United We Transform, Divided We Reproduce

Below I have unpacked the interrelations between the concepts of precarity and commoning with the intention of cultivating a framework for thinking about the political potential of precarity. This statement was prepared in preparation for my 2nd doctoral exam, and serves as the theoretical starting point for my dissertation, which will explore this relationship in a concrete way in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City (LIC).

Accompanying visuals/slides are publicly available on Scribd. Because of the way it presents on Scribd, I encourage you to download and click through as you read. The video below, ‘Taking Back the Bronx’ is also very illustrative of where my mind is throughout the statement below.

Enjoy! Feedback and/or collaborations welcome always!

“…what is at stake is a way of rethinking social relationality”        –Judith Butler, (Puar, 2012)


[Slide 2] I began thinking about precarity during my 2nd year paper when I investigated youth political participation in the lead up to 2012 election. In their narratives about if and how they approached political participation, young people discussed their concerns and anxieties about the cost of college and the labor market, and the ways it might prevent them from becoming an ‘adult’ – which for them usually meant economic and job security and supporting their current or future family – and how their lack of faith in the ability of the formal political system to address these concerns, encouraged them to individually manage their precarity through enhancing their marketability – by selecting certain majors (e.g. business) or pursuing further degrees and certificates (e.g. MA degrees). This gave me one way of understanding the relationship between precarity and political behavior, and precarity-reduction strategies more generally – and its really where I began my thinking about this 2nd doc last fall. [Slide 3] However, this contrasted with the localized community-based political responses to the Mayor’s housing plan, that I began following last summer/fall — [Slide 4] and with the larger national movements around economic and corporeal insecurity that I’ve followed and been a part of for much of my adult life. [Slide 5] Both of these perspectives also contrast with the work I did on community land trust homeowners with the Housing Environments Research group, wherein people were not trying to be political per se – they were trying to secure affordable, stable housing. However, their actions WERE political (at least to me) because by entering into the contract with CLCLT, they were now participating in the perpetuation of a de-commodified cooperative form of housing. [Slide 6] And this brought me back to NYC, and to thinking about the sweat equity movements in the 80s, and the birth of hip hop and break dance in Harlem and the South Bronx – as well as to thinking about the deeper function of community gardens and other neighborhood initiatives that appear mundane and unremarkable today. [Slide 7] And this is where this exam and my dissertation grows from – from this tentatively hopeful place of thinking not about all the ways precarity tears us down, or the need to take to the street nightly, but how we might be, and be able to, reduce precarity through our lived everyday experiences.

So with this in mind, let’s talk about precarity and commoning. 

Precarity and Commoning

[Slide 8] Precarity is a complex, multivalent concept that is at once relational and political, and a condition or state of being, and a process. Beginning with Bourdieu’s analysis of the labor protests in France in the 1980’s, the academic and policy literature on precarity has largely situated it “as a way to capture the material and psychological vulnerability arising from neoliberal economic reforms” (Nasstrom and Kalm, 2015, p556). ‘Precarious work’, or “employment that is uncertain, unpredictable and risky from the point of view of the worker” (Kalleberg, 2009, p2) has dominated the conversation on precarity. Described by some as the ‘gig economy’, in the post-Fordist era workers are increasingly faced with jobs that are part-time, flexible, contingent, temporary, lacking benefits and/or collective representation, job security and otherwise undependable and insufficient. [Slide 9] In part, these changes have been propelled by technological advances and the hypermobility of capital, which have facilitated the automation and offshoring of jobs that once paid a stable “family wage”. During the same time frame, low wage service jobs – which tend to be part-time, and lacking in collective representation, job security, and benefits – have filled the gap (Autor, 2010). [Slide 10] In relation to these trends, and despite gains in productivity, the majority of American workers have seen their wages stagnate or decline (EPI, 2014). [Slide 11] Simultaneous to these trends has been the dismantling of the welfare capitalist state and transition to a neoliberal capitalist state. This transition has been characterized by, among other things, the privatization of formerly socialized public goods and a commitment to trickle down economics – or supporting the economic endeavors of those at the top of the food chain under guise that the benefits will trickle down the economic ladder (Harvey, 2005). Succinctly, Peck and Tickell (2012) describe this transition as the rolling back of welfare policies and social protections and publicly-provided goods, and the rolling out of policies that favor wealth accumulation at the top[1]. Together, these trends have resulted in an increased dependency on wage labor for a growing majority of US households at the same time that wage labor has become less reliable for a growing swath of the population. Relatedly, these trends have contributed to widening economic inequality, and growing economic insecurity (Saez, 2016; Aurand et al, 2017a; Aurand et al, 2017b) for an increasing number of American households.

