It’s hard to recall exactly when my friendship and countless collaborations with Silke Helfrich began. In a strict sense, they began at the first-ever activists’ conference on the commons – one that she organized in Mexico City in 2006 as head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Mexico and Caribbean office. Silke had invited me to speak because -- even though we came from very different worlds -- we both recognized commons as effective systems for defending our shared wealth – from software to seeds to land and beyond – against capitalist enclosures.
But our loose partnership did not really take shape until two years later, in 2008, when we both attended another early, rare gathering of activist commoners – the Elevate Festival, a four-day gathering in Graz, Austria, for indie music and political culture. In a venue literally carved out of solid rock in the 170-meter Schlossberg Hill, I heard bracing presentations about the fledgling Creative Commons project, the Science Commons and History Commons initiatives, and a mind-altering performance by remix artist D.J. Spooky interpreting Walter Benjamin’s “The Spectacle of Modernity.”
It became clear to me that this budding international subculture of commoners was a rich zone of underexplored promise – a mystery well-worth plunging head-first into. I did. Over lunch the next day at Ginko, a vegetarian restaurant, Silke and I were bubbling over with enthusiasm about “what next?” And so we began.
Over the next thirteen years, to my astonishment, we ended up working together on dozens of major and minor projects. We had no formal jobs or institutional overseers, a situation that sometimes proved precarious. But we had the freedom to do what we wanted, in the ways we wanted. And we knew we had to do this work. We somehow learned to become participant-anthropologists-activists-strategists-allies-networkers-popularizers for all things related to the commons.
Silke and I didn’t want merely to study commons as economic resources or property, in the style of traditional academics. We wanted to understand the commons as a new/old worldview that could transform the capitalist market/state system. We wanted to learn how commoning could remake the very character of politics, culture, law, ethics, and modern understandings of life itself. After experiencing decades of tepid, ineffectual results from mainstream politics, we figured, why not go for it?
And so, with an open agenda and raw curiosity (an optimistic naivete is essential to real creativity), we set out on a journey to reinvent the commons, and never looked back. A famous observation by Goethe described our rough working faith:
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans – that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man [sic] could have dreams would have come his way.
Goethe memorably advised: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”