Recognizing Each Other in the Commons: The Basis for an Alternative Political Philosophy of Systemic Change?

By Helene Finidori

Time is running short for a paradigm shift. When it comes to our individual and collective engagement in making the world a better place, we often talk about uniting in diversity: uniting in harmony to multiply outcomes and uniting in diversity for multiple focus and resilience. But how can this concretely be achieved? We all acknowledge the critical need for systemic change and for collective intelligence, but we all have different opinions about the challenges our world is facing and the ways to address these challenges. We each try to convince others that we hold the best solutions and methodologies, which often prevents us from coordinating or communing in effective ways. But is this possible? What type of unity or communion are we talking about?

As agents of change, we gather around the social objects that our engagement and action logics attract us to, those that resonate the most with the way we see the world and that determine our priorities and the pathways we envision.

These social objects are the nodes around which emerging social movements converge and common visions and praxis are formed. That’s where meaning is created and shared through languages that help us understand each other, where conversations and repeated interactions are initiated, and where peer learning allows us to explore new territories.

The action frameworks that we build or are shaped from practice to serve our movements and communities provide a context for our co-individuation: the processes by which our identities as individual and collective change agents are formed, transformed and differentiated in relation to each other and to the forces that hold us together and fuel our capacity to act in cohesive ways.

At the same time, however, as these frameworks create natural boundaries around our niches of action, they become exclusive of alternative frameworks. This hinders relational dynamics and our capacity to collaborate across groups outside of our domains of action. Our territory of action as a whole is actually composed of islands.

We are facing a paradox. What seems to make us effective as agents focusing on our respective domains of engagement is specifically what prevents us from uniting and being effective as a whole. This is one of the greatest challenges for systemic change—something Occupy and other self-organized movements have worked to overcome, with some success but also shortcomings.

In practice, attempts to organize global responses and unite ‘across islands’ often result in diluted focus and the possibilities

of all parties weakened and in delusion. Alternatively, such attempts can foster the adoption of unifying ideologies, reductionist both in thinking and action in ways that can ultimately put systems at risk and lead to totalitarianism. Eventually, contradictions get crystallized and conflicts perpetuated.

Developmental approaches to systemic change that require that we transcend our levels of consciousness and the order of complexity from which we ‘interconnectedly’ or ‘dialectically’ develop and apply solutions are insufficient to bring about systemic change because they are prescriptive and not naturally generative and interconnectable.

Agency is distributed across islands and produces independent outcomes at various levels and scales. What needs to converge and unite or interconnect for systemic effects are outcomes, not necessarily the processes generative of these outcomes, or the people involved locally in these processes and the collective will that mobilizes them.

Think of an ecology for transformative action with a huge potential ready to be activated, where the various logics of engagement complement each other systemically and epistemically, interconnected by the invisible hand of common logic that underlies them.

There is a universal aspect to what drives social movements across the globe, even if we cannot clearly translate it in comparable terms across practices and languages. Much of what these movements are currently engaged in is dedicated in one form or another to protecting the environment, people and resources from enclosure, over-exploitation and abuse, and to generating thrivability in its various forms.

The commons as the timeless generative systems that humanity shares in common is such an archetype: “a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches,” a logic that, if discovered, has potential for further enactment in each domain of engagement. If recognized and manifested in each of these domains, the commons logic could act as a transition image for systemic change or as scaffold for the new paradigm to emerge so that disparate efforts for change can all together generate more significant impacts in their own territories of influence and coalesce to create greater outcomes, with no prescriptive orchestration.

So what if, in the end, unity is about recognizing our mutual niches of engagement and the many streams of commons logic that underlie them as bridges between our islands? What if unity is about acknowledging the health of the commons as the measure against which to assess progress?

By discovering each other in a Common World, suggests Spanish philosopher Marina Garcés, we get the world between us to emerge, helping us draw the coordinates for a common dimension.

Helene Finidori is the Coordinator of the Commons Abundance Network.