An Explosion of Commons Gatherings

Anna Betz, cofounder of the School of Commoning in London, has amassed a remarkable listing of commons-related conferences, lectures and other notable events in Europe, Asia and Africa in the next four months.  (See her longer blog post here.)  I’ve added Brooklyn to her list, just to add a US event.

Oxford, England, March 16 
Commons and Commoning - Ideas and practices for a connected world. A one day programme with international commons activist and author, Silke Helfrich to facilitate and share new thinking and practices on the commons, commoning and commons creation in all areas of our lives: our communities, organisations, networks, disciplines.

Barcelona, Spain, March 20-21 
Sharing Commons Spring Institutions for/of the Commons. State & Commons: An Impossible Match? Reflections from a worldwide perspective by Michael Bauwens

London, England, March 23 
A World that Works For Everyone. An event jointly organised by the Green Party and the School of Commoning featuring Silke Helfrich in the Series 'Meetings with a Remarkable Commoner'

Savannah, Georgia, USA, March 27-29 
The 6th annual The SoTL Commons [Scholarship of Teaching and Learning] conference is a catalyst for learning, conversations and collaborations about SoTL as a key, evidence-based way to improve student learning.

At a small workshop outside of Paris, France, twenty-two of us – mostly Europeans except for two of us – got together to discuss the economics of the commons from an on-the-ground perspective.  We wanted to identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action.  This was the third of a series of “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, held in the fall of 2012.  The two other ones were held in Bangkok for Asian commoners, and in Mexico City for Latin American commoners.

This gathering, in Pontoise, France, was exciting because the participants were some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commons activists.  The dialogues took place at La Bergerie, a lovely retreat center run by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which graciously hosted the event.  Our talks probed the conflicts and contradictions in commons thinking, and tried to get each of us to look beyond our own issue-silos and subcultures.  I recently completed a 23-page interpretive summary of the workshop, which can be downloaded here

The report examines such issues as how shall we conceptualize the commons; whether commons have intrinsic purpose or not; the tensions between liberal constitutionalism and the commons; and future steps in building a commons paradigm.  Below, I excerpt a few portions of the report that strike me as especially interesting.

While the official Rio+20 environmental summit will surely be a bust, reaffirming the supposed power of markets to solve our planetary eco-crises, the alternative People’s Summit has made some progress toward positive outcomes.  A wide variety of civil society groups from around the world has been meeting since November 2011 to try to hammer out a shared vision that addresses the theme, “Capitalist Crisis, Social and Environmental Justice.” 

The dialogues seek not only to provide a critique of what’s wrong and needs fixing, but to suggest some coherent themes and proposals for moving forward.  I am pleased to report that one of four short working documents produced by the so-called Dialogue Platform of the Thematic Social Forum (TSF) sees great promise in reclaiming the commons.

My colleague Silke Helfrich has been involved in these proceedings, participating in group discussions that occurred in Porto Alegre in January and in Rio de Janeiro in May.  She shared her insights with me from her blog, and will be attending the People’s Summit in Rio in about two weeks.  (See also her excellent presentation about how the commons can help us navigate the coming "Great Transition.")

The People’s Summit bills its gathering as “part of a historical process of accumulation and convergence of local, regional and global struggles, that have anti-capitalist, classist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and anti-homophobic political frames.” For a fairly short document that emerged from a very diverse group, the Dialogue Platform’s statement on the commons is remarkably deep and subtle.  It is clear to these activists that the problem is not just misguided policies and economic analysis; it involves fallacious mental maps, epistemological categories and modernity itself. 

I am impressed that a large group of this sort could agree on such a statement, and show such depth of understanding about the commons and its role in building a better future.   Here is the Dialogue Platform’s statement:

If you’re in London or nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to hear commons scholar James Quilligan present a twelve-part seminar series, “The Emergence of a Commons-Based Economy,” starting Monday, May 7.  If we’re lucky, there will also be a live webcast of the talks.

You can see the schedule of seminars and register for them here. A fuller description can be found here.  Each talk will focus on a specific topic, starting with “Democratizing the Global and Political Commons.”  It will be followed by talks on the political economy; financial innovation and the commons; property, value and the commons; organizational practice and the commons; among many others.  (See pie chart.)

A Belgian Encounter with the Commons

Interest in the commons in Belgium is much stronger than I had imagined.  At an environmental symposium in Brussels on Friday, the organizers of “The Commons:  (Co)managing Commonly Owned Resources,” had to turn away people at the door.  It was standing room only in a space meant for 200 people -- and then another 200 people came for an evening talk that I gave at the same location.  

