Participants in Seoul’s Kimchi Making & Sharing Festival, November 2014. Photograph: Robert Cicchetti/Alamy
I have always been attracted to the notion that disruption to powerful systems comes not from the heart of the empire, but from the margins. This idea first fired my imagination while I was learning about the role of the monasteries of the early Celtic church, located on the wild and windswept fringes of western Europe, in reseeding the continent with art, literacy and a love of learning that had been eclipsed by the dark ages.
Today, I sense a similar wave of disruption sweeping in from various marginal corners of our globalised system, a mosaic of localised responses weaving into what begins to look like a new narrative to challenge the dominant neoliberal hegemony.
In this new conceptual and political space a term whose use was previously restricted mainly to academic anthropology departments has emerged: “the commons” – that realm of community self-organisation that is mediated neither by the market nor the state.
Today, “the commons” encompasses the world of seed saving, community-supported agriculture, peer production, fab-labs and hacker spaces, distributed manufacturing, co-production, open source, copyleft (as opposed to copyright), creative commons licenses, the collaborative and sharing economy, and the social and solidarity economy.
However, the growth and spread of commons-based regimes face two major obstacles. The first is the ever-present danger that profits generated by commoners are appropriated by conventional for-profit businesses, such as Google and Facebook.
As long as most contributors are unable to derive a living wage from their commons-based activities – anecdotal evidence suggests that crowdworkers are paid as little as $2-3 an hour working on microtasks for online crowdworking marketplaces such as Amazon Mechanical Turk – there is a limit to what can be achieved.
Second, the role of the state needs to be transformed from that of enabler of market-based development to that of partner in the growth of the reciprocity and commons-based social economy, something which long-time commons activist David Bollier calls “public/commons partnerships”.
These may seem like fairly insurmountable obstacles. And yet, from the margins comes news of disruptive innovation. A growing network of cities are followingthe lead of Seoul in experimenting with municipality-led shareable city initiatives, including city-supported carpools, urban gardens, pro-social procurement, investment and lending policies.
Bologna is one of a number of Italian cities to have adopted a “regulation for the care and regeneration of urban commons” as part of theCities as Commons project. In the words of pioneer Professor Christian Iaione, this initiative “allows citizen coalitions to propose improvements to their neighbourhoods, and the city to contract with citizens for key assistance. In other words, the municipality functions as an enabler, giving citizens individual and collective autonomy.”
Also in Italy, the past two decades have seen the flowering of social co-operatives as a new form of collaboration between public authorities and civil society in the provision of social services.
According to John Restakis, author and commentator on the co-operative movement, “social co-operatives are inventing models of care that are advancing the values of civil society as a clear alternative to both state and market systems”. Today, there are more than 10,000 social co-operatives providing social services throughout the country, employing 180,000 individuals.
Perhaps, what’s most exciting from the perspective of new thinking on the alignment of the state with regards to commons-based civil society is the Flok (Free/Libre, Open Knowledge) project initiated last year by the government of Ecuador. An international team of researchers were charged with creating “a legal, economic and social framework for an entire country that is consistent with principles that are the basic foundations of the internet: peer-to-peer collaboration and shared knowledge”.
From passive democracy to radical engagement
Out of this initiative has emerged a Commons Transition Plan that aims to provide a roadmap for the transition to a commons-based society enabled by a partner state. While internal political reasons make it unlikely that this initiative will be taken forward in the foreseeable future by the government, the plan has attracted widespread interest and has laid the foundations for ongoing discussions on its application in other contexts. Restakis, for example, is advising the new government of Greece on how to strengthen the social, co-operative economy.
The commons movement is highly dynamic and innovative but it is lacking in the kinds of institutional structures that would enable its contributors to derive income from their efforts and exclude for-profit free-riders. Meanwhile, the co-operative movement has developed sophisticated and effective legal structures over its long history, but has lost much of its early dynamism and has been slow to recognise the potential for renewal represented by the digital revolution and the new open-commons models generated by it.
The emerging three-way conversation between the commons movement, the co-operative movement and public authorities is opening up space for fresh thinking and a multiplicity of innovations at the level of city, region and now, tentatively, the nation state.
These involve an entirely new concept of governance, the role of the state, and citizenship, shifting from a passive form of electoral representative democracy to a generative democracy of radical engagement in the design, development and implementation of public policy. The pieces are now in place for a radical transition to a new kind of political economy.