The following is an interview that Silke Helfrich gave to Michel Bauwens about the assembling and editing of the anthology Patterns of Commoning, which has recently been posted online at In coming weeks, I will be posting selected chapters from the book here.

Bauwens: Silke, could you first give some background about yourself and your collaboration with David Bollier in editing your books about the commons?

Helfrich: I feel cosmopolitan, but my roots are in the hilly countryside of East Germany, near the German border — the “system border” between capitalism and socialism until 1989. I currently live in Jena, Germany, and will soon move to the South where I will try to remodel a house that is exactly 500 years older than I am. This is an experience that makes me feel humbled because it brings me face-to-face with the realities of making something “sustainable.”

Since 2007 I have work closely with David Bollier, an American activist. We often describe what we do (along with you, Michel Bauwens, the third member of the Commons Strategies Group) as “seeding new conversations.” Just like farmers, we cannot really know how big and copious the harvest will be, or when exactly it will come. But we keep seeding to help making the commons visible at different levels:

1. As collective resources, both material and immaterial, which need protection and require a lot of knowledge and know-how;
2. As social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships; and
3. As a new mode of production that I call the Commons-Creating Peer Economy, or Commons-Oriented Economy.

I’d even say that there is a fourth level: the Commons as a worldview, as the expression of an ongoing paradigm shift now underway.

B: Is Patterns of Commoning an effort to sow seeds that will make the commons visible?

H: Absolutely! It is the second of three books that explore different aspects of the commons. The first began in 2010, when together with David and almost 80 contributors from all over the world, and thanks to the tremendous support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we started to work on an anthology called The Wealth of the Commons. That book was originally planed to sketch out the philosophical and policy foundations for a commons-friendly politics. But we quickly realized that we first had to introduce the commons and explain why we believe that commons having very different practices and resources – so-called traditional commons of land and water, for example, and digital commons on the other hand – are in fact related. They may look very different based on the resources managed, but in essence they have a lot in common – a social commitment to manage the resources responsibly, fairly and in inclusive ways.


The Wealth of the Commons became longer and longer, and so we ended up doing what commoners often do when there is an unsolvable conflict: we forked the project. David and I started thinking about a volume 2, which in 2015 became Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of profiles of successful commons and an exploration of the inner dimensions of commoning. Mid-way through this book, after maybe a dozen of concept versions of it, we realized that all good things come in threes, so we committed to a third volume, this one on the macro-political, economic and cultural dimensions of a commons-based society.

I’m pleased to report that Patterns of Commoning is now available online.  The book – a collection of more than 50 original essays about lively, productive commons – is the most accessible and far-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print.

The anthology features profiles of such innovative commons as Farm Hack, a global network that makes open source farm equipment…. the Bangla-Pesa currency that has helped revive a poor neighborhood in Kenya…. a collaborative online mapping project that help humanitarian rescue efforts….the theater commons HowlRound, the Obstea forest commons of Romania, and the water committees of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

When my co-editor Silke Helfrich and I published the book a year ago with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we deliberately bypassed commercial publishers because they demand too much control and deliver too little in return. We self-published the book with the help of dozens of commoners who pre-ordered the book, and then printed and distribute it via Off the Commons Books in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Since we have retained control over the copyright and publication, we were able to use a Creative Commons license and post the book on the Web.  This is what we also did for our previous anthology, The Wealth of the Commons, whose website continues to get a lot of readers worldwide.

So head on over to the website for Patterns of Commoning, and check out the many fantastic chapters, each on its own webpage.  Don’t be shy about buying a printed copy of the book via Off the Common Books or, if you must, Because of our commons-based publishing scheme, we are able to offer a handsome 405-page softcover book for only $15 plus postage.

Ebook versions are available in Kindle, Nook and ePub formats.  Outside of the US, the book can be ordered from Central Books in London. The German edition of the book -- Die Welt der Commons Muster gemeinsamen Handelns, published by transcript Verlag – can be found here. 

In the burgeoning genre of books focused on building a new and benign world order – a challenge variously known as the “new economy,” “Great Transition,” and the “Great Turning” among other terms) – John Thackara’s new book stands out.  How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today is low-key and sensible, practically minded and solidly researched.  Written in an amiable, personal voice, the book is persuasive and inspirational.  I can only say:  Chase it down and read it! 

It’s a shame that so many brave books that imagine a post-capitalist world surrender to grandiose theorizing and moral exhortation.  It’s an occupational hazard in a field that is understandably wants to identify the metaphysical and historical roots of our pathological modern times.  But critique is one thing; the creative construction of a new world is another.

That’s why I found Thackara’s book so refreshing.  This British design expert, a resident of southwest France, wants to see what the design and operation of an ecologically sustainable future really looks like, close-up.  He is also thoughtful enough to provide some depth perspective, following his own motto, “To do things differently, we need to see things differently.”

How to Thrive in the Next Economy seeks to answer the question, “Is there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth?”  The short answer is Yes!  There is an escape.  As Thackara shows us, there are scores of brilliant working examples around the world that demonstrate how to meet our needs in more responsible, fair and enlivening ways.

He takes us by the hand to survey a wide variety of exemplary models-in-progress.  We are introduced to scientists and farmers who are discovering how to heal the soil by treating it as a living system.  We meet urbanists who are re-thinking the hydrology of cities, moving away from high-entropy engineered solutions like reservoirs and sewers, to smaller, localized solutions like wetlands, rain gardens, ponds and worm colonies.  Other bioregionalists are attempting to de-pave cities and bring permaculture, gardens, “pollinator pathways” and informal food systems into cities.

Yesterday evening, Thom Hartmann, the progressive talk show host, interviewed me on his "Conversations with Great Minds" national TV show.  The first 12-minute video segment can be seen here, and the second one here. I don't think the commons has ever had this much airtime on American (cable) television.

A big salute to Thom for hosting this kind of material on his show. He is a rare creature on American TV and radio -- an intelligent progressive willing to give airtime to ideas from outside the Washington, D.C. echo chamber. Since the retirement of Bill Moyers, there are very few American TV personalities who actually read history, understand how it informs contemporary politics, and give sympathetic exposure to movement struggles seeking social and economic transformation. 

Since I'm sharing links, let me also share the link to my 20-minute presentation yesterday at Ralph Nader's conference, "Breaking Through" conference, which is being held this week in Washington, D.C.  My talk, "Controlling What We Own -- Defending the Commons," can be seen here at the timemark 5:35:15.

Check out the other presentations on this eight-hour video from Real News Network -- some amazing segments by folks like John Bogle, William Lerach, Ellen Brown and others focused on corporate governance, power and financial abuses.

There has been a surge of new interest in the city as a commons in recent months – new books, public events and on-the-ground projects.  Each effort takes a somewhat different inflection, but they all seek to redefine the priorities and logic of urban governance towards the principles of commoning.

I am especially impressed by a new scholarly essay in theYale Law and Policy Review, “The City as a Commons, by Fordham Law School professor Sheila R. Foster and Italian legal scholar Christian Iaione. The piece is a landmark synthesis of this burgeoning field of inquiry and activism. The 68-page article lays out the major philosophical and political challenges in conceptualizing the city as a commons, providing copious documentation in 271 footnotes.

Foster and Iaione are frankly interested in “the potential for the commons [as] a framework and set of tools to open up the possibility of more inclusive and equitable forms of ‘city-making’.  The commons has the potential to highlight the question of how cities govern or manage resources to which city inhabitants can lay claim to as common goods, without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them.”

They proceed to explore the history and current status of commons resources in the city and the rise of alternative modes of governance such as park conservancies, community land trusts, and limited equity cooperative housing.  While Foster and Iaione write about the “tragedy of the urban commons” (more accurately, the over-exploitation of finite resources because a commons is not simply a resource), they break new ground in talking about “the production of the commons” in urban settings. They understand that the core issue is not just ownership of property, but how to foster active cooperation and relationships among people. 

New Video, “Re-imagine the Future”

When faced with the massive crises of our time, the most logical response is paralysis.  What can an individual possibly do about something so massive and complex?

But what if people could manage to imagine changes that matter within their own lives, and then to grow and federate them? My colleague Anna Grear, a law professor at Cardiff University, and I wanted to focus on some of the positive, practical steps that anyone can take in dealing with the terrible challenges of our time.  

One result is a six-minute video that we are releasing today. The video is based on a series of interviews with participants in a June workshop called “Operationalising Green Governance.”  Held at a lovely retreat center north of Paris, a handful of participants – international law professors, human rights advocates, activists – were interviewed on camera by Ibby Stockdale, Director of a British film production company, Five Foot Four.  Ibby brilliantly distilled hours of interview footage and crafted a succinct, beautifully produced message. 

The short film, “Re-imagine the Future,” is now posted online and can be watched here.

In six minutes, it’s difficult to cover too much ground – so in the closing frames of the film, we provide links to two dedicated webpages – Anna’s  and mine -- to provide resources, organizations, essays, books, etc. for those interested in exploring the film’s themes more deeply. 

We hope you like the film – and would welcome whatever pass-along visibility you can give it.

This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

New Forms of Network-based Governance

The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK.  The third and final part of the essay will appear next.

Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance

 To return to our original question:  How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power?  There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance.  Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.

While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority.  The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value.  It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold.  By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).

Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative.  We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software.  That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control.  For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities,[17] and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).

Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation.[18] The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.

Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.


Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

Every few weeks, I seem to give extended radio and pocast interviews about the commons, and write occasional talks and essays that find their way to the Web. Here is a quick round-up of some of my more notable recent media appearances.

Writer’s Voice on Patterns of Commoning. One of my favorite interviewers is the skilled and sophisticated Francesca Rheannon of the syndicated radio show Writer’s Voice.  In early August, she aired our half-hour conversation about Patterns of Commoning,  the book that I co-edited with Silke Helfrich that profiles dozens of successful commons around the world.

Progressive philanthropy and system change.  In June, I had an extended interview with Steve Boland, host of the podcast Next in Nonprofits. We talked about progressive philanthropy and system change, a dialogue prompted by my April essay prepared for EDGE Funders Alliance on this same topic.

The importance of public squares.  The Hartford, Connecticut, public radio show, The Colin McEnroe Show, featured me and two other guests talking about “Democracy in the Public Square," on April 28, 2016. I focused on the tension between the government as the lawful guardian of public spaces, and the moral authority and human rights of the people to congregate in public spaces.