Year one of the global commons movement

February 16, 2011

I spend most of my time helping to build the Commons Movement, in fact quite a few of us do, as my colleagues from the Commons Strategies Group. Together, we explore the commons and Peer-to-Peer Production. We want to contribute to developing a coherent political narrative for the commons. Actually, I consider this notion as the most fertile mothersoil for the convergence of movements – be they rural or urban, digital or environmental, social or academic, from the North or from the South.

But, have YOU ever heard about the “Commons”? Let alone the “Commons Movement”? If not, don’t worry! It’s a good moment to catch up. We live in “Year one of the Global Commons Movement” (to quote Michel Bauwens). This movement can be compared to a little child who is about to discover its own identity, develop his own personality, and who still has to learn to say: “I am.” Or “We are.”

The commons is a kind of mysterious animal. It’s like Nessie. Nobody seems to know exactly what it is supposed to look like and what it does. But everybody talks about it and we are sure that it exists and is meaningful.

So, what is a commons then?

“A commons is a shared interest or value”, says anthropologist Stephen Gudeman. It is a shared value of how to reproduce our livelihoods beyond market and state, and how to do it in such a way that nobody is left behind and collective resources are neither over- nor under-used. The commons is a social ethic.

Each commons consists of at least three generic building blocks:

  • First of all, there are the so called common pool resources: things we use together – the water, our genetic code, cultural techniques, the notes and the airwaves or the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit music and information, the time we dispose (Momo!) or the silence. In short: things we need and constantly use to be productive and creative. A common pool resource is not produced by anybody individually. It is just “given to us”
  • as part of our natural inheritance – think of water;
  • or as a collectively produced social or cultural good – think of software and language;
  • or as a donation by groups of individuals – think e.g. of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

When Salk was asked in a talkshow: “Who owns the patent” He answered: “Nobody. Can anybody patent the sun?”

Well, there are those who think that everything is patentable. The problem is… that common pool resources can easily be privatized or put under central control. And that is what normally happens. And the worst thing is: we think it’s normal.

Actually, the history of capitalism is the history of the so-called “enclosure of the commons” both – by the market and the state. Common pool resources are constantly being converted into commodities or taken hostage by the powerful. Just think of petrol, which as a gift of nature should belong to all of us.

Whatever we do, whatever we produce – we need common pool resources. So, the very question we have to answer is: What do we want to do with them? Do we want to produce commodities and convert everything – our collective knowledge, our genes, solar energy, public arenas and spaces, water, beaches, social care etc. – into commodities? Or do we want to sustain and reproduce them as commons? It’s our choice.

Just bear in mind the difference between knowledge as treated in Wikipedia – i.e. a commons (collectively produced and sustained, free licensed, in this case accessible for everybody and the based on voluntary contributions, and it is not a product to sell on the market ) and knowledge as treated in the Encyclopedia Britannica (produced for the market, copyrighted, high access fees, controlled by the owners). Or bear in mind the difference between a public pond with potable water in a public space and the proprietary, branded bottled water in a supermarket.

Well, having said this, it is clear, that a common pool resource is not yet a commons. Instead, it has to be turned into a commons by its users. One cannot talk about the commons without talking about the communities that use and sustain it.

Something becomes a commons because a certain community shares a common understanding of how it wishes to use a shared resource. In other words: The commons is not about the resources. It’s about us!

The communities and their way to act is the second building block of the notion of the commons. Therefore, we should better talk about the commons as a verb and not as a noun. As the historian Peter Linebaugh said: “There is no commons without commoning.”We need to embrace the notion of the commons and the virtues of commoning.

Reciprocity, sense of self, willingness to argue, long memory, collective celebration and mutual aid are traits of the commoner.” (Linebaugh)

Let me give a few examples. A programmer recently explained at a German Commons Conference what the Free Software Community aims at: Free Software activists want to preserve the freedom to “use, study, apply, share and distribute the new versions of software code.” Immediately a woman stood up and said, “Well, that is exactly what we, peasants all over the world claim for. We want to use, study, apply, share and distribute our varieties.”

