Patterns of Commoning

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Book: Patterns of Commoning. Edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich. Commons Strategies Group, October 2015



"a new anthology of original essays, Patterns of Commoning, about dozens of lively, innovative commons that are pioneering exciting new forms of production, governance and ways of living. The book, edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies Group, is arguably the most accessible and far-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print.

It introduces readers to the commons, an ancient but rediscovered social system for creating and sharing wealth, beyond markets and the state. Patterns of Commoning examines successful, innovative commons around the world -- from community forests in India to high-tech Fab Labs in Germany, and from alternative currencies that are reviving poor neighborhoods in Kenya to Swiss irrigation systems that have lasted for hundreds of years.

A central theme that emerges is how the inner dynamics of commons can transform how we think and act. Commoning gives us new aspirations and ways of being in the world, whether it is a theater commons in Rome or Farm Hack, the global network developing open source farm equipment. The social practices of commoning are opening up practical new possibilities for a post-capitalist future.

Patterns of Commoning was written by an illustrious group of activists, academics, journalists, technologies and project leaders from 20 countries. Contributors include such celebrated writers as Dame Anne Salmond of New Zealand, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, anthropologist Arturo Escobar and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber. "


David Bollier interviewed by Cat Johnson for Shareable:

* "Shareable: In the book, you and Silke focus on what is described as the consciousness of thinking, learning, and acting as a commoner as the heart of the commons movement. What does this mean to you?

David Bollier: It means breaking down some of the dichotomies that we take for granted, such as between public and private, between collective and individual, between rational and nonrational. In the commons, they start to blur

You have to start talking about the commons as this organic whole, and not as this machine you can break down into parts or dissect. It’s a living organism and that’s precisely what needs to be studied: its aliveness.

Conventional, modern science refuses to explore aliveness, and instead has a lot of reductionist categories that don’t really get to the essence of, not only what it is to be a living human being, but a living human being on a living earth. I think the commons wants to speak to those kinds of concerns and, not surprisingly, it won’t fit into a lot of the conventional, intellectual boxes that academics, in particular, like to use.

* A point in the book that I find very interesting is that policymakers and experts can’t design and build commons in a top-down fashion and expect them to thrive. Commoners must do this work themselves. What distinguishes an organic commons from a manufactured one?

The institutionally sponsored commons cannot have the same bottom-up sense of commitment, ownership, co-creation. To that extent, they will be subjects in somebody else’s drama with outside directors, as opposed to expressions of a creative upswell from people themselves, that serves their interests, their needs, their inner lives.

Institution are notoriously unable to speak to or express people’s inner needs and yearnings, but I think commons can and do. That’s really the essence of the aliveness I was talking about. Commons have their own self-replicating energy and enthusiasm and, sometimes, flashes of grace. That’s quite special. It’s all wrapped up in the fact that a commons is a unique social, historical, cultural phenomenon that lives in that moment, that expresses people’s real needs.

This is a far cry from the resource-allocation type of analysis that some people try to understand commons through. Which is not to say that some of those resource analysis issues don’t matter, I’m just saying that they’re not the whole story.

* There’s an interesting notion in the book that there are few parts of life, or production, that could not be structured to work as a commons. Over the last two books, you’ve presented an amazing spectrum of commons projects. What would a commons-based economy or world look like to you?

In some ways, that’s like asking what a three-year-old child will look like when he’s 50 or 80.

There’s a whole lot of life experiences that are, frankly, contingencies, that we can’t predict. There’s a whole developmental process that I think has to unfold and emerge to make those kinds of predictions.

That said, I do think that this is not a matter of some central authority designing it, and then getting the appropriation, and then building it. I think this is more of a biological, or evolutionary, developmental process. A lot of smaller scale principles and dynamics will be animating it.

That’s the great unfolding and drama we have. Some people say we have to scale the commons, but it’s been pointed out that the word scale is truly a term of hierarchy. I think it’s going to be more a matter of replicating and federating. That’s a different structure because it retains the integrity of local embeddedness and commitment, but it nonetheless asserts a broader solidarity and support.

