Transcending a problematic relationship

By David Bollier. A Report on a Deep Dive Workshop convened by the Commons Strategies Group in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Kloster Lehnin, near Potsdam, February 28 – March 2, 2016

“State Power and Commoning: Transcending a Problematic Relationship” Download the full 50 page report here (PDF). Consult and comment on the full report in the Commons Transition Wiki

Executive Summary

Commoning is often seen as a way to challenge an oppressive, extractive neoliberal order by developing more humane and ecological ways of meeting needs. It offers many promising, practical solutions to the problems of our time – economic growth, inequality, precarious work, migration, climate change, the failures of representative democracy, bureaucracy. However, as various commons grow and become more consequential, their problematic status with respect to the state is becoming a serious issue. Stated baldly, the very idea of the nation-state seems to conflict with the concept of the commons. Commons-based solutions are often criminalized or marginalized because they implicitly challenge the prevailing terms of national sovereignty and western legal norms, not to mention neoliberal capitalism as a system of power.

To address these and other related questions, the Commons Strategies Group in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation convened a diverse group of twenty commons-oriented activists, academics, policy experts and project leaders for three days in Lehnin, Germany, outside of Berlin, from February 28 to March 1, 2016. The goal was to host an open, exploratory discussion about re-imagining the state in a commons-centric world – and, if possible, to come up with creative action initiatives to advance a new vision.

Participants addressed such questions as: Can commons and the state fruitfully co-exist – and if so, how? Can commoners re-imagine “the state” from a commons perspective so that its powers could be used to affirmatively support commoning and a post-capitalist, post-growth means of provisioning and governance? Can “seeing like a state,” as famously described by political scientist James C. Scott, be combined with “seeing like a commoner” and its ways of knowing, living and being? What might such a hybrid look like?

Sea of chairs


Silke Helfrich prepared a framing paper synthesizing some of the relevant scholarship that theorizes the state. Her paper introduced key issues that arise when we begin to talk about “the state.” One of the first insights is that “a theoretically valid general definition of the state” is not really possible. “The state appears as a complex institutional system that solidifies power relationships in society, and potentially has the capacity to shift them,” writes Helfrich. “Thus it is not ‘the state’ as such that acts, but in each case specific groups with concrete interests and positions of power act.” These groups and interests will, of course, vary immensely from one instance to another.

Despite this variability of “the state,” there are four basic aspects of statehood that seem to apply in every case: Political control of territory; functional power in setting and enforcing rules; institutional capacities such as bureaucracy and organized power; and social control in subjecting people to state authority. These criteria of states and “statehood” were formulated by Professor Bob Jessop in his 2013 book, The State: Past, Present and Future. Based on this understanding, Helfrich notes, “the state” consists of “territorialized political power over a society that is exercised on the basis of rules and norms, but also by procedures and practices and accustomed ways of thinking about things whose socially constructed functions are accepted as binding by the people governed.”

State power introduces distinct principles of order that shape how we experience and understand the world, said Helfrich. In modern states, human society tends to be separated between the private and public spheres, with the state asserting control over the latter. State power also separates the worlds of production and reproduction and tends to give them a binary gender association (males involved in production/work, women with reproduction/family). Finally, state power separates public life into “the economy” and politics, casting the “free market” as natural and normative and politics as the realm for subjective disagreement and (presumptively illegitimate) social intervention.

No state rules and institutions are permanent or a priori; they are always the result of societal struggle and debate. So a state is less a subject or entity in itself than an ongoing expression of political power (state power) that expresses a culturally determined web of changing social relationships, writes Helfrich. In this sense, one might say that “The State” does not really exist as a thing because state and statehood must constantly be re/produced. For this reason, Professor Bob Jessop, a workshop participant and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Lancaster in the UK, suggested that it is more useful to talk about state power than “the state,” and about commoning than “the commons.” This shift in vocabulary helps underscore the fact that “the state” is constituted by dynamic social and power relationships, and helps us avoid reifying “the state” and “commons” as fixed, concrete entities.

