A New Politics of the Commons

By Bollier, David | Renewal, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Politics of the Commons


Bollier, David, Renewal


One of the most stubborn problems in confronting the pathologies of the neo-liberal political order is the limitations of our language. We do not have an adequate public vocabulary to describe the plunder of globalised markets. We have trouble highlighting the social inequities that are built into conventional economics and political discourse. We do not have a grand narrative with compelling sub-plots to set forth an alternative vision, one that can both stir the blood and show intellectual sophistication.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there is a brave, decentralised movement on the march that is addressing these problems with ingenuity and patience. The focus of this movement is the commons. The commons is still an embryonic vision. It will require time to evolve. But it is a vision with great potential, perhaps because it is not being advanced by an intellectual elite or a political party, but by a hardy band of resourceful irregulars on the periphery of conventional politics. (That's always where the most interesting new things originate.) These commoners are now starting to find each other, a convergence that augurs great things.

To be a bit more concrete: This proto-commons movement consists of environmentalists trying to protect wilderness areas and win fair compensation for the corporate use of public lands. It includes local communities trying to prevent multinational water companies from privatising public water works and converting groundwater into overpriced, branded bottles of water. The commoners are the hackers and corporate programmers who are building GNU Linux and thousands of other free software and open source computer programs. They don't want proprietary vendors to be able to charge them monopoly prices for inferior products, unnecessary upgrades and technical incompatibilities. The commoners are artists, musicians, bloggers and scientists who use Creative Commons licenses to enable the legal sharing and re-use of their works on the internet. These 'free culture' advocates have adapted the CC licenses to the legal systems of nearly forty nations, with another thirty in the works. This network, in turn has given rise to a new international organisation, iCommons, to promote the sharing economy of digital works. The commoners are scientists building shared databases of research, and researchers trying to prevent corporations from patenting basic biomedical knowledge. There are thousands of academics who are bypassing commercial journal publishers and starting their own 'open access' journals so that articles can be free in perpetuity via the internet. The commoners are farmers, especially in developing nations, who are trying to prevent biotech companies from replacing common crops with genetically modified, proprietary crops whose seed cannot be shared and whose ecological effects are troubling. Ordinary citizens are rallying to defend the commons of public space by fighting intrusive commercialism in civic spaces, sports, public schools and personal spaces. Local communities are fighting 'big box' retailers like Wal-Mart that are threatening independent businesses and Main Street culture.

What unites these various groups of people is their sense of the commons as a way to describe shared resources that are now being stolen by large corporations or imperilled by unchecked market activity. Put another way, the commons is a generic term for describing all those things that we inherit from nature and civil society, which we are duty-bound to pass along, undiminished, to future generations.

Don't go looking for a definitive inventory of the commons. A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.

The enclosure of the commons

'The commons' is a useful term because it helps begin to describe a nearly ubiquitous pathology of modern life, the enclosure of the commons. …

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