15 reasons why the commons are becoming the new paradigm

Excerpted from Silke Helfrich in the German CommonsBlog:

“1. The commons are everywhere. They determine our quality of life in great many ways. They are present (even though often invisible) in the social, natural, cultural and digital sphere. Think about the things we use to learn (read and write), the things we use to move (land, air and sea), the things we use to communicate (language, music and code), the things we use to feed and heal (land, water, medicine) or the things our reproduction depends on (genes, social life). The commons is about how we share and use all these things. They are a vivid way of reproduction of our social relations – at any time. Therefore, they are better described with a verb (commoning) instead of a noun (commons). The commons are a special kind of practice of use and production of knowledge and material goods, where use value is privileged over exchange value. Commoning is a practice which allows us to take our lives in our own hands, and to protect and widen what is common to us instead of witnessing its enclosure and privatization. Commoners’ rights are independent from formal convention and positive law. We just have them without having to ask anybody for permission, and we share them with others. The commons offer a different kind of freedom than the market. So the good news is: when we focus on the commons, we focus on how to shift things from the market sphere to the commons sphere, we focus on how to shift authority and responsibility from state bureaucracies to the many possibilities to “govern the commons“ by their users, and we focus on many issues and ressources – as 75% percent of the worlds biomass – which are not yet commodified. This is encouraging.

2. The commons bridge sectors and communities, it offers a frame for the convergence and consolidation of movements. The issues we have to deal with have gotten overly complex. In order to reduce complexity, we have fragmented what belongs together. In the public political debate, there is a division into different realms of knowledge and authority. There are those who discuss issues related to natural resources (“the ecos“) and those who discuss cultural & digital issues (“the technos“). The result are (overly) specialized communities for each of the hundreds of problems we are confronted with and many missing links. For the very diversity of the commons, this fragmentation will continue to a certain extent, but it also contributes to a loss of our common ability to keep track of the ongoing economic, political and technological processus and changes. This diminishes our capacity to react to theses changes and to carefully forward coherent alternative proposals. The commons can unify disparate social change movements, even those that have profoundly different dynamics, because they permit us to focus on what all common pool resources and all commoners have in common and not what separates them. Water is finite, knowledge is not. Atmosphere is global, a park is not. Ideas grow, when we share them, land does not. But all are common pool resources! Therefore none of them can be exclusive property of only one person. All are linked to a community. All are governed best if the rules and normes are self-determined or considered highly legitimate by the people how have to rely on those resources.

3. The commons recasts the ownership debate beyond the (sometimes fruitless) framing of public versus private. The claim for public ownership remains important, but have nation states really served as conscientious trustees of the commons? No. Do they protect traditional knowledge, forests, water and biodiversity? Not everywhere. There is much more than “public“ and “private“. A common pool resource can be possessed for short term use (to reproduce our livelihoods), but we cannot do with it what we want. It is important to remember that the concept of possession for use is very different to the dominating conventional property. Possession doesn’t allow for alienation. Property does. And property allows for abuse and commodification, maximum monetization and the “externalization“ of costs onto the commons – an ongoing process at the end of which all of us are worse off. Even the richer among us who are spurred to flee to gated communities.

4. The commons perspective is not a digital way of thinking. Its mode is not binary, 0 – 1, either – or. Nor does it focus on bottom lines like a single number of “success“. Our search is for solutions beyond opposite poles and beyond numerical metrics of “success“. It’s not simply private versus public, neither right versus left, cooperation versus competition, “invisible hand“ of the market versus plan of the State, pro technology versus anti technology. From a commons perspective the focus is on the forgotten third element. It deepens our understanding about the commonly owned and the universal principles which work for people and protect their common pool resources. In the commons sector we privilege learning more about cooperation than about competition. The commons enhances self-determined rules and commonly developed & controlled open technologies instead of proprietary technologies which tend to concentrate power within elites and enable them to control us.

5. Talking about the commons means focussing on diversity. In the words of ex Governor Olívio Dutra (Rio Grande do Sul) during the ‘WSF 10 years later’: “it enables unity within plurality and diversity“. The default but not defensive position is: “one world in which many worlds fit“. Doubtlessly, one of the strengths of this approach lies in the idea that there are no simplistic solutions, no institutional patterns, no “one size fits all” panacea, only universal principles such as reciprocity, cooperation, transparency, respect for diversity and others. Each community has to determine appropriate rules for how to access, use and control a common pool resource system based on such principles. This is complex – as the relationship between nature and society is – especially when we talk about global commons. There, the “community” is the whole mankind, which refers as to the very necessity of a new multilateralism based on a commons approach.

6. Focussing the commons brings three big C into a new balance: Cooperation, Command and Competition. There is no cooperation without competition and vice-versa, but in a commons based society the recognition is gained by those who perform best in cooperation and not in competition. The slogan is: Out-cooperate instead of out-compete. The specific rules for cooperation in a commons system vary from setting to setting. Nobody can command them from above. From commons research and practice we learn, that all over the world many commons governance systems are self-regulating, that means: they are creating their own monitoring systems. Or they are self-regulating and coordinate at different institutional levels. As far as “command“ is concerned: Nobel Price laureate Elinor Ostrom advises: “It is better to induce cooperation with institutional arrangements fitted to local ecosystems than to try to command from afar.“ At the same time “the systems from above“ – governments, law, international bodies – can be critically important in empowering and facilitating the commons. But for doing this, they need a commons perspective inscribed into their logics and polity architecture as well.

