The Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin closed last month. Everyone acknowledged the ground that had been covered since the last edition in 2010. Now is the moment to digest and reflect on the mass of information that has been exchanged and how it can be put to work in our various contexts to bring the commons to another level. Awaiting for an official account and for follow-up projects to get organized, here are a few highlights.
Forging the identity of a network in diversity and loose ties?
The conference gathered ca 250 commoners from more than 30 countries, involved in a great variety of commons: from seeds, water, farmlands, forests, software and the internet, social media, digital rights, human rights, open source hardware design, collective intelligence, digital currency design, hackerspaces and fablabs, crowdsourced democracy, cooperatives; to commoners trying to reclaim urban life and spaces and preserve scientific knowledge and creative works; or commoners defending livelihoods, sustainable lifestyles and the family; and commons maintained by indigenous people –although the underrepresentation of indigenous people has been outlined by some.
The commons are diverse by nature, and it has become clear to the participants that the commons movement is made of an enormous diversity of actors from a variety of domains connected through weak ties. The movement (and I would rather define it as a collective drive or aspiration, i.e. a movement in the literal sense, rather than a collection of individuals…) is indeed made of an ecology or network of different degrees and forms of commitment, sensitivities and ways of approaching the commons. This is what creates its richness and potential as paradigm, but also what makes difficult to formulate a clear definition of the commons and to forge or delineate an identity, not to mention ‘branding’ the commons, as suggested by Jem Bendell during the conference! Hence, a core identity of the commons 'movement' must be 'strategically ambiguous enough' so as to accommodate this variety of perspectives, ways of doing and worldviews, and to foster the crystallization of the commons. An idea I had built upon in an article based on Ann Jullian Pendleton’s work on ecosystems of change.
During a first side event on communicating the commons aimed at outlining strategic pathways and narrative for the commons, we talked a lot about inter-culturality and language and the complexity of describing the commons. There’s a universal aspect to the commons and to what drives social movements across the globe even if we cannot clearly translate it in comparable terms across languages. We agreed the commons paradigm could not be defined clearly, but rather could be expressed as a logic and aspiration, as narrative woven through different understandings via story telling and symbolic representations. These would develop elements of transformation by triggering imagination and showing that alternatives exist, are already there, enabling people to tell their own stories and recognize themselves in the stories of others, and to ‘travel’ within the commons. In particular, we noted that artists, travellers and migrants play a critical role as ‘culture brokers’ in helping articulate stories, and bridge meanings and experiences. The interesting question of boundaries and openness, protection and sustainability of the commons was brought up too, both in terms of sustainability of a common itself, and of how commons ‘behave’ in a sustainable manner in relation to the whole… The idea that each commons is included in another commons and the principle of subsidiarity illustrate this quite well.
The topics we worked on during the CCC that could lead to further follow up are quite familiar:
- The logic of the commons and how we can articulate it in image, language and action
- Interculturality and how the commons translate across cultures
- How the commons, principles and practices can be mapped.
These three points definitely deserve the attention of the whole community and would need to be progressed collaboratively to draw a dynamic impressionistic emergent picture of the commons. The work on commons and worldviews some of us have started, the remix the commons initiative and other projects are working in this direction and we should make ourselves more visible to each other so that our work can cross fertilize. We opened a Communicating the Commons group on the CAN website to focus on these aspects.
- Digital infrastructure and tools to serve the commons
We will look forward to follow-up conversations and integrate in the CAN the maximum of functionalities enabling sharing of knowledge and collaboration.
- How online media and distributed approach to film-making can help us collaborate and amplify our voices together
Neal Gorenflo opened a Commons Media Alliance on CAN to continue the conversation and for commons media producers to find ways to help each other.
- The interface between the commons, the state and power structures.
Many groups are working on advocacy and on introducing the commons in institutional frameworks and legislation at local, national and global levels. In particular, there is a group on Commons Advocacy at the UN in the CAN were the Commons Action group at the UN is working on several projects to advance the commons at the institutional UN level (Water as global commons, SDGs from a commons perspective) to introduce civil society recommendations at the UN. We should try and make these institutional initiatives more visible to each other so they can learn from one another and mutually reinforce their action on the ground. This suggestion is further detailed at the end of this article.
These CCC sessions generated a flow of insights and questions that some of us hoped we could bring as an input into the conference to nurture facilitated discussions in the planned work streams. Unfortunately, there were few visible bridges between this communication side event and the conference, and we may have missed an opportunity to further harvest and leverage the collective intelligence of the participants to set a momentum and keep discussions going…
The systemic nature of the commons
The conference itself opened with top level keynotes that provided stimulating start points to work sessions. We can regret the 2 x 2:30 hours breakout sessions for each stream did not provide enough time to reflect on how these perspectives could be made visible, or converge once participants had stated their various perspectives. We will be looking forward to the output material from these sessions and for follow-up conversations. This conference is just a beginning!
Silke Helfrich in particular gave an important talk illustrating the many forms the commons have taken across time, domains and geographies, and wondering what all these project share that can help crystalize a political vision. Referring to language as well, Silke suggested that commons could help us escape the words that shape our thoughts and actions; shifting our attention from commodification and ‘capitalization’ of our lives, to something more meaningful and ‘enlivening’ that talks to our well-being, able to move us out of the paralyzing duality of either market fundamentalism or state organized redistribution. The novel framework and insights she provided as a start point attempts to resolve some of the antagonisms within the various definitions of the commons, and to address the issue of identity from a different angle based on systems thinking approaches:
- Every commons is a social commons. What defines a commons is not its nature as a resource, but our relationship to it as we manage it as a resource -water becomes a commons when there is a community to manage its use. Commons are therefore not only resources per se, but productive and generative social systems based on specific social processes that treat goods and resources as part of the process and not as commodities, with a focus on use value rather than exchange value.
- Every commons has a material and a knowledge component. Natural commons need knowledge (know-how) to manage and protect them -seeds without the knowhow of cultivation would be of little use. Knowledge commons rely on material commons to sustain and maintain themselves –free software developers need electricity and food!-. This is at the very heart of the social process. Therefore we must move beyond categorization of the commons and recognize how they are inter-connected. The divide between the knowledge commons and the material commons was somewhat bridged during this conference, as the four work streams were approached both from a knowledge and from a material perspective.
- Every commons needs protection. Openness and access to commons is a means to an end to ensure fairness and abundance. Openness must be secured via institutions, measurement systems and protection mechanisms to prevent appropriation or re-appropriation as nothing can be taken for granted. This is valid for knowledge as well as for open sources of water.
- Every common is P2P. Commons don’t ‘scale up’ linearly, they expand in all directions as a network of emergent behaviors that crystallize from seed form to new paradigm. So we need to look for patterns of social processes and ways we relate to each other all over the world. We must focus on the integrity of what we have and expand it. We must expand cooperation and the logic and patterns that are at the heart of commoning so that the commons can grow. The question of how we could get from the seed forms to a core paradigm was at the heart of the conference.
In this context, because every economy uses shared resources and relies on social processes that are at their core more relational than they are transactional, Silke suggests that every economy is/ought to be commons based, recognizing via the commons both the material, tangible elements of human production and needs, and the intangible meaning and purpose of human activity. As such, societies should first and foremost produce social trust, reciprocity and cooperation as a focal point of their economies, and they should focus on producing commons and not commodities.
Silke offered six principles of the commons creating peer economy:
- Use value trumps exchange value. We must focus on how commons are useful to our everyday life and well being vs their value for money.
- Indirect reciprocity. He/she who takes from the commons has to contribute to the commons -not necessarily directly linked in quantity and time.
- Self-organization and self-healing. Commoning arises from specific collective concerns about how to resolve a problem. Structural interdependencies prevent power positions and centralization.
- Free knowledge. Non-discriminatory access must protect the right to share (use, share, reuse, repair) and to contribute knowledge and skills to distributed and open standard technologies that sustain the commons.
- Protection. Each commons must find ways to protect its practices and culture and to prevent abuses and re-appropriation of resources.
- Iteration. Finding protective solutions to test on the ground through trial and error, tolerance for mistakes and ongoing reflection.
To conclude, Silke proposed that the commons movement focus on building a commons creating peer economy, and concentrate on reframing infrastructures, human activity, money or exchange means, management of natural & cultural resources from a commons perspective. This was the objective of work sessions in each of the corresponding streams of the conference.
As a feedback for this talk, Andreas Weber highlighted how approaching the commons from these various perspectives was broadening the scope of the classical political discourse that the commons had adopted until then and suggested that these layers of description of reality that we could share as beings were also part of the commoning process. In his own talk, he showed how the principles of the commons were principles of life rooted in ‘biopoetics’ (a new form of empirical-subjective biology). He introduced the idea of enlivenment empowered by the commons as complex living systems, a connection to our very nature and life, that the enlightenment in its own historical context had neglected as it concentrated on empowering the mind, rationality and free will…
David Bollier added that unlike technocratic solutions that presume a certain objectivity and that we are all cogs in the economy, commons give us a way to reclaim our subjectivity and relational inter-subjectivity as a valid important aspect of production and creating society. The subjectivity of the commons is its engine and heart beat and worth pausing on and helps us reclaim our humanity in the face of larger systems that don’t really care… However it was underlined by a few participants that too much subjectivity could bring us back to some form of medievalism that imposed moral obligations on people: commons could be oppressive as well… Which brings us back to another of Silke and Andreas’ points, that the commons had the power to take us out of the classical either/or dualities toward integration of objective and subjective, materiality and meaning, separation and unity, description and feeling alive as reality, systems constraints and human needs… Enlivenment and enlightenment brought together in balance…
On the ground: and now what?
