Cultural Commons

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= People are reclaiming bits of nature and of culture, and saying this is going to be publicspace. (Naomi Klein 2001) [1]


Charlotte Hess:

"Much of the cultural commons literature addresses the privatization of cultural heritage and commodification of previously unownable cultural objects. Anderson and Simmons (1993)have edited a volume on the role of customs as alternatives to private property rights that can prevent the tragedy of the commons. Clerc (2002) and Scafidi (2005) write about the effects of intellectual property rights on culture. Radin (2001) and Boyle (1996) explore the implications of propertization of the human body; Benedikter (2005) takes on the privatization of Italian cultural heritage; Bollier and Racine (2005) discuss the commons of the fashion industry; McCann (2002, 2005), Prögler (1999), and Drache and Froese (2006) focus “on the key dynamics in the global cultural economy.”

There is an expanding literature on threats to local and indigenous peoples (Caruthers 1998; Ifeka and Abua 2005) often by the tourism industry (Ryan and Aicken 2005; Briassoulis 2002; Kirtsoglou and Theodossopoulos 2004; Peleikis 2003), as well as the tragedy of changing or degraded landscapes (Healy 1995; O’Toole 1998). Some of the literature addresses the ability of cultural groups to form new commons around ecotourism (Holden 2005; Sharma et al. 2002; Vail and Hultkrantz 2000).

Roger Lohmann’s (1989, 1992, 1995, 2001) work on nonprofit organizations and voluntary associations is the early seminal work in this area. The nonprofit literature has been noticeably influenced by his work (see Bisesi 2005).

There is much that could fall under the cultural commons sector and there are many overlaps with the neighborhood and knowledge sectors. Other topics include: creativity and art (Hyde 1983, 1998; see also Hyde’s video on “the privatizing of the cultural commons.” on-cultural-commons-2/ ); public art (Sax 1999; Paul 2006); churches and spirituality— “sacred commons” (Linn 1999; Hart 2003; Ikerd, 2004; Levine 2003; Hart, Berry and Boff 2006), gender issues (Taylor 2003), and types of sports activities as commons (Bird and Wagner 1997; Rider 1998; Anttila 1999; Burger 2001; Anttila and Stern 2005; Roth 2006).

A study on references and themes on commons in novels or musical works would be very interesting. I know there are quite a few novels about the Enclosure Movements in Europe, but I have not collected those titles. Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls contains a section about the killing off of the buffalo commons. Well-known essayist and author Fellow IASCer, Susan Buck, sent me a reference to a commons song: Billy Bragg’s “The Diggers Song” about historical commoners in a 1910 protest.

Related concepts in the cultural commons are: Public Sphere, the Common Heritage of Humankind, the Common Good, Cornucopia of the Commons." (

Source: * Paper: Hess, Charlotte, Mapping the New Commons (July 1, 2008). [2]


Resisting the further enclosure of the digital commons

C. Bowers, from the introduction to: Critical Essays on the Enclosure of the Cultural Commons:

"The answer is quite simple. There are many aspects of the cultural commons that are being enclosed; that is, monetized, turned into commodities, privatized, lost to memory because of the silences, prejudices, and other forms of mis-education that have their roots primarily in the market liberal ideology that justifies the unlimited expansion of the industrial system of production and consumption. The cultural commons have been further undermined by the Western assumption that success in the individual’s pursuit of wealth is a sign of being among God’s chosen few. The merging of the myths of rationality and progress that were part of the legacy of Enlightenment thinkers—which scientists strengthened by their reliance upon experimental inquiry, led to thinking of traditions as constraints on progress. This view of tradition has led many people to associate different expressions of the cultural commons with backwardness—and, in the best sense, as folk practices. The possessive form of individualism, the ways in which education in the West has promoted abstract thinking over the importance of knowledge grounded in everyday cultural practices and environmental contexts, and the messianic drive to colonize the world with Western beliefs and institutions have also been major influences that have pushed the cultural commons of different communities to the margins of awareness. But the cultural commons have not disappeared—though many of the intergenerational achievements from the past, such as in the areas of civil liberties, craft knowledge and skills, and other expressions of self-reliance and mutual support—are being enclosed at an increasing rate.

