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November 8, 2004

The Commons as a Movement

A beginners guide to the commons. It is a bottom-up movement with growing potential to affect how people think about the future.

The re-election of George W. Bush makes it abundantly clear that a fierce new round of pillage and plunder is about to begin. Over the next four years, market enclosure will be taken to new extremes — oil-drilling in the Arctic wilderness, more privatization of government drug research, giveaways of the broadcast airwaves, the shrinking of the public domain, among many others.

The good news is that “the commons” is emerging as a new type of political and cultural response — a proto-political philosophy that can explain seemingly diverse phenomena, help unite diverse constituencies, and spark new activism. I wish I had done a Google search on the word “commons” five years ago. It probably would have returned a few hundred web links at most. Today (November 2, 2004) when I did a Google on “commons,” nearly eight million links popped up. For me, this is a crude bit of evidence for a quietly unfolding cultural and political transformation.

Look closely and you will see a messy, uncoordinated, bottom-up movement struggling to assert itself. Just below the radar of mainstream media, a teeming constellation of constituencies — internet users, environmentalists, librarians, academics, media reformers, software programmers — is beginning to talk about the commons. This gathering movement is at once an activist phenomenon, a proto-political philosophy and a cultural outlook. It sees the commons as a means to create wealth while honoring social equity and ethical values, an achievement that continues to elude the neoliberal mainstream.

At the moment, the wildly disparate threads of this movement have not been woven together. That, in part, will be a primary mission of OntheCommons.org — to give these many voices a forum; to showcase noteworthy fronts of activism and analysis; to puzzle through problems; and to bring together a new community united by some core values, a new story, and exciting new initiatives.

The commons is something very new and quite ancient. Its newness can be seen in the huge variety of commons proliferating on the Internet: free software and open source software, open archives, Wikipedia, peer-to-peer file sharing, open science initiatives, the open access movement in scholarly publishing, social networking software, and on and on. These innovations constitute the new digital commons. Yet as novel as these developments are, the commons is as old as the human species, which has always been rooted in communities of social trust and cooperation — a fact now being confirmed by evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists.

The real aberration in human history is the vision of humanity set forth by neoclassical economics. Homo economicus defines human beings solely as rational, ahistorical individuals who invariably seek to maximize their material utility through market exchange. It also asserts — astonishingly — that all of society should be organized around this vision. This is the fragile fiction that is beginning to be unmasked — by free software, by anti-globalization advocates, by environmentalists and others.

So what is this embryonic commons movement? It is an eclectic set of campaigns to protect the creations of nature and society that we share in commons, and that are indispensable to our well-being and to future generations. This website aspires to chronicle and galvanize this movement, while helping to develop a new political philosophy that challenges the totalizing dynamics of the market.

The commons embraces openness, social cooperation, community ethics and social equity — values that mainstream economists generally reject as marginal or inconsequential. But champions of the commons recognize these values as powerful and important. They are not just moral or social aspirations, but practical, functional tools in managing resources.

Economists and politicians have long assumed that there are really only two sectors for governing things and “adding value” — the state and the market. Markets are seen as the vehicle for economic progress while government is supposed to take care of everything else. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is another sector — the commons — that is at least as important to our lives. The commons is a generic term for describing socially managed resources, much as “the market” is used to describe the buying and selling of everything from commodities futures to computers to music.

The reason that “the commons” is so useful a term is because it helps us begin to describe a nearly ubiquitous pathology, the enclosure of the commons. Governments throughout the world are conspiring with, or acquiescing in, the market’s plunder of our common wealth. Companies are taking valuable resources from the commons — spectrum, creative works, natural resources, public lands, and more — and privatizing them. Once the cash value has been harvested from the commons, corporations tend to dump their wastes and social disruptions (primly known as “market externalities”) back into the commons, whereupon they declare, “It’s your problem.”

The dynamics of enclosure are on full display through British history. The landed gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries decided they could profit quite handsomely by seizing huge tracts of shared meadows, orchards, forests and other land used by the common people. With enclosure, resources that had historically been managed socially, through both formal and informal rules, were privatized and turned into commodities to be sold in the marketplace.

This is precisely the problem we are facing today. Too many commons are being converted into private property and sold in markets. Not only does this result in people having to pay for resources they previously got for free, or cheaply, it also means that people need to ask for permission to use something and, often, to pay for it.

Enclosure shifts ownership and control of a resource from a given community or the public at large, to private companies. This, in turn, changes the management and character of the resource, because a market has very different standards of accountability and transparency than a commons. Think Enron, Worldcom or Arthur Andersen.

Yet there are a growing number of defenders of the commons, too, who are fighting the enclosure of the commons, and for the values of openness, social equity and public control through non-market systems. These commoners include:

  • Librarians, who are trying to protect free access and circulation of knowledge.
  • Scientists, who are trying to preserve their foundational traditions of openness, collaboration and free inquiry.
  • Creative artists in music, film and other fields who realize that culturally compelling creativity depends upon their ability to use prior works and collaborate with others.
  • Media reformers, who are trying to reclaim the public airwaves for public benefit, whether through open spectrum commons or auctions.
  • Indigenous peoples, who are trying to retain some measure of cultural sovereignty by preventing Big Pharma and other commercial predators from appropriating their traditional knowledge and art.
  • Online user communities, who wish to protect their ability to communicate among themselves without the impediments of market transactions.
    I have not even mentioned the many commons constituencies concerned chiefly with the natural environment and social justice. They include:
  • Environmentalists see the commons as a way to fight the corporate transformation of natural resources that are unique, local, scarce or merely beautiful, into fungible commodities.
  • Activists concerned with genetically modified organisms see the commons as a way to fight for biodiversity and to slow the privatization and homogenization of agricultural seeds.
  • Anti-globalization activists invoke the commons to defend democratic self-determination and local culture in the face of global capital’s demands.
  • Opponents of the over-commercialization of culture invoke the commons as a way to combat the intrusions of marketing into schools, public institutions, sports and every nook and cranny of daily life.
    A question to which I keep returning is: Why is the commons so evocative and powerful for so many diverse groups of people? I have come to believe that the commons is so appealing because it allows people to express their personal connections to a resource — nature, musical genres, computer code — in a way that the market does not allow. People invoke the commons because it allows them to express their desire for social mutuality and human respect at a time when the market, in the name of property, cannot seem to help trampling on nature, community, scientific gift-economies and social ethics.

The commons gives people a shared vocabulary for talking about these concerns. It helps them begin to critique the limits of neoliberal political ideology. The commons opens up a new kind of dialogue that is not only political and polemical in the best sense, but humanistic. The commons is less a manifesto or ideology than a flexible template for talking about diverse phenomena that are thematically related.

This struggle to assert the commons as a social reality is fundamentally a cultural challenge. It is about developing a new narrative that can explain our interests apart from market culture. The commons is emphatically not anti-market — but it does insist upon domesticating market forces to serve shared community needs.

As my friend Jonathan Rowe has put it, the market cosmology sees only a void until property, contracts and money wave their hand and proclaim, “Let there be stuff.” The commons insists that social communities and their values come first. The social is foundational. It is a source of value-creation in its own right.

The real appeal of the commons paradigm is its practical value in re-framing political debate. It can play a profound re-ordering role much as the meta-language of “the environment” did in the 1960s. “The environment,” recall, was a cultural invention. The air, water, soil and wildlife had always been there, of course. But they were not conceptualized in a coherent, unified way until Rachel Carson and others began to popularize the idea of “the environment.”

Duke Law School professor James Boyle has pointed out that bird watchers didn’t realize they might have something in common with bird hunters until “the environment” helped clarify their shared interests in protecting it. Once the idea of the environment took root, people could begin to make mental connections among diverse phenomena that had previously seemed unconnected. It turned out that dying birds were linked to household chemicals! Genetic mutations in humans were linked to industrial pollution. And so on. The language of the environment not only gave us an overarching narrative, it helped galvanize a political movement by providing a new, understandable story.

Today, we face much the same problem in talking about the larger context of free software, free culture and other resources threatened by expansions of market activity and corporate control. Mainstream discussion is imprisoned within the property categories of copyright law, patent law and market discourse more generally. We do not have well-developed language and narratives for asserting the value of free, un-metered exchanges of information. Sharing and creative transformation are seen as either worthless or as a form of piracy.

The commons gives us a new story to explain how social communities generate their own distinctive value — value that is economic, social and creative all at the same time. What a revelation! Market exchange is not the only source of value-added activity. The commons is at least as productive. Think of what nature does for us, for free! Think of what the free software community has done in creating Linux and hundreds of other programs, for free!

To talk about the commons, then, is to insist that there are other powerful sources of value-creation. This is the story of free software, for one. It is also the story of open science, open access archives, peer-to-peer file sharing, and other digital commons. Just as the market vocabulary invests mundane acts of buying and selling with a cosmic significance, so the commons can confer new cultural respectability on creative appropriation and derivation — the sorts of creativity seen in the fashion industry, music (from rap to remixes to jazz), and in online communities.

It is a fair question whether the proto-movement of the commons can grow and become robust. While much work remains to be done, I am optimistic. The spontaneous and widespread embrace of the idea of the commons suggests a deep human yearning to explore new modes of social connection and collaboration. It suggests a desire to assert a common human identity at a time when markets and nation-states wish to separate us.

As a political movement, the commons brings many attractive features to the table:

  • It underscores the fact that the people own certain resources and must have the right and legal mechanisms to control them.
  • It brings into focus a wide variety of phenomena that are otherwise vague and diffuse. It is a positive vision, not just a reactive critique.
  • It helps people seize the moral high ground in fighting market excesses.
    These insights won’t take us very far, however, unless we begin to have far more dialogue among commons constituencies. That is one purpose of OntheCommons.org — to open some new dialogues among different activist constituencies. To be sure, there are significant differences between depletable and non-depletable commons — those of nature and those of culture, roughly speaking. Yet there are also many shared values that need to be named and discussed.

We also need far more collaboration between academics and activists and members of online commons, so that we can develop more empirical and rigorous intellectual critiques. Public education and popularization of the commons perspective are also important tasks.

It will not be easy to build a new political and policy tradition of the commons while still enmeshed in a market-obsessed culture. Many intellectual paradoxes and confusions are likely. Any quest for ideological purity will fail. (If there is one truth in the networked environment, it is that truth is not unitary.)

Which is why I believe that any commons movement must exhibit a tolerant, ecumenical humanism. We are all irregular, self-contradictory creatures living in a world of contradictions. The best way to transcend the cultural contradictions of our time may be to open ourselves up, also, to art, performance and spiritual inquiry. These pursuits can offer important commentary about the commons, because the commons is not just a polemic or intellectual analysis. It is a way to reorient ourselves, personally and spiritually, so that we can move beyond the politics of cynicism.

This, at least, is what I envision for a commons movement. Any real movement will depend upon how badly people really want to reclaim our common wealth, re-connect with each other and devise new structures for achieving this vision. My guess? The energy and desire are there. What’s needed is a gathering spot to provide focus and leadership. Here’s hoping that OntheCommons.org will help.