Commons and Transition: It’s about the whole thing

Rob Hopkins, alias der Unermüdliche (vermutlich ist er allen Blogleser_innen hier bekannt) hat nicht nur ein Interview mit mir gemacht, sondern es auch noch transkribiert und ganz nebenbei die englische Ausgabe des Commonsbuches mit vorgestellt.  Thank you, Rob!

Hopkins ist immer etwas schneller als die anderen. Ein Kümmerer der Transition Town Bewegung, wie diese ihn sich besser nicht wünschen könnte.  Für mich war es wichtig, endlich eine Gelegenheit zu finden, mit Rob Hopkins über die Beziehung zwischen Commons- und Transition Town Bewegung zu sprechen. Dazu gibt’s auch  ein paar Gedanken ganz am Schluss des Interviews. Den Text habe ich ganz leicht bearbeitet – schließlich war das ein Überfall in der Mittagspause ;-).

An interview with Silke Helfrich: “We have to reformulate the role of the state as enabler of the commons” [via]

The other interview I did at the Degrowth conference in Venice recently was with Silke Helfrich, one of the editors (along with David Bollier) of the excellent recently-published book The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State‘, a collection of 73 articles by activists, academics and project leaders (I wrote one on resilience) on the theme of the commons.  I recommend it.  Silke gave a fascinating presentation at Degrowth 2012, so one day, after lunch, I caught up with her and asked to her to tell me more.

So Silke, you’re one of the editors of ‘The Wealth of the Commons: a world beyond market and state’, and you’ve been talking here at the Degrowth 2012 conference about the commons and why for you the commons is such an important aspect of Degrowth and where we go forward from there. Could you give, for people who don’t know what you mean by that term, the commons, a basic sense of how would you explain it to somebody in a lift?

A lift in a very tall building! Usually people think about the commons as if the commons were just a resource, like the forest or the water or the land, digital code or culture, something we have to share. But actually the commons is based on the notion of community or networks, today we are able to collectively build and construct and manage commons all over the globe through new technologies.

So the commons, the very term of the commons, embeds the term of community and also networks which are the very subject of the commons. Communities and networks, managing and sharing collective resources which were given to us by nature, or which were produced collectively and not by only one person.

That means that at the very heart of the commons is the notion of social relationships.  How do we relate to each other regarding the resource we have to share somehow because, as we know, in terms of natural resources, there are absolute limits. If you want to respect them, we have to limit access in a fair way.  So the commons is about sustainability, fairness and social control of the uses.

How we get there is through what we call a process of ‘commoning’. There is a famous sentence by the American historian, I guess his life’s project is to rewrite the history of humankind from a commoner’s perspective. His name is Peter Linebaugh. Peter Linebaugh coined that famous sentence ‘there is no commons without commoning’.

So, we have the resource, the subject (with other communities and networks), and the process of commoning which has to make sure there is a fair share and sustainable use, because if you deplete the resources there will be no commons any more, but if there is no collective stewardship there is no commons either. That means commons are never managed top down, always bottom up.

Where do you see the commons as an idea emerging in the world at the moment?  It seems like in places like Greece and Italy where the financial crisis has been very grave that they’re actually moving in the other direction very fast and selling off key assets to foreign investors as a way to raise some money. Is there anywhere in the world where you can see a movement towards the commons?

Actually once you put the glasses of the commons on, you see it all over. It’s obviously very present in history, and it’s obviously very present in the management of collective natural resources like forests and land and water in the South. For instance, all the forests in Nepal are managed by the communities who need the resources of the forests to make a living. About 60% of the land and forest in Mexico, which is a huge country, are managed by Comunidades Agrarias, or the so-called ejidos which again is a commons-based way of reproduction of livelihoods.

The seeds we all use and the huge variety of seeds we need to defend from climate change and to produce locally adapted food, has been based on commons management for centuries.  In the same way we see today in the way we relate to culture, ideas and code, there’s a new movement popping up where actually a commons-based approach is out-competing the top-down way of production and commodification of culture.

You mentioned Wikipedia…

Yes… I gave a speech here at the Degrowth Conference and I showed two pictures to the people. One is a screen grab of the website of Encyclopedia Britannica.  They sell each product or article of the encyclopedia for £49.95 or so, and I asked people – when was the last time you bought such an article or the knowledge from the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Nobody raised a hand.

Then I switched to another image which was Wikipedia. When was the last time you used Wikipedia? Everyone raised their hand. Which basically means that in common, collectively using open and free platforms (free as in freedom and not as in free beer), we can produce very, very complex things. Like encyclopedias in more than 250 languages. Nobody would have believed in that ten years ago!

