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The democratic meta-formation of the commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd December 2012


This is the second excerpt of the article by Jose Ramos, this time, focusing on the strategies for achieving a commons-oriented world:

* Article: Temporalites of the Commons: Toward Strategic Vision. By Jose Ramos

Jose Ramos writes:

So where to from here? How do we make sense of the various strands of counter-hegemonic temporalities, their different narratives and visions for the future? There is no simple ‘Rosetta Stone’, no silver bullet. As can be seen in the diversity of counter-hegemonic discourses and temporalities, while there is a desire to create a coherent and strategic response and future agenda, the diversity of actors that represent variegated social alternatives and alternative futures is very great. Historically we sits dynamically between attempts to find a coherence of visions on one hand and between a dialogic process across the diversity of lived and embodied social alternatives, epistemes and imaginaries (Tormey, 2005; Ramos, 2012). While the quest for a single vision can be dismissed (as we do not want to bring back the nightmare of unitary doctrine), we nevertheless must find coherences between those envisioning that other possible world, and articulate these futures as mutually inclusive. Can the many existing social alternatives, or visions of a different world, come together in this emerging relational field under the banner of the commons?

One way through is to push past the either / or binary framing between ‘horizontalism’ and ‘verticalism’ that has defined the strategic landscape of options as a choice between either diversity or unity. Instead, one may see that the dynamic tension between the diverse manifestations of commons oriented projects and the drive to form an emergent discourse of the commons is nothing less than an ‘engine’ powering the project of transformation. Diversity gives dynamism to the movement, a ‘totality’ difficult to characterise and generalize, while the impulse toward solidarity around shared interests, coherence and collective action is what is needed to make such relational networks more efficacious in a world typified by corporate and state power. This dynamic tension, if harnessed, can facilitate new ‘commons’, new collective diagnoses of meta-challenges, collective formations, new solidarities, new reciprocations (pragmatic relationships), and concrete collaborations. One can call such dynamic coherences across diversities examples of ‘meta-formation’.

‘Meta-formation’ is both ideational and practical. Ideationally it is the transformation of the single (ideologically consistent) vanguard into a prismatic, pragmatic and multi-dimensional coherence. It is the shift from the ‘Manifesto’ to many ‘Manifestations’. ‘Manifestation’ is the transformation of a universalizing ‘manifesto’ into an iterative and situated proposal-in-process (Ramos, 2005). By avoiding the extremes of trying to create one unified vision or (everlasting) manifesto on the one hand, and avoiding the fragmentation typified by identity politics on the other, the dynamic tension between the desire for both coherence and diversity can facilitate the emergence of meta-formative potentials at different levels and in varying thematic contexts. Practically it is similar to Chesters and Welsh’s idea of ‘ecologies of action’ (Chesters, 2006, p. 153), where there is strategic coordination between diverse elements working together to create desired changes in the context of challenging and transforming entrenched power.

The innovation of the commons will be a collaborative affair, a process strengthened by the diverse set of actors that weave through the grand project. It is through the collaborative potentials strengthened by ‘webs of solidarity’, through which the precarious innovation of alternative commons nurturing existences can be enabled (Podlashuc, 2009). The epistemological and ontological complexity that exists in the commoning project makes a unified movement harder, but enhances the potential for collaborative meta-formation between diverse actors across every part of the world. This last meta-discourse thus concerns the inclusive and democratic meta-formation of diverse commons. It is from the grand diversity of the human species, across language, religion, discipline, ethnicity, out of which new solidarities and collaborations must be born. The peer-to-peer movement, which enables collaboration of global scale of potentially infinite variety of commons generating activities, is the logical vehicle and methodology for the construction of commons oriented visions articulated by people holding diverse counter hegemonic temporalities.

A strategic landscape for meta-formation

To conclude this article, I use a modified form of the strategic landscape developed by Wallerstein, to put forth some assumptions about and imagine how the meta-formation of the commons could be achieved. Wallerstein argued that global anti-systemic struggles must develop four attendant time-scales: a present centred open debate about the nature of the challenges, short term defensive action against attempts to privatise and colonize the commons, the mid-term de-commodification of aspects of life through a variety of initiatives, and development of long term ‘substantive’ visions for alternative futures (Wallerstein, 2002).