Why State Theory Should Matter to Commoners

In an opening presentation on state theory, Professor Jessop outlined his “strategic-relational” approach to understanding the state, which rejects the idea of a unitary, fixed state and focuses on the power and social relationships among elites in a given nation. He writes that “states are not neutral terrains on which political forces struggle with equal chances to pursue their interests and objectives and with equal changes of realizing their goals whatever they might be. Instead the organization of state apparatuses, state capacities and state resources [….] favor some forces, some interests, some identities, some spatio-temporal horizons of action, some projects, more than others.”

Jessop noted that the very juridical language of the state creates distinctions that establish structural antagonisms even before getting to classic ‘others’ such as class, race or gender. Take the commons, for example: “Is the commons to be defined within a state or does it transcend the state itself?” asked Jessop. Answering this question is extremely complicated, he said, “because there is no general theory of the state and commons.” The two tend to have little or no formal juridical relationship. Because “state power and commoning” is such a complex relation, Jessop believes it is inappropriate to rely on only one analytic approach in assessing it: “The topic invites multiple entry points for different purposes. In adopting one, you will not be able to see others. Multiple perspectives provide a more rounded view of the subject.”

It is clear that the state is an instrument of social and power relation and that state power is a jealous, self-perpetuating force. It is an enabling mechanism for certain factions, especially capital and business, to further their interests. What does this mean for commoners who seek to use commoning to develop a better world, one of greater ecological responsibility, social and gender justice, and personal security? How might commoners use the state to advance their interests and freedom?

Variations in State Power

It bears emphasizing that the recurring patterns of state power play out in different ways around the world. State power among the agrarian states of Africa, for example, expresses itself in very different ways than in it does in Latin America, Europe or the United States. This stems largely from basic geographical and resource differences among nations, but also from the diverse policies, cultures and social norms for blending state power and markets. The most salient variations in state power include: Authoritarian and neoliberal state power in Latin America; the agrarian states of Africa; fiscal austerity, enclosures and the crisis of the European Union; and the United States and its aggressive role in promoting the neoliberal state.



A recurring subject of the Deep Dive was how commoning might serve as a counterforce to check state power and possibly reconfigure it. “What are we going to do with the state?” asked Pablo Solón, former Ambassador of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations. Clearly one of the first goals in modifying state power would be to decriminalize and legalize acts of commoning; this would at least open up new spaces for alternatives to neoliberalism to emerge. A longer term goal would be to use state power to creatively support commoning and the value(s) that it generates.

This entire terrain is treacherous and tricky for the reasons illustrated by the left’s takeover of the Bolivian state: power tends to change those who begin to wield it, and states tend to be more responsive to other nation-states than to their own people. In the end, there is also a question about whether the state and conventional law have the capacity to assist commoning. Can large, impersonally administered systems of the nation-state actually foster commons-based governance and human-scale commoning? Is it possible to alter conventional bureaucracies to recognize and support commoning?

Tomislav Tomašsević of the Institute for Political Ecology in Croatia noted that “the state is a playing field for different types of actors,” with commoners one among many others. So it is logical for commons movements and players to try to re-appropriate and redefine the state, to change the power relationships. This task then needs to go transnational, he said: “Once you manage to redefine the state, how can this be done in other states? How to scale up commons-based society to other countries? How to go global, and not just local? What notions of universality are needed to govern the commons through the state? The commons movement cannot ignore this challenge,” said Tomašsević, if only because the ‘crisis’ of the state is going to persist unless we re-imagine the state and statehood.

The group identified three basic questions of state power and commoning that must be addressed in transforming state power: What is preventing commoning within the context of the state? What do we want to change to enable commoning to exist and expand? How are states and governments standing in the way of commoning today?

Commoners must develop a compelling vision that incorporates a structural analysis, strategy and tactics into one integrated package – but with political questions as our point of entry. Commoners must also clarify their relationships with those on the political left; clarify their notion of citizenship and thus how commoners should relate to the state; and reinvent law to decriminalize and support commoning. All of this should be based on the idea of the commons as “an important form of transpersonal rationality and coordination,” said Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies Group. “The commons must be understood as a new category that describes the individual-in-relation-with-others.”



The preceding discussions – about the nature of state power, its variations among different nation-states, and the nature of commons and commoning – lead us to the central question of this Deep Dive: How can state power be re-imagined and altered in ways that support commoning? What are the strategies for the “commonification” of the state? How might a commons-based state work?

