Two powerful new arguments for the making of a "commons" as the self-empowerment we need

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Two examples this week of smart but practical thinking about the “commons” (see our archive) - a zone of human activity and shared resource that sits distinct from state and market. We’re beginning to think “building commons” could be a way to found our “citizens action networks”, as new forms of political and material structure that are much more expressive of citizens’ desires and needs. 

Our first date was the London launch of David Bollier’s and Silke Helfrich’s Free, Fair and Alive: the Insurgent Power of the Commons. The book’s website blurb explains it well: 

Free, Fair & Alive is a foundational re-thinking of the commons, the self-organized social systems that human beings have used for millennia to meet their needs. 

From fisheries and forests to alternative currencies and open source everything, people are increasingly using “commoning” to emancipate themselves from a predatory market/state system and take charge of their lives.

Ambitious, sophisticated, and resolutely grounded in everyday realities, Free, Fair and Alive presents a compelling vision of a future that can actually work. Written by two highly experienced commons activists, this book is at once a penetrating cultural critique, table-pounding political treatise, and practical playbook for building a new world of commoning. 

Jargon-free and full of colorful stories and diverse examples, this book will help readers recognize commoning as a vision that can help take us beyond the dead-end binaries of left-right, individual-collective, state-market, and Coke-Pepsi that has almost brought the world to its knees.

Free, Fair and Alive is also a work of social imagination and political hope. As humanity drifts into a dangerous new world of climate breakdown, Peak Oil, and political instability, this book dares to imagine how countless acts of commoning can build an insurgent new culture and political economy. 

It draws on the authors’ extensive travels in the world of commoning, from the community forests of India and urban commons of Italy, to platform cooperatives arising on the Internet and neighborhood nursing in the Netherlands.

...Unlike many previous books on this subject, Free, Fair & Alive does not see the commons as primarily about “rational actors” managing economic resources. Instead it regards the commons as a vibrant, creative social system, one that is alive with people’s everyday ingenuity, cooperative values, and traditions.

“Rely on heterarchy”, from  Free, Fair and Alive

“Rely on heterarchy”, from Free, Fair and Alive

Because so many misconceptions about the commons are embedded in language itself, the book discusses the misleading premises of many familiar words (“development,” “leadership,” “scarcity”) and the need to embrace new terms that better describe the realities of commoning (“care-wealth,” the “Nested-I,” the “pluriverse”). 

Much of the book focuses on the internal dynamics of commoning, the need to adopt a shift in worldview, and the role of language in reorienting our perceptions and political strategies. 

By explaining commoning as a relational phenomenon of living systems – and not as a transactional behavior governing objects (as standard economics asserts) – Free, Fair and Alive opens up a new discussion about the inner and social dynamics of commoning: the commons as a verb, not a noun.

More here.

The second example is a new essay from Indy Johar and colleagues at Dark Matter Labs called A Smart Commons - a new vision for city governance. 

It begins from a scandalous assessment of how much public-money development programmes - like, say, the High-Line aerial park in New York - end up massively inflating property prices around them, with hardly any of that generated wealth returning to the public coffers. 

The Dark Matter folk regard this, rightly, as an outrage -  especially when climate emergency compels cities to bear much of the load towards zero-carbon targets. Can’t there be a better, more holistic, more satisfying vision for the future of cities than this engine for generating massive inequalities?

Their suggestion is “a smart commons”—and it’s the overlap of smarts between Bollier’s/Helfrich’s commons vision, and DM’s, which is fascinating and exciting.  

The DM’s commons vision is most welcome:

If we agree that our cities need become radically more sustainable, equitable and democratic — then their fabric needs to change. 

We’ll need them have green walkable streets; zero carbon transport; be close to high quality and well funded schools and hospitals; neighbourhoods run on renewable energy; are resilient; culturally diverse, and encourage us to be socially inclusive and caring. 

To get there we’re going to need new models of investment and ownership to build them.

That means moving beyond the idea of trying to claw back money with duties, levies or taxes (although that will be necessary), and toward redesigning our regulatory systems so they don’t favour speculative financing and land trading.

What if instead, we could flip this model on its head and give communities a way of investing and owning the things that make neighbourhoods work, without the fear of being priced out by their desire to improve their community. 

This could involve local citizens from the start through local development groups or neighbourhood forums, so that rather than being steered by private developers and land speculators, its citizens that set the terms for what happens to the places around them. 

This could reframe how we think of increases in property prices, seeing it less as growth, but for what it really is — the collective wealth we all create.

...The need for transition goes hand in hand with addressing the erosion of trust in top down, centralised government methods for making that happen (and create huge amounts of resistance when we try). 

We need to give people the control to decide what their future neighbourhoods can become. Time and time again we see that when people have a stake in how their neighbourhoods can change for the better, they are far more likely to help make it happen.

Whereas 10–15 years ago this type of system would have created a huge amount of bureaucracy, advances in technology now make these types of local, decentralised investment models feasible. 

HM Land Registry have recently trialed property and ownership transactions using smart contracts and blockchain. Applied in the right way, these type of new digital platforms could allow local infrastructure and assets to become collectively owned and relink the value they create to the neighbourhoods around them.

These new types of urban development wouldn’t just change who is able to invest in our cities, but could also change what we actually invest in.

If we can link each house with a sort of digital passport, we could connect it with existing data about how our homes and our neighbourhoods actually work. So instead of us investing in parks, we could think about improving air quality and wellbeing by making use of new platforms that map and calculate the benefits of replacing road space with trees, electric transport, or local sustainable energy.

Writing our documents of ownership as code could allow us to do some interesting things. It could allow us to be much more fine grained about the transactions we make and how value can be created and circulated at a local level. 

It could allow the terms of those transactions to be rules based, or even based on the performance of the spaces around us — like the improvements to air quality, or reduced energy use.

What’s striking here is that Bollier and Helfich also embrace this use of blockchain technology for the empowerment of commons. They also want it to begin to make the measurement of different kinds of local value - rather than just monetary - possible. They approve of Holochain - covered extensively on this blog - as a customisable system of digital value, which could enable a community to see the flows of different kinds of wealth they have (indeed, recall B&H’s concept above of “care-wealth” 

A genuinely new economics (or maybe it needs a different term) is being pieced together under the headlines of “localism”, “municipalism”, “autonomy”. We’ll keep an eye on commons-thinking as one of its most fertile strands.