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On the edge of activism and profit

zaterdag 25 augustus 2018
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  • Illustration by Gary Vaynerchuk

During our many discussions and couch-talks concerning activism, part of the courses of the elective “activism and architecture” in the WTC buildings in Brussels,  it became apparent there is an odd schism between the corporate world and the world of activism. In a sense this is a very logical deduction, given the fact that social activism often deals with the misuse of power by big players on the capitalist market. Because of this divide however activists run the risk of being “marginalized” by the people who don’t align with their cause or don’t understand it (anymore). Like the Recyclart movement which was founded around 1997 to revitalise a Brussels neighbourhood around the train station Kappelekerk by giving this socially active ngo the abandoned buildings. Which gave a whole neighbourhood a new beating heart just to see their efforts thwarted by gentrification. Sometimes this almost-standing-outside Recyclart is going through now can lend new perspective on the issue we’re trying to solve. This “marginal” approach to activism ensures we can’t be controlled by the system we’re trying to change, thus Recyclart too transformed from a desired motor of social change into a apparent nuisance in the political landscape of Brussels

 Recently the Recyclart movement has been requested -and forced by use of political power- by the Belgian railway company to leave their location in the Brussels station Kappelekerk, this is done by claiming the building is a fire safety hazard. During the debate which ensued after the couch talk with Stephan Damsin of Recyclart it became apparent that there are different opinions as to how to play out this role on the edge of society. It could for example become a more aggressive activist organisation and claim the buildings by squatting them. Or it was an option to go nomadic, and try to accomplish what they had done in their old neighbourhood in other deserving or needy quarters of Brussel. The most passive option, to just go with the flow and be guided by the very organisations which forced them to leave their place, seemed underline most the schism between the corporate and the acitivist.

The second couch talk complicated matters further when Maarten Gielen (Rotor) introduced us to a way of fighting the system from within. Out of the gaze of the sceptical looks, it is now possible to try and mold the system into what it deserves to be/should be. These not-so-non-profits as Maarten Gielen calls them, have the difficult task of having to deal with the ideals they want to promote and the system they are (sometimes) forced to work within. All the while staying fierce enough to choose ideals above personal gain when these two do not coincide.

If you regard the commons not as a thing, but as a set of social relations one hopes the capitalist machine would -in a utopian future- act more as a commons. In the sense as it was etymologically explained by French politician Alain Lipietz by tracing the Latin origin of the word in which Commun comes from munus, which means both “gift” and “duty”. Only when the system is given form -by people in the margin or inside- in such a matter there is a total clarity in these social relations, one could regard “the system” as a commons.

To that effort It seems to be easier to want to run away from something rather than to run towards something. By forming the future rather than staying at the marginalized side-line warning people of the impending doom. In that aspect it is admirable to try to change the system from within. It is however more admirable still when you can achieve that goal without being changed by that which you are trying to change. The question then remains whether the corporate is granting activism more legitimacy in the eyes of the beholder, or whether it is just seeking the power to control something which seemed ungraspable when it was still outside of their system. Because sometimes it can seem like the system tries to grasp everything it doesn’t understand to warp it until it functions exactly like them.

Nicolas Beckers