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Occupy + Commons: The beginnings of a beautiful relationship

The Occupy movement is beginning to discover the commons, and the result could be a rich and productive collaboration.  This was the lesson that I took from a three-day conference, “Making Worlds:  A Forum on the Commons,” hosted by Occupy Wall Street in Brooklyn this past weekend. Rarely have I seen so many ordinary people from diverse backgrounds embrace the commons idea with such ease and enthusiasm.

There was a certain cosmic appropriateness that this gathering was held in a church meeting hall, the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  This is the kind of humble, out of the way setting that gave rise to the civil rights movement 50-60 years ago.  Church basements virtually require us to shed our pretensions and credentials, and to get real with each other.  As they say in the Occupy world, this was a “truth event” – an occasion meant to rip a hole in the fabric of mainstream culture and provoke some deep and honest reflection on the truth.    

Can the commons paradigm take us to higher ground?  For the 100-plus people who showed up, the forum was an occasion to consider how the commons can open up new vistas in “alternative economies, open source, education, environment, technology, labor, politics, race, gender, sexuality and more.”  In typical Occupy style, the meetings were run in a fairly loose fashion; it was not always clear who was “running” the meeting because many people intervened at various times. 

And yet things never got out of hand, and I cannot recall a meeting of this size that was richer, more provocative and constructive.  People really listened to each other.  People actively invited everyone to speak out, especially those who were more reticent.  Your professional credentials were a secondary matter.  And if someone got too agitated, people would use calming hand gestures to cool things down. The dialogue was an intelligent, passionate, highly sophisticated and practical dialogue of ordinary American citizens.  Refreshing!  Now if only such traits could somehow be engineered into our mainstream political culture and media!

Like the Occupy protests last year, this gathering did not focus on what government might do for the American people.  That is considered a lost cause for now, or at least, a secondary focal point.  It is clear that the market/state duopoly is so entrenched and collusive that “working within the system” will yield only piecemeal, marginal gains.  As the fights on climate change, finance reform, food, energy and countless other issues have shown, the only way to really meet people’s needs and save the planet is to strive for systemic change:  New types of governance and production.  New opportunities for distributed activism and innovation.  A sweeping aside of self-serving and reactionary institutional monopolies.

The Occupy protests found such a deep resonance among the American people because these truths are now self-evident.  The problem had been that no one except a ragged group of protesters who occupied a NYC park had had the courage to speak these truths to power.  Now that the 99% has found its voice, the next question is, How to move forward on this bracing vision without being coopted by The System? 

From my reading of the “Making Worlds” event, the commons may play a big role in answering this question.  This may take time; the group-mind will have to assess itself.  But through more than 18 hours of conference-talk, I think many people came to realize that the commons can help Occupy expand from its stance of resistance and protest to one of building positive, constructive alternatives.

The meetings gave us a lot of economic analysis, commons-based theory and reports about specific enclosures. We heard from Silvia Federici on women and the commons; George Caffentzis on how the "shadow of the future" is critical to the preservation of the commons today; and James Quilligan on the economics of the commons and how "public goods" differ from "common goods".  I spoke about international activism involving the commons -- from the explosion of developments in Italy and Germany to the enclosures in the Balkans and Africa to the rise of new sorts of trans-national commoners (from free culture to Wikipedians to water activists and beyond).  There were also 15 or 20 reports from specific fields of activism.

The lodestar to which so many people were oriented was, How can we build an alternative economy outside of established markets and government institutions (while challenging them both as needed)? 

And so we heard about the permaculture movement; the work of the Solidarity economy; an immigrant advocacy group inspired by the Zapitistas; alternative currencies; efforts to national the Fed; the movement to de-stigmatize student debt; and childrearing as a form of commoning.

All of this constitutes a big break from traditional liberalism, which still harbors the belief that conventional political parties, Congress, the courts, the presidency, government agencies, etc., are realistic crucibles for political transformation.  The Occupy and commons forces know that this is not true.  The legacy institutions may be forced to play a part, or be forced to adapt or get out of the way -- but the vision and struggles will be directed at a vision beyond anything legacy institutions can imagine or deliver on their own.  

Conventional politics and nonprofit advocacy remain on the cool, legalistic plane of policy.  The Occupy world and commoners, by contrast, assert a larger, more integrated vision of human development.  They seek to blend the personal, intersubjective, moral and cultural in ways that don’t divide neatly into the pigeonholes of “economics,” “politics” and “policy.”  For us, identity, spirituality, aesthetics, moral and the quality of everyday life lie at the heart of an alternative worldview.  The framework of so-called “democratic capitalism” (as corrupted) simply cannot accommodate the new world struggling to be born.  

Many of the familiar distinctions between “public” and “private,” and between “economic” and “social” just don’t make sense in this new world.  The old categories imply a segmented, rational world driven by mechanical cause-and-effect relationships and a separation between humans and an objectified Nature (“the environment”).  They imply that “the Economy” is something that exists apart from us, and that institutions and experts should govern our lives and confer social meanings.  

By contrast, commoners and Occupiers are an attempt to reclaim a bottom-up, decentralized autonomy and control.  They realize that the world is an interconnected whole in which humans and nature are mysteriously interconnected in a world animated by complex forces that embody a different pattern – forces such as the unconscious, the spiritual and the ecological that will likely remain inscrutable to Enlightenment categories.

At the “Making Worlds” event, I had the sense of a butterfly trying to emerge from a chrysalis.  Many things are in a very early stage; many things remain unclear.  Yet there is an undeniable life force struggling to escape archaic constraints and burst out on to a higher stage of self-awareness and societal organization.

I am told that Occupy Wall Street has more than 100 active working groups, and that many Occupy protesters from different have been meeting this winter to confer about the future.  This suggests that autumn is not such a bad time to launch a social movement.  It leads directly to the reflective interregnum of winter – a time for quietly taking stock, growing new capacities and pondering the future.  I feel certain that the spring will bring forth new shoots of Occupy activism and innovation, much of it commons-oriented.  Here’s hoping for a glorious reawakening.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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