David Bollier is an activist, writer and strategist around the commons, member of the Commons Strategies Group, authorship of books like Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, co-editor with Silke Helfrich of the compilation volume The Wealth of the Commons and blogger from bollier.org (where we recommend to read posts such as Reflections from the European Deep Dive on the Commons). From Goteo we have interviewed him in relation to the Economy of the Commons international conference he co-organises this May around the economic implications of the commons. If you're not familiar yet with the term, you may need to take this test survey to know if you're a "commoner" or not :)
Enric Senabre: From open source digital communities, to rural or indigenous groups preserving their land and its uses, or for example cultural heritages around the world like languages, once someone starts to think about the commons as resources which are held in common, not owned privately, they seem to be everywhere, with many forms. To what extend you share that perception? Or digital and offline examples of commons, even rich and varied, are a minority part of life and social life
compared to the market and the State?
David Bollier: While it is possible to approach the idea of the commons as "common assets" -- that is, things that we share -- the deeper that one gets into the commons, especially as a participant, the more obvious it becomes that the commons is a different lens for viewing the world. Just as market culture has its own implied order of how we should relate to nature, objects and each other, so the commons is implicitly about a different way of seeing and being. It's not about impersonal, money-mediated transactions that result in the exchange of things to advance one's material self-interests: the basic paradigm of the market. The commons is more of a verb than a noun. It is about ongoing social commitments and negotiations for responsibly managing a shared resource. So the commons is not just the resource itself, as a physical artifact, but the community AND the practices, values and culture that it agrees upon for managing the resource. All of this is always a work-in-progress, a dynamic unfolding. It's not just "a thing."
The commons can be a threatening model for many corporate and governmental players because it proposes an empowerment of people and a different, more active role for them than simply consuming or voting. It also suggests a different type of social and moral legitimacy, and different ways of meeting one's needs. So there tends to be a cultural tension between the commons perspective and the conventional notions of "citizens petitioning the state to change." While there are immense differences among commons -- especially those that deal with natural resources and digital information -- the basic social paradigm is the same: "How can a distinct community protect a shared resource over time and ensure that the system remains accessible and usable on a fair, equitable basis?".
Enric: The Economics of the Commons Conference which you're co-organizing this May in Berlin along with different experts and institutions, in order to explore new ideas, practices and alliances around the Commons, comes after several intense workshops in different regions of the world, with many people involved in the study but also direct experience collaborative collective action and collective management of resources. Although the conference will take place in Germany, and Europe is now in a very special political and economical process due to predatory dynamics of the market economy, how do you see the evolution of the commoners and its communities of practice as a whole, from a global perspective? Which are for you the main differences between the commons as being practised or defended in different parts of the world?
David: Despite immense differences among Filipino farmers, Brazilian hackers, African subsistence communities, scholars who publish in open-access journals, community gardeners and many others, the tightening vise of the market economy is starting to reveal that all of these people share a lot -- as commoners. They are usually being pressured or victimized by markets, and their commons are powerful sources of self-provisioning, solidarity and identity. So people are starting to wake up and see that their communities (which may not be recognized as commons) are alternative ways of creating value, outside of the market and government. This is leading to a new conceptualization of politics and governance -- a new sense of possibilities beyond those available through traditional citizenship (i.e., voting, policy advocacy). This shift in perspective can be seen in the proliferation of "outsider movements" that are refusing to work within "the system" because they realize that system is too corrupt, ineffective or corporate-dominated to deliver what is needed. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Indignados, Anonymous and many others are all symptoms of profound dissatisfaction with the neoliberal economic and policy apparatus that is causing enormous harm and failing to deliver on its promises.
