Commons as a New Paradigm for Governance, Economics and Policy
mail at vegburner.co.uk
Thu Jan 3 15:34:00 GMT 2013
"It is a great honor to be able to share my thoughts about the commons
with you this evening. I want to thank the American Academy in Berlin
for the gift of time and caring attention that I've had these past five
weeks -- and for recognizing the great value of the commons paradigm in
its embryonic form. I'd also like to thank the Bosch Foundation for its
generous support of my fellowship. And of course, my deep appreciation
to my dear friend Silke Helfrich for her wonderful introduction and for
her collegiality in exploring the mysteries of the commons.
The commons has been my passion for the past fifteen years. This shift
in my energies came about as I became disillusioned in the mid-1990s
with the liberal imaginary as a credible vehicle for change -- and as I
recognized the powerful surge of commons-based alternatives on the
periphery of mainstream politics and culture.
In my talk, I'd like to introduce the commons paradigm as a very old --
and yet very new, recently rediscovered -- paradigm of governance and
resource-management. I will attempt to explain the great appeal of the
commons on many levels -- political, public policy, culture, social,
personal, even spiritual -- and to describe the scope of the worldwide
"movement" -- if that's the right term -- for expanding the social
practices and discourse of the commons.
Let me just say upfront that the commons is neither a totalizing
political ideology nor a PR re-branding of "the public interest." It is
a general template of governance that has deep roots in human history as
a system of self-provisioning, responsible resource-management and
But the states the issue too coldly, too analytically. The commons is at
heart an ethic -- a way of being human that goes beyond homo economicus,
the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing ideal of a human being that
economists and politicians say we are. The commons presumes that humans
are more complex, and that a richer set of human behaviors can be
"designed into" our institutions. The commons asserts that there is an
important role for self-organized governance that both challenges and
complements formal government.
In its more general sense, the commons is about stewardship of the
things that we own in common as human beings. It's about ensuring that
we protect them and pass them on, undiminished, to future generations.
That includes everything from inherited knowledge and culture... and the
integrity of natural ecosystems....public spaces and community
traditions..... subsistence commons of forests, fisheries and
farming.....and countless other shared resources that we morally or
The strangest thing is these forms of provisioning are essentially
invisible because they exist outside of both the State and the Market.
In general, they are not seen as valuable -- when they are recognized at
all -- because most commons have little to do with private property
rights, markets or geo-political power. Even though subsistence commons
meet the everyday needs of an estimated two billion people in the world,
two of the most popular economics textbooks in the U.S. -- by Samuelson
& Nordhaus and by Stiglitz & Walsh -- entirely ignore the commons as a
viable, attractive provisioning model. (Subsistence -- I should add --
is not about mere survival, but about meeting household needs as opposed
to maximizing market exchange.)
Given its invisibility, commons worldwide are being overwhelmed and
destroyed by market forces today, with often-disastrous results. The
challenge for us, I believe, is to see the commons -- and to find new
ways to support and protect it.
1. The Commons Paradigm
For most people, any mention of the word "commons" immediately brings to
mind the word "tragedy." End of discussion. If you listen to most
economists, the commons is always said to result in a tragedy. The
classic example is -- If you have a shared pasture upon which many
herders can graze their cattle, no single herder will have a rational
incentive to hold back -- and so he will put as many cattle on the
commons as possible, take as much as he can for himself. The pasture
will inevitably be over-exploited and ruined: a "tragedy."
This dogma has held sway in the popular mind and among economists since
1968, when biologist Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay called "The
Tragedy of the Commons." It was a politically convenient parable because
it implied that a regime of private property rights and markets is
needed to solve the tendency of people to over-exploit resources. If
people had private ownership rights -- the thinking goes -- they would
be motivated to protect their grazing lands. But Hardin was not in fact
describing a commons. He was describing a scenario in which there are no
boundaries to the grazing land, no rules for managing it, and no
community of users. But that's not a commons. That's an open-access
regime, a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, 3 rules, monitoring of
usage, punishment of free-riders, and social norms. A commons requires
that there be a community willing to act as a steward of a resource.
