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If the Greek experience of the past two years shows anything, it is that conventional Left politics, even with massive electoral support and control of the government, cannot prevail against finance capital and its international allies.  European creditors continue to force Greek citizens to endure the punishing trauma of austerity politics with no credible scenario for economic recovery or social reconstruction in sight. 

After the governing coalition Syriza capitulated to creditors’ draconian demands in 2016, its credibility as a force for political change declined. Despite its best intentions, it could not deliver. The Greek people might understandably ask:  Have we reached the limits of what the conventional Left can achieve within “representative democracies” whose sovereignty is so compromised by global capital?  Beyond such political questions, citizens might also wonder whether centralized bureaucratic programs in this age of digital networks can ever act swiftly and responsively.  Self-organized, bottom-up federations of commoning often produce much better results.    

Pummeled by some harsh realities and sobered by the limits of Left politics, many Greeks are now giving the commons a serious look as a political option. This was my impression after a recent visit to Athens where I tried to give some visibility to the recently published Greek translation of my book Think Like a Commoner.  In Greek, the book is entitled Κοινά: Μια σύντομη εισαγωγή.  Besides a public talk at a bookstore (video here), I spoke at the respected left Nicos Poulantzas Institute (video with Greek translation & English version), which was eager to host a discussion about commons and commoning. 

I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world.  They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.

What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks!  The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.

In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.”  In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell.  Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke.  In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole.  In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.

You get the idea.  There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land.  There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue.  There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland. 

Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it. 

Some of you may recall the “Think Global, Print Local” crowdfunding campaign that a consortium of Spanish and Latin American commoners organized to finance the translation of my book, Think Like a Commoner, into Spanish. I’m pleased to report that the book, Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción, has now been published. It is the fifth of seven planned translations of my book.

Ten days ago, Medialab-Prado, the pioneering civic and tech research lab in Madrid, hosted a public event for me and the people instrumental in funding and actually doing the Spanish translation. It was a lovely event that showed the depth of interest in the commons in Spain. Marcos García, the head of Medialab, had graciously arranged for a simultaneous translation of my talk, which focused on the origins of the book and current challenges to the commons. Then audience members asked a range of questions that took us into deeper territory.   

We discussed, for example, the role of the commons in piercing the veil of modernity -- the tissue of ideas we have adopted, presuming our own individual agency, rationality and dichotomies separating the world into mind and matter, and into human beings and nature.

We discussed, also, the importance of arts and culture in speaking to our raw humanity in pre-political, pre-cognitive terms. And we addressed some of the difficulties that language poses in speaking about the commons -- because language tends to render invisible many ideas and meanings embedded into words centuries ago.

I loved how a woman from Paraguay explained that in Guaraní, her native language, there are separate words for “we” as in a group of specific people, and “we” as in all living things, human and nonhuman.  As translated into English for me, she also explained that the word “word" and “God” in Guaraní are related; the point seems to be that that one must try to use language to “build on the house of the soul.” A beautiful idea!

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 Patternsofcommoning.org. 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.

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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, Amazon.com. 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.

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