To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing

February 18, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world — and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of Liz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good. 

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.    

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

It is customary to speak about problems with “the environment” and economic inequality as if they were something “out there” as abstract policy issues somehow separate from us.  But in fact these problems are rooted deeply inside of us – in how we relate to the more-than-human world, how we relate to each other, and how we have structured our institutions.

As a culture, we still inhabit the Cartesian claim that our bodies and minds are separate, and by extension that humanity is quite different from what we call “nature.”  This lets us maintain our self-delusion that we can continue our reckless dominion of the biosphere, particularly if there’s money to be made.

So why do I bring up these troubling reflections at the inauguration of this Project?  

I think we have a rich and rare opportunity here to plant a new seed for growing a different societal logic and ethic – and to make common cause with others who are searching for a new civilizational DNA.  This initiative can help us grow a different social imaginary.  It can start some different types of conversations, scholarship and projects.  The ripple effects could go far beyond our beautiful little patch of western Massachusetts. 

Before I explain more on why I have these wild ambitions, let me share some of my experiences in the vineyards of activism.  It might help explain why I see this project catalyzing so much. 

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I was an American Studies major at Amherst College in the late 1970s, but I surely learned the most during my junior year off when I worked for Ralph Nader. This generation may not appreciate the character of Nader’s career before the 2000 presidential election, about which we could have a long discussion.  Suffice it to say that Ralph – who’s 81 years old in two weeks – has been one of the most creative and effective change-agents of the past fifty years. 

Ralph’s big contribution was showing how ordinary citizens could step up to become public citizens and use the formal machinery of government to make a difference. Prior to Ralph’s arrival as an auto safety activist, ordinary citizens had very little to do with Congress besides voting and still less to do with regulation, let alone initiating entirely new fields of public concern – airbags and product recalls, the Freedom of Information Act, food safety, nuclear power safety, whistleblower protections, and much else.   

Following my time with Nader, I worked a Member of Congress, Toby Moffett, before moving on to become the first research director of People for the American Way, the constitutional rights and civil liberties organization founded by television producer and activist Norman Lear.  For those of you digital natives, Lear was a big deal in the 1970s when there were only three commercial networks on TV. At one point, he had five of the ten top shows on TV, mostly because they dealt with explosive social and political issues with great humor:  Shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and many others.

If Nader taught me about the role of rational empiricism in activism, People for the American Way taught me about the role of non-rational religious fundamentalism. From the scrappy, low-budget style of Nader activism, I moved on to the culture wars of the religious right and issues such as textbook censorship, “creation-science,” school prayer and judicial nominations. Throughout the 25 years that I spent with Lear, from whom I learned a great deal about understanding people as people, not as political stereotypes, I also pursued my own projects as an activist, including the cofounding of Public Knowledge, a Washington public interest group that fights against anti-social expansions of copyright law and for an open Internet. 

As the 1990s wore on, I became depressed at the sorry state of American political culture – and the even sorrier state of progressive activism. The supposedly liberal Bill Clinton was the one who gave us telecom deregulation that resulted in massive media consolidation, the loosening of securities and banking laws that culminated in 2008 financial crisis, and so-called welfare reform that was going to morally rehabilitate poor people. Meanwhile, most nonprofits were becoming so professionalized and locked into their funding base that they didn’t dare to experiment or innovate lest it marginalize them politically or tarnish their “brands.”

I slowly came to realize that liberalism, at least as co-opted by electoral politics, was not going to produce the kinds of changes our society really needs. It became clear that conventional public policy and law are captured by the two major political parties, which themselves are both in tight collusion with business elites.  I call it the Market/State duopoly, the incestuous alliance of the two great forms of power in our country, which systematically seek to diminish both democracy and the commons.

To be sure, we can’t simply walk away from politics, policy and law; they remain vital arenas of engagement.  But let’s be honest – our politics today is too structurally compromised to produce much significant change. As Elizabeth Warren has said, the game is rigged.  We live in a time of predatory business organizations, poorly performing government institutions, moribund democratic participation, and slow-motion ecological collapse.

