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The Commonsverse as a Parallel Polis: Opportunities and Challenges

August 1, 2023

Below are slightly edited remarks that I delivered at a a workshop, “Beyond Liberalism: Commons, Constitutionalism and the Common Good,” in Berlin, Germany, on May 31, 2023. The event was hosted by the  Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, the Heidelberg Law Department at the University of Würzburg, and The New Institute (Hamburg, Germany).

A video version of the talk (with my slides, two formal responses, and audience Q&A) can be found here: https://youtu.be/ckseZNahi84  My talk begins at the 5:32 timecode.

The Commonsverse as a Parallel Polis: Opportunities and Challenges

The dialogue provoked by this workshop is timely and necessary because so many of the certitudes of political economy and culture are slowly crumbling before our eyes. It’s fair to say that so many grand narratives of our time — about citizenship, freedom, property rights, economic growth, and theories of value – have been called into question these days. Existing institutions and categories of thought aren’t working so well.

On the one hand, few people want to talk about structural change and necessary alternatives lest it open a Pandora’s Box of monsters and chaos. On the other hand, as we move more deeply into the danger zones of climate change, authoritarian nationalism, savage precarity and inequality, and institutional breakdown, we have little choice. We need to abandon some settled habits. We desperately need to find a new North Star and a more stable, wholesome order.

Today, I’d like to introduce the idea of the commons to you and suggest its enormous potential for re-imagining so many things – the capitalist political economy, state power, our social relations and hierarchies, our relations with the Earth, our inner lives. To be sure, this is a daunting proposition and a long-term project.  We not only have to develop some very different social logics and institutional forms while entrenched in a problematic system. We also have to change ourselves. We have to find ways to overcome the unresolved traumas of capitalism, colonialism, and centralized state power whose norms we have internalized or repressed.

In my remarks, I’d like to suggest that commons and commoning can provide us with the scaffolding to reinvent a vision of the common good. It can help us develop more humane social practices and ethical behaviors at the cellular level, which, as they expand, can help us move beyond a world of capital accumulation, consumerism, and progress-through-growth.

To be sure, most commons today are dismissed as too small-scale, local and cash-poor to be significant. To the mainstream, they appear to be archaic oddities. Respectable opinion assumes that the market and state are the only two serious regimes for “getting things done.” There is the “private sector” and the “public sector,” and not much else really matters.

Yet this is a specious debate or at least very narrow framing of our problems. Market and state both celebrate economic growth and are deeply allied – if with different roles – in promoting a liberal political and economic order. The state wants unfettered markets to generate growth, tax revenues, and social mobility for its citizens, while corporations and investors want the state to provide stable governance, legal privileges and subsidies for business, and the cleanup after financial crashes, ecological catastrophes, market abuses, and other “market externalities.” Despite divergent priorities, state and market are utterly symbiotic – enough that it makes sense to speak about the market/state system.

It is this regime to which the commons offers an alternative vision. Politicians and economists may dismiss the commons with a wave of the hand, but commoners understand a deeper truth – that the presumptions of capitalist modernity are profoundly flawed, if not already collapsing.  The 2008 financial meltdown revealed the arrogant power of global finance and capitalism – and the complicity of the liberal state in perpetuating its abuses. The arrival of Brexit, the COVID pandemic, austerity politics, Donald Trump, reactionary nationalism, and racial and ethnic Othering have only intensified the sense of fear and insecurity.

And I haven’t even mentioned the brutal realities of climate change – floods, droughts, wildfires, extreme weather – which are exposing economic growth as a utopian fantasy. Its extractivism and reliance on carbon energy sources cannot continue. Nor can the drive to impose capitalist “development” on the world, as non-white peoples around the world — victims of colonialism and coercive capitalist “development” – demand reparations, ecological restoration, and climate justice.

New politicians or policies or laws are not going to solve these problems because the problems are fundamentally structural in nature. The market/state does not have the affordances to overcome them, any more than a bicycle could take us to the moon. You might say that we are trapped in an interregnum. The old order has not yet passed away and the new order is not ready to be born.

So what is to be done? I draw inspiration and guidance from Václav Havel, the Czech playwright.  When he and other cultural dissidents in the 1970s faced a totalizing, repressive system  – in his case, the Czech government – Havel’s strategic response was to develop what he called a “parallel polis.” A parallel polis is a community-created safe space in which people mutually support each other, directly produce what they need, and build a kind of shadow society.

