The Commons as a Transformative Vision

By David Bollier & Silke Helfrich of The Commons Strategy Group,

It has become increasingly clear that we are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by an archaic order of centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, presided over by a state committed to planet-destroying economic growth, people around the world are searching for alternatives. That is the message of various social conflicts all over the world – of the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement, and of countless social innovators on the Internet. People want to emancipate themselves not just from poverty and shrinking opportunities, but from governance systems that do not allow them meaningful voice and responsibility. This book is about how we can find the new paths to navigate this transition. It is about our future.

But since there is no path forward, we must make the path. This book therefore is about some of the most promising new paths now being developed. Its 73 essays describe the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future. The pieces, written by authors from thirty countries, fall into three general categories – those that offer a penetrating critique of the existing, increasingly dysfunctional market/state partnership; those that enlarge our theoretical understandings of the commons as a way to change the world; and those that describe innovative working projects that are demonstrating the feasibility and appeal of the commons.

This book begins by offering a number of theoretical analyses of the importance of the commons to the contemporary political economy. Part I includes essays that explore, for example, the “tragedy of the anticommons” dynamic in which excessive, fragmented property rights impede innovation and cooperation; the important differences between “common goods” and “public goods”; and the ways in which the commons challenges some elemental principles of modernity, liberalism and law. New thinking in theoretical biology suggests that the methodology of nature itself favors the commons as a stable, self-sustaining paradigm. The commons, then, is a paradigm that embodies its own logic and patterns of behavior, functioning as a different kind of operating system for society. While many of its dynamics are still hidden to minds steeped in market culture, learning about particular commons can help us recognize the commons as a useful, general paradigm.

The essays of Part II focus on the commodification and privatization of shared resources – the enclosure of the commons – one of the great, untold stories of our time. Enclosures are dispossessing tens of millions of farmers and pastoralists whose lives depend upon customary land commons in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They are disenfranchising urban dwellers whose parks and public spaces are being turned into private, commercial developments; and Internet users who are beset by new copyright laws, digital encryption and international treaties that lock up culture; as well as ordinary citizens whose access to credit is limited by private banks.

Happily, as we see in Parts III and IV, a rich explosion of commons-based experimentation and innovation can be seen around the world. Commons-based models of provisioning represent the building blocks for a new sort of economy, a Commons Sector. Such models can be seen in “collaborative consumption” systems for swaps, barter and sharing; Chilean fishing commons that have stabilized declining Pacific fisheries; fruit-picking commons in Germany that allow people to pick from local fruit trees that have been abandoned; and an ingenious scheme to establish a new type of international trust to save a biodiverse-rich region of Ecuador from oil drilling.


The Occupy Movement saw citizens rise up in search of answers and alternatives. Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue. Used under Creative Commons license.

Some of the most recent and exciting commons-based innovations are related to the digital world, as we see in Part IV. Among the examples examined here are the rise of Creative Commons licenses throughout the world; the creation of a regional digital commons in Linz, Austria, designed to reinvigorate its local economy and civic life; and the peer-to-peer economy’s powerful role in reinventing societal institutions.

Part V explores how the viability of bottom-up commons often depends upon supportive institutions, policy regimes and law. This is the new frontier for the Commons Sector: developing new bodies of law and policy to facilitate the practices of commoning on the ground. For this, the state must play a more active role in sanctioning and facilitating the functioning of commons, much as it currently sanctions and facilitates the functioning of corporations. And commoners must assert their interests in politics and public policy to make the commons the focus of innovations in law.

There is a simple, practical reason for developing new types of law and policy to support the commons. As the dysfunctionalities of the state become more evident – as seen in its inability to solve the financial crisis or curb ecological destruction – the state has an affirmative interest in helping commons perform tasks that it cannot perform itself. It is important that the state begin to recognize the varieties of collective property regimes (an indigenous landscape, a local agricultural system, an online community) and empower people to be co-proprietarians and co-stewards of their commons as a matter of law.