[Slide 12] The literature on ‘precarious work’ serves as a good starting point for thinking about precarity, but it is limited by its narrow conception of ‘work’ and ‘economy’ and social relationality. Situating people as laborers, this perspective privileges and silos the formalized, capitalist systems of production, while ignoring a fuller understanding of the alternative forms of economic activity, and the accompanying relations and ways of being that people participate in the process of making up their lives. Importantly, this focus ignores the unpaid, informalized, feminized and relational work of social reproduction, which by some estimates comprises 30-50% of all economic activity in rich and poor countries, and operates as an important foundation for the operating of capitalist systems of production (Casas-Cortés, 2014; Federici, 2008; Fraser, 2016; Ironmonger, 1996; Gibson-Graham, 2012; The Community Collective, 2001). In this way, this framing of precarity represents a capitalocentric perspective on precarity, one that ignores the larger significance of the economic trends from the perspective of the lived experience and the diverse ways in which people confront and cope with precarity, broadly speaking (Gibson-Graham, 1996).

[Slide 13] This framing of precarity is part and parcel of the larger self-reproducing and self-legitimating nature of the liberal capitalist project; however, we also need to consider the role of governmentality in this process, as described by Foucault (Foucault, Ewald, Fontana and Davidson, 2009). Governmentality refers to the ways in which hegemonic logics become infused into the way knowledge, norms, and ‘common sense’ are constructed. Operating within the context of the longer-term construction of liberal subjectivity – which atomizes people and positions them as free, autonomous individuals – these governing logics aim to encourage subjects to conduct themselves in relation to the hegemonic logics that underpin, reproduce and/or further the liberal capitalist project rather than truly offer them freedom (Lorey, 2015).

[Slide 14] In relation to ‘precarious work’ we can think about the governing logics of meritocracy, grit and hard work, which are pervasive in American culture and encourage laborers to persist in formal labor markets despite depressed wages and the hollowing out of support for workers on behalf of employers and the state. Relatedly, feminist political theorist Isabel Lorey (2015) argues that precarity is a contemporary governing logic, encouraging liberal subjects to engage in ‘modulation’, or the process of making oneself more attractive to the market. The increased pursuit of higher education – both 4 year degrees and professional degrees – seems, at least in part, to evidence this. Despite rising costs of college and rates of underemployment among recent college graduates, higher education is endorsed as an important, individuated precarity-reducing strategy today. This is evidenced in the new forms of credit/debt available to youth and supported by reports from respected institutions like the Federal Reserve that argue that pursuing higher education is literally ‘worth it’, given the earning gap between high school graduates and 2- and 4-year degree earners over one’s lifetime (Valleta, 2015).

[Slide 15] In the recesses of the formal economy, people engage in a number of different economies and take on diverse roles that are critical to making up and securing their lives (Gibson-Graham, 2016). For example, with respect to the economic trends undergirding precarious work we can consider the very visible, communal actions of the Occupy movement, wherein groups of varying sizes occupied public squares, first in New York City, but then across the country and the world. [Slide 16] While Occupy Wall Street and similar public protests and occupations were/are explicitly political and aimed to be intentionally counter-hegemonic in their practices and the arrangement of their publics, there are many modes of coping with precarity that are inherently counter-hegemonic, but not necessarily countering hegemony – yet. Such practices may include an older, retired woman providing childcare to other households in her neighborhood, a teen helping other teens with their homework, a household sharing food with a grieving family, car-sharing to save costs on transportation and more (The Community Collective, 2001).

[Slide 17] These practices, which may be subsumed under the general trope of commoning, invoke a social relationality based on care, reciprocity and community. This lived social relationality contrasts with the individualized disposition and pursuit of life that characterizes the ideal liberal capitalist subject. This contrast is the crux of the inherent counter-hegemonic capacity of commoning, and the potential for countering hegemony. Commoning practices are particularly poignant in spaces and communities long excluded from participation in and the benefits for the formal economy, where the need to rely on others to make ends meet has been a long-standing reality (e.g. Nehmbard Gordon, 2014).

[Slide 18] For the remainder of this statement I want to zoom in on how precarity and communing take place in communities experiencing precarity long-standing; in particular working class communities of color in New York City. Such an approach has two aims. First, to elaborate the place-based ways in which capitalism aims to secure and reproduce the relations of domination upon which the political project depends. Second, to examine how place-based practices of commoning, wherein communities tied to these places aim to secure their lives, work to subvert or upend hegemonic modes of social relationality and undermine the dominance of the liberal capitalist project. In this vein, this approach also aims to elaborate a place-based perspective on the political and transformative possibilities of precarity.

