Why the Language of the Commons Matters

The text below is the second half of the Introduction to the recently published anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press).  The first half was posted yesterday.  More about the book can be found at

As the corruption of the market/state duopoly has deepened, our very language for identifying problems and imagining solutions has been compromised. The snares and deceptions embedded in our prevailing political language go very deep. Such dualisms as “public” and “private,” and “state” and “market,” and “nature and culture,” for example, are taken as self-evident. As heirs of Descartes, we are accustomed to differentiating “subjective” from “objective,” and “individual” from “collective” as polar opposites. But such polarities are lexical inheritances that are increasingly inapt as the two poles in reality blur into each other. And yet they continue to profoundly structure how we think about contemporary problems and what spectrum of solutions we regard as plausible.

Words have performative force. They make the world. In the very moment that we stop talking about business models, efficiency and profitability as top priorities, we stop seeing ourselves as homo economicus and as objects to be manipulated by computer spreadsheets. We start seeing ourselves as commoners in relationship to others, with a shared history and shared future. We start creating a culture of stewardship and co-responsibility for our commons resources while at the same time defending our livelihoods. This new language situates us as interactive agents of larger collectivities. Our participation in these larger wholes (local communities, online affinity groups, inter-generational traditions) does not eradicate our individuality, but it certainly shapes our preferences, outlooks, values and behaviors: who we are. A key revelation of the commons way of thinking is that we humans are not in fact isolated, atomistic individuals. We are not amoebas with no human agency except hedonistic “utilitarian preferences” that are expressed in the marketplace.

No: We are commoners – creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger wholes. We may have many unattractive human traits fueled by individual fears and ego, but we are also creatures entirely capable of self-organization, cooperation, a concern for fairness and social justice, and sacrifice for the larger good and future generations.

The Commons as a Transformative Vision

Below is the first half of the Introduction to our new anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, just published by Levellers Press.  The Introduction is by me and Silke Helfrich, my co-editor and colleague on the Commons Strategies Group.  Part II of the essay will be published in my next blog post.  You can learn more about the book at its website,

It has become increasingly clear that we are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by an archaic order of centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, presided over by a state committed to planet-destroying economic growth, people around the world are searching for alternatives. That is the message of various social conflicts all over the world--of the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement, and of countless social innovators on the Internet. People want to emancipate themselves not just from poverty and shrinking opportunities, but from governance systems that do not allow them meaningful voice and responsibility. This book is about how we can find the new paths to navigate this transition. It is about our future.

But since there is no path forward, we must make the path. This book therefore is about some of the most promising new paths now being developed. Its seventy-three essays describe the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future. The pieces, written by authors from thirty countries, fall into three general categories – those that offer a penetrating critique the existing, increasingly dysfunctional market/state partnership; those that enlarge our theoretical understandings of the commons as a way to change the world; and those that describe innovative working projects that are demonstrating the feasibility and appeal of the commons.

I’m pleased to report that the English edition of a new anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available!  I’ve been working on editing the book with my German colleague Silke Helfrich for nearly a year and a half, so it’s wonderfully satisfying to see the book in its final, printed form. 

Let me immodestly state:  Never before have so many different international voices about the commons been brought together in one volume.  The Wealth of the Commons consists of 73 essays by a diverse roster of international activists, academics and project leaders. It consists of descriptions of specific commons innovations, essays on the theory and economics of commons, accounts of different types of enclosures around the world, and much else.

There are accounts of fishing commons off the coast of Chile; fruit sharing from abandoned orchards in Germany; and an overview of subsistence forestry in Nepal.  There are many accounts of market enclosures, from dam-building in India to mining in South America to the international land grab now underway in Africa and Asia.  The book also features a series of essays on knowledge commons and more than a dozen essays focused on commons-friendly policy innovations.

The soft-bound, 442-page book is published by Levellers Press, a small, innovative publisher here in Massachusetts that is also a worker coop and itself ardently committed to the commons.  I love the fact that a book on the commons is being published by a publisher that truly honors the Levellers, one of the great movements of commoners in the seventeenth century.  The book can be bought from the Levellers website for US$22.50 plus shipping and handling.  More about the book can be found on its website,

Raj Patel has been tracking the pathologies of the global food system for many years.  An activist and academic who teaches at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, Patel has just published a second, updated edition of his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

The problem with the food system is not that we don't produce enough calories to eradicate hunger, Patel notes.  It's that the food system has its own priorities of institutional consolidation and profit, which means that more than 1 billion people in the world are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight – which is worse than when the first edition of Patel's book came out. 

