Parallel Polis

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Michael Martin:

"According to Benda, “the mission of the parallel polis is constantly to conquer new territory, to make its parallelness constantly more substantial and more present. Politically, this means to stake out clear limits for totalitarian power, to make it more difficult for it to maneuver” . This parallel polis was envisioned as primarily cultural, as in the arts, but also social. It simply had to do with giving up on the lie and living in truth. .. As Ivan Jirous writes in “Parallel Polis,” “Those who take part are active people who can no longer stand to look passively at the general decay, marasmus, rigidity, bureaucracy, and suffocation of every living idea or sign of movement in the official sphere”.


The Commonsverse as a Parallel Polis

David Bollier:

"As a political dissident in Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel embraced a keen strategic insight introduced by his colleague Václav Benda. How does one nurture human dignity and political agency for serious change while “living within the lie” of a totalizing political system — in his case, the communist state? Decrying “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power,” Havel argued that people must create a parallel polis. Havel, seeing citizen engagements with the state as futile or disappointingly modest, argued for the creation of “informed, non-bureaucratic, dynamic, and open communities.” (Mishra, 2017). These were seen as a way-out-of-no-way because they could function as a kind of nascent parallel economy and prefigurative social order. A parallel polis could offer a space in which ordinary people, beset by an oppressive system, could assert moral agency and truth. They could enact their commitments to social solidarity despite a formidably hostile context. The very process of building a parallel polis could be valuable in rehabilitating trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love in public life.

I believe the quest to build a Commonsverse – a piecemeal, still-emerging phenomena – resembles a quest to build a parallel polis. It seeks to honor wholesome values and different ways of being, knowing, and acting. Living as we do within the norms and institutions of the capitalist political economy on a global scale, commoning offers people ways to assert some measures of self-determination and autonomy from capitalist markets and state power. Peer-driven, socially convivial models of provisioning and governance provide important “safe spaces” for a more wholesome cultural ethic to flourish, beyond transactional individualism, material self-interest, and capital accumulation.

Though commoning is not directly political – it is usually more focused on meeting specific existential needs and protecting shared wealth (land, water, software code, creative works) – it often amounts to an indirect form of political action. The very existence of a commons often stands as a quiet moral rebuke to the prevailing system. It affirms that different, more socially constructive ways of meeting needs are possible. It makes visible an organized cohort of people with structurally ambitious goals. The commons discourse, as propagated by various transnational networks of commoning, redirects our attention to new types of practical solutions.

The rise of open source software in the late 1990s, despite its minuscule size and lack of conventional funding, is such an example. Open source (or more accurately, its progenitor “free software”3) posed a serious moral and market challenge to Microsoft’s dominance that eventually spawned a robust new paradigm of open and collaborative software development. Similarly, the rise of local organic food systems in the 1980s and 1990s provoked powerful questions about the pathologies of the industrial food system, such as its reliance on monoculture crops, pesticides, and genetically engineered seeds, and practices that deplete fertile soil. In time, that homegrown, localist movement helped spawn agroecology, permaculture, community supported agriculture, and the Slow Food movement. These efforts all seek to steward shared wealth (land, food, code) with care and holistic attention. They seek to decommodify wealth to assure its independence from the enclosures of financialization and capital-driven markets. They seek to empower people to manage their own provisioning systems, with an emphasis on access, transparency, and fairness.

Today, in a broader sweep, the Commonsverse is taking this agenda to many more arenas of change. The commons is not just raising deep questions about the market/state order and neoliberal capitalism in multiple realms (agriculture, cities, cyberspace, forests, water, the oceans); it offers a vision and armamentarium of tools for building working alternatives. Contemporary commoning is significant because it is unfolding at a cellular level of culture, on the ground, in people’s hearts and minds. It is serving as a space for quickening people’s aspirations and imaginations, and shifting their subjectivity and cultural allegiances.

Zechner’s account of self-managed neighborhood spaces in Barcelona points to “more radical, ongoing and collective modalities of participation” than municipal government generally invites or permits. Under the Barcelona en Comú city administration, autonomous neighborhood groups are now authorized to manage their own projects (buildings, social services, information curation) with city support and legal recognition. Activist groups and civic associations also manage La Borda, a large housing cooperative that manages concert halls, workshops, a library-archive, a bar, and support center, as commons. This devolution of authority and responsibility is not just addressing people’s material or political needs; it enhances people’s creative agency, sense of control, dignity, and cultural zones in ways often ignored by conventional politics, policy, and bureaucracy.

