Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Carving out the Commons: Fighting Displacement in the Capitalist City

Assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia

On Christmas Eve 1977, the working-class residents of an apartment complex in Washington, D.C., all received eviction notices. They had 90 days to get out; the owner of the complex wanted to rip it down and replace it with luxury buildings. It was a propitious time for upscale development in the city: gentrification was sweeping through parts of D.C., and home prices were soaring. Evictions were rampant, often the result of condo conversions, in which owners of shabby rental buildings converted them into high-priced condos. Condo conversion struck fear into the hearts of low-income tenants. As one man, a long-time resident of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, told me of this time:

“For a long time, when it was really bad, and the [condominium] conversions were everywhere, it was just like an explosion of that, and everybody knew a lot of people who had gotten something saying, okay, 60 days. The building’s sold, in 60 days, you gotta get out. And you know, you’re renting, what can you do? You gotta get out, find something else. But at the same time that was happening, rents were going up, so getting out meant not just getting out of the building, it meant getting out of the neighborhood, it meant getting out of the city… And I think people were very afraid. People were just afraid! People didn’t have money. And they didn’t know where they could go, or what they could afford. People had children, the elderly people, it was disorienting to them — what, what is this about?”

Despite — or perhaps because of — this fear and anxiety, tenants all over Washington were getting organized, and were starting to fight back. The Washington Post called 1978 “the year of the renters’ revolt.” The city had just elected brand-new leadership, steeped in civil rights activism, and much of that leadership was ready to rumble with developers in protection of low-income Washingtonians. One of the many anti-displacement laws that was passed in the late 1970s and early '80s was a law that gives tenants the right to purchase their buildings if their landlords put them up for sale. Using this right, along with city financing, hundreds of low-income tenant associations bought their buildings and turned them into limited-equity cooperatives — homes essentially removed from market forces, and controlled by their member-owners. I theorize these co-ops as a form of the commons. My new book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., tells their story.

Members of a limited-equity co-op in D.C.'s Columbia Heights
neighborhood gather on their front steps, 1980s.

The commons is a resource that’s marked by two key traits: it’s been de-commodified, at least mostly, and it’s collectively governed — perhaps also collectively owned. Its value is in how it’s used directly by people to support life, rather than its exchange value on the market. Crucially, the commons is not an inert resource: what’s important is how the resource is governed by the collectivity of people who use it. Perhaps more important than “the commons” is the act of “commoning,” which, as Peter Linebaugh writes, implies the labor and time necessary for seizing, holding onto, and expanding the resource of the commons.

I wanted to write about the commons because I was nagged by the celebratory nature of the writing on commons on the left. It seemed too general, too sweeping: if we could only just reclaim the commons, it would all be okay: capitalism would wane, people would have the resources they needed to live decently, justice would reign. There was little discussion of the actual practice of commoning: the hard work of it. But at the same time, I was convinced that commoning really could work, at least partially, even in the midst of the stranglehold of capitalism. I knew this because I’d spent several years talking to people who had seized their own commons in the form of their collective housing, and were making them work, even though the road was bumpy, and seemingly rife with inconsistencies.

Scholars who have studied the actual workings of commons — the fine-grained details of how people work collectively over time, how they set their rules for collective life and deal with rule-breakers, how they guard their resources against depletion — have mostly examined how people govern what are called “natural resources” in what are known as “less-developed” parts of the world. There are thousands of these studies. These studies tend to be managerially oriented, and devoid of politics. The political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on commons governance schemes, refused to take a political stance on the commons. Her last public talk was at a London institute founded by devotees of free-market economist Frederik Hayek. The institute framed her work as a vindication of free-market economics: we don’t need the state to meddle in people’s affairs, the argument goes — they can take care of themselves, through the commons. A few scholars on the left have warned of the danger that the commons can become, as George Caffentzis puts it, capitalism’s back-up plan, a way for the state to absolve itself of responsibility towards its citizens. This tension between making demands on the state and engaging in collective self-care is one of the central tensions of the commons.

Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry helps celebrate
the grand opening of the Champlain Court Cooperative in D.C.'s
Adams Morgan neighborhood, 1980s.

