Monday, October 04, 2010

Silke Helfrich on the commons and the upcoming International Commons Conference

As more and more of the world’s population has gained access to the Internet so a growing number of free and open movements have appeared — including the free and open source software movements, free culture, creative commons, open access and open data.

Once these movements became widely visible — and successful — people were keen to understand their significance, and establish what, if anything, they have in common. Today many observers maintain that they share very similar goals and aspirations, and that they represent a renaissance of “the commons”.

There is also an emerging consensus that, contrary to what was initially assumed, this renaissance is not confined to the Internet, and digital phenomena, but can also be observed in the way that some physical products are now manufactured (e.g. by advocates of the open source hardware movement) and in the way that many are now recommending the natural world be managed.

For instance, argue self-styled “commoners”, when local farmers establish seed banks in order to preserve regional plant diversity, and to prevent large biotechnology companies from foisting patent-protected GMO crops on them, their objectives are essentially the same as those of free software developers when they release their software under the General Public Licence: Both are attempting to prevent things that rightfully belong in common ownership from being privatised — usually by multinational companies who, in their restless pursuit of profits, are happy to appropriate for their own ends resources that rightfully belong to everyone.

Once understood in this broader context, commoners add, it becomes evident that the free and open movements have the potential to catalyse radical social, cultural and political change; change that, in the light of the now evident failures of state capitalism (demonstrated, for instance, by the global financial crisis) are urgently required.

Larger movement

In order to facilitate this change, however, commoners argue that the free and open movements have to be viewed as component parts of the larger commons movement. In addition, it is necessary to embrace and encompass the other major political and civil society groups focused on challenging the dominance of what could loosely be termed the post-Cold War settlement — including environmentalism, Green politics, and the many organisations and initiatives trying to address both developing world issues and climate change

But to create this larger movement, says Jena-based commons activist Silke Helfrich, it will first be necessary to convince advocates of the different movements that they share mutual objectives. As they are currently fragmented, their common goals are not immediately obvious, and so it will be necessary to make this transparent. Achieving this is important, adds Helfrich, since only by co-operating can the different movements hope to become politically effective.

To this end Helfrich is currently organising an International Commons Conference that will bring together over 170 practitioners and observers of the commons from 34 different countries.

To be held at the beginning of November, the conference will be hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

The aim of the conference, says Helfrich, is to spark “a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and the convergence of the scholars studying the commons and the commoners defending them in the field.” Helfrich hopes this will lead to agreement on a “commons-based policy platform”.

What is the end game? Nothing less, it would appear, than a new social and political order. That is, a world “beyond market and state” — where communities are able to wrest back control of their lives, from faceless, distant government, and from rootless, heartless corporations.

As Helfrich puts it, “the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called ‘invisible hand’ of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”

Well qualified

Helfrich is well qualified to organise such a conference. She has already run three conferences on the commons, and she has a deep understanding of development politics. Between 1999 and 2007 she was in charge of the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean — where she focused on globalisation, gender issues, and human rights.

Since her return to Germany in 2007, Helfrich has developed an international reputation for commons advocacy through her German-language CommonsBlog, and she moderates an interdisciplinary political salon called “Time for the Commons” at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

She has also written many articles and reports on the commons for civil society organisations, and recently edited an anthology of essays on the commons called To Whom Does the World Belong? The Rediscovery of the Commons.

Helfrich explains the background and purpose to the International Commons Conference in more detail below.

The interview begins …


Silke Helfrich

RP Why did you become interested in the commons?

SH: I was born in East Germany, and when the wall came down in 1989 I was 22 and had just finished my studies. Then I lived for more than eight years in El Salvador and Mexico, both of which are extremely polarised countries so far as the distribution of wealth is concerned.

So I've experienced two very different types of society: one in which the state is the arbiter of social conditions, and the way in which citizens can participate in their society and, after 1989, one in which access to money determines one's ability to participate in society.

It has also always been my belief that democracy should involve much more than simply having free elections and then delegating all responsibility to professional politicians. We need to radically democratise the political, social and economic sphere — and we need a framework for doing so which is beyond both the market and the state. That, in my view, is precisely what the commons is all about.

RP: Can you expand on your definition of the commons, and the potential?

SH: The commons is not a thing or a resource. It’s not just land or water, a forest or the atmosphere. For me, the commons is first and foremost constant social innovation. It implies a self-determined decision making process (within a great variety of contexts, rules and legal settings) that allows all of us to use and reproduce our collective resources.

The commons approach assumes that the right way to use water, forests, knowledge, code, seeds, information, and much more, is to ensure that my use of those resources does not harm anybody else’s use of them, or deplete the resources themselves. And that implies fair-use of everything that does not belong to only one person.

It's about respect for the principle "one person — one share", especially when we talk about the global commons. To achieve this we need to build trust, and strengthen social relationships, within communities.

Our premise is that we are not simply "homo economicus" pursuing only our own selfish interests. The core belief underlying the commons movement is: I need the others and the others need me.

