Commoning and Changemaking

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David Bollier
Jul, 2022
MUSIC:
It is now abundantly clear that the world we have inherited is no longer working. This point hardly needs elaboration because the evidence pervades everyday life. We see it in the failures of the state’s credibly to address climate change, species extinctions, and countless other versions of ecological collapse. It is seen in the failure to reduce wealth and income inequality, and to meet basic human needs and assure baseline civil rights and liberties. Billionaires proliferate and profit from a global pandemic while billions of people suffer from precarity, poverty, and despair. Politicians and systems of power, to judge from their public actions, are strangely calm.

And yet there are many hopeful signs of people imagining and building a different type of future. Countless experimental projects and social movements are showing that “another world is not only possible,” as Arundhati Roy has memorably said. “She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” This is more than inspirational rhetoric. A new kind of post-left agglomeration of movements is confirming that new social practices are not only possible, but compelling. They meet needs outside of the conventional market/state system and in the process, begin to remake basic configurations of state and market power. I believe these projects could transform the very character of politics and culture.

Photo_ Manuel Mateu_ CC BY 2.0

Many seeds of the new order are being tended by movements focused on degrowth, cooperatives, the solidarity economy, and commons, and by novel initiatives of community-wealth building, relocalization of food systems, and transition towns. There are serious efforts to expand agroecology, permaculture, and Indigenous stewardship of land, thereby increasing food sovereignty and community stability. In digital spaces, there are robust rounds of socially minded innovation in peer production, digital finance, and networked communities of ethical purpose. I recently showcased dozens of such commons-based innovations in my book The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking, inspired by the format and sensibility of The Whole Earth Catalog of the late 1960s. [1][1] David Bollier (2021). The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking: Tools for the Transitions Ahead Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Available at https://commonerscatalog.org/

There are in fact countless bottom-up social initiatives addressing important needs ignored by the market economy and state power. Consider them a grand bypass of conventional politics, state institutions, and large-scale markets, which are correctly seen as incapable of solving many urgent problems. However necessary they may be for meeting needs in the short term, they have become far too centralized, remote, market-centric, bureaucratic, and self-serving to solve many urgent, everyday problems. There may be people of goodwill working in government and businesses, but the structural affordances of global markets, capital investment, Western jurisprudence, bureaucratic procedure, and electoral politics are often too limited to deliver what is needed: localized, fair-minded, ecologically mindful, socially convivial, and care-driven solutions.

And so people are stepping up to protect themselves. They increasingly seek to provision their needs directly, outside of the market/state system. They aim to mutualize the benefits of shared wealth-generation—in land, urban spaces, software code, design, knowledge, culture—by stewarding it through collectives, rather than aspiring to act as private owners or proto-capitalists. This approach may be a third-tier choice, a regrettable necessity, but it is also a shrewd strategy for building something hardier and more resilient for the long term. By opting out of a concentrated, largely class-based system designed to fuel capital accumulation, a growing swarm of commoners, cooperators, open-source programmers, and localist farmers, among others, seek independence from predatory and extractive markets. They strive to show affirmative concern for places or people.

There may be people of goodwill working in government and businesses, but the structural affordances of global markets, capital investment, Western jurisprudence, bureaucratic procedure, and electoral politics are often too limited to deliver what is needed: localized, fair-minded, ecologically mindful, socially convivial, and care-driven solutions.

Instead of looking to state authorities as guarantors of their interests, a growing pluriverse of movements is exercising more direct control and use-rights. They seek to steward their own commons of local food systems and eldercare, WiFi systems and public spaces, alternative currencies and land trusts. As collectives answerable to fellow-commoners—not to bureaucrats, investors, or banks—they are building their own regimes for agriculture, water, information, software code, infrastructure, and credit and money.


Living Systems as Generative

The approach taken by these many movements points to a deep shift of mindset, especially in thinking about value. Their innovations in collective stewardship is not just about better “resource management” through tweaks in markets and public policy. It is about treating “resources” instead as care-wealth, that is, something embedded in their culture, social practices, and identity; something that must be protected and preserved for future generations. Commoners take shared responsibility for their collective needs, show creative commitment to each other, and mutualize the entitlements that flow from their cooperation.

This approach shifts the very definition of “value” from the worldview defined by money and property rights, expressed through price, to new forms of living value, that is, value generated by living systems: “the economy” as a social organism, not as a massive global machine and automaton. In this new calculus, value is qualitative, social and ecological in character. It is intrinsic to quality of life. It is not a commodity to be bought and sold.

We have become so habituated as a culture to collapsing diverse forms of value into price that we rarely see the reductionist violence that it entails. Market price distorts and limits our very perceptions of value, making it a scarce good or service that only some people can afford. Indeed, this matrix for recognizing value indirectly mandates that many things be considered valueless. The price system treats the atmosphere, biodiversity, clean water, resilient and regenerative ecosystems as without value. This is an inexorable part of the price system’s tendency to objectify living phenomena that are in fact dynamic, social, and relational. Thanks to the price system, people with money—“market forces”—are given privileges to monetize life-forms such as bacteria and cloned mammals, artificial nano-matter, short snippets of copyrighted sound, and even smells and colors. Nearly anything that can be legally recognized as property can be fed into the capitalist Moloch.

Under the capitalist mindset, value is created when independent, rational individuals, acting as agents in the marketplace, negotiate prices for transactions. But in reality, there are other important circuits of value-creation—existentially important circuits—that are not adequately described by the epistemology of economics and finance. Value flows from the symbiotic, generative relationships of living systems. These circuits of wealth-creation are generative precisely because, in their natural state, they are alive, dynamic, and free from the direct control of the market/state system.

The natural generativity of living systems can be seen in local communities, ecosystems, networks of social cooperation, and intergenerational lineages of people. It is also evident in the care economy, a realm that draws upon the love, devotion and commitment of people as they meet the needs of family, colleagues, and friends in the course of work, education, household upkeep, socialization, and eldercare.

Gift economies are another source of noncapitalist value-creation, a realm that generates enormous cultural meaning, social bonding, and collective provisioning. Anthropologists have shown that complex circuits of gift exchange are used to generate value in Indigenous societies, academic communities, artistic networks, and online communities. [2][2] Marcel Mauss (1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (trans. by W.D. Halls. Norton; Lewis Hyde (1983). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Vintage; William O. Hagstrom (1992). “Gift Giving as an Organizing Principle in Science,” in Barnes and Edge, editors, Science in Context: Readings in the Sociology of Science (MIT Press. Lewis Hyde explains how the circulation of gifts generates increases of value: “Capital earns profit and the sale of a commodity turns a profit, but gifts that remain gifts do not earn profit, they give increase. The distinction lies in what we might call the vector of the increase: in gift exchange, the increase stays in motion and follows the object, while in commodity exchange it stays behind as profit.” So treating the value generated by gift economies objectifies the surplus as money, removes it from circulation for private control, and in effect renders it dead (except as a future source for capital). [3][3] Lewis Hyde (1983). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Vintage, 37. Hyde notes: Capitalism is the ideology that asks we remove surplus wealth from circulation and lay it aside to produce more wealth. To move away from capitalism is not to change the form of ownership from the few to the many, but to cease turning so much surplus into capital, that is, to treat most increases as a gift.”

Natural ecosystems of plants, animals, microorganisms, land, and other biophysical elements are also hugely generative as complex, mutually supportive webs of life. Through the “interbeing” of mutual cooperation (and competition), the species of an ecosystem create a natural usufruct—renewable “resources”—upon which so many markets rely (but whose needs as living beings are not usually respected). Traditional and Indigenous communities understand ecological and cosmic realities, however, and have developed their cultures accordingly. Community forests in India, for example, flourish through the affective labor of villagers and their cosmo-visions of life. Their commons work because people who love and care for their forests tend to respect the forest’s natural limits even as they take from the forest for their own household needs.

In more modern-day contexts, permaculture and agroecology carefully integrate many variables into a symbiotic balance, helping to sustain generative webs of indirect reciprocity among living organisms. This minimizes the work needed to grow food while maximizing natural generativity in sustainable ways—all without the interventions of markets or state power. [4][4] David Holmgren (2017). Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Melliodora Publishing.

In our time, the power of social cooperation in digital networks, often known as open source or peer production, has become another potent circuitry of living value-generation. Self-organized communities of creators—hackers, users, hobbyists, amateurs, outlier technologists, etc.—provide the energy, ingenuity, and governance for a vast constellation of digital commons. These include open source software, wikis, open access publishing, citizen-science, and cosmolocal production (global design sharing combined with local manufacturing), among many other genres. [5][5] Yochai Benkler (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press.

We have become so habituated as a culture to collapsing diverse forms of value into price that we rarely see the reductionist violence that it entails. Market price distorts and limits our very perceptions of value, making it a scarce good or service that only some people can afford. Indeed, this matrix for recognizing value indirectly mandates that many things be considered valueless.

The pluriverse of social movements expanding today are powerful precisely because they are asserting a different species of value than that of markets and capital. In this capacity, the pluriverse helps us rethink the present economic, political, and cultural order. It shows how an individualist ontology focused on market transactions—amplified by institutions that promote material gain based on individual “rationality”—profoundly limited, if not destructive. In their own fitful, incomplete ways, insurgent social movements are building a different type of world, one that honors living, dynamic relationships, cooperation, sharing, and more life-affirming forms of value.


Understanding the Commons

The paradigm and discourse of the commons has a special history and conceptual power in this quest. It helps us name and understand a richer notion of value and new types of socially constructive institutions. The commons discourse is entirely compatible and synergistic with other new-economy discourses, such as cooperativism, degrowth, and peer production, but it adds something more. It both critiques the problems of standard economics while offering a distinct framework for creating value in its own right.

The term commons has long been associated with an essay by biologist Garrett Hardin called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which appeared in the journal Science in 1968. [6][6] Garrett Hardin (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons,” 162 Science 1243-1248. Hardin presented a hypothetical story about an open pasture on which no farmer has an incentive to limit his cattle-grazing. Each farmer therefore takes as much as he wants of the common resource, inevitably causing the overuse and ruin of the shared wealth—the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” The only serious way to save the commons, Hardin argued, is to rely on a system of private property or state action.

However, Hardin was not describing the commons. He was describing a type of selfish, irrational, and lawless anarchy. In a commons, there is a defined community that governs the community and its access and use of the shared resource. Each commons depends on its own self-devised social processes, systems for sharing knowledge, rules, and punishments for violating rules. Users negotiate their responsibilities and entitlements, and set up monitoring systems to identify and penalize free riders. [7][7] Johannes Euler (2018). “Conceptualizing the Commons: Moving Beyond the Goods-based Definition by Introducing the Social Practices of Commoning as Vital Determinant.” 143 Ecological Economics 10-16

None of these social dynamics are present in Hardin’s account of the commons, which presumes an individualist ontology [8][8] Bollier, David and Silke Helfrich (2019). Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 49. and an inability of people to communicate, negotiate and agree upon collective solutions with others. It assumes that it’s “rational” for individuals to over-exploit a shared piece of land for private gain. In truth, the “tragedy of the commons” more accurately describes laissez-faire markets in which there is no conceptualization of shared interests or cooperation to be mobilized to serve the common good and non-market needs.

Defying the prevailing norms of economics and development studies, political scientist Elinor Ostrom conducted pioneering research and creative theorizing from the 1970s until her death in 2012. Much of her research addressed the question: How can a group of individuals in an interdependent situation organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when they all face temptations to free ride, shirk group responsibilities, or otherwise engage in opportunistic behavior? Her 1990 book Governing the Commons identified key design principles by which people can organize and govern themselves to successfully manage shared resources as commons. Ostrom’s larger body of work has been fundamental to a reconceptualization of economic analysis and showing how cooperation can be feasible and economically consequential. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her pioneering work.

Photo_ Brisid H_ CC BY 2.0
While Ostrom mostly focused on smaller-scale commons, avoiding larger polemics about state power and market capitalism, others (including myself) have situated commons within the larger “market/state system” and proposed a relational ontology for understanding the commons. [9][9] See Free, Fair and Alive, Chapter 2, “The OntoShift to the Commons,” 29-50. In these accounts, the commons is best understood as a dynamic life-form—a living process—wherein groups of people work together to create new ways of meeting needs and peer-governing themselves.

This framing of the commons rejects the mindset of neoclassical economics and liberalism, which generally separates production (the economy) and governance (the state), and which focuses on individual agency without regard to the common good (presumed to be actualized via the Invisible Hand). The paradigm of commons blends the economy and governance into a whole integrating into one system the social practices of provisioning, governance, rules enforcement, culture, and personal interests and responsibility.

Seen from this perspective, the commons is not just about small-scale projects for improving everyday life on the peripheries of the market/state system, with its forbearance. The commons, rather, emerge as a germinal vision for reinventing the fundamental social premises of economics, governance, politics, organizations, infrastructure, and state power.

