The main concern in a commons economy is not to compete or think in terms of business models, but rather to make the best use of shared resources so that no one is left behind. In this interview, commons scholar Silke Helfrich discusses the connection between degrowth and the commons, and how these two concepts can help us build a sustainable economy.
Bio: Silke Helfrich works as an independent author, activist and scholar, with a variety of international and domestic partners. She is the editor and co-author of several books on the Commons, among them: Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons (2009), Wealth of the Commons (2012) and Patterns of Commoning (2015). From 1996 to 1998 she was head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Thuringia and from 1999 to 2007 head of the regional office of Heinrich Böll Foundation in San Salvador and Mexico City. She is cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group and the Commons-Institut e.V. and the primary author of the German-language CommonsBlog. This interview has been expanded upon from its original publication at the Green European Journal.
Q: In an interview with Transition Culture, you have said that the commons are more than just resources that we have to share: they are based on the notion of communities or networks that are sustainably managing and sharing collective resources which were given to us by nature, or which were produced collectively. Can you give us some successful examples of these commons?
A: Sure, but first of all, let us look at the idea of the commons. You cannot think about the commons if you don’t ask yourself at the same time who creates them, who cares for them, who protects them and who reproduces them. I used to say that commons don’t fall from the sky; they do not simply exist, but need to be “enacted”, so to speak. And this is why you cannot think about the commons without thinking about the notion of community. Community, in a very modern understanding of the word, ranging from intentional communities to global networks. Or even huge, loosely-connected networks of communities, i.e. not necessarily the kinds of small communities that are based on everyday face-to-face contact. This is one of the important aspects.
Another important thing to know is that commons are not automatically managed in a sustainable way. That would be wishful thinking. Nevertheless, research has shown that community forests, for example, or fisheries are at least as, or even more sustainable when managed as commons, in contrast to privately managed examples.
A third important aspect is that, even if imperfect, commons-based solutions are more down-to earth and more bottom-up than the ordinary management of resources. This also means that they are more democratic than solutions dependent on decisions partaken by external entities. So, all affected people have a say in the management of the resources that they need to make use of. That makes a big difference to me.
For example, the Nepalese government decided in 1990 that it would hand over – or, more precisely, give back – complete control over their forests to the communities living within and sustaining themselves through these forests. So, one could say that 100% of forest stewardship in Nepal is commons-based; while in Mexico, more than 60% of the forests and lands are community lands. There are similar endeavours in Europe: I met a researcher from Romania, currently doing a mapping of traditional commons in her country. She said she had already counted 1100 forest commons. They are called “Obstea” there.
This, however, is not obvious to most people: one of the tragedies of the commons is that they remain largely invisible to them.
Q: Commons are, according to your definition, generally not based on money, legal contracts, or bureaucratic fiat. But can they (at least temporarily) coexist with a capitalist, growth-driven and growth-oriented economy?
A: In a way, there is no choice. Commons have to coexist with capitalism, simply because we live within capitalism so, inevitably, we create our commons nested within capitalism. If we want to create a commons-based society, we need to start from where we are. So, we need to do it by growing out of capitalism. And that is why the question of protecting the commons from a takeover by market logics is so crucial. Once you have created a commons and are able to manage it as such, you need to make sure that this market logic doesn’t undermine it. You need to protect it from corruption within the commons and co-optation by external forces. This can be done through legal hacks, such as copyleft , or simply through sticking to your goal and mobilising the power of communities and networks again and again, consistently defending and protecting the commons.
Q: But hasn’t there been a history of backlash, because there are too many who would prefer to protect their current economic model?
A: Yes. That is why designing and strengthening commons at an institutional and infrastructural level is so important. We need to make sure that external forces aren’t governing that which needs to be governed by the people themselves. The good news is that if you strengthen the commons, you will have an impact on the whole. There is an interdependency: by widening the sphere of the commons you undermine the sphere of the market.
Strengthening the commons means that state powers should pay more attention to supporting a commons approach, in contrast to an approach driven by “more, better and faster than the other”.