Patel has also been a serious student of the commons.  His 2010 book, The Value of Nothing:  How to Reshape the Market Society and Redefine Democracy, is a lucid overview of the fallaciious premises of market economics and its dismal performance.  He also goes on at length about the ability of the commons paradigm to help ameliorate food sovereignty, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Recommended reading is a recent interview with Patel at Stir, the vigorous, commons-oriented British political journal founded by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh.  (Incidentally, Stir is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run of a book collecting some of its best articles.)

Here are a few excerpts from Stir’s interview with Patel:   

On genetically modified crops & climate change:  “We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future.  The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought-resistance and climate-change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense!  To have a crop that is climate-change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things.  It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat.  It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes.  We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically-modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought.  The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events.”

Share or Die, the Book

When Dustin Hoffman was “the graduate,” he could at least consider a job in plastics.  Nowadays the jobs have been sent abroad, communities are being destabilized by budget cuts, and many of the entry-level opportunities for young people, if they exist at all, are pretty soul-deadening.  The world that is being bequeathed to the younger generation is in serious decline if not decadence – yet the corporate and political elite who run the show seem incapable of turning things around.  Indeed, they don’t really seem to want to.  What’s a twenty-something supposed to do?

Shareable Magazine has just released a lively book that provides a few answers.  It doesn't offer any grand manifestos so much as a series of highly personal, evocative testimonies filled with rays of hope.  Share or Die:  Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis, is an eclectic collection of essays about the ways that young people are trying to build happier, wholesome, workable lives for themselves as the edifice of late-stage capitalism begins to implode.  Edited by Malcolm Harris with Neal Gorenflo (New Society Publishers), the book brings to the surface, in authentic, heartfelt ways, the frustrations and triumphs of young people trying to find their footings.

Here are some of those voices: 

An anonymous, self-described “nomad” describes why he has chosen of life on the road.  It’s not as if he has a script or a deadline for his travels; he’s just wandering.  He advises, “You need to be resourceful and confident, reasonably streetwise, but also open to the prospect that most people are basically good.  The kindness of people I meet on the road continues to overwhelm me, and I aim to both repay it and pass it on as far as possible.”  The nomad itemizes what’s in his backpack (his netbook, ancient mobile phone and waterproof jacket), and why.

It’s unlikely that we are ever going to get a book as rigorous and comprehensive in its treatment of infrastructure as a commons than Professor Brett Frischmann’s recently published Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford University Press). This book is a landmark in the study of the social value of infrastructure, a theme that is generally overlooked or marginalized.

Who among us gives much thought to the economics and policy structures that govern the Internet, telecommunications, water systems, roads and highways or the electric power grid?  These resources hover in the background, nearly invisible, until they break down.  Then people start to contemplate the wide-ranging social, economic and civic benefits of safe bridges and reliable, efficient water systems. And if we're lucky, prudent policies are enacted.

Infrastructure tends to be neglected because it is generally very complex, technologically and financially.  Its value extends well into the future and so it’s easy to ignores its benefits.  And since the benefits also tend to be diffused among the general public, there is often no single individual constituency to rally behind infrastructure except those who directly profit from it.

Not surprisingly, lots of private interests have made great fortunes by privatizing public infrastructure.  Since deregulation in the 1990s, the broadcasting industry has enjoyed exclusive control over our airwaves with no meaningful public interest obligations – an enclosure worth hundreds of billions of dollars.  The atmosphere is used as a free waste dump by polluters.  Multinational bottlers continually prowl the globe in search of free or cheap groundwater supplies while other attempt to privatize municipal water systems.

For the past two years or more, I’ve been working on a major research and writing project to try to recover from the mists of history the bits and pieces of what might be called “commons law” (not to be confused with common law).  Commons law consists of those social practices, cultural traditions and specific bodies of formal law that recognize the rights of commoners to manage their own resources.  Most of these governance traditions deal with natural resources such as farmland, forests, fisheries, water and wild game.  Commons law has existed in many forms, and in many cultures, over millennia.