Some observers might suggest that the phrase the “cultural commons” is so archaic that it is unfamiliar to most people, and that the word “community” is more easily understood. The word community encompasses many aspects of the cultural commons, as the latter includes everything that has been passed down from the past—and is still enacted in people’s lives at the taken-for-granted level of awareness. The major difference between how we now think of community and the cultural commons is that community is often understood as a geographical entity, as made up of residential areas, where the big box stores, schools and local university can be found, as well as where all the other activities that sustain the industrial approach to production and consumption are located. To most people, the word community does not carry the connotation of representing the symbolic systems that govern relationships, the legal and political processes, and the whole range of activities, skills, and mentoring activities carried on largely outside of a money economy. Nor do most references to community bring to mind the cultural assumptions, technologies, and corporate efforts to monetize what previously was available through patterns of mutual support. Indeed, many community leaders welcome the new Wal-Mart mega-stores as the expression of being a progressive, forward looking community—although some communities are realizing what is being lost. Also missing from the current use of community is an awareness of the ongoing tension between the traditions of social justice that were often the achievement of local democracy and the efforts by corporations to undermine local decision-making in order to expand markets and gain ownership and thus turn more of the cultural and environmental commons into commodities.

Students encounter discussions of community at all levels of the educational process. In the early grades they learn that communities are where people live, work, shop, and play. If and when they find themselves pursuing a university degree they can take courses in the sociology of community where they learn about various forms of discrimination, as well as courses in other departments that deal with the politics, economics, local theatre and other creative arts. Increasingly, they will find courses that focus on environmental issues, such as how to restore local wetlands and to challenge the local industrial polluters. The problem with the current way in which community is studied is that in most public schools students are presented with the idea that community is the arena for various human activities. What is missing from these discussions and descriptions is that community also includes the animals, plants and other elements of the bioregion. That is, students acquire the anthropocentric view of community that makes it difficult to view the environment in any other way than as a natural resource. University classes that have an environmental and scientific focus correct for this bias, but tend to ignore the nature and importance of the local cultural commons as providing intergenerationally proven examples of many human activities that do not adversely impact the environment.

What is being ignored in public schools and universities about the importance of the cultural commons is also ignored in two recent films, The Corporation, and Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. The Corporation introduces the viewer to the history of the corporation, from the time when it was understood as a legal entity created for the purpose of carrying out a specific project, with no legal status beyond that point, to when it became understood as having the same characteristics and legal rights of an individual. The socially and environmentally disruptive impact of the corporation’s unrelenting pursuit of increased market share and profits is documented, as well as the legal gains corporations have made in being able to patent nearly every aspect of life, including the genes themselves. What is missing from the film is a discussion of how corporations are undermining the cultural commons—and the fact that the world’s diversity of cultural commons represents sites of resistance to economic globalization. The film ends with the suggestion that people need to become more informed about the dangers poised by the politically and morally unrestrained world of corporate culture. Not mentioned are the many ways in which the growing power of corporations can be challenged by replacing dependence upon consumerism with greater dependence upon the resources, activities and mutual support systems of the local cultural commons.

Gore’s film and book, which have the same title, is further evidence that people who have gone through the educational system, including elite universities, have been badly mis-educated. After readers encounter the scientific evidence that global warming is occurring at a rate that will alter life for most of the world’s population readers are encouraged to reduce consumerism by adopting the following practices. These include buying things that last, putting groceries in a reusable tote bag, consuming less meat, buying local, learning about climate change, voting with your dollars, and supporting environmental groups. The virtue of these recommendations is that they do not require deep reflection about why most people accept so readily the values and assumptions that lead to thinking that consumerism is the source of happiness and a sign of patriotism.

