The idea of commoning is on the rise, or rather, is having a resurgence. Talk of the commons appears in unexpected places, from the radical to the less so. From a marginal idea a few years ago it has drifted, with the help of digital technology, into a position where parties and campaigners refer to it and many people will know what it means. But even in radical writing it is often the idea or the technical aspects of commoning that take centre stage. What about the experience of commoning? What does it feel like to be a commoner? It seems worth talking about this, for in the end social systems are neither ideas nor even structures to the people who live in them: they are experience.
There are many types of commoning and so there are different experiences of it. We can talk of digital commons, where abundance reigns supreme, or of limited resource commons, we can talk of commons with only a few dozen participants and commons with millions, we can talk of commons we establish and fight for deliberately, or commons that we find ourselves caught up in. So when we talk of experiencing the commons, we cannot talk of one experience, yet if there are features that tie all commons together, perhaps there are also experiences that are shared – common experiences of commons, if you will. In the absence of large scale studies on these experiences I shall examine the issue from the perspective of my own experiences, offering by necessity a partial and incomplete picture, the beginnings of a conversation.
From some years I helped to run an independent community centre in London. I learned a lot from this and one lesson was learned from organising work days. Some of us had thought about what it truly meant to work together, having been involved in other projects, while others had not had opportunity to do so. Those with less experience would turn up and wait to be told what to do. Many would become confused when no-one seemed to be in charge, and in some cases would attempt to take charge themselves, their instincts causing quiet amusement. In fact, all that was needed to get the work done was a little sharing of knowledge. A director of work was superfluous to requirements, but the assumption that such a post was necessary was clear in the behaviour of many who wanted to help. Among those of us who could work as a group, and those who learned to do so, a small community built up, often fractious and never without difficulties, yet among it all strong friendships were built that I expect to last a lifetime.
Another experience of working together has come from living in a small self-managed community in London. A frequent issue here is for new members in particular to get angry at ‘the co-operative’ for doing this or that, or not doing it. They stomp about frustrated that the service they expected is not appearing, and have to be gently introduced to the idea that they are part of the co-operative. This means not that they are responsible alone for getting done what needs to get done, but that they are going to have to work together with others, and may even need to be initiator of a collective process.
This problem is visible too on the very small scale: I can recall reading groups I’ve been part of that self-managed their organisation and were beset by the same assumptions of service provision and top-down management. I admit to at one time being the person who would wait for others to set dates, find venues and so on. Over time this changed, or I should say, I changed. I understood that collective work required a contribution from myself, even occasional temporary leadership. It was my job as much as anyone’s to put in the little effort required to make good things happen. Again, these groups have been the basis of enduring friendship, not something I can say for any paid evening courses I have done.
When organising online the assumptions of top-down culture are often less apparent – there has been a widespread rebellion against it. This is the great hope the internet offers to those would take up the challenge. Yet often too it is disrupted by individuals elevated as heroes of this or that digital change. Few recognise that high profile icons were often simply in the right place at the right time to benefit from the work of many individuals; the assumption is that it is not a collectivity that has achieved the digital commons but a leader. Meanwhile something frequently left unsaid in the virtual world is that many digital commons also rely on relationships, whether that be among the technical teams behind them, or among, for example, the more active Wikipedians. The work flows better when people know each other, whether that means face to face or online.
The negative and the positive
The negative experience that creeps in again and again when organising commons is the assumption that someone should be in charge. There must be a controlling mind, we think. And if something is wrong, someone is to blame. In a weaker form this appears as a simple assumption that someone else will make it happen. Such assumptions are rarely explicitly stated – for that would sound selfish – but are simply lived assumptions that come to us from a controlled, managerial culture that begins in school. The classroom is a managed environment in which the agency of children is minimised, even when more modern curricula try to emphasise participation rather than passive learning. When we enter the workplace we find – no accident of course – that it is very similar to school. Someone else is in charge, except in those instances where I am in charge. For those who hate their subservient class position the ambition, drummed into us from a young age, is to join the ruling class.
Meanwhile the positive experience that most forms of commoning share is that they are about relationships. I have lost count of the friendships I have formed through commoning, but it goes well beyond friendships – the experience of community I have experienced is a gift without price. This can be stated even more strongly: in many ways commoning is the relationships that form. Or to put it another way, commoning is in part the attempt to manage resources through relationships rather than through financial transactions.
Relationships of commoning are relationships between equals, but that is not to say that the commons never requires leadership. Particular projects often need someone to take a leadership role. But the leadership, when it works, tends to be temporary and revocable. It never becomes managerial or dominatory in nature; when it does, the commons is lost. The price then of being a commoner is constant vigilance against the managerial beliefs that permeate our culture. If this seems a high price to pay – and I agree it is no easy task – in return we can win positive relationships, and the promise of life beyond atomised individualism.
A learning process
This is intended as a conversation opener about the experience of being a commoner. It may not mirror the experiences of others, and undoubtedly many aspects of common experience are missing. Another positive experience I’ve had of commoning is that of exhilarating creativity. This isn’t always a constant, but frequently working together as equals for the first time unlocks potentials people had never before seen in themselves or in each other. Ideas and ways of working are invented that could never have been produced by the individuals alone.
Yet I have opened this conversation with a big negative because I feel it is worth being honest about the experience of being a commoner. It can be hard work, for our culture militates against it. Working together with others requires a lot of learning, a constant process of mutual and self education. It is often frustrating, can create stress when groups are not functioning well, or falling into conflicts about who dominates. But it is important too to remember the reason why it can be so difficult: the positive and negative experiences are linked. Commoning is about creating positive and equal relationships, and so must constantly struggle against the relationships of domination we are accustomed to. Those dominatory and managerial relationships have surrounded us our whole lives. We internalise them without knowing it. To establish new and better relationships is a battle with ourselves as much as with the norms of society.
Those of us who have been deliberately commoning for some time should be able to offer reassurance to those just starting out: escaping strongly top-down relationships does get easier. It is possible for everyone to learn how to be together with others, to cultivate resources with equals. Having put in this hard work, the potential rewards are without price: a life full of rich and equal relationships outside of the authoritarian structures of market and state.
I’m a big supporter of the idea of commoning but again and again in this piece there was a connection between commoning and relationships. As a person with autism It is difficult to build relationships of understanding with neurotypicals as we communicate differently. If commoning is to succeed it has to be able to accommodate all people even those who struggle building relationships.