You are here

Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons: Excerpt

By David Bollier, Silke Helfrich - Free Fair and Alive, September 5, 2019


This book is dedicated to overcoming an epidemic of fear with a surge of reality-based hope. As long as we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our fears, we will never find the solutions we need to help us build a new world. Of course, we have plenty of good reasons to be fearful — the loss of our jobs, authoritarian rule, corporate abuses, racial and ethnic hatred. Looming above all else is the warming of the Earth’s climate, an existential threat to civilization itself. We watch with amazement as space probes detect water on Mars while authorities struggle to find drinking water for people on Earth. Technologies may soon let people edit the genes of their unborn children like text on a computer, yet the means for taking care for the sick, old, and homeless remain elusive.

Fear and despair are fueled by our sense of powerlessness, the sense that we as individuals cannot possibly alter the current trajectories of history. But our powerlessness has a lot to do with how we conceive of our plight — as individuals, alone and separate. Fear, and our understandable search for individual safety, are crippling our search for collective, systemic solutions — the only solutions that will truly work. We need to reframe our dilemma as What can we do together? How can we do this outside of conventional institutions that are failing us?

The good news is that countless seeds of collective transformation are already sprouting. Green shoots of hope can be seen in the agroecology farms of Cuba and community forests of India, in community Wi-Fi systems in Catalonia and neighborhood nursing teams in the Netherlands. They are emerging in dozens of alternative local currencies, new types of web platforms for cooperation, and campaigns to reclaim cities for ordinary people. The beauty of such initiatives is that they meet needs in direct, empowering ways. People are stepping up to invent new systems that function outside of the capitalist mindset, for mutual benefit, with respect for the Earth, and with a commitment to the long term.

In 2009, a frustrated group of friends in Helsinki were watching another international climate change summit fail. They wondered what they could do themselves to change the economy. The result, after much planning, was a neighborhood “credit exchange” in which participants agree to exchange services with each other, from language translations and swimming lessons to gardening and editing. Give an hour of your expertise to a neighbor; get an hour of someone else’s talents. The Helsinki Timebank, as it was later called, has grown into a robust parallel economy of more than 3,000 members. With exchanges of tens of thousands of hours of services, it has become a socially convivial alternative to the market economy, and part of a large international network of timebanks.

In Bologna, Italy, an elderly woman wanted a simple bench in the neighborhood’s favorite gathering spot. When residents asked the city government if they could install a bench themselves, a perplexed city bureaucracy replied that there were no procedures for doing so. This triggered a long journey to create a formal system for coordinating citizen collaborations with the Bologna government. The city eventually created the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons to organize hundreds of citizen/government “pacts of collaboration” — to rehabilitate abandoned buildings, manage kindergartens, take care of urban green spaces. The effort has since spurred a Co-City movement in Italy that orchestrates similar collaborations in dozens of cities.

But in the face of climate change and economic inequality, aren’t these efforts painfully small and local? This belief is the mistake traditionalists make. They are so focused on the institutions of power that have failed us, and so fixated on the global canvas, that they fail to recognize that real forces for transformational change originate in small places, with small groups of people, beneath the gaze of power. Skeptics of “the small” would scoff at farmers sowing grains of rice, corn, and beans: “You’re going to feed humanity with … seeds?!” Small gambits with adaptive capacities are in fact powerful vehicles for system change. Right now, a huge universe of bottom-up social initiatives — familiar and novel, in all realms of life, in industrialized and rural settings — are successfully addressing needs that the market economy and state power are unable to meet. Most of these initiatives remain unseen or unidentified with a larger pattern. In the public mind they are patronized, ignored, or seen as aberrational and marginal. After all, they exist outside the prevailing systems of power — the state, capital, markets. Conventional minds always rely on proven things and have no courage for experiments even though the supposedly winning formulas of economic growth, market fundamentalism, and national bureaucracies have become blatantly dysfunctional. The question is not whether an idea or initiative is big or small, but whether its premises contain the germ of change for the whole.

To prevent any misunderstanding: the commons is not just about small-scale projects for improving everyday life. It is a germinal vision for reimagining our future together and reinventing social organization, economics, infrastructure, politics, and state power itself. The commons is a social form that enables people to enjoy freedom without repressing others, enact fairness without bureaucratic control, foster togetherness without compulsion, and assert sovereignty without nationalism. Columnist George Monbiot has summed up the virtues of the commons nicely: “A commons … gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.”

This is reflected in our title, which describes the foundation, structure, and vision of the commons: Free, Fair and Alive. Any emancipation from the existing system must honor freedom in the widest human sense, not just libertarian economic freedom of the isolated individual. It must put fairness, mutually agreed upon, at the center of any system of provisioning and governance. And it must recognize our existence as living beings on an Earth that is itself alive. Transformation cannot occur without actualizing all of these goals simultaneously. This is the agenda of the commons — to combine the grand priorities of our political culture that are regularly played off against each other — freedom, fairness, and life itself.

