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Natural Anti-Capitalism: Biospheric Householding as the Foundation of an Enlivened Economy

... essay continued from Chapter 3.

Chapter 4.

Enlivenment means to get back to living reality as the inspiration and insight for all areas of science. This sounds like an essentialist position, the metaphysical idea that objects have essences that distinguish them from accidental characteristics.

And indeed enlivenment is essentialist. But the essence is the vibrant, poetic, felt reality of individual-and-communal-embodied existence. This concept of existence is not conventionally essentialist, but rather paradoxical in its deepest foundation. Enlivenment enables both individuality and collective identity by recognizing both biophysical necessity and a poetic freedom “inscribed within it.” This proposed framing of living existence as an “enlivened integration” of necessity and freedom does not mean to "copy“ the supposedly deterministic "laws“ of nature. It is meant to reassert a seemingly obvious fact – that the manmade structures and practices of human societies are the creations of living beings in a living world.

This shift of perspective has particularly important implications for economic science. The double metaphor of eco-nomy/logy, if applied in a proper, non-reductionist way, provides a perspective for seeing all living household processes, ecological or human, from the same angle. Unlike previous attempts to “naturalize” economics with biological justifications – the essence of social Darwinism and (neo-)liberalism – enlivenment looks to biological systems to understand the default patterns of (self-)organized flows of matter and information. We quickly come to realize that exchange processes in living, ecological spheres are neither efficiency-oriented nor controlled by external forces that render individuals impotent and without agency. Nor are living spheres bereft of intentionality, sense or self; they are instead a paradoxical and always embodied combination of different levels of selves realizing themselves through material and meaning-based exchanges.

Natural patterns. Photo credit: photoholic1 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND.

If economic theory was unburdened from its Darwinistic-optimization content, and if the notion of "market“ were to give way to the idea of "household of and with the biosphere“, we could more clearly see how economic processes that enhance life could be designed. We could even see that a certain form of householding, which is undergoing a huge renaissance at the moment, is clearly favoured by nature: the economy of the commons.1 From the standpoint of enlivenment nature is a commons economy consisting of subjects that are continuously mediating relationships among each other – relationships that have a material side, but also always embody meaning, a sense of living and the notion of belonging to a place.

“Stone age economics”2

It is interesting to note that “primitive” and prehistoric “economies” – ways to provide food, shelter, and of relating to the environment – have many similarities with ”commons economies”. Many archaic cultures do not differentiate between "nature“ and "culture“ or "animate“ and "inanimate“; the two sets of opposites are organically integrated into a single worldview.3 Such cultures do not restrict their ways of relating to ecosystems to the non-human world; again, their modes of thinking and perceiving integrate a multitude of actors, including other humans, all of which are continuously entangled in interactions.

The similarities in the principles of exchange that we see in primitive economies and commons can also be seen in natural ecosystems. In all three, any transformational process has to be internally balanced to some extent, and brought into dynamic alignment with external factors. This helps explain why the cultures of commons-based systems often mirror the cosmic exchange system of natural ecosystems. Social bonds evolved to become part and parcel of the ecosystem.

In Western thought, however, nature has for several centuries been considered the Other – the unfathomably evil and wild forces of the world that we can only protect ourselves against by imposing a disciplined “crust” of institutional civilization.4 Still, for millennia human societies have understood the biosphere as a commons-based economy and treated their internal cultures, material resources and immaterial exchange relations as a part of a huge, all-encompassing commons. Modern industrial cultures typically condescend to such “primitive” economies by dismissing their “superstitions” and extolling the virtues of objective science. But who is being naïve and parochial? The behaviour of such societies reflects some deep insights into the meaning of ecological and existential reality. It is the “moderns” who have profoundly lost touch with their ancient wisdom.