Hardin's misrepresentation of the commons stuck in the public mind,
however, and became an article of conventional wisdom. For the past two
generations the commons has been widely regarded as a failed paradigm of
governance. Hovering in the background, too, was Thomas Hobbes'
conviction that only the Leviathan, the powerful state, can prevent us
from degenerating into a law of the jungle that is nasty, brutish and
Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University -- who passed away several
months ago -- was the most prominent academic to rescue the commons and
rebut Hardin. It took years of painstaking field research and innovative
theorizing, but in her path-breaking 1990 book, Governing the Commons,
Ostrom identified some basic design principles of successful commons.
Over the past several decades, she and many colleagues have shown in
hundreds of empirical studies that people can and do successfully manage
their land and water and forests and fisheries as commons. Some commons
have flourished for hundreds of years, such as the Swiss villagers who
manage high mountain meadows and the huerta irrigation institutions in
Ostrom's great achievement was to explain how cooperation can actually
manage resources sustainably -- and often more effectively than the
state or market. Her ideas have forced mainstream economics to reexamine
its premises while working within its master narrative by brilliantly
blending political science, sociology, anthropology, economics and other
social sciences. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for
this work, making her the first woman to win the Prize. The commons
scholarship developed by Ostrom and a worldwide group of academics has
historically shown little interest in applying its ideas to the
political economy. But a global movement of commons activists has shown
no such reluctance to take on this very big challenge. Over the past ten
years or so, a fledgling commons movement -- working alongside commons
scholars, but entirely independently of them -- has developed a
discourse of the commons as a new/old political philosophy and policy
Whether they realize it not, commoners are part of a different way of
knowing and acting in the world. Commoning -- the social practices of
commoners -- embodies a very different worldview -- a different way of
being and way of knowing -- than those presumed by the modern liberal
polity. This is a source of great promise and tension, as I hope to show.
2. Economics & the Commons
Perhaps I should start by emphasizing that a commons is not a resource
in itself. It's a resource plus a social community and the social
values, rules and norms that they used to manage the 4 resource. They're
all an integrated package. You could call it a
socio-economic-biophysical package -- sort of like a fish and a pond and
aquatic vegetation: They all go together and don't make sense as
isolated elements. They arguably can't survive as isolated elements
because they are organically interdependent.
That may be why conventional economics has so much trouble understanding
the commons. It doesn't understand how the community, rather than the
individual, can be the framing term of reference. The commons looks at
the whole and regards the individual and the collective as nested within
each other and interpenetrating each other. This is a very different
metaphysics than that of the modern liberal state, which sees the
individual as sovereign.
The commons also asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies
of modern life -- "public" vs. "private," "individual" vs. "collective,"
"objective" vs. "subjective" -- and to begin to see these dualisms in a
more integrated, blended form. "Cooperative individualism" is one
shorthand that I like to us.
But that term doesn't really convey the emotional, psychic dimensions of
the commons, which at bottom is a personal experience and identity.
Commoners love and need their resources, or at least depend upon them --
and so they have keen motivations to act as conscientious stewards and
defenders of them. Commoners have emotional, subjective relationships
with the "resources" they manage and use, and with their fellow
commoners. They develop rituals and customs that are part of their
culture of stewardship.
This may be why the commons is such a subversive metaphysics: It asks us
to entertain a richer definition of value than that of the market. It
asks us to entertain a larger conception of "the economy" than Gross
Domestic Product. It asks that we commit to certain forms of value that
go beyond the market and prices.
Economics as traditionally understood is focused on "creating wealth"
and "eliminating scarcity." But it is really concerned only a certain
type of wealth -- wealth that has a price attached to it and can be
traded in the marketplace. This kind of wealth is usually encased in
private property rights and exchanged through market transactions. The
more market transactions there are, the greater the "wealth" that is
supposedly created and the happier we supposedly are.
The only problem with this standard economic narrative is that it
doesn't have much to say about the great stores of value that don't have
price tags. How much is the Earth's atmosphere worth? What about the
human genome? Fresh water supplies? Our inheritance of scientific
knowledge and culture? Parks and open spaces? The Internet? Our
relationships with nature and with each other?
A lot of this traces back to philosopher John Locke, who argued that the
things that lie outside of a system of private property rights and
commerce are best known as res nullius. Nullities. These things are free
for the taking because no one has any recognized property rights in them
and there is no price for them. All you have to do is "add your own
labor" and you're entitled to own them.
That's basically the philosophical justification that conquerors and
colonizers used in Locke's time to claim ownership of native lands. The
lands were unowned, after all, and the natives didn't have any formal
private property rights in them. Therefore -- they're free for the taking!
In our time, this same justification is used to claim ownership of
ethno-botanical knowledge in the global South, and to assert patents on
genes and lifeforms and synthetic nano-matter. The same logic is used to
develop wilderness areas and claim property rights in words, colors and
smells via trademark law. One need only arrest property rights in
something that is "un-owned."
John Locke's property theories are of a piece with Garrett Hardin's
tragedy of the commons.
They both assume that value can only be present if there are private
property rights and markets. This provides ample justification for
My colleague Silke Helfrich pointed me to a wonderful poem by Goethe
Teacher: Bethink, thee, child! Where do those gifts come from? Something
from yourself alone cannot come.
Child: Oh! Everything is from Papa.
Teacher: And he, where does he have them from?
Child: From Grandpapa.
Teacher: Not so! How to your Grandpapa did they befall?
Child: He took them all.
3. Enclosures of the Commons
Which brings me to what I call the tragedy of the market, often known as
market enclosure. Over the course of several centuries, but especially
in the 19th Century, the English aristocracy colluded with Parliament to
privatize the village commons of England. The commons was 6 essentially
dismantled. Enclosure was a way for the landed gentry to make a lot of
money and consolidate their political and economic power.
The great, unacknowledged scandal of our time is the large-scale
privatization and abuse of dozens of resources that we collectively own.
Today's enclosure movement is an eerie replay of the English enclosure
movement. A prime example: International investors and national
governments are now buying up farmlands and forests in Africa, Asia and
Latin America on a massive scale, at discount prices, in collusion with
host governments. Commoners who have grown and harvested their own food
for generations as a matter of custom, are being thrown off their lands
so that large multinational corporations and investors can take them.
The basic goal is to secure a geo-political advantage, sell food to
global markets or simply make a speculative killing.
Can you guess what happens to the millions of people who suddenly can't
survive because their commons have been enclosed? They become the
characters of a Charles Dickens novel. They are forced into cities to
search for a livelihood and end up becoming beggars, shanty-dwellers and
exploited wage-slaves. The news accounts of raids by Somali pirates
rarely mention that many of them used to be fishermen before foreign
industrial trawlers destroyed their fishing commons. Markets have long
treated Nature as either as a nullity or as a brute object -- something
that has no life in it, no dignity, no connection to the sacred. But
it's reaching some alarming points. Biotech companies and universities
now own one-fifth of the human genome. The biotech company Myriad
Genetics of Salt Lake City claims a patent on a "breast cancer
susceptibility gene" that guarantees it monopoly control over certain
types of research. This means that the patent is actually preventing
other scientists from researching genetic sources of breast cancer lest
it violate the patent.
A surging nano-technology industry is developing synthetic forms of
basic matter that "improve upon" nature -- and then claim proprietary
control over them. The ambition is to substitute privately owned,
engineered forms of proprietary nano-matter that displace naturally
occurring matter. This process follows a familiar pattern: Monsanto has
used GMOs to displace natural seeds, Microsoft has used Windows to
marginalize nearly all other operating systems, and multinational
bottling companies have substituted branded, proprietary water for tap
water. One of the first attempted privatizations of water supplies came
in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2002, when the Bechtel Corporation and the
government privatized the municipal water supply and even claimed
ownership of rainwater. More recently, the billionaire T. Boone Pickens
has spent more than $100 million acquiring groundwater aquifers in the
Texas High Plains, which could make it very expensive for many
communities there to survive as water becomes privately owned.
Nowadays, it's not just land and oceans being enclosed. Everything can
be privatized and commoditized. Mathematical algorithms can now be owned
if they are embedded in software and supposedly serve a novel commercial
function. McDonald's claims a trademark in the prefix "Mc," so that you
can't name your restaurant McSushi or McVegan or your hotel McSleep. The
American music licensing body ASCAP once demanded that hundreds of
summer camps for boys and girls pay a blanket "performance license" for
singing copyrighted songs around the campfire. These are not exceptional
cases, mind you. I wrote a book about them in 2005, Brand Name Bullies:
The Quest to Own and Control Culture.
One of the biggest commons around is the Internet. It is vulnerable
precisely because it is a commons. As we see in authoritarian countries
such as China, and Egypt -- and in the Obama administration's vendetta
against WikiLeaks -- governments don't necessarily want the commoners to
have the freedom to communicate freely among each other. Many telecom
companies would prefer to convert the Internet into a proprietary
shopping mall and marginalize digital commons by doing away with net
neutrality rules. Hollywood and the record industry would like to make
peer production and sharing illegal by expanding the scope of copyright
law and the penalties for violations of it.
I've barely ventured into the vast range of enclosures that are going on
today, but here's a brief sampling: the atmosphere, the oceans, genes,
taxpayer-funded research, public spaces in cities, public highways and
airports that are becoming private property, groundwater supplies, and
Market enclosure is about dispossession. It is a process by which the
powerful convert a shared community resource into a market commodity, so
that it can be privately owned and sold in the marketplace. Enclosure
preys upon the common wealth by privatizing it, commodifying it and
dispossessing the commoners of their autonomy and resources. It
aggressively removes resources from their local, rooted context in order
to make them fungible, marketable objects.
Enclosures sweep aside the social relationships and cultural traditions
and the sense of community that had previously existed. They require the
imposition of extreme individualism, the conversion of citizens into
consumers, and greater social inequality. Money becomes the coin of
social legitimacy and participation in such societies. This process is
generally known as "development."
Enclosures are symptoms of a deep perversity and flaw in contemporary
economic theory: the inability to differentiate between growth in the
volume of market activity and market activity that is socially
beneficial and ecologically sustainable. GDP conflates material
"through-put" in the Market Machine with human progress.
This fallacy persists for two reasons. First, GDP doesn't measure our
non-market common wealth -- the stuff that is "off the books" and
belongs to all of us, which is supposedly "free for the taking." And
second, GDP never takes into account the incredible amounts of illth
that the economy creates.
"Illth" is a term that John Ruskin coined to describe the opposite of
wealth. (Let me salute Peter Barnes for bringing this term to my
attention.) Illth is the trash and pollution and disease and injuries
and disruptions that the economy inflicts upon the commons. Illth is the
overfinancialization of the future, which robs people of living in the
present by converting them into debt zombies.
Economists have a nicer term for illth -- they call it a "market
externality." The basic problem is that the economy takes from the
commons -- in the form of free or discounted access to our shared
resources. And then, whatever can't turned into private profit is dumped
back into the commons, as illth. Politicians and economists love to crow
about how much private wealth is being created -- but they
systematically ignore how much public illth is being created in the
process. They count only market wealth. The accounting system is rigged.
So we end up with the perverse situation in which we need to create
ever-rising amounts of illth just to create more wealth. And we are told
that we can never solve our problems -- healthcare, education, social
justice, the environment -- unless we create more wealth. Call it the
Red Queen's Madness. As the Red Queen told Alice in the book Alice in
Wonderland, she had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in
the same place.
The Red Queen's Madness is now the very basis for our global economy. We
need to keep extracting more and more finite natural resources faster
and faster just to maintain the same standard of living -- while
creating ever-increasing amounts of illth that no one wants to confront.
Global warming is the logical result of this mentality.
Of course, national governments always aspire to set limits -- and
corporations are always pledging to "go green." But let's be serious:
History has shown that neither the Market nor the State has been very
successful at setting strong limits on market activity. The simple truth
is, both have strong reasons not to. Growth is what fuels the economy
and growth is what props up national treasuries. Growth is perceived as
a mythological imperative for "progress." Setting limits on markets is
avoided because it is likely to diminish profits and tax revenues, and
force a reckoning with issues of distribution and inequality that elites
would rather avoid.
4. The Value Proposition of the Commons
If the market/state is an engine of enclosure, what then can be done? I
think we must begin by recognizing the value-proposition of the commons
-- and then devise new systems -- legal, technological, social -- to
protect the integrity of commons.
We can take some guidance from an old practice of English commoners.
They used to "beat the bounds" every year. It was a community walk
around the perimeter of the commons to identify any enclosures of fences
or hedges, which they would proceed to knock down. Beating the bounds
was a festive affair -- a party with purpose -- that helped the
commoners preserve the integrity of their shared resource and their
shared social bonds.
I think it's a strategy and tradition that we need to resurrect.
However, there are some modern "beating of the bounds," such as the
General Public License for free software, which assures that the
bounties of shared production of software code remain available to all
commoners. In a different and more limited sense, the Creative Commons
licenses do the same. The general principle is: "That which is created
within the commons must stay within the commons -- unless the commoners
The commons gives us a new vocabulary for imagining a different sort of
future. It lets us develop a richer narrative about value than the one
sanctioned by neoliberal economics and policy. It helps us do what the
Market/State has trouble doing -- keep important parts of nature and
culture and community inalienable and cultivate an ethic of sufficiency.
The commons helps us see that we are actually richer than we thought we
were. It's just that our common wealth is not a private commodity or
money. It's socially created wealth that's embedded in distinct
communities of interest that act as stewards of that wealth. This wealth
can't simply be bought and sold like a commodity. Moreover, this wealth
will disappear unless the integrity of the commons is protected so that
it may remain generative.
Let me illustrate these ideas with some examples.
Rajendra Singh, the founder of the Young India Association (or Tarun
Bharat Sangh, or TBS), helped heal the local ecosystem in Rajasthan by
way of the commons. Several rivers there had completely dried up through
over-use. But by applying some near-forgotten indigenous Indian
knowledge about hydrology and small dams -- and by treating the
groundwater and rivers as sacred resources subject to community
stewardship and participation -- Young India Association was able to
bring five dry riverbeds back to life and to raise groundwater levels by
20 feet. The soil has become more fertile and wetter. People who had
abandoned the area moved back to farm and start businesses.
I was in India in January 2010, so I have another such story of how a
self-organized commons overcame free-market pathologies. In the small
village of Erakulapally two hours west of Hyderabad, a community of
rural, poor women from the lowest caste in the country -- so-called
dalit -- used to be bonded laborers working on a landlord's farm. They
earned only enough to eat one meal a day. Then they came up with the
idea of searching for and regenerating dozens of traditional seeds --
seeds that their ancestors had grown for centuries, seeds that were
brilliantly adapted to the semi-arid ecosystem and climate of Andhra
By finding and then sharing the seeds among themselves rather than
buying proprietary modern seeds, the women were able to resurrect their
more sustainable, nutritious agricultural crops.
They were able to grow the food themselves and emancipate themselves
from a market economy that was never going to serve their interests. The
women of this village achieved food security without relying upon
outside experts or government subsidies or monoculture crops or
synthetic chemicals. This self-provisioning model has spread, and there
are now some 5,000 women in 75 Andhra Pradesh villages who share seeds
and farming advice with each other, using homemade videos.
What's really interesting is how the Internet is now helping to take
this model of "cooperative innovation" to new places. The System of Rice
Intensification, or SRI, consists of hundreds of farmers in 40 different
countries, from Cuba to Sri Lanka to India, who are using the Internet
to improve the growing of rice. Rather than adopting the conventional
farming practices promoted by seed and pesticide companies -- and rather
than use GMOs, synthetic pesticides and monoculture planting -- rice
farmers have formed their own bottom-up global social network to trade
farming insights and increase the yields of indigenous rice varieties.
It's a kind of "open source agriculture" based on some ancient
principles of cooperation.
These are smaller-scale traditional commons in marginalized countries --
but the commons is alive and in modern industrialized societies as well.
Urban gardens are a flourishing model of commons, as are co-working
spaces and co-housing developments. The innovation of "participatory
budgeting" pioneered by the city of Proto Alegre, Brazil, has been
adopted by a number of cities. San Francisco's mayor has appointed a
formal task force on the "sharing economy" to explore possibilities of
collaborative consumption there.
One can also point to large-scale structures that seek to promote shared
benefits and leverage cooperation. These have a different character, but
they can protect "common assets" such as land, water and the atmosphere.
The state must often get involved by creating "state trustee commons,"
as I call them. An example is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which reserves
a share of royalties from oil drilled on state land for a trust fund,
which generates dividends for every household in the state. This year
every Alaskan will receive a check for $878 -- a sum that is about
two-thirds of the usual amount.
Perhaps the most powerful force propelling the commons paradigm forward
is the Internet, which amounts to a colossal hosting infrastructure for
commons. As I describe in my book, Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built
a Digital Republic of Their Own, the rise of the World Wide Web in 1994
unleashed an incredible wave of innovation, much of it driven by
self-organized social commons. One reason: the Internet allows low-cost
social communication and organization on a global scale. This has
enabled digital communities to undercut the enormous overhead costs
associated with conventional markets. The commons out-compete by
out-cooperating. I call this "The Great Value Shift," a term that points
to a deep structural change in how value is created for commerce and
Markets require multiple layers of expensive overhead in the form of
bureaucracy and lawyers, talent recruitment, talent promotion, branding
and marketing, complicated financing, and much else. Now imagine how a
social community of trust and cooperation working on a lightweight
software infrastructure can just do lots of similar work for free or at
very low cost.
Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written in his landmark book,
The Wealth of Networks, "What we are seeing now is the emergence of more
effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not
rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for
coordination." Benkler's term for this phenomenon is "commons-based peer
production." By that, he means systems that are collaborative and
nonproprietary, and based on "sharing resources and outputs among widely
distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other."
Open platforms on the Internet are forcing a shift not only in business
strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of
wealth. On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it
necessarily privately held. Wealth generated through open platforms is
often socially created value that is shared, evolving and non-monetized.
It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone.
Socially created value has always existed, of course, but it hasn't
always been culturally legible or consequential. Conventional economics
literally doesn't "see" it because there are no prices. But the commons
is showing that you don't need markets or government to create something
that has great value. The commons is, in fact, a very different value
proposition, one that is dedicated to generating indivisible, socially
embedded common wealth. With the proper governance, the commons are not
"tragic," but highly generative -- it's just that the common wealth is
not necessarily privatized or monetized.
This is a serious innovation -- not innovation as a cool new technology
or product, but rather, innovation as a socio-economic management
paradigm and worldview. A new/old way of generating value. It
accomplishes useful things outside of the marketplace and government.
It's a kind of do-it-yourself project and policy platform that can
interconnect with other commons and begin to scale. In the process,
commons-based models are starting to challenge and transform "real
The bestiary of commons is now so large and varied that there is what
amounts to a Commons Sector for knowledge, culture and creativity. Think
of the hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr or the millions of
Wikipedia entries in over 285 languages. Think of the more than 8,000
open-access academic journals that are bypassing expensive commercial
journal publishers. Think of the Open Educational Resources movement
that is making open textbooks and the OpenCourseWare movement started by
M.I.T. Think of the hundreds of millions of online texts, videos and
musical works that use Creative Commons licenses to enable easy sharing.
Think of the vast free and open source software community that is the
basis for a rich and varied commercial software marketplace. There are
countless such digital commons based on peer production and sharing.
Natural resource commons can also quite generative even though they are
dealing with finite, depletable resources. There are all sorts of
successful commons for managing fisheries and forests and irrigation.
There are the acequias for water in New Mexico. The ejidos in Mexico.
Native American lands and their sacred relationships with Nature.
The commons is also exemplified by urban gardens, the Slow Food
movement, Community Supported Agriculture and the Transition Town
movement, among other movements. The particular governance structures
for generating this value differ from one class of commons to another.
Subsistence commons do it differently than digital commons. The
so-called gift economies such as blood banks, academic disciplines and
Couchsurfing differ from community gardens and public squares.
But what all commons have in common is an ability to manage shared
resources and participation and inclusion. They rebuild a social fabric
that I believe neither the market nor the state is capable of
rebuilding. The commons has a healing logic. It is tempting to dismiss
these sorts of innovations as small and marginal -- but in fact local
models are starting to spread and even federate. They are scaling to
larger sizes depending upon the type of resource and social coordination
that is possible.
As a system of governance, the commons offers several critical
capacities that are sorely missing from the neoliberal state and market
system. These include the ability:
. to empower people to take charge of the resources they need; . to set
and enforce sustainable limits on markets; . to internalize the
"externalities" that markets routinely produce; . to declare that
certain resources must be inalienable -- that is, off-limits to markets;
. to reduce inequality and insecurity; . to reconnect us to nature and
to each other; and . to provide a new framework for "development."
Now I hasten to add that the commons is no panacea. Commons often fail
because of bad leadership or inappropriate governance structures.
Commoners have plenty of disagreements and conflicts. We are still
learning how to theorize about commons-based governance and support it,
especially at larger scales. So please don't let me leave with you the
impression that the commons is somehow a magic bullet that is somehow
exempt from the frailties of human institutions, power and history.
Having said that, commons are more vulnerable than they need to be --
because the Market/State often regards them either as a rich body of
resources to fuel economic growth or as a competitive threat. After all,
the commons gives commoners some measure of autonomy and control over
their lives and resources. It lets people wean themselves away from an
unhealthy dependency on volatile or predatory markets. It gives them
greater self-sufficiency and security, and lets them escape the
indignities of charity and government handouts.
In a world in which the state has been largely captured by wealthy,
concentrated economic interests -- a world in which citizen sovereignty
over democratic policymaking is more a fiction than a reality -- the
commons offers a way for people to take charge of some aspects of their
lives. Cicero had a great line: "Freedom is participation in power."
The commons amounts to a new social organism and metabolism -- a new/old
species of governance. It decentralizes power and invites participation.
People are invited to contribute their creativity on a decentralized,
horizontal scale. They don't need to remain supplicants to elites who
manage large, expert-driven, hierarchical institutions. They don't need
to remain disengaged consumers or alienated citizens who hope blindly
that some charismatic leader or government agency or corporation will
solve the problem (when in fact all of them are looking out for their
own institutional self-interests.) Commoning lets people become
protagonists in their own lives, which yields immense satisfactions and
For all of these reasons, the commons is taking off as an international
movement. Let me give you a quick survey of some of the more notable
5. The Commons as an International Movement
Here in Europe, there is a burgeoning interest in the commons as a
vision and framework for remaking political culture and everyday life.
In Germany, the commons is a topic that has actually received mainstream
attention. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been particularly active in
leading this charge, especially at a major international conference on
the commons in 2010 in Berlin.
In Italy, there was a major voter initiative two years ago about whether
to privatize municipal water systems and other water resources in Italy.
Some 94% of the electorate gave a stunning rejection of the
privatization proposals. Control of water was spoken about explicitly as
a commons. A key commons figure in Italy is the mayor of Naples, Luigi
de Magistris, who has appointed an Assessor of the Commons
<http://p2pfoundation.net/Assessor_of_the_Commons> to monitor and
improve local commons and encouraged Italian municipal officials to
identify and support local commons. Italy is also trying to incubate an
EU voter initiative, a European Charter on the Commons
with the goal of winning explicit legal protections for various commons.
Many people in the Global South recognize the value of commons framing:
indigenous peoples, farmers' groups like Via Campesino
the World Social Forum <http://p2pfoundation.net/World_Social_Forum>,
and development advocates in smaller countries. A few months ago, the
Supreme Court of India officially recognized the rights of commoners to
be protected against market enclosure -- in this case, real estate
development of a village pond. The state of Rajasthan is developing a
formal set of policies to protect forests, lakes, farmland and other
natural resource commons.
Bolivians have rewritten their constitution to give Mother Nature
explicit legal rights of standing to be represented in court -- and
their president, Evo Morales, is urging the United Nations to ratify a
treaty to the same effect.
Brazil is the first "free culture" nation. Thanks to the former minister
of digital culture, the musician Gilberto Gil, many Brazilians have come
to understand and love free software, Creative Commons licenses, free
culture, peer production, remix culture, and related fields. Creative
Commons licenses are now used in more than 80 legal jurisdictions around
the world. This year, we released a major anthology of more than seventy
essays about the commons called The Wealth of the Commons: Another World
is Possible Beyond the Market and State. I'm the coeditor with Silke
Helfrich. The book is a collection of 73 essays by some 90 authors from
around the world. A German edition was released in April of this year,
and the English version just came out. The Commons Strategies Group and
the Böll Foundation are also planning a major conference on the
economics of the commons for May 2013, in which we will try to explore
how and why the commons works as a socio-economic-political entity, at
both the macro- and micro-levels.
I've also been deeply involved with Professor Burns Weston, a noted
international human rights and law scholar, in trying to develop a new
vision of law and governance that blends human rights and commons-based
principles into a new paradigm. Our book explaining these ideas -- Green
Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons
-- will come out in January through Cambridge University Press. Green
Governance proposes both an overarching vision for how law and policy
could protect commons from enclosures -- and actively support them --
while also suggesting how existing bodies of law and legal principles
could be put to use.
