Reinventing Commons Governance in Modern Times
I gave the following remarks about commons governance on September 27 as part of the U!REKA Lab Lecture Series. U!REKA -- which stands for Urban Research and Education Knowledge Alliance -- is a consortium of eight European universities that studies urban commons. The subtitle of my talk was "Find Answers by Living the Questions."
Thank you, Sandra Bos and the U!REKA Lab, for inviting me to share my ideas about commons governance with you today. It is a great privilege and pleasure.
As I began to gather my thoughts on this topic, I realized that the framing needed to expand. Yes, we must better understand commons governance and the commons more generally. But we must situate this discussion within the larger market/state system that dominates our societies.
This is necessary because commons and the market/state system are so deeply intertwined – even if their co-entanglement is not usually acknowledged. The two systems each represent very different ways of knowing, acting, and being. The struggles between the sovereign and commoners have a long history! They have been intimately conjoined, at least since the 13th Century, when King John signed the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest.
The sovereign today is not a monarch, but the market/state – a system of governance that is an alliance between market and state institutions. Each has its own realm of authority -- production and governance, respectively – but they both share a deep utopian commitment to endless market growth and “progress.” Today, however, in the face of climate collapse and cascading ecological crises, respectable opinion is slowly come to realize that this vision may itself be a problem. Indeed, this may account for notional mainstream interest in the commons as a source of new ideas.
One stinging lesson that we are learning from the pandemic and climate collapse is that states and markets are not really on top of the situation. They can’t restrain capitalist appetites or provide existential security. I concede that this may be seen as an ideological conclusion, but it is equally a factual observation about the structural limitations of centralized, formalistic, bureaucratic systems. Totalistic regimes of control have trouble managing distributed complexity and change that arises from below.
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