The idea of a parallel polis serves many purposes. People can have a space to debunk official propaganda and expand their imaginations about what is possible. They can build horizontal, convivial relationships with one another while creating a prefigurative new order. They can speak the truth and express wholesome values.  They can reclaim their dignity, social solidarity, and hope.

I see the Commonsverse as a kind of parallel polis. By Commonsverse, I mean the countless projects, organizations, and social movements that are committed to commoning as way to bring about system-change. Two years ago, I published The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking to showcase the enormous diversity of commons that are already here. Let me offer a quick overview so that you can have some reference points:

Land as a commons.  Decommodifying land is an important way to make land accessible and affordable for local farming, housing, and conservation. One important tool in this regard is community land trusts, which take land off the market and make it a commons in perpetuity. Land trusts help preserve the landscape, reduce wealth inequality, and make it more affordable to grow nutritious food locally. Peer-directed projects of co-housing, housing cooperatives, or federations such as the German Mietshäuser Syndikat, can provide social housing alongside initiatives by the state or local communities.

Local food sovereignty in the West. There are many movements to reinvent local agriculture and food supply chains in Europe and North America. Organic local farming started this trend fifty years ago, and it is now seen in permaculture, agroecology, the Slow Food movement, and even the Slow Fish movement. Food co-operatives are a time-proven model for bringing farmers and consumers together into mutually supportive relationships – helping to lower prices, assure more stable, local food supplies, and eco-friendly agricultural practices.

The city as a commons.  People in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, Bologna, and dozens of major and smaller cities are experimenting with new forms of collaborative governance. Such commons/public partnerships are creating makerspaces, systems of urban agriculture, civic information commons, and neighborhood improvements and services. They are ways to empower citizens, reknit the social fabric, and reclaim popular control of cities from wealthy developers and investors. There are also lots of independent commons projects in cities such as community gardens, energy-production commons, and regional WiFi systems such as Catalonia’s Guifi.net.

Traditional and Indigenous commons. An estimated two billion people around the world depend on commons for their everyday subsistence, through stewardship of forests, fisheries, farmland, pastures, water, and wild game. The commoning performed by traditional communities and Indigenous peoples is demonstrating locally grounded, eco-friendly alternatives to industrial agriculture. Some 70% of the world’s biodiversity exists on lands managed by Indigenous peoples.

Alternative local currencies. Many communities around the world have created their own regional currencies. The idea is to capture the financial value locally instead of letting it be siphoned away to major financial centers, so that it can stimulate local markets, jobs creation, and cultural identity. In western Massachusetts, where I come from, the BerkShares currency has become the most successful alternative currency in the US. Timebanking is another valuable currency innovation – a service-barter system that lets the elderly and people without much money meet their needs.

Open source software and peer production. The explosion of free and open source software over the past twenty-five years is a powerful symbol of commoning. By decommodifying code and leveraging the creativity of open, self-organized communities, free and open source software has built Linux, vital infrastructure for the Internet, Wikipedia, and many world-class software systems, for group deliberation, group budgeting, and cloud storage of files.

Cosmolocal production. One powerful open-source offshoot is cosmolocal production, a system that hosts the sharing of design and knowledge globally, and the physical production of things locally. This process is already used for motor vehicles, furniture, houses, electronics, and farm equipment. There is even a global community of diabetics that has produced an Automatic Insulin Delivery device that is cheaper and more sophisticated than commercial medical products.  Cosmolocal production of agricultural machinery, as seen in the groups Farm Hack and Open Source Ecology, are helping small holders produce low-cost farm equipment with world-class design.

Creative Commons licenses and shareable content. The invention of Creative Commons licenses twenty years ago has made it possible to legally share writing, music, images, and other creative genres without payment or permission. These voluntary, free public licenses are now recognized in more than 170 legal jurisdictions of the world, enabling vast amounts of content to be shared in ways that would otherwise be considered “piracy” under copyright law.

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Now, what’s notable in each of these commons, is that they always draw on the peculiarities of their context. I have been astonished to discover commons dedicated to noncommercial theater; to super-high-quality scientific microscopes built with open-source technology; to online maps to aid humanitarian rescue; and to providing hospitality for refugees and migrants. In each case, people are bringing their own distinctive talents, geographies, histories, traditions, provisioning practices, values, and intersubjectivities to meet needs without capitalist markets or state control.

