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An interview with Silke Helfrich by Richard Poynder
more and more of the world’s population has gained access to the
Internet so a growing number of free and open movements have appeared —
including the free and open source software movements, free culture, creative commons, open access and open data.
these movements became widely visible — and successful — people were
keen to understand their significance, and establish what, if anything,
they have in common. Today many observers maintain that they share very
similar goals and aspirations, and that they represent a renaissance of
is also an emerging consensus that, contrary to what was initially
assumed, this renaissance is not confined to the Internet, and digital
phenomena, but can also be observed in the way that some physical
products are now manufactured (e.g. by advocates of the open source hardware movement) and in the way that many are now recommending the natural world be managed.
instance, argue self-styled “commoners”, when local farmers establish
seed banks in order to preserve regional plant diversity, and to prevent
large biotechnology companies from foisting patent-protected GMO
crops on them, their objectives are essentially the same as those of
free software developers when they release their software under the General Public Licence:
Both are attempting to prevent things that rightfully belong in common
ownership from being privatised — usually by multinational companies
who, in their restless pursuit of profits, are happy to appropriate for
their own ends resources that rightfully belong to everyone.
understood in this broader context, commoners add, it becomes evident
that the free and open movements have the potential to catalyse radical
social, cultural and political change; change that, in the light of the
now evident failures of state capitalism (demonstrated, for instance, by
the global financial crisis) are urgently required.
order to facilitate this change, however, commoners argue that the free
and open movements have to be viewed as component parts of the larger
commons movement. In addition, it is necessary to embrace and encompass
the other major political and civil society groups focused on
challenging the dominance of what could loosely be termed the post-Cold
War settlement — including environmentalism, Green politics, and the
many organisations and initiatives trying to address both developing
world issues and climate change
But to create this larger movement, says Jena-based commons activist Silke Helfrich,
it will first be necessary to convince advocates of the different
movements that they share mutual objectives. As they are currently
fragmented, their common goals are not immediately obvious, and so it
will be necessary to make this transparent. Achieving this is important,
adds Helfrich, since only by co-operating can the different movements
hope to become politically effective.
this end Helfrich is currently organising an International Commons
Conference that will bring together over 170 practitioners and observers
of the commons from 34 different countries.
To be held at the beginning of November, the conference will be hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.
aim of the conference, says Helfrich, is to spark “a breakthrough in
the international political debate on the commons, and the convergence
of the scholars studying the commons and the commoners defending them in
the field.” Helfrich hopes this will lead to agreement on a
“commons-based policy platform”.
is the end game? Nothing less, it would appear, than a new social and
political order. That is, a world “beyond market and state” — where
communities are able to wrest back control of their lives, from
faceless, distant government, and from rootless, heartless
Helfrich puts it, “the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down
government enforcement and the so called ‘invisible hand’ of the market —
have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised
co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”
is well qualified to organise such a conference. She has already run
three conferences on the commons, and she has a deep understanding of
development politics. Between 1999 and 2007 she was in charge of the
regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for Central America,
Mexico and the Caribbean — where she focused on globalisation, gender
issues, and human rights.
her return to Germany in 2007, Helfrich has developed an international
reputation for commons advocacy through her German-language CommonsBlog, and she moderates an interdisciplinary political salon called “Time for the Commons” at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
has also written many articles and reports on the commons for civil
society organisations, and recently edited an anthology of essays on the
commons called To Whom Does the World Belong? The Rediscovery of the Commons.
Helfrich explains the background and purpose to the International Commons Conference in more detail below.
The interview begins …
RP Why did you become interested in the commons?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Would it be accurate to say that the commons encompasses components of a
number of different movements that have emerged in recent years,
including free and open source software (FOSS), Creative Commons, Green politics, and all the initiatives focused on helping the developing world etc.?
SH: That’s right
RP: Has it been a natural process of convergence?
From a commoner’s perspective it is a natural process, but it is not
immediately obvious that the different movements and their concerns have
a lot in common.
RP: How do you mean?
Let me give you an example: When we started to work on the commons in
Latin America about six years ago we were working mainly with the eco-
and social movements, who were critical of the impact that globalisation
and the free trade paradigm were having. A colleague suggested that we
should invite people from the free software movement to take part in our
we did invite them, our first thought was: What does proprietary
software have in common with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
Or, to put it the other way round, what does the free software movement
stand for, and what could it possibly have in common with organisations
fighting for GMO free regions? Likewise, what could it have in common with community supported agriculture (CSA), and with movements devoted to defending access to water and social control over their biotic resources?
we quickly realised that they are all doing the same thing: defending
their commons! So since then we have become committed to (and advocate
for) the “convergence of movements”.