I drawn from Wallerstein’s normative direction to articulate a broader potential emerging strategic landscape. The key analytic thread that brings together the various actors that are part of the global struggle is the future as the exploration, articulation and creation a multi-definitional commons.

The time-scales of the commons include:

1) The meta-formation of new common-ness through opening debates,
2) The short term defence of contextually specific commons,
3) The short to middle range extension of the legal and moral commons through the enfranchisment of the marginalised,
4) A more middle range building of the commons through de-commodifying social alternatives, and
5) Eutopian articulations of possible futures – the dialogic weaving of foundational discourses, emerging issues and imaginaries that inspire transformational change toward ‘Another Possible World’.

Meta-formation of new common-ness

The first category is similar to Wallerstein’s call for an ‘open debate’, but was extended to include dialogic processes leading to ‘meta-formations’, which includes both conceptual articulations (cognitive mapping of commonality, e.g. global class formation) and practical alliance building, solidarities, and processes of coherence building or movement building. This reflects the dialogic weaving of actors and movement(s) that served to build the internal coherence of a global movement to struggle and build a commons. Wallerstein’s idea of ‘open debates’ are thus more broadly construed as conversations to create coherence and meta-form mutual and reciprocal understandings (across diversity). Often this is not so much debate, but even more basic, ‘mutual recognition’ where different organizations can meet and discover other organizations in the first place, from where people can see a bigger pattern and build relatedness, trust and possibilities for collaboration. The mutual recognition of differences referred to by Santos’ ecology of recognitions is indeed the basis for the possibility of self referencing and meta-forming a greater whole and ‘common’. In this sense the first step in the future is mutual (re)cognition through dialogic processes.

By weaving together various strands of the struggles, a basis for meta-organizing can be created. The new role of the organic intellectual in the 21st century is thus ‘The bridge builder [able to] to communicate to different people in different languages and perspectives… [who] hold[s] the contradiction of many elements and transcend[s] these contradictions to create something new’. The metaphor of ‘bridge building’ is foundational, and includes bridging themes / issues, bridging organizational / social spaces, and bridging ideological perspectives, as a ‘single issue focus does not work because we don’t experience our lives through single issues, but rather as a complex of issues.’ And this weaving of an emergent commons requires a cognitive reflexivity as ‘We are coming out of a schematic politics, where there are political templates that we force on reality, as opposed to going to people and asking people what it is they want from life’ (Ramos 2010). This first step requires a new generation of agents of meta-formative emergence to development.

Today we need peer-to-peer projects and platforms that can facilitate dialogic coherence toward the meta-formation of new discourses of the commons, common-ness as identify, practical solidarity and collaboration.

Defence of contextually specific commons

This second category connects strongly to Wallerstein’s second strategic category: ‘short-term, defensive action’ (Wallerstein, 2002, p. 38). While Wallerstein focuses on the need to stop the trend of the neo-liberal commodification of life, what emerges here is a more general ‘defence of the commons’ across a number of contextually specific areas. These include resistance to corporate predation on resources, resistance to risk generating activity (e.g. nuclear / nano / weapons technologies), defence of ecosystems (such as oceanic and atmospheric commons), resistance to militarism and neo-colonialism, the defence of peace and security through peace activism, and defending political space and the right to dissent. Defensive action against attempts to commodity elements of common heritage are important here: against patenting genes, against the patenting of seeds, against the privitization of water, and against the commodification of inner and outer space (preserving mental and physical commons).

In this short term we need peer-to-peer projects and platforms that facilitate the defence of contextually specific commons. Many communities across the world feel isolated in their struggles against highly organized economic forces and incursions. The defence of indigenous lands, ecosystems under threat, oceans, atmosphere, genetic information, water, and the like, need to be empowered as a fundamental dimension of promoting a commons oriented world. Peer-to-peer projects are capable of transnational encirclement, meaning that peer-to-peer activism and solidarity can amplify the ‘boomerang effect’ whereby contextually specific and localized commons can be defended through transnational solidarities.