This book does not attempt to present a “unitary perspective on the commons,” which would be oxymoronic in any case, but rather to offer the rich kaleidoscope of perspectives that we have come to expect of the commons. As the reader will soon realize, the commons can be seen as an intellectual framework and political philosophy; it can be seen as a set of social attitudes and commitments; it can be seen as an experiential way of being and even a spiritual disposition; it can be seen as an overarching worldview. But the truth of the matter is that the commons consists of all of the above. It offers a fresh vocabulary and logic for escaping the deadend of market-fundamentalist politics, policy and economics and cultivating more humane alternatives.

It bears noting that this book is neither a how-to manual nor an encyclopedia. It is a selective survey of some of the more prominent vectors of thought and activism around the commons at this point in history. Necessarily, some perspectives and topics are missing. This volume does not address, for example, the role of arts and the commons, enclosures of outer space and broadcast media, organized labor and the commons, or the impact of technologies such as nano-technology and geo-engineering. That said, the great virtue of the commons framework is its ability to make sense of new phenomena. Once you have learned to see the world through the lens of the commons, you will naturally apply that perspective to your own encounters with topics we could barely address.

BEYOND THE MARKET AND STATE

For generations, the state and market have developed a close, symbiotic relationship, to the extent of forging what might be called the market/state duopoly. Both are deeply committed to a shared vision of technological progress and market competition, enframed in a liberal, nominally democratic polity that revolves around individual freedom and rights. Market and state collaborate intimately and together have constructed an integrated worldview – a political philosophy and cultural epistemology, in fact – with each playing complementary roles to enact their shared utopian ideals of endless growth and consumer satisfaction.

The market uses the price system and its private management of people, capital and resources to generate material wealth. And the state represents the will of the people while facilitating the fair functioning of the “free market.” Or so goes the grand narrative. This ideal of “democratic capitalism” is said to maximize the well-being of consumers while enlarging individual political and economic freedoms. This, truly, is the essence of the modern creed of “progress.”

Historically, the market/state partnership has been a fruitful one for both. Markets have prospered from the state’s provisioning of infrastructure and oversight of investment and market activity. Markets have also benefited from the state’s providing of free and discounted access to public forests, minerals, airwaves, research and other public resources. For its part, the state, as designed today, depends upon market growth as a vital source of tax revenue and jobs for people – and as a way to avoid dealing with inequalities of wealth and social opportunity, two politically explosive challenges.


The different takes on capitalism in stark, streetside relief. Photo credit: Michael Mandiberg. Used under Creative Commons license.

The financial meltdown of 2007–2008 revealed that the textbook idealization of democratic capitalism is largely a sham. The “free market” is not in fact self-regulating and private, but extensively dependent upon public interventions, subsidies, risk-mitigation and legal privileges. The state does not in fact represent the sovereign will of the people, nor does the market enact the autonomous preferences of small investors and consumers. Rather, the system is a more or less closed oligopoly of elite insiders. The political and personal connections between the largest corporations and government are so extensive as to amount to collusion. Transparency is minimal, regulation is corrupted by industry interests, accountability is a politically manipulated show, and the self-determination of the citizenry is mostly confined to choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee at election time.

The state in many countries amounts to a partner of clans, mafia-like-structures or dominant ethnicities; in other countries it amounts to a junior partner of their market fundamentalist project. It is charged with advancing privatization, deregulation, budget cutbacks, expansive private property rights and unfettered capital investment. The state provides a useful fig leaf of legitimacy and due process for the market’s agenda, but there is little doubt that private capital has overwhelmed democratic, non-market interests except at the margins. State intervention to curb market excesses is generally ineffective and palliative. It doesn’t touch the underlying problem, moreover; it acts instead to legitimize the procedures and principles of the market. In consequence, market forces dominate most agendas. In the U.S., corporations have even been recognized as legal “persons” entitled to give unlimited amounts of money to political candidates.

The presumption that the state can and will intervene to represent the interests of citizens is no longer credible. Unable to govern for the long term, captured by commercial interests and hobbled by stodgy bureaucratic structures in an age of nimble electronic networks, the state is arguably incapable of meeting the needs of citizens as a whole. The inescapable conclusion is that the mechanisms and processes of representative democracy are no longer a credible vehicle for the change we need. Conventional political discourse, itself an aging artifact of another era, is incapable of naming our problems, imagining alternatives and reforming itself.

