The Commons or The Commodity: A Struggle for Control of Public Spaces

By Calum Hendry

I moved to Brisbane in 2011, and have only known King George Square as it is today; a grey concrete frying pan that you try to stay out of between October and April. Whenever I ask people what it used to be like, they sadly reminisce about time spent sitting under the trees, relaxing by the fountains or lying on the grass. Some remember going there for picnics with family and friends, others remember it as a meeting place for demonstrations and protests. Hearing these stories I feel a pang of loss for a beautiful space that I never got to experience. Rather, the needs of capital have been given priority over the needs of the public. This is evidenced in the frequent corporate sponsored events and the large TV screens blaring out mind-numbing corporate advertisements above the din of traffic.  

This transformation of space has been creeping into our cities for a long time, and the consequences are far more serious than just the loss of grass and trees for concrete. Take the new Queen’s Wharf casino development. The site is 12 hectares of public land and 12 hectares of public river space (for a total of 24 hectares or close to 10% of the CBD) that is has been handed over to developers on a 99 year-lease, privatised in all but name. Urbis, the company that designed the concrete slab that is now King George Square, is also the company submitting the design plans for this land (so don’t expect too many trees). The site will be a retail/gambling precinct policed by private security and filled with hostile architecture to keep out the undesirables. Public demonstrations and protests will be banned or heavily policed to ensure that any activity in the space is geared mainly towards the mechanism of material consumption.

This process of turning functional public land into corporate-controlled zones is not unique to Brisbane. Around the world the process of commodification is transforming our public spaces into pseudo-public places. These are generally either privately-owned public spaces, or publicly owned spaces that have been given to corporations to make a profit.

But why should we give a shit? As long as it’s clean and safe, who cares who owns these spaces or how they are managed? It matters because how we let corporations control our physical public spaces reflects their influence in broader society and institutions. It also robs us of a vital tool by which we can regain ground in the struggle against capitalism. Without true public spaces we will find it far harder to build sufficiently strong social movements to challenge the power relations of capital.

Public space is so important because of its relationship between how we are able to engage politically, both with one another and with the political economy that we exist in.  As Marxist philosopher David Harvey puts it:

We do not, after all, experience the city blankly and much of what we do absorb from that daily experience...surely has some kind of influence upon how we are situated in the world and act politically.

How we are able to interact with a public space is important. Public spaces should ideally serve as places where people can not only congregate in leisure, but also engage in political action.  A prime example of public space helping to catalyse mass social movements was the literal “Movements of the Squares” in 2011. Starting with the Arab Spring occupations, such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, to the occupations in Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Syntagma in Athens, mass social movements were born that managed to create challenges to the status quo. The longer-term outcome and success of these movements is still up for debate. But there is no denying that the ability of people to congregate in public spaces was crucial to birth of the movements. However, through the process of commodification our public squares become unusable as spaces for mobilisation. In a physical sense this is because of hostile architecture or design (think of King George Square in the middle of summer). We are also encouraged to see them as unusable; as  places only of consumption. Without public places that are fit-for-purpose as places of demonstration, many people turn to other avenues that are easier for capital to ignore and potentially less effective, such as the virtual space (think online petitions).

Another way that commodification of space affects us politically is through the exclusion of ‘undesirables’ from the commodified space. These are usually the poor, the homeless, the marginalised and the minorities. They are kept out through a combination of hostile architecture or inaccessible design, by private security guards moving on people who try to use the space for something other than consumption, and a heavy police presence that is more concerned with incarcerating the vulnerable (and serving the interests of capital) than protecting those who need it. This exclusion ultimately results in the reduction of class heterogeneity in the public space. In turn this reduces the opportunity for what Harvey terms ‘cross-class encounters’; where people from different socioeconomic classes can meet, intermingle and build empathetic relationships and class solidarity.

A very recent example of capital working to maintain homogeneity in a public space is the tent city in Sydney’s Martin place. It initially started as ‘Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Place’, a space where “a coalition of people [worked] to provide shelter, food and support for people experiencing homelessness”. The mainstream media and political discourse was obviously very unsettled and unsure of how to deal with the situation. The NSW Premier even said at the time that the presence of the homeless in Martin Place made her “completely uncomfortable”. But, desperate to regain control of the space, the political protectors of capital pushed through laws that gave police new powers to tear down the tent city and exclude the ‘undesirable’ homeless from the area. While beaten for now, the tent city demonstrated both the power of public space to challenge capital and its protectors, and also the need for capital to control it.