Commoning — or the governance of computers and potatoes — take very different shapes. Each community defines its own rules that depend on a huge number of variables.

And that is the third building block: a set of norms and – as far as possible – self-ordained rules. A commons-based society will be based on (the virtues of) commoning and on rules accepted by their users and designed in such a way, that they strive to maintain and recreate our commons.

Take Copyleft for software or other creative content as an example. The Copyleft idea – which is designed to facilitate sharing – says basically: If you take from the commons, then you are not allowed to say “It’s mine” – even if you add own work.

Or have you ever heard about the Indian System of Rice Intensification, SRI, a kind of “open source system of rice farming” as my colleague David Bollier said in a recent blogpost:

Many Indian farmers are pioneering a new form of ‘agroecological innovation’ by using the Internet to share their innovations. SRI emerged outside of the scientific establishment as a way to produce higher rice yields through “knowledge swaraj„. Swaraj meaning “self-rule.” … the opening up of Indian agriculture to unfettered market forces has been catastrophic for millions of Indian farmers. Some 200,000 have committed suicide over the past ten years; most of them are attributed to the financial pressures and to loss of their traditional practices and identities to market-driven agriculture. …

The SRI practitioners use indigenous varieties of crops and shun chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The whole enterprise is a vast social network of Internet-mediated participation that is aimed at learning how to eke out better yields on marginal plots of land. … The SRI knowledge commons has scientists, farmers and citizens all talking together on the same platforms, rather than the “experts” declaring how agriculture should be pursued. Since 1999, SRI has been embraced in 40 countries as an “open source” system of rice farming. … SRI manuals developed by Indians are shared with farmers abroad. By 2010, there were more than 400 members from 25 countries in an online SRI group.”

It is obvious, that there is no master inventory of the commons. Each commons is the product of unique circumstances, local culture, economical and ecological conditions. In words of Erling Berge, Editor of the International Journal of the Commons at the International Commons Conference in November 2010 in Berlin:

Each commons is one of a kind.”

But all of them are social spaces that allow us to have a good life – one that is more independent from the impersonal ethic of the market (contracts, money, marketing) and from the coercive mandates of governments.

That is the idea. Now, let us face reality. As a matter of fact, the commons is often patronized or dismissed for being supposedly ‘damned to fail’. Remember the so called “Tragedy of the Commons”, which in fact is a tragedy of no men’s land, of unmanaged common pool resources. This is not a description of the commons. But the famous metaphor coined by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 was so strong, that the stigma has remained.

Today, the commons are often excluded from policy discussions and commoners are often disempowered. This tendency is enforced by the dominant political thinking, which is used to thinking in dichotomies. Here the market, there the state, here the private, there the public, here the teacher, there the pupil, here competition, there cooperation, here the good thing, there the bad thing. As a consequence, we tend to look for Either-Or-Solutions, which leads to consider Market and State as the only two serious realms of action. The commons are usually left behind and ignored.

Therefore our challenge is manyfold. We can only bring the commons paradigm to broader public attention if:

  • We find a powerful language for the commons and an up to date narrative that can be understood by everyone. “If we keep the commons unnamed, it is easier to neutralize or to ignore it.” (Bollier)
  • We recover the history of the commons so that we can appreciate its role in different historical and political contexts. Like the Codices Justinianum, where we find a very relevant distinction between res nullius, res publicae, res privatae and res communes. The latter has often been ignored by modern law. Or the concept of the public domain (in our juridical context: Gemeinfreiheit) or the huge variety of collective property forms in our civic laws that can provide new legal forms to organize a commons.