The human tradition of interacting with material things on a social basis – and not just through impersonal, cash-mediated market relations – is the hallmark of a commons. It holds great promise for building a more sustainable future because it represents the building blocks of an embodied economy in which humans are tightly integrated with the more-than-human-world. The ecological and psychological realism inherent in this worldview holds many lessons for us today. For human actors are materially a part of the world they are dealing with, and their individual experiences of meaning derive from the ways in which their material interactions are organised. An economy that does not exclude nonhuman beings and land also does not distinguish between material exchange processes and meaningful human relationships.

The interactions of people with each other and the natural world. Photo credit: mikebaird / Foter / CC BY.

The economy of living nature: the circle of the gift

Nature, understood as a creative process of interacting, embodied subjects, can serve as a model for an economic concept of the commons. Basic structures and principles of “natural commoning” – self-organising, dynamic, creative – have been the basis of biospherical evolution. I argue that the principles of (self-) organization in nature provide a template for any commons economy. These principles include:

1. General principles, local rules

Every patch of living earth functions by the same ecological principles – but still each is a unique individual realisation of these principles. In a temperate forest, for example, there are different rules for flourishing than in an arid desert. Each ecosystem is the sum of many rules, interactions and streams of matter, which share common principles but are locally unique.

2. Interbeing: balance of individuality and the whole

The primeval biological principle is, as naturalist John Muir put it: “Everything is hitched to everything else.”5 In the ecological commons a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationships to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatory hostility, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher principle: Only behaviour that allows for the productivity of the whole ecosystem over the long term and that does not interrupt its capacities of self-production, will survive and expand. The individual is able to realize itself only if the whole can realize itself. Ecological freedom obeys this basic necessity. The deeper the connections in the system, the more creative niches it will afford for its individual members.

New species can alter the equilibrium of an existing system, opening up novel opportunities for growth and innovation. On the other hand, if the set of ecological relationships changes for some reason, individuals of a certain species may have access to fewer and fewer resources and eventually go extinct. Keystone species – e.g., large herbivores in temperate grasslands – provide an anchor down the equilibrium for a whole landscape. Large herbivores need savannas to thrive – which, in turn, must be grazed to remain intact.

3. Strict non-dualism: there are no commons without commoners

Living beings not only use the commons provided by nature, they are physically and relationally a part of them. The individual’s existence and the commons as a system are mutually interdependent. The quality, health and beauty of this system is based on a precarious balance that has to be negotiated from moment to moment. Individual organisms cannot have too much autonomy lest they destabilize the commons by letting free riders over-exploit the system (e.g., pests like crown-of-thorns starfish disease in tropical coral reefs). But conversely, the system cannot impose overly strict or hostile controls lest it interfere with the natural processes of the system (e.g., heavy use of fertilizers or pesticides disrupting natural processes). Or consider how animals transported to far-off islands such as the Galapogos can alter whole ecosystems and start a new territorial narrative of biological history. The simple lesson here is: We cannot separate the individual from the whole. They are both parts of one bigger picture.

4. Material resources are linked to (immaterial) meaning and sense

Throughout natural history, ecosystems have developed multiple patterns of dynamic balance that lead to extraordinary refinement and high levels of aesthetic beauty. The forms and beings of nature amount to ingenious solutions for maintaining delicate balances in a complex system. The beauty of living things stems from the fact that they are embodied solutions of individual-existence-in-connection. It is why most humans experience feelings of belonging and connection with other living systems.

5. Reciprocity: Loss at individual level affects the whole and vice versa

All systems have a “balance level” of health. If disruptions or damage force the individual, community or species to experience too much stress, then the resilience of the whole will weaken. The "balance level“ is not a fixed threshold, but more of a zone for absorbing what Varela and Maturana call "disruptive perturbation.“6 Stress that exceeds the structural resilience of the system means that the system cannot produce a "surplus of meaning“7 – i.e., it cannot provide its gifts on other parts of the ecosystem. The degree of tolerable stress can be very difficult to observe and even more difficult to predict.

A second important point is that the existence of a "balance level “does not mean static equilibrium or "homeostasis“; it is a dynamic negotiation among the system’s elements about exactly how far it can stretch to accommodate the stress. Tolerable stress, which includes minor and major catastrophes, can actually be a stimulation as long as it remains within ecotone levels (an ecotone is the patchy fringe between two or more specific areas). Beyond that, disruptions can become devastating for the whole, eventually destroying it. On the larger system level, this destruction will lead to a new equilibrium, but not with the same players as before.