Gore’s recommendations assure them that reducing their level of consumerism will require no fundamental changes in their way of thinking and values—which will, in turn, ensure their continued reliance on what is industrially produced and the media dictated trends of what is fashionable. The use of a reusable tote bag will serve as a visible sign of their concern about reducing the causes of global warming, even as they drive away in oversized sports utility vehicles. That there are community-centered alternatives to meeting many of the needs of daily life through consumerism is not mentioned because Gore and the men and women who collaborated in producing the film and book reproduce the silences about the nature of the cultural and environmental commons that were part of their university experience. Unfortunately, the book sends the wrong message about how to reduce consumerism, which is unfortunate since the film and book are being taken seriously in various parts of the world. Given the efforts of corporations to increase demand for a consumer dependent lifestyle in countries such as India, China, and other heavily populated regions of the world, Gore missed an opportunity to identify how renewing many of the non-monetized traditions within these countries might lead to a better balance between consumerism and what the local ecosystems can sustain. The book’s scientific documentation of global warming is likely to reinforce the idea that the same careful and evidence-based thinking went into the recommendations for reducing consumerism.

Anyone who has read the accounts of receding glaciers and changing weather patterns that are threatening the source of water for hundreds of millions of people, of extreme weather systems that the insurance industry and public safety officials now take seriously, and the consensus predictions of scientists about the dire changes our children and grandchildren will face, should be aware that the old patterns of thinking, including the cultural assumptions that are still taken-for-granted, must now be questioned. That is, the tipping point also has implications for whether we will recognize the mistakes of our hubris-driven past, as well as how the intergenerational achievements of the past have been marginalized because they did not fit with the assumptions of a modernizing and economically-oriented culture. Three recent books, including two online books, Renewing the Commons: University Reform in an Era of Degraded Democracy and Environmental Crises (2006), and Transforming Environmental Education: Making the Cultural and Environmental Commons the Focus of Educational Reform (2006), provide an introduction to identifying many aspects of the cultural commons—including how different traditions of the local cultural commons can be introduced into the curriculum from the early grades through university level classes. The main focus of these earlier books identified the different characteristics of the cultural commons that often are unrecognized by most people because the cultural commons often are part of taken-for-granted experience. The different ways in which the enclosure of the cultural and environmental commons is occurring, and how these patterns of enclosure can be introduced in the curriculum at different levels of formal education are given brief attention. However, little attention is given to the historical forces that have contributed to why many people ignore how the traditions of individual and community self-sufficiency and mutual support are being replaced by experts and products that have to be purchased. The essays in this collection represent an effort to bring the past into the discussion of modern forms of enclosure. Much of the intellectual history of how past ways of thinking continue to influence the present already has been done by scholars who have a much deeper knowledge than I possess. However, most of this scholarship was done before there was an awareness of the ecological crises and the current efforts to globalize the consumer lifestyle that is accelerating the rate of environmental degradation. Moreover, many of these scholars were educated to the same Enlightenment and modernizing biases that continue to marginalize the importance of the cultural commons. Although these scholars have given little attention to how different cultural commons generally have a smaller ecological impact, they have addressed the more destructive traditions, such as racism, exploitation, and discriminatory practices. But these important efforts were not conceptualized as being part of the cultural commons; rather they were understood from a more sociological point of view where social class, and political, economic, and educational discrimination were the main focus.