We see this on the Internet, where you have all sorts of different digital tribes. There’s no central authority. Although sometimes you do need those infrastructures to help move to the next level.

What will hold a lot of it together will be a certain ethic and culture which is emerging and starting to find each other. If you attend any gathering of a lot of practitioners, activists, and commoners, there’s usually this buoyancy and pleasure in finding each other and learning about each other… Despite being in different domains, they share a lot of ethical principles and cultural concerns.

The pattern approach to the commons acknowledges that the commons are complex, living systems and honors the fact that they emerge and grow. It also embraces the fact that these patterns are our cultural heritage. What’s the benefit of studying the commons in this light?

It allows you to capture the real human complexity of it instead of collapsing it into reductionist categories, or models that don’t really get at the animating forces. I don’t want to be either/or about it. There’s of course a need for a lot of academic scholarship about the commons. At the same time, there is a richer reality than some model-building can capture.

There is a sweet spot between raw anecdote and excessively abstract models. Patterning is a way to capture some of these recurrent forms, but it’s from the bottom up as opposed to an intellectual imposition on the reality.

* The book is framed as a first step to delineate patterns of commoning, in the hopes of initiating the development of a richer pattern language of commoning and the commons. Why is this important and what would a pattern language of the commons look like?

Silke, in her chapter in the book, tried to suggest what it would look like in the sense that you would get certain themes that could jump out and then recur, that emerge from experience. For example, there are certain themes: How does one protect the commons? How does one create certain legal or social systems to protect it?

Another pattern might be, how do you become self-aware of the commons itself? How do you make those invisible dimensions of commoning more visible? Silke was just trying to identify some of these thematic patterns that are like the golden threads that go through a lot of the stories in our book, that pop up recurrently.

We need to start training ourselves to see some of these patterns and start to understand the inner function of the commons in more sophisticated ways, and more realistic ways than simply rivalrous and exclusivity and so forth, which is part of the economic framework of analysis.

* This is the second book in a planned trilogy. What’s the third going to be?

The next book, which we’re still in the very, very early stages of, is, What does this mean in the larger macro dimensions, for policy, for economics, for the state?

This book focused on the inner dimension of commoning and the lived reality at a smaller scale. Now we want to look at some of the macro implications and see, how might law have to change to accommodate the commons? How might the role of the state need to be changed to allow for a commons-centric society? What does this mean in terms of international relations? That’s what the third book will be." (


Bernardo Parella:

" we should look at those experiences and people that have been actually sharing resources and economies for generations, and explore their commons roots to try to apply them to modern society. And a new anthology is doing just that, providing great help to recognize the great scope and vitality of commons initiatives around the world. Edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning is arguably the most accessible and broad-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print.

From alternative currencies and open source farm equipment, to community forests and collaborative mapping, urban commons and dozens of other examples, this collection shows in vivid detail that there are plenty of alternatives to such disguised capitalist enterprises and even to the power of the Market/State duopoly – taken for granted in western societies. Indeed, as David Bollier (author, policy strategist,
international activist and blogger on commons-related issues since late 1990s) writes in his previous book, Think Like a Commoner (now available also in Italian):

Historically, the State has had very little to do with com- mons except to indulge their existence or work with market players (corporations, investors, industries) to enclose them. The basic problem is that the state has strong incentives to ally itself with market forces in order to advance the privatization and commodification of public resources.

