The commons as a common paradigm for social movements and beyond

We can only promote the commons as a new narrative for the 21st century if they are identified as a common denominator by different social movements and schools of thought.


Silke Helfrich

World Social Forum: 10 years after: Elements of a new agenda

The commons as a common paradigm for social movements and beyond (version 1.0)

We can only promote the commons as a new narrative for the 21st century if they are identified as a common denominator by different social movements and schools of thought. In my point of view, enforcing the commons would be not only possible, but strategically intelligent. Here are 15 reasons why:

  1. The commons are everywhere. They determine our quality of life in great many ways. They are present (even though often invisible) in the social, natural, cultural and digital sphere. Think about the things we use to learn (read and write), the things we use to move (land, air and sea), the things we use to communicate (language, music and code), the things we use to feed and heal (land, water, medicine) or the things our reproduction depends on (genes, social life). The commons is about how we share and use all these things. They are a vivid way of reproduction of our social relations – at any time. Therefore, they are better described with a verb (commoning) instead of a noun (commons). The commons are a special kind of practice of use and production of knowledge and material goods, where use value is privileged over exchange value. Commoning is a practice which allows us to take our lives in our own hands, and to protect and widen what is common to us instead of witnessing its enclosure and privatization. Commoners’ rights are independent from formal convention and positive law. We just have them without having to ask anybody for permission, and we share them with others. The commons offer a different kind of freedom than the market. So the good news is: when we focus on the commons, we focus on how to shift things from the market sphere to the commons sphere, we focus on how to shift authority and responsibility from state bureaucracies to the many possibilities to „govern the commons“ by their users, and we focus on many issues and ressources – as 75% percent of the worlds biomass – which are not yet commodified. This is encouraging.
  2. The commons bridge sectors and communities, it offers a frame for the convergence and consolidation of movements. The issues we have to deal with have gotten overly complex. In order to reduce complexity, we have fragmented what belongs together. In the public political debate, there is a division into different realms of knowledge and authority. There are those who discuss issues related to natural resources („the ecos“) and those who discuss cultural & digital issues („the technos“). The result are (overly) specialized communities for each of the hundreds of problems we are confronted with and many missing links. For the very diversity of the commons, this fragmentation will continue to a certain extent, but it also contributes to a loss of our common ability to keep track of the ongoing economic, political and technological processus and changes. This diminishes our capacity to react to theses changes and to carefully forward coherent alternative proposals. The commons can unify disparate social change movements, even those that have profoundly different dynamics, because they permit us to focus on what all common pool resources and all commoners have in common and not what separates them. Water is finite, knowledge is not. Atmosphere is global, a park is not. Ideas grow, when we share them, land does not. But all are common pool resources! Therefore none of them can be exclusive property of only one person. All are linked to a community. All are governed best if the rules and normes are self-determined or considered highly legitimate by the people who have to rely on those resources.
  3. The commons recasts the ownership debate beyond the (sometimes fruitless) framing of public versus private. The claim for public ownership remains important, but have nation states really served as conscientious trustees of the commons? No. Do they protect traditional knowledge, forests, water and biodiversity? Not everywhere. There is much more than „public“ and „private“. A common pool resource can be possessed for short term use (to reproduce our livelihoods), but we cannot do with it what we want. It is important to remember that the concept of possession for use is very different to the dominating conventional property. Possession doesn’t allow for alienation. Property does. And property allows for abuse and commodification, maximum monetization and the „externalization“ of costs onto the commons – an ongoing process at the end of which all of us are worse off. Even the richer among us who are spurred to flee to gated communities.
