The Operative Commons: urban land in the age of biopolitical production

William Conroy

November 2018


This presentation analyzes the politics of land in contemporary Chicago. Empirically, it looks at efforts to re-commodify vacant land in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, and at the ongoing gentrification of the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen. In doing so, it follows a dialectical structure, arguing that both cases represent moments in the same process. In Englewood we see efforts by planners to produce the “biopolitical commons” for the sake of future land commodification and enclosure; and in Pilsen we see the enclosure of the commons – many of which are only considered valuable (by capital) because of past biopolitical interventions – through processes of gentrification. The main theoretical argument put forward in relation to these processes stands in opposition to the claim that post-Fordist capital simply expropriates wealth that is autonomously produced across the urban commons. Specifically, this presentation suggests that in locales of racialized “ontological devaluation” – which are understood as such due to the ontological hierarchies instantiated by racial capitalism – planners (acting as surrogates for capital) play an active role. They contribute to the attempted production of new subjectivities, affects, and modes of collective sociality, for the sake of accumulation. Finally, this presentation explores the immanent practices that have emerged to resist these processes in Chicago. In Englewood, the presentation demonstrates how attempts to produce the biopolitical commons have actually opened space for the articulation of a dialectical spatiotemporal imaginary that lends itself to post-capitalist modes of commoning. In Pilsen, it demonstrates how anti-gentrification activists have produced their own autonomous urban commons and used the "grammar of the commons," more broadly, to make counter-normative citizenship claims and to suggest a new ontology of the city.