterprise and the Hobbesian state, something wildly different from the free market (in a certain sense, the very opposite of it).

We should reflect a little on the role of the market. The market has always been interactive. Merchants have always been open to the relationship with the unpredictable other. They have to be open to the customer because that is their very nature. They cannot sell only to the chosen ones, to those they selected by criteria that have nothing to do with their mercantile interests. For instance, they cannot sell only to those who are from their nation, who speak their language, who adopt their religion or their political party, who are from their ethnicity, or who have the same skin color.

The market has broken down hierarchical and autocratic obstacles between different peoples and distinct cultures. Speaking another language has not ever been such a big stumbling block: gesturing, acting, mimicking and other devices have always been up to the task. And even the usual haggling created such a rich social interaction. Anyone who has bought a hammock in a beach in the Brazilian Northeast will understand what I am talking about.

The Athenian agora was an open market. People would occupy the square not only to buy (as it happens nowadays in a grocery store), but also to live together, interact, and talk to each other. It was in the square of ancient Athens that democracy emerged, but it could only appear because the network of conversations were centered in (what came to be) a public space. Interaction (conversing) founded public spaces without which the first democracy just would not have come to fruition.

Before that, urban spaces were not public. They were state spaces, regulated — like everything in an autocracy — by the king. Common issues did not exist, for there were no commons. The issues that should be common were not, because the autocrat had privatized them (in Athens’s case, Peisistratos’s sons did that: Hipparchus and Hippias). Democracy arises as a deprivatization of the commons born of the publicization of the spaces where all could discuss these subjects. But remember: It was not by obeying the laws of the time nor by asking permission to the Peisistratids that the Athenians did that!

Nothing is public unless it has undergone a process of publicization. Being public is not a status (a previous configuration that was maintained) or a given, but a result of a process. Nothing can really be public by decree, by the determination or regulation of law. Human public environments are those that are socially arranged in a way that constitutes what we call the commons. Publicizing and democratizing go hand in hand. Publicizing public spaces and democratizing state regulations are always together. The existence of mercantile activities has never prevented them from arising; quite the contrary, it has made them come to be. The strongest evidence is that where there is commerce, there are no war feelings in the air. Free trade upsets war. It is bad for business. It is bad for interaction.

So, if we want to interact with everyone and not only with those who happen to show up because we judge they will be the people capable of understanding the ultimate meaning of our urban interventions (the term is not very good, admittedly) — ignoring that the people who show up are the right people —, we lack commercium in our activities. There is no point in coming up with a beautiful theoretical reason to justify our choice of some instead of everyone else. As von Baader would say, “nexus rerum is not nexus phenomenurum, but commercium spiritum.”

Imagine how many opportunities of establishing connections and getting out of our clusters we keep losing for lack of trade and commerce! We could see many people offering and demanding different goods and services (from hot dogs to fixing phones and computers to cooking courses to solving quadratic equations). Soon we will even have people manufacturing (with 3D printers and plasma cutting) personalized objects, equipment parts and so on.

Some will say that selling without a license is against the law and that government authorities will show up and crack down our activities in the end. Well! The Athenians who invented democracy (and public spaces) did not wait to get the tyrant’s stamp of approval before doing what they did, did they now? We are talking about free trade, not regulated trade. If we wanted to obey laws, the Occupy movement would not have taken the streets, and Tahrir Square and Maidan Square would have never been occupied.

“Oh, but that is something else entirely!” No, it is not. That is the point. It is exactly the same thing! If we are not willing to disobey, how can we intend to publicize public spaces? This is social revolution, but maybe social revolution was not what you had in mind. No, it is not that taking of some Winter Palace nor electoral victory against “the elites!” It is not just a change in the people who make up the state, but something that happens at the very core of society, altering the interaction flows of social life and changing people’s behaviors.

Making an urban vegetable garden where it is not allowed (or was not foreseen by state norms) is revolution. Having lunch in a public way holding up traffic is revolution. Setting up an educational activity in the public square with a free learning community network is revolution. And making a (real) trade fair is proper social revolution. Each one of those activities reconfigures hierarchies dominated by autocracies toward more networking (more distribution, connectivity, interaction) and freedom. There is no other way of doing that besides civil and political disobedience.

We are lacking commerce in the occupation of urban (so called) public spaces.

Translated from Portuguese into English by Erick Vasconcelos.

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Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory