The Commons: A New Paradigm for Alternatives?

*Talk delivered in TNI Annual Meeting, Amsterdam, May 2016 

1. The quest for a new paradigm

We are living in a period of time in which:

– the aggressiveness of the neoliberal transformation threatens democracy establishing a social/institutional configuration that blends the logic of profit and competition with authotitarian modes of governance and multi-dimensional exclusions.

– long-term tendencies, the capitalist crisis and novel elements lead humankind to a threatening critical point: depletion of natural resources, environmental instability, food crisis, escalation of geopolitical antagonisms and wars, collapse of national and regional systems of administration and performance of basic social functions.

– the dominant logic of profit and competition and the elites as the major agents that determine the course of things unfold, accelerate and aggravate today’s deadlocks while at the same time they fundamentally cannot provide the proper conceptual and operational framework and agencies for real solutions to the today’s global threats of humankind.

These solutions must be based on sustainability, solidarity and openness in order to check the long-term tendencies of reaching a crucial bio-social limit, the rise of inequallity and barbarism that gradually takes the form of an extermination process of the poor and the threat of digital/military/financial authoritarianism.

At the same time we have never before been so close to an evolutionary/emancipatory step; for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities and values from different cultures within our reach.

And yet, it seems that we are not in a position to change the course of things. The current level of performance of what we could call “forces of emancipation” is not sufficient; they do not meet the standards of the today’s antagonisms. The political left and the movements seem outdated as social organizers of building popular power in a productive sense, instead they continue to express and represent demands in a toxic political environment intolerant to people’s needs.

On the other hand, the thousands of alternative initiatives seem marginal, feeble, lacking a “critical mass”, they are not integrated into larger operational frameworks, it is difficult to upscale, they end up isolated and fragmented destined to face the same difficulties again and again.

We need a new organizational/operational DNA capable to replicate in various social levels and sectors creating cells of collective, productive activity governed by a different logic. Cells that can be combined in such a way that a new paradigm of emancipatory social change can emerge.

The question is whether the notion of commons can contribute to the emergence of such a paradigm. I believe that it can help us in many ways in this exploration as long as we do not take it as a ready made solution of our complex queries. The commons is not a fully articulated system; it is not a magic key that unlocks easy and quick our present deadlocks.

2. Aspects of commons/commoning

A commons consists not just of a resource, but of a community that manages a shared resource by devising its own rules, traditions, and values.When “seen from the inside,” each commons is socially unique. A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource collectively, on the basis of fair access, use, and long-term sustainability.

Commoning is not a novel invention but rather an unnoticed – existent system of management that has been re-emerged and become visible the last years through various initiatives and movements (indigenous and land rights movements, environmentalists, digital freedom movements, open access movements, self-employed urban youth etc).

The commons managing system is more transparent, controllable by communities, more flexible, locally responsive, and regarded as trustworthy and socially concerned. It is also less prone to creating negative externalities by connecting use with stewardship.

By giving people significant new opportunities for personal agency that go well beyond the roles of consumer, citizen, and voter, the commons introduces people to new social roles that embody values and entail both responsibility and entitlement.

3. The language of commons

The commons names a set of social values that lie beyond market price and propertization (informal, tacit, intergenerational, ecological etc). Experiences, traditions, cultural values, and geographies are recognized and privileged. The commons is a language and a socio-political-economic practice that honors the generative and intrinsic human value of such particularity. An indigenous commons will be quite different from an urban commons, and both of them will be quite different from, say, the Wikihouse design community. And yet they are all commons.

The language of the commons could be thought as an instrument for reorienting people’s perceptions and understanding. It provides a way to make moral and political claims that conventional policy discourse prefers to ignore or suppress.

The language of the commons provides a holistic vision that helps diverse victims of market abuse recognize their shared fate, develop a new narrative, cultivate new links of solidarity and hopefully build a constellation of working alternatives driven by a different logic.

As a meta-discourse that has core principles but porous boundaries, the commons has the capacity to check at once the established and no longer functional models and conceptions of politics, governance, economics, and culture. Importantly, it can also expose the alienation associated with modern life and reveal people’s existential need for human connection and collective meaning, something that neither the state nor the market, as they are now constituted, can do. The commons paradigm offers a coherent critique of neoliberal economics, with hundreds of functioning examples that are increasingly converging.

4. Fighting for the commons

Commoners are focused on reclaiming “common wealth,” in both the material and political sense. They want to roll back the pervasive privatization and marketization of their shared resources—from land and water to knowledge and urban spaces—and reassert greater participatory control over those resources and community life.

The de-commodification and mutualization of daily life can occur through many commons-based systems: community land trusts that take land out of the market to reduce housing costs; cooperative finance alternatives to reduce exposure to high-interest rates and debt; cooperatively produced goods and services to reduce costs and enhance quality; shared infrastructure (energy, transportation, Internet access, social media platforms); open and commons-based systems for software code, data, information, scientific research and creative works.

