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The dangers of defining the commons

on Sat, 12/04/2010 - 23:03

In the last few days I've been thinking about the how the commons should be defined.

Are the commons a "social movement", or a "political movement" (as David Bollier suggests in his article "Imagining a New politics of the commons").

Or, perhaps,  we can call the commons a whole new counter-culture or "zeitgeist" as in "the spirit of the age"?

It's very important that we get our ideas about the commons clear right from the start - if that is at all possible.

Neal Gorenflo in his notes from the International Conference of the Commons, held in November in Berlin, mentions a comment made by David Bollier in his keynote speech:"we may look back on the conference as an historic moment when a diverse group of commoners began to reinvent the idea of the commons in a globalized context and connect isolated projects into a powerful movement."

As Martin Pedersen comments, in his very interesting discussion post about the use of language in defining the commons, (scroll to bottom of post for his comments) "a system of thought is likely to have sensitive dependence on initial conditions".

This means we"ve only got one shot at getting our language about the commons right. And we've got to take that shot soon during these "initial conditions" that the Berlin Conference was highlighting.

We still have (a little) time left to influence what definition of the commons becomes generally accepted. That "accepted definition" will then affect all future discourse about the commons, world-wide.

Again, as Martin Pedersen points out: "language is a form of magic that conjures up ideas in ways where even the smallest of differences can result in the sending of very different signals".

So we are walking a very fine line and have to be very careful with this commons-language-magic.

Here is a very concrete example of how critical and current this issue of defining the commons really is:

This all happened today:

1)    I looked up what Wikipedia has to say about "social movements" quote: "focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change."

2)    I read a report from the COP 16 Climate Change conference that is presently happening in Cancun Mexico and the "parallel" Climate conference organized by Klimaforum. (I'm interested because some friends of mine are down there in Mexico from the Global Commons Trust and they were running a workshop at Klimaforum called "Understanding the Commons as a Natural Alternative to Market and State Control")

3)    In this blog post about the Klimaforum workshop in Cancun the writer makes an observation -emphasis added by me): "they [Global Commons Trust] see the commons as merely a "new operating system" that is to function alongside capital and the State rather than a means by which to do away with either or both.  This marked blunting of a highly subversive concept is carried through to the Trust"s proposal for action regarding anthropogenic climate change"

4)    Then I remembered Martin Pedersen talking (in the same discussion on language and the commons - see above) about the "last remaining anarchists (read: subversive) of the Spanish Revolution " and what their final fate was at the hands of the Soviet State and fasist regimes.

If we choose to go down the road of calling the commons a "movement" social or political, or a "counter-culture" we inevitably will be heading into potential conflict situations "them/us, struggles for power etc".

The commons will become the new "big idea" that is "right" and, therefore, people will feel the need to, righteously, subvert all presently-existing systems of state and private sector.

This is exactly what we do not want to happen. We have enough strife in the world already.

So, what language will steer the commons away from falling into the trap of being defined as a 'movement' and being "subversive" or "resisting or undoing social change"?

Who, in fact, would be delighted if commoners did start to define themselves as a political movement?

See my next blog post for more on this dangerous topic.



George Pór's picture

Dear Robin,

I don't think that David Bollier or any of us who were at the Berlin Comons Conference is thinking in terms of them vs us political movement that you are concerned about. If the word "movement" for you evokes that, why not consider an alternative meaning: movement as in the "awakening of the social body," humankind as whole...