On the same vein, Michel Bauwens (theorist, researcher, author and founder of the p-2-p foundation) has proposed that we reimagine the State and the Market as a “triarchy” that shares governance authority with the commons— the Market/State/Commons. The goal is to realign authority and provisioning into new, more socially beneficial configurations while at the same pushing for peer-to-peer, participatory platforms. In a recent blog post, Michel Bauwens adds some important insights:

Platforms are a valuable, shared resource making interactive value creation possible through organizing and simplifying participation. Sociologists have called such shared resources public goods. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private was valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the intellectual confusion we are in the midst of today. The physical commons were, and still often are, over-exploited but the new commons follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

So, how do we as a society step out of such “intellectual confusion” and try practical solutions on the ground? Well, a great example is the path chosen by Sharing City Seoul: switching gear from the Airbnb/Uber model and investing instead in self-sufficient alternatives involving small local businesses and social innovators." (

How the book was self-published

David Bollier explains:

"Below is an excerpt from an interview that my co-editor Silke Helfrich gave about how we published Patterns of Commoning. Essentially, we solicited pre-orders of the book at a discounted rate, in batches of ten, for a total of about 650 books -- which brought in enough revenue to pay for two-thirds of production costs. Silke and I personally paid the upfront costs for the remaining one-third, and future revenues will repay us.

This arrangement enabled us to use a Creative Commons license and to post the entire book online for free, without objections from a publisher. We used a great workers coop regional publisher in western Massachusetts (where I live), which also runs a self-publishing book division for which the publisher manages online sales, via its own website and Amazon. We used our own network of commoners to publicize the book." (personal email, December 2016)

Source of interview ?

B: How was the book materially produced and distributed? I have heard that you experimented with a new model.

Helfrich: Indeed, for the English version (the case of the German one is very different), we decided to bypass commercial publishers. We realized that none of them would find our book commercially attractive – or if they did, they would want to assert too much control at too high of a price to us, the editors. There is simply no level playing field between most commercial publishers and authors. Publishers reject books like ours with arguments like: “It’s an anthology, and anthologies don’t sell.” “It’s too international in focus.” “Don’t you have any big-name contributors who are markable?” “What is the commons, anyway?” And so on.

It became clear that the old-school business models used by publishers – even the politically progressive niche presses that share our values – were not prepared to engage into what we’d call: “publishing as a commons.” So we opted for a combination of self-financing and working with a workers’ printing cooperative in Amherst, Massachussetts. How did we produce an affordable, highly shareable 400-page book? By applying one of the most important patterns in the commons: Build community first! We have been working for years with scores of commoners activists, academics and networks of people. We’ve somehow built a global community. Now, we could rely on our international community of commoners! We did a private crowdfunding campaign to solicit advance bulk orders of the book — $10/copy in increments of ten. This raised enough money to finance about half of the cost of the print run of 2,000 copies. David and I personally paid for the rest of the print run, which we expect to recoup after selling a few hundred copies.

With this plan, supported by commoners, we were able to reclaim control over what would happen with our book and avoid the constraints that conventional publishing business models usually entail – a high sales price, copyright restrictions that diminish access to the book, an inability to use a Creative Commons license, and even limits on content and the number of pages. On the other hand, by publishing through a commons-based model, we have had to deal personally with the distribution of the book. This is a tricky challenge, especially for a book with international appeal. But it has worked! We found a London-based distributor, Central Books to sell books to readers in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. It is all built on the logic of commoning, however: First, build community (which took years of work), then support each other and share the benefits.

B: How has the book been doing in terms of distribution and critical engagement?

H: We have sold nearly half of our print run of 2,000 copies in the first year. We recently put all of the book chapters online at http://www.patternsofcommoning. We have had a lot of publicity through commons networks, but less publicity through conventional marketing channels in the book trade. However, sales of the book continue steady – and we expect that posting the book on its website will spur greater visibility and interest in it. We put all of the chapters from The Wealth of the Commons online, and that website consistently gets more than 3,500 visits per month – four years after its publication!"

More Information

You can learn more about the German edition, Die Welt der Commons Muster gemeinsamen Handelns, published by transcript Verlag, at

Copies of the 418-page softbound book can be purchased for US$15 plus shipping costs via Off the Commons Books -- -- and (US).

The book is the second book of a trilogy anthologies about the commons. The first volume was The Wealth of Commons, published in 2012. (The German version is Commons: Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat).