Moja recenzija zadnje knjige Davida Bolliera, Think Like a Commoner – ili da vas zainteresira da je pročitate, ili – vjerojatnije – da se možete praviti da ste to učinili. Originalno je objavljena u proljetnom broju britanskog časopisa STIR, link je ispod teksta.
– * –
In his new book, David Bollier weaves together a convincing account of the commons as ‘an ethic and inner sensibility’, inviting us to become the ‘protagonists in our lives’ and act as if we have ‘inalienable stakes in the world to which we were born’. In this, he echoes Kant’s assertion that the primary task for every human being is having the determination to exercise our agency. While Kant was referring to religion as the source of domination over human lives, the target here is our unquestioning acceptance of market hegemony.
However, for Bollier expanding personal agency does not entail the image of the self-made man. He rejects the competitive individualism that marks contemporary culture, and instead promotes practices of subjectivity that are born out of negotiating our experienced reality through practices of commoning. In showcasing numerous successful commons practices, this challenges the conceptions of sole authorship and sole ownership, offering instead situated, collectively constructed and ‘practice-based ways of knowing and being’. If our task is both to understand the world and change it, this new book clearly contributes to the first goal, exposing flaws to our dominant development paradigm in the hope that people will open up to alternative conceptions of buen vivir.
Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons is Bollier’s most recent restatement of the theory and practice of the commons. As a pioneer in the fast-growing field of commons scholarship, his earliest work dates from the early 2000s when he was studying the information commons. Since then he has authored several books that have refined his theories about the commons: Silent Theft (2002), Brand Name Bullies (2005), Viral Spiral (2009), The Wealth of the Commons with Silke Helfrich (2012), and Green Governance with Burns H. Weston (2013).
His theoretical approach was evident already in his 2001 paper, Why We Must Talk About the Information Commons, where he used the concept of the commons to underscore that the people — not investors — were primary stakeholders of broadcast airwaves and the Internet, and that they should therefore have the legal authority for controlling them. It described our time as one of market triumphalism that conflates citizens with consumers, and argued that the commons resurrect our ability to talk about citizens’ interests in non-commercial domains, helping to assert the supremacy of civil society in the face of an imperial market order.
The same key propositions reappear in Think Like a Commoner, refined and supported by a decade of practical and theoretical work. As Bollier makes clear in the Introduction, his intention is to make the topic accessible to the lay reader and, more importantly, to motivate the reader to discover the commons as a paradigm that makes us see the world anew.
Throughout the book Bollier synthesizes a diverse body of scholarship ranging from historical studies of medieval enclosures and contemporary land grabs, behavioural studies, orthodox and heterodox economic theories of value, legal studies of property, governance studies, as well as approaches to environmental resources management on the one hand, knowledge and the digital commons on the other. In an accomplishment made possible due to his passionate engagement with commons scholarship and practice, he draws an accessible map of relevant research findings, important thinkers, key concepts and political intentions of the commons movement.
Mirroring his mastery of the commons scholarship is a remarkable breadth of examples of commoning practices that are presented in the book. They traverse numerous domains and span the entire planet, offering brief vignettes of seed-sharing commons in Andhra Pradesh, the Finish-origin story of GNU/Linux, Boston street parking practices, Camberwell enclosure in Australia, water privatization in Cochabamba Bolivia, Pulska Grupa urban commoning from Croatia, the city of Linz urban digital commons project, the Peruvian Potato Park, and many others.
Echoing much of the existing commons scholarship, Bollier positions the commons as an alternative to the state-market duopoly, which he characterises as ‘dysfunctional governments and predatory markets’. The commons are a third domain — complementary to market and state, but also carrying potential for transforming this entrenched duopoly.
However, though the commons are invoked as an alternative both to the market and the state, the book provides a much stronger condemnation of market hegemony than it does of the limits of representative democracy. This is in part due to the fact that Bollier addresses the commons from the viewpoint of moral philosophy rather than relating the commons to debates about extending representative democracy into associative and direct democratic forms (see for instance Wright’s Real Utopias project), or problematizing its relation to concepts of civil society and the public sphere.
His plea for limiting markets is remarkably evocative of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (2012). Both authors warn that we live in a world where almost everything is for sale, and invite us to open our eyes to an understanding of markets as corrosive of the good life. They both explain how a reduced public sphere corrodes our ability to empathise with each other, thereby jeopardising essential ingredients in democratic politics. The striking similarity in rhetoric goes as far as the two authors being animated by the same example of the sale of rights to jump a queue, understood as violating a fundamental social norm of fair access to limited resources.
In his critique of the neoliberal economic order, the first few chapters read as a mythbuster where Bollier challenges orthodox economics assumptions about how value is created and disputes the superiority of markets in meeting our needs. Debunking the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as a flawed metaphor that misunderstands the commons as a free-for-all, he offers up ‘the tragedy of the market’ instead — a worldview in which humans are reduced to utility-maximising, selfish individuals who in the prisoner’s dilemma cannot even communicate among themselves. In other words, he inspiringly reinterprets for the reader the current development paradigm according to which extending markets ostensibly leads to human prosperity. I can hardly imagine a reader unaffected by a shift in perspective about how the market logic impoverishes our idea of humanity.
However, if the commons movement is ‘a transnational ecosystem of activism, projects and theorising’ – in other words, a political project – then a stronger emphasis on creating structural conditions necessary for extending democracy is needed. Understood from my peripheral European perspective, his distrust for bureaucratisation and rigid state institutions are recognizably US American, as is his reliance on individual agency. In my view, the commons are equally about successful collective action directed at reconfiguring current power relations, which requires direct confrontation with state institutions.
Throughout most of the book the state appears merely as an accomplice to market hegemony, an actor who should be a trustee for the people but colludes with the interests of capital instead. This simplification is somewhat made up for in the final chapters where Bollier asserts moral imperatives for states, which ‘must’ act as trustees for the commons, protect shared resources from enclosure, ensure fair access, legally and financially support the commons. However, the reader is not sure how these outcomes are to be achieved, since Bollier swerves between invoking political mobilisation of the commons, and reaffirming the autonomy of the commons as a domain outside the state, doing their own thing, ‘quietly revolutionising’ our lives without directly engaging state hegemony or challenging its cosy marriage with capital.
Actually, in a direct showdown between confronting the state and building autonomous spaces, Bollier favours the second. He wants the state to recognize the commons as a ‘quasi-independent sector’ with its own ‘moral compass and political identity’. Since states are corrupt and ineffective, engaging its institutions takes second place to ‘expanding the conversation about the commons’ and grounding it in actual practice. In other words, Bollier is banking on awakening our agency, igniting a ‘do-it-yourself style of emancipation’ as a step in creating a new political constituency. However, in exhibiting deep mistrust of the state he reiterates a widely held sentiment on the Left that may be inadvertently contributing to its self-marginalisation and fragmentation.
Political mobilisation, which Bollier considers secondary, requires organisationally strengthening the commons so that we confront states via all available institutional and non-institutional forms of struggle. Rather than asserting that the state ‘must’ be a trustee for the commons, we want to be able to force the state to concede to a radical democratisation of economic relations and governance regimes — through institutional innovations like basic social income, citizen assemblies, hybrid commons-public partnerships or participatory budgeting. Such institutional innovations would not acquiesce to ‘palliative’ policies that support an autonomous third domain, but carry a truly transformative potential of disturbing the current configuration of power between markets, states and societies.