The Commons

The Commons as a New | Old Paradigm for Governance, Economics and Policy – Part Two

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 the 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 resources 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 decide otherwise.”

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), helped heal the local ecosystem in Rajasthan by way of the commons. Several rivers there had completely dried up through overuse. But by applying some nearforgotten 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 started 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 to the climate of Andhra Pradesh. 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 selfprovisioning model has spread and there are now some 5,000 women in 75 Andhra Pradesh villages that 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 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 using 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 Porto 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 [2012] 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 is that 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 culture. 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 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 also 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 world’ institutions. 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 be 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, and 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 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, 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
  • 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 you with the impression that the commons is 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 joy. 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 developments.

The Commons as an International Movement

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 to monitor and improve local commons and has 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 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, [see Kosmos, Spring.Summer 2012] 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 by 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 Occupy movement

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 openended 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 community. 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, to be 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 it points to new modes of governance beyond, or in constructive partnership with, representative democracy.

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,” which are 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 commons.

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 co-op 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 pathways forward.

→ Read The Commons as a New | Old Paradigm for Governance, Economics and Policy – Part One