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Can the commons be a foundation for compassionate institutions?

on Tue, 03/27/2012 - 15:00

Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA (Brtitain's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), asked a wise and liberating question in his blogpost: “Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute? ... Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary."

A wise question calls us to look at its object from a broader, more encompassing view than normally we do. A liberating question breaks our mental shackles and invites us to express freely our highest aspirations even if they are not supported by a given social context.

Don’t we all long for living in a society, where the fullest development of all is the purpose of the whole, and vice versa? Well, maybe not all but I certainly do. Such a compassionate society would be just one notch higher in the holarchy of embedded systems than the compassionate institution that Matthew wrote about.

When I think of compassionate institutions, I don’t think primarily organizations of any kind with a compassionate culture and lofty Mission/Values statement framed and displayed at the entrance, which nobody really cares about. Even if they do, and there are sincere efforts to embody compassionate efforts in collective behavior, organisational is culture only half of the equation.

The other half is the systems, structures, and processes of value creation and governance. That implies going just one step further in our quest for the compassionate institution, and embodying compassion not only in the culture but also in the systems. Something like commons does.

By “commons” I don’t mean only the old village greens. “Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include public goods such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems).” Wikipedia

Can that contemporary, extended sense of the commons become an economic foundation for compassionate institutions? I think so. But how?

The first step is in what James Quilligan a globally renowned commons theorist/activist, policy analyst, and founder of the Global Commons Trust has put this way: "Modern economics has turned labour into a utility of the market and government. But the principles of the commons (people's negotiation of their own norms and rules for the management of social and natural resources) show us how to transcend utilitarian economics by transforming the traditional division of labour. New forms of value are already being created by these commons, whether they are traditional (irrigation ditches, pastures, indigenous cultures) or emerging (intellectual property, social networks, collaborative innovation)."

The second step towards the commons as an economic foundation for compassionate institutions is understanding and practicing that there's no commons without people commoning, engaging in mutually supportive relationships of co-creating and protecting the material or intellectual resources essential to their life.