Community as an alternative way of life towards ecological sustainability, or: Community as a critique towards state, market and desire.

Written for a lecture at San Art, Ho Chi Minh City, June 2015.  

I want to share what I recently noticed as a realistic and reasonable possibility, and hence expect some conversation about it: community as an alternative way of life towards ecological sustainability, or, in consequence, community as a critique towards the state, market and, even more importantly, desire.

What I meant is to go beyond the treatment of community only as a subject in developmental approach, such as apparent in, among others, phrases like “community-based development”, “community-driven reconstruction”, “community mapping”, etc.

By community I mean a group of people where its members live together in a territory, and share some commons in concrete way, with bounds and consequences immediately felt when something goes wrong. For that effect –that the bounds and consequences immediately felt when something goes wrong– size and territorial or spatial limits are essential. As such I therefore exclude for the time being the modified use of the term community such as in “community of practice” and others, unless they move towards living together in a bounded space and size. For the time being, I will also limit my talk NOT to include those “imagined communities” and “institutional communities” such as “European community” and “ASEAN community” “International community” and even “the nation-state”.

An important conclusion would be that collaborative works with communities (defined as in above) could be practiced with the highest consciousness on the imperfection of the state, market and desire, as much as on the imperfection of community itself. It would raise an ambition that community is not a mere a fill-in for the cracks in the nation-state and capitalist system. It is a potential source to produce alternatives, if not substitutes, and more importantly: critiques.

As towards desire, a community, concrete as I meant it, can play the role not only as a check upon excessive consumption, but also a source for concepts and practices of (ecologically) sustainable consumption and production, at least to prevent us from falling into “the tragedy of the commons”, and as an “ideology” to produce more commons, or as a worthy place in itself to locate more commons.

In other words, community could be a source to produce new relations in living together, as a modus vivendi itself, in a system of collaborative consumption and production, and in giving meanings to, or making sense out of, co-existence with “others.”

I need to make a caveat. My background is architecture and urban studies, not political or social sciences. My references to concepts of state and market are therefore provisional and elementary, and I am also limited by my own works with communities. I would be grateful for corrections and inputs.

With such background, I had started my attention on public and common spaces initially in physical sense. But in this talk, depending on context, the term space would naturally also mean their more abstract, non-physical senses. The word commons could also mean non-physical facility, for example: values, knowledge, skills and traditions.

My perspective is naturally limited by the context of Indonesia. I would be very pleased to hear feedbacks from different contexts, including of course Vietnam or Ho Chi Minh City.

My last note of excuses is that ecology is my strong motif. I have been interested in ecological sustainability for sometime as a major theme in my personal research.


Public and Common Space

I make a distinction between physical public and common spaces.

A public space is managed by the state through its government. It some countries, the state legally actually owns public spaces. The state has become a party in itself. Obviously such spaces are built by the state. The easiest example would be the streets, public spaces that in development language also function as infrastructure.

In a conference organised by the German Green Party (Bündnis ’90/Die Grünen) in Berlin in 2012, I was surpised at first to see several artistic projects whereby previously abandoned public spaces were re-animated by the artists in collaboration with and for the surrounding communities that eventually took over to further manage them. In effect, this is what I see as practical the transformation of public spaces into common spaces. Then I realised that this has actually been happening in the last decade or so all over the world, from Amazone to Berlin, including in Indonesia of course.

A common space is shared directly by the community who also take over its upkeep. Programs, functions, rules are often made and observed voluntarily by the community that is limited in size, and bound sometimes by cultural background. When something goes wrong, it would be solved internally, without requiring the presence of state. A community is somehow an autonomous entity, although not necessarily idealistically anarchic.

Recently I found that there are many people working on the idea of commons and its production process. In cultural criticism you might want to check the works of CASCO and its partners in several countries. In Indonesia artists have been working with communities to create commons or not for a couple of decades. This is the subject of my next lecture. In economics, you might want to check the work of Christian Felber with his book The Economy for Common Good. From ecological perspectives there are emerging works titled “environmental economics”, “ecological economics”, green economy, blue economy, green capitalism, etc. Despite all the subtle differences, ideas and theories are being pursued to invent something beyond or outside capitalistic economy. In Berlin the word “solidarity” is again said with pride and urgency among activists and academics when I visited the city last December.

