Interpretive Summary of the Asian Deep Dive on Economics and the Commons

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· Essay: Asian Deep Dive on Economics and the Commons, October 12-13, 2012. An Interpretive Summary by David Bollier, Commons Strategies Group


The Commons Strategies Group working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation has a keen interest in learning how the idea of the commons – in its various theoretical and practical aspects – should engage with mainstream economics. This question is particularly important since the premises of neoliberal economics – privatization, deregulation, minimal restrictions on capital, constant economic growth as the solution to most problems -- lie at the heart of public policy. While a variety of important heterodox economic approaches have arisen to critique the prevailing system, few concentrate on the development of practical, positive alternatives. Moreover, none builds squarely upon the intellectual foundations of the commons and it rich historical, legal and political traditions.

To help explore how commoners can orient themselves with respect to conventional economics, CSG and HBF convened three “Deep Dive” workshops on three different continents – Asia (Bangkok), Latin America (Mexico City) and Europe (near Paris) – to bring together some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commons activists, thinkers and project leaders. The goal was to discuss the economics of the commons from an on-the-ground perspective, and to help identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action. The workshops were also intended to help CSG and HBF plan a major international conference on the Economics of the Commons on May 22-24, 2013, in Berlin, Germany.

This report is an interpretive summary of the three-day workshop held in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 12-14, 2012, at the Bangkok offices of the Böll Foundation. It is neither a comprehensive nor official account of the discussions, but rather David Bollier’s personal rendering of the most salient themes and comments. Despite these limitations, we hope that the report captures the key questions, concerns and insights from the workshop so that it might help other commoners grappling with these same issues. A list of the seventeen participants in the workshop is included in an appendix below.

The workshop dialogues were roughly divided into the following thematic segments, which were formulated and approved by the participants themselves:


General Discussion

Roberto Verzola, an economist and agricultural activist in the Philippines, opened with a presentation about the inherent abundance of nature – an abundance that market capitalism systematically attempts to negate and control. He compares natural abundance to the “miracle of the loaves” parable in the New Testament of the Bible, in which living things seem to miraculously multiply. Verzola calls this ecological sector of production the “living sector,” which must be seen as qualitatively different from the industrial sector, which by contrast “creates things from dead matter.”

The significant factor about the “living sector” is that it is capable of zero marginal costs in production because of the self-reproductive capacity of living things. As humans interact with nature, they can alter and improve the “programming” of living things, cultivating a framework of abundance that conventional economics simply cannot understand. The logic of natural abundance is well illustrated by the System for Rice Intensification (SRI), a kind of “open source agricultural innovation” project that Verzola has been involved with for years. Thousands of farmers from fifty different countries participate in SRI by collaborating via the Internet to discuss how to improve the yields of natural rice seeds (i.e., shareable seeds, not GMOs or hybrids). These self-directed grassroots collaborations have improved rice yields as much as five times over conventional levels without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or GMOs.

Verzola believes that focusing on abundance is what enables communities to create commons. Participating in a commons, in turn, helps overcome the baseline assumption of modern economics that resources are inherently scarce and that people have unlimited wants. If you assume that people’s needs can be met and that an ethic of sufficiency can prevail, said Verzola, then the whole edifice of conventional economics breaks down. Or as Gandhi put it, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

The challenge with systems of abundance (in nature or in information commons) is finding ways to make the abundance last and be made universally available (as opposed to being privately controlled for private profit). Economists tend to focus on efficiency and how to maximize gain, said Verzola, but engineers are more concerned with reliability, i.e., how to avert failure. For people who work with abundant resources, the primary focus should similarly be how to minimize the risk of failure. The precautionary principle is one expression of this impulse, but the larger need is to develop intellectual analyses and legal forms that can protect abundance. This is a very difficult challenge, however, when the entire capitalist economy is systemically dedicated to engineering scarcity and destroying natural abundance (in order to create markets and predictable profit streams).