When “seen from the inside,” each commons is not only unique, it is an exercise in “world-making.” It is an intersubjective set of feelings, experiences, values, and perspective. The reality of our intersubjective experiences forces us to acknowledge that the world is better understood as a robust “pluriverse,” and not a fixed monoculture of neoliberal capitalism.

But….if each commons is unique, how does one begin to make generalizations about them?  At a minimum, we can say that a commons arises whenever a given community stewards some type of shared wealth collectively, with an accent on fair access, use, and long-term sustainability. But that doesn’t really explain the regularities among very different commons in very different contexts.

My late colleague Silke Helfrich and I came to realize that this problem is an epistemological and ontological problem. Our prevailing modern worldview cannot understand commons properly. It is simply too reductionist and materialistic. It is too focused on individuals and not the whole system. Our worldview misinterprets commoners as the economic individual — rational, self-sovereign, dedicated to maximizing their material self-interests – but simply pursuing those goals through cooperation rather than through markets.

But I can attest from my own amateur ethnographic study of commons around the world that if we are to understand commoning on its own social and ethical terms, and in the context of evolutionary history and biology, we must recognize commons as deeply relational and social. They are not simply resources, as economists like to see them. Commons are living social organisms. The latest biological research shows how interdependent and connected plants and trees and fungi all are, and how even at the cellular level life is deeply symbiotic, as the pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis showed.

So, too with human commoners. We live in relationship with each other; and with the Earth and its more-than-human life; and with past and future generations. A commons is animated by the full emotional, ethical, and spiritual agency of people – not just their calculative rationality. Silke and I came to realize that commoning is, in fact, a dynamic aliveness that is created and sustained through social and ecological relationships.

This sensibility is well-expressed by the cultural historian Thomas Berry, who said: “The universe is the communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” I also like this line from biologist and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber, “Science and economics are unwilling to acknowledge creative aliveness as an ontological foundation of reality.”

In our book Free, Fair and Alive, Silke and I set out to explain how aliveness in commons actually works. We wanted to answer questions like:  If it’s all about relationality, how exactly do diverse personalities and priorities get aligned into coherent commons? How do important things get made and care provided, without the exchange of money? How do peer-driven systems of cooperation come into being and sustain themselves?

Fortunately, we were able to stand on the shoulders of Professor Elinor Ostrom and her pioneering “design principles” of successful commons. Ostrom had identified the need for clearly defined boundaries, for example, and self-created rules of governance. She discovered how commoners must be able to participate in making the rules, and they must participate in monitoring how rules are enforced. If there are disputes, a commons must have its own low-cost, rapid system for resolving them. And commons must have independence from state authorities.

And yet, this traditional thinking about commons remains largely within the standard economic framework and its methodological individualism. It doesn’t give much attention to the inner lives of commoners or to the political economy. So we developed a relational framing that helps us see more clearly and deeply how commons actually work. We found guidance in the work of Christopher Alexander, a dissident urban planner and architect who had developed the idea of pattern languages.

Alexander had observed that in his field, certain solutions to recurrent problems appear again and again, with minor variations, across the grand sweep of history and cultures. He called these solutions patterns. They are designs and behaviors that emerge from social practice; their effectiveness is ratified by their repeated use.

Applying the pattern language methodology, Silke and I identified several dozen relational patterns in the many, many commons we had witnessed over fifteen years. We grouped the patterns into three Spheres – Social Life, Peer Governance, and Provisioning – which can be roughly classified as the social, the institutional, and the economic. Together, these three spheres constitute what we call the “Triad of Commoning.”  The Triad helps us answer the question, What social practices and ethical behaviors help create and maintain successful relationships of commoning? I can’t go through the twenty-five-plus patterns we found, but let me give you a sense of the patterns.

In the Social Life of a commons, one important pattern is Cultivate shared purpose and values. Without this practice, a commons falls apart. People need to share experiences and collectively reflect on their commoning if they are to remain a coherent, vital group. A related pattern is Ritualize togetherness. People have to meet with each other, share with each other, and celebrate their accomplishments and affinities as a group. It’s important to play together, and organize rituals, traditions, and festivities.  The social life of a commons also requires that people Freely contribute – to give without the expectation that they’ll directly or immediately get the same value back – even though commons do deliver real benefits over time.

