Seed-sharing commons help Indian women restore native crops while emancipating themselves from dependency on multinational corporations selling expensive, proprietary GMO seeds.

The Commons as a set of responsibilities and entitlements: David Bollier and Silke Helfrich explain.

We have plenty of reasons to be fearful these days —the abuses of authoritarian rule, the reckless behaviours of corporations, racial and ethnic hatred, economic precarity. Looming above all else is the warming of the Earth’s climate, an existential threat to civilisation itself. In the face of such mega-forces, it’s understandable that we might feel powerlessness.

We know that as individuals we cannot possibly alter the current trajectories of history. But this conclusion has a lot to do with how we conceive our plight – as individuals, alone and separate.  As individuals, we cannot come up with systemic solutions…..but collectively, it’s quite possible.

So we need to reconceive how we should understand our problems and fears. The more appropriate questions are:

What is our idea of a good life?

How can we devise pathways to co-create conditions for it – together? 

How can we develop effective solutions outside of conventional institutions that are failing us?

The good news is that countless seeds of collective transformation are already sprouting. Green shoots of hope can be seen in Community Supported Agriculture farms in Germany, in community forests of India, in community Wi-Fi systems in Catalonia and in neighborhood nursing teams in the Netherlands. They are emerging in dozens of alternative local currencies, new types of web platforms for cooperation, and campaigns to reclaim cities for ordinary people.

“Countless seeds of collective transformation are already sprouting.”

The beauty of such initiatives is that they meet needs in direct, empowering ways. People are stepping up to invent their own systems outside the capitalist mindset, for mutual benefit, with respect for the Earth, and with a commitment to the long term. We call these approaches commons because they enact the meanings of Commons’ Latin root words: cum which means with, and munis, meaning duty.

Commons are self-organised, collective initiatives to provide for our needs and steward the resources that we depend upon. They rely on social dynamics that are fair, inclusive, dynamic and free from coercion.

The commons is not merely a rebranding of collective action. It is an insurgent worldview based on social logics and ethical values that differ from modern capitalism. That is precisely why commons represent a new form of power.

When people come together to pursue shared ends and constitute themselves as a commons, a new surge of coherent social power is created. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition, “Power springs up between [humans] when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”  When enough of these pockets of bottom-up energy converge, a new kind of political power comes into being. That is what’s happening in countless places around the world today.

In Catalonia, a scrappy cooperative Guifi.net, has shown that people don’t need to rely on a large telecom corporation for Wi-Fi service; they can do it themselves. Guifi.net got its start in 2004 when Ramon Roca, a Spanish engineer, hacked some off-the-shelf routers and built a mesh network-like system connected to a single government-owned DSL line. As word spread, a crowdfunding campaign spontaneously arose to buy more equipment, which volunteers then used to build out the network. From a single Wi-Fi node in 2004, Guifi.net has grown into a network of more than 35,000 nodes and 63,000 kilometers of wireless connectivity, including underserved rural regions. It is all managed as a user-friendly commons.

“Commons are self-organised, collective initiatives to provide for our needs and steward the resources that we depend upon.”

In similar fashion, a group of friends in Helsinki decided to launch a neighborhood credit exchange in which participants agreed to swap services with each other, from language translations and swimming lessons to gardening and editing. Participants give an hour of their expertise and get an hour of someone else’s talents. The Helsinki Timebank, has grown into a parallel economy of hundreds of members exchanging tens of thousands of hours of service.

In the UK, two architectural graduates, Alastair Parvin and Nicolas Ierodiaconou, have built a new sort of commons for home design and construction: WikiHouse. Instead of creating buildings only for those who can afford to commission them, the pair decided to help ordinary citizens design and build their own houses.

They came up with the idea of an open source construction kit for housing that relies on computer numerical control (CNC) fabrication. Through CNC, software controls cutting machines to follow digital designs to cut large flat pieces of material such as plywood. The house designs are published as open source files that anyone can modify and improve – and which unskilled workers can quickly and inexpensively assemble as the shell of a home. Since its founding in 2011, WikiHouse has blossomed into a global design community and non-profit foundation that enables anyone to build a low-cost, low-energy home. 

In the face of climate change and economic inequality, many people regard these types of efforts as painfully small and local. But such criticisms are so focused on the institutions of power that have failed us, and so fixated on the global canvas, that they fail to recognise that real forces for transformational change originate in small places, with small groups of people, beneath the gaze of power. Small gambits with adaptive capacities are powerful vehicles for system change.

Right now, a huge swell of bottom-up social initiatives — familiar and novel, in all realms of life, in industrial and rural settings — is meeting needs that the market economy and state power are unable to meet. It includes the Fab Labs of Barcelona inventing new electronic systems and the coastal fisheries off Scotland….the urban water committees of Cochabamba, Bolivia, that manage urban water supplies, and the Potato Park in Peru through which indigenous peoples protect a landscape responsible for more than 900 different types of potato.

“The market and state have developed a rich repertoire of divide-and-conquer strategies for neutralising social movements seeking change.”

Most of these initiatives remain unseen or not identified with a larger pattern of serious provisioning. In the public mind they are patronised, ignored, or seen as aberrational and marginal. After all, they exist outside the prevailing systems of power — the state, capital and markets. But the question should not be whether an idea or initiative is big or small, but whether its premise contains the germ of change for the whole and the capability of others to emulate it. By that standard, commons are a growing force for system change. 

The growth of commons as a global phenomenon is a fledgling form of power that can resist being swallowed up by prevalent forces. That’s because a commons’ participants often depend on it to meet their needs and because they are committed to a broad set of philosophically-integrated values and social practices. Resisting the threat of enclosure is an important capacity because the market and state have developed a rich repertoire of divide-and-conquer strategies for neutralising social movements seeking change.

It partially satisfies one set of demands, for example, but only by imposing new costs on someone else. Yes to greater racial and gender equality in law, but only within the grossly-inequitable system of capitalism and weak enforcement. Or, yes to greater environmental protection, but only by charging higher prices or by ransacking the global South for its natural resources. This is how the citadel of capitalism again and again thwarts demands for system change.

The ambition of the commons is to break this endless story of capture and beggar-thy-neighbour manipulation. Its aim is to develop an independent social economy, outside of the usual circuits of market exchange and state bureaucracy. Commons practitioners do not pursue freedom, fairness, and eco-friendly provisioning as separate goals requiring trade-offs among them. The commons seeks to integrate and unify these goals as priorities – an indivisible agenda. This goal is not merely aspirational; it lies at the heart of commonsing as an insurgent social practice. 

The commons as a social form is surging because it enables people to enjoy freedom without repressing others and to enact fairness without resorting to bureaucratic control. Commons foster togetherness without compulsion and allow us to assert sovereignty as a group without devolving into nationalism. Columnist George Monbiot has summed up the virtues of the commons: “A commons … gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.”   

David Bollier

David is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director …

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Silke Helfrich

Silke is an independent activist, author, scholar, and speaker. She cofounded the Commons Strategies Group and Commons-Institute, was former head of the regional office of Heinrich Böll Foundation for Central America, Cuba, and Mexico, and …

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