Verzola’s presentation inspired a number of supportive comments and elaborations. Prabir Pukayastha, an activist on knowledge commons in India, believes that protecting abundance requires that we find ways to create alternative forms within capitalism that can eventually supplant it. Hendro Sangkoyo of the School of Democratic Economics in Indonesia put it another way: We need to introduce “social metabolisms” into a theory of abundance. This is vital to overcoming “economic modernization and the false sense of security” that it provides.

In a larger sense, the challenge is to devise new forms of governance that can manage risk and reliability. As it now stands, market economics, the default approach of public policy, assumes that the natural environment is waste-free (it isn’t) and that wastes can be endlessly absorbed by nature (they can’t).

But devising new forms of governance requires bringing people back to the commons and devising new sorts of value chains, said Ben Quinones, who works with the Solidarity Economy movement in the Philippines. “If the supply chain is owned by all of us, we can socially control it. We can’t be atomized.” But it is not entirely clear how to define development needs and whose responsibility it should be to implement them. We need to identify the factors that can in fact establish a commons-based economy, he suggested.

José Ramos thinks the answer to devising new forms of governance is to develop “an interlinked social ecology of alternatives, each producing value for the system.” This would engender a mutual recognition of common needs and thereby help foster the emergence of “internal organs” to guide governance.

Part of our problem, said Hendro Sangkoyo, is that our language “establishes artificial boundaries for talking about scale.” This creates a “western cartography” of solutions that can be highly misleading. This “cartography” and its boundaries are held in place by corporations and investors in order to maintain existing international distributions of labor and thus fuel economic expansion on a global scale, he said. The economic system is in the business of commodifying people and their outlooks and values – in essence, converting people from commoners into employees and consumers.

In Bali, Indonesia, by contrast, “the idea of line boundaries are totally missing,” said Sangkoyo. The functional reality [of production relations among people] more closely resembles permeable cell membranes than rigid, clear boundaries.

One group of people who can combat this tendency to commodify people is women, it was pointed out. Women tend to be “repositories of social meaning” and thus are more likely to recognize and protect enduring value. In his School of Democracy and Economics, Sangkoyo said he sometimes asks people “Are you $20,000 healthier today?” just to help them realize that an alien “topology of meaning” is being imposed on people. The answers invalidate the very premises of the question.

Finding ways to call into question the market system of meaning is important because our very notions of time are being erased by economic growth and technological change. For example, it now takes 179 years to re-forest certain native forests in Indonesia, if they can be re-forested at all, Sangkoyo said. The relationship between humanity and nature needs to be re-established, and a deeper sense of space and time needs to find socio-ecological expression. Human beings are not separate from nature; they are in nature.

How we recover this sensibility and communicate this story is the issue we must confront. A “layered temporality” of past, present and future must somehow be developed. The new narrative must also address the question of whose abundance? Natural abundance belongs to all of us, after all, not just corporations and investors. Issues of inequality and discriminatory access to nature must be addressed.

Markets and Commons

A second session of the workshop focused on the relationship between commons and markets. There were a variety of perspectives. Soma Parthasarathy, an independent researcher and commons activist in India, noted that basic household survival is becoming harder as market actors come into rural spaces and demand higher-value extraction from natural resources than previously existed. The encroachments of market activity substitute commodified, market provisioning for needs that were previously met through commons – a substitution effect that is occurring in Rajasthan today, for example. Market enclosures are also limiting the time for social reproduction among women, children and families, she said.

The expansion of markets often has a paradoxical effect: as the commodification of grasslands increases, through enclosures, the availability of grass for cattle-grazing actually decreases. This in turn forces many commoners to sell off their cattle because there is not enough grass. In this way enclosures create scarcity where there was none before, accelerating the cycle of enclosure.

Simply identifying this problem requires us to step outside the discourse of conventional economics because conventional economics regards market activity and growth as the very essence of value-creation. Economics does not recognize the value-destruction that occurs through enclosures. Therefore, we need to be able to see the market as a political construct, said Marina Durano, a feminist economist at the University of the Philippines. Markets are a manmade, not a natural phenomenon. Understanding what is going on requires that we develop a non-liberal view of what happens in “development.”

Stepping outside of the framework of mainstream economics helps us see other realities as well. An often-overlooked fact is that the capitalist economy imposes a massive “socio-ecological footprint” that can only be maintained through violence. The acquisition of raw materials for markets tends to require military or extra-legal coercion, or at least the threat of it.

