Commons as a New Paradigm for Governance, Economics and Policy
- Speech transcript: The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm for Governance, Economics and Policy. Remarks by David Bollier, Commons Strategies Group for the American Academy in Berlin on December 4, 2012.
See also the Polish translation: DOBRO WSPÓLNE JAKO NOWY PARADYGMAT
"It is a great honor to be able to share my thoughts about the commons with you this evening. I want to thank the American Academy in Berlin for the gift of time and caring attention that I’ve had these past five weeks – and for recognizing the great value of the commons paradigm in its embryonic form. I’d also like to thank the Bosch Foundation for its generous support of my fellowship. And of course, my deep appreciation to my dear friend Silke Helfrich for her wonderful introduction and for her collegiality in exploring the mysteries of the commons.
The commons has been my passion for the past fifteen years. This shift in my energies came about as I became disillusioned in the mid-1990s with the liberal imaginary as a credible vehicle for change – and as I recognized the powerful surge of commons-based alternatives on the periphery of mainstream politics and culture.
In my talk, I’d like to introduce the commons paradigm as a very old – and yet very new, recently rediscovered – paradigm of governance and resource-management. I will attempt to explain the great appeal of the commons on many levels – political, public policy, culture, social, personal, even spiritual -- and to describe the scope of the worldwide “movement” – if that’s the right term – for expanding the social practices and discourse of the commons.
Let me just say upfront that the commons is neither a totalizing political ideology nor a PR re-branding of “the public interest.” It is a general template of governance that has deep roots in human history as a system of self-provisioning, responsible resource-management and mutual support.
But the states the issue too coldly, too analytically. The commons is at heart an ethic -- a way of being human that goes beyond homo economicus, the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing ideal of a human being that economists and politicians say we are. The commons presumes that humans are more complex, and that a richer set of human behaviors can be “designed into” our institutions. The commons asserts that there is an important role for self-organized governance that both challenges and complements formal government.
In its more general sense, the commons is about stewardship of the things that we own in common as human beings. It’s about ensuring that we protect them and pass them on, undiminished, to future generations. That includes everything from inherited knowledge and culture… and the integrity of natural ecosystems….public spaces and community traditions….. subsistence commons of forests, fisheries and farming…..and countless other shared resources that we morally or legally own.
The strangest thing is these forms of provisioning are essentially invisible because they exist outside of both the State and the Market. In general, they are not seen as valuable – when they are recognized at all – because most commons have little to do with private property rights, markets or geo-political power. Even though subsistence commons meet the everyday needs of an estimated two billion people in the world, two of the most popular economics textbooks in the U.S. – by Samuelson & Nordhaus and by Stiglitz & Walsh – entirely ignore the commons as a viable, attractive provisioning model. (Subsistence – I should add -- is not about mere survival, but about meeting household needs as opposed to maximizing market exchange.)
Given its invisibility, commons worldwide are being overwhelmed and destroyed by market forces today, with often-disastrous results. The challenge for us, I believe, is to see the commons – and to find new ways to support and protect it.
1. The Commons Paradigm
For most people, any mention of the word “commons” immediately brings to mind the word “tragedy.” End of discussion. If you listen to most economists, the commons is always said to result in a tragedy. The classic example is – If you have a shared pasture upon which many herders can graze their cattle, no single herder will have a rational incentive to hold back – and so he will put as many cattle on the commons as possible, take as much as he can for himself. The pasture will inevitably be over-exploited and ruined: a “tragedy.”
This dogma has held sway in the popular mind and among economists since 1968, when biologist Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It was a politically convenient parable because it implied that a regime of private property rights and markets is needed to solve the tendency of people to over-exploit resources. If people had private ownership rights – the thinking goes – they would be motivated to protect their grazing lands. But Hardin was not in fact describing a commons. He was describing a scenario in which there are no boundaries to the grazing land, no rules for managing it, and no community of users. But that’s not a commons. That’s an open-access regime, a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, 3 rules, monitoring of usage, punishment of free-riders, and social norms. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a steward of a resource.