(Em)Placing Precarity & Commoning

[Slide 19] For many of us, our homes – including housing and communities – are important centers in our lives; tying us to networks of care and love and intimacy, and sustenance[2] (broadly speaking). Moreover, housing, when secure, stable and affordable, can help households flourish and engage in the world because it allows members of the household a space to take refuge, find stability and enjoy privacy and autonomy (Dupuis and Thorns, 2004; Hackett, Saegert, Dozier and Marinova, under revision). Furthermore, it can function as a center for dwelling and making a life (e.g. Saegert 1985).

[Slide 20] In recent decades, housing has become less affordable and less stable for more households. [Slide 21] At least in part, this can be understood in relation to the formal economic trends described above – as wages have stagnated, and state support has been rescinded, households have less economic resources to draw on in making up, pursuing and sustaining their lives. At the same time, housing costs, and the costs of other essential resources including healthcare, education and transportation, have all continued to rise (Cohen, 2016; Whitmore Schanzenbach, Nunn, Bauer and Mumford, 2016). Today, housing, on average, is the largest budgetary expense for our housed population (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016; Cohen, 2016). For households, this may mean (more) difficult decisions between allocating finite economic resources towards securing one essential need while postponing – or foregoing altogether – the securing of another essential need, taking on more formal labor positions while sacrificing participation in informalized, sustaining economies, or participating more in alternative economies to help secure their lives. [Slide 22] Deleterious effects related to housing affordability, such as stress, anxiety, loss of ontological security, and exacerbation of mental and physical health have been found for households across the economic spectrum and among renters and owners (Hiscock and Kearns, 2001; Colic-Peisker and Johnson, 2010). [Slide 23] However, these trends are particularly notable for the growing share of households who rent, who are increasingly concentrated in the bottom quarter of the income scale and are likely to allocate more than 30% if not more than 50% of their household budgets to covering housing costs[3] (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2015; Joint Center for Housing Studies 2016; Aurand et al, 2017a; Aurand et al, 2017b; JCHS, 2011).

Housing unaffordability is particularly pronounced for lower income households, regardless of geographic location[4] and for low and moderate income households in strong market regions such as New York City, San Francisco and Washington D.C. (JSHC, 2016, p4). Among these households – which are characterized by an overrepresentation of women, people of color, and women of color (the same groups overrepresented in low wage labor markets) – the relative high cost of housing may mean forced or unwanted moves, at least for those not housed in one form of our dwindling supportive housing programs[5] (American Community Survey 2015; Quets, Duggan and Cooper, 2016; International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, CUNY, n.d.; Furman Center, 2012). [Slide 24] In addition to consequences for housing quality, job security, and health[6], housing unaffordability and forced or unwanted moves have consequences for community stability and cohesion, and, to the extent that households may be displaced from a community, for a household’s ability to secure sustenance through commoning-based economies/relations.

[Slide 25] Housing affordability and the potential for community dislocation in hot urban markets today can be understood in relation to contemporary practices of urban place-making, the hyper-commodification of housing and the ways in which these factors play into how precarity was spatialized in the city during the 20th C. Today, New York City is mired with ‘revitalization’ projects aimed at sprucing up the city and growing the economy. This includes projects like Barclay Center and other stadium development, the opening up of commercial spaces through neighborhood rezonings, luxury housing construction and more. These projects fit into the larger post-fiscal crisis economic strategy wherein the city took on an entrepreneurial, business-like and business-friendly approach to solvency, urban development, and place-making. Similar to the roll back/roll out processes that characterize neoliberalism at the federal level, New York City has witnessed a withering of its welfare state, and the rewriting of regulation in support of business and wealthy elite (Defillipis, 2003). In fact, there are those that argue that New York City’s approach to resolving the 1974 fiscal crisis served as a model for the adoption of neoliberalism more broadly in the United States and globally (Freeman, 2014).

