Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: The Canadian Musician John Oswald said, “If creativity is the field, copyright is the fence”. Have questions around creative enclosure resuscitated concerns about land ownership and other commons?
David Bollier: It’s not just a matter of ‘creativity against copyright’, but the fact the internet has made more visible the fact that creativity is a field of sharing, and a collaborative, intergenerational affair. This shift has allowed us to step outside of the 20th century, so to speak, and helped us see how market norms have become so entrenched and normative. We can now begin to ask questions that would previously have made you a social pariah to raise. We can more clearly see the extensive marketisation of so many aspects of life today — not just creativity or culture, but land and water. This has accelerated a broader, richer cultural awareness of both enclosures and the commons.
There are other factors. The market’s squeeze on human sensibilities have gotten tighter and tighter, making it inevitable that people would eventually resist and push back. This would have happened even without the internet. Part of our struggle, though, is finding a vocabulary to talk about the over-marketisation of life at a time when the left is intellectually exhausted or so state-orientated that is unable to step back and develop its own sovereign vision, one that is not utopian but pragmatic. For me, the commons is a framing vocabulary that helps us get a conceptual grip on a lot of core political issues whilst popularising them, and drawing upon history and legal precedents and enabling a penetrating political critique of market culture.
JGF: It is difficult to talk of the commons without referring to historical communism. How much does the modern commons movement owe to communism or is not relevant?
DB: Well, it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored but as a practical matter so much of the general public associates communism with a failed experiment. Is communism the co-operative activity that Karl Marx and other communists had in mind? Or is it what the Soviet Union did? Many people have trouble distinguishing this and in some ways you could argue that the word ‘communism’ has become so stigmatised that it’s difficult to use in a clear-headed way.
I don’t think we should ignore communist history as there is a lot that is instructive, both in a positive sense and a negative sense. For myself, however, I’ve always seen the commons as a non-state directed activity in its primary form. That is the first way in which I’d distinguish the commons from communism.
I might add that I am not a politically correct stickler for the commons vocabulary as the only acceptable one. I think there are clusters of histories and identities associated with the commons, from the co-operative movement, the communitarians and communism to the Degrowth movement, Social and Solidarity Economy movement, Transition Town movement, and so forth. It’s important to discuss differences, but I don’t think they need to vie for hegemony or become sectarian. I am a radical ecumenicist in that I think a diversity of approaches is helpful. Each approach has its place within different places, cultures and environments. However, I’d hate to see the word ‘communism’ become a snare for diverting discussion and sucking it into other people’s hostile terms of debate. I think that is a danger.
JGF: The commons is an eternal idea and the post-socialist malaise would be one predictable reason for its contemporary resurgence. What other reasons could you give for its new popularity as a frame of reference for political activity?
DB: There has not only been the failure of socialist projects, but also the failure of neoliberalism, especially since 2008. I think there is a growing awareness that we are adrift and don’t have any guiding vision for reconstructing society and improving our circumstances. One discovery has been that context matters a lot in finding a coherent way of conceptualising political culture and in talking about our individual roles in public life. This is complicated and I don’t fully understand how to describe it but, as I pointed to earlier, the internet has helped to dramatise the opportunity for co-operative and networked activity. This cultural awareness has migrated to ‘real world’ activity, such as the design and manufacture of physical things, ecological stewardship and the monitoring of resources.
So I think in some ways we are recovering our self-confidence by starting to talk about co-operative endeavours, many of which were stigmatised and eclipsed when the Soviet Union still existed. At that time, especially in the US, you could not talk about co-operation or collective activity without it being conflated with communism and its supposed evil. The very idea of collective activity was vilified for so long that it seems we are now reemerging from that period and recovering our confidence in certain human capacities — again, enabled by the internet as a demonstration proof that another world is possible.
The commons is probably also growing because we live in a world where so many of the legitimate channels for political change have been corrupted or shut down. If you look at the Occupy movement, the Indignados, or the Arab Spring, you see that there are so few legitimate channels for changing the system. Many people have put a lot of hope in the commons as a staging area, or as a placeholder or intellectual scaffolding, for imagining and practicing a better way. Many commons-based innovations are quite feasible on a small or regional scale, but we haven’t seen, imagined or actualised them on a larger scale.
At a time when so many systems of inherited thought and action are either discredited or not very credible, the commons is a pathway that lets people feel they have control to make their own way with others who share their interests and values. I see the commons as distinctly non-ideological. Philosophical or theoretical issues are secondary to “Does this feel right? Does this nourish me as a human being? Does it advance certain practical interests and needs I have?” In some ways that is refreshing after the fatal ideologies of the 20th century. People see the commons as a way to be serious but at the same time avoid being captured by totalistic thinking.
JGF: While there may be many thinkers attached to the ideas and practices of the commons, do you think we should be careful to avoid the monopoly that Marx has in relation to communism?
DB: I suppose that it is the paradox we have to deal with. Sometimes we want interpreters of political experience to become charismatic leaders, and they may in fact have genuine talents in organising. Still, I like to think that the commons, much like the Occupy movement, takes pride in not necessarily having no leaders but in having a breadth of leadership and in recognising the capacity of everyone to be a leader. I think that there are always going to be the Richard Stallmans of Free Software, for example. And don’t get me wrong – we need leaders. But we don’t have to bow down before those idols. I like to think that the internal dynamics of the culture of the commons make it less prone to be dominated by large personalities. Time will tell!