Commoning is a back and forth process, a constant struggle — like life, like politics, there is never a clean resolution or a permanent victory, a sense that it’s all been finished and wrapped up neatly. The commons is an ongoing practice, and it never ends. The work of the commons is like housework, ongoing cyclical labors that, as Silvia Federici notes, are most heavily performed the world round by women. So why is it worth it, if the labor never ends? Well, it’s better than it was before. In the co-ops I studied, members told me over and over how much better their housing was once they owned it, had control over it. The refrigerator worked. The fear of eviction was muted. The cost of housing, while still susceptible to rise, was at least under the control of the members of the co-op. Compared to renting from a slumlord, the co-op is a vast improvement. And there’s something else: a sense of pride, of victory, of taking on capitalism and winning, of setting an example for your neighbors.

That complex where eviction notices were issued in 1977? The tenants were able to buy their buildings, and forty years later, it’s still a limited-equity co-op, made up of about sixty units, providing an oasis of affordability and stability in a city of recklessly high rents. They’ve achieved something remarkable: a commons in the midst of the capitalist city. But the next challenge is to think about how to expand these commons. How can we learn to common together, in the midst of multiple pressures? If we’re going to create just cities, we need to figure this out, together.


Amanda Huron is author of Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, DC. Huron is assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia.

"An incisive book that speaks to a vital issue in contemporary politics and social theory."
—Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch

"Amanda Huron illuminates new ways of thinking what social justice in the city can look like."
—James Tracy, author of Dispatches Against Displacement

"This important book should be read by students of the city as well as those trying to make it more socially just."
—Nik Heynen, University of Georgia



Caffentzis, George. 2010. “The Future of 'The Commons': Neoliberalism's 'Plan B' or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?” New Formations, 69, 23-41.

Federici, Silvia. 2012. “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” In The Wealth of the Commons: a World Beyond Market and State, eds. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, 45-54. Amherst, MA: Levellers Press.

Gately, Blair. 1978. “Tenant Rebellion Fueled by Increases in Rent, Evictions.” The Washington Post, December 21.

Huron, Amanda. 2018. Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2012. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On gaming, athletes, and individual glory . . . oh, Mercy!

Associate Professor, Seattle University

The core argument in my book is that video games are an actualized meritocracy, a realm in which the values of hard work and skill have been pushed to their extremes and the result is a toxic community that focuses more on the celebration of individual glory than on the good of the collective.

Meritocracy is tricky. For those of us in the west it feels ahistorical, even though it was a relatively recent invention. It seems like the best approach, the only way to do things, even though the writer that popularized the word regretted its mass adoption and despite the fact that the animating action of the book it was featured in was about the masses rising up to violently overthrow a meritocratic order.

Video games, through their design and narratives, make the abstract notion of meritocracy concrete. They are a space where difficulty is celebrated, with lists of the hardest games appearing again, and again, and again. A challenge is supposed to be the point, as overcoming a truly hard game is a measure of the player’s talent and effort, but focusing on these meritocratic elements makes the community around games limited, exclusive, and defined by a tendency to compete and work against opponents, rather than to work with others.

Meritocracy and the Winter Olympics

Meritocracy shows up in other places as well; one of the most prominent areas is in sports. However, in the case of sports, the language of meritocracy is often recast with other elements, like luck, serendipity, and rules that are designed to do something other than find the best athlete or team. In the case of the 2018 Winter Olympics, we had the return of the shirtless Tongan and a celebration at the end of the 15 km cross country skiing race, where the Mexican skier who finished last stopped near the end of the race to pick up a Mexican flag and was hailed by his fellow competitors.

However, the most polarizing athlete may have been Elizabeth Swaney, who competed in the women’s halfpipe and did no tricks in a sport designed to showcase eye-catching acrobatics. Swaney, who was born in the United States and originally competed for Venezuela before switching her allegiance to Hungary, was described as an affront to the notion that the Olympics are about elite athletes performing at the height of their powers. She was presented as a schemer, a jerk, had to defend herself against accusations that she scammed her way into the Olympics, and was the feature of multiple articles articulating how she had managed to qualify for the competition. In the end, Swaney argued that she could do tricks while water skiing, but had yet to land them on snow and stressed how she always tried her best.