But if the 1990s incubated despair in me, I also discovered the great, transformative potential of the commons– which has been my passion for nearly twenty years. One general way to understand the commons is as everything that we inherit or create together, which we must pass on, undiminished, to future generations. The commons should be understood as a social system for managing shared wealth, with an emphasis on self-governance, fairness and sustainability.  The commons is also a worldview and ethic that is ancient as the human race but as new as the Internet. 

It was about this time that I discovered the scholarship of Elinor Ostrom, an Indiana University political scientist who had been studying collective-action institutions for decades. Ostrom had conducted scores of studies of commons of forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, wild game and other natural resources in impoverished regions of the world.  t’s a little known fact, but an estimated two billion people around the world depend on these commons for their everyday survival – but because this self-provisioning occurs outside of markets, without producers selling to consumers, economists have relatively little interest in studying it.  Ostrom’s big achievement was showing that it is entirely possible for communities to manage shared resources over the long term without succumbing to the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 

Ah, yes, the “tragedy of the commons”!  If you mention “the commons” to someone today, that is invariably the first idea that comes to mind.  The term “tragedy of the commons” was launched by a now-famous 1968 essay by biologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science.  Imagine a pasture in which no individual farmer has a rational incentive to hold back his use of it, said Hardin.  He declared that each individual farmer will put as many sheep on the pasture as possible, which will inevitably result in the over-exploitation and destruction of the pasture:  the tragedy of the commons. 

The point of the story is to demonstrate that the shared management of resources will invariably fail.  It is true that finite resources can be over-exploited, but the “tragedy of the commons” does not really describe a commons. Hardin was describing an open-access regime that has no rules, boundaries or indeed no community. In fact, the situation he was describing – in which free riders can appropriate or damage resources at will — is more accurately a description of unfettered markets. You might say Hardin was describing the tragedy of the market

But over the past two generations, the “tragedy parable” was elevated into a cultural cliché by economists and conservative ideologues.  They saw it as a powerful way to promote private property rights and so-called free markets, and to fight government regulation. 

The point is that the tragedy story is simply not grounded in empirical reality.  Ostrom’s landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons:  The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, powerfully refuted the “tragedy” parable by extensive fieldwork that revealed that people talk to each other and negotiate solutions to prevent the over-exploitation of resources.  From her studies, Ostrom identified eight key “design principles” in successful commons, which are broadly applicable to most commons today.  She went on to build a large international network of scholars who study the commons, blending sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, environmental studies, and other fields.  For her pioneering work in studying the role of cooperation in generating value, Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 – the first woman to win the award.

I think Ostrom’s insights as a woman in a field of male economists are worth noting here.  You see, Ostrom did not see economics as an ultra-rational mathematical science that sees the economy as a machine.  Ostrom saw economics as dealing with social relationships, collective-action problems, and the unacknowledged power of cooperation.

There were two other things going on in the 1990s that pushed me out of the liberal tradition and into the commons. The first was the emergence of the World Wide Web in 1994 as a popular medium.  It gradually became clear to me that cyberspace is a highly generative realm in which neither the state nor the market is the driving force. Here, social cooperation is pervasive and hugely productive without markets or formal law. I learned to see that the Internet is really a massive hosting platform, a new lightweight infrastructure, that is fantastically generative because it lets people self-organize their own commons. 

When blogs, wikis, social networks and Creative Commons licenses began to proliferate in 2003 and after, it was clear that something very new and different had arrived:  a new sector of commons-based peer production! There is in fact a vast Commons Sector of non-market, not-state production and culture online. This phenomenon simply cannot be explained by mainstream economics and its model of human beings as selfish, rational, utility-maximizing materialists.

The second thing that I encountered in the 1990s was the unlikely rise of an eclectic social movement based on the principles of commons.  It has had two notable international conferences, in 2010 and 2013, which I co-organized, and it has many active hubs of strategic action. This movement – largely independent of Ostrom’s academic scholarship – consists of food activists trying to rebuild local agriculture; software programmers building free software and open source software; artists devoted to collaborative digital arts; and scientific communities sharing their research and data on open platforms. 

The commons movement also consists of many people who are fighting the privatization and commodification of their shared wealth by the “free market” – a process that is known as “enclosure of the commons.”  These commoners include:  indigenous peoples trying to preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge from the biopiracy of big pharmaceutical and ag-biotech companies. Subsistence farmers and fishers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by industrial harvesting. South African shack dwellers who are asserting their rights to self-determination against developers. And Latin Americans fighting the neo-extractivist agenda of multinational companies plundering oil, minerals and genetic knowledge.