Far more than a messaging strategy, the commons is an insurgent worldview. That is precisely why it represents a new form of power. When people come together to pursue shared ends and constitute themselves as a commons, a new surge of coherent social power is created. When enough of these pockets of bottom-up energy converge, a new political power manifests. And because commoners are committed to a broad set of philosophically integrated values, their power is less vulnerable to co-optation. The market/state has developed a rich repertoire of divide-and-conquer strategies for neutralizing social movements seeking change. It partially satisfies one set of demands, for example, but only by imposing new costs on someone else. Yes to greater racial and gender equality in law, but only within the grossly inequitable system of capitalism and weak enforcement. Or, yes to greater environmental protection, but only by charging higher prices or by ransacking the Global South for its natural resources. Or, yes to greater healthcare and family-friendly work policies, but only under rigid schemes that preserve corporate profits. Freedom is played against fairness, or vice-versa, and each in turn is played off against the needs of Mother Earth. And so the citadel of capitalism again and again thwarts demands for system change.

The great ambition of the commons is to break this endless story of co-optation and beggar-thy-neighbor manipulation. Its aim is to develop an independent, parallel social economy, outside of the market/ state system, that enacts a different logic and ethos. The Commonsverse does not pursue freedom, fairness, and eco-friendly provisioning as separate goals requiring tradeoffs among them. The commons seeks to integrate and unify these goals as coeval priorities. They constitute an indivisible agenda. Moreover, this agenda is not merely aspirational; it lies at the heart of commoning as an insurgent social practice.

Not surprisingly, the vision of the commons we set forth here is quite different from that image presented (and derided) by modern economics and the political right. For them, commons are unowned resources that are free for the taking and therefore a failed management regime — an idea popularized by Garrett Hardin’s famous essay on the “Tragedy of the Commons.” (More about this later.) We disagree. The commons is a robust class of self-organized social practices for meeting needs in fair, inclusive ways. It is a life-form. It is a framing that describes a different way of being in the world and different ways of knowing and acting.

The market/state system often talks about how it performs things for the people — or if participation is allowed, working with the people. But the commons achieves important things through the people. That is to say, ordinary people themselves provide the energy, imagination, and hard work. They do their own provisioning and governance. Commoners are the ones who dream up the systems, devise the rules, provide the expertise, perform the difficult work, monitor for compliance, and deal with rule-breakers.

As this implies, the commons involves an identity shift. It requires that people evolve into different roles and perspectives. It demands new ways of relating to other people. It requires that we reassess who matters in our economy and society, and how essential work gets done. Seen from the inside, the commons reveals that we can create value in new ways, and create meaning for ourselves in the process. We can escape from capitalist value chains by creating value networks of mutual commitment. It is by changing the micropatterns of social life, on the ground, with each other, that we can begin to decolonize ourselves from the history and culture into which we were born. We can escape the sense of powerless isolation that defines so much of modern life. We can develop healthier, fair alternatives.

Not surprisingly, the guardians of the prevailing order — in government, business, the media, higher education, philanthropy — prefer to work within existing institutional frameworks. They are content to operate within parochial patterns of thought and puny ideas about human dignity, especially the narrative of progress through economic growth. They prefer that political power be consolidated into centralized structures, such as the nation-state, the corporation, the bureaucracy. This book aims to shatter such presumptions and open up some new vistas of realistic choices.

However, this book is not yet another critique of neoliberal capitalism. While often valuable, even penetrating critiques do not necessarily help us imagine how to remake our institutions and build a new world. What we really need today is creative experimentation and the courage to initiate new patterns of action. We need to learn how to identify patterns of cultural life that can bring about change, notwithstanding the immense power of capital.

For those activists oriented toward political parties and elections, legislation, and policymaking, we counsel a shift to a deeper, more significant level of political life — the world of culture and social practice. Conventional modes of politics working with conventional institutions simply cannot deliver the kinds of change we need. Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has shrewdly observed, “We can’t save the world by playing by the rules.” We need to devise a new set of rules. The old system cannot be ignored, to be sure, and in fact it can often deliver necessary benefits. But we must be honest with ourselves: existing systems will not yield transformational change. That’s why we must be open to bracing winds of change from the periphery, from the unexpected, neglected places, from the zones without pedigree or credentials, from the people themselves.

Accordingly, we refuse to assume that the nation-state is the only realistic system of power for dealing with our fears and offering solutions. It isn’t. The nation-state is, rather, an expression of a fading era. It’s just that respectable circles decline to consider alternatives from the fringe lest they be seen as fuzzy-minded or crazy. But these days, the structural deficiencies of the nation-state and its alliance with capital-driven markets are on vivid display, and can hardly be denied. We have no choice but to abandon our fears — and start to entertain fresh ideas from the margins.

