I always find it refreshing when people decide to investigate the commons from new angles and in transdisciplinary ways. So it is a treat to learn about the web journal Lo Squaderno devoting its entire December 2013 issue (#30) to “Commons – Practices, Boundaries and Thresholds.” The entire issue is available as a pdf file under a Creative Commons BY-ND-SA license.
Lo Squaderno is “a free web journal devoted to exploring and advancing research movements…. [that] collects original short features by people committed to research in various fields. Each issue is structured around a thematic focus around the topics of space, power, and society.” This commons issue, edited by Giacomo DAlisa and Cristina Mattiuci, along with guest artist Andrea Sarti, consists of nine essays in English and three in Italian.
Below, provocative excerpts from three of the essays. In “Show Me the Action, and I Will Show You the Commons!” Helene Finiori, building on Silke Helfrich's observations, points out that the conventional ways of identifying common goods, based on their “rivalry” and “excludability,” is unreliable:
Types of goods are traditionally distinguished based on their degree of rivalry (the extent to which the use of a good by one diminishes the availability for others) and excludability (the extent to which access to a good can be denied or limited). This perspective ignores for a large part the contextual and variable nature of goods in time and under the ‘stress’ of repeated activity. It does not take into account the fact that rivalry can be a matter of perception (a good may be categorized non rival because perceived as abundantly available irrespective of whether self-renewable or not, such as water in ‘wet’ places), of congestion (a good may be non rival up to a point of saturation, such as roads before they get jammed) or of yield point (a good may be non rival up to the limit beyond which there is no more resilience under stress and therefore no more self-regeneration, such as a savannah before desertification). It does not acknowledge that low rivalry goods can also be depleted and made unavailable as a result of toxic outputs of activity (externalities). Neither does it consider the fact that property and access, in other words excludability, create artificial boundaries that businesses for example are constantly seeking to expand by inventing new property rights or business models, as part of their ‘natural’ quest to extend the perimeter in which they can generate and capture value. The examples of patented seeds and attempts to patent the human genome are the most striking.
In “Commoning: The Production of Common Worlds,” Leila Dawney, a cultural geographer at the University of Brighton, considers commoning to be a subjective social experience upon which the “politics of the commons” is based: (I am fascinated to see that Dawney writes about the “landscapes of authority and neoliberal subjectivities.”)
If lived experience can lead to this sense of being and becoming part of something, of partaking in a common world, then a new politics of the common can concern itself with what can be done to bring this about: how “practices of the common” can be used as a counter strategy to regimes of individualisation and neoliberalisation. Practising a politics of the common involves working out how to nurture these collective ways of being, in order to produce a sense of the “we” that is keenly felt. In doing so, shared practices and spaces can be claimed as common, and can produce a recognition of our shared stakes. The recognition and production of collective stakes can move us to do things that extend beyond our immediate mode of concern, that move away from the family/state dichotomy which neoliberal individualism and big state policies produce. This draws attention to our participation in making worlds beyond our immediate desires and needs, and contributes to our sense of commonality, our feeling of being in common.
And Paul Blokker, who studies the political sociology of constitutions at the European University Institute, Florence, writes in “Commons, Constitutions and Critique” that the commons poses profound challenges to liberal constitutionalism by re-imagining popular sovereignty and proposing new categories of thought:
Liberal constitutionalism, by strongly instituting the public/private distinction, makes possible the market logic of appropriation and control access to goods. The critique of liberal constitutionalism is its disregard for a different rationality, that of the commons or res communis omnium, which largely escapes the public-private property dichotomy, and points to the importance of access to and usability of specific common goods, rather than the title of ownership. The upshot of the notion of the commons is then the importance of the latter for socio-economic and territorial cohesion as well as the satisfaction of fundamental rights. A constitutional language that includes the commons therefore relates to the commons or common goods in distinct local contexts and the articulation of the specific needs of distinct communities. Indeed, Rodotà invokes the term of a ‘constitutionalism of needs’. Here, one sees the thrust of a bottom-up societal constitutionalism against the ‘imposition of global economic constitutionalism’.
Lots of nourishing thinking about the commons in the issue. Download it!