Commoners tend to seek direct sovereignty and control over spheres of life that matter to them: their cities, neighborhoods, food, water, land, information, infrastructure, credit and money, social services, and much else. The very process of independent commoning has numerous benefits. By demonstrating the superiority of commons-based systems (e.g., free or open-source software development, local food provisioning, cooperatives, alternative currencies), commoning creates quasi-independent, socially satisfying alternatives to profit-oriented markets.

According to most of the people who identify themselves as commoners, they seek to develop institutions, regulations and norms for a post-capitalist, post-growth order. They wish to confront the dominance of market-based options with a richer and more relevant to today’s challenges sense of human possibilities and capacities than those offered by the producer/consumer mode of thinking. These include community forests, local currencies, Fab Labs, municipal water committees, farmland trusts for supporting local family farming, indigenous “biocultural heritage” areas for stewarding biodiversity, permaculture farming, “omni-commons” structures that provide administrative/ legal support to commons-based enterprises, and many others. Such mutualized systems of provisioning of course must be developed and extended.

5. Commons and the need for a new paradigm

The commons could function as a unifying principle for diverse movements and initiatives in different areas of human activity.

The commons could contribute to the reinvigoration of political imagination: by focusing on collective use and management of shared resources it facilitates the expansion of our imagery of fighting – beyond resistance or pressure movements and marginal alternativism – towards productive ways of building real popular power. It pushes us to think, practice and explore ways to optimize collective administration models and democratic management methods governed by our values and logic, able to spread and replicate dissiminating an emancipatory logic everywhere.

Hopefully, it can contribute heavily to the emergence of new modes of governmentality, small and large-scale administration models and the respective configuration among local, regional and transregional cells of commoning, forging a system of governance of a different logic. By embracing and developoing peer cooperation on distributed networks we may be in a positin to do work that bureaucracy cannot perform well. This is not a matter of “reinventing government,” but a matter of integrating production, governance, and bottom-up participation into new sorts of commons institutions and new modes of large-scale administration. Network-based or -assisted commons can provide a vital infrastructure for building a new social economy of participatory control and mutualized benefit.

The emphasis on creating antagonistic commons-based productive systems may give us insights for the required modification of traditional political mentality, methodology and organizational principles blending participation and representation in a way that could transcend the traditional framework of the institutionalized – no longer functional – representative democracy. The combination of commoning and real democracy modifies the status of political participation upgrading the aspect of pro-active individual engagement in collective processes: political participation is understood not as singular moments of voting and demonstrating but rather as the individual immersion in a collective activity pursuing a shared goal.

The swift towards a non-statist conception of the public (the commons) and the emphasis on developing cells of commoning (and an alternative network of institutions and processes) coincides with the current state/institutional erosion in terms of democracy and its resulting fact: the state-oriented left political strategies have been seriously disarmed. This swift could be part of people’s response – if vanguard and isolationist tendencies are avoided – to the growing authoritarian turn of modern societies and the multi-level exclusion of people from rights once guaranteed by the state. It offers an imaginary of fighting and organizing that can help in overcoming the present-day puzzlement of emancipatory forces.

6. Challenges for the commons and all of us

The big challenge for commoners is to federate their models into larger, collaborative social ecosystems. Like DNA, which is under-specified so that it can adapt to local circumstances, the commons discourse is general enough to accommodate myriad manifestations of basic values and principles. As I said before, the commons helps make legible the many social practices (“commoning”) that are often taken to be too small and inconsequential to matter – but which, taken together, constitute a different type of economy. The commons discourse has an integrative potential to build a new type of a networked polity or provide us with methodological insights for a transformation strategy of the state. A commons-friendly polity would develop “meta-economic networks” to bridge these fields of action so that, for example, open knowledge networks (for technology design, software, and manufacturing) could interact constructively with people dealing with agriculture and eco-sustainability. This is not just a matter of states becoming enlightened about open networks. The state must be reinvented as a Partner State” in support of commons and peer production.

A significant unresolved problem for many of commons-based initiatives is access to credit and revenues. A post-capitalist vision for finance and money is necessary to emerge. Self-organized commons are trying to create their own value-accounting and exchange systems, including currencies and credit, which could enable them to bypass many of the pathologies of conventional debt-driven lending and market-based production.

State law is hostile to, or simply noncomprehending of, the very idea of commons and commoning. Civil law as administered by the state is focused on individual, private property rights and market exchange; it is structurally focused on things” in isolation from dynamic social relationships, history, culture and ecosystems. The struggle to inscribe a “commons-based law” within the edifice of conventional state law is therefore an ambiguous or paradoxical challenge; some say it is impossible. And yet it is absolutely needed because the nation/state is suffering a decline in legitimacy and efficacy as global capital becomes even more powerful, and as the scale and complexity of problems outstrip the capacity of corporate and governmental bureaucracies to solve them.

Imagining a post-capitalist future, then, is not simply about passing a new law or instituting a new set of policies. It requires that we confront our deep assumptions about worldview as embodied in law. What we need, as some argue, is a major paradigm shift in science and law that reflects a different understanding of nature and human beings. Instead of seeing the Earth and human societies as a machine of parts, we must see them as a holistic, indivisible ecological system: the world as a network of interdependencies. And the notion of commons seems to be aligned with this kind of new way of understanding.

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