Notably, the stories about the male athletes are celebrations, while Swaney’s motives are questioned. What is fascinating about her story though is how focused she was on getting into the Olympics. She flew around the world to compete in events where she could find fields that would let her get the number of top-30 finishes she needed to qualify for the Olympics. She found a sport and a set of rules that would enable her to chase a dream she held for years. In video game parlance, she found an exploit or a cheese, and this kind of design subverted meritocratic norms and led to a fascinating story. The Olympics may seem like they are about meritocracy, but there is so much more there.

Meritocracy and Mercy

However, the winning formula for appeal to core video game players, those who likely claim the label ‘gamer,’ is straightforward: offer them a game that conforms to the norms and systems that they have long accepted, like meritocratic game design. As Nathan Grayson writes about Kingdom Come, the game has become massively successful as “It’s different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you’ve been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam [a digital game distribution platform].” As Grayson details, players are praising the game because it has rich and deep game system built on a conservative political ideology. Appealing to mastery is a trademark of a meritocratic order that resounds with many.

On the other hand, mechanics that subvert traditional notions of skill, like Mercy in Overwatch, face a far more polarizing response. Overwatch is a first-person shooter and, although a healer role is well-established, Mercy’s original ultimate move resurrected defeated teammates. In announcing a change to her skills, the lead designer on the game stated that “it’s pretty disheartening to have Mercy just erase [a team wipe] with a full team res[urrection].” This framing celebrates the work of players to kill opponents, but not the talent of a healer in successfully executing a difficult move to bring their team back from the brink.

Mercy players face accusations of being ‘one-tricks,’ players who only play her character and not others. Mercy players are alleged to ruin the game, possess less skill that prevents them from playing other characters, and, in sum, Mercy players are hated more than other characters with similar roles. At least one professional player enjoys playing Mercy, but does so in spite of scorn from teammates.

Meritocracy and its foundation

Reaction to Mercy is so heated that perceptions about her character are broken down in a two-part essay titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Mercy?” Sexism and misogyny, particularly in the response to women who play Mercy, is an important part of the answer in the essay, but a key theme is that skill is perceived to be a vital part of video games, yet that only particular kinds of skill are celebrated. Within the context of a first-person shooter, Overwatch celebrates team kills and exciting battles and Mercy was originally designed in a manner to upend that. Run through misogyny and Mercy is a case study in how the kind of skill and work in video games is particular, specific, and prone to developing a toxic, spiteful community. Blizzard may be reducing toxicity in their Overwatch community, but it cannot be solved because the game is built on a rotten, meritocratic foundation. Efforts at fixing toxicity are also undercut by the player desire and developer interest in increasing the meritocratic ladders found in the game by adding more competitive modes. It is a half-step forward and several steps back.

Meritocracy is insidious because it seems like the only way to build things, but there are other options. Building games that prioritize elements other than skill and effort gives us all a chance to build a different kind of community around games, one that might work together to chart a path toward something more positive and cooperative. We can build games based on luck, contingency, and serendipity, similar to elements of the design of Mario Party or Mario Kart. We can build design games that are pay-to-win and emphasize the role of the wallet, like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, where players frequently work together in an effort to ‘defeat’ the developer. Moving away from merit allows communities to be developed on different terms, giving an opportunity to build something else, something new, something that has features other than the endemic toxicity that comes with meritocratic systems.


Christopher A. Paul is associate professor in the communication department at Seattle University. He is author of The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst and Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play.

"Essential reading for researchers, industry professionals, and players trying to make sense of gaming's culture wars."
—Carly A. Kocurek, author of Coin-Operated Americans

Thursday, March 8, 2018

International Women's Day 2018: On feminism's political message and its past, present, and future.


As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is hard not to be struck by how ubiquitous the political message of feminism is. Until recently, announcing one’s feminist credentials elicited looks of surprise, incomprehension, or outright hostility. Fast forward to 2018 and Sweden has a foreign minister who is keen to propagate feminist foreign policy. The power of feminist ideas is not limited to the rarefied field of policymaking by world leaders, either. Popular culture also pulsates with calls to action from the hashtag feminism of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns. In our book Governance Feminism, we track this shift in the fortunes of feminism. From waiting with placards in hand outside the theatres of male power – whether they be legislatures, courts, international organizations, or corporations – feminists now walk the halls of power. By no means all feminists: some forms of feminism disqualify their proponents from inclusion in the power elite. But you can get a job in the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Criminal Court, the local prosecutor’s office, and the child welfare bureaucracy for espousing various strands of feminism. Feminism is certainly no longer a dirty word.