One thing that is very helpful in understanding how “strengthening the commons” might work is to make the ongoing enclosures visible. We have been observing enclosures taking place for the last 1000 years. During the last three centuries they have principally been carried out by market and state, but, also in some cases, by the people themselves due to lack of awareness, not-knowing how to common (understood as a verb) or for simply being brain-washed. To resist enclosure, you need to make sure that you understand the very concept and its subtlety.
The use of certain technologies seems to be one of the most dangerous tactics of enclosing our opportunities for self-determined production. Enclosing by imposing certain technologies means that the devices we use are designed to prescribe specific usage. For example, if you forget your laptop’s charger you probably can’t use your friend’s one, because it doesn’t fit your computer. Making things incompatible is enclosure by design. The same happens if you use proprietary software. This will only permit you to use it for the things allowed by the software licencers. However, with the case of free software, you can copy it, share it, or further develop it without experiencing restrictions. This is a great difference, which affects the freedom and self-determination of the people (it’s called “free software”, but in fact, it’s not about the freedom of the software, but about the freedom of the people).
In many cases, it’s the technology itself – legally protected – that puts us onto a certain track of doing things. Say, using the same software over and over again. And then we get used to it, and forget that out there we had way more options and different ways of acting more in accordance with our needs and less dependent on a provider with commercial interests. So, the first thing we need to do is to make visible that enclosures are literally everywhere. There are even enclosures of our minds. They are so subtle and internalised that we don’t even perceive them as such.
Enclosures are enacted in many different ways: by transforming our language (and our minds); using politics as well as state and market/economic power; certain legal tools; and by designing deterministic technologies. Just think about the market-based terms we are used to; for example, that we don’t want to “sell ourselves short” on the labour market.
And we end up speaking a ‘marketised’ language and believing that people were born to compete.
Q: Today, private property is seen as a precondition for our autonomy. Will the commons also change how we look at private property?
A: You cannot think about commons if you don’t rethink property. Thinking about property is thinking about access, use rights, and so on. In the commons economy, we need to switch from thinking about property as connected to the notion of “dominium” in Roman law (which means complete control over something, allowing you to sell and buy a certain resource) to the notion of use rights, referring back to the concept of “possession” (meaning: people who actually need and use the resource should be the ones who have a say in their management).
In any case, it is important to understand that the commons do not imply a denial of property regimes. “Each commons is somebody else’s commons” is a sentence I learned from Vandana Shiva. Rethinking property means rethinking our relationship with these “somebody elses.”
Q: Can the commons be tools that help our societies finally think beyond growth?
A: Sure. There are many reasons why – let me just mention one of them. Growth is partly driven by debt based-money economy. So, if the way you make a living is completely based on the current monetary system, there is also a certain need to grow in order to compete and succeed within this debt-based economy. But this is contrary to what’s at the core of the commons.
The main concern in the commons economy is not to compete, but to make best use of a collective resources while finding ways to reproduce and crystallize these in such a way that no one is left behind. That implies that the main concern is not to build a business model out of the commons, but to meet the needs of as many people as possible. And if you don’t need to build a business model, everything is possible.
Q: How can we make ‘degrowth’ part of the vocabulary of the Left, if many of today’s Left-wing parties still formulate their messages by referring to economic growth?
A: Through creating ‘memes’ (for example, converting the commons into a meme). Memes spread by word of mouth and once this happens they trigger cultural change.The problem is that the Left relies on the same idea of “the economy” as most political players. They think that goods need to be produced via private entities in competition with each other, and they believe that the main thing that needs to be changed is the distribution of wealth after production. But if you really want to make degrowth or the commons a core idea, you need to think of a radical shift in the production modes, while focusing on pre-distribution instead of re-distribution. You need to start talking about the commons as a new mode of production, and as a different way of understanding the economy. In a commons economy there is, ideally, no division between production and reproduction, producer and consumer. You put, at the centre, forms of reproducing our livelihoods, which are not mediated through the market, money, or private agents competing against each other. How does this take shape? Through gifting; bartering; lending; co-using; co-producing; etc. This can be done in our community and beyond; it’s about federating the commons, so to speak. Creating Commons-Networks or Meta-Commons.