Hardin’s misrepresentation of the commons stuck in the public mind, however, and became an article of conventional wisdom. For the past two generations the commons has been widely regarded as a failed paradigm of governance. Hovering in the background, too, was Thomas Hobbes’ conviction that only the Leviathan, the powerful state, can prevent us from degenerating into a law of the jungle that is nasty, brutish and short.
Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University – who passed away several months ago – was the most prominent academic to rescue the commons and rebut Hardin. It took years of painstaking field research and innovative theorizing, but in her path-breaking 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom identified some basic design principles of successful commons. Over the past several decades, she and many colleagues have shown in hundreds of empirical studies that people can and do successfully manage their land and water and forests and fisheries as commons. Some commons have flourished for hundreds of years, such as the Swiss villagers who manage high mountain meadows and the huerta irrigation institutions in Spain.
Ostrom’s great achievement was to explain how cooperation can actually manage resources sustainably – and often more effectively than the state or market. Her ideas have forced mainstream economics to reexamine its premises while working within its master narrative by brilliantly blending political science, sociology, anthropology, economics and other social sciences. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for this work, making her the first woman to win the Prize. The commons scholarship developed by Ostrom and a worldwide group of academics has historically shown little interest in applying its ideas to the political economy. But a global movement of commons activists has shown no such reluctance to take on this very big challenge. Over the past ten years or so, a fledgling commons movement – working alongside commons scholars, but entirely independently of them – has developed a discourse of the commons as a new/old political philosophy and policy agenda.
Whether they realize it not, commoners are part of a different way of knowing and acting in the world. Commoning – the social practices of commoners -- embodies a very different worldview – a different way of being and way of knowing – than those presumed by the modern liberal polity. This is a source of great promise and tension, as I hope to show.
2. Economics & the Commons
Perhaps I should start by emphasizing that a commons is not a resource in itself. It’s a resource plus a social community and the social values, rules and norms that they used to manage the 4 resource. They’re all an integrated package. You could call it a socio-economic-biophysical package – sort of like a fish and a pond and aquatic vegetation: They all go together and don’t make sense as isolated elements. They arguably can’t survive as isolated elements because they are organically interdependent.
That may be why conventional economics has so much trouble understanding the commons. It doesn’t understand how the community, rather than the individual, can be the framing term of reference. The commons looks at the whole and regards the individual and the collective as nested within each other and interpenetrating each other. This is a very different metaphysics than that of the modern liberal state, which sees the individual as sovereign.
The commons also asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life – “public” vs. “private,” “individual” vs. “collective,” “objective” vs. “subjective” – and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form. “Cooperative individualism” is one shorthand that I like to us.
But that term doesn’t really convey the emotional, psychic dimensions of the commons, which at bottom is a personal experience and identity. Commoners love and need their resources, or at least depend upon them – and so they have keen motivations to act as conscientious stewards and defenders of them. Commoners have emotional, subjective relationships with the “resources” they manage and use, and with their fellow commoners. They develop rituals and customs that are part of their culture of stewardship.
This may be why the commons is such a subversive metaphysics: It asks us to entertain a richer definition of value than that of the market. It asks us to entertain a larger conception of “the economy” than Gross Domestic Product. It asks that we commit to certain forms of value that go beyond the market and prices.
Economics as traditionally understood is focused on “creating wealth” and “eliminating scarcity.” But it is really concerned only a certain type of wealth – wealth that has a price attached to it and can be traded in the marketplace. This kind of wealth is usually encased in private property rights and exchanged through market transactions. The more market transactions there are, the greater the “wealth” that is supposedly created and the happier we supposedly are.
The only problem with this standard economic narrative is that it doesn’t have much to say about the great stores of value that don’t have price tags. How much is the Earth’s atmosphere worth? What about the human genome? Fresh water supplies? Our inheritance of scientific knowledge and culture? Parks and open spaces? The Internet? Our relationships with nature and with each other?
A lot of this traces back to philosopher John Locke, who argued that the things that lie outside of a system of private property rights and commerce are best known as res nullius. Nullities. These things are free for the taking because no one has any recognized property rights in them and there is no price for them. All you have to do is “add your own labor” and you’re entitled to own them.