Peer Governance — another part of the Triad of Commoning — is all about seeing others as equals, and sharing the rights and duties of collective decisionmaking. With Peer Governance, you try to avoid hierarchies and centralized systems of power — because they can be a setup for the abuse of power and accountability problems. Peer governance requires, among other things, Sharing knowledge generously. This is a crucial way to generate collective wisdom.  Knowledge grows when it is shared, but this can only happen if information is accessible and freely circulating.  A related pattern is Honoring transparency in a sphere of trust. Transparency can’t just be mandated. It won’t happen unless people trust each other – enough that they will share difficult or embarrassing information.

Finally, the third Sphere of commoning – Provisioning – is about how commoners produce what they need. There is no separation of production and consumption, as in the market economy.  A basic goal is to integrate one’s economic needs with the rest of one’s personal life.  Commoners don’t produce to sell in the marketplace; indeed, they must take care to structure how they interact with markets, if at all, in order to protect the integrity of their commons.

One basic pattern of provisioning is Make & use together. Anyone who wants to participate and take responsibility can join. Everyone contributes according to their own capacities, talents, and needs. Co-producing is the core process of what might be called DIT — ‘Do It Together.’ There are many other patterns that help clarify how provisioning generally gets done reliably and effectively in a commons.

Once you begin to get into the patterns of commoning – once you begin to see how relationality is the fundamental reality of life on Earth – you begin to embrace a different worldview, or what I call an ontological shift, or “OntoShift.”

No need to get into philosophical dimensions of this right now.  Let’s just say that shifting one’s worldview begins with adopting new social practices and experiences of commoning, which in time changes our inner life and perspectives. We begin to leave behind the selfish individualism and transactional mindset of market culture – and see the world as an integrated whole driven by a dense web of symbiotic, cooperative relationships.

In the Commonsverse, the “common good” is not some fixed idealization and elusive end-point. It is a dynamic aliveness that manifests as a cooperative ethic expands and emerges horizontally, and from below. It manifests as organic connection and wholeness, which is, in truth, a biological imperative of living organisms. It manifests in our inner lives as a sense of security, fairness, and belonging forged through caring relationships. It manifests as systemic diversity and resilience. In all of this, I am reminded of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ vision of the common good, which accents many similar points about the interconnections of our spiritual lives, the more-than-human world, and our common wealth and destiny as a species. 

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But at this point, we stand at a threshold and things begin to get complicated in an interesting way. As commons and commoning have proliferated over the past ten years, they have increasingly come into conflict with the power of the state, capitalist enterprise, and neoliberalism.  The market/state is aggressively committed to its own priorities and vision, which may or may not accommodate the commons.

History shows that the growth economy usually attempts to appropriate and privatize common assets and dispossess commoners, as seen in the English enclosure movement, centuries of colonial conquest, and today, capitalist “development” that seeks to propertize and monetize anything of value, from artificial nanomatter and genes to mathematical algorithms and flows of water packaged as financial securities.

An urgent practical question for commoners is how they can use law to stop enclosures of their shared wealth and to protect their commoning. Is this actually possible? Can the liberal constitutional order affirmatively protect commoning while respecting its integrity as a noncapitalist social form? Does it want to? Is it possible to artfully blend the vernacular law of the commons and western jurisprudence, if only as a makeshift détente? Or are the philosophical commitments of liberalism too rigid, aggressive, and politically entrenched to support the commons and the living value it generates?

Let’s be clear: The commons embodies a very different theory of value than market price, which in our times is considered the default, universal metric of value. The commons instead recognizes living systems as generative – value that is not and cannot be generally propertized, monetized, and commercially traded.

By contrast, the market/state reflexively objectifies life through property law, contract law, and commercial law. State power, for its part, welcomes the opportunities to consolidate its power through its alliances with capital. It generally wants to centralize and regularize the administrative control of people, nature, and other living systems, as political scientist James Scott has made clear:

[T]he modern state… attempts with varying success to create a terrain and a population with precisely those standardized characteristics that will be easiest to monitor, count, assess and manage. The utopian, immanent and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observation.

Now that states are armed with digital surveillance technologies and partnerships with Big Tech, the logical end-point of this trend is authoritarian control.  It’s unclear how far state law and liberalism will bend in this direction.

Liberalism is, after all, deeply yoked to state power and disinclined to recognize the role of customary practice or collective identities of commoners. Like markets, the liberal state is deeply committed to individualism, property rights, contract freedom, and material “progress.” This encourages an ethic of separation – of humans from each other, from the Earth, and from historical memory.

