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Commons manifesto

This is the next installment in a series on a commons approach to climate change: ‘disentangling ourselves from omnicide’

Transformative social movements succeed when they have a clear vision. A clear vision of what it means to be human, of how current conditions deny us our ability to flourish, and of how to transform those conditions to enable our flourishing.

Fundamental to being human (or being any species for that matter) is our ability to fit with our environments, our ability to recognise the peculiar opportunities and difficulties of our particular environment; and to derive our well-being from creatively adapting our actions, institutions and societies to enable us and our environment to flourish.

The ‘survival and flourishing of the fittest’ involves paying attention to our immediate surroundings, and to how our interaction with the people around us and the materials we take into our body, entirely shapes who we become. The food we eat, the air we breath, the sounds on the street, the conversations, the light – all of these shape us and how we move, think and interact: they become us. At the same time, our movements, thoughts, feelings, desires and actions shape how food is grown, whether the air is clean, whether the street feels safe, conversation mutual, and whether the rhythm of days and seasons is integrated and responded to or ignored and left to jar our bodies, minds and interactions.

Often, in this society, we seem to be told we have to choose either empty hedonism – pursuing pleasure and profit at the expense of the planet and other people – or self-denying environmentalism. For example choose between air travel to exotic parts of the world or a paltry holiday in a nearby destination. In our embodied experience, the truth is clearly otherwise: we can sit jammed in a long-haul flight spewing fumes and descending for two weeks on a destination whose very particular ways of adapting to its locality is steamrollered flat by our clumsy attempt to briefly possess it; or we can travel a short distance to somewhere where people, places and their peculiarities become familiar over years of visits that are part of the ongoing life of both visitors and those who are at home. If we attend to our own localities to ensure that they also flourish, then we’ll find that others visit us in the same spirit, and to our mutual benefit.

As Kate Soper has pointed out, the need is for us to be more materialistic not less, to care about what the materials are we are taking into our body, how our food is grown, where the water in our pipes comes from, where our ‘waste’ goes, who is playing music, where and how and to who’s delight, whether work leaves us energised or depleted, whether street corners are quiet enough to talk on. In other words, the need is for something more akin to sustainable hedonism than either the self-denial associated with environmentalism or the empty hedonism, the need for an ever-stronger dose of consumption, perpetuated by the cult of consumerism that feeds the expansion of corporations. And this expansion, this economic growth, is – we are told – what our well-being depends on.

So what does our wellbeing depend on?

Trust.

Whether in egalitarian relations in everyday life, or in the most extreme situations of abusive structural power, trust is what our wellbeing depends on. For example, a dictator trusts that those working for him identify their wellbeing with his power and so trusts that they will maintain his power. As soon as they no longer identify their wellbeing with his power, his power over them vanishes, and his power vanishes.

We are persuaded that our wellbeing depends on maintaining our position within a hierarchical system of exploitation in which we in the West extract resources cheaply from the Global South and from other species and the ecosystem. We are persuaded that it is this inequality that enables us to have a life of material wellbeing and reasonably civilised society which otherwise would be brutish.

We are persuaded that those in the Global South can only ‘develop’ and become materially and socially better off if they too can extract greater resources resulting in greater emissions and resource depletion.

We are persuaded that controlling lesser others (other peoples, species, ecosystems) is necessary for our well-being, and that the circle of well-being has expanded and can continue to expand, if only others accept our ways and learn to fit into the economic and ideological system we have learnt to identify with – one which creates a sharp divide between those within the expanding magic circle who are treated as persons, and those outside that circle who are treated as mere things.

The reality is, of course, entirely different.

Brute force has been and is continually used to stop peoples from living in ways that maintain their independence from these extractive, dominating processes. When graphs show living standards rising in some part of the Global South as a result of governments enclosing yet more communities land, and corporations employing some of those moved off their land for a pittance, those same graphs showing an increase in national GDP and individual income do not show what has been lost or destroyed. They do not show the non-monetary value of crops grown, food gathered, water courses attended to, they do not show how the same process that measures well-being in expanding GDP has destroyed communities’ survival and flourishing.

And it is not just that this system has destroyed communities’ ability to survive and flourish or even destroyed their ability to exist.

We have been taught to think of community, if we think of it at all, as a subset of society, and been taught to think of society as the softer side of the hard edged reality that is the economic, military and political system of control and expansion, a system which – we are told – is responsible for our well being. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Community is everything that we are; it includes our social circle and the wider circle of human and non-human interactions on which we depend. From whatever species, ecosystem or human perspective, it is these mutual interactions that continually enable a better fitting with other aspects of the environment, and so enable the flourishing of us and those we interact with. In other words: we become how we treat others. Ensure their well-being, and our lives resonate with an extraordinary equality. Deny that they matter as much, and we become dull and dry through conformity.

The command and control system of elite domination and extraction – especially but not solely in its recent form of capitalism – has not just destroyed communities in the Highlands of Scotland and Papua New Guinea, but thrives on destroying the possibility of community in the cities and replacing it with consumption and interaction mediated through forms which generate profit for some and loss for everyone else. More than this, this form of domination, extraction and expansion not only destroys our pleasure in each other and ecosystems, but is reaching the limits of the ecologically tolerable as the forests, oceans, topsoil and climate are destroyed and poisoned. Trusting such as system to deliver well-being is mistaken at all levels.

The need is to take the risk of trusting ourselves, rather than this system.

But this is a risk.

Tim Ingold suggests that trust has three aspects:

(i) Trust always involves risk – the risk that the other will not act in the way that you hoped they would act, that they will not act in your mutual interest;

(ii) Trust cannot involve coercion – or else it loses its fundamental relational quality; and

(iii) Trust involves developing mutual empathy – it involves developing the ability to feel and see the world from the perspective of the other.

Our well-being depends on establishing a way of living that enables trust to flourish.

This involves creating the conditions that enable individuals and communities to recognise their peculiar strengths and weaknesses, to recognise the possibilities and limits that make them who they are, and to support them to harness those possibilities and adapt to those limits in order to flourish and shine: to shine, not in ways that put others in the shade, but to illuminate how others can also flourish.

Establishing a way of living based on trusting individuals and communities, rather than based on controlling and extracting labour and resources from them, involves creating the conditions in which individuals can choose how to spend their time, and conditions that can enable communities to recognise, respond to and enhance their wellbeing and that of their environment.

Individuals may use their time in a way which contributes nothing or is anti-social. Communities may choose to exploit their environment and each other to death. That is the risk. But if the other option is to continue co-creating a system in which we destroy each other and ourselves, then it is a risk worth taking. It is a risk to create the conditions in which we can find out who we are.

If what we find is that the great majority of individuals – with a basic citizens income to free them from enslavement to the market – choose productive work that enhances community wellbeing then we begin that process of rebuilding trust.

If, on the other hand, we find that people choose to live off others work, then we find ourselves in the situation we are in now with some of the roles reversed.

If what we find is that the great majority of communities – through regaining the right to control local resources and (through this) the ability to meet local needs – if we find that these communities manage to produce and exchange with other equally autonomous and interconnected communities then we begin the process of rebuilding trust in our ability to enable our own well-being.

If, on the other hand, we find that people are too fearful to talk with their neighbours, to recognise possibilities, to work with limits, if we find that people allow their locality and minds and bodies to be exploited for others profits, then we find ourselves in the situation we are in now only with people having become highly aware that resource limits and exploitation are not distant in time or space but are here and now and need to be addressed.

Creating the conditions for trust, involves creating the conditions for the hard and rewarding work of making relationships that can last and that can sustain us; rather than abdicating our responsibility by either putting our faith in this ecocidal system or wasting our energies blaming it.

Trust is often thought of as a given – you either trust someone or you don’t. But as anyone in any long-term relationship knows, trust can be broken and needs to be remade, and the trust that follows such a break may be deeper and stronger than the trust that went before, like a broken bone that heals stronger. Trust is something you can enjoy, but it often needs work: work to ensure a good flow of information and care, to ensure responsive relatedness. It is an evolving ability to know and respond to the needs and potential of the other, to develop and maintain mutual empathy and openness.

The conditions that enable trust to flourish are quite simple.

But they are perhaps different at different levels. One way of thinking about this is to think about ourselves as operating at three different levels:

- We are citizens (citizens of the wider society)

- We are commoners (members of a geographically local community which can flourish to the extent that we develop relationships of mutual care with other people in that locality), and

- We are also persons (conscious that we not only need to protect our own community from exploitation by the ecocidal system, but to make alliances to help protect other communities from the ravages of that system).

Perhaps then, disentangling ourselves from this ecocidal system involves acting in three equally important but quite distinct ways. Keeping these approaches distinct while pursuing them simultaneously may be key. They connect – but each approach relies on a very distinct form of power, a form of power that is its strength.

Here, I will be focusing on the society-wide level: on where the leverage points are and how we can change the structures of society to enable trust, communities and individuals to flourish. But it is crucial to bear in mind that the level that matters most is the community level. Recovering our ability to recognise that this level is the one that matters most, reverses the hierarchical thinking that has taught us that higher, further, faster, is better. Reclaiming our ability to act to remake our communities as productive places which can ensure that everyone has enough even as we respond to planetary limits, and to remake our communities as places of pleasure and possibility where we can flourish through ensuring the well-being of all, gives us the ground for intervening at the society-wide level of citizens action, and for helping to connect with other communities seeking to meet their needs and to defend themselves from the ravages of the ecocidal system.

(i) Commoners – at the community level:

Transition and other initiatives that focus on the local are practical ways of disentangling ourselves from this ecocidal system, not only because they are seeking to establish community-wide ways of meeting our needs, but because the way they go about this is not through a hierarchy in which those at the centre tell others what to do but through the principle that whoever proposes something should get on and do it, a process which creates autonomous but mutually responsive working groups where you can focus on what you feel passionate about rather than something someone else feels you ‘ought to do’.

Such initiatives seek to establish ways of meeting peoples’ energy, food and other material and social needs through a focus on positive community resilience building. Such forms of social organisation begin to sketch what is needed and what is possible, and begin to identify the barriers to community well-being, in ways that are highly egalitarian and leadership focused.

Highly-egalitarian not in the sense of having to always wait for everyone to agree, but in the sense that if you want something done you get on and do it; and Leadership-focused in that if others like what you are doing they will follow your lead.

This approach is a ‘commons’ approach, it is how most human societies have self-organised, and is designed to ensure that productive activity – whether food growing, energy generation, child care, music making or whatever – is responsive to, and fits best with local conditions. It is the optimum way of ensuring the ‘survival and flourishing’ of that which fits best with a particular environment.

This approach is based on the fact that people feel at home in ‘commons’ rather than in ‘command and control’ social forms (whether those ‘command and control’ forms are capitalist, state socialist or other forms of authoritarianism, forms which deny authorship to people and communities but instead falsely claim that the system itself bestows well-being).

Such a commons approach assumes that we will be far wealthier with less if we end the extraordinary levels of inequality and ensure that we all have sufficient to meet our needs, at the same time ensuring that we do not destroy the environment on which we and our children’s futures, let alone the future of other species, depends.

Commons regimes carry the assumption that humans can robustly – through discussion, disagreement and creativity – self-organise their affairs; that we do better when we don’t have a supposed ‘higher authority’ or ‘expert’ to impose their will. Those with experience can be listened to thoughtfully, but each situation is new, and our response to it needs to be shaped as much by an awareness of rapidly changing current conditions as by our experience from the past.

This assumption at the heart of commons regimes, the assumption that we can self-organise to meet our material and social needs, is in direct contrast to the way of thinking and organising that assumes that our wealth derives from the financial institutions, and from our ability to exploit other parts of the world and other species.

So, whether proactively in the context of a booming capitalist economy, or reactively in the context of the IMF threatening to pull the plug on loans to Scotland or the UK; whether in order to stave off impending ecological collapse and climate change, or to resist blackmail and extortion when the IMF approaches us in the same brutal form it approaches other parts of the world: the underlying paradigm of the commons – and our practical experience of making community work – can enable us to recognise that we are not that ecocidal machine, that we can self-organise, and we can draw on our own experience and hundreds of thousands of years of being human to remind us how.

(ii) Citizens – at the society-wide level:

Non-political groups, often arising out of the frustration of coming up against the limits that the ecocidal system sets on community initiatives, are sketching their own routemaps for society-wide resilience. This has been happening in places like Bolivia, and in Indigenous societies across the world, and we have also engaged in this process in Scotland in a small network of people from a variety of community initiatives.

The example of developing a resilience Strategy for Scotland

In Scotland, what we identified was the need for a set of interlinking policies which can enable us to loosen the hold of corporations and the financial sector – with their imperative to increase economic growth and the inevitable increase in carbon emissions, resource depletion and intensifying exploitation that accompanies this. These policies need to be attractive now in the current electoral climate and paradigm, yet move us beyond the current paradigm and be ready to be rapidly implemented if and when the financiers call our bluff and say, as the IMF has said to Greece, “If you don’t play our game by our rules then we’ll take all your money and run”.

Our network has emerged in a particular context, time and place – responding to the imperative that we all address climate change, resource depletion and global exploitation, but responding also to the particular opportunities, possibilities and challenges of undertaking this task in this place, Scotland, and at this time, as we teeter on the brink between the bust of financial meltdown and the boom of an economy that is bursting planetary limits at the seams.

The interlinking set of four policies detailed in part three of our ‘Resilience Strategy for Scotland’ grows out of this particular context. They might be differently framed if our starting point had been how to address poverty here or how to address the exploitation of the Global South, but in fact any of those approaches would probably have arrived at a very similar set of proposals: proposals designed to reign in the economic system that is destroying the possibilities for life on earth, and to create the conditions for sustainable, human-scale, deeply rewarding ways of living.

Our four proposals are very simple, and relate to carbon, energy, finance and community. (i) Carbon, and using ‘Cap and Share’ to rapidly reduce and eliminate fossil fuels from passing through the economy into the atmosphere; (ii) Energy, and switching from a carbon intense to an energy healthy Infrastructure; (iii) Finance, and establishing a radical Green New Deal that can control and ultimately transform the financial sector into serving community needs; and (iv) Community, shifting government policy and the economy to supporting Community Re-localisation.

