Thursday, September 22, 2011

Coalition-Building in the City: the Sydney Alliance Founding Assembly

On the 15th of September, the Sydney Alliance had its Founding Assembly. Over 2000 people packed the Sydney Town Hall for the occasion, drawn from the ranks of the 45 member organisations made up of non-government organisations, trade unions and religious organisations.

The stated goal of the Alliance is to "bring together diverse community organisations, unions and religious organisations to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city." It's part of the wider international network of citizen coalitions affilliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which includes coalitions such as the Seattle Sound Alliance and Citizens UK. It was seed-funded in 2007 by Unions NSW, the peak body for trade unions in NSW. With its strong trade union involvement, the Sydney Alliance also explicitly positions itself within an Australian tradition of community-union alliances such as the green ban movement of the 1970s.

The Founding Assembly was an exciting night for me, on lots of levels. The National Tertiary Education Union has joined the Alliance, and I was one of several NTEU members there on the night. I've also been actively involved in the Alliance's Research-Action Team on public transport for a few months now, and had a small speaking role in the Assembly on behalf of that Team. They are a fantastic bunch of people, and it was a real thrill to represent them on the night and watch the whole thing go down from up on the stage. (Yay Team Transport!!)

More broadly, I think it was also an exciting night for the city. The Assembly very publicly staged the Alliance in all its diversity and ambition. In this regard, two moments stood out for me. The first was the opening "roll-call" in which someone from each of the 45 member organisations stood up to deliver a brief message about their organisation and why it had joined the Alliance. As members of each organisation stood and spoke to cheers and applause from the crowd, I actually got chills ... it was a powerful display of unity and common purpose across difference, and a real highlight of the night.

The second moment was the speech given by Amanda Tattersall, the Alliance's Director. At one point, she noted that we the people had been "sliced and diced and categorised" in various ways by political parties and the media and corporate interests --- as 'Howard's Battlers', as 'working families', as 'consumers', etc. "But from tonight," she concluded, "we go by a new name. We are the Sydney Alliance!" I think this part of Amanda's speech spoke to one of most important aspects of what the Alliance is all about -- the creation of a new political subject in and of this city.

All of which brings me to the subject of coalition-building in the city more generally. This issue has re-emerged as a central concern of recent urban activism and theory concerned with rights to the city and/or spatial justice. So, in what follows I want to offer a few thoughts on the on-going work of the Sydney Alliance through a dialogue with two recent books by Ed Soja and Mark Purcell. Both of these books strive to move beyond critique of neoliberal urbanisms by thinking about the kinds of movements that might articulate (and hopefully even realise!) visions of a more just and democratic city.

The core argument of Soja's 2010 book Seeking Spatial Justice is that a ‘critical spatial perspective’ is necessary both for theories of justice and for the practical task of building effective political movements for justice. The book is structured as a dialogue between these related theoretical and practical realms. The early chapters develop the theoretical argument that the spatiality of justice and injustice are ‘integral and formative’ (SSJ, p. 1). As such, struggles for justice are struggles over the making of new geographies. Given this, it is Soja’s belief that struggles for justice can be waged more effectively if they are informed by an explicit spatial consciousness. He sees such a consciousness in formation over the past several decades of urban activism in Los Angeles, which are chronicled in the prologue and second half of the book. And he argues that this spatial consciousness is a crucial ingredient in the formation of progressive coalitions more broadly:
Adding spatial to justice, collectively seeking an explicitly spatialized form of social and economic justice, can be particularly effective in providing an organizational and motivational adhesive, or “glue”, that can encourage and maintain heterogeneous and pluralistic association and community building. All who are oppressed, subjugated, or economically exploited are to some degree suffering from the effects of unjust geographies, and this struggle over geography can be used to build greater crosscutting unity and solidarity.’ (SSJ, p. 24; see also pp. 109 and 199).
Soja values Lefebvre's concept of the 'right to the city' precisely for its potential to introduce a critical spatial perspective into progressive politics.

