The Space of the Commons: Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Hannah Arendt’s essay ‘Labour, Work, Action,’ published in 1958, produces a definition of action and public space that is decidedly connected to a politically liberal-democratic tradition. Lacking any materialist nuance and explicitly anti-Marxist, Arendt’s treatise proposes that the actions of individuals – their capacity to begin ever anew within a plurality of beings - is what distinguishes them and reveals the meaning of each human life. Every man’s words and deeds form a part of their personal (and thus implicitly social) narrative. Arendt’s depreciation of labour, both productive and reproductive, allows her to perform a theoretical reversal of Marx: instead, she privileges action as the main pillar of the human condition, arguing that labour relates to mere biological life and necessity.

From a Marxist perspective, it is clear that capitalist social relations are deeply entwined with each layer of Arendt’s “human condition” and, while they may manifest most transparently in the realm of labour, they are inextricable from individual pursuits in terms of action and they permeate modern notions of both public and private space. In reality, the so-called “public realm” (the space of action in Arendt’s reading) is not free or independent from state or economic imperatives. On the contrary, the public realm, as we now know it, is saturated with these concerns.

This paper will examine the fraught question of public space in the Palestinian context, with particular reference to on-going projects in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. Public space and participatory spatial initiatives will be investigated to understand their relevance and potential in this context. The Arendtian idea of “unique and free individuals” working on a collective project is problematic here. Instead, many refugees living in Dheisheh are seeking to actively build common political spaces that exist independent of institutional or governmental bodies, individual economic pursuits or the apparatus of occupation. In particular, a group within Campus in Camps (an educational and project-oriented program developed out of the Camp Improvement Program) is interrogating the ‘Unbuilt’ spaces in Dheisheh.[1] Participants have isolated several sites within Dheisheh that have the potential to be transformed for collective use.

Following the work of the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) and Campus in Camps, we will position the case of the public realm and action within the theoretical and political framework of the “commons”[2] and "dissensus"[3], against traditional, liberal and neoliberal understandings of the political ‘space of appearance.’


[1] Ahmad Laham, Aysar Alaify, Isshaq Albarbary, Qussay Abu Aker (Campus in Camps participants), The Unbuilt, June 2013.

[2] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2009.

Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” posted in The Commoner: A Web Journal for Other Values.

[3] Jacques Ranciere, “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics,” in Reading Ranciere. Eds. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp. Continuum. London and New York, 2011.

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