That’s basically the philosophical justification that conquerors and colonizers used in Locke’s time to claim ownership of native lands. The lands were unowned, after all, and the natives didn’t have any formal private property rights in them. Therefore – they’re free for the taking!
In our time, this same justification is used to claim ownership of ethno-botanical knowledge in the global South, and to assert patents on genes and lifeforms and synthetic nano-matter. The same logic is used to develop wilderness areas and claim property rights in words, colors and smells via trademark law. One need only arrest property rights in something that is “un-owned.”
John Locke’s property theories are of a piece with Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons.
They both assume that value can only be present if there are private property rights and markets. This provides ample justification for outright plunder.
My colleague Silke Helfrich pointed me to a wonderful poem by Goethe called “Catechism.”
Teacher: Bethink, thee, child! Where do those gifts come from? Something from yourself alone cannot come.
Child: Oh! Everything is from Papa. Teacher: And he, where does he have them from? Child: From Grandpapa. Teacher: Not so! How to your Grandpapa did they befall? Child: He took them all.
3. Enclosures of the Commons
Which brings me to what I call the tragedy of the market, often known as market enclosure. Over the course of several centuries, but especially in the 19th Century, the English aristocracy colluded with Parliament to privatize the village commons of England. The commons was 6 essentially dismantled. Enclosure was a way for the landed gentry to make a lot of money and consolidate their political and economic power.
The great, unacknowledged scandal of our time is the large-scale privatization and abuse of dozens of resources that we collectively own. Today’s enclosure movement is an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. A prime example: International investors and national governments are now buying up farmlands and forests in Africa, Asia and Latin America on a massive scale, at discount prices, in collusion with host governments. Commoners who have grown and harvested their own food for generations as a matter of custom, are being thrown off their lands so that large multinational corporations and investors can take them. The basic goal is to secure a geo-political advantage, sell food to global markets or simply make a speculative killing.
Can you guess what happens to the millions of people who suddenly can’t survive because their commons have been enclosed? They become the characters of a Charles Dickens novel. They are forced into cities to search for a livelihood and end up becoming beggars, shanty-dwellers and exploited wage-slaves. The news accounts of raids by Somali pirates rarely mention that many of them used to be fishermen before foreign industrial trawlers destroyed their fishing commons. Markets have long treated Nature as either as a nullity or as a brute object – something that has no life in it, no dignity, no connection to the sacred. But it’s reaching some alarming points. Biotech companies and universities now own one-fifth of the human genome. The biotech company Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City claims a patent on a “breast cancer susceptibility gene” that guarantees it monopoly control over certain types of research. This means that the patent is actually preventing other scientists from researching genetic sources of breast cancer lest it violate the patent.
A surging nano-technology industry is developing synthetic forms of basic matter that “improve upon” nature -- and then claim proprietary control over them. The ambition is to substitute privately owned, engineered forms of proprietary nano-matter that displace naturally occurring matter. This process follows a familiar pattern: Monsanto has used GMOs to displace natural seeds, Microsoft has used Windows to marginalize nearly all other operating systems, and multinational bottling companies have substituted branded, proprietary water for tap water. One of the first attempted privatizations of water supplies came in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2002, when the Bechtel Corporation and the government privatized the municipal water supply and even claimed ownership of rainwater. More recently, the billionaire T. Boone Pickens has spent more than $100 million acquiring groundwater aquifers in the Texas High Plains, which could make it very expensive for many communities there to survive as water becomes privately owned.
Nowadays, it’s not just land and oceans being enclosed. Everything can be privatized and commoditized. Mathematical algorithms can now be owned if they are embedded in software and supposedly serve a novel commercial function. McDonald’s claims a trademark in the prefix “Mc,” so that you can’t name your restaurant McSushi or McVegan or your hotel McSleep. The American music licensing body ASCAP once demanded that hundreds of summer camps for boys and girls pay a blanket “performance license” for singing copyrighted songs around the campfire. These are not exceptional cases, mind you. I wrote a book about them in 2005, Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture.