Ever since the rise of the nation-state and especially industrialized markets, however, commons law has been marginalized if not eclipsed by contemporary forms of market-based law.  Over the past 200 years, individual property rights and market exchange have been elevated over most everything else, and this has only eroded the rights of commoners, it has contributed to the destruction of the Earth and its fragile natural systems.

To address this problem, the noted international law and human rights scholar, Professor Burns Weston of the University of Iowa School of Law, and I started the Commons Law Project in 2010.  We wanted to re-imagine the scope of human rights law, validate neglected forms of commons-based ecological governance and reframe the very notion of “the economy” to incorporate non-market sharing and collaboration.

It has been, I concede, an ambitious enterprise.  But we had concluded that incremental efforts to expand human rights and environmental protection within the framework of the State/Market duopoly were simply not going to achieve much.  Indeed, the existing system of regulation and international treaties has been a horrendous failure over the past forty years.  Neoliberal economics has corrupted and compromised law and regulation, slashing away at responsible stewardship of our shared inheritance while hastening a steady decline of the world’s ecosystems – forests, wetlands, fisheries, coral reefs, the atmosphere, the polar zones, and more.

I’ve always been disappointed that the rich diversity of commons projects and scholarship that is exploding internationally cannot be readily seen – and what does exist tends to be written by and for academics. The International Commons Conference in Berlin in November 2010 brought this issue home by showing the amazing breadth of commons activism and thinking out there. The question is, How can someone tap into this knowledge? 

My friend and colleague Silke Helfrich and I have tried to remedy this problem by assembling a big anthology of essays on the commons by leading activists, scholars and project leaders.  I am happy to report that the German version of this book, edited by Helfrich and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, has just been published.  It’s called Commons:  For a Policy Beyond Market and State, and it's available from the German publisher, transcript. 

The 526-page book is likely to be a sourcebook on the commons for quite some time.  At least I hope so.  It contains 73 essays by authors who live in 30 countries around the world.  The essays focus on everything from commons-based abundance and free software to land enclosures and P2P urbanism.  There are essays by Peter Linebaugh on the history of the commons, Silvia Federici on women and the commons, Rob Hopkins on resilience, Liz Alden Wily on the international land grabs, Massimo de Angelis on capitalism and cooperation, and Hervé Le Crosnier on modern forms of enclosure, among many others. 

The point is to highlight the remarkable international diversity of commons projects, activism and theoretical thought.  The book features a number of essays by academics working in the Ostrom school of commons scholarship, but also many scholars from other traditions and independent activists. A major challenge was translating many essays from English and Spanish into German, and editing them all into a standard format.  A hearty congratulations to Silke and the Böll Foundationfor tackling this formidable task over the past year!

As if recovering from the binge of market triumphalism that crested in 2008, the Zeitgeist is now unleashing a steady stream of new works on cooperation.  The rediscovery of this aspect of our humanity is long overdue and incredibly important, given the deformities of thinking that economics has inflicted on public consciousness.  So I was excited to learn that the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennetthad written a new book about cooperation, Together:  The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press). 

The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience.  Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics.  Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate.  He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life.  This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads.  It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite.  Sennett supplies one. 

Anthropologist David Graeber could not have timed his new book better. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a sweeping historical survey of the social meaning of debt – or more precisely, the relationship between debtors and creditors. While many people regard this as a straight-forward moral matter – “everyone needs to pay the debts they owe” – Graeber invokes dozens of instances throughout world history to show how this relationship is highly complicated -- and essentially political.

Debt is not really a freely entered into contract between equals. It is a time-delayed market exchange in which the debtor agrees to be subordinate to the creditor for the duration of the loan. Upon full repayment of the debt, the debtor suddenly becomes an equal to the creditor again.

The subordination of debtors is not only morally fraught, as evidenced by synonyms for the word debt such as “sin” and “guilt.”  Debt is also (indeed, primarily) a political subordination. The creditor has the whip hand – and debtors are vulnerable to all sorts of contempt, abuse and punishment. In Roman times, a creditor could seize a debtor's wives and children as collateral, and make them personal slaves, if the debtor failed to repay a loan.  

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