Codex Justinianus revisted:

thing” Access Regulation
Res nullius all non-regulated
Res privatae owner market-regulated
Res publicae public state-regulated
Res communes community peer-regulated

Stefan Meretz,

  • We avoid false dichotomies and try to get beyond either/or thinking and mainstream narratives – like the narrative of the homo oeconomicus or of scarcity. Resources are not scarce, they are made scarce.
  • We understand the relationship between access to common pool resources and power relations in society. Access to resources is a source of power. That is why the commons is often exploited by both by Market AND State. “Both are hungry for the revenues that come from exploiting them and both often find it useful to support each other’s political objectives”, says Bollier. The State turns out to be a Market-State, as James Quilligan puts it. The commons is resisted because it requires significant transfers of power to the commoners — not as a right granted by authorities but as an inherent human right that we have and which has to be respected by authorities. This is a small but significant difference.
  • We co-invent and experiment with new forms of commoning that are in line with the inner logic of the commons.

The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons:

Market Commons
Focus What can I sell? 

Exchange value

What do we need? 

Use value

Core beliefs Scarcity Plenty
Homo oeconomicus Homo cooperans
It’s about resources (allocation). It’s about us.
Governance Market-State Polycentric / Peer-to-Peer Governance
Decision making hierarchical horizontal
Command (Power, Law, Violence) Consensus, Free Cooperation, self-organization
Social relationships Centralization of power (monopoly) Decentralization of power 


Property Possession
Access to rival resources Limited by boundaries & rules defined by owner Limited by boundaries & rules defined by usergroups
Access to nonrival resources Made scarce (to ensure profitability) Open access (to ensure social equity)
Use rights Granted by owner Co-decided by user groups
Dominant strategy Out-compete Out-cooperate
For the resources Erosion 



Reproduction & Multiplication

For the people Exclusion & Participation Inclusion & Emancipation

The market has a well-developed and aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created. Just switch on your radio in the morning…

Market logic is based on the assumption that we are basically a homo oeconomicus – striving to maximize our own benefits. This narrative rests on the pillars of private property rights and the idea that the winner is the one who out-competes the others. In short: it’s a story of bigger, higher and faster.

The commons has yet to develop its own grand narrative. But here are some well identified essentials. First of all, it moves beyond the classic dichotomies of the haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, of public and private. It includes the missing third element: the commoners or usergroups, the co-owners, and the citizenry within their communities. It focuses on self-organization instead of “participation,” – the scope of the latter is something that has been basically pre-decided by “market laws” or authorities. After such predecisions, some suggestions of citizens are welcome. The difference between participation and self-organization/emancipation is like the difference between reading a recipe and making one’s own yummy cake.

The commons is about building robust and resilient communities. That means its storyline is about relationships, not transactions. Therefore metric systems are unable to assess the State of the Commons, or, as David says: it “cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the ‘Commons 500.’”

The commons follows a logic of inclusion and aims at social control over resources and productive means.

Part of the ‘commons movement’ constantly tackles the issue of ecological security, others don’t. I use to call them the “ecos” and the “technos” and I think, still, in year one of the commons movement, there is a major divide between the “ecos” and the “technos” which has to be urgently addressed if we want to make the movement grow. The Indian System of Rice Intensification is a good example for it.

At a first glance, this may look like a fuzzy storyline. But in my experience, people have an intuitive access to the commons. Even though unnamed, they know what it is all about, because it is simply part of their social practice. Ask people what they care for, what a meaningful live means to them: They will talk to you about robust and diverse social relations, cooperation, trust, solidarity.

The market and Nation-State as well as their conglomerations are built upon different beliefs. Just two examples out of many: The European Union is currently centralizing more and more power – supposedly “saving nation by nation” – meanwhile we learn from Commons research that centralized governance approaches harm the diversity of the commons. Commons governance needs to be polycentric, as Professor Elinor Ostrom has shown. Panaceas are revealed to be dangerous, and there is simply no such thing as a one size fits all solution. Because, remember: “each commons is one of a kind.”