6. Property: No copyright – copyleft is always rewarded

Nothing in nature can be exclusively owned or controlled; everything is open source. The quintessence of the organic realm is not the selfish gene but the openly available source code of genetic information that can be used by all. The genes being patented today by bio-corporations are non-rival and non-exclusive in a biological sense. That is the only way they may generate biological and experiential novelty. DNA has been able to branch into so many species only because all sorts of organisms could use its code, tinker with it and derive combinations that were meaningful and useful to them. This is also the way Homo sapiens came about: Nature was playing around with open source code. Some 20 percent of our genome alone consists of former viral genes that have been creatively recycled.

7. Resource trade as gift exchange

As there is no property in nature – there is no waste. All waste products literally are food for some other member of the ecological community. At death every individual offers itself as a gift to be feasted upon by others, in the same way it received the gift of sunlight to sustain its existence. There remains a largely unexplored connection between giving and taking in ecosystems in which “loss” is the precondition for generativity.

A thorough analysis of the economy of ecosystems can yield powerful guidelines for new types of enlivened economy – an economy based on commons. We should look to natural processes – as expressions of the natural history of freedom – to guide our thinking about how to transform the embodied, material aspect of our existence into a culture of being alive. The term “commons” provides a conceptual binding that can help us conjoin the natural and social/cultural worlds and make them more compatible (if not synergistic). To understand nature as an authentic, aboriginal commons also opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in both a biological and social sense.

An ecosystem in a drop of water. Photo credit: ecstaticist / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

Economic enlivenment: integrating freedom and necessity

If nature actually is a commons, it follows that the only possible way to achieve a stable, long-term productive relationship with it is by building an economy of the commons. It can help dissolve the traditional duality of humans and nature, and orient us toward respectful, sustainable models of engaging with the more-than-human aspects of nature. The self- realization of Homo sapiens can be best achieved in a commons, simply because such a culture – and thus any socioeconomic system – is our own species-specific realization of natural existence. It is our individual cultural interpretation of the principles of the biosphere.

Although the deliberations that have led us to this point stem from a thorough analysis of biology, their results are not biologistic (in the sense of applying only to biological phenomena, or reducing everything to biological phenomena). Quite the opposite: Analysis shows that the organic realm is the paradigm for the evolution of freedom. Natural principles may impose certain necessary parameters to life, but those principles are nondeterministic and allow for significant zones of creativity and autonomy.

It is necessary to acknowledge a profound paradox in the meaning of freedom here. I want to make clear that the Enlivenment idea of freedom is different from the freedom that the free market/neoliberalism constantly invokes. One could say that the latter is a narrow, selfish form of freedom (consumer choice, individual licentiousness/hedonism) while the former is a more adult, serious notion of freedom because it acknowledges the reality of the community, time and any individual’s living conditions. An organism is producing freedom (or autonomy) as its living core acts on the matter passing through it. It reacts to influences with its own dispositional traits, not in the deterministic style of a causal chain. Therefore, individuals possess a certain degree of autonomy over its material circumstances. But at the same time it is dependent on it. This is the core paradox.

Freedom is made possible only by obeying necessity. Only a strong limitation empowers autonomy. (Another paradox!) The living individual, though an independent agent, is totally dependent on its surroundings, which are needed if an individual is to have food, shelter and community. Freedom, therefore, in a certain sense, always presupposes a negotiation with necessity. One might even call this commoning.

Biological freedom in this sense is always freedom-in-and-through-relation. Therefore, it does not have much to do with the idea of unfettered individual freedom that free-market advocates champion. The equivalent of the "market“ – the oikos of nature – is the natural system whose own needs limit the individual’s freedom, but on the other hand is the source through which such freedom can only come into being in the first place.