Capitalism remains so powerful, said José Ramos of Peer Productions in Australia, because it enables enfranchisement in a socially abstract way (through money). It also enables a pooling capacity of wealth and a continuous unfolding of scale and scale-efficiencies. These are some of the key pillars of its strength. Our challenge is to create alternative transnational systems of exchange for social benefit that also have the capacity for scale, efficiency and fluidity.

This is very difficult to achieve, however, because the grand narrative of capitalism and its resources are very powerful. It makes persuasive claims for efficiency using scientific metrics, a practical fungibility of resources, and promises of future growth and technological progress. By contrast, the commons expresses a very different temporality and purpose. It asks us to re-imagine some basic processes of provisioning and social purpose, which may or may not be as superficially compelling as the capitalist narrative.

Verzola agreed that it may simply be more difficult to establish commons than markets, at least in current circumstances, because commons require that people work out the social rules for governance and impose certain restrictions and taboos. By contrast, markets depend upon money and episodic, impersonal relationships, and are heedless of social ethics and limits, and therefore do not require as much work to succeed.

Nicolás Mendoza, a PhD candidate and researcher for the P2P Foundation, noted that capitalism is so powerful because of the pooling of capital through stock markets, but also because of private debt, enforced as necessary through violence. These means help sustain a system of expanding desires. In this sense, market society is all about producing a certain type of human being. One alternative vision, said Mendoza, is that of Buddhist economics, which seeks to extinguish desire rather than to fuel it. Buddhist economics in theory encourages generosity rather than artificial scarcity. It does this through its culture and specific rituals and mechanisms designed to foster generosity.

The Solidarity Economy is another alternative to the neoclassical market. By enabling people to own their own market infrastructure, their purchasing power ends up serving as an ongoing investment in productive capacity. Simple market purchases generate greater equity ownership and a share of profits. The basic goal of the Solidarity Economy is to combine production, consumption and self-governance, said Ben Quinones.

Another approach to domesticate the logic of capitalism, said Prue Taylor, an international law scholar in New Zealand, is to develop systems to rent access to resources, and then use the money to support governance of the commons. This could help us get beyond the market/state polemics, she said.

Taylor noted that trusts are another legal construct that we should explore as a way to maintain the integrity of ecosystem commons. An example is the Sky Trust policy proposal for managing “use” of the atmosphere for pollution. But establishing commons-based trusts requires keen attention to such questions as who shall govern the trust and under what terms, and who shall be the beneficiaries.

Taylor emphasized that some countries have constitutional provisions that can be helpful in protecting the commons. For example, the Brazilian constitution stipulates the social obligations of landowners and property owners. In Germany, Article 14, section 2, of that nation’s constitution, which states, “Property imposes duties. Its use should also serve the public weal.”

At one time, markets and democracy were seen as going hand in hand. No longer. It is now quite obvious, if only from the example of China, that democracy is not really necessary for efficient markets. Luo Shihong, an activist at the Guizhou Institute in China wondered aloud if Chinese capitalism would prove to be the new model for the world. He noted, however, that the Internet is a powerful, constructive force in Chinese society and that there are new forms of urban commons arising there. He believes the commons discourse has something to say to Chinese citizens.

In discussing the relationship between markets and commons, the group identified a number of questions and concerns that apply no matter the specific type of resource-commons. This list enumerates some key challenges that must be addressed:

• Who defines the commons, especially “who’s in” and “who’s out”?

• How can we develop alternative investment systems that nurture the commons on a transnational scale?

• Can we develop debt-free currencies?

• It’s important to focus on social reproduction, dignity and respect as much as production itself.

• What is the purpose of a commons?

• Geo-political issues – especially inequality among countries – affect how commons can function. So does the inability of national governments to talk about limits to growth. What sorts of macro-policies could help address these problems?

• How can we create sufficient “space” for physical commons to flourish?

• There are so many diverse sorts of commons that we need to find ways to bridge them. Perhaps a first priority should be a mapping of them.

• We need to build institutions of governance for digital commons.