In order to understand the conceptual and moral basis of different forms of enclosure I focus on how the metaphorical nature of language continues to reproduce many of the misconceptions of the past—misconceptions that continue to reinforce the long held silences that ensure there will be little or no resistance to the loss of traditions of self-sufficiency and even our civil liberties. In effect, what ties the essays in this collection together is how the language of different thinkers, ranging from Plato, Descartes, Locke, Dewey, to George Lakoff and today’s advocates of computer-based learning, have contributed to the silences, prejudices, and just basic misconceptions about the cultural commons that are being reproduced by today’s supposedly pre-eminent thinkers, professors, and average citizens. Whether there is a casual connection between what their respective vocabularies illuminated and hid and today’s distinction between high and low status knowledge, or simply an interesting correspondence, will require further investigation. What is certain is that the silences concerning the cultural commons, as well as the ethnocentrism, that are such prominent features in the thinking of these philosophers and political theorists are also reproduced in most of the academic disciplines—and thus in the thinking of generations of university graduates.

The first essay examines how George Lakoff’s theory on how to use language to control the frame that governs political discourse is complicit in reinforcing the market driven forces that are major contributors to the ecological crises. What he overlooks is that words such as liberalism and conservatism have a history, and that their current use today still carries forward the cultural assumptions and analogic thinking of the early theorists. While generally agreeing with Lakoff’s social justice agenda, I criticize him for not recognizing that if we accept his use of the word conservatism as referring to institutes, corporations, and politicians working to expand the free enterprise system, while reducing the responsibilities of government, then it is more difficult to recognize that environmentalists and the people working to support what remains of the cultural commons are the genuine conservatives. Without a knowledge of the history of language, it becomes more difficult to recognize the Orwellian use of language—and the slippery political and ecological slope that lies ahead when the loss of civil rights and government collusion with corporations are referred to as the expression of conservatism.

The essay on the language of John Dewey and Paulo Freire brings out how their respective ideas that there is one-true approach to knowledge (experimental inquiry for Dewey, and critical inquiry for Freire) contributes to the limited vocabulary of their world-wide following. Their vocabularies, and the cultural assumptions they are based upon, perpetuate the ethnocentrism, the Social Darwinian thinking of the nineteenth century, and the silences about both the ecological crises –as well as the way in which many of the world’s cultural commons represent alternatives to today’s environmentally destructive hyper-consumerism. The essay also points out that their approaches to knowledge, which they viewed as essential for all cultures to adopt, lacked an awareness that critical reflection needs to take account of how the misconceptions of the past are encoded in the language they relied upon in formulating their prescriptions for a progressive and emancipated existence. The essay also identifies the silences in their theories—the most important being an awareness of the cultural practices of their day that were degrading the environment, as well as what needs to be conserved as sources of resistance to the forces promoting consumerism and an industrial process that undermines local skills and mutual support systems.

The main focus of the third essay is on how the vocabularies of important philosophers beginning with Plato, and including Rene Descartes, John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, have influenced today’s taken-for-granted ways of thinking. The specific concern is how the prejudices, ethnocentrism, and emphasis on the high-status nature of abstract knowledge promoted in universities may have their roots in the language of these Western theorists. None of these theorists were aware of the different cultural approaches to knowledge—and the connections between these knowledge systems and the bioregions that shaped them. And none of them were aware of the possibility of overshooting the sustaining capacity of natural systems, which caused many of the ancient and pre-modern cultures to collapse—to use Jared Diamond’s metaphor. While I do not attempt to prove a causal connection, I do point out that the silences, prejudices toward different approaches to knowledge, and the indifference to environmental limits have been a major characteristic of how philosophy and political theory have been and still are being taught in most universities. The fourth essay introduces a series of questions about the forms of knowledge, relationships, and activities (such as mentoring) that cannot be digitized without being transformed into abstract representations that strengthen the hegemony of the industrial culture. In addition to explaining the many ways in which computer-based communication and thinking contribute to the current global project of colonization to a Western way of thinking and lifestyle, the essay raises the issue of whether computers facilitate or impede the ability of classroom teachers and university professors to mediate between the two cultures that students live in—namely, the cultural commons they depend upon without being explicitly aware of, and the culture of consumer and market dictated trends. This essay explains how helping students recognize the advantages and disadvantages of different aspects of the cultural commons as well as the culture that requires dependence upon a money economy can only be done in face-to-face relationships between the student and teacher/professor. Learning about the differences between the two cultures, and developing the language necessary for naming and participating in the democratic process of determining what needs to be renewed or resisted require that the teacher/professor play the role of the mediator between what the students experience, their ways of thinking that often reproduce the misconceptions of the past, and what they take-for-granted. This role is entirely different from the role of the facilitator advocated by constructivist learning theorists who also view the computer as the technology that best enables students to construct their own knowledge—which is often based on abstract information they acquire from going online. The computer may be useful in learning about the past, but this should be secondary to the process of mediating between the students’ experiences in the two cultures they move between on a daily basis.

