When the squares emptied…

Written by: Bertie Russell


On September 15th, 2008, the global finance firm Lehmann Brothers filed for bankruptcy. A billion dollar business ceased to exist overnight. The collapse triggered an almost unprecedented financial crisis, as investors went into a collective panic that trillions of dollars worth of stocks and shares weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Yet September 15th 2008 was much more than the bankruptcy of an individual business – or even the bankruptcy of a financial system – it was the bankruptcy of an Idea.

For the previous thirty years, the political and economic institutions of the Global North had enforced the myth that it was “money that made the world go round”. From the claim that genetic information could be ‘owned’ through to global efforts to put a price on our atmosphere, the dominant logic was simple: the decision that produces profit is the right decision. Rather than living in a world of things we needed to live well, we were living in a world of profit opportunities.

In moving to ‘bail out’ the banks, national governments set in motion the socialization of the financial crisis, turning the toxicity of obscure financial assets into the toxicity of public spending. Trapped within in a myth of its own making, the political establishment tried to solve a problem using the same tools that created it. Our social goods were plunged deeper into crisis, as public assets were carved up and sold off, and public services were outsourced to the lowest bidder. The era of austerity was never really ‘new’, but the latest way to repackage an idea that had already died.  

From Syntagma Square to Wall Street, people occupied the squares to refuse this Idea; it wasn’t profit that made the world go round, it was people. It was time for our decisions to be based on human decency and solidarity rather than share prices and competition. This wasn’t about tweaking tax rates or quantitative easing, but finding altogether different ways to run our societies – new forms of ownership, new types of governance, new forms of participation, and new ways of collectively providing the time, space and resources that help us to live a good life together.

When the squares emptied, it looked like everything had returned to business as usual – but something had fundamentally changed. A generation of people had been brought closer to one another, and they realized they were not alone. We were no longer isolated individuals being shaken around in a world we couldn’t control, but part of communities capable of creating and deciding upon our collective futures. And if it was in the city-squares that we came together to reject the old idea, it was in the cities themselves that we started to create new ones. There was no single program or text-book for how this was to be done; instead, communities and collectives begun to experiment, looking to find ways in which we could live in common. And they’ve been succeeding.

The Cities of Change project looks to share what we’re collectively learning from these experiments. Not only is there an alternative to the Old Idea, but it’s already happening. From co-housing projects to the democratic re-municipalisation of energy systems, legal frameworks for the expansion of the commons through to supportive frameworks for the social and solidarity economy, participatory democratic processes that enable citizens to become decision makers through to processes for redistributing surplus council wages to social projects… these experiments are upsetting many of the traditional categories for ‘doing politics’.

We believe that these disparate practices are the building blocks of a new idea – one that can’t be contained in a textbook, a single party program, or even spoken in a single voice. Yet this idea is one that we’ve known all along, we’re just learning new ways to put it into practice. It’s not money that makes the world go round, it’s us. We invite you to collaborate.