  4. The commons perspective is not a digital way of thinking. Its mode is not binary, 0 – 1, either – or. Nor does it focus on bottom lines like a single number of „success“. Our search is for solutions beyond opposite poles and beyond numerical metrics of „success“. It’s not simply private versus public, neither right versus left, cooperation versus competition, „invisible hand“ of the market versus plan of the State, pro technology versus anti technology. From a commons perspective the focus is on the forgotten third element. It deepens our understanding about the commonly owned and the universal principles which work for people and protect their common pool resources. In the commons sector we privilege learning more about cooperation than about competition. The commons enhances self-determined rules and commonly developed & controlled open technologies instead of proprietary technologies which tend to concentrate power within elites and enable them to control us.
  5. Talking about the commons means focussing on diversity. In the words of ex Governor Olívio Dutra (Rio Grande do Sul) during the ‘WSF 10 years later’: „it enables unity within plurality and diversity“. The default but not defensive position is: „one world in which many worlds fit“. Doubtlessly, one of the strengths of this approach lies in the idea that there are no simplistic solutions, no institutional patterns, no „one size fits all” panacea, only universal principles such as reciprocity, cooperation, transparency, respect for diversity and others. Each community has to determine appropriate rules for how to access, use and control a common pool resource system based on such principles. This is complex – as the relationship between nature and society is – especially when we talk about global commons. There, the “community” is the whole mankind, which refers as to the very necessity of a new multilateralism based on a commons approach.
  6. Focussing the commons brings three big C into a new balance: Cooperation, Command and Competition. There is no cooperation without competition and vice-versa, but in a commons based society the recognition is gained by those who perform best in cooperation and not in competition. The slogan is: Out-cooperate instead of out-compete. The specific rules for cooperation in a commons system vary from setting to setting. Nobody can command them from above. From commons research and practice we learn, that all over the world many commons governance systems are self-regulating, that means: they are creating their own monitoring systems. Or they are self-regulating and coordinate at different institutional levels. As far as „command“ is concerned: Nobel Price laureate Elinor Ostrom advises: „It is better to induce cooperation with institutional arrangements fitted to local ecosystems than to try to command from afar.“ At the same time „the systems from above“ – governments, law, international bodies – can be critically important in empowering and facilitating the commons. But for doing this, they need a commons perspective inscribed into their logics and polity architecture as well.
  7. The commons does not separate the ecological from the social dimension as a Green New Deal focus does. To a certain extent, it may be helpful to make the “economic value” of natural resources visible and it is certainly necessary to internalizes ecological costs of production into the whole production process. But it is not enough. Such a focus does not address the social dimension of the problem, it tends to deepen the market biased structures, linking the solutions with access to money. So who has, can afford the cost-internalization. Who has not, is worse off. Instead: the ecological and the social dimension find a common explanation in the commons. There is no such thing as a solution based on a commons perspective where those who haven’t are worse off.
  8. The commons concept integrates different world views: there are attractors for socialist thinking (e. g. the common possession), for anarchists (the self-organisational driven approach), for conservative thinking (which values the protection of the creation), obviously for communitarian and cosmopolitan ideas (integral, diversity driven approach) and even for liberals (distance to state accountability, respect for individual interests and motivations in joining a community or a project). But it is quite clear that the commons cannot be a single political party programme. That is its strength, and that is why mainstream political players so often misunderstand the commons or even try to co-opt the commons. If we care for a coherent commons discourse (see 9), they won’t succeed.
  9. The benchmark for the integration of different political ideas within a commons paradigm is clear and threefold: (a) sustainable and respectful use of resources (social, natural, and cultural incl. digital), that means: no overuse and no under-use of common pool resources. (b) Equitable sharing of common pool resources as well as participation in all decision making processes about access, use and control of those resources and (c) the free development of creativity and individuality of people without sacrificing the collective interest.
