Editorial Note: This post is another excerpt from Free, Fair, and Alive, by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich. You can find out more about the book here.

Part 3 Growing the Commonsverse: Introduction

We have come a long way. Part I explained the importance of an OntoShift for understanding the insurgent power of the commons, and how language is an indispensable tool in helping us shed archaic understandings and cultivate commons-friendly perspectives. Then, in Part II, we introduced the Triad of Commoning as a way to explain how people can enact commons by emulating existing patterns of social life, peer governance, and provisioning. These first six chapters give us a fairly solid grasp of the dynamics of commoning. They explain how — within a commons — people can produce a world that is free, fair, and alive.

But as capitalism teeters under the weight of its own contradictions, leading to such existential crises as climate breakdown, economic inequality, and violent nationalism, an obvious question on the lips of most people is, how can the Commonsverse grow larger and transform the political economy and culture? How can we achieve changes in state power, law, and policy based on a commons approach? These questions are the focus of Part III.

It turns out that patterns of commoning, especially of peer governance, are crucial not only within a commons, but equally in handling relationships among commons. At both levels, it is important to Bring Diversity into Shared Purpose, Assure Consent in Decision Making, and Share Knowledge Generously, among other patterns identified in the Triad of Commoning. However, as commons grow and spawn a varied ecosystem of players, a new set of complications arises. Each separate commons must learn to connect and coordinate with others based on the commons ethic described in Part II. This requires new forms of cooperation not just within commons (the “micro” level) but in the spaces among individual commons (the “meso” level) and in complicated struggles and negotiations at the societal level (the “macro” level). This tripartite division of levels is too tidy a description because the dynamics at each level are all intertwined. It is nonetheless a useful way of conceptualizing how commons fit into a larger societal context.

Four strategies are particularly important. First, commoners must learn how to Beat the Bounds of their commons to prevent enclosure and/or reclaim privatized wealth. This is a basic survival imperative. Beating the bounds, you may recall, is the practice used by many English villages of walking the perimeter of their land to identify any fences or hedges that had encroached upon their shared wealth. In our times, beating the bounds may initially involve direct action resistance and civil disobedience against enclosures, and attempts to “de-enclose” them. The point of beating the bounds is to restore some measure of commoning with respect to land, water, seeds, code, creative work, and culture, and to restore the integrity of the community. Such tactics may be followed by longer-term strategies such as enacting laws, developing technological safeguards, or adopting protective social traditions. Institutional stability and legal security are fundamental.

But this is only a start. As the number of commons in a given field of endeavor increases, it is important for commoners to Emulate & Federate to build more integrated, collaborative networks and shared infrastructures. That is the approach used by La Via Campesina, the decentralized grassroots movement of millions of peasants, small farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, Indigenous peoples, and migrants and agricultural workers. The movement amounts to a large, loosely connected transnational federation. Similarly, community-supported agriculture farms in Germany (known by the German acronym SoLaWi) have federated as the Netzwerk Solidarische Landwirtschaft, following the growth of CSA farms in Germany from three in 2003 to thirty-nine in 2013 to about two hundred in early 2019. The purpose of the federation is to allow individual farms to trade insights, jointly sponsor research, develop new initiatives, connect commoners and farmers, and write shareable free software specifically designed to meet CSA needs. In digital spaces, there are many collaborations among commons involving free and open source software, Creative Commons licenses, open access scholarly publishing, the open educational resources movement, and open data initiatives, among other free culture projects. Participants in one community of practice keep loose track of advances in other communities, — such as new user interfaces, security protocols, or sharing behaviors — and adapt them within their own context.

These federations, whether organized or casual, do not function as representative bodies in any formal sense. They are shared spaces for forging mutual commitments. They are evolving heterarchies of mutual aid, consensus building, and joint action among commoners. The goal of federations is to fortify the many individual commons while building collaborative ventures such as shared infrastructure, finance, and political advocacy.

Beyond the activities of Emulate & Federate, it is important for commons projects and networks to pursue strategies of intercommoning. This is the process of active collaboration and mutual support to assist and inspire individual projects, make sense of unfolding events, and develop proactive strategies. All that’s needed is an open space in which people who would not otherwise meet can come together to work freely on self-determined agendas: hackers with farmers, for example, or low-income people with makerspaces, or open educational resources advocates with co-housing residents. The process of intercommoning also builds a shared culture, particularly as a new language of the commons takes root.

Why is all this needed? Because the harsh realities of the market/state system otherwise impede the development of commoning. State power is real and dominant, and generally privileges capitalist modes of production and culture as normative. It elevates legal frameworks that honor private property, capitalist-driven market transactions, and contracts among individuals. So if anyone wishes to advance an OntoShift, they must find ingenious ways to deal with some deeply rooted biases of the capitalist economy that are reflected in various structures of state power, law, policy, and socially embedded markets.

