The Commons

Book Review: The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State

If I were to be marooned on a desert island and could take along only two commons-related books, they would be Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 classic, Governing the Commons, and David Bollier and Silke Helfrich’s The Wealth of the Commons. This remarkable anthology of seventy-two essays by authors from six continents represents a milestone in the commons literature. The quality of the essays is not uniform, but, taken as a whole, they offer a glimpse into the breadth of the emerging commons narrative that is unparalleled. It is an extraordinarily hopeful book. The authors include activists, academics and practitioners. The editors do a skillful job of partitioning the contributions into five logical sections: (1) the Commons as a New Paradigm, (2) Capitalism, Enclosure and the Commons, (3) Commoning—A Social Innovation for Our Times, (4) Knowledge Commons for Social Change, and (5) Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework. Even so, themes and motifs interweave themselves throughout the book like the colorful threads of a common rope.

Central to the book is an understanding that commons represent not merely sets of resources, products or artifacts. Rather, they reflect social and cultural practices that both require and engender participation, trust, cooperation, reciprocity and empathy. As Jacques Paysan says simply in the very first essay, “There is no commons without communing!” In other words, resources without people are not commons, per se.  David Bollier notes, “Commons require the active participation of the people in formulating and enforcing the rules that govern them.”

It is this sense of active participation that distinguishes this book from others in the field. There are indeed several noteworthy texts that document and analyze the management of resources. These scholarly works contribute significantly to the field. The Wealth of the Commons, in contrast, has a leadership agenda—it suggests that many of society’s seemingly intractable issues are best reframed within the context of the commons. The book’s many and, at times, divergent views give us a sense of the great diversity and potential of the commons as an approach to living that cultivates both individual responsibility and collective self-determination.

An enjoyable feature of this anthology is the inclusion of essays of varying scope. Some authors highlight local and regional issues, while others describe dynamics occurring at a global level.  For example, in the section on enclosures anthropologist César Padilla examines the role of mining industries in South America.  Physicist Vinod Raina documents the destructive consequences of India’s dam building policies. And activist Ana de Ita argues that the establishment of Mexico’s protected natural areas usurps indigenous land management rights. On a global scale, international development advisor Liz Alden Wily traces land expropriation trends over the centuries. Free culture activist Beatriz Busaniche offers a useful analysis of the impact of intellectual property rights and free trade agreements on the commons. And financial reformer Antonio Tricarico offers an incisive critique of the global financial system, particularly the increasing commodification and ‘financialization’ of the commons. Speaking of enclosures, it should also be noted that in the introduction to the book, Bollier and Helfrich insightfully identify one of the most invisible and pervasive enclosures—language. They write, “…[the] language of capitalism validates a certain set of purposes and power relationships, and projects them into the theaters of our minds. The delusions of endless growth and consumption are encoded into the very epistemology of our language and internalized by people.”

There are numerous examples of commoning-in-action. And these are both hopeful and cautionary. Whether it is urban gardens in Germany, fisheries in Chile, forests in Nepal, shared public spaces in the Netherlands, or emerging credit commons everywhere, ordinary citizens demonstrate over and over that we have the innate capacity to self-organize and co-manage resources of mutual interest. In addition, commons-oriented structures can incubate significant creativity and innovation. Inspired by the free software movement, new approaches to open hardware include not only circuit board projects like Arduino, but building designs through the Open Architecture Network, artificial limbs through the Open Prosthetics Project, and 3D printers that can replicate themselves. On the cautionary side, research continues to find that resource commons subject to multilevel governance often face conflicting cross-pressures. Property regimes in most countries continue to heavily favor private ownership over communal property. And as a means of addressing budget shortfalls, governments at all levels are increasingly relying on the privatization of public resources.

