Thinking about the Next System: David Bollier on the Commons


The Great Sandy Desert (Ngurrara) as viewed by the original Australian inhabitants of northern Western Australia. Bollier included this “map” in his presentation to illustrate the difference between a commons-based interpretation of a place that prioritizes cultural and ethical values and a scientific map that is all about geographic and topographic accuracy. For more on the Ngurrara map. See this page.

At a lunch seminar at the Next System Project last week, David Bollier reviewed some of the  work he has done on the various expressions and formations of “the commons.”  It’s a fascinating area of inquiry that offers a helpful way to think about how a more just and humane economic and social system can counter the hegemony of the market in capitalist societies. This post talks about Bollier’s presentation and also draws from his paper Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm,  published by the Next System Project in 2016.

The point of departure in Bollier’s analysis is very much in line with the Next System Project’s perspective: the capitalist economy is characterized by “interconnected pathologies of relentless economic growth, concentrated corporate power, consumerism, unsustainable debt, and cascading ecological destruction.” Given the devastating consequences of the prevailing economy, “[H]ow are we to imagine and build a radically different system while living within the constraints of an incumbent system that aggressively resists transformational change?”

To take on this dilemma, it is critical to build a new social order based on entirely different assumptions. Instead of a market system that turns everything into a commodity and pits people and communities against one another, the commons–as a set of entities, cultural values, and relationships–prioritizes mutual support, shared resources, ecological sustainability, and related principles that support a society that benefits everyone.

Historically, the the commons can be traced back to before the advent of industrial capitalism, when unowned spaces like forests and pastures were available to everyone. Social relationships in these common areas tended to be based on reciprocity and sharing, although we should be careful about idealizing the pre-capitalist social order with its feudal hierarchies and extreme poverty. In many cases, it is likely that commons fields and forests made bearable the lives of peasants and others who were forced to labor under extremely difficult conditions for the benefit of their landowning masters. But there is little doubt that something of a moral economy prevailed in many European feudal societies as well as in many other places around the world.

At some point, the market intervened. Feudal lords and other governing elites came to realize that they could derive significant gains from common areas and seized those areas in a process called enclosure, fencing in land and driving away the common people, often to the cities.

Bollier observed that the process of enclosure continues in our hyper-capitalist present. Forests, fresh water, minerals, seeds, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been appropriated in one way or another by capitalist enterprises for private gain, while depriving society as a whole of the benefits of these vital resources, except through market transactions that favor those who have seized them. Quite shockingly, parts of the human genome itself as well as other organisms have even been enclosed (patented).

Bollier’s contemporary and expanded version of the commons sees it as an assortment of spaces, institutions, and practices as well as virtual and transnational domains that can be reclaimed or protected from the market to serve as the commonly held wealth of society as a whole.  In the presentation, he mentioned a host of interactions and formations that are based on commons principles.

Open source software and the internet are prime examples of strong commons spaces. Software developers, very often explicitly called a “community,” devote their time and creativity to create, maintain, and upgrade free software available to anyone to download and use as they see fit. The number of such community members is easily in the hundreds of thousands while the number of users, who depend on them and sometimes participate more actively, is easily in the millions if not tens of millions. It’s a large domain of human activity.

Other examples of commons-oriented institutions include the large number and variety of cooperatives, public banks, community gardens, land trusts, civic associations, and fab labs. The list is endless, which speaks to the fact that a commons way of life is actually quite prevalent in our capitalist-dominated society.

Can all of these commons institutions and networks come together to form a viable alternate system and replace or fundamentally transform the existing capitalist order? And if so, how might this come about? Bollier sees many positive signs that “commons-thinking” and commoning as action continue to grow, drawing specific attention to places like Spain and Greece where the state and economy have been in deep crisis. But he does not make any claims about the possibility of a rapid transformation and sees change building from the bottom as new ways of commoning evolve and some elements of the existing capitalist order are modified and replaced.

At the same time, and in response to a question about the relative strength of the capitalist system compared to the emerging commons, he said that the threat of co-optation of the commons is always present. It’s an important point and brings me back to the earlier observation about the commons as a resource that made life marginally more livable for peasants and other exploited classes. The same dynamic may be in operation right now. Commons places may function as refuges that help people find community or enhance their material well being and in this way actually prop up the neo-liberal capitalist order.

This point suggests a theoretical question. Commons and market may not be an absolute binary so that characteristics of each can be embedded in and interact with the other. Most commons spaces and practices cannot exist entirely outside and independent of the capitalist economy. Nearly all cooperatives, public banks, and various kinds of community welfare and non-profit organizations have no choice but to conform to existing laws, meet payroll, and pay rent, meaning that an important aspect of their sustainability must conform to and be measured by “normal” capitalist standards.

In the example of software, popular open source applications like Drupal and WordPress are used by for-profit entities to build web applications for paying clients. Developers sell third-party plugins and other extensions to go with the free software. Drupal, despite its quality and popularity among developers, especially government and non-profit entities, is largely sponsored by a handful of for-profit tech firms for their own reasons, some of which clearly have nothing to do with commons principles. In a September 2016 post on the Drupal website, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert was very clear about this dependency.

Like OpenSSL, most Open Source projects fail to scale their resources. Notable exceptions are the Linux kernel, Debian, Apache, Drupal, and WordPress, which have foundations, multiple corporate sponsors and many contributors that help these projects scale.

Looking from the other direction, many corporate activities have some commons characteristics as does the state.  Bollier writes that the “commons names a set of social values that lie beyond market price and propertization.” Such values can and often do appear in any number of institutions, including corporations and the government, where groups may come together to share knowledge and experiences. In the Drupal example, some corporations find it in their interest to support an open source software community and to allow that community to develop on its own.

Are there ways that the commons can be supported through political action and public policy? Bollier appears to be ambivalent on this point. In response to a question, he preferred to emphasize the importance of commons institutions growing organically on their own. In his paper, on the other hand, he sees the “partner state” as providing support for commons entities as well as for re-embedding the capitalist economy in society. He writes that the “big challenge for commoners is to federate their models into larger, collaborative social ecosystems” and to do that they must “enlist government as a partner” that can “provide legal frameworks for commoning, technical support, and even indirect subsidies.”

Bollier hastens to add, however, that “top-down systems” are not the “most effective, rapid way to achieve “system change’” as often assumed by progressives. In other words, acting through the channels of the current system is not the way to bring into being an entirely new system. The state in a commons-dominant system will “need to evolve and delegate powers to allow more bottom-up, commons-based initiatives to flourish.” He then goes on to cite Michel Bauwens’ conceptualization of the partner state and associated polity as bringing into being “meta-economic networks” to bridge domains of activity and to enhance synergies among them, including “self-organized governance at large scale.”

Thus, there appear to be two formulations of the partner state in the article. One conceives of a government we are very familiar with that provides well-known benefits such as subsidies, legal frameworks, and so on. The other is a state that itself has been transformed into an entirely different entity that is consistent with and supports a more fully-developed commons society. As I understand it, this is a state that will emerge as commons entities and relationships mature.

The role of the state in birthing a new system is an important question.  In another paper for the Next System Project, John Restakis offers a more fully fleshed-out view of the partner state (he uses the same term) and how it is needed to facilitate the growth of next system institutions. It’s a very recognizable state that already exist to a degree in parts of Europe.  Restakis describes the important role of a fully democratic state with significant powers to protect and expand the commons. Such powers include the production of money, controlling capital, supporting and regulating firms and markets, and converting essential infrastructure and resources to the commons for the public good.

Restakis offers a more straightforward path for getting to the Next System, or at least how to take the first few steps on the way. But the contrast with Bollier is perhaps not so great if we understand next system formation as a gradual process. Restakis is focused on how to move forward now, but Bollier–while not denying the importance of that–appears to emphasize the very different governance institutions that would need to emerge in the future.

One of the important contributions of Bollier’s work on the commons is that it opens up new realms of human activity to analysis alongside the usual, quite limiting, focus on the economy and state. By providing another perspective on what exists now and what could be, a focus on the commons and commons-thinking subverts the “there is no other option” narrative that neo-liberal capitalism depends on and has been hegemonic until very recently.

The commons as a set of ideas can also express ethical and philosophical supports for building a next system. George Monbiot in Out of the Wreckage argues that a story can only be replaced by another story. The commons as articulated by Bollier can be a big part of the next system story.

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