There is no alternative today.


RP: Would it be accurate to say that the commons encompasses components of a number of different movements that have emerged in recent years, including free and open source software (FOSS), Creative Commons, Green politics, and all the initiatives focused on helping the developing world etc.?

SH: That's right.

RP: Has it been a natural process of convergence?

SH: From a commoner’s perspective it is a natural process, but it is not immediately obvious that the different movements and their concerns have a lot in common.

RP: How do you mean?

SH: Let me give you an example: When we started to work on the commons in Latin America about six years ago we were working mainly with the eco- and social movements, who were critical of the impact that globalisation and the free trade paradigm were having. A colleague suggested that we should invite people from the free software movement to take part in our discussions.

While we did invite them, our first thought was: What does proprietary software have in common with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Or, to put it the other way round, what does the free software movement stand for, and what could it possibly have in common with organisations fighting for GMO free regions? Likewise, what could it have in common with community supported agriculture (CSA), and with movements devoted to defending access to water and social control over their biotic resources?

But we quickly realised that they are all doing the same thing: defending their commons! So since then we have become committed to (and advocate for) the "convergence of movements".

RP: For those who have been following the development of the Internet much of the debate about the commons has emerged from the way in which people — particularly large multinational companies — have sought to enforce intellectual property rights in the digital environment. In parallel there has been a huge debate about the impact of patents on the developing world — patents on life-saving drugs, for instance, and patents on food crops. But seen from a historical perspective these debates are far from new — they have been repeated throughout history, and the commons as a concept goes back even before the infamous enclosures that took place in England in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

SH: That’s right. So to some extent we are talking about the renaissance of the commons.

And the reason why free software developers are engaged in the same struggle as, say, small farmers, is simple: when people defend the free use of digital code, as the free software movement does, they are defending our entitlement to control our communication tools. (Which is essential when you are talking about democracy).

And when people organise local seed-banks to preserve and share the enormous seed variety in their region, they too are simply defending their entitlement to use and reproduce the commons.

In doing so, by the way, they are making use of a cornucopia — because in the commons there is abundance.

RP: Nowadays we are usually told to think of the natural world in terms of scarcity rather abundance.

SH: Well, even natural resources are not scarce in themselves. They are finite, but that is not the same thing as scarce. The point is that if we are not able to use natural collective resources (our common pool resources) sustainably, then they are made scarce. By us!

The commons, I insist, is above all a rich and diverse resource pool that has been developed collectively. What is important is the community, or the people’s control of that resource pool, rather than top-down control. Herein lies the future!

That is precisely what awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom in 2009 was all about [On awarding the Prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commented: “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatised”].

It is also what the Right Livelihood Award [the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize] — is all about.

Make transparent

RP: Ok, so we are saying that a lot of different movements have emerged with similar goals, but those similarities are not immediately obvious?

SH: Correct. So it is important to make them transparent. The global movement of commoners today is eclectic and growing, but fragmented.

For instance, we can see a number of flourishing transnational commons movements (e.g. free software, Wikipedia, open access to scholarly journals etc.) — all of whom are from the cultural and digital realm, and all of whom are based on community collaboration and sharing.

Many other commons projects, however, are modest in size, locally based, and focused on natural resources. There are thousands of them, and they provide solutions that confirm the point ETC’s Pat Mooney frequently makes: “the solution comes from the edges”.

Right now these different groups barely know each other, but what they all have in common is that they are struggling to take control of their own lives.

Taken together all these movements are actually part of a big civic movement that is about to discover its own identity, just as the environmental movement did some 30 or 40 years ago.
Co-operation is the best way for them to grow and become politically relevant. So the goal should be to persuade the various advocates that they have much to gain from working together.

RP: Would you agree that the Internet has played an important role in the emergence of these movements?

SH: I would. The Internet has been key in the development of global commons projects like free software and Wikipedia, and it greatly facilitates the sharing of ideas — which is key for becoming politically effective.

So the Internet allows us to cooperate beyond the traditional boundaries; and it allows us to take one of the most productive resources of our age — "knowledge and information management" — into our own hands.

Look at the AVAAZ – campaigns for instance. The number of people they are able to connect to and mobilise is amazing. [In 3 years, Avaaz has grown to 5.5 million members from every country on earth, becoming the largest global web movement in history].

One problem, however, is that many communities who are heavily reliant on web-based technologies are not really attuned to the fact that the more we access these kinds of technologies the more we tend to overuse our natural common pool resources. So I think we need to understand that "openness" in the digital realm and "sustainability" in the natural realm need to be addressed together.

RP: Can you expand on that?

SH: We need more than just free software and free hardware. We need free software and free hardware designed to make us independent of the need to acquire a constant stream of ever more resource-devouring gadgets.

So instead of going out every three years to buy a new laptop packed with software that requires paying large license fees to corporations, who then have control over our communication, we should aim to have just one open-hardware-modular-recyclable-computer that runs community-based free software and can last a lifetime.

