I have been reading about the Commons lately, the stuff of life that is shared by all of us; the stuff that is not and should never be enclosed, cordoned off, claimed or owned by any one person or entity; the stuff that - should it ever disappear, be destroyed or withdrawn - would take civilization with it.
The Commons is air, water, green space, language, culture, knowledge, streets, calendar, holidays, the Fourth of July… Once upon a time, it was a popular, prized concept that guided much of how society thought. Today, if known at all, it is cast as quaint, archaic, at odds with the fast-paced, segmented, possessive (if not possessed) world of the buy-and-sell marketplace.
And yet it is wrong to lament the passing of the Commons. It is still here, used - and abused - and increasingly under siege though it may be.
For the Commons will never go away. It cannot. It is an essential, non-negotiable component of life. And for the first time in decades (perhaps in response to the over-zealous and unfulfilled promises of the marketplace), it is showing signs of renewal: in the resurgence of community gardens, the attraction of walkable communities, the creation of pedestrian malls, the success of wikis, Twitter, and open-sourcing.
Communities the world over are rediscovering and reclaiming the Commons without knowing it, without naming it as such. Reclaiming it is very good, but not good enough. We need to name what we are doing so we can elevate, promote and unite these discrete efforts into a world-wide movement that reclaims the Commons. We need to learn more about what the Commons is, what it means, and expand its use in practice.
We need to speak and believe, once again, in the Commons as a desired value and to place it in the center of society’s most precious assumptions. The marketplace, like the mighty Mississippi, is good and essential when it properly runs its course, but it is destructive and unmanageable when it swells beyond its banks. We need to speak of and rebuild the corrective of the Commons, to say that the collective is as every bit as treasured as the individual; that sharing is every bit as treasured as owning; that preserving is every bit as treasured as creating.
This is not a call to undo the marketplace or tear down Wall Street. I am a daughter of capitalism. It is, however, a call to understand its place, and its limits. We need the marketplace just as we need the Commons. But we cannot allow the market’s unchecked appetite for possession and profit to be the ultimate definition of value. And we cannot allow its relentless pursuit of wealth to be the undoing of the Commons. The marketplace needs the commons - and the government that builds and protects it. Indeed it will fail without it.
This July 4th, as we travel the interstates to gather on lawns, city streets, river banks, national parks and even around television sets to celebrate this date we cherish in common, let’s also celebrate the legacy of the Commons. We would not be here without it.
(A good introduction can be found in “The Growth of the Commons Paradigm,” by David Bollier. Chapter 2 (pp. 27-40) in Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (MIT Press, 2007), edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. The pdf can be found on-line.)