This, truly, is why the commons has such a potentially transformative role to play. It is a discourse that transcends and remakes the categories of the prevailing political and economic order. It provides us with a new socially constructed order of experience, an elemental political worldview and a persuasive grand narrative. The commons identifies the relationships that should matter and sets forth a different operational logic. It validates new schemes of human relations, production and governance – one might call it “commonance,” or the governance of the commons.

The commons provides us with the ability to name and then help constitute a new order. We need a new language that does not insidiously replicate the misleading fictions of the old order – for example, that market growth will eventually solve our social ills or that regulation will curb the world’s proliferating ecological harms. We need a new discourse and new social practices that assert a new grand narrative, a different constellation of operating principles and a more effective order of governance. Seeking a discourse of this sort is not a fanciful whim. It is an absolute necessity. And, in fact, there is no other way to bring about a new order. Words actually shape the world. By using a new language, the language of the commons, we immediately begin to create a new culture. We can assert a new order of resource stewardship, right livelihood, social priorities and collective enterprise.

THE TRANSFORMATIONAL LANGUAGE OF THE COMMONS

This new language situates us as interactive agents of larger collectivities. Our participation in these larger wholes (local communities, online affinity groups, intergenerational traditions) does not eradicate our individuality, but it certainly shapes our preferences, outlooks, values and behaviors: who we are. A key revelation of the commons way of thinking is that we humans are not in fact isolated, atomistic individuals. We are not amoebas with no human agency except hedonistic “utility preferences” expressed in the marketplace.

No: We are commoners – creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger wholes. We may have many unattractive human traits fueled by individual fears and ego, but we are also creatures entirely capable of self-organization and cooperation; with a concern for fairness and social justice; and willing to make sacrifices for the larger good and future generations.

As the corruption of the market/state duopoly has intensified, our very language for identifying problems and imagining solutions has been compromised. The snares and deceptions embedded in our prevailing political language go very deep. Such dualisms as “public” and “private,” and “state” and “market,” and “nature and culture,” for example, are taken as self-evident. As heirs of Descartes, we are accustomed to differentiating “subjective” from “objective,” and “individual” from “collective” as polar opposites. But such polarities are lexical inheritances that are increasingly inapt as the two poles in reality blur into each other. And yet they continue to profoundly structure how we think about contemporary problems and what spectrum of solutions we regard as plausible.

Those either/or categories and the respective words we use have performative force. They make the world. In the very moment that we stop talking about business models, efficiency and profitability as top priorities, we stop seeing ourselves as Homo economicus and as objects to be manipulated by computer spreadsheets. We start seeing ourselves as commoners in relationship to others, with a shared history and shared future. We start creating a culture of stewardship and co-responsibility for our commons resources while at the same time defending our livelihoods.

The commons helps us recognize, elicit and strengthen these propensities. It challenges us to transcend the obsolete dualisms and mechanistic mindsets. It asks us to think about the world in more organic, holistic and long-term ways. We see that my personal unfolding depends upon the unfolding of others, and theirs upon mine. We see that we mutually affect and help each other as part of a larger, holistic social organism. Complexity theory has identified simple principles that govern the coevolution of species in complex ecosystems. The commons takes such lessons to heart and asserts that we humans co-evolve with and co-produce each other. We do not exist in grand isolation from our fellow human beings and nature. The myth of the “self-made man” that market culture celebrates is absurd – a self-congratulatory delusion that denies the critical role of family, community, networks, institutions and nature in making our world.

Many of the pathologies of the contemporary economy are built upon this deep substrate of erroneous language. Or more precisely, the elite guardians of the market/state find it useful to employ such misleading categories. The corporation in the US and many other nations, for example, likes to cast itself as a “private” entity that hovers above much of the real world and its problems. Its purpose is simply to minimize its costs, maximize its sales, and so earn profits for its investors. This is its institutional DNA. It is designed to ignore countless social and environmental harms (primly described by economists as “externalities”) and relentlessly pursue infinite growth.


The global economy has many drivers. War is one. Photo credit: Takomabibelot. Used under Creative Commons license.