Extension of the legal and moral commons

The ‘extension of the commons’ describes the movement toward a universal enfranchisement of human rights. It is related to defending the commons in so far as it is a defence against the exploitation of the weak, but it is focused on addressing and remedying the exploitation or subjugation of specific marginalized people, through righting imbalances of power and efforts at legal, political, and social enfranchisement / empowerment. There is a strong connection here with cosmopolitan concerns for universal ethics (Hayden, 2004; Held, 1995; Singer, 2002) and Sklair’s vision of socialist globalization (Sklair, 2002). This includes addressing the legal disempowerment of people (indigenous and slum dwellers), structural violence (racism, land theft), enfranchisement via statelessness and statehood (refugees, asylum seeker rights and independence struggles), and marginalization due to unequal abilities (disability rights) and difference (lesbian, gay, trans-gender).

In the medium term, peer-to-peer platforms and projects can play an important role in the extension of the legal and moral commons through the enfranchisment of the marginalised. This will require more robust, proactive and sophisticated peer-to-peer processes that enable trans-local collaboration to weave and construct law and policy by and for the marginalized. Peer-to-peer platforms would be developed in order to construct new institutions of global governance, much like the ICC was developed through citizen-based yet professional transnational advocacy. New institutions, like a tribunal for the defence of indigenous peoples, an oceanic governance organization, an adjudicating body for the rights of refugees, and a number of other institutions would be developed through transnational peer-to-peer processes. Both the in-kind resources, capital funding, expertise, manner of management and governance, and the substantial vision and identity of these institutions would be developed through peer-to-peer means that includes transnational scope of collaboration at different scales and abilities.

Building de-commodified alternatives for the commons

‘Building the commons’ describes the development (embodied or articulated) of alternatives as organizational / community innovations, strategic initiatives and proposals to create common and shared public goods. It is reflective of Wallerstein’s third strategic category of ‘middle-range goals’ toward the progressive de-commodification against neoliberal attempts to commodify the commons (Wallerstein, 2002, p. 38) and thus reflects the progressive development and enactment of alternatives toward shared resources, shared securities, shared equities, and cooperative living. This includes the building of local community-based commons, challenging monopolistic property regimes and articulating land commons, building structures and policies for social equity (health, literacy, education), educational initiatives, knowledge and informational commons, advocating for a biological commons, developing a political commons (challenging special interests and developing transparent and participatory structures of governance), developing a transport commons, energy commons, productive commons and spiritual and ‘mental commons’. Peer to peer projects and platforms for co-developing commons based goods are a core strategy here.

At a longer-term range peer-to-peer platforms and projects would be key in building new commons through the development of de-commodifying social alternatives. We already see the development of alternative systems of resource control, such as copyleft, that break from the strict adherence to positivist law. Many other social alternatives can be built and developed over time that would open up key aspects of social life that were considered primarily within the realm of the private sphere, such as housing, transport, scientific research publications, into a commons oriented system of production and control following Bauwen’s (2006) framework (highlighted earlier).

Re-cognizing the commons

The last category, which I call ‘re-cognizing the commons’, manifests a blend between present trends and emerging possibilities. Some are eutopian projections predicated on key discourses that allow for an imaginary and possibility of transformational change corresponding to Santos’ ‘anticipatory consciousness’ (via Ernst Block’s category of the ‘not yet’) and Wallerstein’s argument for a debate about ‘the substantive meaning of our long term emphasis’ (Santos, 2006, p. 39). This anticipatory landscape includes the ideas presented in this article, but of course many more.

The global struggle, as expressed though the anti/alter globalization movement, the World Social Forum, the Occupy movement, and other struggles reveal localized and embodied aspirations for commons-based global futures, and in this way produce distinct visions of alternative futures of the world, reflecting Santos’ idea that counter hegemonic visions for the world are based on alternative local visions. This eutopianism in its diversity is a challenge to the hegemony of the monological hegemonic vision we live with today. The last aspect of ‘re-cognizing the commons’ thus represents how we think about the future, a reflexive process of re-framing how the future is cognised that allows for a participatory and demiurgic process of meta-cognizing time through the diverse tapestries of collective aspirations and anticipations. We need peer-to-peer projects that engage people deeply in thinking about the world they want to ultimately create for future generations. This process should challenge the mental framework we commonly hold, inviting an unlearning and questioning of our deepest certainties about ‘the future’, and an inspiring re-imagining of our shared and common futures.”

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