#FULLCOMMONISM

Update (05/11/14): I wrote this in haste, during the run-up to FSCONS. The videos from the day should be available soon – and we’re looking for other ways to develop the #FULLCOMMONISM conversation. Meanwhile, for a more detailed treatment of the core distinction between two ways of seeing the commons, see Ivan Illich, ‘Silence is a Commons’ and Anthony McCann, ‘Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”‘.

FSCONS is the Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit, an annual gathering of politically-minded hackers. Last year I gave a talk there about why “post-scarcity” is such a problematic concept. They liked that enough to ask me to put together a whole track at this year’s conference, which takes place this weekend in Gothenburg. That’s how #FULLCOMMONISM came about.

#FULLCOMMONISM is the thing I’ve been going on about for a while (like here and here), an insistence on how big the difference is between seeing a “commons” as a pool of resources to be managed and seeing a “commons” as an alternative to resources.

The moment you treat something as a resource, you’ve already commodified it. This sounds totally abstract, until you think about friendship, one of the few areas of human experience where we still have any common language for talking about the idea that not everything should be treated as a resource. When someone you thought of as a friend treats you as a resource you say, “I feel used!” – and people know what you mean.

The idea of “the commons” has been on a long journey out of the history books and into lots of areas of public discourse. I don’t mean it’s become a household word, but it is in danger of becoming a buzzword, everywhere from conservation to architecture to internet politics. One effect of this is that same word increasingly gets used in different ways, sometimes incompatibly different ways. I believe there’s a desperate need for a shared language for talking about why some things shouldn’t be “used” (and also when it might be OK to “use” things). That’s why #FULLCOMMONISM matters to me – I want to defend a way of talking about commons that helps us hold onto the possibility of other ways of treating each other and the world, rather than allowing it to be smudged into another approach to exploitation – a more sustainable and equitable way of “using” each other.

I’ve written a chapter for a book that the University of Gothenburg are putting out soon, in which I take this further, sketching out a set of connections between what I think of as the “logic” of commons – the ways of thinking and acting that go with “commonism” in its full sense – and the logic of friendship, hospitality and gift. I argue that this logic is at odds with another, dominant logic which forms the hidden consensus between the supposed opposites of “public” and “private”. But that’s more than I can go into this afternoon…

For now, this is an invitation to join us in Gothenburg on Saturday – or online, where there should be videos of Saturday’s talks appearing in the near future – as we try to flesh out the kind of commons I have in mind, the thing that Anthony McCann often calls ‘the heart of the commons’. I’ll be helped in this by a fascinating group of fellow speakers, some of them longstanding co-conspirators, others new friends, who are interested in this kind of conversation about the commons:

  • Evren Uzer von Busch will be talking about communal meals on the streets of Istanbul in the wake of the Gezi Park protests.
  • Christopher Brewster will be talking about water, friendship and conviviality, where commons and infrastructure meet.
  • Geraldine Juarez will be talking about piracy and friendship (and Piracy as Friendship).
  • Lars Noväng will be talking about trying to turn ideas into reality with The Friendly, the organisation and project space he created in Malmö.
  • And finally David Hilmer Rex and Aslak Aamot will be talking about Organisational Imaginaries, new social infrastructures and ways of thinking about what we have in common that shape the ways in which we come together and collaborate.

This is all just one track within a conference that will be full of fascinating talks and conversations – and it’s also just one step in the development of a line of inquiry around the commons that is rooted in ideas from Ivan Illich and Anthony McCann, that I hope to take forward in other ways in the years ahead.

Tickets are available through the FSCONS website – 600kr for the whole weekend.

2 thoughts on “#FULLCOMMONISM”

  1. Interesting point, Dougald, thanks for sharing it. I do not have (yet?) an opinion of my own to offer; I thought I could help your reflection by pointing out where I see this position located with respect to some broad cultural strands.

    1: Ostrom’s children. Unless I got it badly wrong, the word “commons” became way more popular in the political discourse since the mid 1980s. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the commons (1990) was probably the most influential single text around this scene. The thing is: Ostrom was an economist, even a Nobel laureate for economics. The very word “commons” is tinged with the Grim Science, allocation of scarce resources and all that. There is a very good theoretical reason for it: common goods are rivalrous in consumption, therefore can not be post-scarce. The class of non-scarce goods (non-rivalrous, non-excludible in consumption, like air) are called public goods by a literature older than Ostrom’s work (Paul Samuelson and others in the 1950s) . Of course you can go on and define commons as you please, but that’s a heavy cultural legacy you are fighting.

    2: Evolutionary biology (and, more recently, anthropology). Robin Dunbar is credited with the “social brain hypothesis”: humans have large, glucose-hungry brains (an evolutionary liability) because they need to power extremely sophisticated social behavior. In non-human species, too, social behavior is a predictor of brain size. Since evolution kills you if you don’t do things efficiently, it is not too big a stretch to say that in evolutionary terms friendship and conviviality are exactly a resource, in that they give a quantifiable fitness advantage, more numerous offspring etc. This, of course, is not to say they don’t “feel good” or “feel right” or “ennoble us” etc. On the contrary! They can only work because they feel that way to us. These feelings could be a neurological hack to induce convivial behavior, associated to higher fitness and therefore getting through the filter of natural selection. These are not pretty thoughts to think, but it would not be the first time that evolutionary theory pisses people off.

    Conclusions: while this does not per se make your point wrong, you seem to be standing in enemy territory. The word “commons” directs back to economics, therefore resource allocation; and your chief example on friendship is at odds with the proud and ancient tribe of evolutionary biologists.

  2. Hi Alberto –

    Thanks for the comment! It’s fascinating to see what perceptions and associations different people have relating to the term.

    Your second point runs right into the intersection of evolutionary biology, political thought and the history and philosophy of science (at least) – so I’ll only touch on it in passing here, without pretending to get to the meat of the matter.

    On the first point, though, it seems rather upside-down to present ‘commons’ as springing out of economic theory. Every time we use the word, we’re referencing a history that goes back to medieval England. I gave a very rough periodisation of the journey from there to here in Saturday’s talk. Up to the early 19th century, commons existed as a core part of a way of living, their role summarised by Illich (reference below):

    People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs. The law of the commons regulates the right of way, the right to fish and to hunt, to graze, and to collect wood or medicinal plants in the forest.

    Beginning in the 15th C and culminating in the 18th and early 19th C, the commons and the way of living of which they were a part came under attack – not through some inability to compete on a level playing field, but through acts of enclosure passed by parliament, favouring the interests of private landowners.

    Between the second quarter of the 19th C and the third quarter of the 20th C, anyone talking about commons was most likely a historian.

    The third phase (in my crude periodisation) is the return of the commons, which I think begins a little earlier than you’ve suggested, with Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ article, which has thousands of citations. This purports to describe a problem with the functioning of the commons, clearly modelled on the historical commons – it is not an accident that Hardin writes about herders and pasture. Yet the historical evidence goes against Hardin’s description. Knowingly or ignorantly, his description of ‘the inherent logic of the commons [that] remorselessly generates tragedy’ is participating in a tradition of whitewashing the political acts of theft which are the historical reality of how such commons came to an end. (If we want to read Hardin in good faith, Ian Boal makes an interesting suggestion, that what he is really describing is ‘the tragedy of the communes’ that was playing out up the road from him in California and on the front pages of the local newspaper. The difference between the logics underpinning the commune experiments of the 60s and the historical commons is something I touch on in the forthcoming book chapter.)

    By 1980, if not earlier, under the influence of Hardin, the discourse of commons was becoming prominent in conservation, in relation to things like water and fisheries. Ostrom’s career started in this field – and, in one sense, her work is about refuting Hardin’s account of the commons. She’s seeking to demonstrate the rationality and viability of historical commons in economic terms – which is to say, in terms of the rational management of resources.

    The difficulty is that, as Anthony McCann sets out in his paper on enclosure (reference below), there is a history of two contrasting ways of talking about the commons, going back right into the period of the enclosures – one which speaks in terms of pools of resources, the other in terms of a particular character of non-commodifying relations. This corresponds to the distinction Illich makes (in 1982) between the ‘environment as resource’ and ‘the environment as commons’. And as Anthony points out, those who see the commons as a pool of resources have historically been on the side of enclosure.

    If we are to talk about standing in enemy territory, this is really Ostrom’s position – she goes out to make the case for commons in the terms historically used by those arguing for their inefficiency and the desirability of enclosure.

    My argument (drawing on Illich and McCann) is that something vital goes missing when the case is made in such terms. We lose sight of what Illich is getting at when he makes ‘the distinction between the commons within which people’s subsistence activities are embedded, and resources that serve for the economic production of those commodities on which modern survival depends’ and what Anthony is getting at when he talks about ‘the heart of the commons’. This is the possibility that the vision of the world as a game of exploitation is not simply a fundamental truth revealed to us by economics and the natural sciences (whose histories are complexly intertwined: Darwin was reading Malthus when he came up with the concept of ‘the survival of the fittest’), but a way of seeing the world which brings some aspects of reality into focus and occludes others, and which is more convincing under the kind of economic and political order in which we find ourselves than it would be in other times and places.

    All of which is too long and too deep a territory for a blog comment, dashed off almost as hastily as the original post. Other important threads are missing. But this will have to do for today!

    References

    Ivan Illich, ‘Silence is a Commons’, CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1983
    Anthony McCann, Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”, Journal of Information and Communications Technology Law, Vol 14, Issue 3, 2005

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