Can the Commons Go Electoral?

From an American perspective, it would seem unlikely that the commons could become a topic of mainstream electoral concern in the near future.  The cultural base just isn’t there.  Yet the surprising success of the Pirate Party in Europe suggests that a new cultural cohort – politically disaffected, digitally networked, culturally independent – is beginning to find its voice.  Such voices can be tremendously viral as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have shown, and moreover, crash the insider games of mainstream politics.

My colleague Michel Bauwens has written a very thoughtful essay on this topic for Al Jazeera, in which he predict that a win by the German Pirate Party in 2012 elections would set the stage for a European coalition of the commons.  He sees a “new majority in the making” if the Pirates, the Greens, Labor and Social Liberals can find a way to come together in support of “a commons-centered transformation of European politics.”  Bauwens writes:

Opinion polls [in Germany] predict an average support rate for the Pirate Party hovering around the 10-12% range, making their victorious appearance in the German national elections almost a certainty.  The importance of this can hardly be overrated. If the Pirates are needed to form a national coalition government, which is likely, Germany would no longer be a player in imposing further IP restrictions on behest of the U.S. conglomerates, and would equally certainly start dismantling already existing restrictions to a substantial degree. With dominant Germany out of the game, and Eastern European states already mostly opposed to further IP repression, this also means the end of any EU support for international IP strengthening. In other words, a victory of the German Pirate Party is actually a global victory for the forces favoring information commons.

Now here’s something that doesn’t occur very often:  a respected Internet expert bravely explains to the U.S. foreign policy establishment why open networks are important to an open society – and why Anonymous, Julian Assange and other networked-based protesters are not terrorist threats. 

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler’s essay, “Hacks of Valor,” in the April issue of Foreign Affairs, faces down some of the demagogic smears that are now being leveled at defenders of an open Internet.  He questions the moral authority of a government to go after Anonymous with such vituperation when it has itself normalized lawless activity such as detentions, torture and targeted assassinations, and refuses to bring the powerful past and present culprits to account. 

Keith Alexander, the general in charge of the U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, has warned that Anonymous could “bring about a limited power outage through a cyberattack.” Vice President Biden has called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” 

A four-module online course on the commons has just been launched by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) based in Geneva, in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The four modules focus on the history of the commons, the special value proposition of the commons, the dynamics of enclosure, and a survey of commons-based strategies.  Officially called “Introductory e-Course to the Global Commons,” the self-paced course, taught in English, consists of videos, online readings and resource links, as well as self-test quizzes.

I helped develop this course over the past year, working closely with Professor Leo Burke of the University of Notre Dame and e-learning specialist Robin Temple.  There are, of course, many ways to introduce and teach the commons.  This is just one path into the subject.  We were especially mindful that we were devising an online course that could be interesting and accessible to a highly diverse general audience -- a special challenge since there is no moderator.

We think the course pulls together some notable talks and readings to introduce the commons to UN delegates and government officials, who are the target audience/participant group.  However, students, academics, businesspeople and the general public are also invited to take the course.  To register, just go here. The deadline for registration is April 20.

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 Rio+20 conference in Rio de Janeiro this June will be a major event in the world’s ecological history.  The event, officially the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will provide an opportunity for the world’s nation’s to take stock of what has happened to the environment since an earlier, landmark conference in Rio in 1992 – climate change, loss of biodiversity, species extinctions, desertification, etc., etc. – and to plot ambitious strategies to save the planet in the coming decades. 

But don’t hold your breath.  The world’s governments are not likely to come up with anything significant.  The G-20 nations, which have been described as the “executive board of the world,” have little interest in bold political and institutional reform.  That would only disrupt the desperate search for economic growth.  An open, candid inquiry into the growth economy, consumerism and the finite carrying capacity of Earth’s biophysical systems would be far too politically explosive.  It is far easier to talk about a “green economy,” as if greater efficiencies alone will save the planet. 

The real goal of governments at Rio+20 will be to make it look as if they are doing something significant for the environment.  No one expects that Rio+20 will result in serious, practical government commitments to “sustainable development” (whatever that means), let alone new forms of multilateral governance that could arrest the planet’s ecological decline. 