There are promising essays on how the commons framework can address some of the most pressing matters of our day.  David Bollier and law professor Burns Weston introduce a model of  ‘commons- and rights-based ecological governance’ for addressing a wide-range of environmental issues. Attorney Christine Godt and her colleagues show how the ‘equitable licensing’ model is an effective way to protect the medical commons so that the world’s poor can have access to life-saving pharmaceuticals. Energy expert Julio Lambing considers the need for an electricity commons as a way of efficiently incorporating renewable energy into the grid. Economist Ottmar Edenhofer and his colleagues make a compelling case that the atmosphere must be treated as a well-managed commons if we are to make headway in addressing the overproduction of anthropogenic carbon.

If Bollier and Helfrich had the interest and energy to develop a second volume, I would ask them to expand on three key themes.  The first is education. There is a brief article by George Pór on his pioneering work with the London-based School of Commoning. George and his colleagues are attempting to address society’s vast knowledge deficit about the commons. Vibrant and varied educational strategies are needed worldwide to accelerate citizen support for the commons.

Second, we need to understand more regarding strategies that successfully scale. The Internet greatly facilitates ‘horizontal scaling’—how successful commons in one locality or domain can be replicated elsewhere. An example of horizontal scaling is the proliferation of Transition Towns; lessons learned from the Transition movement are discussed in three articles in the book. The more challenging issue is ‘vertical scaling.’ That is, under what conditions can the value memes of successful initiatives at one level of governance be applied at another level? For instance, is there a critical mass of Transition Towns that might give birth to a Transition Region that cuts across international boundaries and, in effect, begins to set up provisional, non-state-based forms of representative governance?

Third and lastly, we need to reflect more deeply on the matter of sovereignty. At present, when we think of the commons, we tend to do so within the context of a fixed set of boundary conditions set by governmental authorities. But such a view reflects an insufficient position. These days, governments tend to represent interests (as in special interests) rather than people. Yet inherent in being human is an intrinsic set of rights and responsibilities.  Under what conditions do ordinary people have the right to exercise claims of sovereignty over common resources for the sake of all those affected, including the unborn? In his essay, “Why Distinguish Common Goods from Public Goods?” James Quilligan introduces a provocative notion: “People’s sovereignty for a commons is legitimated through global citizenship, and this global citizenship is legitimated through the local sovereignty of their commons.” Much discussion and debate is needed to unpack this seminal concept. Looking to the future, the courageous assertion of well-considered claims of sovereignty will be essen-tial to establishing broad-scale commons, especially those that transcend national boundaries.

We live in interesting times. Particularly since World War II, the moral authority of the nation-state has steadily evaporated. As a form of governance, it can no longer fulfill its social mandate of providing security and well being for its citizens. Nor is it structurally capable of collaborating with other such entities for the welfare of the totality, e.g., developing workable treaties on global carbon emissions. The market, particularly as a result of unregulated growth in the financial sector over the last thirty years, has imposed an endless-growth-at-all-costs logic on human civilization that is neither environmentally sustainable nor ethically justifiable. Things as they are, are not working. It is time for something new. And this something new will include viable commons at local, regional and global levels. The Wealth of the Commons points the way to a future that is both possible and necessary.  Enjoy.

Excerpt from Wealth of the Commons Website

Over the past few years an explosion of innovative activism, scholarship and projects focused on the commons have been gaining momentum around the world. This growing movement consists of activists fighting international land grabs and the privatization of water; commoners collectively managing forests, fisheries and farmlands; Internet users generating software and Web content that can be shared and improved; and urban dwellers reclaiming public spaces. The Wealth of the Commons brings together the most vibrant strands of this burgeoning international work into a single volume, revealing the significant potential of the commons as a new force in politics, economics and culture.

It has become increasingly clear that we are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by an archaic order of centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, presided over by a state committed to planet-destroying economic growth, people around the world are searching for alternatives. That is the message of various social conflicts all over the world—of the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement and of countless social innovators on the Internet. People want to emancipate themselves not just from poverty and shrinking opportunities, but from governance systems that do not allow them meaningful voice and responsibility. This book is about how we can find the new paths to navigate this transition. It is about our future.