What Obama May Mean for the Commons

The future of the commons took a giant leap forward yesterday as Barack Obama became the improbable 44th president of the United States. Like much of the nation (and world), I was glued to my television. The spectacle was moving, and will keep pundits and future historians busy for years. So much to absorb! Obama’s presidency will surely mark a landmark shift in the history of race relations; the relationship between markets and government; the politics of global trade and American foreign policy; our social practices as mediated by the Internet; and even our identities and actions as citizens.

One theme that has received little attention, however, is Obama’s likely impact on the many commons of our lives. The language of the commons has not yet penetrated to most mainstream political arenas, of course, and so it has been largely ignored by politicians and the press. This is not entirely an accident. If there is no language to name, claim and understand our collective resources, it is much easier for politicians and corporations to privatize and abuse them. Which is exactly what has happened.

And yet, one senses that Obama is not going to be an enthusiastic champion or enabler of corporate enclosure. While he may not have embraced the commons as commons, his personal values and political commitments suggest that he understands this “third sector” of value. Markets and government are not the only ways to create and manage resources, after all. The commons has its own capacities and sovereign existence apart from either markets and government.

Lots of politicians give lip service to the commons by confusing it with voluntarism and other sorts of citizen do-gooding. They tout the “thousand points of light” and the socially responsible company. But such homage to high-minded voluntarism is typically a sentimental diversion. We all know that the “real action,” the primary priority of politics, is how to allocate government privileges and largess to market players.

The idea that ordinary Americans might have important participatory roles in remaking the nation, in devising and managing their own collective solutions, or in forcing Wall Street and corporate America to sacrifice for the common good, is a plot device out of a Frank Capra movie: a Hollywood fantasy.

But President Obama, a former community organizer, really seems to believe in the power of awakened citizens. His campaign was based on it. He brilliantly used the Internet to let citizens develop their own organizing strategies, share inspirational campaign artwork and music, and give money. Obama’s instincts were forged as a community organizer, which taught him about the potential and limits of street-level organizing. This realization, in fact, propelled him on to a political career. It later helped him understand the enormous potential of the Internet for organizing and empowering citizens in new ways.

Obama’s Inaugural address is rife with passages that show his awareness of these-things-not-yet-named-as-commons. For example, he told the world, “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product,” he said, “but on the reach of our prosperity ??” on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart, not out of charity because it is the surest route to our common good.” What a concept! Collective betterment as a strategy for meeting needs that competitive private enrichment will never meet.

In foreign policy, too, Obama appreciates the power of collective sentiment over and against the individual. The ambitions of a single nation cannot possibly prevail without the support of other nations. Which is why Obama declared that “our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” Bush’s unilateralism foolishly dismissed such ideas, believing that the global commons could be ignored or out-muscled.

Obama’s commitment to transparency and the rule of law is another sign that he takes commons principles seriously. In his first day in the Oval Office, he affirmed them as central to his presidency. Without transparency and the rule of law, no one can see, let alone render judgment on the actions of the President. Obama realizes that transparency and the rule of law are also central to the moral legitimacy of government itself. He promised: “Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account ??” to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day ??” because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Renewed trust in government also requires that government affirmatively serve the collective interest, and not allow itself to be corrupted by private interests. Obama noted that earlier generations of Americans “saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” In another strike for government of, by and for the people, Obama yesterday mandated that executive branch employees refrain from becoming lobbyists for two years after they leave their jobs ??” a one-year extension over current law.

Throughout the campaign, Obama consistently told crowds that his campaign was about them, not him. This kind of rhetoric is often the way that a candidate flatters voters, of course. But in the way he structured his campaign and Internet operations, Obama suggested that he really believes in the power of citizen action.

As he put it in his Inaugural address, “For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.” He called for “a new era of responsibility” among citizens, warning that neither he nor government would be capable of solving all our problems. Citizens must be the source of change.

It may be a bit unfair to ask Obama, at this early stage in his presidency, how exactly citizens will become re-engaged in their communities and become serious forces in our political life. We’ve heard soaring rhetoric about civic renewal in the past, after all. What’s different this time? A certain skepticism is warranted, especially when we consider the resistance that a people-driven governance would incite in the citadels of corporate power.

Yet in the person of Barack Obama, one senses that the citizen-empowerment rhetoric is not the usual claptrap. For him, citizen power is likely to be the engine for transformational change. From his community organizing days, Obama surely realizes there is no other way to achieve transformational change ??” to overcome the entrenched, monied interests and defenders of capital. One must mobilize the commons to defend its own interests. Fortunately, with a digital infrastructure to communicate electronically with the 13 million people who volunteered or donated to his campaign, Obama is well-positioned to do some serious citizen-mobilization.

But how to build this engine? How to design new forms of citizen participation in government? How to reclaim control over the collective assets we already own — the Internet, the national parks, the airwaves, the human genome, the federal R&D we finance, the public domain of culture?

If Obama is going to make headway on these fronts, he would do well to take the language of the commons seriously. Citizenship points to our relationship with government. The commons points to our prior relationships with each other, and to nature. “We the people” came before the U.S. Government.

Whether it is a land trust, Wikipedia, academic discipline or local cooperative, the commons is a form of self-governance beyond government, or at least without direct government supervision. It is self-governance without bureaucracy and lawyers. It is a form of collective provisioning that is likely to engage one’s whole person, precisely because it requires co-creation and co-responsibility with other commoners. “There is no commons without commoning” — the act of managing one’s shared assets — as political scientist Massimo De Angelis has put it.

There are many commons models out there, especially on the Internet (open source software, Craigslist, open-access publishing), but also involving natural resources (cap-and-dividend, fisheries quotas, the Appalachian Mountain Club). More than just an inventory of irregular models, the commons is a proto-philosophy and worldview. It explains why and how social collectives can generate value in ways that neither markers nor government can.

President Obama would seem to be a commoner at heart. He celebrates inclusiveness and pragmatism. He disdains ideology and runaway markets. He understands the value of personal passion, imagination and commitment, and how money and markets have only limited capacities to mobilize such energies. On any number of specific issues, such as civil liberties, net neutrality and public lands, Obama has already declared a commitment to many commons principles.

It would be churlish to be too judgmental at this early stage, even though some Cabinet appointments and stated policies raise concerns. We don’t know if the neoliberal political orthodoxies will dictate the limits of acceptable debate. In any case, we will learn soon enough if the new Administration will indeed stand up for the commons.

But this one caution is in order: that which is not properly named tends to remain invisible. That is why the commons has been so vulnerable and abused for most of the 20th Century. Market ideology took over our politics, especially over the past thirty years, and suppressed our ability to name and understand the commons. It converted us into creatures of the market, and remade our baseline norms and expectations. We became “consumers” of government.

Here’s hoping that President Obama and his lieutenants have the wisdom and political acuity to rediscover the commons and its virtues sooner rather than later. It could unleash a tsunami of new creative energy.