7. The commons does not separate the ecological from the social dimension as a Green New Deal focus does. To a certain extend, it may be helpful to make the “economic value” of natural resources visible and it is certainly necessary to internalizes ecological costs of production into the whole production process. But it is not enough. Such a focus does not adres the social dimension of the problem, it tends to deepen the market biased structures, linking the solutions with access to money. So who has, can afford the cost-internalization. Who has not, is worse off. Instead: the ecological and the social dimension find a common explanation in the commons. There is no such thing as a solution based on a commons perspective where those who haven’t are worse off.

8. The commons concept integrates different world views: there are attractors for socialist thinking (e. g. the common possession), for anarchists (the self-organisational driven approach), for conservative thinking (which values the protection of the creation), obviously for communitarian and cosmopolitan ideas (integral, diversity driven approach) and even for liberals (distance to state accountability, respect for individual interests and motivations in joining a community or a project). But it is quite clear that the commons cannot be a single political party programme. That is its strength, and that is why mainstream political players so often misunderstand the commons or even try to co-opt the commons. If we care for a coherent commons discourse (see 9), they won’t succeed.

9. The benchmark for the integration of different political ideas within a commons paradigm is clear and threefold: (a) sustainable and respectful use of resources (social, natural, and cultural incl. digital), that means: no overuse and no under-use of common pool resources. (b) Equitable sharing of common pool resources as well as participation in all decision making processes about access, use and control of those resources and (c) the free development of creativity and individuality of people without sacrificing the collective interest.

10. The commons don’t have one, but many centres. Their governance structures are decentralized and varied as well. In other words: it is characteristic to the commons to be polycentric, which stands for a deeply democratizing approach both politically (principles of decentralization, subsidiarity and sovereignty of commoners and commoners rule making) and economically (the “commons mode of production“ point makes us less dependent on money and market).

11. The commons strengthens an important core belief about human beings and behaviour. We are not only, not even mainly the “homo oeconomicus“ they made us believe we are. We are much more than selfish creatures looking for our own interest. We need and enjoy being embedded into a social web. “The commons are the web of life”, says Vandana Shiva. We enjoy to contribute, care and share. The commons strengthens the confidence in the creative potential of people and in the idea of inter-relationality, which means: “I need the others and the others need me.” They honour our freedom to contribute and share. This is a different kind of freedom than the market is based on. The more we contribute, more things we have access to. But note: it is not simply “access to everything for free“.

12. The commons offers analyzing tools that arise from categories different to those of capitalism, therefore the concept helps to “decolonize our thinking“. (Grzybowski) Commoners redefine “efficiency“. They ask how to “efficiently“ cooperate and how to encourage and enable people to do so? They claim for (short term) usage rights to reproduce their livelihoods instead of limitless property. They honour traditional ways to protect the commons as well as traditional knowledge systems. In short: the commons shed new light on many old political and legal regulatory processes. It makes a big difference whether I see the environment as a commons or as a commodity to trade with. It makes a difference whether water is understood as a commons, that means closely linked to the communities needs, or not. Or take seeds; conceive seed-diversity as a commons, means: harvesting self-determination and food-security. If society would recognize regional diversity of seeds as a commons, the State would put all available resources into independent, organic seed breeding and in protecting small farmers to continue their traditional way of seed-development instead of wasting taxpayers money for genetic manipulation and seed engineering.

13. In the commons sector, there is a great diversity and quantity of actors. Over the past several years, international interest in the commons paradigm has quickened. Several organizations and commoners now have significant transnational constituencies (Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Free Software and Free Culture Movement, sharing platforms, the anti-mining organizations, the alliances working for a Bem-Viver approach, the worldwide movements for sustainable agriculture, the Water Commons, community gardening, citizen communication and information projects and many others). Actually, it is a spontaneous, explosive growth of diverse commons initiatives. Since Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Price in Economics (October 2009) many Universities have rediscovered the academic interest in the commons.

14. The commons is an alternative mode of production. The problems we are confronted with are not problems of resource-availability. They are problems that arise from the current mode of production. Fortunately, in some areas, we are witnessing a shift from the capitalist mode of production (based on property, command, value exchange via money, resources and labour exploitation, dependent on growth and striving for profit) into a commons mode of production (based on possession, contribution, sharing, self interest and initiative, where the GDP is a negligible indicator and the aim is a “good life“. Many “Common Based Peer Production” projects are developing successfully. This is especially true for the production of knowledge (Wikipedia, Free Software, Open Design). But there is a thrilling discussion going on about how principles of commons based peer production can be transferred to the production of what we eat, wear and move with, at least to a certain extent. I believe that this is possible. Firstly because knowledge makes up the lion’s share of each kind of production. All goods are latent knowledge products. There is no car production or egg production without a concept and a design behind (which make the lion’s share of its “market value“). Secondly because there are many kinds of commons sectors (care economy, solidarity economy) which have not been commodified yet and where commons values and rules are deeply rooted. Those sectors are evidence that every day many of the things we need to live are produced outside the market.

15. The commons discourse is a discourse about cultural change. It is not a mere technological or institutional approach. Instead, it offers a new frame for political and personal thinking and acting.”

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