The Aliveness of a Commons: My Shareable Interview

I always appreciate it when interviewers force you to articulate things that lie just below the surface. That’s what happened when Cat Johnson of Shareable recently talked with me about Patterns of Commoning, the new book that I co-edited with Silke Helfrich that profiles dozens of notable commons around the world. Here is an excerpt:

Shareable: In the book, you and Silke focus on what is described as the consciousness of thinking, learning, and acting as a commoner as the heart of the commons movement. What does this mean to you?

It means breaking down some of the dichotomies that we take for granted, such as between public and private, between collective and individual, between rational and nonrational. In the commons, they start to blur.  You have to start talking about the commons as this organic whole, and not as this machine you can break down into parts or dissect. It’s a living organism and that’s precisely what needs to be studied: its aliveness.

Conventional, modern science refuses to explore aliveness, and instead has a lot of reductionist categories that don’t really get to the essence of, not only what it is to be a living human being, but a living human being on a living earth. I think the commons wants to speak to those kinds of concerns and, not surprisingly, it won’t fit into a lot of the conventional, intellectual boxes that academics, in particular, like to use.

A point in the book that I find very interesting is that policymakers and experts can’t design and build commons in a top-down fashion and expect them to thrive. Commoners must do this work themselves. What distinguishes an organic commons from a manufactured one?

The institutionally sponsored commons cannot have the same bottom-up sense of commitment, ownership, co-creation. To that extent, they will be subjects in somebody else’s drama with outside directors, as opposed to expressions of a creative upswell from people themselves, that serves their interests, their needs, their inner lives.

Institutions are notoriously unable to speak to or express people’s inner needs and yearnings, but I think commons can and do. That’s really the essence of the aliveness I was talking about. Commons have their own self-replicating energy and enthusiasm and, sometimes, flashes of grace. That’s quite special. It’s all wrapped up in the fact that a commons is a unique social, historical, cultural phenomenon that lives in that moment, that expresses people’s real needs.

This is a far cry from the resource-allocation type of analysis that some people try to understand commons through. Which is not to say that some of those resource analysis issues don’t matter, I’m just saying that they’re not the whole story.

For the rest of the interview, go to Shareable.