As scholar Serge Gutwirth has put it, the liberal state does not have the means to “attribute rights to dynamic collectives without legal personalities” – except for corporations, of course, because economic growth – the collective mission of shareholders – is highly congenial to the state.  Some 800 years ago, many specific rights of commoners were honored in the landmark Charter of the Forest – a legal declaration connected to the Magna Carta — but today it is a largely forgotten. With the rise of the nation-state and even liberalism, legal recognition for commoning – for people’s right to access things essential to their survival – has remained elusive.

What this suggests to me is that liberalism as currently practiced is philosophically hostile toward the commons, or at least ignorant about its actual value and dynamics. The state is vigilant in asserting the legality of its exercise of power, as formally enacted through law and state institutions. But it has only passing regard for the social and ethical legitimacy claimed by commons-based regimes. Power preserves itself by upholding its chosen epistemic regime.

When discussing liberalism and commoning, we therefore encounter a rift between legality and legitimacy.  The market/state order invokes formal jurisprudence and bureaucracy to affirm the legality of its administrative order. It has far less interest in the dynamic governance and vernacular practices and experiences of commoners, who have their own epistemic order, their own vision of law and legitimacy.

I consider this the territory that our “Beyond Liberalism” workshop should explore. The gap between state legality and commons legitimacy is a space of vulnerability, danger, and possibility.  There are some impressive innovations that have attempted to bridge this space, and some fascinating experiments to develop working hybrids.  Let me briefly mention three of them:

1) the use of legal hacks to create new social norms and practices;

2) the development of new organizational forms that support commoning; and

3) commons/public partnerships that bring commoners and state officials into           collaboration, usually at the municipal level.

Legal hacks are creative adaptations of state law in ways not originally imagined or intended by lawmakers. The point of legal hacks it to carve out new zones of legality from within existing law, and then to fill those zones with new social norms and political action. The point is to leverage popular legitimacy and community practice to establish a “new legality.”

Legal hacks can de-criminalize commoning that may be illegal under state law (for example, seed-sharing and humanitarian rescue) or create protected legal spaces for commoning to flourish. Prime examples include the Creative Commons licenses that hack copyright law by making creative works legally shareable. The various “rights of nature” laws are similarly legal hacks, in attempting to give formal legal personality to rivers, mountains, and landscapes as a way to protect them.

Because the prevailing framework of law authorizing corporations, cooperatives, and nonprofits fails to recognize how commoning works, it is often necessary to create new organizational forms, at least in Western nations. Some legal advocates like the Sustainable Economies Law Center and the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights are developing innovative bylaws and financial structures to design decentralized organizations that can grow from the grassroots. They seek to create self-managed staff collectives managed as commons, and plots of “self-owning land” that have legal personhood.

Finally, actual and proposed commons/public partnerships (as mentioned earlier) are popping up in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Bologna, Bangkok, Seoul, and cities associated with the “Co-Cities” movement. The point here is to develop new types of flexible, non-bureaucratic collaboration between municipal bureaucracies and commoners.

These frequently involve eldercare, child care, neighborhood improvement, public spaces and buildings, commons for digital information, and open source technologies. It remains an open question how well open-source participation can be successfully blended with the bureaucratic mindset.

As I hope my remarks make clear, the idea of the “common good” in our world of liberal constitutionalism is very much up for grabs. It is not entirely clear how it should be defined and understood; what social relations are needed to generate it; what sorts of political institutions and processes, including law, are needed to protect it; and how state power may need to be reinvented. Perhaps the most pivotal issue is what implicit vision of human flourishing and spiritual life lies behind a given vision of the common good.

I obviously like to think that the commons and commoning has a lot to contribute to this discussion by critiquing the limits of capitalist modernity and exploring premodern – and utterly contemporary — traditions of organized cooperation and sharing.

I also believe that a wide array of international social movements to committed to system change — degrowth, segments of the coop movement, peer production, cosmo-local production, agroecology, Slow Food and other farming and food movements, Indigenous and traditional communities, decolonization and racial justice movements, relocalization initiatives, Doughnut Economics, feminist economics, and many others — have their own vital, complementary perspectives to contribute to this larger project.

But how can a coordinated, focused response be mounted to address the traumas of the past and urgent needs of the moment? That, distressingly, remains a very open question.

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 resilient economies, critiques of capitalism, enclosure of the commons, relational democracy, the commons