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Commons, the emergent narrative of our times

on Mon, 09/19/2011 - 13:41

 All quotes in this blogpost are from John Hagels’s blog on The Pull of Narrative – In Search of Persistent Context unless noted otherwise.


The narratives of transformational projects and initiatives compete for the attention of those on the edge. That is not a bad thing, as long as they contribute to the ongoing dance of differentiation and integration leading to new patterns of congruence in the Emerging Planetary Reality, rather than duplicating efforts without any attempt to harmonize them.


More often than not, they leave us overwhelmed with too many choices to engage with and too much information. When the movement (as in the "awakening of the social body") goes planet-wide, the multitudes’ desire for autonomy and collaboration manifests in more and more variations in each area of social life, where the status quo is questioned and alternatives are tried on. That's the upside.


The downside includes that the social energy needed for radical, large-scale social innovation gets fragmented, talents underused, breakthrough projects under-resourced, and new entrants in the ecosystem of epic changes puzzled about where to insert their energies.The downside effects will not change much before a broader, narrative emerges, which will bring to life John Hagel's presumption: "Many different stories can nest within a broader narrative."



Where would a broad narrative come from?


The more of us pay sustained, attention to that question and share our observations and epiphanies, the closer we get to discover the answers. We already know where it will not come from. "Narratives cannot be crafted by PR departments. They emerge out of, and are sustained by, daily practice."


Narratives that lack authenticity and try to sell a product or an ideology do not have long shelf-live. Yes, their memes can colonize many minds for a while, but there are growing numbers of citizen in every country, who resonate with and welcome only expressions of genuine concern for the wellbeing of their communities and planet.


What does it take for truly persistent narratives to emerge?


"They require taking a long-term view of trajectories that extend well beyond the individual institution. They also need to penetrate beneath the surface events that occupy our daily newspaper headlines to tap into the deep forces that are shaping these surface events."


It’s both a requirement for developing sustainable narratives, and an opportunity for public intellectuals and institutional leaders to put their intelligence in service of the largest whole that they can put their arms around.


 “Our existing institutional leaders are generally poorly equipped to take on this opportunity.” No doubt, the dramatic signs of that ill-preparedness are everywhere. Shortsighted decisions coming from highest offices in government and business, as well as from middle managers, abound. If so, shouldn’t we do everything we can to support the young generation of emergent leaders? I think we should.


But why are many of our institutional leaders so poorly equipped to tackle the complexity that comes with envisaging “a long-term view of trajectories that extend well beyond the individual institution?”


Because their institution-centric worldviews limit the potential of the very institutions they are supposed to serve. To notice, understand and "tap into the deep forces that are shaping these surface events," the focus of attention and the center of ‘values’ gravity need to shift in a world-centric scope.



Why the commons?


Back to the upside, I see an expanding circle of public intellectuals, who whose work point in the same direction: the commons as the basis of good society. They include: Peter Barnes, author of Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, Yochai Benkler and James Quilligan, just to name a few. Benkler is a Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, in which he describes the system of “commons-based peer production”.


James Quilligan is a leading commons theorist/activist, policy analyst who has been serving as advisor to several heads of government, national, and international governments. His series of commons studies in Kosmos Journal add up to a robust social narrative of the commons as the emergent challenger of the Market-State duopoly. (We, at the School of Commoning, are blessed by having him as our Senior Advisor.) So, what is the commons?


“The healthy social life is found,

When, in the mirror of each human soul,

The whole community finds its reflection.

And when, in the community,

The virtue of each one is living.” (Rudolf Steiner)


In the broadest sense, the commons embraces all the creations of nature and society that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations. We distinguish commons of nature, culture, and mind. They share the same principle: “our lives go well only when they are lived in sustainable relationship with others.” – Marc Stears, in The Guardian. In a more specific sense, it’s a web of relationships, in which “all those things we need to reproduce our livelihood will be shared in a fair way, and managed in a sustainable way.” (Silke Helfrich, German commoner, at the 1st International Commons Conference.)


Can the commons serve as the new narrative of the new times? Let’s have it take John Hagel’s test for meta-narrative candidates. He wrote:


“Narratives, at least in the way I will be using them, are stories that do not end – they persist indefinitely. They invite, even demand, action by participants and they reach out to embrace as many participants as possible.”