[Slide 26] The neoliberal turn was underpinned by a downsizing of the managerial aspects and roles of the state in terms of providing goods and services to its citizens and denizens on the basis of a deeper trust in the market to provide goods and services fairly and justly and an unwavering commitment to solvency, among other business-like values (Freeman, 2001). In relation to these trends and in relation to lost federal funds as New Deal policies were slashed or rewritten, cities like New York became more reliant on external capital in maintaining and growing its capital. Simultaneously, due to the hypermobility of capital, attracting external capital became more competitive. Moreover, an important mechanism of attracting capital is tax breaks and subsidies; mechanisms that ultimately depress the returns the city will receive from a particular project – and in too many instances, cities have actually lost more money than gained.  Together, these policies have reorganized the concerns of the state, privileging the needs and concerns of private entities like real estate developers and respecting the freedom of the market, effectively subjugating the needs and well-being of their residents (Eisinger, 2000). Furthermore, these changes contributed to a new rationality centered on the market that has informed how urban place-making unfolds (Rivero, 2017; Rivero, Teresa, and West, 2017).

[Slide 27] The commodification of land and housing is an important logic underlying place-making in New York City today, and one that, allows physically distant global actors to be involved in the remaking of local spaces across the city. Though most housing has long been commodified, in the neoliberal era and through deregulation (or reregulation), financialization, and globalization, housing today is ‘hyper-commodified’ (Madden and Marcuse, 2016). Similar to the shifts undergirding the rise of precarious work, precarious housing has become more common as policies have been (re)written to make real estate more liquid[7] and thus more available to wealthy global elite as a financial instrument, all the while less accessible to those trying to live in their homes. Simultaneously, state-supported forms of decommodified housing have decreased substantially. For example, “between 1981 and 2011, the regulated share of the market fell from 62% to 47% of all units” (Madden and Marcuse, 2016, p. 40; Furman Center, 2012). In sum, during the “age of hyper-commodification”, “the capacity of a building to function as a home becomes secondary” to “how a building functions in circuits of economic accumulation” (Madden and Marcuse, 2016, p. 26).

[Slide 28] These developments in urban place-making have occurred simultaneous to the (re)fixation of capital on certain urban areas like New York and an influx of both immigrants and formerly suburban and rural young adults to the city (Hackworth, 2006; NYC Dept. of Planning, 2013; Stringer, 2016). Though initially focused on the urban core, capital’s interests and the housing needs of new residents have gradually shifted to periphery neighborhoods (in New York City this means the neighborhoods of central and eastern Brooklyn, along the subway lines from Long Island City to Jamaica, Flushing, and parts of Harlem and the South Bronx) (Hackworth, 2006). Given these trends, revitalization efforts across the city, including the targeted neighborhood rezonings that are a key component of the Mayor’s affordable housing plan, increasingly map onto the contours of former state-sanctioned neighborhood disinvestment due to the past policies of redlining and planned shrinkage (Rothstein, 2017; Freeman, 2001). In combination with longstanding exclusion from (or selective inclusion in) labor markets and state welfare, these communities are comprised of some of the country’s most economically vulnerable residents. The resulting severe economic gaps between the long-time residents who live in these neighborhoods and newcomers have laid the groundwork for the displacement by gentrification and revitalization that we see today. This displacement has largely been under-acknowledged by city policy makers and can be understood as a “perverse effect of [contemporary] economic truths” in urban place-making; meaning displacement is perceived as an unfortunate consequence of natural market tendencies (The Community Collective, 2001). In fact, hardline neoliberals would argue contemporary displacement is the result of former meddling on behalf of the state (through the construction of public housing and distribution of subsidies to lower income households) and the market ‘fixing’ these past mistakes.

[Slide 29] Displacement or dislocation from community sits at the intersection of place-based precarity and commoning. When community’s are dis-placed, residents may experience ‘root shock’, similar to what Mindy Fullilove found in examining the consequences of urban renewal for New Jersey residents (2005). Drawing on Jane Jacob’s (1992) concept of the sidewalk ballet, and the intricate and interwined, albeit unremarkable and mundane ways people participate in the life of their communities, and how those engagements ultimately sustain their households and their lives, Fullilove describes the deep psychological jolt that occurs when one’s way of securing their needs and engaging in life – their “mazeway” – is disrupted. In her own words: “…the obliteration of a neighborhood destroys the matrix that holds people together on particular paths and in specific relationships” (Fullilove, 2005, p. 218). These mazeways are part and parcel of the local place-based commoning practices and speaks to the ways in which lives are contingent on place-based resource networks, broadly speaking. Urban renewal didn’t just separate communities from each other, but from their neighborhoods which placed and organized a network of resources critical to maintaining and sustaining their lives.