Or take one of the favorite strategies of international cooperation for development: Securing private land titles. This is considered a key condition for rural development. But the strategy implies, that each peasant gets his little private piece of property which in case of emergency or upon pressure (say landgrabbing) are often resold to the already land-rich.

Thus, if we don’t analyze policy from a commons perspective, a strategy supposed to empower the poor can end up with disrupting social relations on the ground and enclosing the commons. That means:

  • convert commoners into individual consumers and producers for the market
  • make them more dependent on the ups and downs of that market.
  • cut them off from their history and from the history of commoning.

We have to identify the structural and often hidden ongoing enclosures. Enclosure is more than “privatization”, “commercialization” or “development pressure” triggered by “path dependency”. The term “enclosure” captures the disempowerment of people and social disruptions, which use to trigger situations, that are difficult to roll back. You may compare it to the dismantling of public transport infrastructures. Once you remove the rail network in a country, you will not be able to manage to re-open public transport by train. It’s gone.

Remember the ‘father’ of the liberal property concept, the English philosopher John Locke. Locke considered it a divine right for people to claim private property rights for things that they have “mixed” with their own labor. What is usually omitted from Locke’s formulation are his significant qualification – “…so long as there is enough, and good left in common for others.”

In fact, exclusive property rights can be justified only if the common pool resources and the use rights of commoners are preserved.

Commons alive

Now, the really great thing about the commons is that it is not just a concept. It’s alive and growing! In fact, today we see the rise of countless self-styled commoners – people who see the commons as a way of reframing politics, of re-conceptualizing production and revitalizing democracy.

There is an exploding universe of (digital) commoners (think of the vast network of free software programmers who created GNU/Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs; the Wikipedians who edit the largest and most up to date encyclopedia in history; the millions of artists and authors who – through Creative Commons or other free licenses state: “Yes, we want to share!”; the growing world of open access scholarly publishing, the Open Educational Resources movement and so on. There are

  • commoners who are recovering urban spaces and agriculture;
  • commoners who are implementing citizens control for radically decentralized energy production, distribution and consumption based on renewables;
  • commoners who are building open-source hardware and infrastructures; and many others.

But there are some other people discovering the commons as well, and I’m not too sure they have the same ideas as we might. NATO held a conference last year on “the Global Commons,” by which NATO apparently meant NATO dominance over the oceans, space and the Internet – the global common pool resources. And in the same vein: If companies got used to “greenwash” their products there is no doubt, that they will start to “commons-wash” their activities if the term gains broader currency. We have to be aware of the risk that the meaning of the commons could be watered down, co-opted or used as a cheap moral posture.

But it is not a cheap moral discourse. It is not even a moral discourse per se. Commons are a social methodology, a governance system, a type of cultural ethic. It works with normal people like you and me, that is what Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and colleagues demonstrated in countless field studies.

Year One of the global commons movement – that means, we have an assemblage of movements around the globe which begins to become aware of its international and interrelated character. Without diversity this movement cannot exist. So, even though there are different and sometimes opposing perceptions and approaches to the commons, such as:

  • preserving vs. building productive commons
  • natural vs. digital commons
  • modifying market/state power vs. replacing the market/state

The differences are mirroring the current stage of reflection, but – and this is important to understand – “They are differences within the same [paradigm].” (Stefan Meretz) I am convinced that “the same” is best denoted by the term commons.

Many thanks to David Bollier for his help and advice!

Silke Helfrich

Silke Helfrich completed her studies in adult education and Romance languages as well as sociology with a focus on economics. She works as a freelance author, researcher and widely sought-after speaker. Silke is also cofounder of the Commons-Institut e.V. and the Commons Strategies Group as well as co-initiator of the Netzwerk Ökonomischer Wandel (NOW). Her most recent publication, co-written with David Bollier, is the book Free, Fair and Alive. The Insurgent Power of the Commons, transcript, 2019.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications