An Uncommon "Commons"

commons

I used to get my inspiration mainly from two sources, my students and my books. These days, I have few if any students, so I increasingly rely on the written word. Sometimes my reading is a source for my ongoing critique of modernity, as my many posts aiming at David Brooks and other opinion writers attest to. Other times it is a light that illuminates my murky thinking and writing about what to do about the situation. Today was one of these latter instances. My work for some time has been largely critical, trying to understand why we have blown the opportunity for flourishing that seemed to come along with modernity. I continue to believe that that part of the story is accurate.

Our failure to flourish is due to our carrying around the wrong beliefs about the world and ourselves in our collective cultural consciousness, which beliefs, in turn, produce habitual behavior that is badly fitted to the context of the present world. The linkage between beliefs and habits has been known since the mid 1800s, even without the advantages of modern neuroscience, which is showing the same connection. The critique continues with a stab at what are both the errant beliefs and a new set that will turn us in the direction of flourishing. I repeat them next for those new to the blog.

The first is that we are caring creatures, not the mechanistic, calculating Homo economicus that came in part from Adam Smith and the economists of his time and has been sharpened by those that followed. Second is that the world is a complex system, not the machine, imperfectly described by scientific knowledge. As I continue to read and listen, these two pairs of opposing beliefs become increasingly rooted as the way out and the causes, respectively. I have stopped looking for any other fundamental errant beliefs, at least until something better comes along. That’s the pragmatist in me speaking.

The critique, alone, is insufficient to change our trajectory. New visions of the kinds of institutions that govern our lives and affect the world as a consequence are required. I have suggested a couple of new forms in my work, but only in very broad concept. I make few claims about knowing how to design our lived world in ways that will produce flourishing without simultaneously destroying the system out of which it emerges. I included a couple of thoughts in my first book: 1) design artifacts, like speed bumps, that wake us up in the midst of our transparent actions and, as a result, shake up our beliefs enough to let new ones creep in; and 2) design institutions to operate from pragmatic principles for the same reason—to enable new understanding to replace the old, no longer valid, ways of knowing how our worlds are working.

I read an essay today that explicated another kind of institution that would avoid the pathology of the present capitalistic political economy. I have been careful not to delve too deeply into a critique of capitalism, per se, because I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to do it properly. At heart, I do believe, however, that the two beliefs I mention above as the culprits are buried in the structures of capitalism and ultimately responsible for both its positive and negative outcomes. David Bollier, writing for the Great Transition Initiative of the Tellus Institute in Boston, proposes such an institution “The Commons as a Template for Transition,” that embodies the beliefs necessary for flourishing.

In an most readable, thoughtful essay, Bollier describes a new societal paradigm based on the idea of the commons.

This essay argues that, in the face of the deep pathologies of neoliberal capitalism, the commons paradigm can help us imagine and implement a transition to new decentralized systems of provisioning and democratic governance. The commons consists of a wide variety of self-organized social practices that enable communities to manage resources for collective benefit in sustainable ways. A robust transnational movement of commoners now consists of such diverse commons as seed-sharing cooperatives; communities of open source software programmers … As a system of provisioning and governance, commons give participating members a significant degree of sovereignty and control over important elements of their everyday lives. They also help people reconnect to nature and to each other, set limits on resource exploitation, and internalize the “negative externalities” so often associated with market behavior. These more equitable, ecologically responsible, and decentralized ways of meeting basic needs represent a promising new paradigm for escaping the pathologies of the Market/State order and constructing an ecologically sustainable alternative.

The idea of the commons, itself, is not new, but hasn’t been posed, to my knowledge, as such a broad, stark alternative to market capitalism. Elinor Ostrom, whose work on governing the commons won her a Nobel Prize in Economics, tended to look only at singular cases, and drew some general governance principles from them. Bollier and others he cites view the idea of the commons and its realization in practice as an alternate form of political economy that can avoid the pathologies that the “Market/State” creates. His critique of this Market/State is not new, but his remedy is most innovative.

While he and I use different words, we share a similar view of the possibility of a social paradigm based on a caring model of human being.

There have been commons since the dawn of human existence. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that social trust and cooperation may be an evolutionary reality hard-wired into the human species. Reciprocal altruism and collective action certainly contributed to the development of prehistoric agriculture, indigenous peoples around the world have ingeniously blended their cultural practices with ecosystem imperatives, and now social collaboration on digital platforms is becoming an economic and social norm.

In this sense, the commons is really a social paradigm, a concept that in its very essence challenges some basic premises of the economic theory developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Human beings are not essentially the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing individuals that standard economics presumes they are. Human beings have many more complex propensities that are consequential to economic activity and life. While people are surely self-interested and competitive in many aspects of their lives, they also exhibit deep concern for fairness, participation, social connection, and peer approval. All of these human traits lie at the heart of the commons. Yet most economists view such traits as incidental to market transactions, the esteemed “main act” of wealth creation, because they tend not to conform to the basic logic of Homo economicus and market economics.

The governance of commons has a second characteristic aligned with the other basic belief in my flourishing system: complexity.

Building the commons requires that we take seriously the concept of “emergence,” as described by complexity theory. The idea of evolving new forms of self-organized governance may seem absurd according to the tenets of centralized government institutions that prize maximum control, uniform rules, and formal accountability. But emergence is arguably the prevailing incubation strategy in tech-related businesses that rely upon digital networks as infrastructure… Suffice it to say that we must begin to devise distributed [pragmatic] forms of commons governance that mimic complex adaptive systems, which over time can give rise to new properties of self-organization and administration at higher levels.

I urge all who read my blog to download and read this essay. It begins to answer a question I am always asked at the end of a presentation, “OK, but how do we get to flourishing?” Here is an excellent way to begin. The essay lays out a number of obstacles, but none are insurmountable. Like other ways to flourishing, it relies on the structuration process (see the work of Anthony Giddens) to change the beliefs to those implicit in an institution’s foundations or an artifact’s design, but that process is very slow. The transformation can and should be accelerated by making the new (actually historically old, but closeted now ) beliefs explicit in other places: schools, homes, religious sanctuaries, government offices, etc. Speed bumps work only because we already have a consciousness of taking care of our cars and lurking schoolchildren.

I know that Bollier and I am on the same page when he points to buen vivir as a vision of the world commons movement can create. “Moving beyond the matrix of consumerism, debt, short-term market priorities, ecological harm, and economic inequality associated with the modern Market/State, the commons provides a framework for cultivating a new ethic of buen vivir, or ‘living well,’ a term used by many Latin Americans to describe a more humane, balanced way of life.”Buen vivir is another name for flourishing. More evidence of the universality of flourishing and its vision. Do read the essay.

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