Commons, because it changes the property relationships as it creates a sense of direct ownership, produces dignity among its members.

A friend, Silverius Oscar Unggul (Onte), an international awards-winning social entrepreneur that founded a sustainable forestry venture by communities said that Indonesia development has failed bacause it does not create dignity, because it does not create sense of ownership, because it fragment properties into individual ownership. Development should mean building of more/maximum commons. This directly contradicts practices of capitalistic development this long that falls between maximum private individual wealth (hopefully with equality) and maximum “public” goods owned and managed by the government (hopefully for the sake of the people). The first extreme disconnects humans from the common nature while the second alienates citizens in ways not much different from the process of commodification.

Perhaps it is true that nation-state (as we know now) has failed to emancipate humans because it has failed to build dignity, or even has taken it away from humans?

Where is the dignity in sewing shirts, which are later sold to someone somewhere at a price ten or hundred times than the wage earned? Where is the dignity in planting seeds that are not cultured and cannot be produced by the peasants themselves? They were identical, cold, and consumed by nobody knows whom.

For at least the last 250 years, commons have been degraded into private properties by capitalists and/or taken over as public by the state.

Can the state produce and/or distributed commons, instead of public good? Can the idea of “building commons” be translated into a national development programme?

In art and cultural sphere, through civil society organisations, building as much as possible commons (in communities) make sense because it is more viable in terms of funding, audience development, and concrete ways where artists can engage people. (We will talk more about this in my second lecture).

Indonesian national budget actually allocate funds to be transferred to communities or civil society organisations of different kinds to build something for themselves. But there could be more awareness to use the transfers to build long standing commons rather than projects that are consumable in sort period or, worse, redistributed into individual private subsidies, in which case the allocation loses its power of number.

But even in the arts sector alone, in our experience, building commons would be a huge undertaking. It requires changes in governments to be friendly to communities. The basic challenges are that communities are diversifying as the way of the whole world is diversifying and the governments have to prioritize and hence select, due to limited resources. Governments are known for willing standard and homogeneous units to easily handle them, not heterogeneity.

Paradoxes of The Nation-state

Patriotism and nationalism are in themselves a limitation, at least when seen from ecological perspective. National solidarity among “fellow nationals/countrymen” are both too narrow and too large. Why, for example, Acehnese (an region in the northern tip of Sumatera) have to feel closer to the people in Papua (the eastern most Indonesia), instead of the Patani’s (In westren coast of Thailand across the strait of Malacca) or people of Penang (In Malaysian peninsula that is also across the strait)? Or, similarly, why should the Minahasa people in North Sulawesi feel closer to the Sundanese, instead of the people in Mindanao (the southern most island of the Philippines), across the Celebes Sea. At the same time it is also too narrow: Why the intra-nation solidarity is more important than intra-species solidarity (which we call humanity), or even –as we start to realise now– inter-species solidarity?

Naturally, there are ecological basis for a species to develop a modus vivendi whereby members of the species can work together more closely within a shared habitat that are geologically bound, as compared to the members of the same species in other habitats. But even within the same habitat an INTER-species modus vivendi is actually required.

If it is true that humans are the only species that has developed consciousness, and that all species and other elements on and in Planet Earth are inter-related and even inter-dependent, is it not logical to think that humans should be the conscious for all species and the whole Earth, and see themselves as organic pars-pro-toto of it, and that they have a special task with the consciousness, to function for the sake of all?

But that has not been the case and is actually violated as humans claims most of natural commons for themselves both as a species and as individuals, and hence the degradation of our ecosystem. “Tragedy of the commons” is the easiest illustration.

That is why perhaps ecological knowledge and consciousness can build a new bridge to bring us towards a new plane of consciousness where we see the whole earth as something neither to be scared of nor to be conquered, but as other parts of the same body that we humans also organically belong to.

The state’s tendency to standardise is an inherent bureaucratic instinct to make things easy to manage in justice. Nevertheless, it is a limitation of power, not an excess. But its very nature as it is now that it would be very difficult for any state to serve diverse reality without trying at its best to reduce it to manageable standardised units. The issue remains, however, that reality is a diversifying diversity, both ecologically and socially. Its intensity is even increasing with the rise of new technologies of connectedness. Human species is diversifying its “variety” by increasing inter-racial marriages.[2] With that: increasing variety of cultural traits and complex identities. It is inevitable.

