Book: The Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism. Reclaiming the Mindful Commons. By Peter Doran. Routledge, 2017

The process by which capitalist investment seeks to reengineer and privatize nature, government, social life and even genes and physical matter is at once breathtakingly ambitious, subtle and insidious. The great contribution of Dr Peter Doran’s A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism is to show how this process is also aimed, with systemic zeal, at human consciousness itself. Whether we realize it or not, our minds and culture are being colonized by markets – through advertising and data-mining, entertainment media and social networking. The hidden political and economic struggle of our times is focused on shaping our inner lives.

This is a large, complicated story based on neoliberal capitalism’s impact on everyday life: frantic work schedules, declining wages, wealth inequality, and austerity politics, all of which have led to a degradation of public services, social amenities and neighbourliness. It turns out that consumerism and market growth, diligently supported by the state, are not in fact ‘maximizing utility,’ as economists would have it. They are breeding personal despair, precarity, alienation and social dysfunction.

The good news is that people are discovering paths of escape from the capitalist phantasmagoria. More: They are creating new zones of self-organized commoning that meet needs and produce things in more socially constructive ways, independent of the state and market.

This trend can be seen in the growing interest in ‘care of the self’ and mindfulness, and in the surge in civic engagement and social mutualism. A robust and expanding digital culture, especially among the younger generation, is discovering the virtues of social collaboration. People are waking up to the huge costs and limitations of the ‘free market’ system – and convivial, life-enhancing dimensions of open-source, commons-based approaches.

A neglected problem, however, is how to build new enabling structures of law and governance to protect such spacious ideals of human life from marketization. One hopeful sign are the dozens of one-off ‘legal hacks’ that attempt to carve out protected zones for commoning, such as Creative Commons licenses to enable legal sharing, multi-stakeholdler co-operatives for social services, and land trusts to protect the interests of future generations.

Important as these innovations are, what we really need are systemic legal strategies for moving beyond homo economicus. Law and policy need to honour the ‘nested I,’ in which the individual is seen as integrated within larger ecological and social systems. In Doran’s words, the ‘symbolic architecture of social power’ must change so that we can shift from a world based on transactions to one based on relationships. In effect, we must reinvent the political economy of attention.

The mindfulness revolution offers great hope for imagining new ways of being and knowing, as this book so beautifully explains. But it also remains clear-eyed about the dangers of ‘McMindfulness,’ the mainstream effort to neutralize the emancipatory potential of reintegrating mind, body and ecology. In this sense, Peter Doran opens up new vistas of transformation.


Towards a mindful commons

Peter Doran: Activist and academic champions of the commons… have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles ‘biological necessity into commercial capital’ (Bauman 2010: 67).

A commons has a number of important characteristics:

• It is a social (sometimes legal) system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.

• Access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.

• A commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always morethan-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.

• Finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.

As Ugo Mattei, one of the premiere theorists of the law of the commons, explains:

– phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons. (Mattei 2012: 5)

Silke Helfrich (2012) has identified a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including: for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing; while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance; humans are primarily cooperative; knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration; and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.

A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world (Bollier 2014). Commoning has been described (Weber 2013: 44) as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that valorizes rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.

Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but come to be regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering (Bollier 2014), practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic and legal forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas: to revive and re-embed slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing (Weber 2013).

Rowe describes the commons as the ‘hidden economy, everywhere present but rarely noticed. It provides the basic support systems of life – both ecological and social’ (Rowe 2001a). He notes that the ‘destruction of the commons has been the leitmotif in much that passes for “development”. It is the threat that connects many of the problems that beset the world’, from pollution of the water and sky, to the breakdown of community, the toxic entertainment industry, and attempts to engineer and patent the genetic substrate of life itself. Bresnihan (2015) sums up one perspective of the commons, one that refuses to fix the idea to that of a ‘resource’, for the commons is not merely land or knowledge but the way these, and more, are combined, used and cared for by and through a collective that is not only human but also non-human.

Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. Bresnihan (ibid.: 4) adds that at the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.”