For those who have been following the development of the Internet much
of the debate about the commons has emerged from the way in which people
— particularly large multinational companies — have sought to enforce
intellectual property rights in the digital environment. In parallel
there has been a huge debate about the impact of patents on the
developing world — patents on life-saving drugs, for instance, and
patents on food crops. But seen from a historical perspective these
debates are far from new — they have been repeated throughout history,
and the commons as a concept goes back even before the infamous enclosures that took place in England in the 15th and 16th Centuries.
SH: That’s right. So to some extent we are talking about the renaissance of the commons.
the reason why free software developers are engaged in the same
struggle as, say, small farmers, is simple: when people defend the free
use of digital code, as the free software movement does, they are
defending our entitlement to control our communication tools. (Which is
essential when you are talking about democracy).
And when people organise
local seed-banks to preserve and share the enormous seed variety in
their region, they too are simply defending their entitlement to use and
reproduce the commons.
In doing so, by the way, they are making use of a cornucopia — because in the commons there is abundance.
RP: Nowadays we are usually told to think of the natural world in terms of scarcity rather abundance.
Well, even natural resources are not scarce in themselves. They are
finite, but that is not the same thing as scarce. The point is that if
we are not able to use natural collective resources (our common pool resources) sustainably, then they are made scarce. By us!
commons, I insist, is above all a rich and diverse resource pool that
has been developed collectively. What is important is the community, or
the people’s control of that resource pool, rather than top-down
control. Herein lies the future!
That is precisely what awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom in 2009
was all about [On awarding the Prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of
Sciences commented: “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional
wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either
regulated by central authorities or privatised”].
It is also what the Right Livelihood Award [the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize] — is all about.
Ok, so we are saying that a lot of different movements have emerged
with similar goals, but those similarities are not immediately obvious?
Correct. So it is important to make them transparent. The global
movement of commoners today is eclectic and growing, but fragmented.
instance, we can see a number of flourishing transnational commons
movements (e.g. free software, Wikipedia, open access to scholarly
journals etc.) — all of whom are from the cultural and digital realm,
and all of whom are based on community collaboration and sharing.
other commons projects, however, are modest in size, locally based, and
focused on natural resources. There are thousands of them, and they
provide solutions that confirm the point ETC’s Pat Mooney frequently makes: “the solution comes from the edges”.
now these different groups barely know each other, but what they all
have in common is that they are struggling to take control of their own
together all these movements are actually part of a big civic movement
that is about to discover its own identity, just as the environmental
movement did some 30 or 40 years ago.
Co-operation is the best way for them
to grow and become politically relevant. So the goal should be to
persuade the various advocates that they have much to gain from working
RP: Would you agree that the Internet has played an important role in the emergence of these movements?
I would. The Internet has been key in the development of global commons
projects like free software and Wikipedia, and it greatly facilitates
the sharing of ideas — which is key for becoming politically effective.
the Internet allows us to cooperate beyond the traditional boundaries;
and it allows us to take one of the most productive resources of our age
— “knowledge and information management” — into our own hands.
Look at the AVAAZ – campaigns for instance. The number of people they are able to connect to and mobilise is amazing. [In 3 years, Avaaz has grown to 5.5 million members from every country on earth, becoming the largest global web movement in history].
problem, however, is that many communities who are heavily reliant on
web-based technologies are not really attuned to the fact that the more
we access these kinds of technologies the more we tend to overuse our
natural common pool resources. So I think we need to understand that
“openness” in the digital realm and “sustainability” in the natural
realm need to be addressed together.
RP: Can you expand on that?
We need more than just free software and free hardware. We need free
software and free hardware designed to make us independent of the need
to acquire a constant stream of ever more resource-devouring gadgets.
instead of going out every three years to buy a new laptop packed with
software that requires paying large license fees to corporations, who
then have control over our communication, we should aim to have just one
open-hardware-modular-recyclable-computer that runs community-based
free software and can last a lifetime.
is quite a challenge, and it is one of the many challenges we will be
discussing at the International Commons Conference. One of the key
questions here is this: Is the idea of openness really compatible with
the boundaries of (natural) common-pool resources?
RP: What is the overall objective of the International Commons Conference?
