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Alexa Bradley and Julia Ristau: Why the Commons Matters Right Now

September 26, 2010

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**By Alexa Bradley and Julia Ristau**

Around the globe, people are rediscovering the commons as a way of naming what we want—a vision that extends beyond any one issue, to describe the kinds of relationships between people, resources, and power that foster community resilience, ecological stewardship and democratized decision making. The commons comprise all the forms of wealth we share—social, natural, cultural—as well as the way we take care of them, use them, enhance them and pass them on to future generations. As our OTC colleague David Bollier has noted, a commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use, and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture and is now on the rise.

The commons is a term with centuries of use and usefulness. The word itself originates in Europe but has been adopted and enriched in many places throughout the world that found it useful in naming their desired relationship to resources, one another, and power. In our contemporary political moment, the commons framework is gaining a new currency as a way of articulating a set of transformational questions, ideas, and practices that are rooted in a different worldview and value system.

The worldview that drives the old systems is still in place—an extreme market orientation that commodifies all resources and dehumanizes people as being only consumers or labor inputs. It is hard to think outside this dominant framework. It shapes much of our contemporary experience and has so strongly influences one particular way of seeing the world that it can eclipse all others.

The existence of a commons is only possible within the context of collaborative, reciprocal and equitable relationships.

In order to break through this dominant market paradigm and reveal that another way of life is possible, we need both new ideas and real-world examples of different approaches. The commons framework lifts up a potent counter narrative to the market paradigm and also offers the practical dimension of helping people create tangible ways to move towards a more commons-based society. These are critical dimensions that could help us leap forward at this pivotal “movement moment” in history.

Emerging initiatives are now appearing in many arenas—cooperative economics, open source culture, participatory governance, and food justice—give us a chance to practice different ways of organizing resources and interacting with one another. These efforts help us reconstitute our capacity for shared ownership, collaboration, and stewardship. If we see these as part of a larger body of work to reclaim and protect the commons, we can begin to connect them to one another strategically and to a broader goal of social transformation.

Drawing from our work with the commons, we offer the following ideas and observations that we believe can help us constructively and creatively make the most of this movement.

Twelve Commons Dispatches for These Times:

1. The commons and the creation of a commons-based society is a radical yet practical and necessary proposition for our times.

2. Commons exist all around us. We can learn from them. People everywhere for centuries have created both formal and informal systems to use shared resource and make collaborative decisions. Commons come in many forms—from communal fishing arrangements to libraries, from the rules governing waterways to the partnerships that define open source software, cooperatives, musical sampling, and community gardens. While some of these forms are new, most have their roots in traditions and survival strategies from other times.

The commons expresses an understanding that communities have a fundamental and equitable claim to our common inheritance of natural and created abundance.

3. The commons is a way of naming a set of relationships and understandings. The existence of a commons is only possible within the context of collaborative, reciprocal and equitable relationships. These relationships hold a commons intact and ensure its fair use and continued health. The commons also calls forth a set of relationships that extend in ways that the market suppresses—to include future generations, other living beings with whom we share the planet, and the very resources on which we depend.

4. Commons are central to the life and vitality of community, offering a system of meaning and value that is not simply transactional or narrowly based on the market. Resources in a commons are part of the totality of a community—its economic survival, its history, its ecological health, its beauty, its identity, its resilience, the relationships among its people, its life blood.

5. The commons expresses an understanding that communities have a fundamental and equitable claim to our common inheritance of natural and created abundance, and play a critical role in the stewardship of those resources. A commons is what we share and how we share it.

6. The commons, then, begins with a claim. This claim is a collective one made by a community on the natural or social resources that are shared and belong to them all. It is a claim for equitable benefit whose history stretches back in time. In Europe, peasants asserted hunting and gathering rights that predated the legal authority of kings and landowners—these rights were recognized in the Magna Carta. And they were recognized in other powerful throughout culture across the planet. This is a radical and liberating history.

7. The commons carry responsibility. The community entrusted with those resources must ensure their equitable and just use as well as their preservation for the future. Equity and stewardship are intertwined at the center of a commons with community members acting as the protectors, co-creators and beneficiaries.

8. The commons—as both an idea and practical arrangement—reminds us the vital difference between petitioning for access and sharing in the benefits. We cannot be satisfied with resources and spaces which the powers that be designate for our “access” or “input;” we must assert our direct claim upon and stake in the resources necessary for our survival and well being.

9. There is a link between the material erosion of the commons and the erosion of the idea of the commons. As the ability to think in terms of the commons diminishes (to even be able to conceive of such a thing), the actual commons of our society are left vulnerable to appropriation, destruction and neglect. As we have lost much of our commons, we have unconsciously relinquished a sense of the commons. The same is true for the regeneration of the commons: we need to animate both commons thinking and the reclaiming or creation of actual commons.

10. We have all lived the commons in some manner, even if that word was never used. While the term “commons” comes from European history and the specific struggles of commoners to claim their rights, other cultures have similar and often more enduring traditions of communal ownership, interdependence, resource sharing and stewardship. Across these traditions and in our own memories there is great wisdom and practical experience to draw on as we forge the modern day commons.

11. The idea and language of the commons has been misused. Powerful colonizers and corporations and colonizers have used the language of the commons (as well as common good, common heritage, public interest and so on) to justify the appropriation of resources and dislocation of communities, particularly indigenous people. Resistance to this kind of co-optation and abuse is critical. We must actively work to link commons work to the struggles for equity, racial justice and human dignity.

12. We need a commons revival. Fostering, supporting, and animating any kind of commons begins by asking a different set of questions that engage a broader set of people’s experiences and help a community break out of constrained thinking. The goal is to equip communities with the ability to participate in and manage the communities in which they live. This in turn depends on people being able to see and claim resources in new or renewed ways. Because so much works against this possibility in our present society, we must pursue intentional strategies to animate and bolster commons work.

Kindred Spirits and Convergence

We are witnessing a growing wave of activity today that shares the same sensibility and orientation as commons-based work. Although in many cases it is described by different names. We believe this multiplicity of names allows many kindred impulses in diverse places and cultures can find voice. It is important that we begin to see the links and shared purpose among all these efforts.

Now and then, a new concept comes along that captures the historical moment and guides social movements in a promising new direction. Rachel Carson captured such a moment with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, launching the modern environmental movement which is still growing and evolving in new ways. We think such a moment has come again with the re-emergence of an older concept—the Commons.

Excerpted from an essay in the new book Solidarity Economy 1: Building Alternatives for People and Planet.

Copyright 2010 Alexa Bradley and Julia Ristau

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This post originally appeared at ONTHECOMMONS.ORG

Julie Ristau is co-director of On The Commons, and Alexa Bradley is an On The Commons Fellow.

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