Towards a New Vision of Citizenship Based on the Foundational Economy of Local Commons

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* From choice to collective voice. Foundational economy, local commons and citizenship. by FILIPPO BARBERA, NICOLA NEGRI, ANGELO SALENTO.



Michel Bauwens: I substantially agree with the 3-fold critique of 3 existing approaches to the commons and I believe it opens to a new definition of citizenship related to the commons.

Contextual Citation

"If framed in the perspective of FE, social practices aimed at the defence and management of local commons can promote the strengthening of the «civic infrastructure» of a universalistic model of citizenship weakened by the crisis of the previous model of industrial citizenship. "


Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

"The crisis of industrial citizenship has left a «structural void» in Western societies (Streeck 2016). Following this line of thought (section 2), the paper argues for an alternative vision of citizenship based on the defence and management of local commons. We define commons as «things common to all, that is those things which are used and enjoyed by everyone… but can never be exclusively acquired as a whole» (Araral 2014, 12). The adjective «local» refers to the role – actual and/or potential – played in their defence and management by the citizens of a given local area in the course of their daily life activities.Under what conditions and by which mechanisms do the defence and management of local commons open new spaces for the recovery of citizenship? To address this question, we pro-pose to frame local commons within the range of «Foundational Economy» (FE). FE (section 5) refers to the «civic infrastructure» serving everyday household needs like utilities, health care, trans-portation and mundane goods and services (e.g. food) through networks and branches across populations (Bowman et al. 2014; Barbera et al. 2016; Collective for the Foundational Economy 2018). Although FE defines a set of activities that is broader than local commons – including for instance private goods and public non-local infrastructures and services, such as electricity distribution – we will argue that this framing helps to spell out a fruitful link between local commons and citizenship in terms of «ritual social practices» (section 6). As we will maintain, FE helps to clarify how the defence and management of local commons refer to citizenship as «the capacity and desire to act collectively» (Carolan 2017, 198). To this end, we will primar-ily argue that the key approaches to local development (section 3) and local commons display several potential risks (section 4) that FE helps to overcome (section 5)."


Local commons and community: promises and perils

Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

"The relevance of non-economic motives and communal dimen-sions, lost in the post-districts debate, is key in approaches that link territory, community and local commons. In the following, we will consider three well-known approaches to local commons: a) community-based development, b) legal theory that conceives commons as political order and c) the territorialist school. These three approaches appear to provide the «lost» communitarian dimension, which we underline with regard to the limits of the post-district debate. But – as we will discuss – they also display three potential analytical risks. Specifically, we will argue that community-based development risks falling into the «local trap», commons-as-political-order does not compellingly deal with the management of local commons, and the territorialist approach lacks a full consideration of the role of innovation and organ-ized diversity within local settings, giving a too much emphasis to the role of inherited local identities." (

Overcoming the Local Trap

Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

«Community-based» development of natural resources, such as water and forestry, is the key reference point for environmental governance, particularly in the common-pool resources literature (Baland, Platteau 1999; Ostrom et al. 1999). Elinor Ostrom has painstakingly supported the idea that «for thousands of years people have self-organized to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources» (Ostrom et al. 1999, 278). The empiri-cal evidence of successful management of common-pool resources around the world provides support for the self-regulatory effective-ness of «local groups» to develop social norms that limit the use of these collective resources. The emphasis on local community is closely linked to the «communitarian» mechanisms of norms/cooperation-enforcement. Ostrom’s institutional design is accord-ingly based on «group size, cultural homogeneity, social capital or density of social networks, practices of reciprocity and the salience of the resource or lack of exit options for the resource users» (Araral 2014, 13). Subsequent studies have argued that the external validity of Ostrom’s institutional design principles is flawed (Cox et al. 2010, see also Stern 2001). Araral (2014, 16) lists the challenges in applying Ostrom’s design principles to global commons, stating that both global commons and local commons based on non-communitarian settings should require a different set of governance principles. This awareness is not part of those community and commons-based approaches, which often conflate the idea of «community» with that of «local com-munity», and regularly assume that the local scale is better than larger scales, regardless of other factors (Purcell, Brown 2005). This generates the «local trap», namely the idea «that local scale decision-making is inherently more likely to yield outcomes that are socially just or ecologically sustainable than decision-making at other scales» (Purcell, Brown 2005, 280). Two points need to be emphasized here: the first one is the concept of local scale, which should not be regarded as something with fixed properties, but rather as a group of strategies that «are pursued by and benefit social groups with particular social and environmental agendas. There is no reason to believe that it will necessarily empower groups who favour justice and sustainability. It could also empower those who benefit from oppression and environmental exploitation» (ibidem). In this regard, local-scale decision making can be exploited by «extractive» agents who extract resources from the many in favour of the few, instead of generating energy, creativity and entrepreneurship in society (Acemoglu, Robinson 2013; Servillo et al. 2017; DPS 2013). As Acemoglu and Robinson (2013) argue, localities with a history of extractive institutions that generated impoverished regimes have not prospered because marginal voices and innovators have less chance to enter the agenda-setting mechanisms. If localism is not inherently virtuous, the implication is that re-localisation may be necessary but it is not in itself a sufficient principle to support local commons (Collective for the Foundational Economy 2018). Actions oriented to the commons in the perspective of FE are instead more protected from the risks of falling into the local trap for, as we will illustrate (section 5), FE goods and services are inherently trans-scalar. Accordingly, they are organized through networks and branches across populations, localities and regions and – if properly managed in the light of FE – can displace extractive local agents." (