A major question that came up was how these principles could be made concrete on the ground beyond feel-good observations and theory. There is a need to make the commons as a process recognized and empowered so that they can be embedded in every day’s reality -a reality often fractured and far from these ideas-, from the smallest community level, i.e. family, and to the most global, the highest level in connection with human rights. This integration of the commons as process at multiple levels and scales when multiple stakeholders, embedded practices and perspectives are concerned seemed particularly difficult to handle. As outlined by Stefano Rodotà, how can conflict of interest among different communities be avoided? How can we escape new forms of medievalism generated by many communities producing their own rules and practices in ignorance of each other? This requires the building up of social relationships instead of selfish separation.
A recurrent theme was to give visibility to the commons.
- putting our head out of the ground
- bringing this to the public
- spreading the word
- entering through the front door
Many participants of the conference shared their AHA moment and how they discovered, not so long ago, that the commons were relevant to what they were doing, that their activity was connected to commons, and that they were not alone. This includes a newly gained awareness shared by many that the commons is in our nature, is not really new, and that we should reconnect with both our nature and the history of transformative social processes; that the capacity to care and a whole range of nurturing activities for a large part ensured by women, are part of the commons. Josh Farley shared his realization that commons principles could help solve many of the issues faced by conventional economics, in particular the macro problem of resource allocation and tradeoff between our need for economic products and the preservation of our ecosystem structure essential for life support functions. Jem Bendell recognized how the systemic nature of the commons paradigm could help forge monetary alternatives that could take us out of the debt bind and the distortions that come with it.
Probably the best ‘systemic’ definition of the commons alongside Silke’s ‘productive and generative social systems based on specific social processes’ was Jem’s ‘system of relationships between people and phenomena (resources) that have the emergent property of sustained sufficient access for all’, and I would add making things sustainable at multiple levels and scales…
As far as bringing the commons to the public and spreading the word, there is, as underlined by Michel Bauwens, a significant number of social innovations that are happening in these areas and changing lives, but no one knows about them. Many commons communities are experimenting with solutions and facing all kinds of problems and attacks. For Michel, it is very important to observe these communities and see how they are solving these issues, and also to create transverse links between projects, something he says the P2P foundation needs to do more of. The CAN also assists by providing a space where discussions can be held and projects can be moved forward in awareness of each other, providing an idea of where the movement is heading.
When it comes to entering through the front door, what emerges from Carolina Botero, Stefano Rodotà and Maristella Svampa’s talks, is that along direct action, we need to also work in the institutional field to switch the tendency of regulation away from enclosure. Commons are intimately linked to fundamental rights of people and nature in interrelation, as a means of production and reproduction of life. Commoners should reclaim law and human and nature’s rights that have been eroded, together with a criminalization of protests, by proactively seeking to inscribe the principles of the commons into policy and law, human rights and constitutions, rather than reactively defending them as footnotes. Commons must be forwarded not as an absence of exclusivity, but as an affirmed presence of non-exclusivity, making access universal, not mediated by the market and protecting the integrity of the commons altogether.
“We must concentrate our thoughts on the machinery for making the commons perspective effective” says Rodotà, giving citizens the means to improve the possibility to influence the politics and have a role in the development and protection of the commons.
Many cases show how it's possible to have mass mobilization through existing institutional channels to recognize commons. Collective rights and communal rights of indigenous people are being incorporated into constitutions in Latin America as a response to enclosures. Bolivians and Italians have mobilized successfully to de-privatize water. People are recreating commons via digital commons that are growing. Learning from how digital commons are consolidating their existence and defending their own expansion can also help infuse the experience back into the traditional commons.
The ECC steering committee published yesterday the document ECC from Here to There: moving forward a summary of the discussion they held the day following the conference.
The suggested way forward include:
- A virtual global platform for the commons movement (for whomever identifies with it) -- developing collective sense making organs
- Discuss and map strategies to protect the commons
- Challenge market-fundamentalism by taking joint action against pending trade agreements
- More real life interactions (commons schools, festivals, deep dives)
- Collect ideas and inputs for a future movement congress →
To make the commons more visible and forward its principles at the institutional level in a law making perspective, we should also focus on:
Continuing the research work on language, perspectives, worldviews and narrative, gathering and weaving stories together using transmedia to spread the commons as paradigm, in the directions elaborated at the beginning of this article.
Creating material that can help people advocate the commons to policy makers at their own level: gathering examples of successful introduction of commons principles into law and constitutions, and articulating the essential principles of the commons into guidelines for policy making and outlining the provisions that need to be in place to make sure the systemic mechanisms of generation and protection of the commons keep their integrity, avoiding the cooptation and corruption of the spirit of the laws. We just created an 'Institutionalizing the Commons' group in the CAN for this purpose.
Hopefully the various platforms that are available to us will help us articulate our resources and provide space for effective collaboration.