Every two years, the universe of scholars who study the commons converge on some spot on the planet to present their research findings, argue about theoretical models and party-hardy. Just kidding about that last one, but it is hard to imagine a more interesting party than 600 people from 90 countries around the world.
I have encountered an Indian economist who has closely studied the role of women in improving the sustainability of forest commons in Nepal (Bina Agarwal), an Australian academic who has written about modern-day gleaning such as “dumpster diving” (James Arvanitakis), a British activist who helped pass a modern-day law to protect British common lands (Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society), an Indian-American who is studying how language shapes our ability to understand the commons (Vijaya Nagarajan), a Belgian historian of the European commons (Tine De Moor), among many others.
It is quite a pleasant shock to suddenly be around so many people who not only know what the commons is; they can get into some rather arcane and sophisticated arguments about it. The conference is skewed towards academics, however, which means that the policy and activist sensibility is somewhat muted. That’s too bad, but I hope it might change in the future.
There is also an emphatic focus on natural resource commons, with a very limited exploration of so-called “new commons,” by which the IASC academics mean commons that have arisen in unconventional realms such as the Internet. I find this too bad, because there is so much to be learned from digital commons, which are among the most robust commons out there. The phrase “new commons” is also vaguely off-putting because it privileges the natural resource commons so absolutely. Now I have an inkling of how Native Americans must have felt to have been “discovered.”
So now NATO is interested in the commons! Or at least, it’s interested in what it thinks is the commons. In September, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.” Attendees were mostly unknown to us commoners, but they are described as “senior representatives from the EU institutions and NATO, with national government officials, industry, the international and specialised media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs.”
The event, hosted by a Brussels-based think tank called Security & Defence Agenda, had its own ideas about what the commons is. Let’s just say the sponsors apparently don’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their needs.
No. To NATO decisionmakers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states, yet which are necessary to fruitful intercourse among nation-states. So, for example: space, the oceans and the Internet.
John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is: “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”
It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear: 1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.
While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government? The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
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.