• Timing matters in the creation of commons. There are only certain windows of opportunity and different pathways to alternative futures may be time-limited.

• We must find ways to integrate the influence of religion into the commons-based economy. Special attention must be paid to cultivating a “sufficiency ethic.”

• It helps to see commons as an “open narrative space” that lets every community make their own commons. In other words, there must be sufficient space for struggles to build new commons and protect existing ones.

• Commons in urban contexts have a great promise, especially because so many people, especially young people, are migrating to cities.

• The economic idea of “preference formation” can help validate the human agency of commoners by expanding the range of preferences that they can assert (as opposed to merely adapting to the existing, stunted range of options).

The Commons and the State / Governance

A third session focused on how the state should relate to the commons, and what new forms of governance ought to be recognized and established. Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, made an opening presentation describing his theory of “triarchy,” in which the state, market and Commons all play different roles in governance. This framework is meant to displace the current duality of market and state as the only two significant forces of governance and value-creation.

Bauwens proposes the idea of the “Partner State” as a way to enable the commons to function and flourish. In this scenario, the State provides a legal sanction for commons and economic and in-kind support. It may also set general parameters for the performance of commons, which do not necessarily take into account the general public good. For a larger analysis of some of these themes, Bauwens recommended the book, Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision, by Marvin T. Brown.

While there was general agreement that the role of the state needs to change, participants worried that the State would dominate and intrude upon commons, not necessarily support them as a partner. There was basic agreement, however, that we need a pluralism of new types of governance outside of the direct control of the state.

Hendro Sangkoyo set the tone of discussion by saying that “we mystify the state” by setting it apart. “But the State cannot elude the social mechanisms of governance,” he said. In reality, all sorts of churches, community organizations act like a state already. He recommended a book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James Scott. Sangkoyo also noted that “everyone must have the right to assert their own space/time” – a capacity that the commons enables, but which the state and market threatens.

Soma Parthasarathy noted that interactions with the state often mean an abridgement of customary law by new state laws. Some customary laws are negotiable, but others are not. For women in particular, the commons is a space in which they can speak and negotiate for their interests. The state must not be allowed to shrink such spaces. There is new legislation in India, the Forest Rights Act, which was drafted in part by indigenous peoples. It addresses the traditional rights of communities and defines state authority and control over them.

If there is to be a Commons Sector in the economy, it raises several issues. First, there must be forms of governance for the Commons Sector itself that are separate from state authority. Second, since commons are often competing with the market (by destroying intellectual property rents in digital spaces, for example), we need political institutions and policies that affirmatively protect commons-oriented enterprises. Bauwens noted how commons analyst Tomaso Fattori of Italy has proposed the idea of “public/commons partnerships” and the “commonification of public resources.”

Clearly, commoners themselves must force this dialogue upon the state. Prue Taylor, described how indigenous people in New Zealand have asserted their right to co-governance of water with the state. This has forced a conversation about what a commons/public “partnership” really means. Similarly, the Transition Town movement and self-styled urban commoners are validating their own self-organized governance, in effect demanding that the state stand back and admit the limitations of its social legitimacy and competence.

A basic problem, said Robert Verzola, is that the commons lacks a legal personality. There is generally no legal code for commons. In the Philippines, there is the legal category of “ancestral domain” which recognizes the prior rights of indigenous peoples before white settlement. And there are other legal mechanisms that have been invented or adapted to protect commons, such as conservation land trusts and the General Public License (GPL) for software, a license based on copyright ownership. What we really need, said Verzola, is some “model commons code” like a corporate code.

It was pointed out that in San Francisco, the mayor has appointed a “sharing commission” to identify obstacles to the formation of commons and various types of economic and social sharing. Another idea that has been proposed is the drafting of social charters for specific communities of interest, which are then presented to and forced on the state.

David Bollier of the Commons Strategies Group notes here (after the conference) that he and his co-author Burns Weston, an international law and human rights scholar, are publishing a book in 2013 that examines the potential for using law to support commons. The book, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons (Cambridge University Press) describes why the modern, liberal market/state has trouble recognizing the commons: it is chiefly concerned with individual rights, technological innovation, market growth and a formalistic notion of law. The idea that self-organized collective governance might work and that non-market relationships and goals could be functional and just, is generally too confounding for the state to accept.