How can we make what is ecologically necessary politically possible?

What I wish to do here, though, is to ask the strategic question: How can we act in a way which recognises the urgency of the situation – recognises for example the ecological need to act rapidly to reduce emissions and halt ecological devastation – while at the same time act in a way that recognises the limits imposed by the political and economic realities of the current system? How can we make the ecologically necessary politically possible?

The ‘ecologically necessary’ does not simply refer to ‘distant’ problems in time or space, but to the immediate ecological solution, the need to restore our ability to fit with our environment where we are. Likewise, navigating the limits of the ‘politically possible’ is not simply – or even primarily – a reference to state and corporate power but to our ability to recognise both the limits and possibilities in our current condition.

So what are these limits and possibilities?

Economic level:

The four policies referred to above – relating to Carbon, Energy, Finance and Community – are all focused on reigning in an economic system in which growth is the driving force and is seen as the means to our well-being, as the goal which trumps all others, including ultimately our survival.

The first three policies are designed to reign in economic growth and create the conditions in which it is replaced by local community production that fits with its environment, meets peoples’ needs, and enables people to have time for each other and themselves.

Political level:

There is a level beneath this reigning in and redirecting of the economy which also needs to be attended to. This level down involves reigning in the state so that it stops systematically rendering people as passive consumers and compliant producers. At this level down education (including the media, culture and the arts), health, social order and democracy need to be reclaimed and become human-scale so that they generate space for individuals and communities to decide for themselves, to make the connections that heal, enliven and ensure well-being, and to break the connections that disempower.

Unlike at the economic level, there is much already in place at this broader political level that can support such a transformation. The NHS that treats the health of all equally, but needs to be freed from the pharmaceutical and PFI giants, and also to become more human scale and have room for cures that are neither surgical nor chemical. The jury system is an extraordinary expression of democracy which could become far more widespread and be used in economic and political processes, in work places and policy decisions – not as focus groups which generally measure interest or disinterest, but as ways for ordinary people to hear the evidence and decide on the next steps. Many parts of education – from initiatives in schools to those in the media and the arts – seek to deeply question dominant values and propose creative ways of thinking and relating, but they also often reinforce the sense of there being those who know and those who don’t rather than enabling all to learn from the process.

Personal Community level:

The purpose of these policies and political restructuring is – as mentioned earlier – to create the conditions for individuals and communities to be trusted to find their best fit, to find their way of recognising their limits and realising their possibilities, based on a fundamental recognition of equality – we live, we die, we are equal – and interdependence – everything we interact with shapes us and we shape it.

The purpose then is to create the conditions for individuals and communities to be able to determine their long-term well-being. If they decide to let some extractive industry destroy their environment then that is their right, but there is no way through without trusting local people to distinguish their long-term self-interest from a short-term quick fix, and to trust them to help people in other communities do the same.

Four policies for transformation:

How can the four policies mentioned above be introduced? How can we squeeze carbon out of the economy, shift to renewable energy and end non-renewable resource use, reign in the financial sector, and support the re-emergence of local communities as the organising point for production and well-being?

With all four policies the key is to know where we are aiming for – the reigning in of economic growth and the restoration of the commons – and to decide how far we can aim to move in any of these areas in current conditions, always being aware that rapidly changing conditions may throw up unexpected possibilities.

Each of these areas is actively being pursued at present, generally in a regressive way, sometimes in a reformist way, and we need to be aware of the scale of action possible, of the difference between current regressive approaches, and potential reformist, radical and transformational approaches. The key is to be united in debunking the regressive approach and to support each other wherever we stand on the need/ possibility for reformist, radical or transformational approaches. If we can agree on our understanding of where we are and where we need to get to, then we can disagree on how fast we believe change can (or has to) happen, in a way that supports rather than impedes each others approaches. This can enable a broader movement for change to cohere and leaves us open to seizing opportunities when they arise, and recognising setbacks when they occur, rather than mistakenly believing we know the future and that everything is somehow going to fall into place (or can never fall into place) because of our preconceptions.

Since Scotland is the larger local environment being considered here, the next posts will look at the current regressive or reformist response to the each of these four areas of concern – how to tackle carbon, energy, finance and relocalising the economy in ways which helps to restore the Commons – and I’ll identify three possible approaches to achieving this in each area: reformist, radical and transformational. I will suggest where I believe the leverage point to be in each, the point that can enable us to make the step changes needed.

Others may believe that the opportunities are much less promising, that we have to work much slower, or that the opportunities are much brighter and we can work much faster. The key is to remain alert to the opportunities of changing conditions, to change those conditions ourselves where we can, and to change our assessments as rapidly as conditions change.

This is the tenth in a series of ‘Case for the Commons: the kinder Society we want’ posts – the eleventh will continue to examine a possible routemap for Scotland.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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