Reflections on the Commons Space at the World Social Forum in Montreal 2016

January 30, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Originally published :

For many months I’ve intended to write an article on the Commons Space at the World Social Forum (WSF) which took place in Montreal in August of 2016. Leaving 2016 behind and looking forward to 2017 I feel this is an appropriate moment for reflection both on the WSF and the Commons within the broader political context.

The continued rise of a authoritarianism and the far right in 2016 in Europe and the US calls for renewed solidarity and political action. The world is changing and there is a sense of urgency. There is a deep need for new political imaginaries that transcend the tired divisive politics that have failed ordinary people in so many ways. Commons are key to this new imaginary.

So how might the Commons be considered as a political subject? This indeed was an important discussion at the World Social Forum(WSF). Coming to a shared understanding and language when speaking about Commons is a challenge many face in articulating this new political imaginary. Let me clarify my position with a little theoretical detour.

For me identification with the Commons precedes that of the market and state. Commons emerge from and serve what anthropologists call primary sociality, this is the sphere of social bonds, of tangible relationships, that of family, friendship, community, they are primary because our identification with these relationships takes precedence over commitments to more abstract and as a result secondary spheres of sociality, those of Nation, State or Market.

Consider this extended quotation which I find particularly useful from anthropologist Stephen Gudeman’s book, The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture:

The commons is a shared interest or value. It is the patrimony or legacy of a community and refers to anything that contributes to the material and social sustenance of a people with a shared identity: land, buildings, seed stock, knowledge of practices, a transportation network, an educational system, or rituals. As the lasting core, though changeable over time, the base represents temporality and continuity. Without a commons, there is no community; without a community, there is no commons (Emphasis Added).

Most modern economists—after Galileo, Descartes, and Locke interpret the material commons of a people as an independent, objective entity that can be properly managed only by having expressly stated rights of access (Ostrom 1990) . They re-read the commons as something separate from a human community, perhaps as a symbol of community but not the community itself. This market and modernist reading separates objects from subjects.

My use of the term “ commons” is different from that of most contemporary economists and political scientists in another way. For them a commons is real property used by market agents and contained within a market; a commons is either an open-access resource, freely available to all, or a common-pool resource, regulated by rules of use (Ostrom 1990). These theorists would show how control of certain scarce resources through social rules rather than competitive exchange supports market ends and the achievement of efficiency; thus, they argue, market actors sometimes agree for reasons of self-interest to form limited economic communities with a commons. I think this formulation represents a misunderstanding of the social sphere of value, reduces the social to self-interest, and conflates community and market through the misapplication of the language of trade. Communities of the form I examine are not devised to serve market life; irreducibly social, they operate for themselves as they relate to self-interests and the world of trade.

On my view, the commons is the material thing or knowledge a people have in common, what they share, so that what happens to a commons is not a physical incident but a social event. Taking away the commons destroys community, and destroying a complex of relationships demolishes a commons. Likewise, denying others access to the commons denies community with them, which is exactly what the assertion of private property rights does. The so-called “tragedy of the commons “ (Hardin 1968), which refers to destruction of a resource through unlimited use by individuals, is a tragedy not of a physical commons but of a human community, because of the failure of its members to treat one another as communicants and its transformation to a competitive situation. Often a community economy does not despoil the environment as rapidly as a market economy does, because in doing so it despoils itself. (Gudeman, S.F., 2001, pp. 27.).[1]

This description informed not only by Gudeman’s own research but by decades of cross cultural anthropological research into the nature of economy and exchange is the understanding of the Commons I subscribe to. Commons initiatives are diverse and any effort towards definition must be broad enough to reflect this. I would emphasize that the ‘failure’ of any Commons must be considered in broader social, economic, political and environmental contexts in which they are embedded that can be more or less antagonistic toward their welfare. Where the powers of Market and State have interests even the most well organised Communities will struggle. The real tragedy of the Commons is that where a Commons is not recognised as serving the instrumental logics of Market and State they will be treated as externalities when in truth the Commons are the ground on which they stand.

There are various efforts to establish legal status for Commons initiatives but this is complex and caution must be exercised. Legislation is a processes of translation where by a State will seek to understand and make sense of Commons in its own legal terms, in the logics of rights and property, this must be carefully negotiated so as not to compromise the autonomy of Commons. Additionally to define what is a Commons is also to define what is not and so policies and legal definitions inadequate to the task of recognising a plurality of organisational forms and practices risk being instruments of exclusivity.