Silke Helfrich offered a starting point for answering this question: “It may be true that ‘there is no commons without commoning,’ but there can be contributions to a commons without commoning. This is where the state comes in. The state can contribute to commons without necessarily participating in commoning. It should also secure the rights of all citizens, not just the rights of commoners and support constructive relations among commons,” said Helfrich.

One must immediately distinguish between how a political progressive might imagine the state aiding commons, and how a commoner would. A commoner sees commoning as a way to provide nearly every type of good or service, from hospitals to water systems to social services, said Helfrich. In principle, it provides new ways to empower people and tap into new generative capacities. A liberal, by contrast, may see commoning as a threat to progressive values and the welfare state because commoning could encourage the state to shirk its responsibilities and expenditures.

Bob Jessop, the political theorist, said: “If we’re interested in commoning, the question is not how we bring the state apparatus in to aid commons – as if the state were somehow outside of our activities – but to identify which strategies might transform state power by altering the balance of forces inside and outside the state system. We need to talk about ‘revisiting state power and commoning: mutual learning for strategic action.’ ” Or as Pablo Solón put it: “The issue is about power and counterpower. How can commoning build counterpower? We can’t transform state power otherwise.”

It is an open question whether representative democracy is still the operational framework for pursuing political change, said Stacco Troncoso, the P2P Foundation’s strategic director and cofounder of Guerrilla Translation – or whether the strategies for aggregating political power must take place outside of “the system.” Former SYRIZA member Andreas Karitzis recently made the persuasive argument that “popular power, once inscribed in various democratic institutions, is exhausted. We do not have enough power to make elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. More of the same won’t do it. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; we need to reshape the ground. And to do that we have to expand the solution space by shifting priorities from political representation to setting up an autonomous network of production of economic and social power.”

Public Services and Commons

An unresolved issue is how the commons shall relate to the concepts of public services, public goods and the public domain. “The state oversees these functions,” said French economist Benjamin Coriat, and “it has the right to determine access rights or pass on ownership to private companies. But the idea of a common asset introduces the idea that the state cannot privatize the resource or service. It introduces new protections for the commoners because the state is a privatization machine today.” The larger question is how we might “commonify” our understanding of public services and goods. He stressed that the idea of common goods is not simply about “re-municipalization” of assets and services, but about the transformation of public goods into common goods” – a new conceptual category. This creates new rights of protection for commoners.

Imagining a Paradigm Shift in Governance and Law

Can we imagine a paradigm shift in state power with respect to commoning? Such a paradigm shift would require new and different circuits of power, new types of governance, and in a larger sense, a widely recognized idea of the commons that could serve as a counterpoint to the idea of the state — Staatsidee — mentioned earlier by Bob Jessop. Developing different circuits of power require that we clarify how the internal governance of commons can work and how state/commons relations could be structured. For starters, a commons must become effective and legitimate as a form of governance, and this generally requires:

  • Development of an inclusive ethic and shared goals (while retaining certain rights of exclusion and even expulsion of troublemakers);
  • Systems for accountability;
  • The ability of commoners to initiate and participate in rule-making;
  • Benefits that accrue to the group in mutually satisfactory, respectful ways; and
  • The right of all members to challenge the assumptions of current rules and practices.


Clearly state power and its complicated relations with commons will only grow more important in the future as the advocates of neoliberal policies seek to prevail over resistance and as commoning itself becomes more widespread and stronger. Progress on this topic will necessarily take time and further deliberation among commoners. In the near time, it will be quite instructive to learn how different nations attempt to carve out legally sanctioned commons within their borders, whether it is a “Plan C” in Greece, concrete policies to promote buen vivir in Latin America, court rulings protecting natural resource commons in India, or expansions everywhere of the commons as a parallel, post-capitalist economy.

Taking stock of such developments will require region-specific “deeper dives” and new conversations with the traditional left and labor to find some sort of working rapprochement on issues of livelihoods, basic income, public services and economic policy. Can the commons be integrated politically and legally with traditional liberalism and state authority? It may be too early to know what specific steps should be taken, but it seems clear that the crises of our time will not be resolved without serious changes in the topography of state power.

All images by Stacco Troncoso

You may also like