November 7, 2014
How to fix Europe? One thing desperately needed is a vision that connects the many issues that have our concern. The perspective of the commons; embracing the idea that some resources such as air and water as well as certain non-material goods are owned by everyone – could be such a vision. Relating to many of the issues people care about today, this perspective points us in a certain direction. It inspires us to manage goods in a way that ensures equitable access, while sustainable and participatory.
Although the last few hundred years of history has mostly seen the enclosure of our physical commons such as the forests people used for their subsistence, recently digital commons have catalyzed the revival of the commons perspective. Digital commoning initiatives have shown how goods can be produced collaboratively, peer-to-peer and community based. They have shown the possibility of another economic model; one not based on private property. Famous examples are free software, Wikipedia and linux. These developments have helped us think about managing other goods such as scientific knowledge, water, and public spaces, as a commons as well.
In some ways the idea of commons is Utopian, but utopian in a good way, as a vision to inspire and to give direction. Not as blueprint for a society to be forced upon everyone. Utopian visions can give direction to smaller projects that are attainable, allowing us to build small utopias: when like-minded people come together around an issue and make it work through a project or political action. This can be on a local level, national, transnational or a European level, and can be many different things. One could think all the initiatives emerging in crisis-affected Europe where one sees a new culture of self-organisation and collective solidarity emerging. Or think of Teatro Valle Occupato in Bologna, Italy; where people started running their local theatre as a commons in order to prevent privatization – the big idea being culture is a common good to be managed as commons. Or campaigns around net-neutrality in the law, on a national and European level, led by the grand idea of a free Internet equitably accessible to all.
The Commons ideal is one utopian vision among others, yet one relevant to many of the fights fought and initiatives taken today by civil society. As an upcoming European political narrative, it is not finalized, and it means different things to different people dependent on their context. Yet the commons perspective can help us connect our struggles, projects and energy across Europe and beyond.