Alternative Production and Social Exchange

Apart from the challenges of transforming market capitalism and revamping the state, a commons-based economy needs to enrich its understanding of alternative modes of production and social exchange. What are the frameworks for conceptualizing commons governance and production?

Hendro Sangkoyo believes that “the meaning framework should come first.” He said that there should be a narrative space for everyone so that people can self-interrogate themselves about the logic of making and getting value; the ways in which human agency are embedded in alternative production; and the temporality of social exchange. We will need greater clarity on these issues if we are to tackle the inherited frameworks of economics. Another basic factor in alternative production is trust. “Trust as a currency to govern is basic to a commons,” said Joy Tang of Taiwan.

What role would altruism, social reciprocity and redistributive justice have in any alternative production regime? asked Marina Durano. Participants agreed that these social attributes were important to any commons-based economy. The question is how to organize these social impulses into a coherent governance system with protocols that everyone agrees upon. There must also be mechanisms to preserve value within a commons; allow the scalability of the commons; and enable commons alliances to exchange value in a larger geographic range. Scale is important to retaining a radical diversity of players, and diversity is important to building resilience into the system. A subsidiarity of power enables both diversity and decentralization, which helps thwart monopoly control and market-driven homogeneity.

If we are going to start conceptualizing a new political economy, said José Ramos, then we need to emphasize the idea of subsidiarity, which seeks to assign authority to the most local governance vehicles possible. We might consider this an “open source political economy,” in the sense that anyone is entitled to participate and innovation, legitimacy and governance emanate from the bottom up. Nicolás Mendoza said that this can be seen in the “amazing self-organization of water resources by communities in Bali, without the state.” Agrarian networks constitute a new socio-ecological model of governance.

In Rajasthan, India, forest-dwellers currently collect leaves, bark, herbs and gums from the forest and sell it to the state under special licensing regimes. But the licenses are often highly exploitative monopolies. The forest-dwelling communities could organize themselves to become bidders for government licenses, and thereby take control of their economic futures. (This model appears similar to the Solidarity Economy described above.)

Human-Nature Relationships / Ontology

There was a consensus in the workshop that any framework to develop a commons-based economy must describe a new set of human relationships among people and to nature. The ontological premises of the existing economic framework – which sees human beings as apart from nature and nature as an inert object – must be challenged and supplanted by a new ontological framework. Humans should not be caricatured as homo economicus but described more accurately as contextualized in natural ecosystems and interdependent on them.

Unfortunately, the prevailing economic and legal frameworks perpetuate themselves as instruments of harm, and the citizen responses do not necessarily attack the ontological or epistemological premises of the dominant paradigm. Ecologists and conservationists, for example, often seek to protect the land as if people had no legitimate role in managing it. Environmentalists are often seen as “anti-people” because they seek to remove people from the land and limit their ability to act as stewards of ecosystems.

As a result, advocates concerned with social justice, indigenous rights and community interests are often isolated from environmental advocates, and working at cross-purposes. State bureaucracies are seen as the primary instruments of control over forests, water and other resources. They don’t recognize the valuable local knowledge that subsistence communities could apply to resource management, nor their potential role as protectors and sustainers of natural systems.

A key priority, therefore, should be to find ways to reconnect human beings with nature as active stewards and managers. Discussion focused on some of the ways in which the commons can serve as a useful framework for pursuing this “ontological shift.” Considering the nature of existence and ontological reality is not an academic, speculative issue, but a highly relevant and even strategic question in imagining a commons-based economy.

Urban gardens, for example, provide a way to reconnect humans with nature, and recognizing traditional knowledge as a commons helps protect the livelihood of indigenous and subsistence communities. People need a “life space” in which to flourish; the commons helps name this basic need and mobilize people to protect it. At a recent “Art of Resilience” conference in Riga, Latvia, one speaker proposed mapping all the various living beings in the public square – people, plants, animals, etc. The idea is to reintroduce into our consciousness our awareness of nature and open the imagination to policies and projects that reflect this reality.

In this context, it is instructive to see corporations as a kind of artificial, institutional “species” competing with human and natural species. “There is a struggle going on among species,” said Roberto Verzola. “Corporations actually have rights to their own ecological spaces. I call them ‘arti-voracs,’ a word that combines ‘artificial’ and ‘voracious.” Humans need to “stay wild,” he said, and to develop a “species-consciousness” that distinguishes humanity from the legally sanctioned “corporate species.” After all, the corporate species is defined to engineer scarcity, which invariably results in human deprivation in the face of plenty; by contrast, there are alternative forms of production that do not require planned obsolescence and other deliberate forms of waste.

One problem in moving forward on this agenda, however, is a basic, unstated conflict over the ontological realities. The secular left tends to accept the modern, liberal worldview and show disdain for approaches that appear to them as spiritual, mystical or simply non-scientific – whereas the “indigenous left” sees great value in combining the affective and cognitive in ways that are quite empowering and practical, if not transformative. In a sense, the commons proposes a reintegration of a split in human consciousness that the Enlightenment inaugurated. The commons proposes a healing that eludes modernists.

The enterprise of introducing a new ontological consciousness may seem fanciful, but it is also a way to ground a new approach to political action and cultural change. It asserts a different logic of human existence and purpose in specific local circumstances – and this can be very strategic. As Hendro Sangkoyo put it, “The way to tackle a giant is through his fingertips.”

What Should Be Done?

The workshop concluded with a wide-ranging set of suggestions of how to advance the themes discussed in the preceding sessions. Each suggestion was only a kernel of an idea and would clearly need to be thorough discussed and developed. The proposals fell into several categories (as determined by David Bollier): Education about the Commons; Media Outreach; Networking Among Commoners; and Planning the Future.

Education about the Commons

• Develop a commons curriculum. (Bollier noted that there are a number of existing commons courses that could be useful in this regard: the School of Commoning in London; new commoning education projects in Barcelona and Buenos Aries; an online course on the commons developed by the UN Institute for Training and Research; and a collection of course syllabi that Bollier has collected.)

• Develop a module on the commons for a graduate-level course on economic development.

• Identify research ideas for grad students to investigate.

• Prepare a reader or e-book of essays on the commons.

• Establish fellowships for advanced research on the commons.

• Develop an educational institution on the commons outside of academia (so that students need not adhere to conventional academic pedagogy and publishing norms).

• Produce Chinese translations of commons materials.

• Find ways to link students at National Institutes of Technology (India) and other universities • to the commons conversations and to the P2P Foundation.

• Host a brownbag lunch at the UN Development Programme’s regional center.

Media Outreach

• Start a journal with an editorial board or a federation of journals.

• Establish a cooperative of film production or peer-produced media.

• Learn how to use media better.

• Map Asian commons-based activity and share this with the media.

Networking of Asian Commoners

• Share commons literature and digital resources among various groups in order to build new networks of connections among commoners.

• Hold more Asian meetings on the commons such as this workshop so that existing commoners can mobilize and leverage their respective networks.

• Introduce the P2P Foundation’s work to Taiwan, where there is great interest in learning about these issues.

• Develop commoner-to-commoner ties, especially among people in China and outsiders. One could co-organize communities who share certain concerns, and particularly by bringing Indian and Chinese commoners together.

• Develop a network of commons in midland Asia to work with the School of Democratic Economics in Indonesia.

• Attend the International Association for the Study of Commons conference in Japan in June 2013 and consider how to bring our perspective to academics there.

• Find ways to bring a commons framing to existing projects that are commons-related in all but name. Oxfam’s “Grow” project is a good example.

Planning the Future

• Conduct a “strategic futures” exercise to assess how we might create a commons-oriented political economy,

General suggestions

Beyond these specific suggestions, there were some meta-suggestions about process. One participant urged that any events on the commons should have a diverse geographic mix of commoners and minimal hierarchies. It was pointed out that one of the great virtues of the commons is that it can help remedy the “horizontal inequality” among groups.