One of the biggest commons around is the Internet. It is vulnerable precisely because it is a commons. As we see in authoritarian countries such as China, and Egypt – and in the Obama administration’s vendetta against WikiLeaks – governments don’t necessarily want the commoners to have the freedom to communicate freely among each other. Many telecom companies would prefer to convert the Internet into a proprietary shopping mall and marginalize digital commons by doing away with net neutrality rules. Hollywood and the record industry would like to make peer production and sharing illegal by expanding the scope of copyright law and the penalties for violations of it.
I’ve barely ventured into the vast range of enclosures that are going on today, but here’s a brief sampling: the atmosphere, the oceans, genes, taxpayer-funded research, public spaces in cities, public highways and airports that are becoming private property, groundwater supplies, and much else.
Market enclosure is about dispossession. It is a process by which the powerful convert a shared community resource into a market commodity, so that it can be privately owned and sold in the marketplace. Enclosure preys upon the common wealth by privatizing it, commodifying it and dispossessing the commoners of their autonomy and resources. It aggressively removes resources from their local, rooted context in order to make them fungible, marketable objects.
Enclosures sweep aside the social relationships and cultural traditions and the sense of community that had previously existed. They require the imposition of extreme individualism, the conversion of citizens into consumers, and greater social inequality. Money becomes the coin of social legitimacy and participation in such societies. This process is generally known as “development.”
Enclosures are symptoms of a deep perversity and flaw in contemporary economic theory: the inability to differentiate between growth in the volume of market activity and market activity that is socially beneficial and ecologically sustainable. GDP conflates material “through-put” in the Market Machine with human progress.
This fallacy persists for two reasons. First, GDP doesn’t measure our non-market common wealth – the stuff that is “off the books” and belongs to all of us, which is supposedly “free for the taking.” And second, GDP never takes into account the incredible amounts of illth that the economy creates.
“Illth” is a term that John Ruskin coined to describe the opposite of wealth. (Let me salute Peter Barnes for bringing this term to my attention.) Illth is the trash and pollution and disease and injuries and disruptions that the economy inflicts upon the commons. Illth is the overfinancialization of the future, which robs people of living in the present by converting them into debt zombies.
Economists have a nicer term for illth – they call it a “market externality.” The basic problem is that the economy takes from the commons – in the form of free or discounted access to our shared resources. And then, whatever can’t turned into private profit is dumped back into the commons, as illth. Politicians and economists love to crow about how much private wealth is being created – but they systematically ignore how much public illth is being created in the process. They count only market wealth. The accounting system is rigged.
So we end up with the perverse situation in which we need to create ever-rising amounts of illth just to create more wealth. And we are told that we can never solve our problems – healthcare, education, social justice, the environment – unless we create more wealth. Call it the Red Queen’s Madness. As the Red Queen told Alice in the book Alice in Wonderland, she had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.
The Red Queen’s Madness is now the very basis for our global economy. We need to keep extracting more and more finite natural resources faster and faster just to maintain the same standard of living – while creating ever-increasing amounts of illth that no one wants to confront. Global warming is the logical result of this mentality.
Of course, national governments always aspire to set limits – and corporations are always pledging to “go green.” But let’s be serious: History has shown that neither the Market nor the State has been very successful at setting strong limits on market activity. The simple truth is, both have strong reasons not to. Growth is what fuels the economy and growth is what props up national treasuries. Growth is perceived as a mythological imperative for “progress.” Setting limits on markets is avoided because it is likely to diminish profits and tax revenues, and force a reckoning with issues of distribution and inequality that elites would rather avoid.
4. The Value Proposition of the Commons
If the market/state is an engine of enclosure, what then can be done? I think we must begin by recognizing the value-proposition of the commons – and then devise new systems – legal, technological, social – to protect the integrity of commons.
We can take some guidance from an old practice of English commoners. They used to “beat the bounds” every year. It was a community walk around the perimeter of the commons to identify any enclosures of fences or hedges, which they would proceed to knock down. Beating the bounds was a festive affair – a party with purpose – that helped the commoners preserve the integrity of their shared resource and their shared social bonds.