If only the rest of the world could emulate the Government of Rajasthan in India in adopting public policies to promote the commons! As the Times of India reportsRajasthan has become the first state in the country to have drafted a policy underlining the importance and the need to preserve and secure common land (commons) in rural areas.”  There may be other such government policies around the world, but they are few and far between.  The Rajasthan policies are a real breakthrough.

The Rajasthan government is in the process of identifying which grazing lands, common ponds and their catchment areas, playgrounds and other resources shall be treated as commons. Its new policies aim to decentralize governance, encourage conservation and proper ecological stewardship, assure fair access to and use of the lands, and facilitate public participation in all aspects of managing commons. 

The infrastructure for starting and maintaining new commons just got a big boost in Spain with the founding of, a new crowdfunding website. The explicit mission of is to help finance and support “the independent development of creative and innovative initiatives that contribute to the common good, free knowledge, and open code.”

The site is obviousy inspired by the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and other distributed-funding innovations, but differs in being dedicated exclusively to funding open-source and commons-related projects. It is also dedicared to fostering distributed collaboration on proposed and ongoing projects.

Most of the website is in Spanish, but here is an English FAQ describing the project. Geoteo sees itself as “a platform for investing in 'feeder capital' that supports projects with social, cultural, scientific, educational, technological, or ecological objectives that generate new opportunities for the improvement of society and the enrichment of community goods and resources.”

The over-fishing of the oceans is an increasingly worrisome story. The good news is that a number of Pacific Island Nations – "PINs" – are calling for the creation of the Pacific Commons Marine Reserves.  The idea is to protect the biodiversity of the ocean waters, smaller-scale domestic fishing fleets, and the region's food security.

The Pacific Commons would be the first no-take marine reserves ever established in international waters. Pacific Island countries that support the reserves include Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Cook Islands. Greenpeace, which is supporting the effort, has called for 40 percent of the world's oceans to be declared marine reserves.

The basic problem is that the oceans have become a free-for-all zone that are easily exploited by globe-trotting industrial fishing fleets. An estimated 80% of the Pacific tuna catch is made by foreign fishing fleets that sell to Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the U.S. and the U.K.  Pacific Island Nations reap only about 6% of the value of fish caught in their waters.

This propels a nasty downward spiral:  The oceans become depleted of fish, biodiversity declines, regional fishers lose their livelihoods, and eventually, the ocean fisheries will collapse.

The fishers of the Pacific Ocean want to avoid this fate so they are taking pro-active steps to protect their fishing grounds from outsiders who have little interest in the long-term sustainability of the catch. The idea is to create marine reserves that function somewhat like national parks. They would be a safe haven for marine life and cannot be exploited by any fishing or extractive industries. A report by Greenpeace, “Rescuing the Pacific and Its Tuna,” (pdf) describes this campaign to restore tuna stocks in the region and stop "Illegal Unregulated, Unreported” fishing, otherwise known as IUU fishing. (More on the fishing problems in the Pacific can be found here.)

If you want to learn more about the alarming enclosure of land commons in Africa – its history, current developments and the future – you can do no better than Liz Alden Wily's just-released series of briefing papers, “Reviewing the Fate of Customary Tenure in Africa.”   The series of reports are published by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which describes itself as “ a global coalition of organizations working to encourage forest land tenure and policy reforms and the transformation of the forest economy so that business reflects local development agendas and supports local livelihoods.”

The five-part, 80-page document is a brisk, clear introdution to the history of land commons in Afrtica.  Alden Wily, who studies land tenure practices from Nairobi, Kenya, explains the role of law, money and force in dispossessing native Africans of their customary lands. The basic story is that community-governed commons are being converted into private property traded in the market, resulting in all the familiar pathologies:  People's sense of identity and connection to others wanes; they lose access and use of resources critical to their survival; ecosystems are damaged by market-driven enterprises and investors; and the displaced commoners, unable to support themselves, migrate to cities and become wage slaves, or fall to the margins of the new market culture by becoming beggars, pirates or hapless improvisers in the “informal economy."

Syndicate content