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The Commoners at Crottorf Castle (Part I)

Notes from a provocative retreat exploring the future of the commons.

Twenty-one thinkers and activists from around the world gathered at Crottorf Castle near Cologne, Germany, on June 25-27, 2009, to discuss their shared interest in the commons as a new paradigm of politics, economics and culture. We were the guests of Hermann Hatzfeldt, whose family has lived in the castle since the 1600s, and who, ironies aside, is a keen supporter of the commons.

The meeting did not have an explicit agenda, yet it yielded extraordinarily rich results: a clearer sense of how a new discourse of the commons might be developed; how it could be used to confront the savage pathologies of neoliberalism; and how it could serve as a proto-political philosophy for building more eco-friendly, humanistic forms of self-governance.

What follows is a selective and partial – yet lengthy – distillation of the discussions. I have divided it into three parts, and will post Parts II and III tomorrow and Friday.


Photo of Crottorf Castle by Prashant Iyengar.

This document is draws from my notes and memory, and therefore reflects my personal perceptions of the event. Quotations below have been reconstructed from notes, and not a transcript, so they are approximate and not necessarily verbatim. Because I wanted to keep this report fairly succinct and focus on the commons paradigm itself, I have given only brief treatments of many conversations that deserve lengthier treatments in themselves.

These topics include the biotech industry’s enclosure of seeds, nanotechnology and the privatization of basic elements of matter; the Google Books project that is digitizing the books of university libraries; the South African government’s repression of squatters and other commoners; as well as the hopeful activities of the Solidarity Economy movement and the Transition Towns movement. I have also taken liberties in the ordering of topics and themes, which were not discussed in the same sequence of this text. A list of participants and suggested readings are included as appendices.

For those who wish to listen to actual conversations, the Crottorf dialogues have been divided into thirteen separate segments, which can be streamed from the Web or downloaded in two file formats (MP3 and Ogg Vorbis) at http://www.archive.org/details/crottorf-commoners..

Finally, it must be noted that this report does not purport to be an official statement of the retreat participants. It reflects my personal interpretations alone. That said, I have attempted to faithfully represent the proceedings in the hope that this report will be useful.

1. Neoliberalism as the Catalyst for A New Commons Movement

There is a reason why so many diverse and unrelated people around the world are showing a keen interest in the commons: market enclosures are growing and intensifying. Much of this stems from the normal logic of neoliberalism, a particular kind of capitalism that took root in the 1980s with the ascension of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Over the past generation, neoliberalism has steadily expanded to become the default worldview governing economics, public policy and human aspiration more generally. It is a system that seeks privatization, deregulation, strict limits on government social programs, state action to protect capital, and debt-servitude for developing countries.

“Neoliberalism is directly intent on destroying the commons,” said George Caffentzis (University of Southern Maine), noting that it combines sophisticated human intelligence with great brutality in its primary mission – “the totalization of the commodity form.” In pursuit of this mission, neoliberal capitalism asserts its domination of nature and crushes social relations that would impede its ordering principles. See, e.g., “Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons,” a 2009 essay by the Midnight Notes Collective and Friends (http://www.midnightnotes.org/Promissory%20Notes.pdf).

In its quest to commodify everything for maximum return on investment, neoliberalism frequently experiences crises, noted Caffentzis. One example was the mass resistance to globalization that arose in the 1990s, especially following the Seattle protests in 1999. Some crises, however, can threaten the very existence of capitalism as a system of power and social order. This occurs when neoliberalism is unable to achieve its primary aim, which is to make the commodity form a global reality.

This goal necessarily entails enclosures of the commons. There are limits to this enterprise, however. The Earth’s resources are finite and the commoners tend to resist global capital’s attempts to privatize and commodify our shared atmosphere, oceans, land, genes, cultural works and other resources.

After decades of enclosures, the various resistance efforts initiated by commoners are starting to coalesce. People are starting to self-identify themselves as commoners with a stake in the resources that neoliberal markets seek to appropriate. And so there is a gathering resistance to the neoliberal project. Commoners are now more able to name the problem and to identify its structural dynamics as a core feature of the neoliberal worldview and economics.

