"We are commoning here": David Bollier on a concept (and a verb) whose time has come

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Our pursuit of a super-powered localism brings us regularly into contact with the idea of the commons (see mentions in our previous articles). We've found this recent interview with one of its most eloquent explainers, the American academic and activist David Bollier. An extract below (the interviewer is Jane Clark):

Jane: The idea of ‘the commons’ has been around for some time now, and it is becoming more and more influential. It has even been suggested that it will be the next ‘grand narrative’ which will define our future political and social life. But as I prepared for this interview, I found that many people are still not aware of it.

David: I am not so surprised to hear this, because the commons is still a kind of ‘underground conversation’ carried on by irregular global networks of activists, academics and social projects. For them ‘the commons’ provides an explanation of a different way of being in the world, a different vision of emancipation, a different way of doing politics.

Jane: As I understand it, the central metaphor derives from what is now being called ‘the first age of enclosure’, which happened here in England in the Tudor period. The land which was shared by the peasantry – ‘the commons’ – was literally enclosed, fenced off, and transferred into the hands of landowners. Then later, this idea of private ownership became enshrined in economic and property rights theory by people like John Locke.

David: The idea of ‘the commons’ refers to more than just land. It can mean digital spaces; it can mean urban spaces; it can mean social spaces. It refers to a regime of self-government and management of shared resources. A commons is not the resource alone, as many economists seem to think; it is not just ‘un-owned resources’: it is the resource plus the community that governs it, plus a set of rules or protocols which regulate its use.

The English enclosure movement is definitely an important touchstone, an inspiration for talk about the commons today. But the idea has now been adapted and developed to become, as you say, a kind of ‘grand narrative’. It is attractive to me because it both allows a critique of our present system – of which enclosures are a major part – and provides a platform for constructing alternatives.

Jane: So what is meant exactly by ‘enclosure’?

David: Enclosure is the commodification and privatisation of our shared wealth. It means that things that were previously free for the taking, or collectively managed, pass into the hands of individuals or, in collusion with governments, are privatised and made available for market exchange. This process is cast as ‘progress’ by the capitalist system, and put forward as the way that human development happens – the way that wealth is generated.

But in fact, it is often just a radical dispossession of people. It removes things from their organic context, be that a community or an ecosystem, so that they can be sold. So the commons is a story that helps us talk about what I think of as the great unacknowledged scandal of our times, which is the enclosure of the wealth that belongs to all of us...

Jane: Can you give us some examples of successful commons projects?

David: In New Mexico, there is a system of community-managed water control known as acequias. These water systems, which derive from the ways in which indigenous Americans managed water, have been sustainable in a very arid region. What is remarkable is that the commons has been able to steward the water in ways that do not over deplete it.

It has statutory recognition by the state government, so this is a rare example of a state-sanctioned commons. Its success stands in stark contrast to the suburban and urban areas around it, which are grossly over using the water relative to what the ecosystem can replenish.

 Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom

There are many similar examples around the world of sustainable stewardship of shared resources. Elinor Ostrom in her landmark book, Governing the Commons, mentioned a great many – from the zanjeras in the Philippines to the communal tenure systems in the high mountain meadows in Switzerland, and the huerta irrigation institutions in Spain. All these have been successfully running for a long time – in many cases, for centuries.

Until Ostrom came along, these social systems had been understudied by conventional economics with its focus on the atomistic individual, homo economicus. The ontology of economics cannot really understand collective action because the presumption is that individuals matter more than groups, and every individual is supposedly rational and calculating in advancing his or her material self-interest.

This is in contrast to the empirically obvious fact that people in many communities can and do negotiate their way to collectively managing their wealth...

Jane: Anyone who has ever attempted any kind of communal action will know only too well that there are a whole host of difficulties which arise between people when they try to work together. It is not generally easy to reach agreement, to work out the protocols for actions, etc. So you have made it clear that the commons is not a utopian vision: it does not pretend to have all the answers.

David: Absolutely. The idea of the commons is not a magic pixie-dust for solving all our problems. However, what it does do – unlike a lot of large-scale structures of politics – is to provide a serious vehicle for deliberation and taking account of other people’s views in order to come to a common purpose. This can work especially well at a smaller scale, but it can also apply to larger organisations.

One of the criticisms levelled at the commons is that it can’t scale up, meaning that it is stuck with operating only at a very local level. It is true that it won’t scale in the way that we are used to, in a hierarchical way to create a single, large organisation.

But what can happen is emulation and federation. Lots of smaller scale commons can be in communication with one another and build on each other’s innovations, as we see in many digital spaces where countless open-source communities are collaborating with each other.

In this way, we can have both meaningful self-governance and production through commons, but, also operate on a larger scale. The term that has been used to describe this is ‘cosmo-local’ production.

This means global collaboration of knowledge and design through the internet in an open-source way, but local production using inexpensive, modular and locally sourceable materials without large transport costs. This is a different logic, a different pattern of behaviour, from the 20th-century industrial model of how you build and scale something.

I think this is definitely the future. There is a quote that I love from the Belgian designer Thomas Lommée: “The next big thing will be a lot of small things”. This is what we are struggling to invent right now: how can a lot of small things interconnect and nourish each other without having large centralised bureaucracies directing them?

More from this Beshara interview here. And on commoning as a verb, read this paper from David.