No new normal: building the commons
Now is the time to reflect on the work we’ve done to create an economy based on abundance rather than scarcity, and where to go from here.
The author and archdruid John Michael Greer talks about “catabolic collapse”, not as the guns and ammo, post-apocalyptic-yet-still-powered-by-capitalism scenario favored in the media, but as an ongoing process of societal disintegration. Looking at our mainstream institutions, economics and beliefs, it’s clear that we’ve been collapsing for a while. A pandemic punctuates the catabolic curve with an eye-popping shock set against systemic processes bedrocked as background, never foreground.
The etymology of “apocalypse” points to an “unveiling”, dropping illusion and finding revelation. As our global production systems and social institutions (eg. healthcare, education) are suddenly overwhelmed, their basic unsuitability is exposed. Just weeks ago so mighty, economies now sputter when faced with this latest adversity, and this sudden spike in the process of collapse portends a larger undertaking in ecological and social entropy. As Covid-19 takes its human toll worldwide, we’ve begun to see the best and worst of humanity in its choice of loyalties, whether to human life or to economic systems, and the power struggles in finding the right balance (if such a thing exists). It’s another opportunity to consider, what is inherent in us as people, and what is the product of our systems? Growing up in systems preaching that “greed is good”, that “the only social responsibility of businesses is to increase profits”, or that “there is no alternative”, it’s no surprise that the worst reactions to the crisis are marked by individualism, paranoia and accumulation.
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Natural systems are rebounding because pollution and emissions are down, but it’s impossible to fist-pump about this while people are suffering, dying, or working beyond capacity to save lives. In fact, it’s a good time to question the very validity of work: which services are essential, how to use our “free time”. What solutions can the market offer to the health crisis, to overcrowded hospitals, to breaks in supply lines of essential goods and services? To those unable to meet their rent, mortgage or future expenses? Some claim our global, industrialized model is to blame for the virus, others cry that “the cure is worse than the disease”, that the economic effects of quarantining will create more destruction than the virus itself.
These predictions are not endemic to economic science, but to a history of accumulatory, command and control dynamics which, via longstanding institutions including patriarchy and colonialism, have found their apex in capitalist realism: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Short a few weeks of predatory feeding, the growth-based model shows its weakness against the apocalypse. Another veil is lifting.
What else can we see? What will the world look like whenever “this is over” (and how will we know when it is)?
Could this be the herald of another political economy based on abundance, not scarcity and greed? We can help nature to restore itself, cut down emissions, our consumption of mass manufactured and designed-to-break-down crap. We can radically curtail speculative ventures and fictitious commodities. Slash inequality from the bottom up, spend our time away from bullshit jobs to reimagine the world. Use this free time to reconnect, cherish our aliveness, break out of containment, care for each other, grieve what we’ve lost and celebrate what we still have.
We do have the frameworks, we have been creating this capacity for quite a while. Here I refer to the Commons. Simply put, the Commons are living systems to meet shared needs. As old as humanity itself and as new as the latest trends in decentralized technology, the Commons are best understood as a verb, not a noun; more action than static. A commons needs three elements:
1. A resource (natural or human-made)
2. A community to steward it
3. The community-determined rules to care for it
Examples include cooperatively managed forests, water distribution irrigation systems, social currencies, Free/Libre and Open-Source Software, self organized urban spaces, distributed manufacturing networks and so much more. As George Monbiot describes, the most inspiring and effective reactions to the Covid-19 crisis are not coming from markets or states, but from the Commons. Often invisibilized, the practices of the commons offer fairer economic and human frameworks to meet our needs, especially in challenging times.
From localized yet globally connected systems of production that can rapidly respond to urgent needs without depending on massive global chains, to ways to organize the workforce into restorative and purpose-oriented clusters of people who take care of each other. This new economy will need a new politics and a more emancipated relation to the state: we have tried it and succeeded. What new worlds (many worlds are possible) can we glimpse under this lifted veil?
Here’s a question: did you already know about these potentials? Are we still having this conversation among ourselves, or have these terrible circumstances gifted us with an opportunity for (apocalyptic) clarity? The normal is collapsing, while our weirdness looks saner than ever before.
Timothy Leary famously called for us to “find the others“. I think that the others are all of us, and this may be the moment where more of us can recognise that. A few years ago, we created an accessible, easy to use platform to share the potential of the Commons with everyone. Today it’s more relevant than ever. The projects we work on (Commons Transition and DisCO) are based on two simple precepts:
1. Everyone can become a commoner
2. Commoners can make more commoners
This is why we strive to create accessible and relatable frameworks for people to find the commoner within themselves. But we need to grow out of our bubbles, algorithmically predetermined or not; we need to rewild our message beyond the people who already know. Movements like Degrowth, Open Source software and hardware, anti-austerity, Social Solidarity Economy, Ecofeminism, Buen Vivir – we are all learning from each other. We must continue to humbly and patiently pass the knowledge on, listen to more voices and experiences, and keep widening the circle to include everyone, until there are no others.
Please share this article with anyone who may benefit from these “crazy ideas” that suddenly don’t look so crazy anymore. Start a conversation with people who, aghast at the rapid collapse and lack of reliable systemic support, are eager for new ideas, solutions, and hope. The greatest enclosure of the commons is that of the mind: our capacity to imagine better worlds, to be kinder to each other and to the Earth. This will not be an easy or straightforward process. We need to hold each other through the loss and pain. We need to keep finding the others among all of us, until there are no more.
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