When the Commoners Converged on Berlin

The conversations that I encountered at the International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, three weeks ago are still reverberating through my mind.  I’m not sure if any of us really knew what a group of 180 self-styled commoners from 34 countries would look like.  But just experiencing the transnational tableau of commoners – each with different voices and passions, but united by a commitment to the idea of the commons – was energizing and inspiring. 

The conference was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Commons Strategy Group (of which I am a part) after months of planning, primarily by Silke Helfrich.  The event had an ambitious focus – “Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform” – that, in retrospect, was not entirely achieved.  There were just too many commoners meeting each other for the first time, each coming from different intellectual and cultural traditions, with no lingua franca or shared agenda yet.  We are still learning who were are, how we think and our aspirations for the commons.  (It was quite obvious, however, how we feel.)

The conference's most significant achievement may have been the in-person convergence of so many committed commoners -- and the many new relationships and collaborations that have been spawned.  And even if the framing of the conference was ambitious, it was precisely what we need to be talking about. 

Because of the size of the venue and budgetary reasons, attendance at the ICC had to be capped at 180.  Hundreds of people who had wanted to participate simply could not.  However, hopefully there will be another conference in the future on a much larger scale. 

Fortunately, the ICC was almost instantly self-documented through a wiki that collected people’s blog posts and other documents.  In addition, high-quality videos of the many presenters were promptly posted to the Böll Foundation website, which should amplify the impact of the conference.  Richard Poynder’s interview with Silke Helfrich in the weeks preceding the conference offered a compelling preview of why the event was needed:

The aim of the conference, says Helfrich, is to spark “a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and the convergence of the scholars studying the commons and the commoners defending them in the field.”  Helfrich hopes this will lead to agreement on a “commons-based policy platform.”

What is the end game? Nothing less, it would appear, than a new social and political order. That is, a world “beyond market and state” — where communities are able to wrest back control of their lives, from faceless, distant government, and from rootless, heartless corporations.

As Helfrich puts it, “the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called ‘invisible hand’ of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”

It is safe to say that the conference achieved a “breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons.”  Consider some of the “speed presentations” in which speakers had five minutes to describe their innovative projects. 

  • Massimo Banzi of Italy talked about the Arduino open-hardware innovation network that is redesigning computer components as cheap commodities. 
  • Thomas Greco of the U.S. outlined efforts to reinvent the money system with one that could escape predatory, proprietary control by banks. 
  • Nikos Salingaro of Greece explained the peer-to-peer urbanism movement that is trying to reinvent public spaces. 
  • Gerd Wessing of Germany talked about the Transition Town movement that is exploding around the world. 
  • Jagdeesh Rao of India told of efforts to go beyond cooperatives to regenerate “wastelands” that can meet the basic needs of the poor.

You just don’t hear these kind of conversations in normal political culture, where you are instantly marginalized if you have a big and practical idea that challenges the established order.  That’s what made the ICC so intense and captivating:  it was a non-stop immersion in these sorts of ideas.  You can see some of the ferment in the documentation of the World Café discussions (which asked participants to assess some fundamental characteristics of commons) and in some basic documents generated before or after the conference. 

One document that got short shrift at the conference was "Some Thoughts on the Commons," a two-page statement by the conference steering committee (of which I was a part) that sought to consolidate a lot of thinking about the commons while provoking a wider discussion.

The post-conference conversations are still going on, mostly online.  I can recommend Michel Bauwen’s appraisal of things here.  I also recommend browsing the conference wiki, watching the videos, and savoring some of the one-liners that Christian Siefkes helpfully compiled on his blog.  Read the full list, but here are a few choice bon mots

Ruth Meinzen-Dick (president of the International Association for the Study of the Commons): [U.S.]  The real tragedy of the commons is that they are so misunderstood, so undervalued. ….Holding property in common is a social glue that encourages cooperation in other areas as well.

Michel Bauwens: [Thailand] Traditional commons could not compete with big capital. These times are over—now, thanks to global cooperation, we can compete……The emergence of new modes of production always starts with an exodus. The serfs in the 16th century started running away from the country and moving into the cities…. How can we escape, how can we move into new, non-monetary modes of production and sharing?

Richard Pithouse: [South Africa] The demand to people not to industrialize or to slow down industrialization tends to ignore the immediate, urgent crisis that is the daily life of many people.

Barbara Unmüßig [Germany]:  How can we achieve social justice without capitalist growth? 

Rainer Kuhnen [Germany]:  We must become specific and we must dare to challenge the rights of property. Otherwise we risk that the commons become everybody’s darling, but lose, in that process, all their meaning. A purely abstract, everybody’s darling concept won’t do good to anybody.

Silke Helfrich [Germany]:  We must stop to perpetuate that paradigm that we have to produce for the market, for selling. The question is rather: what do we actually need, and how can we produce it in such a way that everyone can participate?

Roberto Verzola: [Philippines]  Before refrigerators, what did people do if they had too much food?  They threw a party…….We would be better off if all corporations were bound by Asimov’s laws of robotics: 1. A corporation (robot) may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A corporation (robot) must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Stefan Meretz: [Germany]  If we mix the generative logic of the commons too closely with the exploitative logic of the market, there is a danger that the market logic will exploit and dominate the logic of the commons.

Plenty of provocative ideas to chew on and digest.