Mainstream politics is not enough, not even when implemented in red or green. The insurgent power of the Commons.

In Finnish : Valtavirtapolitiikka ei ole tarpeeksi edes punavihreästi toteutettuna. Tarvitsemme solidarisuustaloutta, Voima lehti, Maaliskuu 2023. :

 “it is rather unusual for someone of your age to still be doing the kind of (activist) things that you are doing” (someone told me recently)

Where does power lie, in order to come to transformative pathways leading to systemic change in society?  

Most often the answers given to this question, In order to deal with wicked problems as the loss of biodiversity and climate change, carry a focus on big state policy which for instance should be making sure that industries will engage in more sustainable production methods, or on market based solutions relying on pricing systems to bring about sustainability, or then on the use of innovative grand technological schemes. In the more progressive corners, pondered then is the extent to which they represent threats or possibilities.

The so-called alternatives, those small scale peoples initiatives of different kinds of collectives, (food, energy) cooperatives, shared (housing) spaces are seldom the focus. Also in more progressive writings, seldom will they at the end of the day be brought to the forefront as being core elements in any comprehensive, mature analysis about what is to be done (as they are however, funnily, or perhaps logically enough, advocated in development cooperation circles) .

I have come to think that the failure to address the significance of these initiatives at least partly hangs along with a failure to understand the power that lies in the commons and the commoning around them.

About the commons – anything can be a commons. Commons refers to when things are held in common and co-produced. And, as historian Peter Linebaugh has coined things for us, there are no commons without the commoning around them, which refers to the process of co-producing, co governing, co-managing by a community or network of commoners of a commons. Things as such can become more (or less) of a commons. And therefore as the late Silke Helfrich so eloquently put forward, whereas the commons come about or exist not necessarily without state or market, the commons and the commoning around them certainly go beyond state and market. They represent a paradigm shift. 

In their best cases supported but not compromised by state and market, it is in these peoples processes of commoning that the roots for real transformative change lie. In processes which give genuine space to rethink every day practices in the spheres of the social, ecological and economic according to values important to us. It is then logic to deduct that the commoning around our basic needs as food and energy, issues so pervasive to the way our communities and society are structured, can lead to significant systemic change in society. It is through our understanding and acknowledging of this power lying in our commoning, that we can come to understand why our community currencies, workers collectives and other initiatives matter. And to subsequently think, what policies in society could be supporting more space for commoning. 

One might then question whether it is realistic to think that our processes of commoning will come to directly challenge and change the social system. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps it is more so as others suggest that people engaging in commoning are creating parallel realities to capitalist society, and eventually more people will come to join not only out of a clear will for this, but also out of necessity. What is however clear, is that mainstream politics, however well red-green reformed, will not change the system to the extent desired and needed. 

The power of the commons, by the way, is not only relevant for our own local. Us taking up our commoning, and redesigning things as our food and energy systems, is a prerequisite to allow others to do the same elsewhere, as our basic needs systems have come to be so intertwined, and are a far cry from being win-win relations of production, distribution and consumption. Us taking up our commoning and making for more commons therefore ultimately has to do with justice, and thus also with the prospects for peace. 

Let us therefore continue the thinking and imagining around our commons. ‘Free, fair and alive – the insurgent power of the Commons’ is the title of the last book written by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier, which we are commencing a reading circle of with in the beginning of March. Any one interested would be most welcome to join! And needless to say, do join your local food coop, any other initiatives if (building) power is what interests you.

Ruby van der Wekken


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