Education about the commons is expanding internationally. In London,
there is the School of Commoning. In Germany, there is a Summer School
on the Commons. I know of similar efforts in Barcelona and Buenos Aires.
Last year I worked with the UN Institute for Training and Research to
develop a four-part online course on the commons.
All sorts of innovations keep popping up because there is a growing
number of "transnational tribes" of commoners. They may or may not
espouse the commons discourse, but their various social practices they
certainly embody the core values of the commons: participation,
inclusiveness, fairness, bottom-up innovation, accountability.
They all seek to combine production, consumption and governance into an
integrated paradigm of change.
. The Solidarity Economy movement . The Transition Town movement .
Alterglobalization activists . Water activism . The Landless Workers
Movement / Via Campesino . Free software/open source software . Creative
Commons users / free culture . Wikipedians . Open access publishing .
Open Educational Resources (OER) movement . The Pirate Parties . The
These groups are by no means a coherent, united front. They are highly
eclectic. But they are showing a great deal of energy and innovation,
and they are finding each other. This early federation of efforts
suggests the beginnings of a new sort of global movement -- a loosely
coordinated movement of movements.
I think the commons will become a focal point for much of this energy
because it has several distinct advantages. First of all, I don't see
any other alternative political philosophies or critiques that have the
breadth and depth of the commons. This is partly because the commons is
not a rigid, totalizing ideology; it's a worldview and sensibility that
is ecumenical in spirit and analysis.
It's open-ended and accessible to diverse cultures and societies.
Second, the commons has a venerable legal history that stretches back to
the Roman Empire and the Magna Carta and companion Charter of the
Forest. This history is a great source of instruction, credibility and
models for legal innovation today.
Third, the commons is a serious intellectual framework and discourse
that lets us critique market culture and validate human cooperation and
Fourth, the commons consists of a rich array of successful working
models for provisioning and empowerment that in many instances are
out-competing the Market and State. And finally, the commons invites us
to bring our full imagination and humanity to solve major societal
problems; we are asked to be more than consumers and voters, but active
participants in building a new world.
In its broad sweep, the commons offers a powerful way to
re-conceptualize governance, economics and policy at a time when the
existing order has exhausted itself. The commons offers a way to
revitalize democratic practice at a time when conventional political
institutions are dysfunctional, corrupt, resistant to reform, or all
three. The commons demonstrates that societies can actually leverage
cooperation and bottom-up energies to solve problems -- and point to new
modes of governance beyond, or in constructive partnership with,
The commons is not a magic wand, however. It is only an open space, a
pathway, a scaffolding. It requires actual commoners to make it work. Or
as the great commons historian Peter Linebaugh puts it, "There is no
commons without commoning" -- the social practices and ethics that
sustain a commons. The commons is a verb, not just a noun. It is not
something that we just hand off to politicians and bureaucrats.
This is a very important point. The commons is not just a policy idea.
It is a personal experience and identity. Alain Lipietz, a French
political figure and student of the commons, traces the word "commons"
to William the Conqueror and the Normans -- not the English,
interestingly. The term "commons" supposedly comes from the Norman word
commun, which comes from the word munus, which means both "gift" and
"counter-gift," which is to say, a duty.
I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we
all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. The
expansion of centralized political and market structures has tragically
eclipsed our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money and state
bureaucracies for everything. Personal agency or moral commitment is not
necessarily needed in life. And so we have largely lost confidence in
what Ivan Illich called the "vernacular domain" -- the spaces in our
everyday life in which we can create and shape and negotiate our lives.
I think we need to fortify what I call Vernacular Law -- the law of the
What I find reassuring is the deep resonance that this idea has among so
many different people around the world -- Filipino farmers, Brazilian
remix artists, Amsterdam hackers, German coop members, American free
culture users, Italian municipalities. All sorts of commons-based
initiatives are spontaneously popping up in countless different milieus,
opening up interesting new possibilities and synergies.
I find this encouraging -- because when theory needs to catch up with
practice, you know that something powerful is going on. At a time when
the old structures and narratives simply are not working, the commons
gives us a reason to be hopeful. And we very much need some credible
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