We label this form of feminist influence “governance feminism.” By that we mean every form in which feminists and feminist ideas exert a governing will within human affairs. We ask exactly what forms of feminism “make sense” to power elites as they gradually let women in? What happens when feminists and feminist ideas find their way into legal institutions and change legal thought and legal operations? Whose nongovernmental organizations get funding from international aid and development agencies and from ideologically driven private donors? Once feminists gain a foothold in governance, what do they do there and which particular legal forms are they most heavily invested in? What are the distributive consequences of the partial inclusion of some feminist projects? Who benefits and who loses? Can feminism foster a critique of its own successes? And if so, how can this feed back into feminist struggles?

Our study of governance feminism spans two books – Governance Feminism: An Introduction and Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field. In Governance Feminism: An Introduction, we focus on efforts feminists have made to become incorporated into state, state-like, and state-affiliated power. Janet Halley takes stock of prior attempts to understand some dimensions of feminist influence including femocracy and state feminism before setting out the theoretical framework for governance feminism and mapping the spectrum of feminists’ relationships with power. Significantly she discusses the resistance that feminists have offered to the concept of governance feminism. If there is one takeaway from our book, it is that governance per se is not bad. As Halley points out, describing governance feminism does not mean denouncing governance feminism. There are victories that governance feminism secures which are beneficial for women on the ground. But then there are costs to these victories borne by both women and men. How do we assess these costs and benefits? Halley offers distributive analysis as a method through which feminists can weigh these costs and benefits, whether in the legislative arena or in achieving institutional reforms. The remaining chapters of Governance Feminism: An Introduction illuminate the core themes of governance feminism in three case studies: the context of wide-ranging rape law reforms in India in 2013 (Prabha Kotiswaran), the influence of neoabolitionist feminism in anti-trafficking reforms in Israel (Hila Shamir), and the transnational influence of U.S. feminists’ rhetoric and legal argumentation on reproductive rights (Rachel Rebouché).

In our second book, Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field (forthcoming in early 2019), we go beyond feminism’s relationship with state power to grasp the full range of arenas where feminist ideas have traction. Our contributors to this co-edited volume start by outlining the large role that crime and punishment, largely focused on sexual or gender-based violence, play in governance feminist projects of recent decades. They then offer insights on feminists’ use of unspectacular bureaucratic tools which offer much-needed political leverage. Authors also explore the political dynamics, strategic and tactical dilemmas, and ethical challenges that feminists and LGBT activists must negotiate to play on the governmental field. Last but not the least, our contributors consider feminist interventions in postcolonial legal and political orders where they work within the postcolonial state, inside the global network of UN agencies and NGOs, and in policy spaces opened up by conflict, post-conflict and occupation.

We celebrate this International Women’s Day with our take on feminism and the publication of our first book. We hope that, even as we continue to struggle for our collective feminist futures, we can pause to ask ourselves if we are finally ready to go beyond, in Max Weber’s terms, an ethics of conviction in our political lives to embracing an ethics of feminist responsibility.


Janet Halley is Royal Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Prabha Kotiswaran is reader in law and social justice at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.

Rachel Rebouché is professor of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Hila Shamir is associate professor of law at Tel Aviv University Buchman Faculty of Law.

"What happens when feminist critique inverts into governing norms? What kind of feminism becomes law and what becomes of arguments among feminists when it does? How are feminist challenges to male super-ordination transformed and distributed by bureaucratization and NGO-ification? How might we honestly assess feminism that governs? In this deeply intelligent, reflective, and pedagogical work, four feminist legal scholars probe these theoretical and empirical questions. No reader will favor every move, but all will be usefully provoked and instructed."
—Wendy Brown, University of California, Berkeley

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein and the Ecstasies of the Book.

University of Maryland, College Park

“It certainly seems that all art forms in their extreme manifestations, i.e. where they attempt to expand the limits of their potential and their material, invariably end up by trying to appropriate the rudiments of the art of the future: the art of cinema.”

