Excerpted from David Bollier:

“The … strategic approach I want to suggest for building a new polity supportive of the commons is through an ongoing convergence and alignment of diverse system-critical social movements.

The failures of neoliberal capitalism are coming at the very time that promising new modes of production, governance and social practice are exploding, especially through decentralized, selforganized initiatives on open networks that can often out-perform both the market and state. The people developing these new systems are essentially creating a new parallel economy – sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, as in Greece and Spain. The innovators are not politicians, CEOs or credentialed experts, but ordinary people acting as householders, makers, hackers, permaculturists, citizen-scientists, cooperativists, community foresters, subsistence collectives, social mutualists and commoners: a vast grassroots cohort whose generative activities are not really conveyed by the term “citizen” or “consumer.”

Through network-based cooperation and localized grassroots projects, millions of people around the world are managing all sorts of bottom-up, self-provisioning systems. There are also many new types of citizen-actors and mobilizations seeking system change, ranging from cultural surges such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and the Las Indignados to more durable long-term movements focused on cooperatives, degrowth, the solidarity economy, Transition Towns, relocalized economies, peer production, and the commons. These movements are developing new visions of “development” and “progress,” as seen in the buen vivir ethic in Latin America, for example, or in “go local” movements in the US and Europe, and the FabLabs and makerspaces. The new models also include alternative currencies, co-operative finance and crowd-equity investments to reclaim local control, transition and indigenous peoples’ initiatives to develop sustainable postgrowth economies, the movement to reclaim the city as a commons, and movements to integrate social justice and inclusive ethical commitments into economic life. These movements are not only pioneering new types of collective action and provisioning, but also new legal and organizational forms. The idea of “generative ownership” as a collective enterprise is being explored by leaders of co-operative finance, community land trusts, relocalized food systems and commons-based peer production. Each is attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of various commons-based ownership structures and self-governance – and then to expand the use of such models to show that there are attractive alternatives that can mature into a new economic ecosystem.

The general approach here is to change the old by building the new. The demonstration of feasible alternatives (renewable energy, cooperativism, relocalization, etc.) is a way to shift political momentum, constitute new constituencies for system change, and assert a new moral center of gravity. To work, however, the alternatives incubated outside the existing system must achieve a sufficient coherence, intelligibility, scale and functionality.

The commons can act as a shared meta-language among these highly diverse groups because the commons expresses many of the core values and priorities of many “system-change” movements. Like DNA, which is under-specified so that it can adapt to local circumstances, the commons discourse is general enough to accommodate myriad manifestations of basic values and principles. More than an intellectual framework, the commons helps make culturally legible the many social practices (“commoning”) that are often taken to be too small and inconsequential to matter – but which, taken together, constitute a different type of economy. In this fashion, the commons discourse itself has an integrative and catalytic potential to build a new type of networked polity.

Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P Foundation, and his colleague John Restakis argue that the state can be reinvented as a “Partner State” in support of commons and peer production:

One the one hand, market competition will be balanced by cooperation, the invisible hand will be combined with a visible handshake. On the other hand, the state is no longer the sovereignty authority. It becomes just one participant among others in the pluralistic guidance systems and contributes its own distinctive resources to the negotiation process … official apparatuses remain at best first among equals. The state’s involvement would become less hierarchical, less centralized and less directive in character. The exchange of information and moral suasion become key sources of legitimation and the state’s influence depends as much on its role as a prime source and mediator of collective intelligence as on its command over economic resources or legitimate coercion.

The idea of the partner state is intriguing, but will require further theoretical elaboration and investigations in how it might be politically actualized. One serious attempt at this in the context of digital commons is the Commons Transition Plan prepared by Bauwens in conjunction with a research project sponsored by the Government of Ecuador in 2014.

It attempts to envision state policies that could help bring about “a society and economy that functions as common pools of shared knowledge in every domain of social activity.”Photo by Thomas Leth-Olsen

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