In his 2008 book Recapturing Democracy, Mark Purcell ends up making some similar arguments about the ways in which a critical spatial (or in his case, specifically urban) consciousness might assist progressive coalition building. For him, a crucial element in the struggle to overturn neoliberalism with democracy is the ability of different movements and organisations to build coalitions or 'networks of equivalence'. The goal of building networks of equivalence should be: 
for difference to remain irreducible, for movements to remain fundamentally distinct from each other, yet to enable them to act in concert, to produce a coordinated opposition to their equivalent (not identical) oppression. An entirely reductive movement is not democratic (and could easily be totalitarian), but a plethora of disconnected movements poses no threat (and even offers much opportunity) to neoliberalization (RD, p. 82)
Purcell goes on to argue that "the urban can ... be a strategic linchpin that holds together networks of equivalence" (RD p. 89). Here again, a revised concept of the right to the city is put forward as an idea which can serve as the kind of glue "through which different groups can act in concert" (RD, p. 100). 

Despite the obvious similarities in these two books, I think there's an important difference in how Soja and Purcell approach urban coalition building. Soja comes close to saying that the ontological spatiality of justice and injustice give progressive urban/spatial alliances a foundation in reality which is waiting to be realised through the development of a spatial consciousness. Purcell, on the other hand, argues that the utility of the right to the city is not ontologically or theoretically given, but is something that has to be established in practice. From his perspective, 'equivalence' is not "the result of political archaeology to discover what is already there" (RD p. 107). Rather, it only comes to exist through:
political struggle to forge a strategic linchpin that resonates equivalently (but not identically) with the challenges facing each group.
Purcell believes that the 'right to the city' is one potential linchpin, but concedes that this is something that has to be evaluated through practice in different places:
So the right to the city cannot be a fully formed agenda, it can only be an initiative, a catalyst, for a process of political construction. Just what that process might look like then becomes an empirical question. It must be worked out by political movements in specific contexts (RD p. 107).

This "working out" of the basis for equivalence has been going on with the Sydney Alliance for three years now, culminating in last week's Founding Assembly. Embracing the organising model of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Alliance has approached this task through a slow but hopefully powerful process of building one-on-one relationships across activists and leaders in diverse member organisations. The purpose of these meetings is not for people to put aside their differences, but to focus on their areas of shared concern.

So, to what extent is this an example of building coalitions via a spatial or urban consciousness? There is an implicit geographical dimension to this work of relationship-building -- it is called the Sydney Alliance after all! But the concept of the common good has been mobilised as the 'glue' or 'strategic linchpin' which serves as the basis for equivalence that holds the Alliance together, rather than some more explicitly geographical or urban agenda such as the 'right to the city' or spatial justice as .

Now, this does not mean that geography has been unimportant. The very fact that public transportation has emerged from these years of organising as a campaign priority suggests that the spatial dimensions of justice and injustice have indeed come to the fore as diverse member organisations come together to identify and act on their common concerns as inhabitants of Sydney.

But can the 'common good' serve as an effective 'glue' for a progressive urban coalition? Purcell sounds a cautionary note about the notion of the 'common good' as the basis for equivalence. To him:
Given pre-existing inequalities, the demand that all groups put the common good ahead of their own interests imposes an unequal burden. … The common-good ethic restricts the political options of disadvantaged and marginalised groups. The most effective way for them to overcome their disadvantage is to organize and advocate for their own interests. A social-movement model where disadvantaged groups come together to pursue democratic outcomes that best meet their particular interests … is the political option that can most directly reduce inequality. The common-good ethic stifles such an option; it would require the social movement not only to achieve the decisions that favor them, but the more general interests of the city (or the society) as a whole. Such a burden is almost punitive (RD, p. 79).
However, I don't think that this critique applies to the way in which the 'common good' is being articulated through the Sydney Alliance. Purcell is rightly critical of the way in which the 'common good' is sometimes mobillised in order to shut down opposition to various urban development plans which are justified with 'trickle down' economics (ie the notion that what's good for a developer is good for the city as a whole because it produces economic growth, jobs, etc.). But the Sydney Alliance is working with an understanding of the common good that is explicitly situated with reference to the needs of civil society in distinction (if also in relation) to the economy and the state. 