While these communities vary immensely, they are all asserting a different universe of value.  They all share a basic commitment to production for use, not market exchange…the right to participate in making the rules that govern themselves….the importance of fairness and transparency in governance….and the responsibility to act as long-term stewards of resources. 

They also share a hostility to market forces that are trying to enclose wealth that belongs to everyone.  I consider enclosures of the commons one of the great, unacknowledged scandals of our times – a massive theft and dispossession of common wealth for private gain.

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As I studied the many tribes of commoners around the world, I came to realize that a large part of the problem that they all face is the very language that is used to perceive and explain problems. I came to realize that our very categories of thought, our vocabulary, are shot through with regressive political implications.  We all live under the sway of a moral narrative about economic growth, consumerism, progress and corporate control – and these stories have a logic and ethic that are deeply embedded in our language.

For example, such familiar pairings of words as “public” and “private”; and “individual” and “collective”; and “production” and “consumption” tacitly point to a world dominated by government and markets in the service of economic growth. The dichotomies have erased the very idea of the commons, quietly preventing us from even considering non-market relationships and social organization as possible or consequential.  We are given a choice between the “public” and “private” sectors – government or markets – but the void in our language prevents us from choosing to self-organize our own commons. It is assumed that government is the only legitimate agent of the public will.

So, upon encountering the idea of commons, I realized that its greatest potential is in helping to develop a different discourse – a way of imagining a new sector of life that is quasi-autonomous from both government and the market.   

In the 1970s, I had seen how American business had quite deliberately set about neutering the nation’s health, safety and environmental laws by inventing a new discourse.  They called it cost-benefit analysis.  The goal was to use pseudo-scientific quantification to make regulatory decisions:  Is it “worth the cost” to ban a given pesticide?  Is it “worth” saving a species from extinction?  Cost-benefit analysis provided a number-based language of experts and economists to override the social and ethical policies behind congressional statutes.  And that’s one way that industry blunted or reversed much of the environmental activism of the 1960s and 1970s:  it required government to adopt the language of the market, cost-benefit analysis.

This was a revelation to me:  Discourse is law.  And it’s something that progressive advocates have never really learned.  They have never developed a discourse that can express their own putative values.  Wittingly or not, most have instead embraced the utopian narrative of American neoliberalism – that human progress will continue through economic growth, new and better technology, and a system of government that caters to the demands of capital while making grudging concessions to social or environmental concerns.

I suspect you can guess where I’m heading:  I think it’s time for a new grand narrative and a new cultural discourse.  I’m not talking about new sorts of political “messaging” or a retread of state-oriented leftist ideology.  I’m talking about a different worldview and ethic.  I’m talking about a different ontology for describing who we are and our relationships to each other and the more-than-human world.  We need a different epistemology to go beyond the neoDarwinian, free-market narratives that presume that humanity is mostly nasty, brutish, competitive and incapable of cooperation and mutual support. 

Human beings are not self-made individuals.  We are not homo economicus.   Evolutionary science backs up the principle of “Ubuntu” that is used in South Africa – “I am because of who we are.”  Our individualism is nested without our collective relationships.

Let me stress that this is not just a philosophical discussion for the seminar room and learned journals.  In the world of the commons, it is a very practical discussion with countless real-life applications.

You see the commons among seed-sharing cooperatives in India, where women pass down native seeds from mother to daughter, as if in quiet compact among generations and the Earth. 

You see the commons in thousands of open source software projects and among the 100,000 Wikipedians globally working on dozens of different language editions of that project. 

You see the commons in more than 10,000 open access scholarly journals that bypass commercial publishers and let academic disciplines retain the fruit of their own works. 

You see the commons in the movements within academia for open textbooks, so that students don’t have to keep paying textbook publishers for over-priced new editions.  And you see the commons in the open educational resources, or OER, movement, which is producing “open courseware” that is radically improving access to learning around the world. 

You see the commons in the 882 million works internationally that use Creative Commons licenses, inverting the automatic propertization of culture under copyright law and making it legally shareable.