To talk about the commons, then, is to enter into a post-capitalist narrative that invites us to enact a “new” ethics and politics of well-being. Making this shift can be difficult, however. It requires us to see the “commons” less as a noun (unowned or shared resources) and more as a verb. It requires us to see the social practices of commoning—bottom-up acts of participation, mutual support, conflict, negotiation, communication and experimentation—in a more holistic sense, and not simply as a scrum of competing, rational individuals. In seeking direct sovereignty and control over spheres of life that matter to them, commoners not only create new types of social organisms; they in effect create new forms of political power. As commoners enact new social and civic identities (water protector; forest steward, code hacker; care-giver), they open up intriguing new cultural spaces for a different type of politics. They reconstitute “civil society” into a new public that is more interested in, and capable of, addressing the corrupt, ineffectual market/state system and its theory of value (as market price).

The commons discourse is entirely compatible and synergistic with other new-economy discourses, such as cooperativism, degrowth, and peer production, but it adds something more. It both critiques the problems of standard economics while offering a distinct framework for creating value in its own right.

The commons discourse is valuable because it makes these struggles more culturally legible. What is otherwise regarded as disaggregated and invisible can be seen in its larger, collective dimensions. The hundreds of commons documented by Ostrom-inspired scholars—and countless other commons that have yet to be studied—reveal the scope and diversity of an already-functioning post-capitalist order.

While this may seem a surprising assertion, one must recall that commoning has laid at the core of human development and community throughout history. Anthropologists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists and neurologists have documented how the human species has prevailed against so many obstacles thanks to instinctive, commons-like principles of co-creation, relationality, cooperation, and creative adaptation. Our evolutionary success over millennia has been based on our ability to communicate and work together to overcome collective problems, negotiate differences, and devise innovative solutions. We are a cooperative species, as economist and complexity scientist Samuel Bowles has put it. [10][10] Bowles, S. And Herbert Gintis (2013). A Cooperative Species. Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. The neoclassical model of human beings, homo economicus, is the real aberration in human history. Humans are not primarily rational, self-interested, individualistic and utility-driven beings, as the reductionist logic of standard economics claims (even though we do of course have such traits). The conceit that we are ‘self-made’ individuals is a delusion. There is no such thing as an Isolated-I. As the history of human evolution confirms, we humans are inescapably Nested-I’s: Our development and well-being depend on our embedded relationships, and our very identities are created through committed relationships. [11]
[11] Bollier, David and Silke Helfrich (2019). Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers. 42.


The Triad of Commoning

To help us better understand commons as social systems, Silke Helfrich and I wrote the book Free, Fair and Alive. A key element of that book is the “Triad of Commoning”, a tool for understanding the rich social and inner dynamics of commoning. The Triad shifts the focus from “resource-management” as the primary purpose of a commons (the favored lens of economics and social sciences), to looking at the commons primarily as a living social system (which instead construes “resources” as socially embedded value, i.e., “care-wealth”).

This shift of perspective helps reveal that commoning is a cross-sectoral social phenomena that is not strictly dictated by the character of resources per se or their market valuation. Commons must be seen as a consensual social arrangement that have deep similarities across multiple resource domains.

Commoning consists of at least three distinct spheres of activity—Social Life, Peer Governance and Provisioning, or what we call the “Triad of Commoning.” The Triad describes three symbiotic, interconnected spheres of commoning: the social, institutional and economic. Each consists of many “patterns of commoning” that embody social attitudes and behaviors that are seen in most commons.

Social Life. Since the first imperative of any commons is to establish a relational, living system in which everything is co-created, the social life of participants matters a great deal. A commons is naturally focused on creating and maintaining constructive social and ecologically regenerative relationships, including with the nonhuman world. The relationships among people and other living beings are more fundamental than the beings themselves.

For example, social life in a commons requires the patterns known as Cultivation of shared purpose and values. Without this practice, a commons loses its coherence and vitality. But commons seldom begin with shared values and purpose; they take shape through shared experiences and collective reflection, tradition, celebration and participation. A big part of this is another pattern, Ritualization of togetherness, which occurs by meeting, sharing and celebrating things as a group.