This is a formidable challenge, indeed! However, the hardy survival of many commons over the centuries suggests that they are not without their own remarkable powers of creative self-protection and expansion. It’s just that commoners generally do not have the support of conventional law, finance, technology, and state power that players in the market economy take for granted.

The next chapters therefore embark upon a bold quest. We try to imagine how state power and law might begin to support commons in both operational and structural ways. However, unlike many proposals that focus on enacting new laws, regulations, or state programs to change existing market or state structures — a setup for disappointing results — we propose a Grand Strategy that draws its energy and strength from the ontological shift and the patterns of commoning introduced earlier. In other words, politics, state law, and policy will not be the primary drivers of change. Commoning will. A great deal can be achieved right now without having to become embroiled in the compromises, betrayals, co-optation, and legal paralysis of conventional politics and government. This is not to say that politics and state powers can be ignored or utterly avoided; it is simply to declare that commoning must lie at the heart of any strategies for change. Politics must remain a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The best way to avoid the seductions of politics and state power, which have often co-opted leaders and derailed social movements, is to hew closely to patterns of commoning, even in macro-scale endeavors.

A fair question to ask is whether the powers of commoning can truly be transformational. How can we know if commoning can actually provide leverage points for a Great Transition away from state-supported market fundamentalism to something better? Geographer Dina Hestad of the University of Oxford has studied what characteristics must be present for actions and strategies to be socially transformative. She has provisionally identified the following criteria:

  • Work towards a vision which reflects the need to live in balance with the carrying capacity of the earth
  • Consider that change in a complex system cannot be controlled due to uncertainty
  • Avoid displacing problems to other locations or times, which could prevent wider system change
  • Tackle the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises
  • Work towards systems that avoid unchecked imbalances of power and help avoid triggering humans’ (destructive) ancient tribal circuits
  • Promote understanding that humans are part of a much larger whole, and create possibilities for resonance and meaningful, affective relationships between people and nature
  • Develop healthy human agency at individual and collective levels for transforming and co-creating our future
  • Open up new possibilities for acting rather than shrinking our opportunities to act
  • Communicate a compelling and inspiring story of system change that names the problems and identifies commensurate leverage points and resonates with people from all walks of life and across ideologies
  • Promote social cohesion and a sense of togetherness at different levels, which includes trust, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to participate and help
  • Promote critical thinking, generosity of spirit, and openness to learn from diverse ideas and perspectives

Commoning has a rich potential to meet all of these criteria. Of course, implementation is critical! That is to say, strengthening and expanding commoning from within a market/state polity will be really difficult. But it is entirely feasible. The following four chapters of Part III offers some broad recommendations.

* * *

In proposing ways that state power can support commoning, we hasten to call attention to what we are not proposing. We are not trying to re-imagine the polity. We are not trying to reinvent the nation-state, much as that may be needed. We are not trying to smash capitalism in a traditional revolutionary sense, although of course any advance of the commons diminishes its power and represents an incremental triumph. The commons surely has a lot to say about these challenges, philosophically and politically. But one cannot simply propose a grandiose, long-term agenda and then try to educate others to agree and follow the prescribed insights. That approach ignores the deeper wisdom of the commons, which accepts the idea of distributed, local, and diverse acts of commoning whose very aliveness produces the creativity and commitment to develop solutions adapted to every context.

In this sense, the long-term agenda must be one of emergence through commoning. Our priority must be to grow the capacity to think like a commoner and to grow the Commonsverse as much as possible now, planting seeds of culture, social practice, and institutional power that can unfold in the fullness of time. It is this developmental unfolding of the ethics of commoning that makes it so hardy in the first place. It is this dynamic that we need to honor and develop rather than plunging prematurely or naively into frontal assaults on a highly fortified market/state system, a strategy doomed to fail.

The most natural opening for cooperation between state power and commoners is the local level. In smaller-scale political contexts, government tends to be less driven by ideology or party politics than by sheer practicality — what works? At the local level, politicians cannot so easily ignore needs nor hide behind ideology. Moreover, people at the local level can more easily make their political voices heard and pressure governments to innovate, as seen in the burgeoning “city as a commons” movement in Europe and dozens of urban commons initiatives documented by Shareable magazine. It is no accident that the words “commons” and “municipality” share the same etymology with the root Latin word munus, which combines the meanings “gift” and “duty.” Our challenge is to find ways to reinvent this ethic in the larger modern state structures in which we are inexorably entangled. Let’s begin.