The commons perspective is quite rich but can be difficult to crystallize and communicate, said one participant. A key challenge, therefore, is finding the right vehicle for “holding” the complexity of the commons. Perhaps a wiki would be appropriate.

Another participant urged that commoners take care not to segregate themselves as a cult of commoners lest it prevent the development of strategic linkages with other groups and campaigns that may not share a commons discourse. We should act as “moral catalysts” and facilitators.


It seems clear that the commons holds great potential in providing Asians with a more coherent narrative and mobilizing strategy, especially in contrast to the familiar neoliberal policy prescriptions. It helps, too, that commoning is already a deeply rooted tradition and way of life in many parts of Asia. The potential interest in the commons paradigm is reflected in the topic of the Third International Conference on International Relations and Development, in Bangkok, August 2013 – “Beyond Borders: Building a Regional Commons in Southeast Asia.”

At this stage, the most important tasks are probably to identify and organize a network of committed commoners with a variety of talents and expertise: for research, legal scholarship, activism, policy development, and public education and communications. It is difficult to prioritize these different realms at this nascent moment in the awareness of commons in Asia. What probably matters more is convening the most active, knowledgeable and passionate players so that they can begin to forge their own common ground and set of priorities. A clear idea of the on-the-ground realities – from the perspectives of the commons paradigm – would be exceedingly helpful.

Like so many other regions, convening commoners and providing them with an open space for dialogue and collaboration would arguably be the most productive way forward. Energy and direction will flow naturally from such gatherings provided there are enough key players and adequate resource-support for such deliberations to occur (both in-person and on online platforms). In some respects, Asian commoners may have less need for an “economics and the commons” narrative than in addressing challenges such as self-organizing, outreach to policy advocates, the development of commons-based policy approaches, and coordination among self-identified commoners. Some rudimentary mapping of commons in different countries and identifying strategic opportunities – either for resisting enclosures or advancing the commons discourse – seem like promising ways forward.

The workshop clearly raised more questions than it answered, and imagined more ambitious goals than can be immediately achieved. But that is as it should be. The whole point of this event was to explore new possibilities for advancing the commons. In that respect it produced a lively, provocative discussion and rich set of proposals. Someone noted that the commons amounts to a call to justice that can only be vindicated in a new paradigm. The central challenge remains how to move forward in actualizing such a paradigm.


Participants in Asian Deep Dive

Michel Bauwens (Belgium/Thailand), Director of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives and cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.

David Bollier (USA), Author, blogger at, and cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.

Marina Durano (Philippines), a feminist economist at the University of the Philippines and member of the Executive Committee of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era)

Kay Nwet Khine (Rangoon, Myanmar), Heinrich Böll Foundation fellow

Taimur Khilji (Thailand), with the UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre, based in Bangkok.

Heike Loschmann (Germany), Head of the Department of International Politics, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin.

Nicolás Mendoza (Colombia/Hong Kong), PhD student, School of Creative Media, City University, Hong Kong; research assistant, Foundation for P2P Alternatives.

Jost Pachaly (Germany/Thailand), Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Bangkok Office.

Soma Parthasarathy (India), a Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and commons scholar who studies women and subsistence.

Prabir Pukayastha (India), a member of the People’s Science Network Forum and co-author of the statement on the commons at the Porto Alegre/Rio+20 process.

Benjamin Quinones (Philippines), Chair of the Asian Solidarity Economy Council (ASEC).

Jose Ramos (Australia), author of a PhD on the nine schools of thought in the alterglobalization movement and now preparing a global documentary on commoners.

Hendro Sangkoyo (Indonesia), cofounder and principal researcher at the School of Democratic Economics.

Luo Shihong (China), an activist concerned with natural resource commons, working at Guizhou Institute of Highland Development (GIHD), affiliated with the Chengdu Shuguang Community Development Capacity Building Center.

Joy Tang (Taiwan), a digital commons advocate.

Prue Taylor (New Zealand), Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning, University of Auckland, New Zealand, who focuses on environmental ethics, law and governance; contributor to the Rio 1992 Earth Charter.

Robert Verzola (Philippines), an economist, agri-activist and scholar of abundance/scarcity issues in both the natural and digital commons.