In light of all this, the big challenge for commoners around the world is to discover each other, and loosely coordinate their work and learn from each other. Commoners need to start to formulate a more developed vision, philosophy and set of policy proposals -- while always taking care to manage and improve their individual commons. I don't see these efforts as evolving into a new ideology or centralized movement, however, because the commons is based more on living social practices (participation, debate, negotiation, experimentation, self-organized management) than on intellectualism as such. But the many "fractal varieties" of commons do need to comes to see each other and realize that they are not alone. Such recognition opens the door for new kinds of transnational conversations and cooperation despite significant differences among commoners living in different places. For example, farmers in the global South can use the language and identity of the commons to assert new kinds of solidarity with people in industrialized countries who are trying to re-localize their economies and fight to limit the scope of copyrights and patents. Each operates under different circumstances, but each also faces very similar battles and could become a powerful force if they came together. Consider how so many commons-based and P2P forces came together to fight ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. These sorts of conversations and political collaborations are still at a very early stage.
Enric: For the conference you will take special care to avoid a “sectoralization” of Commons discussion, encouraging a coherent “general narrative” of the concept which nurtures global social change and applies across many different sectors of commoning. To what extent do you think the differences between digital and offline experiences of Commons, as well as between what commoners do and think in their daily practices, could generate non-constructive discussion or even frictions?
David: There are significant cultural differences between commoners who work in digital spaces and those who are managing, say, land, water, forests or fisheries. But I think it is in the best interests of all commoners, no matter their specific domain, to recognize that (1) commons should not be absolutely defined by the resource managed, but by the values, practices and cultural ethic of the commons more generally; (2) the lines between ecological commons and digital commons are blurring so much that it doesn't make sense to separate the two realms. All commons are based on social collaboration. All commons are based on shared knowledge. Sometimes that process involves the Internet; sometimes it doesn't. (3) no matter their specific commons, commoners have shared interests in developing an alternative worldview to confront the pathologies of market capitalism and validate some positive, constructive alternatives (the "Commons Sector"). My hope is that commoners can freely acknowledge and learn from their differences -- they are what make us human! -- without those differences becoming divisive and destructive. There are still a lot of personal relationships that need to be developed, along with more learning and reflection. I hope that the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin (May 22-24) will help advance those goals.
Enric: In relation to next steps for action in the expansion and reinforcement of the Commons, which models do you see emerging around as alternatives to economic and provisioning models? And to politics? Which transformations in that sense do you think are more relevant for a new type of society?
David: I think we are the early stages of a very rich stage of commons-based experimentation and innovation, much of it accelerated by the Internet and by our growing self-awareness of our work as commoners. We are also learning a lot by (re)discovering very old models of commoning that are not even thought of as commons, such as in indigenous and traditional communities. The lessons we are learning go beyond identifying new "models" and really entail learning new ways of living one's life and seeing the world. In any case, new ideas are popping up more quickly these days, and are constantly being shared and improved upon, globally. You participated in the recent "Wikisprint" among Latin American and Spanish commoners and P2P projectsThis was a great example of the rapid networking and mutual discovery going on within a highly dispersed set of digital commons. I think there is enormous promise in the new crowdsourcing and crowdfunding systems; in "eco-digital" commons that blend Internet usage with farming and other natural resource management; in cooperatives and collaborative consumption (sharing) models; and in new systems that are attempting to embed "constitutional systems" of governance and law within software platforms themselves (algorithmic law, one might say, in the manner of Bitcoin). This minimizes the need to look to conventional institutions of the state and conventional law to recognize one's concerns and enforce rules. (We've been there before and we know how that story ends!)
But beyond any particular model, the real challenge is to devise better, more reliable ways for a commons to remain a commons. That is, what are the new and improved social, technological or legal mechanisms to prevent enclosures? The private appropriation of our common wealth for market purposes remains the most significant challenge to any new provisioning model. Any new model must not only be commons-based, they must be commons-reproducing (capable of reproducing themselves by preventing destructive enclosures). For example, most open platforms can host commons-based activity, but they cannot necessarily prevent the corporate appropriation of what those commons produce. This may be the next big challenge for the "openness" movement -- to devise effective governance systems for assuring that a commons remains a commons. Fortunately, as the Internet and digital networks become ubiquitous on the planet, the imperative to devise new sorts of commons-based governance structures makes more and more sense. That is arguably the best way for a group of people/commoners to reap the most value from open networks (and not just in a financial or monetary sense). I've written more about this here
Post originally published at our section at Colaboratorio in eldiario.es