More importantly, the Sydney Alliance is also very explicitly opposed to the notion that individual member organisations must put aside their self-interest in order to work for the 'common good' (a point Amanda Tattersall also made in her speech). Rather, the Alliance is premised very explictly on the idea that diverse organisations will have more luck pursuing their own self-interest if they build coalitions with others doing the same thing. I think this resonates with Purcell's notion that in progressive alliances, the trick is to find ways of organising which enable "difference to remain irreducible, for movements to remain fundamentally distinct from each other, yet to enable them to act in concert, to produce a coordinated opposition to their equivalent (not identical) oppression."

Nevertheless, it's important to ask probing questions of the common good as a mobilising strategy. Compared to 'spatial justice' or the 'right to the city', I think the 'common good' probably speaks more directly to a wider variety of people for whom those other concepts might not resonate. On the other hand, I know some of my less enthusiastic union comrades are worried that the 'common good' is a bit of a fluffy concept, and/or that the Sydney Alliance focus on relationship building around the 'common good' is all talk and no action. 

For me, as for Purcell with the 'right to the city', the proof will inevitably be in the pudding. Whether or not organising around the 'common good' will be effective in building a powerful and progressive coalition is itself an open question. I, for one, am committed to give it a go in a city whose interests have for way too long been identified with the interests of developers and globally-oriented capital!

Having said that, in the years to come I think it's going to be important for those of us who are involved to explore more fully the meaning of the 'Sydney' in the Sydney Alliance...

So, there you go: a geographer concludes by suggesting that geography is important: what a surprise!!!!


* [Of course, Soja would probably reply that the re-theorising justice and injustice from a spatial perspective is part of the 'work' of building the spatial consciousness which might form the basis of progressive alliances in cities. So, this might be just chicken-or-egg stuff I am sweating ... who knows?!] 

Further Refs:
If you made it this far, you've surely had enough! :-) But just in case...

-- Amanda Tattersall (2010) Power in Coalition, Allen and Unwin
-- Kurt Iveson (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice: Some Reflections from Sydney, in City 14(6). (That issue of City had a series of responses to Soja's book)
-- Kurt Iveson (2011) Social or Spatial Justice? Marcuse and Soja on the Right to the City, in City 15(2) (with a response from Soja in the same issue)
-- Kurt Iveson (2009) Responding to the Financial Crisis: From Competitive to Cooperative Urbanism, in Journal of Australian Political Economy, 64.
-- Geographer Jane Wills has been actively involved in research effort for London Citizens Living Wage campaign. Info and further refs on this can be found here.


  1. Kurt--great post as usual. Thanks for the analysis and the report on what sounds like a promising initiative. My own hesitations about the common good, as you point out, are in a bit of a different context than yours( i.e. a citywide common that includes both the stronger/rich and the weaker/poor), so I would not want to criticize Sydney Alliance for working with that term. At the same time, whenever a group of relative peers tries to act in concert and forge a common sense/will they run the risk of creating a common that favors some of their number more than others, which will tend to fray the coherence of the whole.

    I also find it interesting to ask how this sort of model (highly organized groups creating citywide coalitions--community/labor/faith it sounds like in Sydney) compares with the model we have seen so often this year: masses of (relatively) spontaneously organized actions in which such organized groups have been conspicuously minor, if not absent. I wonder how the model in Sydney sees the need engage with or adapt to or link up with the Tahrir/Sol/Syntagma alterantive of relatively decentralized, leaderless, and spontaneous action. That seems to me to be *the* question facing us all these days...

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