Approaches promoting conflict narratives but ignoring institutional management issues

Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

"Neglected management: The recent debate on the commons has been heavily influenced by legal scholars who widened the list of commons to include work, school, culture and knowledge, public transport, as well as urban spaces, public services, healthcare, etc. (Mattei 2011). In contrast to community-based approaches, legal scholars do not conflate community with «local» community at a fixed (local) scale level. This approach is very much aware that scale is first and foremost a matter of power and agenda setting mechanisms. The analytical risks of the commons-as-political-order approach is rather to boost a «Manichean» view of social conflict, which takes place always between commoners, on the one hand, and State-market, on the other. Conflict among commoners and the overlap between commoners and State-market are rarely – if ever – seriously considered (Somaini 2015). Therefore, this approach is well equipped to deal with the statu nascenti of insurgent identities in defense of the local commons, but it risks under-estimating the institutional arrangements for their management.

To begin with, the political order of commons has to be built on both a new ontology and a new epistemology that express commons as a «qualitative relation» (Mattei 2011): we do not have a common good but we are the commons in as much as we are part of the environment. According to this logic, a common is not a «good» of whatever kind but rather a shared conception of the reality. Thus, commons are framed as resources that belong to the people as a matter of necessity and radically oppose both the State and market forces. As we just stated, while power and agenda-setting mechanisms are key in this ap-proach, the emphasis is almost exclusively on the new constituent power of social movements vs. the State-market apparatus (Bailey, Mattei 2013). Hence, the commons-as-a-political-order is strongly focused toward the insurgent phase of «commoning». In this framework, which supports the constituent power of social movements, translating the «political grammar» for the defence of local commons into a detailed «institutional syntax» for their management is problematic.This translation is far easier in the FE approach. As we will argue, (section 5), this approach directly tackles the problem of institutional designs for the management of local commons by addressing the problem of the different business models needed for the provision of basic goods and services. This shift requires, among other things, to focus not only on the conflict between commoners and the State-market apparatus, but also on their overlap." (

The insufficiency of territorialist approaches

"The local identity fence: Finally, the third approach to local commons – the territorialist school – focuses on territory as a common good with its own historic, cultural, social, environmental and productive identity (Magnaghi 2011). Contrary to legal scholars’ approach – and in resonance with Ostrom’s proposal – the territorialist school is explicitly focused on the problem of institutional design. Thus, the statu nascenti phase and the institutional design for the man-agement of local commons find here a better balance. Moreover, the territorialist approach is aware of the local trap and does not hypostatizes the local scale as such: «[t]he term ‘place’ does not refer to spatial dimensions, nor does it make reference to a particular scale. A place is not necessarily small» (ibidem). At the same time, the territorialist approach explicitly points to the centrality of local cultures as encompassing local values-system. It considers territory as: «made up of places (or regions) with their own identity, history, character and long-established structure» (ibidem). Here there is a potential risk of local closure. At the analytical level, the territorialist message risks giving undue priority to preservation of the multiplicity of lifestyles and bio-cultural diversity between places, but having much less to say about «cultural» diversity and innovative changes within localities. In a nutshell, this ap-proach to local commons risks favouring homogeneity, similarity and inherited local cultures over heterogeneity, difference and innovation, thus promoting a nativist view of local commons. As we will show (sections 5 and 6), the FE approach overcomes this shortcoming by emphasizing the largely positive effect that social differences can exert on the collaborative production of goods and services (Ramella 2015). This claim is grounded on a number of empirical works which «demonstrates that individuals from socially distinct groups embody diverse cognitive resources and perspectives that, when cooperatively combined in complex or creative tasks produce ideas, solutions, and designs that out-perform those from homogeneous groups» (Shi et al. 2017, 2).All in all, the three approaches just illustrated support ana-lytical strategies for the valorisation of non-economic dimensions of local communities, that is, of the dimensions that were lost in the post-district debate. Nevertheless, the exclusive emphasis on the local scale, on the statu nascenti , and on local identities, push these strategies back to a defensive logic and to the protec-tion from negative externalities and interferences by «external» powers." (