  10. The commons don’t have one, but many centres. Their governance structures are decentralized and varied as well. In other words: it is characteristic to the commons to be polycentric, which stands for a deeply democratizing approach both politically (principles of decentralization, subsidiarity and sovereignty of commoners and commoners rule making) and economically (the „commons mode of production“ point makes us less dependent on money and market).
  11. The commons strengthens an important core belief about human beings and behaviour. We are not only, not even mainly the „homo oeconomicus“ they made us believe we are. We are much more than selfish creatures looking for our own interest. We need and enjoy being embedded into a social web. “The commons are the web of life”, says Vandana Shiva. We enjoy to contribute, care and share. The commons strengthens the confidence in the creative potential of people and in the idea of inter-relationality, which means: “I need the others and the others need me.” They honour our freedom to contribute and share. This is a different kind of freedom than the market is based on. The more we contribute, the more things we have access to. But note: it is not simply „access to everything for free“.
  12. The commons offers analyzing tools that arise from categories different to those of capitalism, therefore the concept helps to „decolonize our thinking“. (Grzybowski) Commoners redefine „efficiency“. They ask how to „efficiently“ cooperate and how to encourage and enable people to do so? They claim for (short term) usage rights to reproduce their livelihoods instead of limitless property. They honour traditional ways to protect the commons as well as traditional knowledge systems. In short: the commons shed new light on many old political and legal regulatory processes. It makes a big difference whether I see the environment as a commons or as a commodity to trade with. It makes a difference whether water is understood as a commons, that means closely linked to the communities needs, or not. Or take seeds; conceive seed-diversity as a commons, means: harvesting self-determination and food-security. If society would recognize regional diversity of seeds as a commons, the State would put all available resources into independent, organic seed breeding and in protecting small farmers to continue their traditional way of seed-development instead of wasting taxpayers money for genetic manipulation and seed engineering.
  13. In the commons sector, there is a great diversity and quantity of actors. Over the past several years, international interest in the commons paradigm has quickened. Several organizations and commoners now have significant transnational constituencies (Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Free Software and Free Culture Movement, sharing platforms, the anti-mining organizations, the alliances working for a Bem-Viver approach, the worldwide movements for sustainable agriculture, the Water Commons, community gardening, citizen communication and information projects and many others). Actually, it is a spontaneous, explosive growth of diverse commons initiatives. Since Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Price in Economics (October 2009) many Universities have rediscovered the academic interest in the commons.
  14. The commons is an alternative mode of production. The problems we are confronted with are not problems of resource-availability. They are problems that arise from the current mode of production. Fortunately, in some areas, we are witnessing a shift from the capitalist mode of production (based on property, command, value exchange via money, resources and labour exploitation, dependent on growth and striving for profit) into a commons mode of production (based on possession, contribution, sharing, self interest and initiative, where the GDP is a negligible indicator and the aim is a „good life“ < bem viver). Many “Common Based Peer Production” projects are developing successfully. This is especially true for the production of knowledge (Wikipedia, Free Software, Open Design). But there is a thrilling discussion going on about how principles of commons based peer production can be transferred to the production of what we eat, wear and move with, at least to a certain extent. I believe that this is possible. Firstly because knowledge makes up the lion’s share of each kind of production. All goods are latent knowledge products. There is no car production or eggproduction without a concept and a design behind (which make the lion’s share of its „market value“). Secondly because there are many kinds of commons sectors (care economy, solidarity economy) which have not been commodified yet and where commons values and rules are deeply rooted. Those sectors are evidence that every day many of the things we need to live are produced outside the market.
  15. The commons discourse is a discourse about cultural change. It is not a mere technological or institutional approach. Instead, it offers a new frame for political and personal thinking and acting.