To put it modestly (SMILE), the aim is to achieve a breakthrough in the
international political debate on the commons, and a convergence of the
scholars who are studying the commons and the commoners who are
defending them in the field.
believe that the conference will foster the planning and development of
commons-based organisations and policy, as well as their networking
capacity. And we hope that by the end of the conference a set of
principles and long-term goals will have emerged.
I note that there is no dedicated web site or pre-publicity for the
conference. And it is by invitation only. Is that because there is not
yet a fully articulated consensus on the commons and its potential?
SH: No, we have a much better reason: There has been no need
for pre-publicity for the conference. On the contrary, as I frequently
find myself having to explain to people, the response to our first “save-the-date-call”
for the conference was so overwhelmingly positive that we quickly
realised we would be fully booked without any publicity. And in fact we
are now more than fully booked.
conference is by invitation only because we designed the conference
programme for those who are already very familiar with the commons, be
it through analysing the commons or through producing the commons.
Consequently all our participants are specialists. Indeed each one of
them would be qualified to address a keynote to the conference.
other words, what we have designed is a networking conference for
commoners from all over the world — and over 170 people from 34
countries have registered. That is quite an achievement, and has only
been limited by the availability of space and resources.
I hope, however, that we’ll have a real World Commons Forum within a year or so (SMILE).
Window of opportunity
Do you think the current global financial crisis has opened a window of
opportunity for “commoners”, as they refer to themselves?
I think so. The current crisis (which is not just a financial crisis,
by the way, but multiple crises) graphically demonstrates that we cannot
leave policy issues to the politicians, money-related issues to the
bankers, or our commons to the market or the state. It’s ours!
also showed quite clearly that the game is over. What is required is
not simply a few new rules to allow a further round of the same old
game, but a totally new framework; one that forges a new relationship
between commons, state and market.
What would this new relationship look like? Is the commons in
competition with the state and the market, or do you see it working
alongside these two key power brokers?
SH: For me the phrase “a commons beyond market and state” does not necessarily mean without
market and state: Commons conceived of as complex systems of resources,
communities and rules need very different governance structures.
Indeed, some of them will be so complex that a certain governmental
institutional structure will be needed — what one might call a Partner State.
One thing, however, is key: the
people who depend on these commons for their livelihood and well-being
have to have the major stake in all decisions taken about their
corporations, companies and co-ops will always meddle with the commons.
And whatever they produce they will need our common pool resources as
raw material. So the question we need to ask is: what do these players
give back to the commons? We cannot allow them to just draw from the
commons. The basic principle should be: Whoever takes from the commons
has to add to them as well.
other words, these external agents must not be able to do whatever they
want with collective resources. Exclusive, exclusionary private
property rights in the commons cannot exist — as outlined in the Commons Manifesto published on the Heinrich Böll Foundation web site.
Would it be accurate to say that the commons is not just a new
political and social movement, but a new intellectual framework for
understanding the world, and perhaps a catalyst for a new
post-industrial social order?
are not necessarily talking about a post-industrial order, but it is my
conviction that a commons paradigm has to be based on the vision of a
post-fossil fuel order. Nor is it even new — as we agreed earlier. I
would say it is an old intellectual framework, but one that has to be
constantly re-appropriated from below and “modernised”. But yes, it’s a
framework for understanding the world. And it opens minds for finding
creative, collective, practical, and institutional solutions to two
pressing problems at the same time. That is, the environmental challenge we face and the social problems we face.
RP: There is a school of thought that says the environmental challenge can be solved by the market.
Yes, but I don’t agree. For example, we cannot simply resolve the
ecological crisis by charging more and more for energy (i.e. introducing
a market-based incentive in order to lower consumption) — because that
is not a solution for the poor.This reminds us that the essential ideals
of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called
“invisible hand” of the market — have to be marginalised by
co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons
by people in localities across the world.
Silke Helfrich’s CommonsBlog
A German language news website on the commons
A German-language downloadable copy of To Whom Does the World Belong?
English articles from To whom does the world belong?
A review of To Whom Does the World Belong? By Alain Lipietz
Silke Helfrich articles, interviews and reports
Web of life (English)
With Jörg Haas: The commons a new narrative for our times (English)
Report with Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs and Christian Siefkes Gemeingüter Wohlstand durch Teilen
Silke Helfrich is a writer and commons advocate who has been involved in the field of development politics since the mid-1990s. She was the Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation from 1996 to 1998. As Director of the foundation’s regional office in Mexico City from 1999 to 2007, she focused on globalization, gender and human rights.