The commons (humans sharing and managing resources they create together) is as old as humankind itself. In fact, that’s what made us human. It has been persisting for thousands of years, in thousands of forms. What’s new is that now, when a civilization based on private expropriation of common gods is reaching the end of its useful lifecycle, the commons is re-emerging as a viable alternative. It is inclusive and inviting; it can exist only when the commoners are actively participating in it.


“The role of a narrative is ultimately to attract, engage, motivate and call people to more fully achieve their potential… Narratives also help participants construct meaning, purpose and identity for themselves. They help to situate participants in a broader context…”


The “commons” meme travels well and applies as well to community development association in rural Nigeria and large networks of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, as to worker cooperatives in Italy or the global ocean commons of oceans. Participating in one situates the commoners in a context that keeps expanding. As we unfold our talents in multiple directions, belonging to multiple communities becoming less of an exemption, more of a norm. (They are not all commons but can evolve into.)


“Narratives are versatile.  Many different stories can nest within a broader narrative…” Indeed. The “commons narrative” gives home to the re-invention of social systems as different as intellectual property law, education, healthcare and software development, not to mention the monetary system, where, Bernard Lietar the Belgian economist, author of the Future of Money, is advocating communal currency systems.


“What we need are narratives of explorers, rather than narratives of true believers.  The narratives of explorers emphasize the opportunity to learn and grow by constantly framing new questions and embarking on quests to gain new insight through action. They focus on the possibilities to be discovered rather than the certainties to be recovered.”


That’s a very refreshing perspective on narratives; the only problem is that what once was a narrative of explorers, can become an ossified narrative of true believers. So far the commons is all about exploration, breaking new grounds in common property regimes, pioneering social charters and securing their legal recognition. “A social charter is a declaration of intent to hold a commons in trust for its beneficiaries. The creation of a social charter is an important step in setting up an effective commons trust to protect a community’s common resources.” Global Commons Trust



About commoning


Commons are not a thing but a socio-economic life form continually created and re-created in a living web of relationships. There’s no commons without people practicing the art of commoning defined as commoners engaged in mutually supportive relationships of co-creating and protecting material or intellectual resources essential to their life. In the words of Martin Luther King, we are "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

The art of commoning, in a broader sense, is one and the same as the art of living. It’s being fully engaged with life, choosing something we are passionate about and engaging with others to achieve more than any one of us could achieve on our own for a better life for everyone and a thrivable culture. In a more specific sense, we can distinguish three scopes of commoning. (Hence the three waves in the SoC logo.)

·   The ensemble of practices used by people in the course of managing shared resources and reclaiming the commons. So in its simplest form, "commoning’ is creating and maintaining something collectively" (Michel Bauwens).

·   Moving from the Me to the We, where people become capable to think, feel, and act as co-creative collective entities, without surrendering their individual autonomy.

·   Recognising the inherent connectedness of humanity as a whole, and having our individual and collective “centre of gravity” in a state of being, where we are not separate from it.


That third aspect of commoning bridges the social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual dimensions of the commons, for it is more the foundation to them all. Narratives “emerge out of, and are sustained by, daily practice.” Yes, and the types of practice that give rise to the commons as the narrative of our times are both intimately personal (our individual art of commoning), and communal at the same time, as in the movements of social innovation, which alter exiting social practices. The two memes that capture well both of those socio-economic and inner practices are the "commons" and “commoning.”


"Narratives represent a powerful pull mechanism that can shape the world around us."


The commons is emerging from the practice of the multitudes, and calls us to realize the next stage of who we can be as individuals, communities, and society. It helps us learning new social practices, and imagining a political and economic system beyond capitalism or communism, beyond party politics or sectarian beliefs. That’s why we suggest, the commons has the potential to reach the hearts and minds of millions in the years to come, just like the environmental movement did in the 80s and 90’s, even to transcend and include it.


Standing in the presumption of humankind's indivisible unity, we can bear witness to, and choose to consciously participate in, the great story of evolution and its unfolding next chapter, the commons era.