Objectives of the project

Since the dawn of the 21st century, a growing interest in rethinking and reconfiguring community has spread among theorists, citizens and social movements (Esposito 2010, 2011, 2013; Dardot & Laval 2014; Gilbert 2014; Gibson-Graham, Cameron & Healy 2013; Harney & Moten 2013; Hardt & Negri 2009; Amin & Roberts 2008; Nancy 1991, 2000). This has been triggered by a complex tangle of social, economic and political conditions. Climate change, economic crises, globalization and the malaise of liberal democracies loom large among them.

These issues are essentially political. Rethinking and refiguring communities goes hand in hand thus with rethinking and reinventing politics. Hence ‘hetero-politics’, the quest for another politics (‘hetero-’ means other or ‘alter’ in Greek), which can establish bonds of commonality across differences and can enable action in common without re-enacting the closures of ‘organic’ community or the violence of transformative politics in the past. Unless we reactivate thought on ‘the political’, we will remain forever stuck in the limits and the failures of conventional modes of thinking (in) politics. Consequently, we will remain entrapped in the confines and the deficiencies of hegemonic styles of politics or of defunct alternatives to them (Dardot & Laval 2014: 11-20; Amin & Thrift 2013).

The overarching objective of Heteropolitics will be to contribute to this much-needed reconceptualization of the common and the political in tandem. The research project will break, thus, new ground by combining:
i) an extended, critical and creative re-elaboration of contemporary political theory with
ii) a more empirically grounded research into new social movements and developments which explore alternative ways of doing politics and of building diverse communities in the economy, in civil society and in politics, under the critical circumstances of the present. (Relevant cases include: Sardex, a community currency in Sardinia; Barcelona en Comú, a participatory citizens’ platform governing now the City of Barcelona; the community of Sarantaporo in Northern Greece, building new digital, ecological and labour commons since 2010; and several others).

The ultimate aim is to articulate new figures of the common and the political which will be developed through critical dialogues between political theory and social practice and will help to keep this productive interaction going, in search of better ways of being in common and governing ourselves in the contemporary world. These figures will incarnate various endeavours to shape and sustain the common as a plurality of singular individuals and groups, and the political as an agonistic and inventive art of collective self-governance. On this conception, the common implies a variable interaction between differences which communicate and collaborate in and through their differences, converging partially on practices and particular pursuits in the economy, in politics and other domains of social life. The political pertains to processes through which plural communities manage themselves by enabling mutual challenges, deliberation, decision-making, the questioning of existing arrangements and creative agency. From the perspective of Heteropolitics, however, the political upholds effectively the common insofar as it opens up political decision-making, representation and leadership to ordinary people.

This project is situated firmly in the field of contemporary political theory. Heteropolitics will seek to flesh out the abstract ideas of contemporary theorising by engaging with particular empirical examples. It will conduct thus focussed, in-depth research in new social movements and alternative forms of political organization by way of specific case studies. Heteropolitics, however, is not primarily an empirical research program which will pursue an extensive collection of data on social movements, civic initiatives and new logics of political action, deploying the empirical methodologies of contemporary political science and sociology. Such work is valuable and necessary. In construing the common and the political we will draw thus extensively on empirical studies of new political phenomena and social mobilizations. Yet, Heteropolitics sets out from the critical understanding that new practices, emerging trends and creative initiatives call also for novel conceptual schemes and rigorous innovative theory to comprehend their original or divergent logics, to assess them and to outline ways of thinking which can inform and stimulate constructive work.

A theoretical labour of this sort cannot be carried out in depth in research which is focused primarily on data collection and analysis or in research which employs mainly quantitative methods. Without a parallel, systematic labour of conceptual renewal of the kind that Heteropolitics will undertake, empirical inquiries are likely to remain beholden to conventional schemes of thought and analysis which fail to shed light on forces of innovation, emergent tendencies and creative potentials. There is a burgeoning literature on the ‘commons’ which produces compilations of diverse case studies but makes little effort to work out a robust political theory which will both illuminate all these cases from a unified, coherent perspective and will support the construction of new and broader commons. Heteropolitics will seek, then, to innovate in two senses. It will contribute to the elaboration of this underdeveloped theoretical framework rather than simply offering yet another anthology of case studies. It will also innovate by reworking contemporary political theory in ways appropriate to the task at hand, developing notions which grasp various processes of ‘commoning’ politics, such as ‘common leadership’, ‘common representation’, ‘open pluralism’, ‘agonistic commons’, ‘post-hegemony’, and others. Thereby, Heteropolitics will seek to produce conceptual frames, critical analyses and visions that will be of practical use for empirical inquiries into contemporary patterns of community organization and civic mobilization.