I think it’s a strategy and tradition that we need to resurrect. However, there are some modern “beating of the bounds,” such as the General Public License for free software, which assures that the bounties of shared production of software code remain available to all commoners. In a different and more limited sense, the Creative Commons licenses do the same. The general principle is: “That which is created within the commons must stay within the commons – unless the commoners decide otherwise.”
The commons gives us a new vocabulary for imagining a different sort of future. It lets us develop a richer narrative about value than the one sanctioned by neoliberal economics and policy. It helps us do what the Market/State has trouble doing – keep important parts of nature and culture and community inalienable and cultivate an ethic of sufficiency.
The commons helps us see that we are actually richer than we thought we were. It’s just that our common wealth is not a private commodity or money. It’s socially created wealth that’s embedded in distinct communities of interest that act as stewards of that wealth. This wealth can’t simply be bought and sold like a commodity. Moreover, this wealth will disappear unless the integrity of the commons is protected so that it may remain generative.
Let me illustrate these ideas with some examples.
Rajendra Singh, the founder of the Young India Association (or Tarun Bharat Sangh, or TBS), helped heal the local ecosystem in Rajasthan by way of the commons. Several rivers there had completely dried up through over-use. But by applying some near-forgotten indigenous Indian knowledge about hydrology and small dams -- and by treating the groundwater and rivers as sacred resources subject to community stewardship and participation – Young India Association was able to bring five dry riverbeds back to life and to raise groundwater levels by 20 feet. The soil has become more fertile and wetter. People who had abandoned the area moved back to farm and start businesses.
I was in India in January 2010, so I have another such story of how a self-organized commons overcame free-market pathologies. In the small village of Erakulapally two hours west of Hyderabad, a community of rural, poor women from the lowest caste in the country – so-called dalit – used to be bonded laborers working on a landlord’s farm. They earned only enough to eat one meal a day. Then they came up with the idea of searching for and regenerating dozens of traditional seeds – seeds that their ancestors had grown for centuries, seeds that were brilliantly adapted to the semi-arid ecosystem and climate of Andhra Pradesh.
By finding and then sharing the seeds among themselves rather than buying proprietary modern seeds, the women were able to resurrect their more sustainable, nutritious agricultural crops.
They were able to grow the food themselves and emancipate themselves from a market economy that was never going to serve their interests. The women of this village achieved food security without relying upon outside experts or government subsidies or monoculture crops or synthetic chemicals. This self-provisioning model has spread, and there are now some 5,000 women in 75 Andhra Pradesh villages who share seeds and farming advice with each other, using homemade videos.
What’s really interesting is how the Internet is now helping to take this model of “cooperative innovation” to new places. The System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, consists of hundreds of farmers in 40 different countries, from Cuba to Sri Lanka to India, who are using the Internet to improve the growing of rice. Rather than adopting the conventional farming practices promoted by seed and pesticide companies – and rather than use GMOs, synthetic pesticides and monoculture planting – rice farmers have formed their own bottom-up global social network to trade farming insights and increase the yields of indigenous rice varieties. It’s a kind of “open source agriculture” based on some ancient principles of cooperation.
These are smaller-scale traditional commons in marginalized countries – but the commons is alive and in modern industrialized societies as well. Urban gardens are a flourishing model of commons, as are co-working spaces and co-housing developments. The innovation of “participatory budgeting” pioneered by the city of Proto Alegre, Brazil, has been adopted by a number of cities. San Francisco’s mayor has appointed a formal task force on the “sharing economy” to explore possibilities of collaborative consumption there.
One can also point to large-scale structures that seek to promote shared benefits and leverage cooperation. These have a different character, but they can protect “common assets” such as land, water and the atmosphere. The state must often get involved by creating “state trustee commons,” as I call them. An example is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which reserves a share of royalties from oil drilled on state land for a trust fund, which generates dividends for every household in the state. This year every Alaskan will receive a check for $878 – a sum that is about two-thirds of the usual amount.
