Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation"

David Bollier

I wish to thank the many commenters on my essay for their thoughtful insights, elaborations on my themes, pointed questions, and criticisms.

Let’s start with the term “commons” itself. As an ancient concept that is being refurbished and given new meanings, it is understandable that there might be confusion about what exactly the commons means. After all, there are so many contexts that give it different valences of meaning, and so many relatively novel usages of the term without a consensual set of referents in mind. Adding to the confusion is that people come from so many different places in the world, and thus from so many different intellectual and cultural vantage points.

All of this does not distress me, however. I regard it as evidence of precisely the larger conversation and “social negotiation” that needs to take place. We need to clarify how we shall talk about the diverse social phenomena of commoning. We are engaged in that process right now, and it will take time to come to a clearer, shared understanding.

Consider, in addition, that “the market” as a concept is usually not very well defined either. It is a social construction that refers to a countless forms of market activity which, over time, we have come to regard as generically similar. A stock exchange, global commerce, commodities futures sales, a local retailer, and a lemonade stand are all forms of “the market,” yet no one usually faults that term for being too vague or elastic. Yes, we often need to speak about “markets” in more precise, contextualized ways, but that does not prevent us from often finding the general term “the market” useful and meaningful.

So it is with the commons. Why can’t the commons be used as a generic term that refers to a multitude of commons, each different but embodying generally similar principles? In this sense, the commons is a meta-discourse and framing, not a totalizing ideology.

The term “ecology” was also befuddling to many people in the early 1960s, and it took years for mainstream culture to assimilate the concept. If the commons is a bit strange and confusing to some people, that is not entirely surprising. Cultural change takes time.

The risk of propagating a new “universalism” certainly exists and must be guarded against. But I think that we (commoners) can deal with this issue by insisting upon the inherent pluralism of the commons—its unity-in-diversity character that James Quilligan urges we recognize. Commons (as actual systems) must always take on the particulars of their local contexts, resources, histories, cultures, rule-sets, and so forth—and the commons must stand for this proposition.

I concede that many people immersed in the prevailing worldview will likely distort the meaning of the commons—and misunderstand it—by imposing on it an alien epistemic meaning. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality. To repeat, the point of using the term commons is partly an attempt to introduce a new vocabulary and cultural sensibility that existing language simply cannot and does not express. The referents of the term “commons” will become clearer as the term itself gains acceptance and currency, much as “ecology” did.

In the meantime, many people will assuredly objectify the commons paradigm and its manifestations. It is already routine for economists and policymakers to regard the commons as a resource only, as when NATO refers to the oceans, space, and Internet as commons. This replicates the original Garrett Hardin error of treating the commons as a simple un-owned resource; it fails to see the commons as a dynamic social mode of bottom-up self-governance. And commoners themselves may fall prey to this trap as well if they regard their commons as resources only.

The best antidote is to insist on treating the “commons” as a verb. Peter Linebaugh, the great historian of the commons, declares that “there is no commons without commoning”—the implementation of social practices, values, and other negotiated contingencies that give a commons its energy and stability. If the commons is seen in this perspective, we can avoid unthinking reifications of the commons.

By seeing a commons as a living social organism, and not a mere object or resource, we can avoid the trap of treating the commons as a universal ideology or an objectified system. We can begin to validate the idea of unity-in-diversity—and apply this ontological viewpoint to our interactions with the more-than-human world and with each other. This is the basic point, after all—to blend our fuller human selves with the larger community and with “nature,” emancipating ourselves from a worldview that regards “nature” as an “other.”

The point of the commons paradigm is to bring to the forefront this ontological realm of empathy, affect, and reciprocity. This is not a matter of idealism or do-gooding, but about creating new forms of subjectivity and agency, which themselves can be potent agents for change. This is critical in animating new sorts of social and political action that can bring about a Great Transition. Neera M. Singh notes in a recent paper about commoners recovering forests in Odisha, India, that “villagers’ daily practices of caring for and regenerating degraded forests in Idisha can be seen as affective labor in which mind and body, reason and passion, intellect and feeling are employed together. Through the environmental care practices in ‘growing forests,’ villagers not only transform natural landscapes they also transform their individual and collective subjectivities.”