As such examples show, commoning can be an important source of social innovation, writes Koen P.R. Bartels in his essay in this issue (Bartels, 2024). The narrow “political-ontological foundations” of neoliberal institutions is precisely what impedes them from mobilizing creative energies, social collaboration, and citizen initiative. State institutions tend to prefer a strict instrumentalism, quantitative metrics, and market-oriented interventions, which helps explain why they produce so many “empty-hearted projects” that go nowhere, in the words of a citizen cited by Bartels. “Prefigurative initiatives” such as commoning “remain ‘below the radar’ of recognition and support.”

Is there a constructive way to move beyond these difficulties? Bartels calls for the development of “relational ecosystems” of commoning as a path that could liberate neoliberal institutions from their own hegemonic prejudices. By supporting commons, the state could begin to acknowledge people’s actual feelings, experiences, talents, and aspirations on their own terms, and in so doing, help stimulate constructive social innovation.

The big challenge may be how to make the relational dynamics of commoning more visible as a constructive social force. Catherine Durose and her co-authors offer some excellent suggestions, starting with the need to “better understand the micro-practices of commoning” and “how situated agents can contribute to urban transformation.” (Durose et al, 2024). Here, as in the examples above, the micro-practices and affective life of commoning tend to be inscrutable to social scientists, politicians, and government officials. They generally fail to realize that communities of practice can have highly nuanced, realistic, and even profound understandings of their problems and possible solutions. The problem is that their situated, non-theoretical, non-credentialed knowledge is often dismissed as insufficiently expert, quantitative, or congruent with administrative systems. The actual powers of commoning are not recognized in theory and they therefore tend to be invisible. We would do well to remember Elinor Ostrom’s dry observation, that “a resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory” (McKay & Bennett, 2014).

To hasten the development of more suitable “theories” of commons, Durose et al. make a valuable proposal in calling for “greater systemic comparison” of commoning practices, along with better ongoing interpretations of the fieldwork that surfaces. Giving fresh visibility to commons projects, case by case, will over time strengthen the theories and discourse of commoning. Durose et al.’s call for a “knowledge mycelium” is timely and important because a collaborative network to align knowledge of commoning in practice and theory, would certainly make the Commonsverse more visible. It would also help expose the perceptual blind spots of neoliberal institutions and policy, enabling new vistas of inquiry and innovation in public administration. I will return to this topic in the last section of this essay.

For now, let me just underscore the basic point that any transformations in democratic polity and politics must engage at the micro-level of everyday practice and culture. That is a key lesson of the Occupy encampments in 2011, the public square protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, and the growing climate action movement. It is becoming increasingly realize that political change will not occur without personal, experiential shifts of consciousness. As Manuela Zechner puts it in her essay in this volume, micropolitical aspirations give rise to new worldviews, and those personal transformations ramify outward over time, finding expression at the macro-levels of society – in law, institutional life, and configurations of state power.

Commoning is a already serving as a vehicle for larger societal transformations, as seen in social associations not normally conjoined: neighborhoods and mutual aid networks; online communities and open source design and manufacturing networks (“cosmo-local production”); agroecological projects and community land trusts; complementary currencies and mutual credit systems; digital autonomous organizations and platform co-operatives; the “commitment pooling” of Indigenous peoples and online infrastructures created by hacker communities. These cooperative social forms, in wildly diverse theaters of action, are altering people’s everyday subjectivities and, in the process, how they imagine social and political change. In this sense, new forms of democratic possibilities are already unfolding before our eyes."



Michael Martin:

"We have many ways to build our own parallel polis. We can extricate ourselves as much as possible from the technocracy and their flunkies in government and simply live. At Stella Matutina Farm (where I live), for example, we rely almost entirely on traditional tools (with the exception of a few modern contraptions like my chainsaws). We mow some of our grass, but the cattle take care of most of it. And what we do is not an anomaly: most sustainable farmers employing no-dig methods operate pretty much the same way—and even our tiny 1.5 acre garden supplies an enormous amount of food.

But even more, our idea of a parallel polis extends to the social sphere, in particular in the ways we celebrate the Christian year. We observe all the feasts, but our biggest celebration occur at May Day and Michaelmas. At May Day this year, when our state was still under various mandates and most social activities were suppressed by government and, alas, the Church, a friend asked if she could invite some of her friends who were starving for conviviality. Surprisingly, over fifty people—mostly families—showed up to dance around the maypole and feast together. This is what a parallel polis looks like. It may not be much, but it certainly fits what Jiří Dienstbier described as something contributing to “the continual renewal of the meaning of authenticity”. Bureaucracy may be death by a thousand papercuts, but the parallel polis—by which I mean “a sophiological structure” — bestows life by a thousand tiny, some might even say “insignificant,” gestures. Even our recent forays into house church can be seen as an example of this."


More information

  • Václav Benda, et al., “Parallel Polis, or an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe: An Inquiry,” Social Research 55, nos. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 1988): 211-46, at 219.