Surveying Commons Activism on the International Stage
The following is an adaptation of my notes for my talk at the Occupy Wall Street “Making Worlds” conference on February 16-18, 2012.
I am so pleased that the Occupy and Commons movements are finding each other and starting a new conversation. Occupy is an incredible force for change. It has a bracing vision, a deeply principled philosophy, and an independent, risk-taking spirit that is unusual in American political life. There are many challenges for Occupy, however, as it tries to imagine new ways to move forward and grow. I’d like to suggest how the commons framing and language may be strategically important by surveying the international scene of commons activism, which is remarkably robust. There is a lot is going on — but I won’t presume to be comprehensive; my apologies for any significant omissions.
Let me start by giving a brief speculation about why people from so many backgrounds are embracing the commons. First of all, it is a way for people to assert the integrity of their existing communities, or to try to reclaim that integrity. The commons also provides a way to assert a moral relationship to certain resources and people that are endangered by market forces. It’s a way of saying, “That _________ (water, air, software code, cultural tradition) belongs to me. It is part of my life and identity.”
Many people are embracing the commons, too, because it provides a powerful critique of neoliberal capitalism. But it is much more than that. It is a pro-active set of alternatives that work. And therefore it provides a positive, constructive scaffolding for practical alternatives to the prevailing market economy and corrupt political process. But the commons is still more than this. It is not just a policy critique or political philosophy, but equally a distinctive worldview, language and social ethic.
All of this means that the commons can give us a vision of a new world. And in this respect, the commons is really about building a new vocabulary. For example, what neoliberal capitalism generally calls “progress,” we would call “enclosure.” People are starting to understand that market forces do not necessarily represent progress, but rather dispossession and destruction. So-called economic development is more about environmental destruction than “progress.”
Enclosure dispossesses people through the privatization and commodification of things that were once shared and accessible often outside of the marketplace. Enclosure is about substituting power hierarchies and money-based relationships – the producer/consumer dyad – for egalitarian co-production and co-governance. But it’s hard to name such things as a systemic phenomena without concepts like “enclosure.”
It’s an encouraging sign that the language of the commons and enclosure is gaining momentum internationally. This should not be a surprise. Enclosure is one of the great, unacknowledged scandals of our time.
One of the worst sets of enclosures is the international land grab that is now underway in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Investors, national governments and speculators are buying up millions of acres of farmlands. Saudi Arabia is spending $1 billion for huge tracts in Africa for rice cultivation. India and China are assembling investment pools to buy up farmlands. Much of this land is customary land managed as commons. Hundreds of millions of rural poor use have used these lands for generations for subsistence. But because they don’t have formal property rights — the government or corporations do – they are powerless.
And to justify the appropriations, the commons are called “wastelands” or “unowned” lands. This harks back to John Locke’s definitions of property and value. Because commoners use their lands in ecologically sustainable ways, without the exploitation and extraction that markets typically use, the lands are considered without value. Investors who bring the land into a system of market control – say, for monoculture farming or biofuels production – are supposedly “developing” the land. This is how language misleads us about the real meaning of value.
One of the most infamous enclosures occurred in Bolivia. We just heard earlier about the infamous attempt to privatize water in Cochabamba. Even though the people prevailed, enclosures of water are still a worldwide phenomenal.
India is the site of major enclosures of pastoral lands, farm lands, waterways, ponds. Fortunately, because so much of the economy in India depends upon such commons, there is serious pushback, and the commons is starting to be recognized and defended as a matter of law and public policy. Last year there was a powerful Supreme Court ruling prohibiting enclosures – a landmark case. The State of Rajasthan is currently developing a major public policy system to protect commons of farmland, pastures, water and other natural resources. The Foundation for Ecological Security, a nonprofit advocacy group in India, is a leader there in trying to get “wastelands” recognized as commons.
The Balkans – Macedonia, Serbia, Herzegovina, Romania and other countries of the region – are experiencing their own sets of enclosures. Some of the worst involve corrupt governments working with investors and developers to privatize coastal land and urban spaces. Many commoners are working to establish more open, honest forms of democratic governance and to fight the rampant marketization. The Green Party is quite active in this fight.
In Germany, the commons is actually a topic of mainstream political discussion. Here, too, the Green Party and particularly its associated foundation, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, have been very active. I have been working with the Boell Foundation and with the Commons Strategies Group on the commons, especially with Silke Helfrich of Jena, Germany, who has long associations with the Boell Foundation, and with Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation. Together we created the Commons Strategies Group to act as international advisers and strategic catalysts for advancing the commons paradigm. We are less of an organization than a collaborative network.