The last essay is about the misconceptions and assumptions that are encoded in how the political terms liberalism and conservatism are used today. In order to highlight the need to use these terms in a more historically accurate and currently accountable manner, the misconceptions reproduced in the formulaic use of these terms by political pundits, politicians, journalists, professors, and most citizens are discussed. The way in which these misconceptions, such as referring to corporations, and the other groups that support President George W. Bush’s foreign and domestic policies as conservatives, are sources of confusion of about what really needs to be conserved is given extended treatment. The essay makes a special plea for recognizing that the assumptions underlying both market and social justice liberalism are the same assumptions that gave conceptual direction and moral legitimacy to the industrial consumer-dependent culture that is a major contributor to global warming and to dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the world’s oceans. This essay is likely to cause some readers who, in thinking their liberalism is part of their genetic endowment, to be critical of my arguments for rectifying the use of our political vocabulary. For example, I argue that the loss of the civil liberties that have been part of the cultural commons since 1215, and the deepening ecological crises, means that we need to recover the political wisdom of such conservative thinkers as Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, G. Bonfil Batalla, and the increasing number of people who are advocating support for local systems of production, mutual support, and democracy. These thinkers are urging us to conserve what remains of the cultural and environmental commons that contribute to morally coherent communities and to the systems of mutual support now under increasing threat from the market liberal’s goal of creating total dependency upon what is industrially produced and sold.

The hope is that these essays will prompt further examination of other forms of enclosure by market forces and of the earlier misconceptions that still influence today’s values and practices. There is also a need for others to take on the challenge of proposing how issues related to the inherent tensions between the commons, various forms of enclosure, and the deepening ecological crises can be incorporated into the curriculum of public schools and universities. Learning a new vocabulary for thinking about what has been marginalized and traditionally viewed as a source of backwardness will be difficult—especially for those who take pride in not knowing what they don’t know. Learning to make radical changes in everyday habits that are made explicit in a commons-oriented educational process, when there are few models to follow, will be difficult. It needs to be kept in mind, however, that as global warming accelerates along with the disappearance of the sources of protein from the oceans, learning how to live less consumer-dependent lifestyles will be even more difficult—and will likely make Thomas Hobbes’ prediction of a life that is “nasty, brutish, and short” a commonplace feature of everyday life. We have a choice, but only if we possess the background knowledge necessary for recognizing it." (

Source: Critical Essays on the Enclosure of the Cultural Commons: The Conceptual Foundations of Today’s Mis-Education by C. A. Bowers, 2007


More Information

From the Cornell Law Review

  • The May 2010 issue of Cornell Law Review is a treasure trove of essays about the cultural commons. Rarely has the subject received such focused and sustained academic exploration in a major law journal.

(archive link via

The essays include:

  1. Mapping Social Technologies in the Cultural Commons by Thrainn Eggertsson.
  2. Discipline and Nourish: Construction Commons, by Wendy J. Gordon.
  3. Cooperative Institutions in Cultural Commons, by Gregg P. Macey.
  4. Individual Creators in the Cultural Commons, by Robert P. Merges.
  5. The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework and the Commons, by Elinor Ostrom.
  6. Questioning Cultural Commons, by Lawrence B. Solum.
  7. The lead authors’ response to these essays is, The Complexity of the Commons.”