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Yours, Mine, Ours

Amherst author David Bollier looks at the things we hold in common(s).

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

It’s a scenario every New Englander is familiar with, either through personal experience or regional lore: the sacrosanct set of laws governing parking on Boston streets after a winter snowstorm. You shovel out a spot and it’s yours for the parking, a claim you might choose to assert by placing a chair (or garbage can, or other handy household object) there when you vacate the spot. And woe to the interloper who moves that space saver and takes your spot—especially in Southie.

But spot-saving is more than just a quirky local custom, Amherst author David Bollier argues in his new book. It’s also an example of “the commons,” a tricky-to-explain but fascinating and important concept to which Bollier has devoted much of his professional life as a writer and scholar.

The commons, Bollier writes in Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers), is “a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.” It’s organized by the people, with little or no input from government or market forces.

In the case of the Boston drivers, Bollier explains, the community has developed and enforces its own system for allocating an extremely valuable resource—clear wintertime parking spots—without reliance on the government, whose “snowplows may not reliably clear the streets of snow … and [whose] enforcement of parking rules may be unreliable or expensive.” It’s a “case of successful self-governance,” including penalties for “free riders” who try to abuse the system by stealing a neighbor’s spot.

The commons, Bollier writes, is as old as the human race, and it develops organically, in harmony with the values and circumstances and needs of a particular society. And while it might initially seem like a hard concept to define, as Bollier makes clear in his book, once you know what to look for, you can find it everywhere: from seed-exchange programs in developing countries to open-source software, from locally determined fishing rights to academics developing systems for sharing their work freely. There are “many galaxies of commons,” as Bollier puts it, including “social and civic commons” such as organ and blood donation, “timebanking” programs in which participants trade services like yard work and babysitting with their neighbors, and “couchsurfing” websites that match travelers with hosts in other cities.

And while it typically stands as an alternative to the market, the commons even informs certain business models, such as co-ops and CSAs. “[Can market activity and commons coexist happily? The question is a controversial one among some commoners,” Bollier writes. “My own view is that few commons can operate in total isolation from the rest of society. Virtually all commons are hybrids that depend in some measure upon the State or the Market. The important point, therefore, is to assure that commons can have as much autonomy and integrity of purpose as possible. If commons are to interact with markets, they must be able to resist enclosure, consumerism, the lust for capital accumulation and other familiar pathologies of capitalism.”

That tension with the capitalistic marketplace can pose a grave threat to the commons, he writes. In modern industrialized societies, “anything of value is usually associated with the ‘free market’ or government. The idea that people could actually self-organize durable arrangements for managing their own resources, and that this paradigm of social governance could generate immense value—well, it seems either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical.”

The openness of the commons has long met with competing efforts to control those resources—efforts that amount to “enclosures,” a term that harkens back to English rulers declaring ownership of lands long used by the people for hunting and grazing their animals. More broadly, the concept of enclosures applies to market or state forces seizing control of—and, most significant, commodifying—a shared resource, such as privatization of water sources and public forests, oil drilling in undeveloped areas, and makers of genetically modified seeds requiring farmers to abide by contracts prohibiting them from saving seed and instead requiring them to buy new seeds every year. “It’s important to note that enclosures are not just appropriations of resources. They are also attacks on communities and their practicing of commoning,” he writes.

Its roots in an agrarian society notwithstanding, the concept of enclosures is not limited to natural resources. Bollier points to other, decidedly modern examples that promote market interests over public resources, from the trend of selling advertising space on school buses to the corporate naming-rights phenomenon that has turned the venerable Boston Garden into TD Garden and Foxboro into Gillette Stadium. The Internet, Bollier writes, has been a boon to the commons, thanks to the ease with which it allows the sharing of information and resources. But it’s also a crucial battleground in the conflict between the commons and the drive toward more enclosures, as big phone and cable corporations push for a tiered system that would allow them to charge more for certain services and leave smaller and less well-heeled users with inferior service.

Such efforts underscore the importance of the commons as a powerful tool for reshaping society and protecting and promoting shared culture, natural resources, healthy economies and truly participatory forms of governance. “[T]he commons holds great promise for reinventing dysfunctional government and reforming predatory markets,” Bollier writes. “It can help us rein in our overly commercialized consumer culture. It can usher in new forms of ‘green governance’ to protect the environment. At a time when our representative democracy has become a gaudy charade driven by big money and remote bureaucracies, the commons offers new forms of on-the-ground participation and responsibility that can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

While Think Like a Commoner serves as an introductory text, this is no The Commons for Dummies. In fewer than 200 engagingly written pages, Bollier takes on such complex subjects as the development of the concept of private property and the philosophical underpinnings of the commons. “It is impossible in this short chapter to deal with all the complex metaphysical and epistemological issues raised by the commons,” he writes at one point, and, indeed, the book is too short to flesh out the many complexities of the subject, which Bollier has already explored in greater depth in numerous articles and books; a documentary (“This Land is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons”) produced by Northampton’s Media Education Foundation; and the website Onthecommons.org, which he founded. Rather, his new book serves as a commons primer of sorts for readers interested in the potential the concept can hold for their communities or the greater society.

And in keeping with the philosophy he espouses, Bollier stresses the communal, evolving nature of his work: “Since any book is an ongoing conversation, not the last word,” he writes at the book’s end, “I invite future commoners not only to challenge my mistakes, omissions and interpretations as seen from their vantage points, but to take the conversation into new territory that may not have occurred to me. The world of commoning is vast and expanding indeed.”•

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