Present-day political theory, however, calls for various revisions and further elaborations in order to overcome its limits and to become more relevant for the present. A close engagement with new thought on community and the commons acquires thus particular significance. This engagement will enable political theory to recast its concepts and its arguments in tune with new developments in social movements and community organization. An enrichment of political theory through critical conversations with the new philosophy of community and, mainly, with empirically informed analyses of the ‘commons’ and recent democratic movements is a key task in order to reactivate political thought in response to the current crisis of democracy. Heteropolitics is devoted to this endeavour, which remains largely an unfulfilled task in contemporary political theory.

By grappling creatively with actual work on communities, democratic movements and the commons, political theory can tackle its several flaws and gaps in the present. To begin with, despite its commitment to the critical study of actual political phenomena, the commons, new modes of politicization and new schemes of communal association have yet to receive adequate attention in agonistic political theory (for few exceptions, see Arditi 2008; Dean 2012; Mouffe 2013). Moreover, contemporary debates around ‘the political’ and its different manifestations and possibilities tend to be abstract, rigid and formulaic precisely because they fail to duly connect with civic action on the ground (see McNay 2014). For the same reason, political theory remains ill equipped to capture and to assess emergent patterns of transformative politics in civic initiatives and social mobilizations.

In the 20th century, thought on democratic social change has oscillated between reform and revolution. Both strategies, however, are typically state-centred, directed from the top, bureaucratic and often authoritarian. Hence, they are out of sync with actual practices of social renewal which emanate from the grassroots and are pursued at a distance from the state. The same holds true of the theory of ‘hegemony’ put forward by Antonio Gramsci, and Ernesto Laclau with Chantal Mouffe in our times. Democratic mobilizations and civil society initiatives in recent years tend to reject the structures of representation, centralization and top-down direction which define hegemonic politics (see Day 2005; Gibson-Graham 2006; Beasley-Murray 2010). Finally, other endeavours to rethink the invention of the new through ‘acts’ and ‘events’ in some quarters of contemporary political theory, mainly in the work of Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, do not fare much better. They have come in for various criticisms which take issue with their implausibly decisionist, authoritarian or paradoxically passive conception of creative political agency.

Heteropolitics is designed to address these failures of contemporary political thought

  •  first, by broaching socio-political innovation as a long-term process of creative response to social dislocations and open, ongoing, plural experiments rather than as a momental and miraculous eruption, drawing on the relevant work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1987, 1994), Richard Day (2005), Gibson-Graham (2006) and James Scott (1990), among others.
  •  second, by delving into new practices of the commons and democratic self-governance in social groups and mobilizations, the project will figure out how they initiate a process of ‘commoning’ mainstream politics and political strategies (relevant examples include Sardex; Barcelona en Comú; the community of Sarantaporo in Northern Greece; see also the Appendix). Heteropolitics intends to explore how meaningful civic participation on various levels could be enhanced through institutional reforms which build on grassroots initiatives so as to promote social integration (including migrants) and to increase citizens’ trust, interest and involvement in national and European democracy, combating the prevailing apathy, alienation and resentment.
  • third, Heteropolitics adopts a broad and flexible understanding of the ‘political’ as a deliberate process of social self-construction, self-management and collective debate over institutions and social relations. Thus construed, the ‘political’ can be traced out in any social domain, from culture and education to the economy, the political system and social pro-tests. The ‘political’ can assume diverse, new and unexpected forms. These may inspire practices of political renewal and civic empowerment in a variety of other social fields, beyond their original location.

Heteropolitics will elaborate thus new hybrid concepts such as ‘common leadership’, ‘post-hegemony’, and others which take account of new developments in social movements and community organization and can produce conceptual frames that will be of practical use for empirical inquiries into community organization and civic mobilization.

We will critically inquire into new, alternative and incipient practices of community building and self-governance in:
– education (Coté, Day & de Peuter 2007)
– the social economy (Amin 2009; Gibson-Graham, Cameron & Healy 2013)
– art (Cvejić & Vujanović 2012)
– new platforms of citizens’ participation in municipal politics (Tormey 2015)

Introducing agonistic theory and hegemony in the contemporary discussion of the commons is a major innovation of the Heteropolitics project, without precedent in contemporary theory. It can help to advance the commons as a broader paradigm and force of social change.