In facing up to the many profound crises of our time, we face a conundrum that has no easy resolution: how are we to imagine and build a radically different system while living within the constraints of an incumbent system that aggressively resists transformational change? Our challenge is not just articulating attractive alternatives, but identifying credible strategies for actualizing them.
I believe the commons—at once a paradigm, a discourse, an ethic, and a set of social practices—holds great promise in transcending this conundrum. More than a political philosophy or policy agenda, the commons is an active, living process. It is less a noun than a verb because it is primarily about the social practices of commoning—acts of mutual support, conflict, negotiation, communication and experimentation that are needed to create systems to manage shared resources. This process blends production (self provisioning), governance, culture, and personal interests into one integrated system.
This essay provides a brisk overview of the commons, commoning, and their great potential in helping build a new society. I will explain the theory of change that animates many commoners, especially as they attempt to tame capitalist markets, become stewards of natural systems, and mutualize the benefits of shared resources. The following pages describe a commons-based critique of the neoliberal economy and polity; a vision of how the commons can bring about a more ecologically sustainable, humane society; the major economic and political changes that commoners seek; and the principal means for pursuing them.
Finally, I will look speculatively at some implications of a commons-centric society for the market/state alliance that now constitutes “the system.” How would a world of commons provisioning and governance change the polity? How could it address the interconnected pathologies of relentless economic growth, concentrated corporate power, consumerism, unsustainable debt, and cascading ecological destruction?
Why the Discourse of the Commons Matters
The language of the commons is, first, an instrument for reorienting people’s perceptions and understanding. It helps name and illuminate the realities of market enclosure and the value of commoning. Without the commons language, these two social realities remain culturally invisible or at least marginalized—and therefore politically inconsequential.
Commons discourse provides a way to make moral and political claims that conventional policy discourse prefers to ignore or suppress. Using the concepts and logic of the commons helps bring into being a new cohort of commoners who can recognize their mutual affinities and shared agenda. They can more readily assert their own sovereign values and priorities in systemic terms. More than an intellectual nicety, the coherent philosophical narrative of the commons helps prevent capital from playing one interest off against another: nature verse labor, labor verse consumers, consumers verse the community. Through the language and experiences of commoning, people can begin to move beyond the constrictive social roles of “employee” and “consumer,” and live more integrated lives as whole human beings. Instead of succumbing to the divide-and-conquer tactics that capital deploys to neutralize demands for change, the language of the commons provides a holistic vision that helps diverse victims of market abuse recognize their shared victimization, develop a new narrative, cultivate new links of solidarity and—one can hope—build a constellation of working alternatives driven by a different logic.
The potential of the commons discourse in effecting change should not be underestimated. I see the darkly brilliant counterexample of cost-benefit analysis discourse, which American industry in the 1980s succeeded in making the default methodology for environmental, health, and safety regulation. This gambit neutered a set of social, ethical and environmental policies by grafting onto them the language of market economics and quantification. The discourse effectively eclipsed many elements of statutory law and changed the overall perception of regulation. I see the commons discourse as a similar kind of epistemological intervention: a systemic way to reclaim social, ecological, and ethical values for managing our shared wealth.
As the foregoing discussion implies, the commons movement seeks to change our very conception of “the economy.” Rather than consider “the market” as an autonomous, “natural” realm of society that somehow exists apart from the Earth’s natural systems and our social needs, commoners seek to integrate the social, ecological, and economic. Karl Polanyi, in his landmark book The Great Transformation, explained how market culture in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries gradually supplanted kinship, custom, religion, morality, and community to become the primary ordering principle of society. That transformation must be reversed; unfettered capital and markets must be re-embedded in society and made answerable to it. We must make capital investment, finance, production, corporate power, international trade, and so on, subordinate to societal needs.
Along with allied movements, the commons movement seeks to develop institutions and norms for a post-capitalist, post-growth order. This means confronting the monoculture of market-based options with a richer, more vibrant sense of human possibilities than those offered by the producer/consumer dyad. The book that I recently edited with Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning, profiles several dozen fascinating, successful commons that draw upon different human capacities and social forms. These include community forests, local currencies, Fab Labs, municipal water committees, farmland trusts for supporting local family farming, indigenous “biocultural heritage” areas for stewarding biodiversity, permaculture farming, “omni-commons” structures that provide administrative/ legal support to commons-based enterprises, and many others.
Such mutualized systems of provisioning must be developed and extended. They represent socially and ecologically benign alternatives to the debt-driven economy catering to unquenchable market demand. (A brief side note: legal and organizational forms are no guarantee for breaking the logic of capitalism—one need only look at the decline of many co-ops into quasi-corporatism and managerialism. Still, such forms can provide the potential for moving to more benign forms of consumption, if not post-consumerist social mores.)
Because the commons movement is a pulsating, living network of commoners around the world, it is difficult to set forth a clear blueprint or predict the future. The future paradigm can only arise through an evolutionary co-creation. Still, we can already see the expansive, self-replicating power of the commons idea as it is embraced by highly diverse groups: Francophone commoners in eight countries, who hosted a two-week commons festival in October 2015 with more than 300 events; urban activists who are reconceptualizing the “city as a commons”; Croatians fighting enclosures of their public spaces and coastal lands; Greeks developing a “Mediterranean imaginary” of the commons to fight neoliberal economic policies; indigenous peoples defending their ethnobotanical and biocultural traditions; digital activists mobilizing to devise new forms of “platform cooperativism”; and so on. The commons language and framework helps develop unexpected new synergies and forms of solidarity.
As a meta-discourse that has core principles but porous boundaries, the commons has the capacity to speak at once to the worlds of politics, governance, economics, and culture. Importantly, it can also speak to the alienation associated with modernity and people’s instinctive needs for human connection and meaning, something that neither the state nor the market, as they are now constituted, can do. The commons paradigm offers a deep philosophical critique of neoliberal economics, with hundreds of functioning examples that are increasingly converging. But as an action-oriented approach to system change, everything will depend upon the ongoing energy and imagination of commoners, and would-be commoners, to develop this globally-networked living system.
The anonymous Invisible Committee in France has observed that “an insurrection is not like a plague or forest fire—a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It takes the shape of music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations.” That describes the unfolding odyssey of the commons movement, whose rhythms are producing a lot of resonance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and consultant who spends a lot of time exploring the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics, and culture. He has been on this trail for about fifteen years, working with a variety of international and domestic partners. In 2010, he co-founded the Commons Strategies Group, a consulting project that works to promote the commons internationally.