A note of reassurance: “going beyond” the nation-state doesn’t mean “without the nation-state.” It means that we must seriously alter state power by introducing new operational logics and institutional players. Much of this book is devoted to precisely that necessity. We immodestly see commoning as a way to incubate new social practices and cultural logics that are firmly grounded in everyday experience and yet capable of federating themselves to gain strength, cross-fertilizing to grow a new culture, and reaching into the inner councils of state power. When we describe commons and commoning, we are talking about practices that go beyond the usual ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving. One could, therefore, regard this book as a learning guide. We hope to enlarge your understanding of the economy as something that goes beyond the money economy that sets my interest against our interests, and sees the state as the only alternative to the market, for example. This is no small ambition because the market/state has insinuated its premises deep within our consciousness and culture. If we are serious about escaping the stifling logic of capitalism, however, we must probe this deeply. How else can we escape the strange logic by which we first exhaust ourselves and deplete the environment in producing things, and then have to work heroically to repair both, simply so the hamster wheel of the eternal today will continue to turn? How can politicians and citizens possibly take independent initiatives if everything depends on jobs, the stock market, and competition? How can we strike off in new directions when the basic patterns of capitalism constantly inhabit our lives and consciousness, eroding what we have in common? Our aim in writing this book is not just to illuminate new patterns of thought and feeling, but to offer a guide to action.

But how do you begin to approach such a profound change? Our answer is that we must first unravel our understanding of the world: our image of what it means to be a human being, our conception of ownership, prevailing ideas about being and knowing (Chapter 2). When we learn to see the world through a new lens and describe it with new words, a compelling vision comes into focus. We can acquire a new understanding of the good life, our togetherness, the economy, and politics. A semantic revolution of new vocabularies (and the abandonment of old ones) is indispensable for communicating this new vision. That is why, in Chapter 3, we introduce a variety of terms to escape the trap of many misleading binaries (individual/collective, public/private, civilized/premodern) and name the experiences of commoning that currently have no name (Ubuntu rationality, freedom-in-connectedness, value sovereignty, peer governance).

Insights are one thing, meaningful action is another. How then shall we proceed? We regard the “how to do it” section — Part II, consisting of Chapters 4, 5, and 6 — as the heart of the book. The Triad of Commoning, as we call it, systematically describes how the world of the commons “breathes” — how it lives, what its culture feels like. The Triad offers a new framework for understanding and analyzing the commons. The framework itself emerged through a methodology associated with “pattern languages,” in which a process of “patterns mining” is used to identify recurrent patterns of social practice that exist across cultures and history.

This is followed by Part III, which examines the embedded assumptions of property (Chapter 7) and how a new sort of relationalized property can be developed (Chapter 8) to support commoning. We quickly realized that such visions — or other patterns of commoning — tend to run up against state power if they become successful. States are not shy about using law, property rights, state policies, alliances with capital, and coercive practices to advance their vision of the world — which generally frowns upon the realities of commoning. In light of these realities, we outline several general strategies for building the Commonsverse nonetheless (Chapter 9). And we conclude with a look at several specific approaches — commons charters, distributed ledger technologies, commons-public partnerships — that can expand the commons while protecting it against the market/state system (Chapter 10). As a book that seeks to reconceptualize our understanding of commons, we realize that we point to many new avenues of further inquiry that we simply cannot answer here. The greater the shoreline of our knowledge, the greater the oceans of our ignorance. We would have liked to explore a new theory of value to counter the unsatisfactory notions of value, the price system, used by standard economics. The long history of property law contains many fascinating legal doctrines that deserve to be excavated, along with non-Western notions of stewardship and control. The psychological and sociological dimensions of cooperation could illuminate our ideas about commoning with new depth. Scholars of modernity, historians of medieval commons, and anthropologists could help us better understand the social dynamics of the contemporary commons. In short, there is much more to be said about the themes we discuss.

Some of the most salient, understudied big issues involve how commons might mitigate familiar geopolitical, ecological, and humanitarian challenges. Migration, military conflict, climate change, and inequality are all affected by the prevalence of enclosures and the relative strength of commoning. Commoners with stable, locally rooted means of subsistence naturally feel less pressure to flee to wealthier regions of the world. When industrial trawlers destroyed Somali fishery commons, they surely had a role in fueling piracy and terrorism in Africa. Could state protection of commons make a difference? If such provisioning could supplant global market supply chains, it could significantly reduce carbon emissions from transportation and agricultural chemicals. These and many other topics deserve much greater research, analysis, and theorizing.

We wish to call attention to four appendices of interest. Appendix A explains the methodology used to identify the patterns of commoning in Part II of the book. Appendix B describes the conceptualization process used by Mercè Moreno Tárres to draw the twenty-eight beautiful patterns images in Part II. Appendix C lists sixty-nine working commons and tools for commoning mentioned in this book. And Appendix D lists Elinor Ostrom’s eight renowned design principles for effective commons.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.