"Silke Helfrich (Jena, Germany) has studied romance languages and pedagogy at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig. Since mid of the 1990s activities in the field of development politics, from 1996 to 1998 head of Heinrich Böll Foundation Thuringia and from 1999 to 2007 head of the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in San Salvador and Mexico City for Mexico/Central America/Cuba, focusing on globalisation, gender and human rights.
Since 2007 she works as independent author, activist and scholar, with a variety of international and domestic partners. Helfrich is the editor and co-author of several books on the Commons, among them: Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons, Munich 2009 (in Spanish: Genes, Bytes y Emisiones. Bienes Comunes y Ciudadania, Mexico-City 2008), editor of Elinor Ostrom: Was mehr wird, wenn wir teilen, Munich 2011. With Heinrich Böll Foundation: Commons. Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat, Bielefeld 2012 (together with David Bollier: The Wealth of the Commons beyond Market and State, Amherst/MA, 2012) and most recently with David Bollier and Heinrich Böll Foundation: Die Welt der Commons. Muster Gemeinsamen Handelns, 2015 (engl: The Patterns of Commoning, Amherst/MA). She is cofounder of Commons Strategies Group and the Commons-Institut e.V. and the primary author of the German language CommonsBlog."
Silke died in a tragic accident in the Alps in November 2021. See the blog entry by David Bollier.
"If there is one thing that Silke Helfrich has learned in her world travels, it is the cross-cultural appeal of the commons. As the director of the German-based Heinrich Boll Foundation’s office in Mexico City from 1999 to 2007, Helfrich and her team hosted one of the first major international conferences on the commons, in 2006, bringing together commoners from throughout Latin America, North America and Europe.
The event was a rare gathering in which rural farmers and free-culture advocates, water activists and opponents of genetically modified crops, could begin to forge a shared language of the commons. To be sure, there were semantic challenges in translating the concept of the commons, especially when the very idea allows for so many different varieties and versions.
But the commoners at that event also shared a great deal. Many of them had suffered personally from destructive neoliberal trade policies, the privatization of public services and deregulation of government protections. Their communities had suffered from enclosures of land and crops that decimated people’s livelihoods and local ecosystems. In such circumstances, a language of the commons — or bienes comunes in Spanish — makes a lot of sense.
“Forty-nine per cent of the seed market is concentrated in the hands of only four companies, five companies control 90 per cent of the copyrights in the music industry,” notes Helfrich. “Whatever area we look at, we are confronted with concentration — of control, money, and power. These processes of concentration have an immediate impact on the rights of use of everyone and on the vitality and diversity of the commons.”
Now living in her native Germany, Helfrich engages with activists, academics, business people and politicians, especially in the Green Party, to explain the strategic value of talking about the commons. She travels throughout Europe meeting with leading theorists of the commons and frontline activists. She works with academics and groups such as the International Association for the Study of Commons. Since 2007, she has published the latest news about commons developments on her German-language blog, www.commonsblog.de.
Helfrich is also a prolific essayist and book editor on commons subjects. Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons was published in 2008, featuring essays by a wide range of international authors, including Elinor Ostrom, Richard Stallman, Sunita Narain, Ulrich Steinvorth, Peter Barnes, Oliver Moldenhauer and Pat Mooney. (It appears in English, German and Spanish. The Spanish version is more focused on Latin America and has different authors)
The commons makes sense to Helfrich because it gets beyond the classic division of haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, and of public and private. “The commons is about the missing third element — people as active participants, co-owners and citizens in their communities, people with relationships of responsibility toward each other and the resources that we all share together." (http://www.onthecommons.org/content.php?id=2710)
- maintainer of German Commons blog, at http://commonsblog.de
- English articles from: "To whom does the world belong? The rediscovery of the commons", http://www.boell.org/web/148-576.html
- Helfrich: Commons - the network of life and creativity, http://www.boell.org/commons/Helfrich_Intro_.pdf
- Helfrich/Haas: The commons a new narrative for our times:
- Short report The Commons - Prosperity by Sharing
- Comment on the book by Alain Lipietz, http://www.2020flossroadmap.org/non-menu-pages/questions-about-commons-by-alain-lipietz/
- The commons as a common paradigm for social movements and beyond, http://commonsblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/the-commons-as-a-common-paradigm-for-social-movements-and-beyond/
- web of life: http://shareable.net/blog/web-of-life
- Telepathology: A true medical commons approach: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/telepathology-a-true-medical-commons-approach/2009/10/08
- To Whom Does the World Belong, (with Bollier, Ostrom, Benkler, Wilbanks, Lerch, Narain, Mooney and many others) english version of the german book "Wem gehört die Welt. Zur Wiederentdeckung der Gemeingüter".
- German version of the Book. "Wem gehört die Welt. Zur Wiederentdeckung der Gemeingüter" (with Bollier, Ostrom, Benkler, Wilbanks, Lerch, Narain, Mooney and many others): http://www.boell.de/downloads/economysocial/Netzausgabe_Wem_gehoert_die_Welt.pdf
- Spanish compilation: Bienes comunes y ciudadanía: http://www.boell-latinoamerica.org/download_es/Bienes_Comunes_total_EdiBoell.pdf
- In German: Interview taz: Gebrauch Ja. Missbrauch Nein. http://www.taz.de/1/zukunft/wirtschaft/artikel/1/gebrauch-ja-missbrauch-nein/
- Wovon wir alle leben. http://oya-online.de/article/read/15.html
- Gemeingüter Wohlstand durch Teilen: with Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs and Christian Siefkes, http://www.boell.de/downloads/Gemeingueter_Report_Commons.pdf
By Richard Poynder:
"RP Why did you become interested in the commons?
SH: I was born in East Germany, and when the wall came down in 1989 I was 22 and had just finished my studies. Then I lived for more than eight years in El Salvador and Mexico, both of which are extremely polarised countries so far as the distribution of wealth is concerned.
So I've experienced two very different types of society: one in which the state is the arbiter of social conditions, and the way in which citizens can participate in their society and, after 1989, one in which access to money determines one's ability to participate in society.
It has also always been my belief that democracy should involve much more than simply having free elections and then delegating all responsibility to professional politicians. We need to radically democratise the political, social and economic sphere — and we need a framework for doing so which is beyond both the market and the state. That, in my view, is precisely what the commons is all about.
RP: Can you expand on your definition of the commons, and the potential?
SH: The commons is not a thing or a resource. It’s not just land or water, a forest or the atmosphere. For me, the commons is first and foremost constant social innovation. It implies a self-determined decision making process (within a great variety of contexts, rules and legal settings) that allows all of us to use and reproduce our collective resources.
The commons approach assumes that the right way to use water, forests, knowledge, code, seeds, information, and much more, is to ensure that my use of those resources does not harm anybody else’s use of them, or deplete the resources themselves. And that implies fair-use of everything that does not belong to only one person.
It's about respect for the principle "one person — one share", especially when we talk about the global commons. To achieve this we need to build trust, and strengthen social relationships, within communities.
Our premise is that we are not simply "homo economicus" pursuing only our own selfish interests. The core belief underlying the commons movement is: I need the others and the others need me.
There is no alternative today." (http://poynder.blogspot.com/2010/10/silke-helfrich-on-commons-and-upcoming.html)
- Silke Helfrich on the International Commons Conference in Berlin
- Silke Helfrich on Framing the Commons
- Silke Helfrich Interviewed on the Commons
- Silke Helfrich on the Commons as a way of working and living together (video with transcript)