David Bollier on the State of the Commons in 2017

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  • Interview: The Future is a “Pluriverse”- An Interview with David Bollier on the Potential of the Commons, conducted by Antonis Brumas and Yavor Tarinski. TRISE, 2017

URL = http://trise.org/2017/04/30/the-future-is-a-pluriverse-an-interview-with-david-bollier-on-the-potential-of-the-commons/


The two first questions and answers:

  • Some believe that the commons are incompatible with commodity markets. Others claim that markets and commons may form mutually beneficial relations with each other. What are your own views on this issue?

I think it is entirely possible for markets and commons to “play nicely together,” but only if commoners can have “value sovereignty” over their resources and community governance. Market players such as businesses and investors cannot be able to freely appropriate the fruits of a commons for themselves without the express authorization of commoners. Nor should markets be allowed to uses their power to force commoners to assume market, money-based roles such as “consumers” and “employees.” In short, a commons must have the capacity to self-regulate its relations with the market and to assure that significant aspects of its common wealth and social relationships remain inalienable – not for sale via market exchange.

A commons must be able to develop “semi-permeable boundaries” that enable it to safely interact with markets on its own terms. So, for example, a coastal fishery functioning as a commons may sell some of its fish to markets, but the goals of earning money and maximizing profit cannot be allowed to become so foundational that it crowds out commons governance and respect for ecological limits.

Of course, market/commons relations are easier when it comes to digital commons and their shared wealth such as code, text, music, images and other intangible (non-physical) resources. Such digital resources can be reproduced and shared at virtually no cost, so there is not the “subtractability” or depletion problems of finite bodies of shared resources. In such cases, the problem for commons is less about preventing “free riding” than in intelligently curating digital information and preventing mischievous disruptions. In digital spaces, the principle of “the more, the merrier” generally prevails.

That said, even digital commoners must be able to prevent powerful market players from simply appropriating their work for commercial purposes, at no cost. Digital commoners should not simply generate “free resources” for larger market players to exploit for private gain. That is why some digital communities are exploring the use of the newly created Peer Production License, which authorizes free usage of digital material for noncommercial and commons-based people but requires any commercial users to pay a fee. Other communities are exploring the potential of “platform co-operatives,” in which an networked platform is owned and managed by the group for the benefit of its members.

The terms by which a commons protects its shared wealth and community ethos will vary immensely from one commons to another, but assuring a stable, benign relationship with markets is a major and sometimes tricky challenge.

* During the last years we saw a boom in digital-commons, developed in urban areas by collectives and hack labs. What are the potentialities for non-digital commoning in the city in its present form – heavily urbanized and under constant surveillance? Are its proportions incompatible with the logic of the commons or the social right to the city is still achievable?

There has been an explosion of urban commons in the past several years, or at least a keen awareness of the need and potential of self-organized citizen projects and systems, going well beyond what either markets or city governments can provide. To be sure, digital commons such as maker spaces and FabLabs are more salient and familiar types of urban commons. And there is growing interest, as mentioned, in platform co-operatives, mutually owned and managed platforms to counter the extractive, sometimes-predatory behaviors of proprietary platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, Taskrabbit and others.

But there are many types of urban commons that already exist and that could expand, if given sufficient support. Urban agriculture and community gardens, for example, are important ways to relocalize food production and lower the carbon footprint. They also provide a way to improve the quality of food and invigorate the local economy. As fuel and transport costs rise with the approach of Peak Oil, these types of urban commons will become more important.

I might add, it is not just about growing food but about the distribution, storage and retailing of food along the whole value-chain. There is no reason that regional food systems could not be re-invented to mutualize costs, limit transport costs and ecological harm, and improve wages, working conditions, food quality (e.g., no pesticides; fresher produce), and affordability of food through commons-based food systems. Jose Luis Vivero Pol has explored the idea of “food commons” to help achieve such results, and cities like Fresno, California, are engaged with re-inventing their local agriculture/food systems as systems.

Other important urban commons are social in character, such as timebanks for bartering one’s time and services when money is scarce; urban gardens and parks managed by residents of the nearby neighborhoods, such as the Nidiaci garden in Florence, Italy; telcommunications infrastructures such as Guifi.net in Barcelona; and alternative currencies such as the BerkShares in western Massachusetts in the US, which help regions retain more of the value they generate, rather than allowing it to be siphoned away via conventional finance and banking systems.

There are also new types of state/commons partnerships such as the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban commons. This model of post-bureaucratic governance actively invites citizen groups to take responsibility for urban spaces and gardens, kindergartens and eldercare. The state remains the more powerful partner, but instead of the usual public/private partnerships that can be blatant ripoffs of the public treasury, the Bologna Regulation enlists citizens to take active responsibility for some aspect of the city. It’s not just government on behalf of citizens, but governance with citizens. It’s based on the idea of “horizontal subsidiarity” – that all levels of governments must find ways to share their powers and cooperate with single or associated citizens willing to exercise their constitutional right to carry out activities of general interest.

In France and the US, there are growing “community chartering” movements that give communities the ability to express their own interests and needs, often in the face of hostile pressures by corporations and governments. There are also efforts to develop data commons that will give ordinary people greater control over their data from mobile devices, computers and other equipment, and prevent tech companies from asserting proprietary control over data that has important public health, transport, planning or other uses. Another important form of urban commons is urban land trusts, which enable the de-commodification of urban land so that the buildings (and housing) built upon it can be more affordable to ordinary people. This is a particularly important approach as more “global cities” becomes sites of speculative investment and Airbnb-style rentals; ordinary city dwellers are being priced out of their own cities. Commons-based approaches offer some help in recovering the city for its residents.

Why bring the commons to the management and governance of a city? Urban commons can also reduce costs that a city and its citizens must pay. They do this by mutualizing the costs of infrastructure and sharing the benefits — and by inviting self-organized initiatives to contribute to the city’s needs. Urban commons enliven social life simply by bringing people together for a common purpose, whether social or civic, going beyond shopping and consumerism. And urban commons can empower people and build a sense of fairness. In a time of political alienation, this is a significant achievement.

Urban commons can unleash creative social energies of ordinary citizens, who have a range of talents and the passion to share them. They can produce artworks and music, murals and neighborhood self-improvement, data collections and stewardship of public spaces, among other things. Finally, as international and national governance structures become less effective and less trusted, cities and urban regions are likely to become the most appropriately scaled governance systems, and more receptive to the constructive role that commons can play." (http://trise.org/2017/04/30/the-future-is-a-pluriverse-an-interview-with-david-bollier-on-the-potential-of-the-commons/)