One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers.
Each individual who participates in this cultural process undergoes a subjective transformation. The subjective transformation is called: commoning. Commoning is the subjective process involved in ‘making common’. It is the collective psychological shift implicit in establishing a commons.
The idea of the commons is undergoing a resurgence today. In environmental politics, the commons is a hot topic. The Earth’s biosphere is a commons, one that we are destroying at an extraordinary rate. The biospheric commons has been privatized through bills and treaties that give corporations the right to carve it up and exploit it, and to externalize their costs and pollute it. The tragedy of the commons is a tragedy for us all.
The good news is that the commons idea is establishing itself at the heart of contemporary political and economic debates. Building on its achievements last Fall, the Occupy movement is exploring how to best integrate the values and ideals of the commons and commoning into its activities. There are clear synergies between Occupy and the commons movement. Occupy reclaims public space and makes it common. By establishing temporary autonomous zones for sharing, learning, and democratic participation, Occupy ‘commons’ public space and transforms it. The rise of the commercial commons in the ‘collaborative consumption’ movement is another axis of development with important political implications, especially in the US, where for a good part of the 20th century, ‘the commons’ was seen to imply communism. The emerging commons-based peer-to-peer economy is rapidly transforming perceptions on the left and right of sharing as an economic good. This is good news for politics, economics, and the planet.
The commons and commoning are vital to innovations in the online world. Wikipedia is a commons, protected under a Creative Commons licence. The internet itself is a vast, sprawling commons – a commons under threat from governments and corporations who would regulate and enclose it. Facebook and Twitter set up privatized, enclosed, commons (we self-select the inhabitants of our private commons by friending, liking, following). The future of the internet will be decided through the battle between Facebook and Google to establish two different models of the digital commons: the walled garden of Facebook versus the open arboretum mapped by Google.
With all this interest in the commons, it is time that we considered the ‘ethos’, or way of being, that underpins the practice of commoning. I offer the following principles as contributions to this debate. If nothing else, they have helped me consolidate my own intuitions about commoning.
Commoning is based in four broad principles. These principles shape the psycho-symbolic space that is sustained by people who participate in commoning.
1. Plenitude: Commoning proceeds from a place of wealth. We do not need to accumulate more than we possess. Together we have all that we require.
2. Mutual benefit: Commoning hinges on a spirit of reciprocity and justice. My gain does not need to mean your loss. Genuine success produces mutual benefit.
3. Spiritual abundance: Commoning challenges us to discover our inner abundance and to add it to a shared stock of potential. The term abundance comes from the Latin ab-unda, meaning the wave, which overflows. Commoning requires us to cultivate the overflowing generosity that represents true spiritual health.
4. Transition: Commoning is a threshold activity. To make common is to participate in an unfolding movement for social change, with positive implications for politics, economics, and the planet. Each act of commoning – be it a matter of collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer production, open space technology, or democratic assembly – is an experimental contribution towards a new social and economic paradigm.
We are the commoners. We will create this space together.