So this way of commons-based peer production is showing us that we have to stop believing in the same categories and incentives and ways of production we are used to in order to link fairness and sustainability. By the way; fairness  in the cultural commons means open-access so that everyone can contribute and take out of the commons. Fairness in the natural commons means to put limits in order to respect the absolute limit of the natural resources, but defined by the community and managed by the community and even sanctioned by the community themselves.

What is the role of intellectual property in the commons? Does intellectual property have any place or does it become a redundant concept?

Intellectual property still has an important role to play for us because that’s the way we function today. Just to give an easy example, authors and composers and so on are usually being rewarded based on a share of the intellectual property rights. Usually a small share but a share nonetheless. Many of them still use to think that they can only make a living if they keep their intellectual work and sell it on the market.

So we have to show that in the commons there is a way of reproducing and distributing knowledge and sharing knowledge, and find other ways of refunding and rewarding the people who contribute to that.  I think there are lots of ways to do so, from crowd funding to substantial cultural funding of our public budgets to co-operation with private foundations. There are many, many ways to reward our work and there are lots of people co-operating with the creative part of our society without going through that needle of intellectual property rights.

I guess some people might argue that the way things work at the moment, where you have an economy which is based on private ownership which is based on maximising profit, what then raises sufficient taxes to fund things like the National Health Service and education? In a commons-based society, which presumably would be a less-profit driven, less profit-generating economy, how do we sustain those vital functions that the state is able to provide at the moment?

Actually, people will argue like this, but they will see at the same time that it doesn’t work any more. Precisely, how can you link this argument to what we are seeing in fact, that we are living in a period of austerity and of dismantling the social or the welfare state, which, by the way, is only existing in a very small part of the world…. basically Western and Northern Europe.

We mustn’t forget that commons is able to explain and nurture also as a discourse social practices and realities all over the world, because that is the way people have always tried to make a living, using the resources in the place where they live, and try to make collective decisions in order to reproduce them.

The second answer is that we have to still think a lot about what will the political economy of the commons look like on a bigger scale? But we have to start certainly to de-connect the way we think about decision-making and the way we think about economy from the only market-state dichotomy. Instead we have to reformulate the role of the state as enabler of the commons, and as – say – mediator of conflicts, because there are conflicts in the commons.

The commons is not the pretty and happy small world in which communities and people are committed to each other in their communities. The commons is at least as complicated as life itself, so there will always be conflict in it and especially in big, complex resource systems there will be a need to mediate those conflicts with the help of bigger institutions. The state can enable commoning, mediate conflict in the commons, can be the steward of complex resource systems which are, and this is important to understand, the commons cannot be tied to the concept of nation state.

Because, for instance, a lake doesn’t care about national borders, or the air doesn’t care about national borders either. So we need to inscribe the principles of commoning: fairness, no over-use, no under-use, reciprocity, relational principles, into the very institutions that steward the commons, the state should do that.  If we move away from thinking about redistribution only in terms of the money economy, we will find a lot of possibilities to redistribute health, wealth, time, social spaces, natural resources and cultural resources.

That is what the commons is all about. It’s not about money, it’s about how to provide a fair share beyond the market, and money, and therefore growth-driven economy with new and innovative institutions. Therefore we may rely on the state that usually empowers competition, enables competition. We should instead convert it into a state that makes co-operation and commoning easy.

Assuming that commoning is something that needs to start from the ground up and people showing by example, I wondered what your thoughts are for Transition groups for example, who are working on the intentional and active localisation and resilience-building of the places where they live. What would it look like if they started to really embody the concept of the commons in what they’re trying to do, if it became one of their founding concepts?

For me there are two very strong notions and realities in the Transition Town movement which can help the commons to thrive. The first is that insistence and relying on local resources, because the commons, or commons resources, are not those resources nobody owns. The commons is always everybody else’s commons. That means we have to care for the limits of the resource we can legitimately use in order not to harm all the people of future generations.

The Transition Town movement has really embodied this idea in its practice which by the way, part of the commons movement hasn’t. So it’s very important to transmit this idea of relying on our own resources, and not taking from somebody else’s commons, to really transmit this as one of the most important notions in the commons to the whole commons movement, including the cultural commons movement and the digital commons movement.

The second one is the notion of resilience. We have to think through the idea of resilience because it paves the way for finding out which are the methodologies, which are the communicational forms, which are the arenas, which are the institutions that facilitate building resilience in communities, which is obviously a process, which is obviously long term, and which is the very basis of the idea of the commons.  If there are no resilient communities there will be no commons, there will be no commoning.

Those two notions would be major contributions to the commons debate and the other way round I think the commons debate can show to Transition Towners that it’s not only about towns, it’s not only about the localisation of their economy, it’s about the whole thing, the way we conceive the world, the way we have to reframe for another civilizational project, politics, law and economy. And there the (global) scientific and political commons debate have a lot to contribute.

6 Gedanken zu „Commons and Transition: It’s about the whole thing

  1. Hallo Silke,
    Ich hatte ebenfalls schon länger die Idee die Essays einzeln zum lesen zu veröffentlichen. Das Rob Hobkins schneller als ich ist nicht weiter schlimm. Das Design, das Rob genommen hat finde ich gut, Wenn Rob, bzw. der Designer erlaubt, dass das Design auch für meine kommende Webseite natürlich nur im Zusammenhang mit dem Commonsbuch erlaubt, dann könnte dies ungefähr so aussehen.

    Was hälst du von der Idee und Umsetzung?

    ich hab keine Emailadresse von dir gefunden deswegen diese Anfrage per Kommentarfunktion.

    • Hallo Richard,
      schöne Idee. Ich bin allerdings wegen der Anfrage ein bisschen verwirrt,
      Rob hat doch nur das Buch (englische Fassung) vorgestellt und dann ein Interview mit mir veröffentlicht, welches wir in Venedig gemacht haben. Auf welche Webseite und welches Design beziehst Du Dich?

      Wir haben ja schon eine Seite für die Englische Fassung (um die geht es doch, oder geht es um die deutsche?)
      Hier ist der Link:
      Dort werden die Artikel sukzessive online gestellt. (Wir müssen dem sehr kleinen, mutigen Verlage unbedingt entgegenkommen, das ist ein Kollektiv, die sind extrem fair und das wollen wir auch sein – sie haben einfach Angst vor der kompletten sofortigen online-Veröffentlichung). Die Öffentlichkeitsarbeit dazu beginnt aber erst nach den Präsidentschaftswahlen. Macht vorher keinen Sinn.
      Was wir allerdings nicht haben, ist solch eine Seite für das deutsche Buch. Das sollte noch kommen, aber die Leute können offenbar auch mit dem pdf ganz gut leben.

      Beste Grüße

      • Hallo Silke,
        „Was wir allerdings nicht haben, ist solch eine Seite für das deutsche Buch.“ – Genau darum gehts mir.
        Mir gehts es um eine Seite auf dem die Essays auf Deutsch erscheinen. Wenn es möglich wäre wollte ich gerne das Design das Rob nutzt, auch für die deutsche Webseite nehmen, wegen dem Wiedererkennungswert usw.. Ob das rechtlich ok ist, dazu müsste man den ihn mal fragen, er hat entworfen.

        Es ist mir natürlich verständlich das der transskript-Verlag Sorge hat, das alles sofort, einfach und barrierefrei im Netz zu finden ist. Deswegen schreib ich sie an, damit keine unabgesprochenen Schnellschüsse passieren.

        ps. ich bin am 22.10. als Gast bei ihrem Vortrag zum Thema „Entfesselter Kapitalismus und Alternativen“ in Berlin dabei, vielleicht ergib sich da die Gelegenheit mit einander zu sprechen.

        Beste Grüße

  2. @ R.B: „ps. ich bin am 22.10. als Gast … in Berlin dabei“
    ja, da können wir gern reden, ich muss nur zusehen, dass ich noch einen Zug nach Jena erwische und vor Veranstaltungen bin ich immer gar nicht ansprechbar, wegen Lampenfieber 🙂
    Eins noch: Rob Hopkins hat damit gar nichts zu tun. Unser Webdesigner sitzt in den USA, ich kann David Bollier fragen, er ist mit ihm befreundet.
    Das deutsche Buch und transkript – das ist etwas völlig anderes. Es stand ja vom ersten Tag an komplett im Netz! EIngestellt durch transkript, stellt sich also die Frage, ob der Zusatznutzen den Aufwand rechtfertigt. Aber das können wir gern diskutieren.

    • Hallo Silke,
      Ich habe David Bollier gestern am 24.10 eine Email geschrieben. Er hat mir noch nicht geantwortet, warscheinlich steht er mit meiner Anfrage die in einem mittelmäßigen Englischverfasst ist ebenso auf dem Schlauch wie du. Es wäre nett von dir ihn selbst noch mal zu fragen.

      Ich bin auch derweil dabei Mitstreiter zu finden und hab auch schon die ein oder andere Zusage. In dem Sozialen Netzwerk habe ich eine Arbeitsgruppe (Gruppe) gegründet, wenn man sich dort anmeldet und ein Profil kann man alle möglichkeiten von nutzen. (ist leider noch ein englisch/spanisch/deutsch mischmasch – wir arbeiten aber dran. 😉 )

  3. „auf dem Schlauch“: in der Tat, er hatte es nicht verstanden. ich hab’s ihm gerade erklärt und empfehle nun noch ein paar tage zu warten.
    wow, ag-commonsbuch!! ich glaub es nicht.
    zur motivation der ag: es wird vermutlich ende 2014 ein weiterer band erscheinen

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