Nov. 15, 2023

In dialogue with Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson has been a Mercator Fellow at the SFB since the end of October. We spoke to him about his understanding of property and property structures and their significance for his research.

What is the importance of property in general for you?

Property is one of those fundamental social forms that structures the way we interact with each other and the world around us. It can seem so natural to us to ‘own’ things (land, material objects, even ideas) that we can lose sight of the fact that property is a social construction and just one way of ordering society – and that other ways have, do, and could exist too. Property for me is a fascinating construct that shapes our world to such a profound degree – and with such profound impacts in creating an impressively durable societal structure yet also upholding and reproducing capitalism and all its destructive inequities and injustices. Property creates order – it acts to settle everyday distributional disputes – just as much as it violently excludes, dispossesses and destroys other ways of being together. Property implies a legal (and maybe even moral) relationship between a person or corporation (the property holder) and a thing (the property) that is owned. But actually, when you really dig into it, and pull apart the ideological veil cloaking capitalism, property is nothing but a social relation between people that determines how people interact with each other and what resources they are entitled to with respect to others and, therefore, how power is distributed. By grasping this, we can see that property is an extremely problematic construct that requires urgent critical deconstruction, interrogation and reimagining. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in some of my work to date.

What reference do you have to property in your research projects?

Most of my work on property has centred on collective alternatives to public and private ways of owning land and housing, and common alternatives to state and market forms of governing cities. In my PhD, I explored how community groups in Liverpool in the UK have been organising around common projects to contest the state-led dispossession of their homes and neighbourhoods in controversial urban regeneration schemes. These groups are experimenting with community land trusts (CLTs) and other forms of collectively owning and managing land and assets as a commons, rather than individually and privately. I compared this recent period of CLT development with an earlier movement for housing cooperatives in some of the very same neighbourhoods. I discovered a largely forgotten history of collective organising and innovation in unconventional forms of property that transcend the public/private dualism that structures British society (and most European and American societies, too) but which face difficult challenges in articulating the commons in legal property terms. I wrote a book about all this called Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives, published by Liverpool University Press in 2020 and available open access online.
As a result of this experience, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to institutionalise and scale up such collective property alternatives with or without the help of the state, and the contradictions involved in this endeavour. This led me to study the new municipalism, an urban social movement attempting to do at the larger scale of the city what co-ops and CLTs are attempting to accomplish at the more local level of communities and neighbourhoods. It’s been exciting to see how municipalist movements across Europe and Latin America, in particular, are supporting the development of the urban commons through taking hold of local governments and then pursuing radical policy agendas that could transform the way cities function. The idea of the Right to the City plays an animating part in these movements – an idea reconceiving citizens’ (property) rights to urban life.
Most recently, I’ve been researching the development of the foundational economy in different cities and regions across Europe. The foundational economy is that part of economic life which supports the functioning of society and the flourishing of human beings – sectors such as water, energy, transport, housing, food growing and distribution, retail, waste management, health and education. These sectors have until relatively recently in European history been owned and managed by the state, at various scales from local to national to supranational, and differently in different national contexts, but generally by the non-profit public sector because they’re too important to be left to the market. However, with the neoliberal turn since the 1970s, public ownership has been increasingly transferred into private hands, and this has had severe repercussions for the quality and equality of foundational services, not least in Britain where privatised water companies now pump raw sewage into our waterways and coastlines without public accountability. I’m working with a collective of researchers who believe that by thinking through the concept of the foundational economy as a lens to reimagine property relations in the most fundamental economic goods and services, it might just be possible to reform and, perhaps, revolutionise, this completely insane provisioning system.

Which ownership structures or changes in these are important to you for the future or which should be aimed for?

At the moment, more collective and cooperative ways of owning and managing spaces, assets and organisations are caught between two poles of property law, depending on the context: public and private; landlord and tenant. So, for instance, resident-members of a housing co-op in the UK are simultaneously treated by the law as individual tenants and as collective landlords – there is no way for their distinctive cooperative form of collective democratic ownership to be fully recognised or articulated under current legal regimes. For this to occur – and it’s an important precondition for any meaningful expansion of the cooperative movement – there would need to be radical legal reform so that a dedicated cooperative tenure is constituted in property law as a third pole to public and private.
Similarly radical transformations need to happen for the commons to be constituted in legal terms, if indeed that is even possible. If commons are defined by constituent power – as a deeply participatory process and relational practice proactively performed by constituents – then any attempt to codify this as constituted power necessarily contradicts these guiding principles and ethos. Nonetheless, attempts might still be made to support ‘commoning’ (better understood as a verb than a noun) by innovating new organisational forms, such as the community land trust. The CLT model provides some protection of the fundamental notion of stewardship (as opposed to ownership) by holding land in trust for wider public benefit, and for future generations, and not just those members who directly own a stake in the organisation as is the case in a co-op. In the UK, co-op advocates have been successful in lobbying government to legislate for a new legal model that blends the cooperative form with common stewardship, to create the Community Benefit Society – a model that has become popular for CLTs and other community trusts and enterprises to adopt as their organisational structure. For the flourishing of collective property alternatives, and the commons more broadly, we need much more of this kind of organisational and legal experimentation.
Commons require support politically, too. This might be found through new municipalist movements taking power in localities and using the tools of local government to establish public-common partnerships. Cities such as Barcelona have been especially adept at developing a city-wide structure of public-common partnerships between municipal authorities and cooperative and community organisations. Such partnerships provide public funding and protection for communities to manage urban spaces and provide public services as a commons, so long as these communities fulfil certain obligations of the local state. This relationship of give-and-take has its drawbacks and constraints, of course, but it’s a promising development in state-civil society relations that challenges the prevailing neoliberal regime of public-private partnerships and its unaccountable profiteering through outsourcing. Municipalist activists in Zagreb, for instance, are aiming towards the ‘commonisation of the state’ – an interesting idea of how the capitalist state, and the private property relations it supports, might be transformed into something more common.