I’m thrilled to say that Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons – the book I’ve been working on for the past three years with my long-time colleague Silke Helfrich – is published today. The book is our ambitious attempt to synthesize what we’ve learned from scores of commons around the world over the past twenty years.
The book is wide-ranging in its analysis of the power of commoning, but it focuses on the internal social and interpersonal dynamics of commoning; how the commons worldview opens up new possibilities for change; and the role of language in reorienting our perceptions and political strategies.
To dip into the book, check out the Contents page and Introduction. We will be posting new chapters every few weeks.
Next week I’m embarking on a tour in Europe and UK with Silke to engage a number of audiences with the themes of the book. You can check out our appearances on the right of this webpage, or on the Free, Fair and Alive website at www.freefairandalive.org.
Our book is a foundational reconceptualization of the commons as a living social system. Instead of regarding commons as resources, in the style of standard economics and Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” essay, we show that commons are in fact dynamic, living social processes. (That’s why economists can’t see them!) They rely on a whole set of human values and behaviors that the standard economic narrative regards as marginal. Our book is a rare inquiry into commoning – the verb, the social practices, the moral relationships – which is quite different from the commons — the noun, as resources and their exchange value.
The further Silke and I got into studying and rethinking the commons as a concept, the more that we realized that prevailing categories of thought are simply too reductionist to capture what is really going on within commons. For example, standard economics, property law, and policy assume the reality of rational, autonomous individuals, as reflected in the idea of homo economicus, the philosophy of modern liberalism, and the presumed separation of humanity and “nature.”
These assumptions struck us as fundamentally misleading, especially if you understand humanity in a biological sense. We humans are all inscribed within larger collectives that make us who we are. We are shaped by intergenerational cultures, geographic communities, extended families, affinity groups and a living, pulsing more-than-human ecology (aka “nature”). Why can’t we begin to acknowledge that life is far more relational than transactional?
People engaged in commoning are not caught up in “prisoner’s dilemma” scenarios or rationally calculating how they can get more for themselves. They are trying to meet their needs, or simply survive, by working together in social solidarity. From co-housing and agroecology to alternative currencies, and from community land trusts to open-source everything, people around the world are turning to commoning to emancipate themselves from predatory market/state institutions This is one reason the cachet of the commons has soared in recent years: it offers a discourse and real projects for challenging capitalism and building socially constructive alternatives.
A theme that resonates throughout our book is the idea of relationality. Commoning is about building relationships of trust in the course of meeting collective needs. In this fashion, the commons help us develop a new “politics of belonging” that works quite differently than the ideological polarization of “representative” democracy. Commoning also helps us develop a new economics of sufficiency that can deal with runaway economic growth and ecosystem collapse.
To try to express the realities of commons that we have witnessed, Silke and I had to develop a new theoretical and practical framework for understanding the commons.
We found a way forward in pattern languages, an idea developed by the renegade architect and urban planner Christopher Alexander who saw that certain design patterns in buildings recur again and again across cultures and history. He realized that there is no universal set of principles for identifying these patterns – but if we study the patterns that exist despite very different contexts, we can identify some striking regularities. We found that his approach that fits very well with commons, which have many regularities despite varying immensely another around the world.
To showcase these patterns, our book synthesizes dozens of patterns of social practice, ethical values, and group behaviors that we observed in countless commons. We integrated this vision through what we call the “Triad of Commoning” framework. It combines three essential aspects of any commons – provisioning, peer governance, and social life – each of which is entangled with the others. This framework acknowledges that commons are alive, alive! They are not simply inventories of unowned “resources.
In the course of rethinking the commons, Silke and I realized that if we are going to escape the dead-end of neoliberal capitalism, we need to invent and learn a new vocabulary. So we coined a lot of new terms. Instead of seeing nature mostly as a set of “resources,” commoners tend to see water and land and forests as “care-wealth” — living things that they care about and that shape their identities and cultures.
Instead of seeing everyone as isolated individuals striving to maximize their material gain, we coined the term “Ubuntu Rationality” to describe a logic of human interaction that deeply aligns a person’s interests with the well-being of others.
Instead of seeing “property” as something that is owned absolutely and used to dominate and control others, we explore the idea of “relationalized property.” There are, in fact, “other ways of having” – ways to access and use things — that go beyond the extraction, exclusion or marketization associated with conventional property ownership. Examples include open source seeds, the federated wiki platform, and the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, which depends upon members working for free several hours a month.
Our publisher, New Society Publishers, is touting our book as “a cultural critique, table-pounding political treatise, and practical playbook for commoning.” We’re honored to have some heroes of ours give endorsements to the book. Bill McKibben, author of Falter and founder of ‘350.org’ wrote:
“If you want a truly exciting glimpse into what the world after this one might look like, this book is for you. When we move past “markets solve all problems” into a more mature approach, it will incorporate precisely the insights in this lively and engaging volume!”
Raj Patel, author, The Value of Nothing and Stuffed and Starved, said:
“David Bollier and Silke Helfrich don’t just establish that commoning can work, and work well. They’ve analysed the contours of successful experiments in how humans have come together to make their worlds freer, fairer and more alive”.
The activist and author Vandana Shiva wrote that the book
“shows the path to respond to the ecological emergency and the polarization of society, economically, socially, culturally. The recovery and co-creation of the commons offers hope for the planet and people.”
We are proud that Free, Fair and Alive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, which should enhance its availability. The German version of the book was published by transcript Verlag in April, and Spanish and French translations are planned.
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Photo credit: Istockphoto.com