We are completing a major anthology of more than seventy essays about the commons from authors from more than two dozen countries. The book, The Life of the Commons, will be published in a few months. We are also planning a major conference on the economics of the commons for May 2012, in which we will try to explore how and why the commons works as a socio-economic-political entity, at both the macro- and micro-levels.
This conference will build on the work of the International Commons Conference held in Berlin in November 2010, which convened 200 self-identified commoners from 35 countries — Amsterdam hackers, Filipino farmers, South African squatters advocates, the Brazilian minister of digital culture, German urban gardeners, American academics and activists, and many others. The website for the conference has a host of valuable documents, videos and other materials. One sign that the commons is being taken seriously in Germany is the recent founding of a new Research Institute on Climate Change and the Global Commons.
I think it’s noteworthy that the Pirate Party is big in Germany. It won 10% of the vote in the recent Berlin regional elections. And the Pirate Party in Sweden won two seats in the European Parliament a few years ago. It is the most popular party in Sweden for voters between the ages of 18 and 30. Like Occupy, the Pirate Party also sees the existing political system as a rigged, captured system. The Pirate Party has focused mostly on Internet and copyright issues, but it is attempting to diversify its agenda and move into electoral politics. There are more than two dozen national Pirate Parties coordinated by the Pirate Party International.
There is a lot of interest in the commons in France, but sometimes the history of political action focused on government makes it hard for some French to “see” the commons as a viable alternative sector. However, advocacy about digital commons is quite strong, as seen in the group La Quadrature du Net, the work of the Charles Meyer Foundation, and advocacy by people like Philippe Aigrain, who has a new book on the sharing economy called Sharing.
I shall always remember reading a short piece by Frenchman Alain Lipietz, who gave an etymology of the word “commons.” He traces it to the Normans – not the English – and says that the word derives from the conjoining of two words that mean “gift” and “duty.” I like this short, succinct description of what a commons is. It’s poetic and profound.
In Italy, there was a major voter initiative two years ago about whether to privatize municipal water systems and other water resources in Italy. Some 94% of the electorate gave a stunning rejection of the privatization proposals. Control of water was spoken about explicitly as a commons, which has become a term of mainstream political discussion. A key advocate and scholar in Italy is Ugo Mattei, an international law professor based in Turin. Another prominent figure is Enrico Grazzini, who recently published a book on the sharing economy.
Some of the most visible leadership is coming from Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris, who has appointed an Assessor of the Commons to monitor and improve local commons. He recently hosted a major conference on the commons for Italian municipal officials, and has instigated a move to have a voter initiative on a European Charter on the Commons. This effort aspires to collect one million signatures in order to get a voter initiative on the commons on ballots throughout Europe, with the goal of giving explicit legal protection to various commons. The precise legal terms of the Charter are currently being worked out. Just this past weekend there was a major conference in Rome devoted to the initiative.
The Rio+20 conference in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, could be a major beachhead for commons advocacy. The previous panel spoke about this, so I won’t repeat that. But suffice it to say that the official conference will not accomplish much because the leading economic powers have little interest in serious change. But the alternative People’s Summit that will occur at Rio+20 is showing signs of interest in the commons as a way of pushing back on the neoliberal policy agenda that will prevail at the official conference. At several days of planning sessions by NGOs in Porto Alegre a few weeks ago, some real headway was made. A two-page statement – which I put on my blog – talks about the “dangerous conspiracy between the Market and State” to enclose our many commons. It also notes the many commons-based alternatives that can be pursued and the convergence of many social movements that have interests in commons — digital, agricultural, indigenous, urban, social.
Many people in the Global South recognize the value of commons framing: indigenous peoples, farmers’ groups in Latin America, the World Social Forum, development advocates in smaller countries. All becoming more active. Many, many Brazilians understand and love free software, CC licenses and free culture, and peer production, thanks to years of pioneering advocacy by the former minister of digital culture, the musician Gilberto Gil. (Some of this is now jeopardized by the policies of the new president Dilma Rousseff.)
Why is the commons so attractive as an alternative vision and framework for “development”? Because the commons can help us talk about the compulsive externalizing of costs that markets inflict on nature. It raises questions about the ethics of monetizing all value. It challenges the growth imperatives of the contemporary economy. It challenges the legal prejudices against collective stewardship and long-term commitments. And it helps heal our cultural alienation from nature and each other. If “another world is possible,” the commons helps us elaborate on that slogan with some specifics, philosophical coherence and sophistication.
For my part, I have been involved in the past two years with The Commons Law Project. Working with the noted international human rights law scholar Burns Weston of the University of Iowa, I have been working to imagine a legal framework for the State recognizing and supporting commons governance of natural resources. We have been trying to blend a new vision of human rights, different modes of environmental protection, a new economic approach and commons-based governance into a new paradigm. This is not just a theoretical exercise; we are also trying to develop a variety of practical legal strategies for recognizing and supporting commons. We plan to publish a book Greenkeeping Governance: Toward a Law of the Ecological Commons within the next year, and a website for the Commons Law Project will soon feature an earlier draft of our book.