Fullilove’s concept of root shock offers a place-based perspective that recognizes the relationship between people, communities, and the arrangement of their built environments. This perspective is about understanding how people’s lives unfold and take place and how the disruption of these relations can disrupt one’s life and their ability to care for themselves and others. Lives and communities and built environments are part of networked genealogies and geographies; they cannot be separated from their social and material histories without consequence. This is a unique perspective that aligns with theories that speak to the visceral, emotional and identarian perspectives of relations to place that are less acknowledged by policy makers today (Tuan, 1974, 1977; Altman and Low, 1992).

[Slide 30] Attachments to place and the practices of commoning embedded in these attachments may also undergird the orientation of commoning practices and relations towards more direct political actions in response to precarity (Manzo, 2003). For example, accounts of residents’ seizure of abandoned and deteriorating properties and neighborhoods in Harlem and the South Bronx in the 1980’s – through collective resistance, sweat-equity-based building rehab, and collective management of new homes and organizations – found that attachment to place and social networks were critical (Leavitt and Saegert, 1990; Derienzo, 2008). These initiatives were based on and reaffirm established relations of commoning, as well as – through the experimenting of new means and ends of cooperative relations, and in some cases, formalization through institutionalization – entail the extension these relations through reconfiguration.

Individual participants are also remade through this process; “[r]ather than thinking about [these] situation[s] in terms of pre-existing individuals with an already determined set of roles and skills, and an array of finite resources at [their] disposal, we become transformed through our social and material relations, extending ourselves and the world around us in ways we would not have thought possible” (Bresnihan and Byrne, 2014, p. 11). The older women of color who reworked and deployed their household management skills towards the management of cooperative housing in Harlem in the 1980’s is a grounded example of this (Saegert, 1989). Thus, by remaking our social and material worlds, we in turn remake ourselves, our orientation towards the world, and our perceptions of what’s possible, both for the world, and for our role in the world.

Importantly, these initiatives were not intentionally political, meaning they were not intended to counter hegemony. Residents pursued these routes of social relationality and manipulation of the social and built environment out of the deprivation and desperation that resulted from capital and community abandonment, which left their neighborhoods – quite literally – in ruins[8]. However, the cooperatives and local development corporations that emerged are inherently political and counter hegemonic in that they created communities and neighborhoods that defy and undercut the hegemonic logics of capitalism.

Moreover, there is evidence that consistent exclusion from the formal economy, and thus consistent activation of these commoning relations over time, albeit to various historically-situated ends, can make communities more efficient and effective in confronting future challenges – not only those produced by the political economy, but also natural disasters[9] (Graham, 2016). This is not unlike the long history of cooperative economic practices that African Americans have engaged and relied over the course of history – progressing from mutual aid networks and organizations to worker and housing cooperatives (Nembhard Gordon, 2014). Commoning relations are, therefore, contingent arrangements that grow and extend based on the historically-situated challenges confronting a particular community; and with each new challenge, and subsequent re-organization, the commoning network and its comprising individuals learn more about their transformative potentiality, in relation to that challenge and in the future.


[1] In an article exploring the exceptionalism of economic inequality in the United States as compared to other Westernized democracies, Douglas Massey (2008) identifies some specific institutional arrangements which underpin the roll back and roll out described by Peck and Tickell (2012). Specifically, he describes the systematic policy regimes that have contributed to deunionization, declining and stagnating wages, a downsizing of government and the fraying of social safety nets.

[2] Conceived broadly to include food, clothing, shelter, as well as good conversation and intimate relations with friends, family and partners.

[3] With a swell of 9 million households over the past decade (2006-2016), the rental market is at its largest since the late 1960s. During this time of growth, the number of renters having difficulty meeting their monthly housing costs has also risen. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of rent-burdened households rose from 3.6 million to 21.3 million, while the number of severely rent-burdened households rose from 2.1 million to 11.4 million (JCHS, 2015).

[4] “In no state, metropolitan area, or county can a full-time worker earning the prevailing minimum wage afford a modest two-bedroom apartment” (NLIHC, 2016, p1).

[5] In recent decades, we have see the loss of housing support options for lower income households including the implosion and/or decaying of the public housing stock, the loss of rental subsidies, and the long wait for Section 8 vouchers.

[6] See the collection of work on eviction by Mathew Desmond.

[7] Through the securitization of mortgages, for example.

[8] The South Bronx, for example, experienced planned shrinkage (which meant it was cut off from government funds and government-funded services after the fiscal crisis), witnessed the destruction of the built environment through building fires followed by looting, and saw a significant decrease in their population – from 100,00 to 30,000 during the 1970s (Derienzo, 2008).

[9] Though, it should be noted, some would argue that contemporary natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy are also produced by the contemporary political economic system.


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Posted on: July 25, 2017