Spaces of Democracy: An evening with Doreen Massey at the Humboldt University

Think & Drink

Think & Drink

by Ares Kalandides

Reading Doreen Massey’s numerous essays that now span a 40-year career, one phrase sticks out regularly: “Geography matters!” It is sometimes put as simply and poignantly as that; sometimes in an more implicit, but still very straightforward way. For Doreen Massey this is not only an intellectual pastime. Place and space are the very materials on which her political activism is based, the stuff that keeps her going. And it’s about space that she talked again at the Think & Drink Colloquium of the Humboldt University yesterday, Monday 28th January 2013.

That space (and hence Geography) matters is a basic assumption that allows radical simultaneity. Without space, argues Massey, multiplicity could not exist. If time is the succession of events, space allows them to exist at the same time. Because, what else is space, than the possibility that there are different trajectories that exist, side by side at the same time? We tend to think of the world in terms of time, positioning places as if they were in a temporal queue, with only one possible outcome. The notion that a place (or an idea) is backwards or underdeveloped, means that there is a forward and a developed – and these are to be found in the global North. This negates space, turning it into time. This radical simultaneity, this coexistence of difference entails respect – respect for difference. This should not be confused with agreement, states Massey, respect is here understood in the way you need to take the other seriously. If you consider your opponent’s ideas to be simply “backward” you will not find the adequate way of addressing them effectively. So what we need today, in the midst of the Crisis, is a radical geographical imagination that allows us to discern the coexistence of difference. “What has been played upon us” said Massey, “is a geographical conjuring trick”. They turn the people of Europe against each other; they tell us it’s the Spaniards and Greeks against the Germans. They turn geography against us ­– instead of calling the thing with its name, a “class war”, with the elites and their supporting classes on the one side, the people on the other.

Neoliberalism confronts us with fake multiplicity all the time – with choices that don’t matter. We can choose what to consume, but we cannot chose how we want to live in the future, at least not in any way that makes a real difference. By turning the market into a “thing out there”, instead of a product of society, 30 years of neoliberalism have been telling us that “there is no alternative”. As many grand narratives before it, it creates a single temporal development line and predetermines the future of our world. Neoliberalism has been very successful in entering our heads, in becoming hegemonic, in the Gramscian meaning of the word, i.e. as broadly accepted common sense. Even when we make the assumption of a market, we are not aware that this is an assumption. “No alternatives” is the negation of multiple possible trajectories. Imagining and designing alternatives are thus radical actions.

Occupy London, though very small, was one of those moments were people envisaged an alternative. With their humble tents put up between the “stone monuments of St Paul’s and the Stock Exchange” the challenged the very physicality of that location. Not only is that particular place not privatized, but Occupy turned it into public in the deepest sense ­– a space of democracy.  One of Occupy London’s demands was for a participatory direct democracy. It engaged those involved in it and occasionally even passers-by in negotiations about alternative possibilities to party politics. But what spaces such as “Occupy” propose  is a consensual type of democracy, where people’s “common good” is the guiding principle. Antagonistic democracy, the one that moves forward through clashes, still takes place in party politics.

What type of space then does democracy need? Spaces that allow participatory democracy such as Occupy or spaces of the representative democracy of party politics? This is not a question that can be answered in an abstract way, says Massey, but one that will have very place-specific answers. Democracy needs different spaces that allow both consensual and antagonistic politics. Only space – geography – allows us to imagine alternatives and create a radical agenda for change.

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