The draw:  a full day of talks and workshops exploring the commons paradigm as a way to reclaim scientific knowledge, our genetic heritage, digital information, and natural resources.  The event – held in a lovely space at the Royal Academy – was co-hosted by the Green European Foundation, a Europe-wide political foundation with links to the Green Party, and two Belgian environmental think tanks, Etopia and Oikos

One doesn’t encounter too many historians of the commons, especially European commons.  I was therefore pleased to hear Professor Tine de Moor’s brief overview of the commons over the past four hundred years.  She hosts a rich repository of historical research about European guilds, cooperatives, waterboards and other commons at the website Institutions for Collective Action.

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.”

The Occupy movement is beginning to discover the commons, and the result could be a rich and productive collaboration.  This was the lesson that I took from a three-day conference, “Making Worlds:  A Forum on the Commons,” hosted by Occupy Wall Street in Brooklyn this past weekend. Rarely have I seen so many ordinary people from diverse backgrounds embrace the commons idea with such ease and enthusiasm.

There was a certain cosmic appropriateness that this gathering was held in a church meeting hall, the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  This is the kind of humble, out of the way setting that gave rise to the civil rights movement 50-60 years ago.  Church basements virtually require us to shed our pretensions and credentials, and to get real with each other.  As they say in the Occupy world, this was a “truth event” – an occasion meant to rip a hole in the fabric of mainstream culture and provoke some deep and honest reflection on the truth.    

Can the commons paradigm take us to higher ground?  For the 100-plus people who showed up, the forum was an occasion to consider how the commons can open up new vistas in “alternative economies, open source, education, environment, technology, labor, politics, race, gender, sexuality and more.”  In typical Occupy style, the meetings were run in a fairly loose fashion; it was not always clear who was “running” the meeting because many people intervened at various times. 

And yet things never got out of hand, and I cannot recall a meeting of this size that was richer, more provocative and constructive.  People really listened to each other.  People actively invited everyone to speak out, especially those who were more reticent.  Your professional credentials were a secondary matter.  And if someone got too agitated, people would use calming hand gestures to cool things down. The dialogue was an intelligent, passionate, highly sophisticated and practical dialogue of ordinary American citizens.  Refreshing!  Now if only such traits could somehow be engineered into our mainstream political culture and media!

While it may be tempting to divide the world into two separate camps, market and commons, some of the most interesting territory lies in the spaces in between – namely, in the non-capitalist, commons-based marketplace.  In France, they call it the “social economy” – the segment of commerce serviced by cooperatives and mutual enterprises.  Such companies meet their members’ commercial needs while also trying to address broader social, ecological and democratic concerns.

I spent the past three days at a gathering, the Mont Blanc Meetings (Les Rencontres du Mont-Blanc) dedicated to exploring how economic efficiency and social equity can be balanced through coops, and how the social economy can be a political force for a new vision of society.  The Mont Blanc Meetings have been held every two years since 2005 as a kind of alternative to both Davos (World Economic Forum) and Porto Allegre (World Social Forum).  The Mont Blanc Meetings are the social economy’s attempt to build an international identity, collaborate on practical projects and promote a new political vision. 

I must say, the organizers certainly chose a lovely place to meet – Chamonix, France, a small resort village nestled in the shadow of two majestic mountain ranges that tower more than two miles above the 3,000-foot valley floor.  What a combination:  European charm, good food, scenic beauty and bracing political discussion.

There's some interesting stuff going on over at, the website-salon-activist venue that explores the outer frontiers of DIY, collaborative consumption, urban life, and the commons, all with an accent on innovations being pioneered by hackers, twenty-somethings and urban activists.

The website had a recent series on the history, growth and variety of crowdfunding projects, including a separate look at crowdfunding of social change. The site's tracking of new forms of collaborative consumption – tech-enabled forms of sharing, lending, bartering, and borrowing – is especially good. A classic example is AirBnB, a service that is the paid equivalent of Couchsurfing which lets people earn income by renting extra rooms in their homes to travelers.  Other examples include the operating system Ubuntu, ride-sharing, libraries and online reputation systems.

In a timely gambit planned months ago, Shareable is teaming up with the Parsons Desis Lab to host an event, Share New York, on Nov. 19-20, to discuss the challenges of making it in today's troubled economy. As the site bills it, “SHARE NY is designed to give you the tools, knowledge, and connections to help you create your own future – one that is more affordable, sustainable, and connected within a new economy that thrives on sharing.” The event hopes to bring together students, social innovators, designers, and entrepreneurs who have “created their own jobs and are pioneering new ways of working, living, and creating.”  More info here.

The Commons, Short and Sweet

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I have copied below.  I think it gets to the nub of things. 

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. 
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
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