In Sergei Eisenstein’s conception, cinema occupies less the place of one medium or art form among others than that point in the existence of any medium at which the medium transgresses its proper limits. When, for instance, the static picture produced by a painter attempts to express movement, painting suddenly touches on the most basic phenomenon of cinema. When a writer composes a scene by dynamically juxtaposing dialogue and descriptions of action, he in fact opens the novel’s path into the cinematic domain of audiovisual montage. In this view, cinema becomes a sort of meeting place, gathering the effects of all other arts and media. (And Eisenstein indeed thought of cinema, as was fashionable at the time, as a new artistic form whose destiny was to unite and serve the synthesis of all arts.) Yet what gathers at this meeting place are the fringe elements, the “extreme manifestations” of the individual arts and media, as though it were a matter not of polite parliamentary debate but a clandestine assembly of revolutionaries. Cinema produces a new coexistence among the arts by connecting the moments at which the capacities of other arts and media arrive at their breaking points, lose their identity, and step outside themselves. Cinema: the ecstasies of arts and media.

The same logic is at work in the encounter between Eisenstein’s idea of cinema and the medium of the book. As the French film theorist and historian François Albera puts it, “there is no doubt that Eisenstein was, more than anyone else in his time, preoccupied with the achievement of a book that would express his conception of art and cinema.” Particularly at the end of the 1920s, during his travels in Europe, the US, and Mexico, Eisenstein thought intensely about the possibility of producing a systematic book of film theory, in which the theory itself—especially the idea of montage—would work on the very shape of the book, transform the nature of this medium and, along the way, revolutionize also the principle of systematicity in accordance with which the theoretical knowledge of cinema was to be built. Putting it in contact with cinema, Eisenstein came to imagine the medium of the book in its “extreme manifestation,” a book (ecstatically) beside itself, at once book and no longer book. The shape this no-longer-book took in Eisenstein’s mind was that of a sphere, imagined as a three dimensional and rotating space within which various thematic clusters would be organized in such a way that the reader could move from one text to another (and back) in the manner resembling more closely the multiple and synchronic possibilities of a network or even a rhizome than the more traditional logic of linear unfolding. The great spherical book, Eisenstein figured, would be experienced by the reader as a vast simultaneity of connections (texts on montage organized according to the multiple logic of montage) and no longer sequentially, one “two-dimensional” page after another.

Here, not only are we far from the model of the film director’s handbook or that of an academic book on the subject of cinema; we are outside any proper understanding of what a book is or should be. Eisenstein, whose textual production was as systematically ambitious as it was essentially fragmentary, was himself of course aware that what he imagined under the idea of the spherical book was, strictly speaking, impossible. Yet it is precisely this element of impossibility that animates Eisenstein’s thought. In a manner that may be generalized also to cinema’s relationship to other media, Eisenstein posits that the encounter with cinema—and particularly with montage as the principle of cinematic form—does not merely expand the possibilities offered by the medium of the book. Beneath the utopic project of expanding the book’s capacities beyond the two-dimensionality and sequentiality of its pages toward a three-dimensional space of a multi-directional sphere, there operates a certain cinematic desire to exasperate the book and to exhaust the possibilities of its medium.

Cinema should, in other words, be seen not as simply continuous with other media: it does not take what they make possible and merely broaden the reach of their abilities. On the contrary, the effect of cinema lies in pointing to the impossibilities, the impasses of the media it touches, and thereby orienting us toward the possibility of their undoing.

Cinema—a catastrophe of the book.


Luka Arsenjuk is author of Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis. Arsenjuk is associate professor of film studies and core faculty member in comparative literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This is a book for all film historians and lovers of cinema."
—Timothy Corrigan, author of The Essay Film

"A uniquely striking work of film theory and historical reflection by one of the most exciting film and critical theorists working today. Movement, Action, Image, Montage is the most important theory of cinematic movement to have emerged since Deleuze’s cinema books."
—Brian Price, University of Toronto

"Movement, Action, Image, Montage is a critical tour de force, combining brilliant close readings of Eisenstein’s films, drawings, and major texts with subtle speculative thinking."
—Karla Oeler, Stanford University