You see commons in local food initiatives such as Community Supported Agriculture, Slow Food, and permaculture – all of which privilege the social or regional community over the demands of footloose capital. 

You see commons in the burgeoning movement to reinvent the city as commons.  This idea, paradoxically enough got its start when then-Prime Minister Berlusconi proposed privatizing the nation’s water systems – an idea that was defeated in a voter referendum by more than 90% of the vote.  Significantly, water was named as a commons in this campaign, which helped catapult it into mainstream political life. 

Once people understood that water is a commons, they began to see endangered commons everywhere – in grand public theaters, in parks, in urban spaces.  And so they began to organize as commoners to reclaim them.  Now, in Bologna, for example, there are now serious efforts to create public/commons partnerships – cooperation between municipal government and self-organized commoners – as a way to move beyond corrupt public/private partnerships that steal our common wealth.

You see commons in localities that use alternative currencies such as the Bangla-Pesa in Kenya, which has made it possible for poor people in slum neighborhoods to exchange value with each other.  I am especially excited by the so-called “blockchain” technology that enables Bitcoin to function as a currency without any third-party guarantors such as banks or government. This technology transcends the particular problems of Bitcoin itself because it makes possible all sorts of trustworthy, large-scale cooperation as a self-organized phenomenon.

You see the commons in the explosion of open design and manufacturing – design that is globally shared but manufacturing that is local, inexpensive, accessible to anyone, and modular, in the style of open source software. This movement has produced the Wikispeed car that gets 100 miles per gallon of fuel….the Farm Hack community that has produced dozens of pieces of affordable farm equipment…. and specialized open-source prosthetic limbs that major medical suppliers don’t have the creativity or profit incentive to make.

I wanted to give you this brief survey of commons projects to suggest the breadth and variety of innovation going on.  What’s exciting is that these commons amount to ontological disruptions. They are developing new types of relationships among people and with the Earth. 

Instead of focusing on stocks and inventories of things, the commons is all about flows of creative energy and production. Instead of focusing on impersonal transactions in the market, the commons is about nourishing enduring relationships among people.  Instead of focusing on bottom lines and the maximal accumulations of capital, the commons offers a vision of society based on the intensification of living systems. The commons gives us a way to reimagine and reinvent how we can produce things and govern ourselves – and in turn, develop new cultural identities that go beyond “citizen” and “consumer” as traditionally understood. 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the immensity and scale of the world’s problems. The commons invites us to look at the sphere of influence that each of us has right now.  What are our talents and passions?  What peer group can be work with or create?  A friend of mine at UMass Amherst, the late Julie Graham, writing with her colleague Katherine Gibson, once wrote, “If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies.” 

If we allow political parties, government, news and entertainment media, and large corporations to define our aspirations, then we will be capitulating to – in the words of anthropologist David Graeber – “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.” 

On the other hand, if we trust our experience and bodies, we can start an upward spiral of change even if it that seems to put us on the fringe.  The great lesson of open networks is that seemingly isolated, marginal voices are often ubiquitous.  It’s just that each voice has not found the others and gone viral.    

I hope it is clear by now that the commons is not just another word for “the public interest” or the “common good.”  It certainly aspires to produce those outcomes, but it has a deeper personal resonance. Notice that a commons is not simply a resource.  It is a distinct social system that develops its own rules and practices, and customs and rituals, for managing a shared resource.  Commons tend to embody certain recurrent principles:  Self-determination.  Fairness.  The inalienability of resources from the market.  Ecological stewardship.  Localism.  A different paradigm of development.

What I especially like about the commons is the new bonds of solidarity that it can foster among people from some very different realms – North and South, city and countryside, digital and subsistence, indigenous and modern.  This is what is happening right now as all sorts of transnational tribes of commoners around the world find each other.  

There are now efforts among many alternative-economic and social movements to find ways to collaborate. They include:

· the Social and Solidary Economy movement, which is big in Europe and Brazil;

· the Degrowth movement, which is especially popular in Europe;

· the Transition Town movement that is developing new forms of sustainable localism in anticipation of Peak Oil and climate change disruptions;

· the Co-operative movement, which is pioneering new forms of multi-stakeholder co-ops that go beyond workers and consumers;

· the Sharing and collaborative economy movement that is using open network platforms to encourage new forms of sharing;

· the tech-oriented peer production world of hackers and FabLabs and the Maker movement; and

· the commons movement that provides a lingua franca to bring together the pluralism of voices.

