Conversation between Michel Bauwens, Silke Helfrich and David Bollier

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A conversation between the 3 founding members of the Commons Strategies Group



(draft): Conversation between David Bollier, Michel Bauwens and Silke Helfrich

This version does not contain the contributions of Silke Helfrich (yet ?):

* TdG: Out of all the major crises we face today, which one is the most urgent?

DB: From the perspective of the commons, this question is self-contradictory. The power of commoning is precisely that authority and action are distributed. Diverse players in particular local settings can determine their own fates, using rules that make sense for them in their special contexts. So even theoretically there is no "single, most urgent struggle." There are always multiple arenas of meaningful struggle, and one can never know in advance which one will shock and surprise everyone with impressive results. (This is also known as resilience). Ultimately, the most urgent struggle is not to "pick battles to fight" with the state or ideological adversaries, or to attempt to seize state power (an achievement that may be Pyrrhic, as the experience of Syriza has shown). The most urgent struggle is to build out the world of commoning as a parallel social economy with its own stability, autonomy, and effectiveness. That is the foundational base upon which a transformational politics can be built.

MB: David is right. Nonetheless, the most urgent question today is undoubtedly climate change, but which is itself an expression of deeper structural problems that we must tackle at the same time as a context for solving climate disruption.

* TdG: What are the structures or systemic problems that have contributed to the current state of things?

MB: In my analysis, the structural problem is threefold: 1) we believe that nature and natural resources, that we unfortunately see as being ‘outside’ ourselves, are infinite resources to be used for human need and private profit 2) we believe that resources that are eminently shareable, and should be share to advance humankind, should be made artificially scarce, i.e. we privatize and marketize knowledge so that it becomes unavailable for advancing the common good and solving issues more quickly 3) we develop our societies in ways that create inequality and increasing social instability, leading to more and more authoritarian outcomes.

DB: I agree. Any of us could prioritize certain problems, but I think the more critical challenge is identifying the most suitable framework for understanding them. Climate change and inequality are obvious mega-problems, but what really matters is adopting the correct ontological premises and epistemology in defining our problems. This, in turn, affects the structural analyses that are possible and how we respond.  Conventional market-based solutions, international treaties, and state regulation -- for example -- are not going to overcome deep, systemic problems because they are based on the same premises that gave rise to the problems in the first place. They presume homo economicus as an idealized model of a human being.

* TdG: How can the commons movement help, or: what does the commons have to offer in response?

DB: The great potential of the commons lies in helping us re-imagine what human beings actually are -- and then to reorient our perspectives, policies, law, and institutions accordingly. The commons is at one level a discourse and political history, but more fundamentally it is a set of social practices and ethical values that honor fairness, self-determination, inclusion, and responsibility aligned with entitlements. The commons is pre-political in the sense that commoning is an ancient impulse of humanity. It tends to precede any political system and function somewhat autonomously.

MB: In tackling these structural issues, we have made substantial progress in recreating commons of shared knowledge, and have started redistribution mechanisms (urban commons) using commons-centric ecosystems, but it is vital to move the commons-centric economic and social systems to actual material production, as is now already happening in food and energy. Why is this vital: 1) because mutualization and pooling of knowledge, makes sure that all innovations and solutions can be replicated, learned from , and adapted, wherever they are needed 2), because mutualization physical resources and provisioning systems has an enormous capacity to diminish the human footprint while maintaining complex social systems for human wellbeing 3) because the commons-based model of cosmo-local production, whereby ‘all that is light is global and shared’ and all that is heavy is localized to the extend possible’, is also one that can regenerate local and bioregional economies, where we can move from extractive economic models, to generative economic models, that heal the earth, its resources and communities. Transforming our means of production and distribution will be vital, by integrating all positive and negative, social and ecological externalities, at all levels of human decision-making.

DB: The commons points to a different vision of how society might be ordered, relative to modernity and capitalism.  It emphasizes peer governance and provisioning at a more local, participatory level.  It prioritizes fairness and inclusion.  It is not about maximum material throughput -- growth, consumerism, profit, GDP -- but about responsible long-term stewardship on behalf of all.  By asserting a coherent alternative vision, the commons as a discourse begins the process of changing politics. It opens up a cultural space for talking about practical alternatives that escape the destructive logic of neoliberal capitalism and state power as historically exercised.

* TdG: What is the role of governments in all this?

MB: The role of institutions, and thus of European institutions, much change their focus from their functioning as market-centric state forms, and the EU certainly has very strong neoliberal biases which block many necessary pathways, towards commons-centric public-social partnerships, where the territorial common good institutions can eliminate the multitude of obstacles standing in the way of collaboration and mutualization, and facilitate the autonomy of civil society actors at the personal and collective level.

DB: As commons grow in size and influence, some sort of modus vivendi is needed between the state (law, bureaucracy, policy, representative law-making) and the very different logic and ethic of commoning, which is more ecologically and socially grounded. The state may have legality on its side, but the commons more often has social and moral legitimacy. Invoking the commons can help us engage with this problem and find practical work-arounds.

* TdG: What can commoners do to change these institutions?

MB: Beyond public-commons cooperation protocols and mechanisms, there is also a necessary process of the commonification of public services, so that the public resources become unalienable and poly-governed by the multiple stakeholders, which includes a special role for all citizens but also specifically for transition agents which can prove their impacts. We must overcome the merely competitive public procurement processes and mobilize the whole society towards the eco-social transition. Processes of contributory democracy means that multi-governed institutions can give a place at the decision-making table for commons-oriented civic communities that are exemplars for the transition. Collective institutions like the EU must become commons-facilitating institutions, that start judging projects and initiatives on their regenerative, common good impact, and are thereby able to promote and finance regenerative activity, by mobilizing the whole society and not just firms, and by creating a planning framework of global thresholds and allocations, which can be used granularly at every level, so that production of human needs (and all other beings) can proceed within planetary boundaries and resource boundaries. The role of territorial organizations like the EU is to focus also on capacity building, so that commons engagement can be undertaken by all citizens at their full capacity. One of their central tasks is to help strengthen ‘commons of capabilities’.

DB: But how can state power and commoning coexist? That is a significant challenge that commoners and European policymakers alike must address. A first priority should be to decriminalize commoning in cases where it is illegal, such as in seed-sharing and certain forms of information-sharing. We also need new types of law to affirmatively support commoning. It has taken ingenious "legal hacks" such as Creative Commons licenses, the General Public License for free software, and community land trusts to make certain forms of sharing explicitly legal and practical. Instead of presuming that markets are the only efficient way to produce wealth (when in fact, they are often merely extractive and predatory for private gain), policymakers need to recognize that commons are value-generating social systems. Even better, they usually do so without the "externalities" that businesses routinely impose upon the environment, communities, and future generations.

* TdG: What would a transition of these roles and mentalities of institutions look like?

MB: Climate change, i.e. the vital necessary transition towards a mode of production and distribution that is fully compatible with the maintenance of life, i.e. the health of the planet, is certainly the fight of our times, but it cannot succeed without more social equity and massive sharing of knowledge. Which means that it becomes a vast process of eco-social transition processes, not just focused on mere decarbonisation. One of the associated priorities is to create means of managing human production that fully integrate externalties, and therefore, the accounting and management of externalities is also a vital part of the transition. Humans must become thermo-dynamically informed in their productive decision-making and society as a whole must become life-centric, not only for humans but for all life and beings, and future generations. This goes well beyond mitigation towards generative and regenerative models. None of this can succeed without giving mutualisation, i.e. commons, a vastly more important place in the way society and its institutions are organized. The common good, and nature, must have a voice, and we need institutions that allow for this voice to be heard, not occassionally but as the vast ground of all human decisions.

DB: An added benefit of a commons-based strategy is greater resilience and popular empowerment by distributing authority more widely and at appropriate levels (the idea of "subsidiarity"), rather than concentrating too much power with politicians and centralized bureaucracies. By deconcentrating power, state assistance to commons would in effect promote greater democratic participation and control while reducing large-scale abuses of power and ecological harm.

* TdG: Can you give me some examples of practices that have inspired you recently?

DB: One tool that the state could use is commons/public partnerships in which the state actively and in good faith assists the work of commons. Imagine expanding the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, DNDi, which is a partnership among commons, state institutions, and private companies to reduce the costs of drug R&D and distribution. DNDi releases medically important drugs under royalty-free, non-exclusive licenses so that benefits so that the drugs can be made available everywhere inexpensively.  Or consider how the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has helped various states in the wake of natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti. HOT is a commons-driven solution that brings together volunteer hackers to produce invaluable Web maps showing first-responders and victims where to find hospitals, water, and other necessities. The System of Rice Intensification is a global open-source community that trades advice and knowledge about the agronomy of growing rice. Working totally outside of conventional multilateral channels, SRI has brought together farmers in Sri Lanka and Cuba, India and Indonesia, to improve their rice yields by two or three-fold.  The state could help decommodify land and make it more available to ordinary people through community land trusts. If this is the agenda, special attention should be paid to developing commons-friendly infrastructure. This could be hugely beneficial, as seen in community-owned Wi-Fi like, free and open source software, and regional food systems that empower smaller farmers and enterprises.  Developing legal hacks that can provide legal recognition to commoning is vital.  Platform cooperatives that offer alternatives to the "gig economy" (Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, etc.) are one innovation that needs support.  So are certain distributed ledger technologies such as Holochain, which aims to be a commons-friendly alternative to the blockchain as emboded in Bitcoin." (