Helene Finidori on the Dilemma of the Commons

Excerpted from Helene Finidori:

“On the one hand there is a huge enthusiasm to see how the grassroots identify with the commons in all types of activities, and push for their institutionalization and the entry of the commons through the front door as we have seen with de-privatization of water in Italy or ACTA in Europe, for example. On the other hand there is serious worry about the idea of the commons being diluted, and the concept misappropriated to serve ‘the market’ and status quo. There is also a reluctance to associate the commons with ‘old vocabulary’ for similar reasons. And this dilemma is probably holding the commons community and movement back.

There is a tension between the immanent distributed nature of the commons found in praxis and the transcendent forms that the commons discourse pushes forward. This is another manifestation of the structure versus agency debate. An antagonism appears between on the one hand the ideas and ideals of shared vision, discourse, template, model, form, system of governance, political system, meant to provide alternatives —structures, which are potentially prescriptive and normative—, and on the other hand the reality of multifaceted generative and transformative processes, and empowerment around loosely expressed aspirations —agency, which by definition are diverse, self organized, and template-less, and that give birth to various types of structures.

Are the commons the perfect system that will save us from the markets? An idea that needs to be nurtured, preserved and protected as a commons itself? Or are they embodied in these grassroots movements flourishing in multiple directions, as a resurgence of an ancient archetype that finally expresses itself in praxis and that will unfold, averse to any form of control, just like sustainability is living its own life?

In a recent article show me the action and I will show you the commons, I note that much of the movements for change hold a piece of a response to the tragedy of the commons, even if they don’t reclaim themselves as commons. Whether they mobilize for access rights, social justice, renewable resources, integration of externalities, participatory democracy, restriction of IP, protection of seeds, preservation of cultures, alternatives to GDP, to name a few, all actually work to reduce enclosure and exploitation or abuse of nature and humans, even if they don’t ‘prescribe’ the commons as a system. All are a manifestation of the commons logic in action, working to advance in their own engagement logic a dimension of the commons so that a system of healthy commons can emerge as a whole. What (re)generates the commons the most in the end is not quite the label attached and the vocabulary used, but the underlying logic that drives what movements and communities are doing all around to protect and forward one or several components necessary for the thrivability of the commons as a whole.

This resonates with the thesis that Heathwood author R.C. Smith offers in his Series of essays and lecture notes introducing an alternative philosophy of systemic change, where he denounces the lack, in the current political landscape, of a “coherent systemic alternative and understanding of the process of ‘social change’”, that would acknowledge change as a fluid ongoing multi-directional and many-sided human transformation process.

In his essays Smith calls for a political philosophy rooted in mutual recognition of grassroots praxis, prefigurative of a shift to come. A political philosophy, which is not prescriptive of preconceived models, but looks for ways to identify “whether a certain form of change is truthful to the notion of ‘social progress’”

The commons are not specifically central to Smith’s work. However it seems reasonable to suggest that this prefigurative praxis he describes is deeply infused with a commons logic, distributed as archetypal goal of the system throughout the action space, to aggregate disparate forms of power and action. And that ways to assess whether and how a given change initiative (re)generates the commons could be used as a vetting system to evaluate whether a change is truthful to the commons or a mere cooptation of the concept.

This may be where the opportunity for a new political philosophy and a working theory of the commons can find some momentum.”

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