Modern mechanistic rational thinking has prompted standardisation to make possible welfare for every individual citizen not just and equal, but also accountable and measurable. Democracy demands accountability that in turns requires measurability. Science is used to serve that purpose. Calorie consumption is used to measure poverty, and is a factor in determining minimum wage.


Community as a critique of State, Market and Desire

How community plays a role as a critique towards the state and (capitalistic) market is obvious and has been widely discussed. What is lacking in my opinion is discourse on how community can be a critique towards desire.

Modernisation, through “Enlightenment” wishes to free individual men and women from dependence and submissiveness to traditional communities, which are often repressive by its outdated norms, limited perspectives and lack of connectedness to outside world. But via the state and the capitalistic market human are again made into slavery. Emancipation is there, but far from full or even significant. They are like freed from the lion’s teeth into the tiger’s lair. How if communities can be modern, egalitarian, democratic, and hence offer emancipation?   Even when emancipation must be seen as a viable offer of possibility to prevent it from being an brutally imposed program.

We do not yet know how the struggle with climate change (and limited resource) will eventually play out. There are a few scenarios. But the permanent issue is: the Limit to Growth. And I believe it has to DO with how we criticize our desire.

Somehow we have now a consensus that there is a need for an ecological transition that must be started now (or the day before yesterday). Ecological transition is process whereby we change our living system to be WITHIN the system of the Earth and its principles in line with the “logics of the house” (earth) (oikos logos).


There are currently experiments on reforming desire. The motivation is clear, Changes at individual level is not sufficient. Changes need to be tested out, rooted at the level of “living together”, the locus where more complex but unavoidable relationships take place. A ecologically sustainable modus vivendi must be discovered or constructed. Community might be a viable scale/level.

At Bumi Pemuda Rahayu (, our sustainability learning center in the south of Yogyakarta, Java, with our neighbours we negotiate to introduce bamboo to replace wood for building and furniture. Bamboo can also be better appreciated and used in better ways if the design of its products and skills in making them are improved to the highest possible grade. We organise regular workshop with Japanese bamboo master craftsperson from Japan, Takayuki Shimizu (or Zu sensei). We have workshops with the ladies in our neighbourhood there to rediscover old menus (from their grand mother generation) with local food from the time when no MSG and palm cooking oil were used. Less frying, but more boiling, steaming, or grilling.

Within ecological perspective, consumption is the very basic (simple?) of desire. But related to it there are deeper and sometimes hidden layers: ambition for universal prosperity, power, industrial complex and vested interest, expansion of living space into nature and others’ territories (for example those of the indigenous people, the forest Nomad of Jambi in Sumatera), and so on.

Communities, through a process of dialogue and open communication, could provide bounds and is a moderating voice. It may begin with posing questions to distinguish needs from wants, and moves towards exploring alternatives that might or might not be limiting or offering new abundance, (When the energy is renewable, it is actually abundance, not limiting). Is there a sustainable consumption and production? This is the question that should now lead and be answered to invent new economic and state forms/system. No matter what we believe about the state and the market, they are just constructed to cater to our desire. Thinking about them cannot be fundamental enough without thinking about our desire. Community can be a meaningful critique of consumption and production when it also discusses desire.

Is a city a community?

South East Asia in the course of between the 15th and 17th centuries was in the flux of intense and expansive trade. The time produced a number of important coastal cities that started as trading ports anew or on pre-existing settlements. The Gowa Sultanate moved their capital to the coast of Makassar in the 16th century and built a mighty fort, one of a few that built by local, non-European powers.

An “urban society” with a real sense of community emerged in South East Asia in the decades at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, albeit the fact that its membership was limited to the learned and elites, while the majority had to suffer the discrimination and little access to the city’s services and infrastructures.    Dr. Su Lin Lewis’s study and writings are good work on this field. She wrote for example about the emergence of “Modern Girl” in Penang in that period. The period also witnessed formation of literati class in South East Asian cities and founding of their infrastructures (universities, library, clubs) that help consolidate them to entertain ideas of nationhood. Nations of South East Asia were born out of the cities, so to speak. The colonial governments in The Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) started its “Ethical Politics” in the beginning of the 20th century. Economic growth, together with the expansion of European population in several cities, prompted also the first decentralisation law (1903) that gave autonomous status to several cities in the region, including Medan, Palembang (in Sumatera) Batavia (now Jakarta), Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Yogyakarta (In Java), Denpasar (Bali) and others in other major islands of the Dutch Indies.