This argument is a paradigmatic showplace of how an Enlivenment approach can augment the Enlightenment position. The enlivened idea of freedom does not do away with the classical-humanistic account of autonomy (as strictly biologistic accounts do), but rather it limits its absoluteness to an "embodied relativity“. There is no such thing as individual freedom detached from the living world, and any attempt to claim it inevitably will violate the necessities of embodied life, of an organic being’s living needs. So from an Enlivenment viewpoint freedom (as enframed in constraint) is a natural process.

The basic idea of the commons is therefore grounded on an intricate understanding of freedom and its relationship to the whole: the individual enjoys many options of self-realization but the only viable ones depend upon the flourishing of the life/social systems to which she belongs. To organize a community between humans and/or non-human agents according to the principles of the commons means to increase individual freedom by enlarging the community’s freedom. Both expand together – and mutually through one another.

Contrary to what our dualistic culture supposes, reality is not divided into material substances of atoms and molecules on the one hand (governed by deterministic principles of biophysics) and non-material culture/society (which are non-deterministic and mental/semiotic in character). The truth about living organisms is that they depend on a precarious balance between autonomy and relatedness to the whole on all their levels of functioning. Biological evolution is a creative process that produces rules for an increase of the whole through the self-realization of each of its members. The rules are different for each time and each place, but we find them everywhere life is. One could say, indeed, that they are the basic structures of any enlivenment. They are valid not only for autopoiesis – the auto-creation of the organic forms – but also for a well-achieved human relationship, for a prospering ecosystem as well as for an economy in harmony with the biospheric household.

As it happens, these rules are the operational principles of the commons. They offer practical ways for commoners to build a new economy that is in greater alignment with natural systems – by limiting “externalities” that harm the rest of the ecosystem and other humans; by generating abundance for the large whole; by providing a new vision for human development; and by fostering social and ecological exchanges that are enlivening.

Taken more broadly, the idea of enlivenment might be able to provide a unifying principle for the economic (and also social) sciences to dissolve the supposed opposition between nature and society/culture. It has the potential to blur and transcend the dualistic separation that our thinking has imposed on the ecological and social realms. Any structure that aspires to function as a commons faces the challenge of realizing the well-being of the individual while not damaging the surrounding and encompassing whole.

A significant liberation occurs through the process of enlivenment because one need no longer separate theory and practice; the two can be constructively conflated, freeing us to build what can actually be built and to avoid chasing after totalistic, utopian theories. Reflections on theory need no longer take place in some separate, isolated realm controlled by a priesthood of “experts.” Theory can return to practice and become integrated with it, joining itself to the rituals and idiosyncrasies of mediating, cooperating, sanctioning, negotiating and agreeing, to the burdens and the joy of experienced reality. Once we are able to see through the lens of enlivenment, we will recognize that the practices of a commons economy are identical with the practices of embodied existence.

1 see Elinor Ostrom 2012): Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure & Government Regulations. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.; Silke Helfrich & David Bollier (2012): The Wealth of the Commons: A World beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA: Levellers Press. (German version: Silke Helfrich & Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, eds.: Commons: Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat. Bielefeld: Transcript. Download at:

2 For the term see: Marshall D. Sahlins (1972): Stone Age Economics. New York: De Gruyter.

3 For a detailed argument see Philippe Descola (2005): Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.

4 Hence the assumption that without institutions we would immediately fall into that barbarism again, as the prominent historian Timothy Garton Ash noted in an analysis on the (false) reports of violence in the wake of the hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Timothy Garton Ash (2005): “It always lies below: A Hurricane produces anarchy. Decivilisation is not as far away as we like to think”. Guardian, September, 8. The idea that the state is the only reliable barrier against barbarism is also forcefully rebutted by Rebecca Solnit in her study of people’s transcendently kind and courageous behaviours in the wake of natural catastrophes and human accidents. Solnit (2010). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. London: Penguin.

5 John Muir (2011): My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

6 Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela (1980): Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Boston: D. Reidel.

7 Varela 1997, op. cit.

Next, Chapter 5>>


This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!

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