The social life of a commons also requires that people contribute freely—that they give without the expectation that they will get the same value back, at least not directly or immediately. Contributions are made voluntarily or through collective consent, and are not in response to external pressures or sanctions. There is also a need for Gentle reciprocity, social exchange that does not necessarily provide absolutely equal shares or equivalent money-value exchange among people, but rather a loose, informal sense of fairness. In a commons, this occurs through indirect reciprocity, not direct and calculative equality of exchange.

Peer Governance. Peer governance, another central sphere of commoning, is about seeing others as peers with equal rights and duties in the collective process of making decisions, setting boundaries, and enforcing rules. Participants tend to contribute in nonhierarchical ways; there is an aversion to centralized systems of power.

Peer governance requires, among other things, Honoring transparency in a sphere of trust. Transparency cannot just be mandated; it can flourish only if people trust each other. Thus, to honor real transparency in a commons, people must come to trust each other deeply so that difficult, uncomfortable information can be shared. A related pattern of commoning is Sharing knowledge generously. This is a crucial instrument for generating collective wisdom. Knowledge grows exponentially when it is shared, but this requires that information be accessible and freely circulating. Assured consent in decision making is another pattern that helps assure that governance decisions are seen as legitimate and trustworthy. When commoners co-create the rules by which they are governed, they are more likely to be observed and upheld. This process requires the consent of commoners, which is the absence of reasonable objection.

Seen from this perspective, the commons is not just about small-scale projects for improving everyday life on the peripheries of the market/state system, with its forbearance. The commons, rather, emerge as a germinal vision for reinventing the fundamental social premises of economics, governance, politics, organizations, infrastructure, and state power.

There is not enough space to name other patterns of peer governance, but they include such practices as Relying on heterarchy (instead of hierarchy); Keeping commons and commerce distinct so that money and market transactions will not disrupt cooperation within a commons; and Relationalize property, which is about treating shared property in ways that honor our relationships to each other, livelihoods, and future generations.

Provisioning. Finally, commons rely on its members provisioning themselves. The economy of a commons does not separate production and consumption into different roles; it blends and blurs the two in the process of producing, allocating, and distributing wealth. A basic goal of provisioning is to reintegrate economic behaviors with the rest of one’s life, including social well-being, ecological relationships and ethical concerns. The goal of provisioning through commons is not maximum efficiency, profit or higher GDP. It aims simply to meet needs and provide a stable, fair, satisfying and ecologically minded way of life.

Provisioning is a sphere that contains the practices of such practices as Make & use together, in which anyone who wants to be involved, can participate, and everyone contributes according to their own capacities and needs. Co-producing is the core process, or what might be called DIT—“Do It Together.”

Work in a commons is not labor as a marketized unit of human toil, however. It is an activity that draws upon people’s deep passions and values – their whole selves. The care work that goes on in families is a conspicuous example of work that functions at a more human, relational level than conventional labor markets. So an important pattern is Support care & decommodified work. Another is Share the risks of provisioning: commoners share risks among themselves in order to make their commons possible, but they also share in the resulting benefits. Contribute & share is a pattern that describes the sharing of the fruits of collective contributions. Use convivial tools describes relying on tools and technologies that enhance individual freedom, collective relationships, and innovation, as opposed to closed, proprietary tools.


Commoning as a Path Forward

When John Maynard Keynes struggled to reinvent economics in the 1930s, he wrote that “the difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” The power of a dominant worldview invisibly organizes phenomena into a mental frame that supplants other, potentially important ways to see the world. [12][12] Keynes, J.M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan.

So it is today, as we try to escape the pervasive categories of economic thought that obscure the lived realities of commoning. Sometimes new realities are not easily recognized because there is simply no vocabulary and logic to make them legible to the culture. This is the case with the commons. The concept challenges the presuppositions of the dominant systems of economic and political thought, but there are not necessarily the concepts, words, and logics to properly understand this paradigm. That is what Helfrich and I attempted to provide in our book Free, Fair and Alive. In particular, we must cultivate what we have come to call an OntoShift, or ontological shift, the idea that relationality among living beings is the fundamental reality of life. Or as cultural historian Thomas Berry once put it, “The universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

In terms of the commons, this means that people must take seriously the idea that their collaborations can be free, fair, and alive. Rather than clinging to ideology or mechanical blueprints for what supposedly must be done, people must come to recognize that centralized systems of power and organization, and “rationality” and efficiency, are not adequate approaches. As commoners, we must look to collective participation and wisdom to develop stable, sustainable solutions. A culture of commoning holds great promise.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International Public License.

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