Let me give you an example: what makes community-supported agriculture structurally different from market-based food production? It produces vegetables, dairy products and the like, but it doesn’t produce “goods” or “products” to be sold on the market. In contrast, it produces “shares” distributed according to the self-determined rules of the participating community. This goes beyond sharing the harvest, as they also share the risk of production and if there is a bad harvest the whole community shares the burden. They cannot insist on “getting their product” for “the price they pay”.
Q: Is this also possible at a global scale? Can someone in Belgium share the risk with someone in Romania, or with a peasant in Nicaragua? Can we form a community with someone who is 2000 kilometres away?
A: The question points to something historically interesting. There is a new way of producing commons in the 21st century. If you think about food production, there is absolutely no need to share the risk of production with a peasant in Nicaragua. Peasants in Nicaragua can and should produce their own food. And we should too, instead of, say, importing soybeans to feed our pigs. If you think of food production or natural resource management, there is no need to share the physical means of production with people in other parts of the world. We should just get out of the way, allow them to produce their own food and protect their knowledge systems, which are tied to food-production.
However, in terms of producing machinery, hardware, cars, design, knowledge etc., we are seeing a new way of what I call “Commons Generating Peer Production”. We have digital infrastructures which allow us to follow the basic rule: “what is heavy is local; what is light is global” (Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation). Knowledge, code and design are “light”. If you take into account that the lion’s share of the market value of cars, machinery, clothes, and so on is based on knowledge, code and design, we can share these globally. This doesn’t presuppose taking it away from someone else, as knowledge, code and design tend to become “more” when we share them. Such an approach can revolutionise production and enable local communities to produce locally what they were unable to produce in the current economy. Thus, we will see less transportation around the world.
Q: But that also means that we need to adjust our demands, as for example, we won’t be able to eat so many bananas in Romania anymore.
A: On the one hand, we need to make a distinction between real needs and what economists mean when they say “demand,” and ask ourselves: what do I really need in order to make a living; what do I really need to thrive as a human being? On the other hand, I can think of a scenario where we truly explore the option of producing locally what’s heavy and sharing globally what’s light. We might then keep still 10 or 20% of the international trade we have, without leaving the same carbon footprint that we have right now.
Q: Do you think the societies of austerity-stricken countries of the south of Europe have started to successfully embrace the potential of the commons? Could “guerilla gardening” be such a phenomenon (as argued in an article by Orestes Kolokouris)? According to Kolokouris, the rapid development of urban gardening in Greece “coincides with the rapid deterioration of living standards in Greek society in recent years due to the deep crisis.”
A: I think, that you cannot even understand how people would survive austerity if they didn’t apply commons-based solutions. How can you otherwise become almost disconnected from the flow of resources and the flow of money in the market and still make a living? People can survive because they are connected to each other and they find common(s) solutions to their problems. The terminology may vary, but still: there are commons and commoning everywhere. Commoning shows one way out of the crisis, which also disconnects us from its drivers and direct causes. In the south of Europe, there are many examples from the last few years, such as the solidarity clinics (citizen-run health clinics) in Greece.
Q: There has been, for many decades, an ongoing discussion about finding an alternative quantitative measurement to GDP; for example, gross national happiness. Even renowned economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, have worked on this issue. Are these ideas compatible with the commons?
A: In a very deep sense, I would say that one of the major flaws of our modern way of thinking about the economy is the idea that everything can and has to be measured. And if you want to measure something, you need to make sure it is measurable. So you start “making” it measurable, which is a slow and often overlooked encroachment.
But how would you measure the commons, if they are about thriving communities, good livelihoods, autonomy and self-organisation? These are hardly measureable. The idea of alternative measurements is certainly interesting and important in order to show that the economy is about more than just stocks and flows, but it would not be the silver bullet to enable a commons-based economy and society. I very much appreciate what these researchers do, but I would appreciate it even more if they used their enormous creativity, energy and knowledge to enable a different mode of production and to rethink the whole.