And so it is that language of capitalism validates a certain set of purposes and power relationships, and projects them into the theaters of our minds. The delusions of endless growth and consumption are encoded into the very epistemology of our language and internalized by people. It is only in recent years that large masses of people have understood the alarming real-world consequences of this cultural model and way of thinking: an globally integrated economy dedicated to the proposition that humans must indefinitely exploit, monetize and financially abstract a finite set of natural resources (oil, minerals, forests, fisheries, water). The rise of Peak Oil and global warming (not to mention other ecosystem declines) suggest that this vision is a time-limited fantasy. Nature has real limits. The drama of the next decade will revolve around whether capitalism can begin to recognize and respect these inherent limits.

The premises of “democratic capitalism” extend to information and culture as well. But here, in order to wring maximum profit from intangibles (words, music, images), the logic is inverted. Instead of treating a finite resource, nature, as infinite and without price, here, the corporation demands that an essentially infinite resource, culture and information, be made finite and scarce. That is the chief purpose of extending the scope and terms of copyright and patent law – to make information and culture artificially scarce so that they can then be treated as private property and sold. This imperative has become all the more acute now that digital technologies have made the reproduction of information and creative works easy and essentially free, and in doing so undermined the customary business models that made books, film and music artificially scarce.

The commons – a vehicle for meeting everyone’s basic needs in a roughly equitable way – is being annexed and disassembled to serve a global a market machine which treats nature as a brute commodity. Commoners become isolated individuals. Communities of commoners are splintered and reconstituted as armies of consumers and employees. The “unowned” resources of the commons are converted into the raw fodder for market production and sale – and after every last drop of it has been monetized, the inevitable wastes of the market are dumped back into the commons. Government is dispatched to “mop up” the “externalities,” a task that is only irregularly fulfilled because it is so ancillary to neoliberal priorities.

The normal workings of The Economy require constant if not expanding appropriations of resources that morally or legally belong to everyone. The Economy requires that all resources be transmuted into tradeable commodities. Enclosure is a sublimely insidious process. Somehow an act of dispossession and plunder must be reframed as a lawful, common-sense initiative to advance human progress. For example, the World Trade Organization, which purports to advance human development through free trade, is essentially a system for seizing non-market resources from communities, dispossessing people and exploiting fragile ecosystems with the full sanction of international and domestic law. This achievement requires an exceedingly complicated legal and technical apparatus, along with intellectual justifications and political support. Enclosure must be mystified through all sorts of propaganda, public relations and the co-optation of dissent. This process has been critical in the drive to privatize lifeforms, supplant biodiverse lands with crop monocultures, censor and control Internet content, seize groundwater supplies to create proprietary bottled water, appropriate indigenous knowledge and culture, and convert self-reproducing agricultural crops into sterile, proprietary seeds that must be bought again and again.

Through such processes, the very idea of “The Economy” has been constructed, complete with dualisms about what matters (things that bear prices or affect prices) and what doesn’t (things that have intrinsic, qualitative, moral or subjective value). Over time, The Economy comes to be seen as a universal, ahistorical, entirely natural phenomenon, a fearsome Moloch that somehow preexists humanity and exists beyond anyone’s control. This image begins to express the nightmare of enclosure that afflicts so much of the world – a world where natural ecological processes, communities, and vernacular culture have no legal protection or cultural respect.

THE COMMONS AS A GENERATIVE PARADIGM

A major point of the commons (discourse), then, is to help us “get outside” of the dominant discourse of the market economy and help us represent different, more wholesome ways of being. It allows us to more clearly identify the value of inalienability – protection against the marketization of everything. Relationships with nature are not required to be economic, extractive and exploitative; they can be constructive and harmonious. For people of the global South, for whom the commons tends to be more of a lived, everyday reality than a metaphor, the language of the commons is the basis for a new vision of “development.”

The commons can play this role because it describes a powerful value proposition that market economics ignores. Historically, the commons has often been regarded as a wasteland, a res nullius, a place having no owner and no value. Notwithstanding the long-standing smear of the commons as a “tragedy,” the commons, properly understood, is in fact highly generative. It creates enormous stores of value. The “problem” is that this value cannot simply be collapsed into a single scale of commensurable, tradeable value – i.e., price – and it occurs through processes that are too subtle, qualitative and long-term for the market’s mandarins to measure. The commons tends to express its bounty through living flows of social and ecological activity, not fixed, countable stocks of capital and inventory.