This is quite a challenge, and it is one of the many challenges we will be discussing at the International Commons Conference. One of the key questions here is this: Is the idea of openness really compatible with the boundaries of (natural) common-pool resources?

Overall objective

RP: What is the overall objective of the International Commons Conference?

SH: To put it modestly (SMILE), the aim is to achieve a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and a convergence of the scholars who are studying the commons and the commoners who are defending them in the field.

We believe that the conference will foster the planning and development of commons-based organisations and policy, as well as their networking capacity. And we hope that by the end of the conference a set of principles and long-term goals will have emerged.

The whole endeavour (or should I say adventure? SMILE) will surely contribute to what my colleague Michel Bauwens — co-organiser of the conference — calls “A Grand Coalition of the Commons”.

RP: I note that there is no dedicated web site or pre-publicity for the conference. And it is by invitation only. Is that because there is not yet a fully articulated consensus on the commons and its potential?

SH: No, we have a much better reason: There has been no need for pre-publicity for the conference. On the contrary, as I frequently find myself having to explain to people, the response to our first "save-the-date-call" for the conference was so overwhelmingly positive that we quickly realised we would be fully booked without any publicity. And in fact we are now more than fully booked.

The conference is by invitation only because we designed the conference programme for those who are already very familiar with the commons, be it through analysing the commons or through producing the commons. Consequently all our participants are specialists. Indeed each one of them would be qualified to address a keynote to the conference.

In other words, what we have designed is a networking conference for commoners from all over the world — and over 170 people from 34 countries have registered. That is quite an achievement, and has only been limited by the availability of space and resources.

I hope, however, that we’ll have a real World Commons Forum within a year or so (SMILE).

Window of opportunity

RP: Do you think the current global financial crisis has opened a window of opportunity for "commoners", as they refer to themselves?

SH: I think so. The current crisis (which is not just a financial crisis, by the way, but multiple crises) graphically demonstrates that we cannot leave policy issues to the politicians, money-related issues to the bankers, or our commons to the market or the state. It's ours!

It also showed quite clearly that the game is over. What is required is not simply a few new rules to allow a further round of the same old game, but a totally new framework; one that forges a new relationship between commons, state and market.

RP: What would this new relationship look like? Is the commons in competition with the state and the market, or do you see it working alongside these two key power brokers?

SH: For me the phrase "a commons beyond market and state" does not necessarily mean without market and state: Commons conceived of as complex systems of resources, communities and rules need very different governance structures. Indeed, some of them will be so complex that a certain governmental institutional structure will be needed — what one might call a Partner State.
One thing, however, is key: the people who depend on these commons for their livelihood and well-being have to have the major stake in all decisions taken about their commons.

Clearly, corporations, companies and co-ops will always meddle with the commons. And whatever they produce they will need our common pool resources as raw material. So the question we need to ask is: what do these players give back to the commons? We cannot allow them to just draw from the commons. The basic principle should be: Whoever takes from the commons has to add to them as well.

In other words, these external agents must not be able to do whatever they want with collective resources. Exclusive, exclusionary private property rights in the commons cannot exist — as outlined in the Commons Manifesto published on the Heinrich Böll Foundation web site.

RP: Would it be accurate to say that the commons is not just a new political and social movement, but a new intellectual framework for understanding the world, and perhaps a catalyst for a new post-industrial social order?

SH: We are not necessarily talking about a post-industrial order, but it is my conviction that a commons paradigm has to be based on the vision of a post-fossil fuel order.

Nor is it even new — as we agreed earlier. I would say it is an old intellectual framework, but one that has to be constantly re-appropriated from below and “modernised”.

But yes, it’s a framework for understanding the world. And it opens minds for finding creative, collective, practical, and institutional solutions to two pressing problems at the same time. That is, the environmental challenge we face and the social problems we face.

RP: There is a school of thought that says the environmental challenge can be solved by the market.

SH: Yes, but I don’t agree. For example, we cannot simply resolve the ecological crisis by charging more and more for energy (i.e. introducing a market-based incentive in order to lower consumption) — because that is not a solution for the poor.
This reminds us that the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called "invisible hand" of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.



Silke Helfrich’s CommonsBlog

The Commons Manifesto in English, and in German

A German language news website on the commons

A German-language downloadable copy of To Whom Does the World Belong?

English articles from To whom does the world belong?

A review of To Whom Does the World Belong? By Alain Lipietz

Silke Helfrich articles, interviews and reports

The commons as a common paradigm for social movements and beyond (English)

Web of life (English)

Telepathology: A true medical commons approach (English)

Commons: The network of life and creativity (English)

With Jörg Haas: The commons a new narrative for our times (English)

Interview in taz: Gebrauch Ja, Missbrauch Nein (German)
Wovon wir alle leben (German)

Report with Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs and Christian Siefkes Gemeingüter Wohlstand durch Teilen (German)

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