New Economy Models: A Victory for the Commons

Laura Flanders: A new world based on community and collaboration is closer than you think. We can steward resources together. In fact, millions of people are doing just that and not in the history books. This week, David Bollier, activist, co-founder of The Commons Strategy Group, explains what it means to think like a commoner. And two activists engaged in Commons projects right now, talk about two very distinct, but complementary strategies. One digital in Barcelona, the other rural in Mozambique. It's all coming up on the Laura Flanders show, the place where the people who say it can't be done take a back seat to the ones who are doing it.

Laura Flanders: So David, thanks for joining us. It's great to have you with us.

David Bollier: Great to be here.

Laura Flanders: The first time I said the "commons," that I was going to be talking to you about The Commons ... a friend of mine said, "Isn't that old, ancient history?" You've heard that before.

David Bollier: I've heard it all the time. People think it's either associated with a strip mall, the such and such commons, or English history. In fact, it's a very contemporary phenomena, and I would even go further, it's part of human history. We've always been cooperators. It's what we're hardwired to do. The whole idea of homo-economic is that we're utility maximizing, selfish, materialistic creatures, is an aberration in history. What's happening is I think we're rediscovering a lot of these roots of humanity, partly through the Internet, which has encouraged and facilitated sharing and collaboration and shown how artificial property rights are. So it's opening up a new exploration of both the economy as well as our inner lives.

Laura Flanders: What about the tragedy of The Commons? If you went through an economic school any time in the last 40 years, you would've heard about the tragedy of The Commons.

David Bollier: This is kind of both a fable and a smear of collective action by a famous biologist of the late 60s, Garrett Hardin, who wrote an essay by that title, "The Tragedy of the Commons." And he said, "Imagine you have a pasture where you can put any number of cattle or sheep on, it will result in the overgrazing and ruination of The Commons, and it will be a tragedy." Really, what he was describing was more akin to the tragedy of the market, where there's no community, no rules, no punishment for violators. A commons is a managed system, where social community gets together and says, "We're gonna manage this resource sustainably for the future," and in fact, empirically, that happens all around the world throughout history.

Laura Flanders: We've had Peter Linebaugh on the show, the historian of The Commons, and he talks about common-ing as a verb. In fact, he says you can't have commons without common-ing, that it's an active engagement of people.

David Bollier: This is one reason economists like to ignore, because how do you put activities and practices into a spreadsheet? They like precise quantitative mathematical models and predictions. They don't like to acknowledge that the economy is socially embedded, that we actually have a role in co-creating the economy. And The Commons is about giving a vehicle and mechanisms and governance for managing our own economy. Not to meet maximum profit or financial speculation, but to meet every day needs. And that, too, is somewhat seen as beneath the grand aspirations of economics.

Laura Flanders: You talk about self-provision-ing. How is that different from subsistence? Or is it?

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David Bollier: Subsistence is often portrayed by the mainstream as bare survival, or scraping by, or extreme poverty. What it really means is meeting needs for households, which is the original notion of economics in the Greek. "Oikos," the household. As opposed to these derivative versions of corporations or international finance. Let's talk about meeting the needs of households. And so The Commons is focused on that, which is a very different kettle of fish than what most economists like to think and talk about. But today, when the markets are not meeting basic needs, and there's abject poverty precariousness and so on, that's what we should be talking about. And by mutualizing resource use, we're able to cut costs and to allow greater participation as well as, interestingly, more responsibility. So it's not just entitlements, give me, give me, people can step up and play a role in stewarding the resources they depend upon.

Laura Flanders: Give us some examples.

David Bollier: The classic ones are natural resource commons, such as farmland or fisheries or irrigation water, forests, wild game-

Laura Flanders: Rivers.

David Bollier: In which people manage those resources collectively. Indigenous people, traditional communities, it's standard. But in the Western world, they rarely talk about that so much. However, even in our advanced Western world, we have lots of digital commons that are quite familiar to people. Linux and open source software, Wikipedia, open access publications. In fact, it's the default mode of doing things online, is sharing because you don't need a huge infrastructure or marketing budget or lawyers. You do it. And I think sharing, as many authors, such as Jeremy Rifkin, have pointed out, is really the default mode of getting things done and it's beating the pants off of many markets.


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