On September 29th, David Bollier—the Schumacher Center’s Reinventing the Commons Program Director—delivered a talk at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, titled “The Insurgent Power of the Commons in the War Against the Imagination.” Following are excerpts from this talk. The whole talk may be read on our website or viewed on Youtube.
We look forward to seeing many of you at the 38th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures on October 27th at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Tickets are available for purchase here.
Schumacher Center Staff
Commoning is the social process by which people come together, figure out the terms of their peer governance, learn how to devise fair systems, how to deal with rule-breakers, how build a cohesive culture, and so forth. Who are these commoners? They include:
- Farmers, villagers, pastoralists, and fishers who use community systems to manage crops, pastures, irrigation water, trees, wild game, fish….
- “Localists” who want to restore the self-determination of their communities through community land trusts, CSA farms, alternative currencies and time-banking systems, among other commons.
- There are Croatians fighting enclosures of their public spaces and coastal lands, and Greeks developing mutual aid systems to fight the neoliberal economic policies that have decimated that nation.
- There is a rich Francophone network of commoners, and others in Spain, Italy, the UK, and India.
- A new “municipalism” of urban commons is arising in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, and Bologna to establish commons-based Wi-Fi systems, public spaces, social projects, limits on development, and more.
- Indigenous peoples are arguably the oldest commoners, fighting to defend their ethnobotanical knowledge and biocultural practices.
- A vast network of digital commoners are creating free and open source software….building open-access publishing systems….“platform cooperatives” as alternatives to Uber and Airbnb….wikis and makerspaces and Fab Labs.
Through some form of spontaneous convergence – or rising of a collective unconscious – these various groups are discovering the commons and using it as a lingua franca. While they all traffic in very different resources in very different circumstances, most of them have a least one thing in common – a victimization by global markets and capital.
I’d like to suggest that a more constructive and secure long-term vision is for communities to become more locally autonomous and self-directed and to become less dependent on the global and national markets, many of which treat rural America as sites for neocolonial extraction in any case.
The more promising answers lie in greater relocalization and community self-reliance and in decommodifying our daily needs as much as possible; in working with the land and not abusing it; in sharing infrastructure and collaborations with other commoners; and in mutualizing the benefits that are generated.
Of course, land is another precious resource that has already been enclosed by capital or faces constant threats of enclosure. How can land be made more affordable and accessible, especially for young farmers, and be deployed as an object of stewardship, not simply ruthless market exploitation?
We know that community land trusts are a powerful vehicle for land reform. They are a way for communities to take land off the speculative market and use them for long-term community purposes, such as workforce housing, town improvements, sustainable agriculture, and recreation.
Again: the strategy of decommodify and share. A CLT is a kind of commons because it socializes and collectivizes economic rent, and then invests it back into the community that helps create it. It’s a social organism for regenerating value, through democratic governance and open membership in its classic form.
More recently, the Schumacher Center has been developing an offshoot of community-supported agriculture – community-supported industry. The idea is to use community land trust structures in novel ways to help decommodify land and buildings in a town. They can then be used for all sorts of “import-replacement” enterprises – production, retail, food – that recirculates dollars within the region.
In terms of re-purposing land, I recently learned about the FaithLands movement. It’s a small but growing movement of churches, monasteries, and other religious bodies offering up their land for community-minded agriculture, ecological restoration, and social justice projects. It turns out that religious organizations own a lot of tax-free land, and so they can potentially act like conservation organizations or land trusts.
Simply asking, “What does the land want?” and “How can we feed the hungry?” let us consider the radical idea of food itself as a commons. Why shouldn’t food be recognized as a basic human need available to all, and not merely as a private, transnational commodity?
If a larger Commons Sector is going to arise and flourish, we will need more than small-scale, one-off projects. We need larger shared infrastructure to take things to the next level. This can open up new opportunities for commoning while thwarting the possibility of business monopolies and proprietary lock-ins, as we see in seed patents, exclusive supply chains, and the like.
I am thrilled to learn of the supply infrastructure created by farmers in the area north of Boston, along the seacoast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The Three River Farmers Alliance has brought together a variety of local producers to aggregate and distribute their foods. The shared distribution system helps them escape a dependency on powerful middlemen and build new bonds of trust among themselves. An open source farm-management software platform lets each farm function independently while also letting each opt-in to share knowledge and cooperate with others. This works only because there are shared data protocols managed as a commons.
Or consider the Fresno Commons in Fresno, California, which is reinventing the whole farm-to-table supply chain under the control of a series of community trusts. This is helping farmers, distributors, retailers, and others to mutualize risks and benefits throughout the value-chain. The “profit” doesn’t get siphoned off to investors, but is used to improve wages and working conditions, grow food without pesticides, make food more affordable to low-income people, etc.
These stories point to the critical role that digital network technologies can play in bringing gig-economy efficiencies down to the local level. But this is not just about market efficiencies and automated administration; it’s about building tech-based affordances for new forms of cooperation in today’s world.
Another such platform is called cosmo-local production. This is an emerging production process in which knowledge and design – the light-weight stuff – are co-developed and shared with collaborators around the world via the Internet. Then the heavy, physical tasks of production are done locally, in open source ways – which is to say, in ways that are inexpensive, modular, locally sourceable, and protected from enclosure. This is the idea behind Farm Hack, a global community of open source designers of all sorts of farm equipment.
Cosmo-local production is also being used to design electronics (Arduino), video animations (Blender Institute), cars (Wikispeed), houses (Wikihouse), and furniture (Open Desk). The same general logic of global collaboration can be seen in the System for Rice Intensification, a global collaboration in which thousands of farmers around the world share their own agronomy innovations with each other, open-source style. It has improved rice yields four- and five-times over without chemicals or GMOs.
I haven’t touched on innovations in local government. Let me just quickly mention the ingenious uses of government procurement to help strengthen the local economy such as the pioneering work led by the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland and more recently, in Preston, England. In Italy, dozens of cities are developing “public/commons partnerships,” also known as “co-city protocols.” These are systems through which city bureaucracies collaborate with neighborhoods and citizen groups, empowering people to meet their own needs more directly and on their own terms.
Lest I leave the impression that the commons amounts to a bunch of white papers and policy ideas, let me underscore that the commons is about providing convivial spaces for us as whole human beings. A commons can only work by drawing upon our inner lives, sense of purpose, and cultural and spiritual values. It is therefore imperative that artists and cultural organizations play a conspicuous role. They can express insights and feelings that our hyper-cognitive minds cannot. They can express embodied ways of knowing.
I think you can begin to connect the many dots. No single one of them is the answer, but together, they help us to begin to think like a commoner. That’s liberating. That opens up new vistas of possibility. It helps us fight the war against the imagination and give us hope.
But these alternatives are only available to us if we can learn how to develop a new mindset, cultivate a new language to express our shared vision, and embark upon the hard work of building it out through commoning, project by project. That’s our challenge, which I am grateful to be able to share with this remarkable Prairie Festival!
David Bollier is the Schumacher Center’s Reinventing the Commons Program Director. He is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture. Bollier’s work on the commons especially focuses on Internet culture; law and policy; ecological governance; and inter-commoning.