Triumph of the Commons

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* Book: Triumph of the Commons: Fifty-Five Theses on the Future. Writer: Leland Maschmeyer Editor: Tonice Sgrignoli, Brian Collins. Publ. Collins, 2011



"Triumph of the Commons is a collaborative book from fifty-five artists. It resurrects a disparaged, yet newly valuable, cultural narrative. Presented as fifty-five theses, this narrative challenges notions of prosperity: what it means and how to achieve it. Readers will find that each thesis offers practical implications for a range of concerns emerging in the 21st century."


Stephen Heller:

"All the world is a commons and all its inhabitants are you and me. That sentiment echoes the utopian dreams of many great and not-so-great thinkers and doers. The concept of universal sharing has been the underpinning of successful and flawed societies alike. But such societies are not all alike: Modern nations, primitive tribes, cult groups all have attempted some form of commons – of sharing resources in various ways. Too many utopian dreams have become dystopian nightmares, perhaps because unless the commons is fervently supported equally by all citizens, regardless of rank or status, it is too easy to devolve into a dictatorship of the few.

I admire the 55 theses that are herein presented. Idealistic as they may seem, each proposes a practical opportunity to unite the increasingly divided segments of our society. Number 3 strikes the most harmonic chord: "This land is your land. This land is my land." During a time of catastrophic strife, Woody Guthrie wrote an anthem that summed up the ultimate desire. America belongs to everyone who resides here. There is "you" and "me" – and we are different – but America: "this land is made for you and me."

With Guthrie's words as an entry point, the 55 Theses are suggestive truths and viable proposals of sorts, devised to keep us thinking about how to shore up our divisions. That designers were asked to interpret these ideas, aids all of us in understanding and concretizing by making visual, indeed universal, the concepts. Yet these are not the easiest concepts to visualize. Sometimes words better convey the idea. But what is clear from this mash–up of words and image is the underlying notion that only through collaboration can the commons work. Combining word and image, image and word is a symbol of two (and more) entities joining together for a common goal – a commons that might work for the common good." (

The 55 Thesis in the book


Some people see the world as a battleground, while others see it as a commons.


Those who see the world as a battleground vanquish duality. The gun-slinging rancher Nick Grindel in The Western Code (1932) embodies that mentality: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”


Those who see the world as a commons value duality. Consider Woody Guthrie: “This land is your land. This land is my land.”


Those who see the world as a battleground “engage” people as one engages the enemy: “I demolished his argument.” “Fire away.” “He brought out the big guns.” “You can't change his mind. He's entrenched.” “She shot me down.”


Those who see the world as a commons “involve” people as one involves a peer in the co­creation of play. “What is genius‚" Goethe asks‚ “but the faculty of seizing and turning to account anything that strikes us ... every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons‚ a thousand different things.”


The relationship of play opens one to surprise from others so that the activity of play can continue ad infinitum.


Play is‚ therefore‚ the collaborative creation of new relations‚ new possibilities‚ and new realities. Philosopher Martin Buber: “Play is the exultation of the possible.”


If the objective of play is to continue play‚ the objective of battle is to conclude battle.


Those who see the world as a battleground strive to suppress surprise from others. “Loose canons” are dangerous.


Those who see the world as a battleground revel in what they’ve made impossible for others. Those who see the world as a commons revel in what they have made possible with others.


While those on the battleground strive to produce their autonomy from others‚ those in the commons provide others with the autonomy to produce. Lawrence Lessig: “If the Internet teaches us anything‚ it is that great value comes from leaving core resources in a commons‚ where they're free for people to build upon as they see fit.”


As such‚ the two worldviews–battleground versus commons–have differing views


To those who see the world as a battleground‚ the purpose of property is to display the rewards won in past confrontations. To the victor go the spoils. Only losers come home empty-handed. “The rich man glories in his riches‚” observed Adam Smith‚ the great philosopher of competition‚ “because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world‚ and that mankind are disposed to go along with him... The poor man‚ on the contrary‚ is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it ... places him out of the sight of mankind.”


This is the essence of profit. As in battle‚ as in a market economy: for every plus there must be a minus.


People who see the world as a commons make gifts of property because they know that the greater the number of people who can play, the greater the number of people with whom they can play. People who see the world as a commons practice what is called a “gift economy.” Thus property is not a show but a means of enhancing relationships and expanding play. In a gift economy, says writer Howard Rheingold,


The expansion and extension of play is, then, the essence of wealth. John Ruskin pointed this out more than a hundred years ago in discussing the etymology of value: “Valor, from valere, to be well or strong; –strong, life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing), or valuable. To be ‘valuable,’ therefore, is to ‘avail toward life.’ ... For wealth, instead of depending merely on a ‘have,’ is thus seen to depend on a ‘can.’ ... And what we reasoned of only as accumulation of material, is seen to demand also accumulation of capacity.... Wealth is, therefore, ‘The Possession of the Valuable by the valiant.’”


Although it is the battleground that produces profit, it is the commons that produces wealth.


Therefore, those who see the world as a commons see the world and the people in it as source; as that which gives forth. In giving forth, a source is profuse in its self-initiated production. One does not engage a source to harness it to one’s personal agenda, but to involve it in the genesis of one’s own future.


Those who see a battleground see others as mere resource. A resource is anything converted from its original form into that which is useful for perpetuating someone”s past. To see others as a resource is, therefore, to expect them to surrender to your continued past.


Those who see the world as a battleground establish hierarchies: pyramids that declare a past enshrined and all futures bound to it. To do this, they confer rank. Rank demands that people acknowledge that another is more powerful, and it compels them to withdraw all opposition to that rank. This is the cessation of a war.


