Commons for the Great Transition?

Mid May I have been taken part at the SmartCSO Lab-Workshop near Paris. (CSO = Civil Society Organizations) The workshop provided a wonderfull opportunity to talk to and with change agents of environmental and development organizations about the Commons (see also the workshop programm). Among them, some of the big ones like WWF and Greenpeace. The question I was asked to address in my talk reads as follows:

How can we use the Commons as a political concept for a common strategy towards the Great Transition*?

After having shared my understanding of the commons, commoning – the antonym of enclosure – and commons-based peer production, I basically said the following (Pls, bear in mind that this is a first draft, your complementary or critical remarks are highly welcome) :

Great Transition means to me: transition towards a free society based on commons-based peer-production. Therefore, a deep understanding of the commons as structruring-principle for society is not only key, but also helpfull to overcome resistance to change. Why is that?

The main resistance to change stems from deeply rooted core beliefs in people’s minds. If we cannot think change, we cannot do it. If, for instance, „mental models“ privilege competition, then cooperation will hardly thrive. If …they mirror growth as something good by definition, a sufficiency framework will be hardly born; and if they reproduce – again and again – a dualist way of thinking, it is difficult for alternatives beyond dualisms, alternatives which are based on the notion of interconectedness, to breakthrough.

Therefore, initiatives for the Great Transition have to push first and foremost for the change of mental models. (I admit, I seriously wonder whether such a change can be „campaigned for“. „Please change your way of thinking“- campaigns are as effective as telling to an addict: „just drink water and your world will be different“. It is true, but it will not work. New mental models have to be first and foremost internalized and appropriated – by experiments, by trial and error, by doing. And I guess the only thing we really can campaign for is awareness and openness to new ideas.

This has been a bit of a digression, back then.

If we talk about the commons we basically talk about changing mental models. The commons make things visible, which are invisible in a given mental model; by focussing on the potential beyond dualisms (f.i. beyond market/state1 or nature/culture; subject/object, teacher/pupil and so on and so forth) and by unleashing the creativity, analytic capacity and the desire for change of the crowd. The latter is possible because the very idea of the commons is based on people’s needs and on the pull of desire. It resonates with almost everybody – deep inside!

A global movement for social change, name it Great Transition or not, has to theorize a bit and describe the system we want in such a way, that the messages don’t end up being contradictory – as we currently observe in the sustainability-debate: „we have a problem with resource overuse but please consume to make the economy go round, just consume ‚greener‘ and prefer low-carbon products“. The problem is, that you may well be a conscious consumer and still foster the core beliefs of the current economy and the (power-) imbalances it enbodies.

So, here are a few characteristics of the new narrative we need if we want to trigger the most important ingredient to pull for a real Great Transition: enthusiasm! Such a concept or narrative has to:

1. go clearly beyond the issue-silo way of thinking.

—> The Commons does. It shows, what seeds and software have in common. It adresses ecological, social and cultural issues/concerns while not being techno-phobic nor institution-phobic. It is sometimes even tech-driven, but it es never a single issue debate.

2. be able to deal with the people as they are, not as we wish them to be

—> The Commons are. The idea of the individual we share is not that of an homo oeconomicus (the maximisation of benefits for oneself), nor that of a consumer of course, but that of humans as cooperative social beings. This does not necessarily mean, that people always want to share and cooperate, but they are able to do so and the task is to help them doing so (by facilitating cooperation instead of competition.)

3. be deeply rooted in the wide array of social practices troughout the world. It cannot be planned disconnectedly from people’s experiences and knowledge systems, nor from the problems they are concerned with.

—> The Commons are. In fact it is a verb, instead of a noun. Commoning! That is the reason why the commons is able to activate the „deep frame“ of people all over the world. But commoning is only possible if there is a common vision, and to construct a common vision is a problem each intentional community or network has to overcome before putting sth. into practice. Therein lies the challenge.

4. be able to deal with complexity

—> The Commons does– because it understands that management systems do not magically arise from new laws or top-down directives from presidents and prime ministers and centralized bureaucracies run by experts. Change comes from people on the ground, in their everyday habits and practices, applying their own creativity and human agency (f.e. The Pirates … which now transform the political landscape in Germany). If they are to work, new management systems must be distributed, not centralized, and must take account of the distinctive history, culture, geography, politics and other features of a given resource.

There are certainly more characteristics of the Great Transition Narrative you may wish to add. Please feel free to  do so.

If I talk about the commons I usually remind people that in public debate on the commons some categories get easily blurred. The most prominent example is that ‚common pool resources‘, ‚common goods‘ and ‚common property‘ are often used as synonym for the commons. This is misleading. If we talk about the commons we don’t talk just about common goods. We don’t talk about things separated from us. We talk precisely about a narrative that allows for astonishingly broad social alliances  – from the community garden to the hackerspace –; precisely the alliances SmartCSO are or should be part of and keen to support.

Commoners are proactive alternative builders. Identify them, trust in them, help them to build trust, tap the source of their inner wisdom and support them whenever you can. Give them the liberty they need to engage in “trial and error” experimentation in order to figure out the rules and normes that work best in each context. Trust them to empower them in the management of the complexities they are to handle.

That this is what CSOs, their networks and funders can do – while focussing on the normative and conceptual framework so that the principles of the commons or commons-based-peer production are not given up or coopted. Networking among a huge variety of commoners and triggering mutual learning processes is of utmost importance.

Then, they will be “efficient” in finding the right “strategy” for a Great Transition. Or to put it more correctly: Then, the Great Transition will emerge, just as most of the really transformative moments in history did emerge and werewere not carefully and strategically planned for. Think about the fall of the Wall in Berlin or the Arabolution. Serendipity plays an important role, as it does in each evolutionary process.

A nice quote to end with:

„Revolutionary moments do not spread by contamination but by resonance….It takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations.“ [The Invisible Committee]

That is why the commons is so powerfull. It resonates.


* The Great Transition Initiative I address here, is described by one of its coordinators as follows (source: personal exchange)

The purpose of GTI is to expand the frontier of the possible in our collective imaging of global society. GTI is a high-level international network of over 400 scholars and activists exploring pathways to a planetary civilization rooted in values of equity, human solidarity, and ecological sustainability. The current focus of GTI is the production of short papers that connect pressing policy questions to the long-term vision of a Great Transition. The urgent need to inspire people to understand themselves as active citizens in shaping an emergent global society is present throughout all our work.“

1Note „beyond“ is not only different from „either-or“ but also different from „and also“.

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