Capital’s key need for the public space to be homogenous is to make it easier to produce what David Harvey terms as “the spectacle”. The spectacle is a “ form of capital itself”; glitzy storefront windows, invasive 24-hr advertising - everything geared towards the idea that an individual’s role in the city and its public spaces is only to consume. Whenever you think of tourism advertisements for cities, precincts or spaces within a city, it is always a picture of middle-class consumption - of fine food, entertainment and experience. The cross-class interactions that should exist in public space and could help build solidarity against capital are disguised, or present only in the form of interactions between customers and workers in the ‘service industry’. As Harvey puts it:

Once the city is managed by capital solely as spectacle, it can then only be consumed passively, rather then actively created by the populace at large through political participation.

The spectacle destroys the idea of a public space as “a potential site for the construction of utopian dreams of a nurturing social order”. Instead, public spaces become entirely about cementing the supremacy of the commodity, of ensuring the free flow of money and of establishing the hegemony of the force needed (surveillance, police and private security) to protect the accumulation of capital.

I recently reflected on the supremacy of the spectacle when I was travelling through Europe. As I hopped from one historical capital to another, I was struck by how copy-and-paste all the old towns had become. Instead of spaces filled with a history of mobilisation and revolution, they were full of boutique, high-end luxury shops selling globally recognised brands such as Chanel and Gucci. The same is happening in Brisbane as part of the Queen’s Wharf Casino development. Queen’s Park was one of the few green spaces left in the city, and the site of many marches and protests. Now it is being turned into the entrance to a mall. The spectacle has consumed it and now we too are only consumers.

The loss of true ‘public’ spaces deprives us of sites where we can form cross-class relationships and movements to combat the power of capital. Without them, the protectors of capital’s interests are more able to use the tools of divide-and-conquer to prevent any form of challenge to the prevailing status quo. We already see this in the mainstream media’s seemingly perpetual war on “dole bludgers”, “African street gangs” or “boat people”. It doesn’t help that Australia has a historical legacy of deliberately designing public spaces to prevent social movements. The design of new colonial cities in Australia, particularly Victoria, were heavily influenced by European architecture, with one important exclusion - the piazza. This was a deliberate strategy of the governor at the time, Richard Bourke, to “not include public squares as these could promote rebellion.”

In the UK, there is already a growing awareness of the transformation of public space. The Guardian commissioned research to determine how far pseudo-public spaces had spread and what possible effects this might have. In the city of London alone, they identified up to 50 spaces that were owned and controlled by private interests. They found a lack of transparency around the rules that these private interests had around access to the space. In one instance, a journalist asking passersby questions on the topic was escorted from the area by private security and told that “unsanctioned journalistic activity is banned on the site”. In another instance, the land outside City Hall was found to ultimately be owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait, a foreign nation. It would not be too much of a stretch to assume that the situation in Brisbane is similar.

Recapturing public space is going to be difficult, especially in Australia. We are going to have to challenge the hegemony that capital holds over our public space and demand that they no longer let the needs of the commodity come before the needs of the community. We are going to have to challenge the physical design of these spaces so that they are are of a design that can be used and enjoyed by the public (in all its heterogeneity) in Australia’s harsher climate. But the biggest challenge that we face, and the first challenge we should reckon with, is reconciling the commodification (and privatisation) of public space with the fact that any public land is already stolen land. This is a challenge that is very unique to the Australian context: we are the only Western nation not to have a treaty with our First Nation peoples. Unless we genuinely back the calls of ‘sovereignty was never ceded’, then any calls for public land to be returned to the ‘people’ are hollow and help to prop up the capitalist system that was built on the oppression of Aboriginal Australians and the working class.

So where then do we even start? Is it too big of a problem to face now, is it too far gone for us to try to fix? Not at all. But this issue cannot be tackled in isolation. It needs to be tied in with broader struggles, such as those of Aboriginal Australians or other marginalised people in our society. Hegemony can only be changed by meeting people on their level, listening to their basic material concerns, and working with them to articulate a new common sense - that is, a new hegemony. The city is not merely the setting of this shared struggle, but also the stakes of it. 

If you live in Brisbane and would like to get involved in movements putting these theories into practice, some good places to start would be:

Calum Hendry is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, and discovering that he doesn’t really like cold weather.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash