The following is an adaptation of my notes for my talk at the Occupy Wall Street “Making Worlds” conference on February 16-18, 2012.
I am so pleased that the Occupy and Commons movements are finding each other and starting a new conversation. Occupy is an incredible force for change. It has a bracing vision, a deeply principled philosophy, and an independent, risk-taking spirit that is unusual in American political life. There are many challenges for Occupy, however, as it tries to imagine new ways to move forward and grow. I’d like to suggest how the commons framing and language may be strategically important by surveying the international scene of commons activism, which is remarkably robust. There is a lot is going on -- but I won’t presume to be comprehensive; my apologies for any significant omissions.
Let me start by giving a brief speculation about why people from so many backgrounds are embracing the commons. First of all, it is a way for people to assert the integrity of their existing communities, or to try to reclaim that integrity. The commons also provides a way to assert a moral relationship to certain resources and people that are endangered by market forces. It’s a way of saying, “That _________ (water, air, software code, cultural tradition) belongs to me. It is part of my life and identity.”
Many people are embracing the commons, too, because it provides a powerful critique of neoliberal capitalism. But it is much more than that. It is a pro-active set of alternatives that work. And therefore it provides a positive, constructive scaffolding for practical alternatives to the prevailing market economy and corrupt political process. But the commons is still more than this. It is not just a policy critique or political philosophy, but equally a distinctive worldview, language and social ethic.
All of this means that the commons can give us a vision of a new world. And in this respect, the commons is really about building a new vocabulary. For example, what neoliberal capitalism generally calls “progress,” we would call “enclosure.” People are starting to understand that market forces do not necessarily represent progress, but rather dispossession and destruction. So-called economic development is more about environmental destruction than “progress.”