It’s important to note that education about the commons is expanding internationally. In London, there is the School of Commoning that George Por and others have started. In Germany, there is a Summer School on the Commons. I know of efforts in Barcelona, Spain; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and the U.S., to develop courses on the commons. Last year I worked with the UN Institute for Training and Research to develop an online course on the commons. It consists of four modules and a self-paced syllabus with various readings and videos. The course is expected to go live on or about March 1.
The commons is a great sleeping giant – an unacknowledged superpower – if we consider the many transnational tribes of commoners. Because they are not conventional institutions or nonprofits, their impact can be easy to overlook. But consider these diverse movements and networks of people who may not be explicitly using commons language, but certainly share the core values and goals of commoners:
- The Solidarity Economy movement, which is particularly strong in Brazil, Venezuela, Canada and Europe.
- The Transition Town movement
- Water activism
- The Landless Workers Movement / Via Campesino
- Free software/open source software, a well-established international network
- Creative Commons / free culture, which is active in more than 70 countries
- Wikipedians, who number in the tens of thousands in dozens of countries
- Open access publishing, which has more than 7,000 open access journals
- Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, which features open courseware in more than 150 colleges and universities worldwide
- The Pirate Parties in more than two dozen countries
- The Occupy movement
A great convergence of movements is going on, or at least robust cross-fertilization. Each movement has serious questions about conventional governance and politics, or is building its own alternatives to convention markets and government. Each has different focal points and different tactics. But there is a rough agreement on basic human values, political goals and a respect for the open, participatory ethic of the Internet.
Any review of international developments about the commons must consider a rich array of smaller but significant projects and initiatives. I don’t have time to name them all, but some of the more prominent ones include the Degrowth movement; the open information commons that the city of Linz, Austria, is creating; the Global Innovation Trust, a database of valuable technology patents in the public domain that can help build cheap, eco-friendly solutions; alternative complementary currencies; new business models that work on P2P platforms; the P2P Urbanism movement that advocates for participatory urban design; the Yasuni-ITT initiative in Ecuador to keep oil in the ground and protect biodiverse region and indigenous communities; and many, many important academic research initiatives.
The commons is a work in progress. It is not a monolithic, unified movement, but there is a certain unity of worldview, sensibility and goals without a uniformity of political approaches. It is only natural that there be many divergent perspectives. Any given commons has always been marked by the particular history, culture, economics and resource base involved.
There are also many unanswered questions, as the recent Porto Alegre statement made clear. Many digital commoners do not recognize their dependency on the “analogue” world on the one hand (computers cannot produce food), and many ecologists and traditional communities tend to underestimate the potential for social transformation that free technologies and culture can provide, on the other hand. Some commoners believe that the right to share and self-management can achieve the universal desire for social justice without exhausting the natural resources. Others in good faith are skeptical.
Some commoners argue that the idea of the commons continues to (re)trace the pathologies of property and the domination of nature and thus tend to be anthropocentric. Others see in the commons the possibility of greater communion between nature and culture. Some commoners want to find ways to deal constructive with markets; other want to shun markets altogether.
There are also many unresolved concerns. There is a tension between the local, the regional and the global. It is impossible to think of commoning without thinking about a social subject, a “community.” It is therefore easiest to think about the commons paradigm at a local level. But thinking about the commons at a global level is a great challenge, and even impossible to escape because there is only one earth.
This raises a related question: What should be the role of a state that conceives itself as a defender of the commons? Rather than talk of socialism, which implies government dominance and decisionmaking, I think we should talk about “state trustee commons” to underscore the fact that government must act on behalf of the people, whose rights of participation and sovereignty must not be violated.
A major problem is moving forward is our received political language. It is so permeated by the terminology of the state/market system and that of ideologies having a different mindset, that little progress can be made unless we can develop a new vocabulary that truly describes the world we want to create. That’s why we need an open process and a ongoing conversation to help us collectively build a vocabulary that we can adapt to the diversity of contexts in which we each act.
As the Porto Alegre statement concludes: “The commons are right before our eyes. Together we will find methods for naming them and, even more important, for converting them into a diversity of governance systems based on the principles of commoning.” This is the challenge that unites the many international efforts to defend and expand the commons.
What makes the commons so powerful — if still under-developed — is its multiple dimensions. It is a rich history. It is a body of law. It is a set of social practices and ethics. And it is a vision for the future. And yet it is open and incomplete enough that each of us can make it our own. The future is not yet written.