The symptoms of the great financial crisis are now being addressed, noted Caffentzis, but not its roots. Attacks on the commons will therefore continue. This will entail new attempts to criminalize the behavior of commoners for resisting enclosure – and this will result in various sorts of litigation, social conflict, repression, imprisonment and war. “Blood and fire,” unfortunately, is a recurring theme in the history of the commons, Caffentzis said.

Besides resorting to repression, the joint managers of the neoliberal project – capital and the state – will invariably attempt to coopt the commoners. They seek to tempt them to use the commons against itself. Sylvia Federici (Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York) noted that the “common good,” “clean energy” and the “global commons” will be used as an excuse for expropriation and enclosure of local and regional commons.

The global North, for example, will invoke the “common heritage of humankind” as a justification for corporate exploitation of genetic biodiversity in the South. It will invoke the Amazon as “the lungs of the world” to inhibit self-determination of Brazilians and indigenous peoples there.

2. The Notion of the Commons

As neoliberalism intensifies its agenda, due in no small part to the current crisis, interest in the commons is growing. It offers both a powerful intellectual critique for naming the process of enclosure and a scaffolding for re-imagining economics and social order. David Bollier (Onthecommons.org, Amherst, Massachusetts) made a presentation about the potential of the commons discourse not just in confronting neoliberalism, but in imagining modern commons that enable people to live their lives and earn their livelihoods in new and better ways. The challenge is to devise commons regimes based on people’s participation and consent while establishing rules that assure the continuity of the commons itself over time.

The commons is appealing, Bollier argued, because it offers a new vision and worldview that is historically rooted, politically insightful, culturally attractive and practical. It is a new master narrative that can connect and coordinate many disparate, seemingly isolated campaigns. The commons can play a unifying role because it posits some general principles that apply to all commons:

• stewardship of a resource over the long term;
• equitable access and benefit for the personal (non-market) use of the commoners;
• transparency and accountability within the commons;
• the capacity to identify and punish free riders, vandals and appropriators; and
• the capacity to determine whether the resource shall be alienated for market use or not.

The most basic principle of commons governance, he said, is, “That which is generated by the commons must stay within the commons (unless the commoners collectively decide otherwise).”

Unlike a conventional ideology, which sets forth fixed principles that apply universally, the commons functions as a kind of scaffolding or meta-ideology, said Bollier. Its general principles can only be actualized within a specific context just as DNA is under-specified so that it can adapt to local conditions. A community’s specific history, local circumstances, cultural norms, social ethos, and the nature of the specific common resource, all matter. Particularity is a principle of the commons. There is no single inventory of commons or formulaic set of universal principles that apply.

The power of the commons discourse stems from its ability to speak not just to economics, public policy and politics, but to culture, ecological realities and everyday life. Implicit in the commons is a different epistemology and ontology than that implied by the neoliberal marketplace and state. The commons implies different ways of knowing and being that are based on the personal, the social, the historical and the tacit. To talk of the commons is to assert that all of these factors matter (notwithstanding the tendency of market transactions to declare that they do not matter because they might impede efficiency, profitability, etc.).

The commons discourse is provocative and potentially transformative because it helps us assert new relationships between ourselves and a given resource; between ourselves and the state; and between ourselves and our fellow human beings. It amounts to a different worldview.

The commons is thus both a discourse and a way of being in the world. Or as Peter Linebaugh has put it, the commons is about commoning. The commons is not just a noun, but a verb as well. We are not just discovering the commons; we are inventing it as well. We are learning how to interact and take responsibility in ways that are both new and old. In a sense, after the long drama of the 20th Century and the consolidation of power by the state and corporations, we are rediscovering some more elemental ways of interacting and organizing social and economic life. We are resurrecting some forgotten traditions and cultural practices of commoning.

By asserting a collective interest in resources, the commons helps us call into the question the familiar justifications for private property rights. The commons helps us see that even private property rights are embedded in social and community relations, which must be given their due respect. The commons asserts a heresy – that there are limits to the claims that private property may make upon the community and upon the Earth.

The neoliberal polity has trouble acknowledging this fact. Indeed, capital typically resists efforts by even democratic polities to make it abide by certain social, ethical and ecological limits.

By opening up new ways to critique the scope of property rights and markets, the commons discourse helps us get beyond the contrived illusions and secret betrayals of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism promises freedom and respect for humanistic values, but only within the framework of “free markets” – and we already know where that ends up.

The commons discourse also helps the commoners assert a social solidarity among themselves. It re-situates the human species as a creature of the Earth. Culturally, the commons serves as a useful kind of “social signaling” cue that lets different sorts of commoners identify each other. This is an important function in the face of the fragmentation of so many resistance efforts today – and of the neoliberal order’s renowned capacity to coopt dissent and resistance.

Finally, the commons has great power because it is not merely reactive. It is not just a critique of what’s wrong. It is generative. It offers affirmative alternatives to markets and neoliberal policies. It offers bottom-up, self-organizing ways to manage resources democratically and sustainably, and to do so in ways that do not necessarily require a direct government role. This reality has its purest incarnation on the Internet, where the commons is proving itself to be an effective vehicle for generating value in its own right, alongside the market.

It bears noting that the commons is neither communism nor socialism. It may have a kinship with those earlier efforts – e.g., a similar commitment to equality, community and freedom – but the commons is not chiefly about government and public policy. It is about the commoners, their resources and their social practices in managing them. The commons not only proposes a more holistic and sustainable economics, but very different models of political culture. It elevates very different visions of human fulfillment than communism, socialism or capitalism.

3. Aspects of the Commons

For Wolfgang Sachs, it is not necessary that we absolutely define the commons. “Instead we can look at the commons as a piece of wood to grasp as we drift in the ocean. It is a shared ‘problematique.’” One of its greatest values may be in helping to assert limits on human activity. It describes “a no-go zone.”

Sachs elaborated on this idea in the context of global warming: “The Earth is the single most important commons that we have; it is an immeasurable gift. That gift is of such complexity and beauty that you just don’t tinker with it. The task of any generation is to pass that heritage on. The commons in this sense serves as a secularized version of Creation. This is a powerful discourse for asserting limits on technology and markets.”

In China, for example, peasants are being pressured to relinquish their resources for Shanghai markets. Historically, this is of a piece: the commoners have always been forced into submission by market players who wish to exploit the shared resources. But to speak of the commons is to call this exploitation into question. It is to make a critique of development economics and politics, and of sustainability (or the lack thereof).

George Caffentzis went further: “The commons is a defense against the state and its criminalization of commoning.” Some participants questioned whether the commons is primarily defensive, asserting that it is also a realm of co-creation and generativity, as seen in free software and other online commons. But there was consensus that the naming of a resource as a commons helps in its defense.

The commons does not compete on price or quality, but on cooperation, it was noted. The commons “out-cooperates” the market. It does this by itself eliciting personal commitment and creativity and encouraging collective responsibility and sustainable practices.

Andoni Alonso (Laboratorio del Procomun, Madrid) described how his group has been developing an ontology for the commons using a new type of Semantic Web software.* Still in a beta format, the software proposes a taxonomy that divides the commons into four elemental categories – commons of the body, natural commons, commons of the polis, and digital commons. It divides these commons into “parts,” “functions” and “representations” of each commons. It also distinguishes “elements” of commons, “instruments” of their functioning, and “attributes.”

Nature, for example, has many parts (water, atmosphere, wildlife), and many functions (biodiversity, ecological laws), etc. Andoni concedes that his commons ontology could honor different types of distinctions than the ones it does, but the point is to provide a better cognitive approximation of the commons: “You don’t need to know exactly what life is to be a biologist.”

Other participants offered some arresting images and epigrams about the nature of commons:

• If the Invisible Hand assumes mutual selfishness – a kind of insect-driven behavior based on the crudest impulses – the commons values human intentionality and intelligence around shared values. It is not altruistic as such; individual self-interest is simply brought into alignment with collective interests and inscribed within the system itself. (Michel Bauwens, Peer to Peer Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand).

• The commons in our time differs from earlier commons by combining pre-modern collectivity with modern individuality. Contemporary online commons, for example, are both particularistic and collective. (Michel Bauwens)

• Our goal in designing commons should be to make moralizing superfluous, so that the system does not require altruistic individuals. “Reliability is a product of good design. So it is with the commons mode of production.” (Franz Nahrada, Vienna, Austria)

• One definition of “commons” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a board upon which you have a meal.” Seen in this light, participation in the Christian ritual of the Eucharist can be seen as a form of commoning. (Peter Linebaugh, University of Toledo).

• For the late social critic Ivan Illich, the commons is less about the inalienability of a resource (i.e., its non-commodification) than about a lack of institutional control and the freedom that results. The commons is, for him, a “de-institutionalized zone.”

4. The History of the Commons and Why It Matters

Peter Linebaugh (University of Toledo) argues that the history of the commons is indispensable to understanding contemporary commons and the political threats they face. “So much of commoning depends upon memory, elders and precedent,” he said. The persistence of the commons over time has its roots in social sociality, the particularity of practices and the local. These things must be recognized so that other senses of time and commitment – “when the memory of time runneth not” – can be honored.

Linebaugh noted that the commoners often do not even know their own history. By contrast, the bourgeois narrative of property tells people where they have come from and where they are going. People today do not realize that the Magna Carta emerged as a kind of armistice in a civil war between the commoners and King John. It and the accompanying “Forest Charter” constitute landmark statements of commoners’ rights.

Yet in the 1870s, the champions of Anglo-American capital recast the Magna Carta to justify their imperial ambitions and racist politics. Certain portions of the Magna Carta have been celebrated and enshrined while other portions – especially those dealing with commoners’ rights to the fruits of the commons – have been portrayed as feudal relics and local particularities.

Seen from this perspective, history is “a set of presences that are still around us,” said Linebaugh. The history of the commons illuminates the dynamics of dispossession, the political struggles to maintain control over shared resources, and the hostility to women which is associated with enclosures (as reflected in witch hunts and enclosures of women’s bodies and the knowledge of procreation).

So what does this history have to do with contemporary political struggles?

The crisis of human subsistence in today’s world – housing, food, water, knowledge – has a lot to do with the enclosure of the commons, said Linebaugh. We need to understand this history to understand the great crimes of the present that are destroying subsistence, and to see that we can overcome such criminality. Our history needs to be re-written root and branch, he said.

It helps to see the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter as living charters that are relevant even today. People have fought over the meaning of these charters in the past. Recognizing the great struggles of the past invites us to look around our own world and recognize that people are still commoning today.

Iain Boal (University of California at Berkeley) noted how the deep history of the commons has been of great help in the struggles against enclosures of germplasm today. He cited Kett’s Uprising in 1549, one of the last great peasant revolts seeking “the freedom of just conditions.” Activists fighting genetically modified organisms in 1999 used the example of Kett’s Uprising to inspire their own advocacy and defense of seeds as a commons. Boal argues that “commons language mobilizes social memory and invokes the political economy,” citing Christopher Hill’s book, A World Turned Upside Down, a history of the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers in the 17th Century.

“If you don’t have history on your side,” said Sylvia Federici, “it will be used against you.” She noted the work of the Bristol Radical Political History Group (http://www.brh.org.uk), a group of commoners in Bristol, England, who are dedicated to revitalizing and recreating the collective memory of their city and its connections to the commons, and people’s resistance to enclosure and to the Atlantic slave trade.

Massimo De Angelis quoted from Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto to illustrate how an historical understanding of “commoners’ rights” could help us situate our political struggles today:

Common rights are embedded in a particular ecology with its local husbandry. For commoners, the expression ‘law of the land’ does not refer to the will of the sovereign. Commoners think first not of title deeds, but of human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. You might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, being independent of the state, commoning is independent also of the temporality of the law and state. Magna Carta does not list rights, it grants perpetuities. It does deep into human history. (The Magna Carta Manifesto, p. 45)

To understand this history is to understand that commons rights are a birthright entitlement, a reclaiming of our own identity through history. History is also a way of finding courage, through stories.

History can help us rediscover “the indigenous in us,” said Massimo de Angelis (University of East London). “We need to find and shape an identity rooted in history and an awareness of what has been taken for us, in terms of what we used to have.”

The goal is not to romanticize the commons, but to recover a collective memory that can help us recognize and name oppression in the moment as enclosure – and pierce the presumption that only elite managers and experts can govern. By claiming commons governance as a historical reality, we can defend our customary rights and assert the legitimacy the commons.

Tomorrow: A Developmental Theory of the Commons; The Power of Peer Production; and More!