Of course, we also need to develop specific policies, laws, and institutional structures related to varieties of the commons, which may easily be denigrated as “objectifications,” not commoning. And this is where things gets complicated because we need such institutions to empower and stabilize self-organized, bottom-up rule-making and governance (outside of government, which is so often a force driving enclosure). Transparency, bottom-up feedback loops, and accountability have been suppressed.

Many have concerns that it will be difficult for the commons to address the governance of large-scale common-pool resources such as the oceans, biodiversity, and the atmosphere. This is quite true and is one of our most urgent challenges. We need new sorts of multi-level systems of governance, including global governance. I do not wish to pretend that existing commons can simply be reconfigured as systems to govern large-scale resources. They cannot. But I do wish to argue that the nation-state system and international treaty organizations are not likely to come up with adequate solutions, in no small part because of their fealty to transnational corporations and the neoliberal market vision. A different logic, ethic, and institutional form must emerge from commoners themselves.

Already we have all sorts of “transnational tribes” of commoners building new systems of cross-border cooperation and culture. They include indigenous peoples, peasant farmers, hundreds of thousands of free software hackers, more than 90,000 Wikipedians, open-access scholarly publishing journals, the Open Educational Resources movement, the Transition Town movement, the Social and Solidarity Economy movement, the Degrowth movement, the cooperative movement, among many others. The Internet, meanwhile, represents a powerful infrastructure for convening diverse groups and fostering greater communication and integration.

I believe that any strategically effective actions will need to reimagine citizen action that goes beyond the classic forms of petitioning government for a redress of grievances. The current system itself is the problem. A good place to start is by creating protectable working alternatives to the status quo, working outside of the system. This can change the center of gravity, politically and culturally, and exert greater transformative leverage than doomed efforts to prevail against colossal concentrations of power that dominate a rigged system.

This is what Linux advocates did by building a new body of software code that could out-compete Microsoft Windows: a much more effective approach than antitrust litigation or new legislation. Similarly, the local food movement did not initially begin their crusades by lobbying Congress and the USDA, but by creating their own organic farms, community-support agriculture programs, permaculture projects, Slow Food gatherings, local distribution systems, and so on. The Occupy movement did not lobby Congress about wealth inequality; it took over public spaces as a visible enactment of their civic sovereignty, and in so doing changed the political conversation and culture (Occupy’s institutional follow-through is another matter).

Actions such as these can be effective because they essentially withdraw from the corrupt, established system and over time delegitimize it by demonstrating superior alternatives. They validate an alternative logic of self-provisioning. They help convene a new public dedicated to a new value proposition. They serve as a staging area for a new political constituency and future engagements with the State. And they serve as nodes that can reach out laterally and transnationally to form new vehicles for federated action. One of the best examples of this was the eclectic digital coalition that improbably defeated ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, in 2012, which sought to impose draconian new rules for copyright law and the Internet.

I also wish to thank Wolfgang Sachs for his astute thoughts about how commons can facilitate “economic degrowth” or, a term that I prefer, post-growth: a very important theme. Finally, Ashish Kothari is quite right that local inequities of gender, caste, class, race, ethnicity, and age may be prevalent in commons. We must keep in mind that commons are not automatically “progressive.” (However, I believe commons are structurally more amenable to implementing progressive change than governments.)

Again, my thanks to all for their thoughtful remarks in this invigorating dialogue. This is a conversation that must continue.

David Bollier
David Bollier is an author, activist, blogger, and independent scholar who has studied the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics, and culture for the past fifteen years. He pursues this work primarily as co-founder of the Commons Strategies Group and as co-director of the Commons Law Project.

Cite as David Bollier, author's response to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation," Great Transition Initiative (April 2014),

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