Today Commons are the dark matter of our political and economic universe. Their presence are felt but little understood if at all by mainstream politicians and economists. What is needed is a kind of Copernican revolution, a paradigm shift away from what Gibson Graham (2006) call a Capitalocentric and instrumental relationship with the world and to a way of life oriented towards celebrating and nurturing our interdependence and the common good as the base and basis for good living, Buen Vivir.

Utopian promises of ideals to be realised come the revolution have little appeal today. A future characterised by a shift away from Capitalocentric forms of social organisation would be Post-Capitalist. While P2P technologies offer many possibilities, Post-Capitalism as a general condition for society will not be achieved through technical wizardry alone, it requires a revolution of every day life, that is cultural change, a change in how people see, experience and act in the world, what is called prefigurative practice.

The Commons is not a means to some Post-Capitalist end, but an end in itself. Commons are sites, physical or digital for the realisation and celebration of human values, collaboration, cooperation, giving, sharing, friendship that are all too often marginalised or instrumentalised by the utilitarian thinking that dominates so much of our world today. In this sense Commons seek to resist capitalist instrumentality. Markets should serve society and not the other way around. Through recognition, shared learning and solidarity with the many initiatives that embody these values in practice a network of networks becomes visible. Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation (P2PF) among others have done incredible work in this regard and the P2PF Wiki is an invaluable resource.

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Not only are other worlds possible, but they are already here.

My motivation to participate in organising the Commons Space at the World Social Forum came from this understanding of Commons. The Commons Space was an invitation for initiatives to gather in solidarity, to share, learn and to celebrate the work of the many who are proof that not only are other worlds possible, but they are already here. The program was the result of a series of calls for participation and with limited means the organisers worked to make the programming process as open and inclusive as possible.

The Post-Capitalist Convergence, a key gathering in the program, was a huge success and attracted over 150 people from a broad variety of initiatives. With careful facilitation in under 2 hours this diverse group was able to identify shared concerns which were further refined before being presented as a declaration on the final day of the WSF at the Agora. For those who are not familiar with it, the WSF is a huge event with tens of thousands of participants from all over the world. The Agora is the final gathering where outcomes and actions from the the many convergence sessions are shared. The Agora is an opportunity to make visible shared interests and invites the possibility for consolidation of efforts.

I include here a link to the declaration of ‘Initiatives of the Convergence for Post Capitalist Transition’ which emerged from the ideas and proposals discussed throughout the many meetings, convergence sessions and the Agora. In many ways this was a statement of shared values rather than of commitment to specific actions. Participants were encouraged to take what they found valuable from the experience and to realise those values in their own projects and contexts. It is useful to reflect on both specific actions that emerged from the WSF but also those areas that require further attention.

The question of how to make commons visible was taken up during the forum in a meeting of mapping initiatives. Silke Helfrich and Jon Richter from, Jason Nardi from Ripess, Wendy Brawer from came together to investigate the possibilities of interoperable standards for sharing data between different commons mapping projects. The group continue to work together and plan to organise further mapping events over the coming year. I also recommend reading Mapping as a Commons for more details on the concept.

Claudia Gómez-Portugal who works with the Commons Recovery Foundation has also initiated a discussion on learning as a commons. While still in the early stages this aims to bring together practitioners experienced with alternative approaches to learning. From home schooling to online peer learning networks to explore what is ‘Learning as a Commons’?

The wonderful Matthieu Rheaume and friends invited participants at the Commons Space to collaborate in the creation of a Commons card game which I look forward to playing. See the Facebook page for further details. With the help of some very talented Djs who produced a top secret mix, Matthieu also organised a Silent Disco and in the pouring rain took a group of 20 or so wild things for a memorable dancing tour through the streets of Montreal. If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

If you are interested in getting in finding out more about any of these initiatives do get in contact via the Commons WSF mailing list.

