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.

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. 

Although it is widely assumed that governments are the source of all new money – through “printing it” – the so-called private sector is the source of most new money put into circulation.  In one of the most successful enclosures of the commons in our time, commercial finance institutions have captured the power to create most new money through their discretionary lending.  This power has become so normalized and pervasive that hardly anyone acknowledges the startling fact that commercial lending accounts for more than 95% of “new money” created.  Government has in effect surrendered its enormous power to use its money-creating authority for the public good.

Perhaps the leading champion for reforming the current money system is Mary Mellor, emeritus professor at Northumbria University in the UK and author of the recently published, eye-opening book Debt or Democracy:  Public Money for Sustainability and Social Justice (Pluto Press, 2015, distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press Books). 

Mellor recently published an oped piece in The Independent, the British newspaper, that summarizes some of the key themes in her book. Her essay focuses on the “myth of handbag economics” – the idea that government budgets are comparable to household budgets.  This distorts our understanding of how the money supply works, says Mellor, and inexorably leads governments to adopt fiscal austerity policies. 

The critical political question that is rarely asked, said Mellor at a policy workshop last September, is: Who controls the creation and circulation of money?

She notes that the government, as the sovereign, has the authority to issue new money – an ancient authority known as seignorage.  But in practice, governments have surrendered this authority to the commercial banking sector, whose lending creates nearly all of the money in circulation as debt. 

Banks create money out of thin air by issuing new loans.  They need not have those specific sums of money on hand, in a vault. They need have only a small fraction of reserves of the total sum lent, as required by “reserve banking” standards. In this way, bank lending quite literally introduces new supplies of money into the economy based on strictly private, commercial standards – i.e., banks' assessments of borrowers’ ability to repay the debt with interest.

Mellor believes that we need to recover the power of public currency to meet public needs.   By “public currency,” she means “the generally recognized and authorized public currency created through a public money circuit that originates in central banks and government spending.”  Privately created currency is money designated as public currency that is issued through the banking sector as loans.  It is the fact that bankers are creating the public currency when they make loans that makes the state liable to honor that money when banks go into crisis.

Patterns of Commoning

In more than fifty original essays, Patterns of Commoning explores the inner complexities of the commons, a timeless social paradigm. The book surveys dozens of fascinating, inspiring commons around the world, from alternative currencies and open design and manufacturing, to centuries-old community forests and co-learning commons—and dozens of others. Margaret Thatcher once championed neoliberal capitalism with the harsh ultimatum, “There is no alternative!” Patterns of Commoning shows in vivid detail that there are plenty of alternatives! We need only understand the robust power of commoning.

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF's Idea Camp convening

Thinking about cities as commons is so compelling to me because it gives a structured framework for talking our moral and political claims on cities. It helps makes our entitlements as commoners visible, as well as the scourge of enclosure – two concepts that are not particularly welcome topics in respectable political circles.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need. In developing this theme, this book is a timely complement to the Bologna “The City as Commons” conference in November.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wiśniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

For authors and their reader-communities, has conventional book publishing become obsolete or at least grossly inefficient and overpriced?  I say yes -- at least for those of us who are not writing mass-audience books. The good news is that authors, their reader-communities and small presses are now developing their own, more satisfying alternative models for publishing books.

Let me tell my own story about two experiments in commons-based book publishing.  The first involves Patterns of Commoning, the new anthology that Silke Helfrich and I co-edited and published two months ago, with the crucial support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The second experiment involves the Spanish translation for my 2014 book Think Like a Commoner. 

Whereas the German version of Patterns of Commoning was published with transcript-Verlag, a publisher we consider a strong partner in spreading the word on the commons, for the English version, we decided to bypass commercial publishers.  We realized that none of them would be interested – or that they would want to assert too much control at too high of a price.

We learned these lessons when we tried to find a publisher for our 2013 anthology, The Wealth of the Commons.  About a dozen publishers rejected our pitches.  They said things like:  “It’s an anthology, and anthologies don’t sell.”  “It doesn’t have any name-brand authors.”  “It’s too international in focus.”  “What’s the commons?  No one knows about that.” 

It became clear that the business models of publishers – even the niche political presses that share our values – were not prepared to support a well-edited, path-breaking volume on the commons.

In general, conventional book publishing has trouble taking risks with new ideas, authors and subject matter because it has very small economic margins to play with.  One reason is that commercial book distributors in the US – the companies that warehouse books and send them to various retailers – take 60% of the cover price, with little of the risk. They are the expensive middlemen who control the distribution infrastructure. Their cut leaves about 40% of the cover price or less for the publisher, author and retailer to split. 

This arrangement means that book prices have to be artificially higher, relative to actual production costs, to cover all the costs of so many players:  editors, marketers, publicists, distributors, retailers.

Patterns of Commoning is Now Published!

After two years of working with more than 50 contributors, Silke Helfrich and I are pleased to announce that Patterns of Commoning is now available in both English and German editions.  The books have just arrived back from the printer and are available from our distributor Off the Common Books and Amazon (US). You can learn more about the anthology at its website.

Patterns of Commoning is arguably the most accessible and broad-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print. It introduces readers to more than fifty notable commons from around the world and explores the inner dynamics of commoning with great sensitivity.

A primary goal of Patterns of Commoning is to show the great scope and vitality of commons initiatives around the world. There are chapters on alternative currencies and open source farm equipment, community forests and co-learning commons, theater commons and collaborative mapping, urban commons and dozens of others. Margaret Thatcher once championed neoliberal capitalism with the harsh ultimatum, “There IS no alternative!”  Patterns of Commoning shows in vivid detail that there are plenty of alternatives!

As editors, Silke and I are grateful that dozens of international activists, academics and project leaders agreed to share their deep knowledge about commoning learned from their particular commons. A special set of longer essays in the book probe the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of commoning among specific groups, such as Scottish fishermen, the Maori in New Zealand, and the shantydwellers movement in South Africa. Other essays explore the new political rationality of commoning through the lens of property rights in African farmland. Other pieces explore the metaphysics of the commons and the commons as a "pluriverse" of relational worldviews.  (Contents page here.

Patterns of Commoning is a companion volume to The Wealth of Commons anthology published in 2012 (the German version, Commons:  Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat).  Once again, we are grateful to the Heinrich Böll Foundation for its unwavering support, especially from Barbara Unmüssig, President of the Böll Foundation, and Heike Löschmann, the head of the Department of International Politics. 

We’re hoping the book will open up some new conversations and provoke greater media coverage of commoning. If you have any good ideas for promoting the book among Web communities, academics, activists, the press or ordinary citizens eager to learn about fresh alternatives, please let me know. I also invite you to use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.  We’re recommending use of the hashtags #patternsofcommoning, #commoning or #4thecommons.

An important new book offering a vision of commons-based law has just arrived!  The Ecology of Law:  Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community, argues that we need to reconceptualize law itself and formally recognize commoning if we are going to address our many environmental problems.

The book is the work of two of the more venturesome minds in science and law – Fritjof Capra  and Ugo Mattei, respectively. Capra is a physicist and systems thinker who first gained international attention in 1975 with his book The Tao of Physics, which drew linkages between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. Mattei is a well-known legal theorist of the commons, international law scholar and commons activist in Italy who teaches at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and at the University of Turin. He is also deputy mayor of Ch­ieri in the northern region of Italy.

The Law of Ecology is an ambitious, big-picture account of the history of law as an artifact of the scientific, mechanical worldview – a legacy that we must transcend if we are to overcome many contemporary problems, particularly ecological disaster. The book argues that modernity as a template of thought is a serious root problem in today’s world.  Among other things, it privileges the individual as supreme agent despite the harm to the collective good and ecological stability. Modernity also sees the world as governed by simplistic, observable cause-and-effect, mechanical relationships, ignoring the more subtle dimensions of life such as subjectivity, caring and meaning.

As a corrective, Capra and Mattei propose a new body of commons-based institutions recognized by law (which itself will have a different character than conventional state law).

It’s quite a treat to watch two sophisticated dissenters outline their vision of a world based on commoning and protected by a new species of “ecolaw.” Capra and Mattei start their story by sketching important parallels between natural science and jurisprudence over the course of history. Both science and law, for example, reflect shared conceptualizations of humans and nature.  We still live in the cosmological world articulated by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes, all of whom saw the world as a rational, empirically knowable order governed by atomistic individuals and mechanical principles. This worldview continues to prevail in economics, social sciences, public policy and law.

Syndicate content