Reclaiming the commons

A world beyond the market and state

Many are quick to identify structural faults in our current systems, but few manage to advance a novel alternative. David Bollier makes a case for the insurgent potential of the commons for re-imagining the capitalist political economy, state power, our social relations and hierarchies, our relations with the Earth, and our inner lives.


It's fair to say that so many grand narratives of our time – about citizenship, freedom, property rights, economic growth, and theories of value – have been called into question these days. Existing institutions and categories of thought aren't working so well.

On the one hand, few people want to talk about structural change and necessary alternatives lest it open a Pandora's Box of monsters and chaos. On the other hand, as we move more deeply into the danger zones of climate change, authoritarian nationalism, savage precarity, inequality, and institutional breakdown, we have little choice. We need to abandon some settled habits. We desperately need to find a new North Star for building a more stable, wholesome order.

In this article, I introduce the idea of the commons – as rediscovered in its modern form – and suggest its enormous potential for re-imagining the capitalist political economy, state power, our social relations and hierarchies, our relations with the Earth, and our inner lives. To be sure, this is a daunting ambition and long-term project. We not only have to develop some very different social logics and institutional forms while entrenched in a problematic system. We also have to change ourselves. We have to find ways to overcome the unresolved traumas of capitalism, colonialism, and centralized state power whose norms we have internalized or repressed.

Commons are systems of shared wealth managed through bottom-up participation and peer-organized rules, with an accent on fairness and long-term stability. Examples range from open source software communities and agroecology to mutual aid networks and Indigenous cultures, and many others, as described below.


Despite divergent priorities, state and market are utterly symbiotic – enough that it makes sense to speak about the market/state system. It is this regime to which the commons offers an alternative vision.


Most commons today are dismissed as too small-scale, local and cash-poor to be significant. To the mainstream, they appear to be archaic oddities. Respectable opinion assumes that the market and state are the only two serious regimes for "getting things done." There is the “private sector” and the “public sector,” and not much else really matters. 

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Yet this is a specious debate or at least very narrow framing of our problems. Market and state both celebrate economic growth and are deeply allied (with different roles) in promoting a liberal political and economic order. The state wants unfettered markets to generate growth, tax revenues, and social mobility for its citizens, while corporations and investors want the state to provide stable governance, legal privileges and subsidies for business, and the cleanup after financial crashes, ecological catastrophes, market abuses, and other "market externalities." 

Despite divergent priorities, state and market are utterly symbiotic – enough that it makes sense to speak about the market/state system. It is this regime to which the commons offers an alternative vision.

New politicians or policies or laws are not going to solve these problems because the problems are fundamentally structural in nature. The market/state does not have the affordances to overcome them, any more than a bicycle could take us to the moon. You might say that we are trapped in an interregnum. The old order has not yet passed away and the new order is not ready to be born.


A parallel polis is a community-created safe space in which people mutually support each other, directly produce what they need, and build a kind of shadow society.


The Virtues of a Parallel Polis for Commoning

So what is to be done? I draw inspiration and guidance from Václav Havel, the Czech playwright.  When he and other cultural dissidents in the 1970s faced a totalizing, repressive system – in his case, the Czech government – Havel's strategic response was to develop what he called a "parallel polis." A parallel polis is a community-created safe space in which people mutually support each other, directly produce what they need, and build a kind of shadow society.

The idea of a parallel polis serves many purposes. People can have a social space to speak the truth, debunk official propaganda, and expand their imaginations about what is possible. They can build horizontal, convivial relationships with one another while creating a prefigurative new order. They can express wholesome values and reclaim their dignity, social solidarity, and hope.

I see the Commonsverse as a kind of parallel polis. By Commonsverse, I mean the countless projects, organizations, and social movements that are committed to commoning as diverse strategies for bringing about system-change. Instead of looking at commons as a grand abstraction – by which capitalist economics escapes looking at existing practical alternatives – it’s worth reviewing a few salient classes of commons in their concrete particularity. Let’s look at land, agriculture, and food, for example.

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Decommodifying land is an important way to make land accessible. One important tool in this regard are community land trusts (CLTs), which take land off the market and make it a commons in perpetuity. This has enormous benefits for local farming, affordable housing, and conservation. CLTs help preserve the landscape, reduce wealth inequality, and make it more affordable to grow nutritious food locally. 

Beyond land stewardship and decommodification, commons are part of a diverse movement to reinvent local agriculture and food supply chains in Europe and North America. Organic local farming started this trend fifty years ago, and it is now seen in permaculture, agroecology, the Slow Food movement, and even the Slow Fish movement. Food co-operatives are a time-proven model for bringing farmers and consumers together into mutually supportive relationships – helping to lower prices, assure more stable local food supplies, and supporting eco-friendly agriculture. 


Commons are fundamentally relational, not transactional. They are not based on the calculative market rationality and selfish materialism of individuals so cherished by economists. They are animated by social cooperation and solidarity.


The West in many ways lags behind traditional and Indigenous commoners. An estimated two billion people around the world depend on commons for their everyday subsistence, through stewardship of forests, fisheries, farmland, pastures, water, and wild game. The commoning performed by such groups is often ignored because it doesn’t contribute to market “development.” Yet it demonstrates locally grounded, eco-friendly alternatives to industrial monoculture farming. Some 70% of the world's biodiversity exists on lands managed by Indigenous peoples.

Commons are also a vital form of democratic empowerment in dozens of cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, Bologna, and smaller municipalities, where people are experimenting with new forms of collaborative governance. Commons/public partnerships, for example, are creating makerspaces for tech innovation, systems of mutual aid, civic information commons, and neighbourhood improvement projects, among other collaborations. There are also lots of independent, commoner-led projects in cities such as community gardens and urban agriculture, energy-production commons, and regional WiFi systems such as Catalonia's 

Unlike state bureaucracies or capitalist markets, urban commons provide ways to reclaim popular control of cities from wealthy developers and investors. They empower citizens with real responsibilities, and reknit the social fabric through a sense of belonging. 

These examples are just a snapshot of a much larger, robust Commonsverse that is rapidly growing but which, unfortunately, remains largely illegible to mainstream political culture. 

To try to remedy that, I published The Commoner's Catalog for Changemaking two years ago to showcase the enormous diversity of commons that can be seen in many theaters of life: digital spaces (open source software, Wikipedia, citizen-science, crowdsourcing, open access scholarly publishing), water stewardship (acequias for irrigation, “land protectors”), money and finance (local currencies, crowdfunding, Timebanking), cooperatives for racial and ethnic emancipation, arts and culture commons (shared infrastructure, collaborative art-making and exhibitions), and countless others.

Seeing Commons as Social Systems

These and other commons differ from the commons described by conventional economists, who regard them as “unowned resources.” That’s incorrect. Commons are vibrant social systems in which resources are embedded and stewarded. As my coauthor Silke Helfrich and I describe in our book Free, Fair and Alive, commons are fundamentally relational, not transactional. They are not based on the calculative market rationality and selfish materialism of individuals so cherished by economists. They are animated by social cooperation and solidarity.   

To better understand these “inner” personal and social dynamics of commons, my colleague Silke Helfrich and I spent years reviewing the many commons we had observed over fifteen years. We identified several dozen relational patterns, and grouped them into three Spheres – Social Life, Peer Governance, and Provisioning – which can be roughly understood as the social, the institutional, and the economic. This “Triad of Commoning” is a useful framework for understanding the social practices and ethical values that create and maintain successful commons.

In the Social Life of a commons, one important pattern is Cultivate shared purpose and values. Without this practice, a commons falls apart. People need to share experiences and collectively reflect on their commoning if they are to remain a coherent, vital group. A related pattern is Ritualize togetherness. It’s important for people to share with each other, celebrate their accomplishments, develop traditions, play together, and organize festivities. The social life of a commons also requires that people freely contributeto give without the expectation of immediate return, even though commons routinely deliver real benefits over time.   

Peer Governance another part of the Triad of Commoning -- is all about seeing others as equals, and sharing the rights and duties of collective decisionmaking. With Peer Governance, you try to avoid hierarchies and centralized systems of power -- because they can be a setup for the abuse of power and accountability problems. Peer governance requires, among other things, Sharing knowledge generously. This is a crucial way to generate collective wisdom. Knowledge grows when it is shared, but this can only happen if information is accessible and freely circulating. A related pattern is Honoring transparency in a sphere of trust. Not just formal disclosures, but the ability to share difficult or embarrassing information.

The third sphere of commoning – Provisioning – explains how commoners produce what they need. In a commons there is no separation of production and consumption, as in the market economy, but rather a desire to integrate one's economic needs with the rest of one’s life.  Commoners therefore don't produce to sell in the marketplace, and so they strive to protect the integrity of their commons from money and market norms. One basic pattern of provisioning is Make & use together. Anyone who wants to participate and take responsibility can join. Everyone contributes according to their own capacities, talents, and needs. 

There is not enough space here to describe the many other patterns of commoning. Suffice it to say that once we enter the world of commoning, we leave behind the selfish individualism and transactional mindset of market culture. The world discloses itself as an integrated whole driven by a web of symbiotic, cooperative relationships. Commoning manifests as a dynamic aliveness and cooperative ethic, driven by everyone’s impulse for connection and wholeness. Commoning is thus an inner experience of belonging, security, and fairness forged through caring relationships.


Can the liberal constitutional order affirmatively protect commoning while respecting its integrity as a noncapitalist social form?


Protecting Commons from State Power and Market Enclosure

As commons and commoning have proliferated over the past ten years, they have increasingly come into conflict with the power of the state, capitalist enterprise, and neoliberalism. Historically, market players (investors, corporations, the affluent) and the state (politicians, bureaucracies, law) have sought to appropriate and privatize common assets – land, water, minerals, plants and animals, information, creative works, and much else. As seen in the English enclosure movement, centuries of colonial conquest, and today, capitalist "development," the market/state seeks to propertize and monetize anything of value, from artificial nanomatter and human genes to mathematical algorithms and flows of water packaged as financial securities. 

An urgent practical question for commoners is how they can use law to stop enclosures of their shared wealth and to protect their commoning. Is this actually possible? Can the liberal constitutional order affirmatively protect commoning while respecting its integrity as a noncapitalist social form? Does it want to? Is it possible to artfully blend the vernacular law of the commons and western jurisprudence, if only as a makeshift détente? Or are the philosophical commitments of liberalism too rigid, aggressive, and politically entrenched to support the commons and the living value it generates? 

Let's be clear: The commons embodies a very different theory of value than market price, which in our times is considered the default, universal metric of value. The commons instead recognizes living systems as generative – value that is not and generally should not be propertized, monetized, and commercially traded.

Liberalism balks at this idea, of course, and is disinclined to recognize the role of customary practice or collective identities. Like markets, the liberal state is deeply committed to individualism, property rights, contract freedom, and boundless market activity. All of this entrenches a cultural ethic of separation – of humans from each other, of civilization from the Earth, and of culture from historical memory.

As scholar Serge Gutwirth has put it, the liberal state does not have the means to “attribute rights to dynamic collectives without legal personalities.” (A notable exception is the corporation, whose mission of economic growth is highly congenial to the state.)  Some 800 years ago, many specific rights of commoners were honored in the landmark Charter of the Forest – a legal declaration connected to the Magna Carta -- but today the document is largely forgotten. With the rise of the nation-state and even liberalism, legal recognition for commoning – for people's right to access things essential to their survival – has remained elusive.

This history shows how liberalism as enacted today is philosophically hostile toward the commons, or at least ignorant about its actual value and dynamics. The state is vigilant in asserting the legality of its exercise of power, as formally enacted through law and state institutions. But it has only passing regard for the social and ethical legitimacy claimed by commons. State and market power insist on their (overlapping) epistemic supremacy.

When discussing liberalism and commoning, we therefore encounter a rift between legality and legitimacy. The market/state order invokes formal jurisprudence and bureaucracy to affirm the legality of its administrative order. It has far less interest in the dynamic governance and vernacular practices, experiences and epistemic social order of commoners – all of which are experienced as more legitimate.  

There are some fascinating innovations that are attempting to bridge this space with experimental hybrids. Besides commons/public partnerships, as mentioned above, there are many attempts to carve out new zones of legality from within existing law, and then to fill those zones with new social norms and political action based on commoning. Examples of these legal hacks include Creative Commons licenses and open source software licenses that make creative works legally shareable, and various "rights of nature" laws and “self-owning land” provisos that give formal legal personality to rivers, mountains, and land. One can also see the invention of new organizational forms – new financial and technical infrastructures, for example – to make commoning easier, as we see in the Open Collective financial web service, Holochain web protocols, and “digital autonomous organizations”, all of which support decentralized peer governance.

Anyone who is serious about meaningful change today cannot ignore the proven and emerging examples of commoning. They are a fertile seedbed for addressing our most intractable problems. For centuries, however, the wizards of capitalist modernity have regarded the ecological and local, and social cooperation and ethical practices of commoning, as marginal and inconsequential. Yet, as the market/state system flails and the Commonsverse proves its mettle in meeting needs in fair-minded, socially satisfying, climate-friendly ways, it is time to open our minds to the many new (which is to say, old and venerable) possibilities.

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