Urbanity started identically with modernity. So was urban communities. It changed the perception of the world, selves, and conception of time and space. It is not the same with what was there before. It was a period when many “community organisations” were allowed to be formed, although often limited to race-based and economically privileged classes. The Chinese were then able to form associations that take care of their social and economic needs, providing schools and hospitals, even driving courses and photography clubs. This is important as the colonial “Ethical Politics” did not include them as beneficiaries of public education and health system, however rudimentary they were. Several ethnic groups (or island-based) were also able to form youth associations, such as Jong Celebes, Jong Java, and Jong Sumatera.

Is a city a community? It has served as the source of critique towards colonial state then. I see no reason why it should not be a critique of contemporary forms of state. A city, being the most organised modus vivendi in the most intense and dense conditions, provide many common goods and narratives. But there are current and continuous, if not persistent, threats to its being commons. It is therefore also urgent that the city, for it to remain a community, to also criticise itself. It is important that a community is not just a critique towards others, but also itself, including its modes of consumption and production, that infact has been the biggest factor to ecological issues. 40% of substances extracted from the Earth are used to build cities, 30% of its energy spent in its buildings and streets. The rest of materials and energy might be spent in the cities as well, as the world is irreversibly urbanising with more and more population live in the cities or urban conditions. The city in its long history has been changing individuals and civilisations. It can be changed, too, fundamentally in the way it uses energy and materials.

So, yes, a city can be a community, one that is more real than a nation state, as long as it is productive in creating and maintaining commons, being critical to itself and others. We cannot deny that most encroachment and transformation of commons into the public or private properties take place most and increasingly intensely actually in expanding cities. Better, a city can be seen also as consisting of many communities that interact among each other. Its size is a matter of question: how large a city can be to remain productive and critical as a community and sustainable? Can a metropolis be so still? The larger a city becomes, it seems that it depends more on the mediation of the state and capitalist system. The public would become more dominant that the commons. The system would reduce diversity and more standardisation. Bigness, as in nation-state, is itself an expression of desire.

There is a good illustration of a recent conflict between the desire for nation-state and community. A 90-years man was detained by the police because he feeds homeless people in a “public space” in Florida. He has been doing so for years. But a new regulation was recently issued. It requires that he must also provide a toilet, which he could not. A community-friendly state would facilitate him instead, by providing the toilet for him. The questions posed by this incident is: How much is public space a common? How far can communal solidarity can be carried out in it? How should a state conceptualise the existence of communities and implied solidarity and use of public space as a common? How can it support rather than forbid?

The process of “nationisation” (becoming a nation) coincides with modernisation process. This is in line with caputalism as a way to create prosperity to the majority in rapid, standardised and measurable ways. For most of post-colonial states, that also means a rapid urbanisation. Cities are the loci for efficient systematic accumulation. This is the cause of villages –the loci of traditional wholesome communities– being abandoned as people move to the cities. But going back to the village life does not seem to be a viable option.

Some practices

In several cities organised movements against neo-liberalist production of space and commodities are emerging. Berliners started to realise that they losing most of their public (common?) lands, as they were sold to foreign global corporations with different desires, to build the city, but to accumulate profits. Some groups have been organising talks, research, strategies and actions. The word “solidarity” is in circulation again in daily life.

Artists, as we will talk more in details in my next talk, have for sometime been working with communities to build some kind of new consciousness together. Some work with farmers, combining Marxist and ecological perspective together, such as Taring Padi. Some others revitalise traditional artistic forms and work towards new recompositions, such as Komunitas Lima Gunung. Some really brings contemporary arts into semi rural-semi urban area, such as the Jatiwangi Arts Factory. Note the different types or depth of community engagement in each. Some really facilitate community members to become artistic collaborators, some engage them as artisans, some others engage them as audience. There are also ad-hoc alliances, staged to work on certain issues or societal event. In Los Angeles, for example, in the years leading to its closure in 2006, South Central Farmers work with activists and artists to demonstrate their case.