The generativity of commons stewardship, therefore, is not focused on building things or earning returns on investment, but rather on ensuring our livelihoods, the integrity of the community, the ongoing flows of value-creation, and their equitable distribution and responsible use. Commoners are diverse among themselves, and do not necessarily know in advance how to agree upon or achieve a shared goals. The only practical answer, therefore, is to open up a space for robust dialogue and experimentation. There must be room for commoning – the social practices and traditions that enable people to discover, innovate and negotiate new ways of doing things for themselves. In order for the generativity of the commons to manifest itself, it needs the “open spaces” for bottom-up initiatives to occur in interaction with the resources at hand. In this way, citizenship and governance are blended and reconstituted.


The commons are all that we share including the bounty of nature. Photo credit: Brenda Clarke. Used under Creative Commons license.

CREATING AN ARCHITECTURE OF LAW AND POLICY TO SUPPORT THE COMMONS

For too long commons have been marginalized or ignored in public policy, forcing commoners to develop their own private-law “work-arounds” or sui generis legal regimes in order to establish collective legal rights. Examples include the General Public License for free software, which assures its access and use by anyone and land trusts, which establish tracts of land as commons to be enjoyed by all yet owned as private property (“property on the outside, commons on the inside,” as Carol M. Rose has put it).1 The future of the commons would be much brighter if the state would begin to provide formal charters and legal doctrines to recognize the collective interests and rights of commoners. There is also a need to reinvent market structures so that the old, centralized corporate structures of capitalism do not dominate, and squeeze out, the more locally responsive, socially mindful business alternatives (a trend that the Solidarity Economy movement has been stoutly resisting).

There is an inherent tension in seeding new sorts of commons initiatives, however, because they must often work within the existing system of law and policy, which risks a co-optation of the commons and the domestication of its innovations. Despite this real danger, commons initiatives need not lose their transformative, catalytic potential simply because they work “within the system.” Among commoners, there will invariably be debates about the strategic “purity” of commons-based initiatives, especially those that interact with the marketplace in new ways. Such scrutiny is important. Yet it may also highlight deeper philosophical tensions within the commons movement – namely, that some commoners prefer to have little or no intercourse with markets while others believe that their communities can better thrive if they interact with markets.

This is a creative tension that will never go away, nor should it. But the critical question for commoners to ask is, What is production for? Unlike market capitalism, which requires constant economic growth, the point of the commons is to propagate and extend a commons-based culture. The goal is to meet people’s needs – and to reproduce and expand the Commons Sector. Throughout history, civilizations have always had a dominant organizational form. In tribal economies, gift exchange was dominant. In pre-capitalist societies such as feudalism, hierarchies prevailed and rewards were allocated on the basis of one’s social status. In our era of capitalism, the market is the primary system for allocating social status, wealth and opportunities for human development. Now that the severe limitations of the market system under capitalism have been made abundantly clear, the question we must confront is whether the commons can become the dominant social form. We believe it is entirely possible to create commons-based innovations that work within existing governance systems while helping bring about a new order.

We hope that the essays of this book encourage new explorations and initiatives in this direction. This is a rare moment in history in which old, fixed categories of thought are giving way to new possibilities. But any transition to a new paradigm will require that enough people “step into history” and make the new categories of the commons their own. Hope for the future lies in people creating their own distinctive forms of commoning throughout the world, and the gradual emergence and confluence of new social/economic practices.

Anthropologists, neurologists, geneticists and other scientists confirm the critical role that cooperation has played in the evolution of the human species. We are hard-wired to cooperate and participate in commons. One might even say that it is our destiny. While the commons may seem odd within the context of 21st Century market culture, it speaks to something buried deep within us. It prods us to deconstruct the oppressive political culture and consciousness that the market/ state duopoly demands, and whispers of new possibilities that only we can actualize.

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This article originally appeared in The Wealth of the Commons anthology and is reprinted with permission. Article teaser image by Open Source Way on Flickr.

Check here for more essays from The Wealth of Commons. You can buy it here. Neal Gorenflo, Shareable's publisher, contributed this essay to the book.

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