Why now? Because the moment is ripe for the commons.

  1. Given the historical moment of change, the commons are currently being rediscovered in many contexts. Market and state (alone) have failed both in the protection of common pool resources and in satisfying peoples needs. Actually, free market fundamentalism that now prevails is under siege. Its system of economic analysis, public policies and worldview is losing its explanatory value, not to mention public support. More and more people realize that it is not for the market that we enjoy biodiversity, cultural diversity and social networks!
  2. New technologies enable new forms of cooperation and the decentralized production of what up to now have been monopolized core technologies of the industrial age. Today, we can relocate even energy or electricity production into the social commons (citizen solar power stations, home-power stations). We can decide which are useful news and information for the community and reproduce them ourselves with „the biggest copy machine“ that ever existed: the internet. The ongoing major revolution in production allows for a change of rules. This is a major threat for monopolies.
  3. The ongoing processes put the individual in a position to engage in a wider context. A modern commons perspective is not headed „back to the past“. The perspective is not one of mere re-localization, but the horizon is: local, decentralized and horizontal cooperation in distributed networks, so that people can self-enable to create things together, available for them and others – if they want. The aim is to widen the commons sector and commons based production as far as possible and lesser depend on the market. This is only possible, if the new mode of production is able to solve even complex problems, if it is able to „peer-produce“ artifacts even large companies would have difficulties to prepare for logistically, financially and conceptually. And it is! Just think about Wikipedia or an open source car. Maybe we would have developed VIPs (vehicles for individual transportation) based 100 % on recyclable materials, which consume only a litre/100km if corporations would not have enclosed technologies and controlled the market. In a world where a commons-mode-of-production is general, there is no more centre and periphery.
  4. There are new legal forms to protect collective use rights and free and/or equitable access to the commons: the General Public License (GPL), ShareAlike licenses, ownership models for natural resources with a built-in mechanism to protect for speculation and avoid over-exploitation, stakeholder trusts on single common pool resources, the acequia water management systems in Mexico or the Johads water management systems in India or the Allemansrätten (rights of each person) in countries of Northern Europe. Those are powerful tools we have to learn more about and develop further. It is an area where we need a great deal of creative legal thinking and innovation, and we need respect for the great variety of formal and informal rules to protect the commons worldwide.
  5. Last but not least: once you put your nose into the commons, you discover astonishing new things. You connect with hundreds of dynamic communities. You have unexpected insights, you learn about encouraging projects and ideas and you multiply your networks. It’s energizing. Did you know, that there is an OpenCola project? Or that the biggest lake in New Zealand, Lake Taupo, is full of trout? In the very touristic Taupo region, there is much „pressure on the resource“, but the trout population continues enjoying the lake because the New Zealanders follow a simple rule: Fish what you need to eat (for doing so, you get a fishing permit from local authorities), but don’t sell. So, you won’t find any trout on the menues of the hundreds of restaurants in the region. Remember: The commons are not for sale. Or did you know something about open source biology and participatory medicine? Have you heard about the countless local seed banks – especially in the south – and the sheer incredible treasures they care for us? Do you know where the growing international open-access scholarly publishing movement is at in its effort to make sure that we will have free access to what has been publicly funded – knowledge production. Are you aware of the intercultural and the community gardens movement or of the commons regimes used by lobstermen in Maine/USA to prevent over-fishing of lobster? And what to think about the crisis commons, where hundreds of volunteers contribute their expertise and collect information using modern information technologies in support of disaster relief for post-earthquake Haiti?

The commons are something that brings enthusiasm back into political debates. Young people are all ears when they learn about peer-to-peer-production, because that’s what they do. The „ecos“ are all ears when they learn about the copyleft principle which enables the viral reproduction of software and content. They learn that „this complicated license stuff“ is to defend our freedom for access to knowledge and cultural techniques. That is precisely what they claim for in their field. The „technos“ get motivated to use their amazing abilities for helping to manage complex natural ressource systems. In other words: The commons widen the horizon, they bring a fresh breeze of undogmatic and dynamic collective thinking and practicing along.

The commons are a powerful, self-enabling and self-empowering concept to constantly recreate a dignified life. It is what we need to build a diverse and irresistible movement based on a coherent political and conceptual thinking.

Porto Alegre (RS), January 2010

update, 10/03: Version 2.0 (edited by natives :-)) will be published soon. Many thanks in advance for all your comments, which will enrich the next document.

Images by Moyan Brenn and Liz West.

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