Contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation"

James Quilligan

Today, in the countless privatizations of resources vital to human existence, David Bollier sees the legacy of Enlightenment values. He observes that, rather than offer new solutions, the Market/State perpetuates the same system of colonization, enclosure, and commodification which has been creating social and environmental disparities for the past five hundred years. These imbalances arise through the individual or institutional dominance of a devalued other (involving separate life-forms, separate humans, or separate aspects of oneself).

Yet Bollier anticipates a change in the epistemology which divides (inter)national economies and cultures from local places and communities. He notes that the creation of new norms for cultural and ecological governance is a long and slow process which must grow organically. It cannot be expressed by “passing a law, winning a lawsuit, or establishing a new government agency,” he explains, but through nested levels of scale-linking behaviors that build cultural and biological diversity over time.

This common lifeworld is at the forefront of new solutions for sustainable and prosperous societies. Proponents of the commons envision a civilization where the norms for access, use, and exchange of resources are socially negotiated among resource users. To put this concept in a word, it might be pluralism—but not the pluralism of liberal society with its separation of powers (which is certainly important but rather easily put out of balance by party politics and commercial pressures).

The new pluralism is, rather, a broadening of the modern system of checks and balances to include a wide range of subsidiary input from citizens in the governance of their own resources. This principle of deliberative self-organization is more than a bridge to carry us through the Great Transition: it demonstrates how life will be when we actually reach the other side of the chasm and reintegrate society and culture with nature. This is why the instinct of commoners to fuse individual rights with social equity in a locally decentralized and ecologically sufficient society is spot-on.

My only quibble lies with Bollier’s interpretation of the evolution of the commons, i.e., that “its future development is not inevitable.” From the standpoint of human free will, this is certainly true. The success of a commons depends on its users’ capacities and willingness to produce, distribute, and restore their resources collectively. Yet the fact that commons are co-created does not mean that the development of the commons is somehow preventable or not inevitable.

Now that society is beginning to question the meaning of exponential economic growth, this is no reason to deny the significance of generative development. Simply because the social sciences have taught many of us not to speak of evolutionary or environmental determinism, are we to conclude that people are not part of a purposeful evolution and that the human race has survived for all these millennia entirely by accident? Given the ancient intentionality of human beings on this planet for creating long-term and viable civilizations—cooperatively managing our food, water, energy, and air so that we can eat and have healthy children and perpetuate the race—I would say that humanity’s rediscovery and management of its commons is a very deeply programmed impulse.

If the energetic sustenance of life is a purposive drive in nature and human beings are part of this natural world, then property enclosures and commodity forms are contingent aspects of that reality. They are temporary states of organization and control which civilization has created by externalizing the social and ecological costs of production and consumption. Thus, from the standpoint of human evolution, the commons are co-determined and privatization is an interim stage in the long, progressive internalization of resilience, sustainability, and abundance which humanity is developing through group cooperation and social action.

Of course, much of this consciousness is still diffuse and the story of the commons has few people who can articulate it clearly and wisely. That is why we have mentors like David Bollier to help reorient us. This article, like his new book, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons, are encouraging steps in this direction.

James Quilligan
James Quilligan has been an international development analyst for several decades and is presently Managing Director of the Centre for Global Negotiations and Global Commons Trust.

Cite as James Quilligan, contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation," Great Transition Initiative (April 2014),

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