On the Foundational Economy as pluralistic and non-perfectionist

Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

"The FE approach does not embrace this (localist, territorialist) perspective and nurtures a trans-scalar conception of economic regulation. It acknowledges the importance of the local dimension, yet avoids the local trap, or the idea that scale is a fixed property. The fact that FE goods and services are organized through branches and networks allows regulatory intervention on a local scale: even the urban scale is relevant (Engelenet al. 2017). However, albeit rooted in local territories, the FE is not merely focused on the local economic sphere, or on the economy of the territory. The FE requires a trans-scalar approach: it is both possible and neces-sary to produce regulatory interventions on different levels and scales. No single regulatory level can be considered optimal and prioritized as such. All in all, the FE approach is pragmatic and it has no ideo-logical prejudices or particularly heavy moral pre-requisites. It does not propose any «final choices», «changes of paradigms» or easy «recipes». It does however underline the need for continual adjustments. The FE is a space in which these adjustments are most urgent, and at the same time, feasible." (

On the new Commons-Based Citizenship

Filippo Barbera, Nicola Negri, Angelo Salento:

From the Conclusions:

"Local commons point to the relevance of collective efforts and choices of whole generations at all levels, from the local to the national territory, right down to the local neighbour-hood (Kohn 2016). The flourishing of human societies, in other words, derives both from individual initiative and from collective infrastructures that belong to everyone. In the FE perspective, framing local commons as the «civic infrastructure» of citizen-ship emphasizes actions at different territorial scales (including the national one) that are aimed at the de-commodification of goods and services which serve everyday needs. We have argued that the connection between local commons and «foundational» goods and services breeds effervescent rituals, enacting the ca-pacity for collective action and voice to include in the political agenda of Western capitalism the need to fill the voids opened in social reproduction by the crisis of industrial citizenship. We argued that these effervescent rituals connect daily-life needs to broader conceptions of a fair society. Following Michael Carolan (2017), we differentiate between actors of citizenship and those who hold the status of citizenship: «The latter category refers to citizenship as a bundle of legal rights and responsibilities, signifying membership in a State. It is something one has. Ac-tors of citizenship constitute subjects who are not citizens, in the aforementioned socio-legal sense, but still act as citizens, and some of those acts have the potential to engender articulations with questions of rights, equality, difference, justice, and democracy. Citizenship in this sense is something one does» (ibidem, 198). Actors of citizenship, the argument goes on, can be divided in «active» and «activist» citizens. Active citizens are involved in non-conventional political participation, such as donating money to charities and community organizations, writing letters to the editor, and signing petitions. These activities are clearly impor-tant, but they have little capacity to stimulate novelty. Activist citizens, on the contrary, are «interested in challenging routine, understandings, and practices, which makes theirs a political project versus politics as usual» (ibidem). The difference between active and activist citizens, we main-tain, is built on the role of effervescent rituals. In the previous examples, the groups and social practices at the base of these rituals are quite heterogeneous. This heterogeneity does not im-pede collective action. Indeed, it aids it from a practical point of view. Firstly, because the comparison between heterogeneous groups aids plans of action that, for their very partiality, realize that the «right» action may mean that some questions are left unanswered (Vitale 2006). Collective action of «activist citizens» thus does not require a full moral agreement. Rather, all groups agree that collective action is important as such and, therefore, they agree that it cannot provide a comprehensive solution to all problems to be undertaken. Every concrete collective action has always some limits (not only cognitive but also moral) of sustainability and its consequences can generate frictions on the key moral values. Secondly, and related to this, the effective rituals of activist citizens in defence of the commons require a degree of creativ-ity and innovation. From this perspective, the heterogeneity of mobilized circles (de Vaan et al. 2014; Ramella 2015) decreases the probability that their actions might be subsumed within «business as usual» (Sassatelli 2015, 5). Heterogeneity is thus a key structural ingredient to spark Durkheim’s effervescent ritual situations, necessary to build a new model of citizenship rooted in local commons at the intersection of different scales. Certainly, the solidarity at the basis of this effervescence is quite different from «class» solidarity, typical of welfare capitalism. Nevertheless, it is the basis of the aspirations to flourish according to a «good life» in a «fair society», connecting everyday needs to large-scale aspirations and collective projects. Local commons are therefore potential centres of influence for the launching of a new model of citizenship (Crouch 2011; 2013) framed in the context of an assertive – not merely defensive – social democracy." (