Because those who see the world as a commons see others as peers in play, they create heterarchies–structures of collaboration, pluralism, distributed intelligence, and constantly evolving patterns of relation. While hierarchies structure themselves to suppress surprise, heterarchies structure themselves to bring surprise.


Heterarchies organize themselves through respect, not rank. Respect is not property that can be won; it is a relation that must be earned. As software developer Eric Raymond explains, “The thing about the Internet is you can’t coerce people over a T-1 line, so power relationships don’t work... The only game left to play is pure craftsmanship and reputation among peers. If you can offer people the chance to do good work and be seen doing good work by their peers, that’s a really powerful motivator.”


While persons of rank suppress surprise from others, persons of respect enable surprise from others.


Rank is, therefore, a relationship of deference, while respect is a relationship of reciprocity. Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Men are respectable only as they respect.”


The difference between seeking rank and seeking respect is the difference between seeking consolidation and seeking compatibility.


Because it subverts other’s futures into one’s past, consolidation achieves the “easy unity of exclusion” (to paraphrase architect Robert Venturi). Whereas, compatibility achieves the “difficult unity of inclusion” by finding a new future in a shared past.


While consolidation expands the size of one’s body, compatibility expands the size of one’s network. One increases physical form. The other increases the range and magnitude of relationships.


Only when a network expands can transformation–the birth of a new future–happen. Science journalist Mitchell Waldrop:


The difference between consolidation and compatibility is also the difference between amassing power and giving strength. He who seeks consolidation makes others a resource in service to his past. He who seeks compatibility makes others a source for his future and his past a source for their future.


Inevitably, those who amass power will battle with those who give strength to others. It is because those who give strength cultivate surprise from others–which is something that those who amass power cannot allow.


Eventually, those who give strength will overcome those who amass power. The presence of power requires the presence of the powerless. Therefore, power is a finite pursuit. Genuine strength, however, does not require the presence of weakness. In fact, strength in one begets strength in another, just as the knowledge in you begets the knowledge in me. Giving strength is an infinite pursuit in which power cannot keep pace. Rosencrantz in Hamlet: “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.”


To maintain power, those who amass it need an audience. Audiences are people who observe without participating. Machiavelli: “Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.”


He who amasses power treats his audience as an opponent whom he must convince of both his power and their powerlessness. Don Corleone in The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”


This is the difference between monologue and dialogue. Monologues do not invite surprise from others. Dialogues do.


Monologues seek to convince an audience of a defined worldview that the audience had no part in creating.


Dialogues invite people to participate as peers in the birth of an unfolding worldview.


War has always begun with a monologue. Article I from the 1907 Hague Convention makes this explicit: “The Contracting Powers recognize that hostilities between themselves must not commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war.”


Life begins with dialogue. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change.”


When those with power no longer have an audience, they no longer have power. Their hierarchies are no longer recognized because the powerless have abandoned their reverence for another’s past and resumed the practice of creating their own future. This is what began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, and then swept across the Middle East in 2011.


When people no longer recognize the enshrined past and choose to create a future, they have chosen to reject explanation and begin a story. Or as Ella Fitzgerald interpreted it: “It isn't where you came from, its where you're going that counts.”


Although explanation describes the world as it is lived, people postulate contrasting explanations. Those who see the world as a battleground frame communication as “my explanation versus yours. Once all other explanations have been defeated, the victor’s explanation wins the rank of “fact. Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victor.


When explanation becomes fact, it obscures all other thoughts. Consider the harsh judgment of Pope Urban VIII as he ruled against his friend Galileo in 1633: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures)


Those who see the world as a commons embrace all explanations and reorder them into a story. Story describes the world as it could be lived. Designer Kenya Hara: “To know something is not a goal, but a starting point for our imagination.”


Stories give us epiphanies that open worlds within us and ahead of us. While explanation is an endpoint, storytelling is a beginning–an exploration of possibilities.


Story does what explanation cannot: it gives strength. The author Christopher Vogler wrote: “I came to believe that stories have healing power, that they can help us deal with difficult emotional situations by giving us examples of human behavior, perhaps similar in some way to the struggles we are going through at some stage of life, and which might inspire us to try a different strategy for living.


Fiction is not a story that lacks truth. It is a story that has yet to become truth. As the character George says in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers: “Credibility is an expanding field ... Sheer disbelief hardly registers on the face before the head is nodding with all the wisdom of


Communities, institutions, states, and nations rise from fiction. They can rise from nothing else. Carl Jung: “All works of man have their origin in creative fantasy.


As such, form does not follow function.


Without fiction, there can be no future. “The near-future is a blank because there is almost no vision of a near-future that seems both desirable and plausible, writes Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired.


If explanation successfully silences the creation of story, then those who see the world as a battleground will confront their paradox. Upon eliminating the ability of others to create new futures, he who has amassed absolute power by consolidating the futures of all others into the continuation of his past, will find that his past has no future.


He who sees the world as a battleground requires an opponent. Lacking an opponent, he lacks an identity. And a future for his past.


This is the tragedy of war: by eliminating duality, the victor eliminates himself. Buckminster Fuller: “Either war is obsolete or men are.”


However, by confronting this paradox, he who sees the world as a battleground experiences revelation: those once treated as resource are revealed to be source.


When one sees others as source, one can no longer see others as opponents but as peers involved in the co-creation of play.


Thus, the vision of the world as a commons reveals itself to be the protean vision of life. For only the commons accommodates all visions–even those that see the world as a battleground. “It is the taut composition which contains contrapuntal relationships, equal combinations, inflected fragments, and acknowledged dualities, observes Robert Venturi. “It is the unity which ‘maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives... force.’ In the end, the commons are the only choice that actually encourages our growth.