Perhaps the most powerful force propelling the commons paradigm forward is the Internet, which amounts to a colossal hosting infrastructure for commons. As I describe in my book, Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, the rise of the World Wide Web in 1994 unleashed an incredible wave of innovation, much of it driven by self-organized social commons. One reason: the Internet allows low-cost social communication and organization on a global scale. This has enabled digital communities to undercut the enormous overhead costs associated with conventional markets. The commons out-compete by out-cooperating. I call this “The Great Value Shift,” a term that points to a deep structural change in how value is created for commerce and culture.
Markets require multiple layers of expensive overhead in the form of bureaucracy and lawyers, talent recruitment, talent promotion, branding and marketing, complicated financing, and much else. Now imagine how a social community of trust and cooperation working on a lightweight software infrastructure can just do lots of similar work for free or at very low cost.
Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written in his landmark book, The Wealth of Networks, “What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s term for this phenomenon is “commons-based peer production.” By that, he means systems that are collaborative and nonproprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.”
Open platforms on the Internet are forcing a shift not only in business strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of wealth. On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it necessarily privately held. Wealth generated through open platforms is often socially created value that is shared, evolving and non-monetized. It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone.
Socially created value has always existed, of course, but it hasn’t always been culturally legible or consequential. Conventional economics literally doesn’t “see” it because there are no prices. But the commons is showing that you don’t need markets or government to create something that has great value. The commons is, in fact, a very different value proposition, one that is dedicated to generating indivisible, socially embedded common wealth. With the proper governance, the commons are not “tragic,” but highly generative – it’s just that the common wealth is not necessarily privatized or monetized.
This is a serious innovation – not innovation as a cool new technology or product, but rather, innovation as a socio-economic management paradigm and worldview. A new/old way of generating value. It accomplishes useful things outside of the marketplace and government. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself project and policy platform that can interconnect with other commons and begin to scale. In the process, commons-based models are starting to challenge and transform “real world” institutions.
The bestiary of commons is now so large and varied that there is what amounts to a Commons Sector for knowledge, culture and creativity. Think of the hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr or the millions of Wikipedia entries in over 285 languages. Think of the more than 8,000 open-access academic journals that are bypassing expensive commercial journal publishers. Think of the Open Educational Resources movement that is making open textbooks and the OpenCourseWare movement started by M.I.T. Think of the hundreds of millions of online texts, videos and musical works that use Creative Commons licenses to enable easy sharing. Think of the vast free and open source software community that is the basis for a rich and varied commercial software marketplace. There are countless such digital commons based on peer production and sharing.
Natural resource commons can also quite generative even though they are dealing with finite, depletable resources. There are all sorts of successful commons for managing fisheries and forests and irrigation. There are the acequias for water in New Mexico. The ejidos in Mexico. Native American lands and their sacred relationships with Nature.
The commons is also exemplified by urban gardens, the Slow Food movement, Community Supported Agriculture and the Transition Town movement, among other movements. The particular governance structures for generating this value differ from one class of commons to another. Subsistence commons do it differently than digital commons. The so-called gift economies such as blood banks, academic disciplines and Couchsurfing differ from community gardens and public squares.
But what all commons have in common is an ability to manage shared resources and participation and inclusion. They rebuild a social fabric that I believe neither the market nor the state is capable of rebuilding. The commons has a healing logic. It is tempting to dismiss these sorts of innovations as small and marginal – but in fact local models are starting to spread and even federate. They are scaling to larger sizes depending upon the type of resource and social coordination that is possible.
As a system of governance, the commons offers several critical capacities that are sorely missing from the neoliberal state and market system. These include the ability:
• to empower people to take charge of the resources they need; • to set and enforce sustainable limits on markets; • to internalize the “externalities” that markets routinely produce; • to declare that certain resources must be inalienable – that is, off-limits to markets; • to reduce inequality and insecurity; • to reconnect us to nature and to each other; and • to provide a new framework for “development.”
Now I hasten to add that the commons is no panacea. Commons often fail because of bad leadership or inappropriate governance structures. Commoners have plenty of disagreements and conflicts. We are still learning how to theorize about commons-based governance and support it, especially at larger scales. So please don’t let me leave with you the impression that the commons is somehow a magic bullet that is somehow exempt from the frailties of human institutions, power and history.
Having said that, commons are more vulnerable than they need to be -- because the Market/State often regards them either as a rich body of resources to fuel economic growth or as a competitive threat. After all, the commons gives commoners some measure of autonomy and control over their lives and resources. It lets people wean themselves away from an unhealthy dependency on volatile or predatory markets. It gives them greater self-sufficiency and security, and lets them escape the indignities of charity and government handouts.
In a world in which the state has been largely captured by wealthy, concentrated economic interests – a world in which citizen sovereignty over democratic policymaking is more a fiction than a reality – the commons offers a way for people to take charge of some aspects of their lives. Cicero had a great line: “Freedom is participation in power.”
The commons amounts to a new social organism and metabolism – a new/old species of governance. It decentralizes power and invites participation. People are invited to contribute their creativity on a decentralized, horizontal scale. They don’t need to remain supplicants to elites who manage large, expert-driven, hierarchical institutions. They don’t need to remain disengaged consumers or alienated citizens who hope blindly that some charismatic leader or government agency or corporation will solve the problem (when in fact all of them are looking out for their own institutional self-interests.) Commoning lets people become protagonists in their own lives, which yields immense satisfactions and joy.
For all of these reasons, the commons is taking off as an international movement. Let me give you a quick survey of some of the more notable developments here.
5. The Commons as an International Movement
Here in Europe, there is a burgeoning interest in the commons as a vision and framework for remaking political culture and everyday life. In Germany, the commons is a topic that has actually received mainstream attention. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been particularly active in leading this charge, especially at a major international conference on the commons in 2010 in Berlin.
In Italy, there was a major voter initiative two years ago about whether to privatize municipal water systems and other water resources in Italy. Some 94% of the electorate gave a stunning rejection of the privatization proposals. Control of water was spoken about explicitly as a commons. A key commons figure in Italy is the mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, who has appointed an Assessor of the Commons to monitor and improve local commons and encouraged Italian municipal officials to identify and support local commons. Italy is also trying to incubate an EU voter initiative, a European Charter on the Commons, with the goal of winning explicit legal protections for various commons.
Many people in the Global South recognize the value of commons framing: indigenous peoples, farmers’ groups like Via Campesino, the World Social Forum, and development advocates in smaller countries. A few months ago, the Supreme Court of India officially recognized the rights of commoners to be protected against market enclosure – in this case, real estate development of a village pond. The state of Rajasthan is developing a formal set of policies to protect forests, lakes, farmland and other natural resource commons.
Bolivians have rewritten their constitution to give Mother Nature explicit legal rights of standing to be represented in court – and their president, Evo Morales, is urging the United Nations to ratify a treaty to the same effect.
Brazil is the first “free culture” nation. Thanks to the former minister of digital culture, the musician Gilberto Gil, many Brazilians have come to understand and love free software, Creative Commons licenses, free culture, peer production, remix culture, and related fields. Creative Commons licenses are now used in more than 80 legal jurisdictions around the world. This year, we released a major anthology of more than seventy essays about the commons called The Wealth of the Commons: Another World is Possible Beyond the Market and State. I’m the coeditor with Silke Helfrich. The book is a collection of 73 essays by some 90 authors from around the world. A German edition was released in April of this year, and the English version just came out. The Commons Strategies Group and the Böll Foundation are also planning a major conference on the economics of the commons for May 2013, in which we will try to explore how and why the commons works as a socio-economic-political entity, at both the macro- and micro-levels.
I’ve also been deeply involved with Professor Burns Weston, a noted international human rights and law scholar, in trying to develop a new vision of law and governance that blends human rights and commons-based principles into a new paradigm. Our book explaining these ideas -- Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons – will come out in January through Cambridge University Press. Green Governance proposes both an overarching vision for how law and policy could protect commons from enclosures – and actively support them – while also suggesting how existing bodies of law and legal principles could be put to use.
Education about the commons is expanding internationally. In London, there is the School of Commoning. In Germany, there is a Summer School on the Commons. I know of similar efforts in Barcelona and Buenos Aires. Last year I worked with the UN Institute for Training and Research to develop a four-part online course on the commons.
All sorts of innovations keep popping up because there is a growing number of “transnational tribes” of commoners. They may or may not espouse the commons discourse, but their various social practices they certainly embody the core values of the commons: participation, inclusiveness, fairness, bottom-up innovation, accountability.
They all seek to combine production, consumption and governance into an integrated paradigm of change.
- The Solidarity Economy movement
- The Transition Town movement
- Alterglobalization activists
- Water activism
- The Landless Workers Movement / Via Campesino
- Free software/open source software
- Creative Commons users / free culture
- Open access publishing
- Open Educational Resources (OER) movement
- The Pirate Parties
- The Occupy movement
These groups are by no means a coherent, united front. They are highly eclectic. But they are showing a great deal of energy and innovation, and they are finding each other. This early federation of efforts suggests the beginnings of a new sort of global movement -- a loosely coordinated movement of movements.
I think the commons will become a focal point for much of this energy because it has several distinct advantages. First of all, I don’t see any other alternative political philosophies or critiques that have the breadth and depth of the commons. This is partly because the commons is not a rigid, totalizing ideology; it’s a worldview and sensibility that is ecumenical in spirit and analysis.
It’s open-ended and accessible to diverse cultures and societies.
Second, the commons has a venerable legal history that stretches back to the Roman Empire and the Magna Carta and companion Charter of the Forest. This history is a great source of instruction, credibility and models for legal innovation today.
Third, the commons is a serious intellectual framework and discourse that lets us critique market culture and validate human cooperation and community.
Fourth, the commons consists of a rich array of successful working models for provisioning and empowerment that in many instances are out-competing the Market and State. And finally, the commons invites us to bring our full imagination and humanity to solve major societal problems; we are asked to be more than consumers and voters, but active participants in building a new world.
In its broad sweep, the commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governance, economics and policy at a time when the existing order has exhausted itself. The commons offers a way to revitalize democratic practice at a time when conventional political institutions are dysfunctional, corrupt, resistant to reform, or all three. The commons demonstrates that societies can actually leverage cooperation and bottom-up energies to solve problems – and point to new modes of governance beyond, or in constructive partnership with, representative democracy.
The commons is not a magic wand, however. It is only an open space, a pathway, a scaffolding. It requires actual commoners to make it work. Or as the great commons historian Peter Linebaugh puts it, “There is no commons without commoning” – the social practices and ethics that sustain a commons. The commons is a verb, not just a noun. It is not something that we just hand off to politicians and bureaucrats.
This is a very important point. The commons is not just a policy idea. It is a personal experience and identity. Alain Lipietz, a French political figure and student of the commons, traces the word “commons” to William the Conqueror and the Normans – not the English, interestingly. The term “commons” supposedly comes from the Norman word commun, which comes from the word munus, which means both “gift” and “counter-gift,” which is to say, a duty.
I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. The expansion of centralized political and market structures has tragically eclipsed our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money and state bureaucracies for everything. Personal agency or moral commitment is not necessarily needed in life. And so we have largely lost confidence in what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” – the spaces in our everyday life in which we can create and shape and negotiate our lives. I think we need to fortify what I call Vernacular Law – the law of the commons.
What I find reassuring is the deep resonance that this idea has among so many different people around the world – Filipino farmers, Brazilian remix artists, Amsterdam hackers, German coop members, American free culture users, Italian municipalities. All sorts of commons-based initiatives are spontaneously popping up in countless different milieus, opening up interesting new possibilities and synergies.
I find this encouraging -- because when theory needs to catch up with practice, you know that something powerful is going on. At a time when the old structures and narratives simply are not working, the commons gives us a reason to be hopeful. And we very much need some credible pathways forward."