Five Powerful Features of the Commons

I was invited to discuss „degrowth in the context of related social movements“  at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest.  It was hot and crowded, intense and insightful. In short: amazing!

The topic is not new. We’ve digged into it at the Commons Summerschool, had a debate at the Degrowth Conference in Leipzig and recently colleagues published an insightful article on the issue.

As a kick-off, I decided to give a mini-introduction into the Commons, then I added 5 powerful features of the Commons, and finally I suggested, that there is no such thing as an „umbrella concept“ for the plentitude of movements and initiatives dubbed TAPAs = There Are Plenty of AlternativeS. The connections between the movements exist (if they do) at a deeper level. I refer to the worldview; if we wish to identify what connects or separates us, we need to look at the fundaments, at the very pillars we’re standing upon. The problem is, we take them often for granted and barely speak about the basic assumptions (pillars) we build our proposals upon. Instead, they remain largely unconscious.

And by the way, if you look at an umbrella from above you cannot see anymore what’s underneath. So here are  my thoughts:

Mini-Introduction into the Commons

Whomever looks at the literature or does some discourse analysis, will find at least 4 different approaches to the commons.

  1. centered on certain types of resources (the common or collective goods) → as if commons were objects separated from us and as such would only needed to be managed appropriately
  2. focussed on social processes → as if commons were complex Socio-Ecological-Systems to be constantly stewarded, re/produced, protected and expanded through commoning
  3. focussed on (a different purpose and logic of) production → as if the main contribution from commons theory and practices were the endeavour to think about and co-develop a new mode of production; Commons Oriented Peer Production, Oicommony; Ecommony or you name it
  4. focussed on paradigm shift → seeing commons & commoning as a worldview; one of many expressions based on an relational ontology, epistemology and axiology

Note: I didn’t include ‚commons movement‘ as an approach, which would make sense when analizing the literature (including my own contributions), but I came to the conclusion, that it doesn’t. The commons is a framework, a certain expression of a world-view, it can become a governance theory and is already a key category of a new mode of production. To „get the commons“ helps understanding what happens, whenever people collectively own, use and manage resources. In short: it is none of the above mentioned approaches in its pure form: but all of them together. Locking at it as a commons movement would narrow down its scope!

Five powerful features of the commons

(There are more in my mind, but I’ve choosen five to keep it short.)

  1. The commons have a long history across cultures. They are and have always been everywhere.→there is something universal in the commons.
  2. The notion ‚commons‘ contains its own subject(s): community, understood in many different ways, from small to big communities, from P2P networks to the whole humankind; the common denominator of these highly diverse groups might be: the subject of the commons is always „more than two“→And they create, enable and live within a plentitude of regimes of co-possession as opposed to individual property. So, the commons aren’t no men’s land, nor everybody’s land – but always belong to more than two persons; and belonging entails a sense of affectiveness.
  3. As generative practices they produce value & meaning beyond the market-logic. And the good thing is; we have a verb for it! Commoning.→ points to processual rather than essentialist underlying philosophy; which in fact helps understanding the commons-discourse. Whenever an approach is described as a „set of social practices“, one should wonder. „What is the verb for it? What is the verb for those generative social practices that enact the core ideas of ‚degrowth‘?
  4. The commons – unlike many other concepts – cover all realms of life including the digital. → ‚Commoning re-/production‘ explicitely includes the idea of converting technologies, platforms and infrastructures themselves into commons. (see for more: Commons Oriented Peer Production)
  5. Imagining and enacting a Commons-Society is a 3 in 1 approach: it strives to contribute to a Free + Fair + Sustainable Society.

With me on the panel Irmi Salzer speaking about food souvereignity and Ashish Kortari, sharing his thoughts about Radical Ecological Democracy (RED). RED is not only compatible but also challenging for commoners, especially in the digital realm, where the notion of sustainabilty is often neglegted or boiled down to a few numbers on the out-put side.

Connecting at a deeper level

Paraphrasing the french saying (not sure whom it is attributed to): „Two Deputies one of whom is a Communist have more in common than two Communists one of them is a Deputy.“, I’d say: „Two commoners one of them is in essence an anarchocapitalist have less in common than a degrowth-advocate and a commoner who share the same core-beliefs (about human nature or the relationship between nature and culture), the same rationality, the same goals and thus metaphors.


2 Gedanken zu „Five Powerful Features of the Commons

  1. Irmi heißt Salzer und nicht Sälzer 🙂 – aber danke, sehr schöner Beitrag! So kompakt hab ich es schon lange nicht mehr gehört.

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