The Commons: A Quiet Revolution

By Vasilis Niaros

An article by the Green European Journal Editorial Board, as part of Volume 14 “Finding Common Ground”:

“A striking brand of political momentum is building, driven by the resurgence of citizen-led initiatives around the commons – movements which amount to a contestation of existing regimes and models. Taking place at a certain turning point of European history, these phenomena refute the “end of history” hypothesis of 1989, with the disarming of the sharp polarisation between the ideologies of capitalism and communism, and point to alternatives to an exhausted narrative. Free individuals are reinventing together a form of political mobilisation and innovative organisation.

In the contemporary political landscape, the commons blur the lines of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ sectors as we have known them in the last century. Today’s approach to commonality is: “mine as much as yours”. The commons reintroduce in the political landscape an old archetype of political ecology: the steward, the warden, the custodian – of nature, resources, land, or neighbourhood.

The commons reject and provide alternatives to the deeply ingrained ideologies associated with the market and the state: the former’s refrain of growth, extreme individualism, and hyper-competitiveness; and the latter’s coercive standardising model. The movement of the commons and its importance on the ground, as well as the accompanying language of common goods increasingly taking root, constitutes a fundamental challenge to corporate privatisation, commodification and the grabbing of land, culture, and social ‘acquis’ following a neoliberal logic of extraction.

Kaleidoscopic Fluidity

The immense diversity of meanings ascribed to the commons testifies to the rich and multifaceted significance this concept has acquired. But the differing ways in which this term has been deployed in varying contexts and moments in time also pose a dilemma for imposing a definition or framework. Applied in contexts ranging from urban public spaces to agriculture, from natural ecosystems to the virtual world, the contents of this edition alone demonstrate this diversity.

Some of these cases pertain to earthly, material resources, such as Vandana Shiva’s vivid account of the David vs. Goliath battle of subsistence farmers’ resistance to the attempted monopolistic capture of all seeds by an ever dwindling number of multinational corporations. Jonathan Piron’s case study in forest conservation shows that the commons can be a space for innovation and experimentation, while Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart and Radoslaw Gawlik’s examination of water management stresses the crucial need for communities to take ownership, in the broad sense, of the common goods they rely on. Richard Wouters and Liesbeth Beneder take a look at the potential for harvesting resources from outer space – a fascinating prospect though one which threatens to delay the much needed acknowledgement that even non-finite resources must be managed in a way that is equitable, just and does not cause harm.

Data and information constitute less tangible forms of the commons, and Julia Reda discusses the digital commons and pioneering platforms for managing knowledge online. Cities have also become the scene of struggles against the private appropriation of space. Eric Piolle’s experiences in Grenoble illustrate the challenges to the Read the Original


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