In the period of 15 to 30 November RCUS worked with WWF to organise an artist expedition “Liwuto Pasi” to the Marine National Park Wakatobi in eastern Indonesia. 12 artists were induced into the islanders communities in four different islands. They lived there for 14 days. Each worked differently with the communities in terms of their width and depth of engagement. Some artists proved that communities are effective creators because they have talents as well as traditions that they remember.

What comes out from the distinction between the commons and the public, it is obvious that one does not need to replace the other. It is very obvious for example when regards the public and common spaces. Further consequence is that the state does not need to replace or repress communities. Communities are socially and ecologically necessary.

Conflicts between different approaches in housing development for urban poor, between those that promote diversity based on community’s local creativity and those promoted by government that tend to impose one single approach to every locality, that homogenises, wiping out nuances and preventing enrichment of meanings, in deed reflect the tension between the state and the community. The state with power that is based on hegememonic rationality is perhaps best exemplified by Singapore, while at the other end communities that are still living with their own independent norms are best exemplified by indigenous peoples that somehow defy the state of Indonesia by rejecting their education system and certain infrastructure and agricultural system, for example. The Badui in the deep interior of West Java even refused to participate in general election. The Philippines has a special law that protect the limited sovereignty of the Bajo sea nomads along its southern coastal regions. Many environmental conservation programs in Indonesia, maybe also in other countries, are based on and use rules available in their traditional forms among the indigenous people. The later happily participate in enforcing the rules themselves without state’s intervention. [3]

Communal conflicts in the Moluccas, Indonesia, after the 1998 reform movement were eventually resolved through communal traditions, not through state’s national enforcement. The reconstruction of Aceh after the 2014 tsunami involved many autonomous initiatives by communities.

Neo-liberal states that depend on, or even delegate parts of their responsibility to private corporations, by deduction admit their limitations. This does not always fit popular imagination about the nature of state. It is even more problematic when there are also imperfections in many aspects of governance, for example kleptocratic bureaucracy, narcissistic politicians, and self-serving institutions.

Communities that are not reachable or serviceable by such states are not necessarily hopeless, because they can see that condition as a freedom from hegemonic and totalitarian power with all external interests invested in it. This freedom is an opportunity for communities to develop their own capacity to take care of themselves and to develop critical discourse about the state, modal and desire in managing the environment respectfully. There should be no need for any state to insist on its hegemonic rules upon communities that are not looking for trouble and are just thriving to take care of their own needs. Oftentimes the states that are trying to impose its hegemonic rules are acting so to take over commons to become public and/or, worse, to be given as concessions to private corporations.

“Nationisation” does not need to be 100 %

I do not mean nationalisation, but nationisation as the process of becoming a nation-state in its current modern form.

Developing countries are “new” post-colonial nations where the state has not perfectly reached out to all its people and communities or all dimensions of life perfectly.

Communities might not need to after all regret it. We might not need to be completely “nationised” 100%. The state does not need to take over everything, all aspects of individual and/or community’s life.

Our current economic system has been so exploitative as industrialisation and technology in the last 250 years have cause the earth to experience the tragedy of the commons in massive scale. Abundance does reduce price (as supply surpass demand), but it also stimulates demand to increase as desire creates wants on the surplus. There is no real freedom without being with others. being in a community could be a viability within the framework of necessary change towards sustainable consumption and production, even to recover the environmental damage and degradation in the last 250 years.

Closing remarks

I do not expect that the program “community as a critique” can become a mainstream. Becoming one would defeat its own purpose. States and capitalism will keep beating community, fragmenting it into a floating mass of bodies of individuals, or at least trying to suppress the very idea of it.

The only forseable future for it is to become lonely oases. But for me that is good enough, as long as it keeps glowing as multiple flames, and that there will be a new flame every time one dies off. It would be a victory without any defeated.

As to how great its vitality will be, the idea of community as critique will depend on how active and persistent its activists co-produce practices and theories.



[2] A “race” is a “variety” in evolution term.

[3] In some cases the traditional rules are made into local bylaws.

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