Learning from The Wealth of the Commons

Paper by Mae Shaw in Special issue of the Community Development Journal on “Commons Sense New thinking about an old idea: “We are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, people around the world are searching for alternatives’.

This is the starting point for what David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, the editors of The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (2012), describe as ‘an extended global exercise in commoning’ – Peter Linebaugh’s term for ‘the self-determination of commoners in managing their shared resources’ (p. 396). In other words, the book itself is offered as an active process of ‘making the path’ by presenting ‘some of the most promising new paths now being developed’. It is intended to be ‘rigorous enough for academic readers yet accessible enough for the layperson’. In this, it more than achieves its ambitions. The Wealth of the Commons is an edited collection of seventy-three short papers from thirty countries: ‘a collective venture of sharing, collaboration, negotiation and creative production among some of the most diverse commons scholars, activists and projects leaders imaginable’. This rich and diverse source of knowledge and inspiration could be described as ‘polyvocal’ in the sense that it presents a multiplicity of voices improvising around a single theme – sometimes in harmony, sometimes discordant, but always interesting.

The book brings together an impressive collection of contributors from different places, backgrounds and interests to explore the meaning of the commons and to advocate for it ‘as a new paradigm’ for the organization of public and private life. In this sense, it represents a project rather than an analysis: essentially espousing a cause with imperative urgency. This is not necessarily a weakness, but it does raise specific questions about what is included and what is absent or marginalized in this particular selection of accounts, and what might be lost along the way. What counts as ‘commons’ or ‘the commons’ or ‘the common’ (all used in the text) is a subject of discussion and contestation here, as elsewhere. The effort to ‘name and claim’ is an integral aspect of the project. As Jeffrey et al. (2012, p. 10) comment, ‘the struggle for the commons has never been without its own politics of separation and division’, raising valid questions about the prospects for a coherent paradigm at this stage. At the very least, however, this rich resource may prove seminal in countering those dominant paradigms of growth and development in which structural and cultural adjustments ‘serve as a justifying rhetoric for continuity in plunder’ of common resources (Mattei, p. 41).

The contributions fall into three general categories: those offering a critique of existing ‘increasingly dysfunctional’ market/state relations; those that ‘enlarge theoretical understandings of the commons as a way to change the world’; and those that ‘describe innovative working projects which demonstrate the feasibility’ of the commons.

What counts as the commons?

As acknowledged in many of the chapters, defining the commons in any consistent and convincing way can be deeply problematic. Like ‘community’ itself, it can be regarded to some degree as an ideological portmanteau which contains a variety of meanings. Nonetheless, there is a general commitment to confront such difficulties in an open way, and to be as clear as possible about what the commons might represent, what it might replace, and what it should not be confused with. Put most simply, the commons refers to what human beings share in nature and society that should be cherished for all now and for the future: ‘the term … provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds’ (Weber p.11). Its profound challenge to the logic of competitive capitalist relations, therefore, is to ‘validate new schemes of human relations, production and governance … commonance’ (Bollier and Helfrich, p. xiv) that penetrate all levels of public and private life. This idea is explored in detail in many of the contributions.

The commons, then, claims to represent a philosophical stance, an intellectual framework, a moral and economic imperative, a set of organizing principles and commitments, a movement, and an emerging ‘global community of practice’ (O’Connell, 2012). It has also developed an increasingly shared discourse, which is designed to unsettle institutionalized norms and values and to reclaim or remake the language of co-operation, fairness and social justice. As the editorial points out, the language of capitalism is one that becomes ‘encoded into the epistemology of our language and internalized by people’. In community development, and elsewhere, we have become sensitized to the way in which progressive language can be appropriated to support individualistic market values. When empowerment can mean facilitated asset-stripping of local communities, and solidarity targets can be set by government (e.g. Scottish Government, 2007), then we must be wary about assuming proprietorial closure on the term ‘commons’ itself.

As Federici, in a particularly persuasive chapter, warns: ‘… capital is learning about the virtues of the common good’ (p. 46). She argues that, ‘since at least the 1990s, the language of the commons has been appropriated … by the World Bank and put at the service of privatization’. For this reason, it is important to think of the commons as a ‘quality of relations, a principle of co-operation and of responsibility to each other and to the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals’ (p. 50). This produces a different operational logic, which is explored in depth across the collection.

Deficiencies in the commons framework

To advance the commons as ‘a new paradigm’, it is necessary to locate it historically and to show the ways in which it has been colonized and compromised, as some of these pieces do. It may seem ironic that the meaning of ‘the commons’ to many people in the UK, for example, is that bear pit of parliamentary business, the House of Commons, in which adversarial rather than consensual politics is the order of the day. Reclaiming such foundational ideas is a lengthy and demanding process, as David Graeber shows in The Democracy Project, his recent account of the Occupy Movement, which for a time commanded considerable international interest. Drawing on Linebaugh, Federici contends that ‘commons have been the thread that has connected the history of the class struggle into our time’.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the volume fails to address the relationship between organized labour and the commons, as highlighted in the introduction, because there is a distinctive contribution to be made here. As Harvey (2012) argues, decentralization and autonomy are also primary vehicles for reinforcing neoliberal class strategies of social reproduction and producing greater inequality. For example, in urban environments in particular, ‘the better the common qualities a social group creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit-maximising interests’ leading inexorably to economic cleansing of whole areas. Gentrification and tourism are the clearest examples. The salience of class in general is an underdeveloped line of argument. If this authoritative collection is anything to go by, this may be a significant deficiency in the commons framework.

Without historical continuity – honouring the contribution of those ‘commoners’ who came before in various guises and places – there is a danger of falling into the contemporary trap of regarding ‘innovation’ as a way of separating us from our past. History in the past as well as in the making is as essential a part of our commons as is the present and the future – material, temporal and spiritual….”