Issue 6

Words by Sarah Dorkenwald

not commodities

Access to clean water is a human right, set forth in the UN Human Rights Convention since 2010. Obviously, we might assume. And yet instead, the current system of free market fundamentalism in our society permits natural resources such as water, oil minerals, forests and fish stocks to be privatised and transformed into global financial products, while global trade agreements legitimise containment, expropriation and social exploitation. Groundwater stocks are being commodified to support the bottled water industry.

But water can also be perceived as a commons, an asset in the public domain. From this viewpoint, water is no longer a commodity to be exploited for profit, but a resource that is used, managed and administered collectively. Commoning applies autonomously organised processes of reproduction to transform food and land, but also knowledge, codes and time into commons. Autonomous organisation is a core constituent of commoning; it permits the stakeholders of the process to define their own rules and goals, often in marked opposition to the interests of market economies and politics. Self-determination and fairness, in the form of empathy and communality, are crucial regulatory factors in maintaining the principle of commoning and preventing it from being transmuted into market-oriented business models based on maximising profit. It should be noted that the commoning movement is not about participating in a prescribed or predefined process, but in encouraging self-empowered action by the stakeholders to further the common good for all.

What are COMMONS?
form of society?

Let us start with the familiar example of Wikipedia, where people share knowledge without expecting anything in return, and others provide funding to support the ­existence of this system of free access. The platform can grow and monitor itself thanks to all those that add articles and expand, review and correct them, and all the others that donate funding for the purpose. The RepRap, a self-repli­cating 3D printer, could also be described as commons; no conventional company would come up with the idea of marketing a product that self-replicates free of charge. But a repair café, a give­away or swap shop and a community allotment like Berlin’s Prinzessinnengarten are also examples of commons, and have nothing to do with a sharing model like Uber or Airbnb; the latter enterprises are based on mutual give and take, whereas in commoning, actions — whether giving or sharing — are performed voluntarily with no expectation of anything in return. The sharing economy is creating new business opportunities by driving old opportunities out of the market, while commoning has collective satisfaction of needs as its noble aim. Yet one does not replace the other; they coexist side by side. Communality and plurality, the individual and the collective, become reconcil­able and are no longer contradictory. “The process of generating wealth known as commoning does not concern manufacturing of products or generating yields. It is about maintaining our basic needs and ensuring the integrity of social relationships. It is about the creative process itself, and about fair distribution of the wealth reproduced in the ­commons”,writes ­Silke Helfrich, whose works explore the potential of this new form of economic acti­vity, or better housekeeping. In Helfrich’s view the idea of collective organi­sation and use of communal goods and resources stands for a new form of civic society which will eventually replace our battered and doomed model of capitalism. Helfrich stresses that we are living in exciting times, one of those ­rare moments in history when old, fossilised mindsets crumble and break apart and make way for new ideas. She believes commons are as old as humanity, and as modern as the Internet.

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