A major problem at the WSF was that about 200 people primarily from the Global South were refused visas by the Canadian government and could not participate in panels and assemblies. This had a serious impact. The Commons Space was also affected as a participant from Dakar was among those refused. Montreal is a wonderful city and the Social Forum organising team worked really hard to make it a success but such restrictions do raise the question of whether it is appropriate to host the WSF in the North. One of our goals was to create a space where activists from North, South, East and West could meet. The promotion of an open call for participation through our own networks of contacts was not enough to ensure the kind of diverse representation we had hoped for. Most of the participants at the Commons Space were European or North American with a smaller contingent from Central and Latin America but there were very few participants if any from Africa, the Middle East, Asia or Russia. What can we as organisers do to support broader participation in future?

Language is another issue, while the definition for Commons that I provide at the beginning of the article is broad, many initiatives while sharing similar concerns and values do not use the language of Commons to describe what they do. There is significant crossover for example with movements for Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) and DeGrowth. A sensitivity to issues like these is important for those who wish to pursue constructive dialogue between movements.

Despite the challenges the Commons Space succeeded in bringing people from many different movements together. Including activists from Solidarity Economy, DeGrowth, Environmental and Transition movements to name just a few. The Post-Capitalist convergence was a big success with over 150 people taking part.

The following quote by Buckminster Fuller epitomises the DIY spirit that many P2P and Commons initiatives embody.

In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete. That, in essence, is the higher service to which we are all being called.

I love this quote and unfortunately I don’t have a proper source for it so taking it out of context and on face value considering the problematic model a metaphor for Capitalism or Liberalism as it is experienced today, then the quote encourages us to focus on building alternatives rather than engaging in struggle. This would assume that people have the freedom to pursue their lives in relative peace. While this might be the case for the lucky few, most people today are struggling to survive a system that is failing them and in times of political and economic crisis, vulnerable communities become targets of austerity and discriminative policies and the outspoken, artists, activists, journalists and intellectuals become the targets of repressive governments. If the failure of the problematic model threatens the basic common good then struggle is unavoidable. This historic moment is full of uncertainty. Cynicism is understandable but this is not a time to turn away from the world; it is a time for renewed solidarity and political engagement.

I need no convincing of the significant contribution Commons approaches offer as solutions to many of the world’s problems. Commons are central to healthy and sustainable communities but today for many, Commons are more than that, they are a matter of survival.

In the months since the forum the extreme right have continued to make gains both in Europe and the US, and the crisis of the political center is likely to propel this further. This is a crisis of political imagination and the need for new imaginaries that break with the old is more urgent than ever. Commons can make valuable and practical contributions to such a project by working in solidarity with other social movements but there is much work to be done.

Before the WSF I wrote an article for Shareable and included a number of questions that were first posed by Commons Space participants as lines for investigation and avenues by which common cause with other social movements might be identified. Leaving 2016 behind and beginning a new year I invite you to take them and consider them once again. They remain open questions and useful guides for all who consider Commons essential for a shared future.

  1. What role do commons play in the transition to a post-capitalist future?
  2. What is the relationship of social movements to the commons movement?
  3. Is the notion of the commons and the practice of commoners present in the discourse of social movements?
  4. Do the movements organize according to commons principles?
  5. Have they been empowered by open infrastructures as commons?
  6. Is there an understanding of the commons as a political framework rather than a resource management arrangement?
  7. Are these new political movements rethinking democracy, practising or working toward participatory and radical democracy?
  8. Are social movements and commoners re-imagining state power to shift legislation and resources to support commons?
  9. Do these new political movements represent a window of opportunity to widen the space for commoning or how can commoners mobilize in response to movements whose activities accelerate enclosure, for example TTIP, the rise of far right nationalism or political repression and internet censorship?

As a closing remark I wish to express my deep thanks to all who organised events and participated in making the Commons Space and the World Social Forum a success. Special thanks is due to Elisabetta Cangelosi, Nicole Leonard, Frederic Sultan, Alain Ambrosi and Yves Otis as the core organising team who made the Commons Space a reality. I also wish to thank the wonderful people at Ecto and PercoLab who hosted us during the WSF and Foundation Charles Leopold Mayerfor their generous support that enabled us to bring so many wonderful, inspiring activists together.

Best Wishes to you all in 2017

In Solidarity


  1. Gudeman, S.F., 2001. The anthropology of economy: community, market, and culture. Blackwell, Malden, Mass.
  2. Gibson-Graham, J.K., 2006. A postcapitalist politics. U of Minnesota Press.

Tags: building resilient communities, new economy, p2p relationships, post-capitalist economy, the commons