Reclaiming the Commons

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Notes on a structured group discussion that took place over 3 hours on 17 March as part of Represent Yourself (a horizontalist unconference hosted at Noisebridge 15-18 March 2012)


What does reclaiming the commons mean? What is the commons?

Thirty to forty people gathered over the course of three hours to examine the concept. It was an incredibly productive discussion, offering possible answers for some emergent questions surrounding the commons. We started with a set of go-arounds where everyone introduced themselves and talked about the commons, what was important to them, and the things they were curious about.

The commons is:

  • Collectively managed resources
  • A space outside coercion
  • A public space containing the means of subsistence
  • A cultural laboratory, hacking the future
  • The necessary center of social struggles

Some related concerns:

  • The value of individual initiative
  • Public space vs private property
  • The tragedy of the commons – this is a myth, actually a fairly recent idea!
  • What is and is not in the commons? We have the right to peaceably assemble... but where?

We generated a list of things we thought were part of the commons, adding to it periodically throughout the discussion. In total:

  • Land (Merry Olde England vs Pre-colonial Americas: two different models of common land use. England held only part of the land in common, where pre-colonial north america viewed everything as common land. This demonstration of cultural difference shows us that cultures set their own standards for what is and is not in the commons.)
  • Mental space (counterexample: 1984, where TV is required to be always on in your home)
  • Time
  • Labor, skill, knowledge
  • Healthcare
  • Resources held in common
  • Culture
  • Access: to each other & to common space, for sharing & expression of ideas.
  • Education
  • Shelter, food, water, air: means of subsistence. A baseline from which we can explore and create. Examining the idea that it is more complicated and resource-intensive to make sure only some people get these things, than it would be to just give them to everyone.
  • Choice (denial of choice is a huge mechanism for oppression)
  • Respect / ability to define your boundaries (the public sphere should be a place where everyone feels comfortable)


Out of this stage of the conversation emerged two shining bright points: The commons is an open space, outside of coercion. Communities and societies determine for themselves what they hold in common.

Occupy has always been more than a protest. It hearkens back to the Summer of Love – a deep cultural experiment, a community forming spontaneously around ideas of fundamental sociocultural change. Many occupiers feel that the movement is about creating a better society, that it is only through social change that we will find what we seek. The act of coming together on the commons was one of the joyous things about the camps when they began forming in public squares in September. We are continuing to create these new communities around the ideas of free speech, common space, and accountability.

Our nation has an accord that public spaces should be available for the people's political speech. This right is part of the meagre contract we have with Amerika. Our community seeks to reclaim this aspect of commons through peaceful protest and direct action. These protests, taking place across the nation at a time of great turmoil and discontent, have been subject to repression from the state.

How can we counter this repression? How can we move around it, move beyond it, overcome it, create lives outside of it? Where is it coming from? Coercive forces are seeking to homogenize and control us, to regulate and siphon off value. Conformity as currency.

Capitalism and the commons sized.jpg

[This illustration reproduces a diagram that emerged on the white board through the following segment of the discussion]

A society is a large, loose group of individuals. A small group is set apart, having made themselves gatekeeper for interactions between the rest of society and the public commons. They use this position to siphon off value from interactions between the people and the commons.

  • You work for your boss in return for healthcare, to pay for rent and food.
  • Insurance for your car and your apartment.
  • You must pay money for water.
  • We regulate the air.
  • The public streets are closely monitored, and aberrant behavior is quickly targeted.
  • You must seek permission to protest in this park. It's all for the public good.

The system inserted between the people and the commons is capitalism.

In this sense, capitalism is the object that is keeping us from defining, as a community, what we think should be in our commons. How can we work to overcome the influence of this system on our lives? By circumventing the hold that capitalism has on our lives. Economies based in barter, trade, gifts, gratitude, esteem, trust. Organizing cooperatively, working together in consensus. Like ants finding our way around an obstacle we must build pathways to each other and the things that we need that do not feed the appetites of the 1%.



Now an interlude, discussing the Tragedy of the Commons – fundamental to the popular understanding of the commons today. [editor's note – I have included here some background research that I did to confirm some statements in the discussion that I found surprising]

The modern “tragedy of the commons”, a belief that the commons will always be overused until exhausted, is not some kind of immutable fact, it is an idea put forth in specific influential pieces of fairly recent literature. It has roots in Greek philosophy – Aristotle “everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill” but the interpretation into this specific prejudice against public ownership is very recent.

Tragedy of the Commons was the title of a 1968 journal article, based on ideas from an 1833 pamphlet. They each can be seen in a context of enclosure, where tracts of land that had been held in the public trust for common use were being literally enclosed in fences and turned in private property. The pamphlet was published at the culmination of a centuries-long period where the desirable and useful parts of the English commons were slowly but surely parceled up and privatized. What remained were scraps, insufficient to sustain the bewildered populace. The modern article was published by an ecologist at a time when emerging facts about pollution of the air and water were ringing deep-seated alarm bells, and questions about the ownership of things like the air, like waterways, like ecosystems. Viewed in relationship with colonialism, the tragedy of the commons crystallizes into view as a justification for removing things from public stewardship.

(Further Reading – A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster By Rebecca Solnit )


Capitalism pillars of support sized.jpg

Meeting participant Maymay talked about patterns he has found in researching how oppression is carried out. Examining many different revolutionary and cultural struggles has shown a tactical pattern used over and over again by repressive governments and other dominant groups. The dominant group is not a majority but they work to keep the rest of society from uniting against them. The tactics they use, time and again, are :

Divide & Conquer – Infiltrators often provoke infighting, divisiveness, and discord within communities as part of their efforts to derail the momentum of revolutionary movements.

Obscure & Homogenize – The state uses and encourages artificial categorization to obscure the diverse and infinitely subtle possibilities of human existence. The media divides the organic spectrum of the population into segments, and within each segment creates an archetype or sketched-in models of how we are all supposed to be. These manufactured ideal images create hurdles within communities for members who do not fit the idealized definition. (Further Reading - http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/)

Proven resistance strategy starts with identifying the specific tactics an opponent or organization uses, and encourages loose networks of allied groups to unify around countering a specific tactic. The tactics used by the state to repress us are the pillars of support for the system itself. When we are choosing actions, we can use this to help us decide how to focus our energies.

What strategies can we make to counteract these acts of repression against us?

  • Four counter strategies are suggested: Transparency, Access, Equality, Diversity
  • These boil down to a fundamental strategic and philosophical statement: unity through diversity. This is how we can reclaim the commons.

Unity through Diversity!

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