Berlin Commons Conference/Workshops/CommoningEnclosure

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see also: Commoning in the Crisis Report by Brigitte_Kratzwald and Lisinka_Ulatowska

The Workshop

  • Organisers: Massimo De Angelis, Jai Sen, Richard Pithouse
    • Further participants: Lisinka Ulatowska, Beatriz Garcia, Hillary Wainwright, Kirsten Grover, Veikko Heintz, Brigitte Kratzwald, Camila Moreno, James Quilligan, Evelyn Echeverria, J. Martin Pedersen.

This workshop, which had the title "Commoning through the crisis: creating commons power and resisting enclosures and cooptation", explored the relations between commons, commoning and the crisis in the context of power (especially power-to, rather than power over) and with reference to commoners' struggles to resist enclosure and cooptation. It took place in the foyer of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung's building in Berlin on Tuesday, November 2, 2010, from 11.00 – 12.30.

Massimo De Angelis, Richard Pithouse and Jai Sen had prepared to kick off the discussions with three different perspectives. These prompted a few more short presentations before the discussion took on a more free-flowing, yet faciliiated form.

Three Perspectives

The workshop was kicked off by three short presentations that had been prepared in advance.

Massimo De Angelis

Massimo contextualised commons in the crisis by recalling the crisis of the 70s through which the neoliberal policy paradigm emerged and crystallised into the first neoliberal government in 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in England. She infamously declared that there is no such thing as society. The return of the Conservatives to power - this time in an alliance - incidentally coincides with the current crisis and perhaps even more substantial budget cuts face British society, yet Cameron's political position, even if muddled at best, misleading at worst, turns on an idea of the Big Society. Very little has been explained about this Big Society, but the political process that Cameron gestures towards is a form of commoning: people in their own communities will have to sort themselves out, because there is no money in the national budget to sustain their local culture, infrastructure etc. The Con-Lib government wants to facilitate this process and has funded a few projects that serve as sunshine stories. How further commoning can be realised within communities remain difficult to see in the absence of funding.

This is where the concept of power enters the equation, for it is obvious who will be able to take advantage of legal deregulation: mainly the empowered will be empowered. It is a fine idea that communities should be helped and red tape removed so that schools, libraries, swimming pools and so on can be brought under the control of the local community in which such a service exists, but without financial assistance those with time and money will be the ones who control the process. In that sense, the move from central government funding to commoning has a strong potential to perpetuate existing inequalities and consolidate existing power relations. Power, therefore, is an important analytical tool in understanding social change.

On the other hand, commoning is historically a set of social relations that were destroyed in the transition into capitalism, while commons as such has been central to capitalist development in general: in times of crisis the emergence of commons is facilitated by capital interests in order to be able to enclose these commons. This is the character of continuous enclosure that is central to market forces; it is not simply a historical fact about some fences built in hills to drive the people off the land and sheep onto the land.

On this view we might understand commons both as an alternative to capital and the market dynamics, but also central to the continuous expansion of the market. Learning from history and critically analysing the contemporary commons movement in the context of power (juxtaposing power-to and power over) and with specific reference to commoners' struggles to resist enclosure and cooptation both historically and in contemporary settings (from urban commons to indigenous struggles) is necessary to get a fuller picture. Notwithstanding where one would draw the line between a desirable new commons or a commons that tend to serve capital interests (thus essentially threatening that commons itself, which lives on borrowed time, and of course constitute a threat to other commons), an analysis of power is crucial. Unless we have such an analysis, it is difficult to discuss the political dimensions and implications of a commons.

Richard Pithouse


Jai Sen

Jai spoke about cultural differences and the need to move slow in the debate so that all voices get heard. For instance, there is a tension between the freedom that characterises the software commons created by Free Software movement, as defined in the GNU General Public License (the GPL) and the freedom that some farmers are struggling for. Free Software can be used by anyone (e.g. corporations, governments) and for anything (war, space travel, surveillance etc.), while many commoners would not let their seeds be such for such purposes. While there are clear points of convergence between movements there are also divergences that have to be considered. A common language, build on trust within and between movements, is needed.

Further Presentations

In addition to preplanned presentations a few more people did short presentations before a more free-flowing discussion, facilitated by Massimo began.

First, James Quilligan pointed to the trans-regional and trans-national aspect of commons, which often transgress conventional political boundaries. Free Software circulates globally and rivers cross borders. Commons, therefore, based on community-led development and customary practices constitute a foundation for social organisation beyond the nation state.

Beatriz spoke about experiences in Madrid....

Hillary Wainwright took note of an important distinction. The crisis brings cuts and people organise to resist the erosion of their community or shared service or resource, but they are not struggling with the intention to bring the central state back into control of things. Rather the purpose of their struggle is to maintain the given institution or service.

Evelyn Echeverria ...

Lisinka spoke about the role of the UN in the commons movement...

The discussion

Upon this wide and rich set of ideas, perspectives and visions, the discussion began.

Further Reflections

  • Lisinka Ulatowska (together with Brigitte Kratzwald) made the following reflections:

The challenge is:
How can the commons emerge in a time of crisis, when the commons movement is still defining itself and crisis demands we act immediatly?

The sectors of the market and government (the private and public sectors) are seeking to use the crisis to gain more power at a time when the commons is just emerging. But this crisis is also a time of opportunity providing we are well prepared. If the commons is to emerge as a third force in the world we have to take at least the following steps.

1.Commoners must be as independent as possible from the forces of the market and therefore have the power to refuse its pressures. Here we can learn from our fellow commoners who have developed a multitude of ways, such as city gardening, community supported agriculture, alternative renewable energy technology, creative housing arrangements, alternative currencies.

2.We must build unity while maximizing the benefits of our diversity. This will involve respecting the all-win norm, whereby we strive for the maximum ablitiy of each person to develop in his or her own unique way as an integrated part of our natural environment and allow nature to thrive.

3.We must find ways of working together synergisticly so that all participants of each commons are aware that they are achieving benefits they could not get in any other way. Once we have 8.000 – 10.000 people really working closely together it is possible we will have reached a tipping point in humanity's acceptance of the commons as a valuable social form.

4.At the same time we can use the UN to make the world aware of the potential of the commons.

5.From this position of strength we can develop social charters (and some members of the workshop proposed also social trusts) to establish the commons as a legitimate and powerful means to tackle global problems.

What's Next?

It was noted in the evening around the commoners' table outside a bar next to Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn train station that this workshop had generated the most rich and deep moments of discussion so far. However, this does not mean that this workshop was better than any other workshop, but points to the often noted aspect of a very full time table, which simply had not allowed for such intimate and engaged discussion. Given the wide set of idea, visions and positions on and with respect to commons and upon reflection of the positive outcome of this workshop, there is good reason to create more such conversational spaces in which the posturing and detached form of a conventional conference is relegated to a secondary position.