I am pleased to add to this list the new Greek Government. Giannis Dragasakis, the new Greek deputy prime minister, last week explicitly endorsed a commons-based strategy for social reconstruction in an address before Parliament. Syriza clearly sees the commons as an important element in the social reconstruction of their austerity-ravaged economy.

These movements represent a disruption of the prevailing worldview. They are a deliberate flouting of boundaries set by conventional politics.  Each in their own way is struggling to move beyond some limitations of Enlightenment thinking to assert a new sort of cooperative humanism, which a good friend of mine, German theoretical biologist Andreas Weber, calls the Enlivenment. 

Weber is a biosemiotics researcher and ecophilosopher who argues that neoDarwinistic principles are a factually inaccurate, specious justification for free market ideology. The many reductionist, mechanical principles that science uses for studying living organisms prevent us from seeing that all living organisms are meaning-making creatures, from microorganisms to homo sapiens. As other evolutionary scientists such as Martin Nowak, David Sloan Wilson and Samuel Bowles suggest, an economy based on cooperation is not a fantasy – it’s our human heritage.  The homo economicus of free market theory is a grotesque aberration in history.

I find Weber’s arguments compelling because he makes the case that living systemsmust be understood as living systems:  creative, evolving, dynamic, relational, sense-making.  Living creatures can’t be understood as clockwork machines without creative or moral agency.  This is obviously a much longer conversation, but the commons makes so much sense to me because it insists upon seeing economics not as a machine or even a science, but as a rich social economy of creative moral agents – a living human system integrated with a living planet and myriad lifeforms to which markets must be subordinate and held accountable.

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What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with the Ethics and the Common Good project?  I like to think that the themes I’ve been discussing could animate this initiative in the years ahead. 

Traditional higher education is being buffeted by the speed of change in contemporary life, the blurring of disciplines and the power of network culture.  Traditional scholarship is being challenged more than ever by the vitality of practitioner communities outside of the Academy.  Meanwhile, most colleges and universities that I’ve encountered are disinclined to innovate or adapt.

What’s sorely needed are new sorts of experimental, hands-on engagement that link the Academy and the “real world.”  Education needs to become more about participatory learning, and not just about the transfer of expert knowledge from professor to student.  

There’s an epistemological crises going on within the Academy, too:  What sorts of knowledge shall be deemed credible and respectable?  How should scholars engage with the world? 

Scholarship often presumes to be morally neutral, but if I have learned anything from the commons, it is that subjective emotions and embodied knowledge are also important ways of understanding the world. So I hope that this project will provide a new vehicle to grapple with varieties of knowledge in transdisciplinary ways, and in new voices.

The questions raised here go further than Hampshire College.  By focusing on our fuller humanity and on the common good, the Ethics and the Common Good project can initiate new conversations about What is an education for, anyway?  It isn’t just about endowing individuals with new talents to earn lots of money.  It’s about imagining how we can play meaningful roles in improving the common good.  And more: education should try to catalyze such changes, beyond the contributions of scholarship.

Since I invariably see things through the prism of the commons, I see this project itself acting as a type of self-organized, collaborative commons – one that could empower a wider community to participate in imagining new forms of production and governance.  The Ethics and the Common Good project could help us reclaim the commons – the realm of social relationships and life that precedes the market and the state.

In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was insisting that Great Britain adopt the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, budget cuts and new privileges for capital, she insisted, as the European Union now insists to the Greeks, “There is no alternative!”  The phrase that was later shortened to its acronym, TINA. 

Well, looking around at the commons and the many companion movements bursting out all over, it is clear that the more accurate acronym is TAPAS – “There are plenty of alternatives!”  The only question is whether we have the eyes to see them and the courage to commit to them.

The great British critic Raymond Williams put it well:  “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”  That is the real challenge that we face, to overcome cynicism and hopelessness, and to quicken the many serious alternatives awaiting our creativity. 

I hope that the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project will make the most of this entirely realistic future. Thank you.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: building a resilient society, climate change, environmental collapse, new economy, peer-to-peer production, policy, the commons