Monday, December 3, 2012

Speculation: Is there an “assurance commons”? Do societies depend on it? Should there be a U.S. Chamber of Commons?

[UPDATES: See the updates at the end. Notice in particular the updates added March 29 and April 2, 2013, apropos support for my proposal for creating a networked series of chambers of commons, including a U.S. Chamber of Commons. Also see Addendums added on August 12, 2013; October 13, 2013; and during May 2015.]

People living together in a society come to require all sorts of assurances. Maybe it all began in early tribal societies that imposed assurances about family unity, neighborly respect, mutual sharing, and territorial security. But begin it does. And as societies become more complex, the need for assurances grows and grows — for evermore varied kinds of assurances, all evermore embedded in laws, codes, regulations, and standards. These assurances may even become defining aspects of a society’s heritage and culture — it’s national fabric. And eventually, lately in particular, the advanced societies come to depend on having an “assurance commons” — that’s what I propose to call it. And I’d say that, once noticed, this assurance commons can be seen to have great significance, and it’s going to increase in the future. Furthermore, maybe it’s time to propose creating a U.S. Chamber of Commons, somewhat modeled after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but for quite different purposes.

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The concept of “the commons” is on the rise these days, making quite a comeback from ages gone by, and promising to transform the advanced societies anew in the decades ahead. It’s proponents are eager to see the commons grow as a major sector alongside the established state and market (i.e., public and private) sectors. But, as I’ve noted in prior posts, it is still far from clear what the concept means — just exactly what it is, what belongs in it, and how and why to develop it.

The term “the commons” has long referred to resources (things? stuff? matters?) held and used “in common” — resources that all share and exploit together, to which anyone involved may have access, and for which all are (or should be) responsible stewards. Standard ways of categorizing commons typically start with natural or physical commons, such as the airs we breathe and waters we drink out in the open. To these may be added fields, forests, fisheries, and routes that are openly accessible and have not come under private control — as was often the case long ago.

Today, as a result of the digital information revolution, proponents of the concept see a vast immaterial commons taking shape as well. They point to the Internet and World Wide Web, and talk of a knowledge commons, a software commons, etc. Indeed, it is the emergence of this immaterial commons — plus the desire to keep expanding, exploiting, and managing it in shared ways, and to defend it from being enclosed or commodified by private or public powers — that has given brand new impetus to the concept of the commons, more than anything else occurring in regard to the material commons.

Beyond those basic points, a lot else may be added, depending on who is doing the theorizing. For proponents on the Left — the ones who are doing most of the theorizing — the concept is about new modes of “value creation” and “social production”, all for the sake of creating a commons-oriented economy, a commons-oriented state, and ultimately a commons-based society. And while much of this is about resources, their use and governance, it’s also about “commoning” as a new kind of activity, a way of doing and living that deserves to attract converts who want to practice “commonism” and thereby transform society.

In addition, the categories of resources and practices that could or should be part of the new commons becomes ever larger, to include not only the material and immaterial parts noted above, but also other, more specific areas and activities: e.g., health, education, welfare, banking, communications, industrial fabrication, tool libraries, etc. Distinctions are even made between possible capitalist and non-capitalist commons. And of course, Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zucotti Park led to claims that this public park — not to mention other parks and public spaces — under private management really belong to/in the people’s commons. Quite an ambitious agenda.

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Here is a string of quotations, drawn from what I have at hand, that substantiate these points.  They’re from writings by some major proponents on the Left associated with P2P thinking.  I wish I could find quotations from other parts of the political spectrum as well, but they are lacking so far.

Jay Walljasper:
“1. The commons simply means ... all that we share and how we share it.
“It describes valuable assets that belong to all of us. This includes clean air and fresh water; national parks and city streets; the Internet and scientific knowledge; ethnic cuisines and hip-hop rhythms; the U.S. Weather Service and blood banks. But it’s more than just things — it’s also the set of relationship that make those things work. When you stop to think about, many essential elements of our lives exist outside the realm of private property. 
“2. The commons is not just history, it’s central to our lives today.
“The commons touches our lives throughout the day from tap water we use to brush our teeth in the morning to the fairy tales we tell our kids at night. While the phrase comes from the medieval era, describing lands that were open to commoners for grazing and foraging, the bigger idea of the commons — all that we share — never went away; we just forgot about it.” (source)

Jay Walljasper:
“The commons is more than just a nice idea; it encompasses a wide set of practical measures that offer fresh hope for a saner, safer, more enjoyable future. At the heart of the commons are four simple principles, which have been practiced by humans for millenia: 1) serving the common good; 2) ensuring equitable use of what belongs to us all; 3) promoting sustainable stewardship so that coming generations are not cheated and imperiled; 4) creating practical ways for people to participate in decisions shaping their future. …
“Private enterprise can flourish alongside a healthy commons sector. Indeed, a market economy would be impossible without commons institutions such as the legal system, corporate charters and financial regulations. And while government-run institutions such as schools, parks and emergency services are certainly part of the commons. So are Civic groups, non-profit organizations, community organizations, informal meeting places—indeed, any gathering of people for the common good is a crucial elements of the commons.” (source)

Silke Helfrich et al. (?)
“Commons are diverse. They are the fundamental building blocks and pre-condition of our life and social wealth. They include knowledge and water, seeds and software, cultural works and the atmosphere. Commons are not just “things,” however. They are living, dynamic systems of life. They form the social fabric of a free society. 
“Commons do not belong to anyone individually nor do they belong to no one. Different communities, from the family to global society, always create, maintain, cultivate, and redefine commons. When this does not happen, commons dwindle away – and in the process, our personal and social security diminishes. Commons ensure that people can live and evolve. The diversity of the commons helps secure our future.” (source)

Silke Helfrich et al. (?)
“Commons are not just common goods or assets. They are not “things” separate from us. They are not simply water, the forest, or ideas. They are social practices of commoning, of acting together, based on principles of sharing, stewarding, and producing in common. To ensure this, all those who participate in a common have the right to an equal voice in making decisions on the provisions and rules governing its management. 
“Examples of the rich variety of such experiences and innovations include systems for community management of forests, canals, fisheries and land; the numerous processes of commoning in the digital world such as initiatives for free culture or free and open software; non-commercial initiatives for access to housing in cities; strategies for cooperative consumption associated with social currencies; and many others. All of these commons are clearly forms of management that differ from market-based ones and from those organized by hierarchical structures. Together they offer a kaleidoscope rich in self-organization and self-determination. All are neglected and marginalized in conventional political and economic analyses. All are based on the idea that no one can have a satisfactory life if not integrated into social relations, and that one’s full personal unfolding depends on the unfolding of others and vice versa. The borders between the particular interest and the collective interest are blurred in a commons.” (source)

Jean Lieven
“There are a number of important features that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that true commons cannot be commodified – and if they are – they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that while they are neither public nor private they tend to be managed by local communities and cannot be exclusionary. That is, they cannot have borders built around them otherwise they become private property. The third aspect of the commons is that, unlike resources, they are not scarce but abundant. If managed properly, they work to overcome scarcity.” (source)

Michel Bauwens et al.
“A commons is a shared resource that is either inherited from nature (and Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in economics, has documented the rationale and governance of such natural resource commons), or created by human beings, either in the 'immaterial fields' of knowledge and culture (this includes for instance free and open source software and shared designs), or by holding productive human capital (machinery and the means of production) in common stock. The commons is not exclusively defined by non-ownership and access, but by some form of common governance. Ostrom’s contributions were to show that it was the governance of the commons which protected them from the ‘tragedy of the commons’ that can befall open access resources that lack that governance.” (source, p. 158)

David Bollier:
“The commons helps us see that we are actually richer than we thought we were. It’s just that our common wealth is not a private commodity or cash. It’s socially created wealth that’s embedded in distinct communities of interest who act as stewards of that wealth. Because the value is socially embedded, it can’t simply be bought and sold like a commodity. The commons can be generative in its own right – but the wealth it generates is usually shared, non-monetized value. 
“We can especially see the generativity of the commons on the Internet, which is a kind of hosting infrastructure for digital commons. ...  
“Think of the hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr or the millions of Wikipedia entries in over 160 languages. Think of the more than 6,000 open-access academic journals that are bypassing expensive commercial journal publishers. Think of the Open Educational Resources movement that is making open textbooks and the OpenCourseWare movement started by M.I.T. Think of the hundreds of millions of online texts, videos and musical works that use Creative Commons licenses to enable easy sharing. Think of the vast free and open source software community that is the basis for a rich and varied commercial software marketplace.
“There are countless such digital commons based on peer production and sharing. In fact, the bestiary of commons is now so large and varied that there is what amounts to a Commons Sector for knowledge, culture and creativity.” (source)

David Bollier:
“Let me just say upfront that the commons is neither a totalizing political ideology nor a PR re-branding of “the public interest.” It is a general template of governance that has deep roots in human history as a system of self-provisioning, responsible resource-management and mutual support. …
“Perhaps I should start by emphasizing that a commons is not a resource in itself. It’s a resource plus a social community and the social values, rules and norms that they used to manage the resource. They’re all an integrated package. …
“That may be why conventional economics has so much trouble understanding the commons. It doesn’t understand how the community, rather than the individual, can be the framing term of reference. The commons looks at the whole and regards the individual and the collective as nested within each other and interpenetrating each other. This is a very different metaphysics than that of the modern liberal state, which sees the individual as sovereign.
“The commons also asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life – “public” vs. “private,” “individual” vs. “collective,” “objective” vs. “subjective” – and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form. “Cooperative individualism” is one shorthand that I like to use.” (source)

John Michael Greer:
"It’s not hard to name other examples of what I suppose we could call “commons-like phenomena” — that is, activities in which the pursuit of private profit can impose serious costs on society as a whole — in contemporary America. …
"That is to say, the core purpose of government in the American tradition is the maintenance of the national commons. It exists to manage the various commons and commons-like phenomena that are inseparable from life in a civilized society, and thus has the power to impose such limits on people (and corporate pseudopeople) as will prevent their pursuit of personal advantage from leading to a tragedy of the commons in one way or another. Restricting the capacity of banks to gamble with depositors’ money is one such limit; restricting the freedom of manufacturers to sell unsafe food is another, and so on down the list of reasonable regulations. Beyond those necessary limits, government has no call to intervene; how people choose to live their lives, exercise their liberties, and pursue happiness is up to them, so long as it doesn’t put the survival of any part of the national commons at risk." (source)

A. J. Fisher:
“Before I get into the fundamental requirements of a Sensor Commons project it’s worth defining what I mean by the term. For me the Sensor Commons is a future state whereby we have data available to us, in real time, from a multitude of sensors that are relatively similar in design and method of data acquisition and that data is freely available whether as a data set or by API to use in whatever fashion they like. …
“The access we are getting to cheap, reliable, malleable technologies such as Arduino and Xbee coupled with ubiquitous networks whether WiFi or Cellular is creating an opportunity for us to be able to understand our local environments better. Going are the days where we needed to petition councillors to do some water testing in our creeks and waterways or measure the quality of the air that we are breathing.
“The deployment of these community oriented technologies will create the Sensor Commons; providing us with data that becomes available and accessible to anyone with an interest. Policy creation and stewardship will pass back to the local communities – as it should be – who will have the data to back up their decisions and create strong actions as a result.” (source)

James Quilligan
“In considering the essential problem of how to produce and distribute material wealth, virtually all of the great economists in Western history have ignored the significance of the commons — the shared resources of nature and society that people inherit, create and utilize. ...  
“... Whether these commons are traditional (rivers, forests, indigenous cultures) or emerging (energy, intellectual property, internet), communities are successfully managing them through collaboration and collective action. This growing movement has also begun to create social charters and commons trusts — formal instruments which define the incentives, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders for the supervision and protection of common resources. Ironically, by organizing to protect their commons through decentralized decision-making, the democratic principles of freedom and equality are being realized more fully in these resource communities than through the enterprises and policies of the Market State.” (source)

Helene Finidori:
“The idea of growing or expanding the commons as meta-narrative and the type of ecosystem of change that could support it are worth looking into. ...  
“We should multiply opportunities to formulate this meta-narrative and examine how various micro-narratives could be expressed in relation to the commons, which mecanisms could empower engagement and how networks could enable it. This would generate discussions on the basic principles for the integrity of the commons and how they would be best 'grown', providing some feedback on the modalities and boundaries of 'growth', transforming in the process the definition of growth itself. It would give the commons a voice, and set a framework to prevent or limit further enclosure, cooptation and corruption of the commons and the commons vocabulary. It would provide a basis for viral communication.” (source)

Benni Bärmann
“In my opinion, the commons approach, which we have discussed here repeatedly, meets all these demands. Conservatives like that it is conserving and community-oriented, liberals like its distance to the state and that it is not completely incompatible with market economies, anarchists like its focus on self-organisation, and socialists and communists embrace that it promises to control property commonly. The applicability of commons theory reaches to nearly all kinds of contemporary movements and commons play a fundamental role in all crises of today. Finally, there exists a multitude of theories around the commons, so we do not have to start from scratch. 
“It is not essential that every single activist in every social movement can live with this platform. More important is achieve support for it through a critical mass of movements with as many different worldviews as possible. If this is accomplished, a new dynamic in the medium and long term unfolds due to productive relations between theory and practice. Commons-based movements also mix well with traditional multi-strategic movements.” (source)

Silvia Federici:
“Commons, if they are to function and flourish, must be conceived of as local formations of shared responsibility for collective resources. But clearly, there are commons upon which all localities, all life in fact, depends: the atmosphere, water, intellectual and creative innovations. And isolated commons require the support of a network of other local commons. Efforts to resist the enclosure of commons build upon the local, but necessarily depend upon the solidarity and support of commoners everywhere. The efforts to build global commons networks, such as The Commons Strategies Group, The Global Commons Trust, and the School of Commoning, are crucial and every effort should be made to support their growth and activities. We need to know what commoners are doing elsewhere in the world, as we come to understand and better work in and through our own commons.” (source)

David Bollier:
“[N]ow that collective action is so empowered by digital platforms, it’s time for government policymaking to start to take account of this development and make better use of it in its own governance.  They could start by recognizing the very idea of the commons as a useful, socially resilient and politically legitimate vehicle for achieving important work.  If government can charter financial mafias known as banks and corporations, ostensibly to advance the public interest, why not the commons?” (source)

Marvin Brown:
"In its broadest sense, the “commons” refers to things that cannot or should not be exclusively owned. The commons is the polar opposite of commodities. (source)
“In a commercial society, what counts as wealth is what can be treated as a commodity in the market. In a common society, wealth will not be limited to what we can purchase, but will include all that we need for a good life. People will acquire much that they need through sharing and giving. Instead of focusing on the accumulation of property, the focus will be on the making of provisions. …
"These differences are not absolute. It would be a mistake to see the distinction between commercial and common wealth as an either/or choice. We need commercial activities and property ownership. I am not trying to do away with either one, but rather trying to put them in their place in a commonwealth that actually provides wealth for everyone." (source)

Burns Weston & David Bollier:
"Commons Values Span the Political Spectrum
“Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices, cultural values, and so on. However, they tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect, and human rights. Consumerism, limitless economic growth and maximum profitability are shunned. …
“As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes, “commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.” (source)

Nathan Schneider
“The commons is a powerful concept for connecting many struggles and issues. Shiva spoke of seeds as a commons, and Rifkin spoke of Net neutrality and the commons of the Internet. Jones spoke of the commoning taking place in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the form of street memorials and protest encampments. In 2009 at the World Social Forum meeting in Brazil, delegates circulated a document that identified the commons as an umbrella for their many struggles over rights to such essentials as land and water. More recently, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, veterans of the movement turned to the commons as a means of connecting the dots among their disparate grievances. In May I went to Ecuador for a policy summit that proposed the world’s first national transition plan toward a commons-based economy — imagining a society of businesses owned by their workers and customers, open seed libraries for farmers, and indigenous medicines that no drug company can patent. …
“It remains to be seen what the commons will come to mean — a catch-all buzzword easily co-opted by the establishment or a genuine shift away from it.” (source)

In addition, I’ve seen similar views expressed earlier by Sierra Club advocates:

Carl Pope:

“If intelligent commons management, not private property, creates genuine wise use and stewardship, then maybe we should reexamine our cultural prejudice against the commons. And we certainly ought to question the even deeper dedication to privatizing — and destroying — nature’s bounty." (source)

Jonathan Rowe:
“It is significant, then, that an old term is reappearing to describe what is being threatened. It is "the commons," the realm of life that is distinct from both the market and the state and is the shared heritage of us all. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmental activist, writes about the commons of water and seeds. Lawrence Lessig, an author and lawyer, describes the innovation commons of the Internet and the public domain of knowledge. Others are talking about the atmospheric commons, the commons of public squares, and the commons of quiet. … 
“If advocates of the commons in its many forms were to embrace the concept as a defining theme, the result could be a new and potent political force.” (source)

Unfortunately, voices on the Right are usually dismissive.  They typically rely on extolling Garrett Hardin’s classic article “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) — not realizing and/or not reporting that he later said that he should have titled it “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons” (source, p. xvii).  Such voices on the Right also neglect favorable analyses, now epitomized by Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990).

What strikes me from a TIMN perspective is that, while there may well be tragedies of the commons, especially under unmanaged conditions, there can also be tragic failures for improperly managed tribes/families, institutions/states, and markets — i.e., for all the TIMN forms.  Indeed, many of the advanced world’s economies are suffering today from failures wrought by statist and capitalist misbehaviors.  The commons do not have a monopoly on the prospects for tragedies.  Surely there are voices on the Right and in the Center who are ready to reconsider the values of the commons!?

[UPDATE — Janua 9, 2013: Thanks to watching Ken Burn's documentary The Dust Bowl, I’ve learned that the tragedy known as the dust bowl is a good example of a kind of tragedy of the market. I had long thought the dust bowl was just a result of a regional climate change. Far from it: The dust bowl was as much man-made as nature-made. It resulted from years of rampant capitalism and “get-rich-quick” individualism to take advantage of frenzied market opportunities for selling real estate and cultivating wheat in ways that tore up the grasslands and ignored weather history, almost creating what one observer called a “man-made Sahara” in the middle of our nation. And it led to instructive debates about whether to abandon the region to fate, or come up with government-sponsored innovations to rescue and revitalize it.]

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My speculation about there being an “assurance commons” is largely in line but partly at odds with the preceding. While my term doesn’t sound right to me, I’ve been unable to come up with a better one for what I think I’m after: a term, really a criterion, for clarifying what may and may not belong in the commons, particularly if societies evolve as TIMN forecasts. Plus, I have my own angles for coming up with this particular term and wanting to try it out:
First, as may be seen in several prior posts (e.g., here), I’ve started to wonder about the concept of the commons. In particular, whether it’s still mostly about resources, as in the past, or whether it’s increasingly about something else. And I’m inclined toward the latter, though specifying it remains a puzzlement.
Second, I’ve also wondered lately about “insurance” — its various types (e.g., auto, fire, health), the extent to which it may be a private, public, or mixed public-private good (or service), and whether in some instances it may be viewed as part of a commons. And if the latter, how and why?
Finally, I recalled the term “information assurance”. Indeed, I first heard “assurance” used in connection with “information assurance” — a field concerned with information security. In brief, information assurance (IA) is about “strategic risk management”: “the IA practitioner does not seek to eliminate all risks, were that possible, but to manage them in the most cost-effective way.” While I’ve never liked the term, it has endured, and now I mean to borrow from it. Indeed, its emphasis on strategic risk management seems useful for this post. (Also interesting, but less resonant, is “quality assurance”.)
By “assurance commons” I mean to tap into a notion that, as societies progress, becoming more complex, the prospects for the commons become less about resources and more about practices — specifically, about the deeper purposes and functions that citizens want assured in, for, and by their society. Accordingly, the commons consists of resources and practices, available to all involved, that become required by the public (civil society) and thus mandated by the state and accepted by business. These would be grand assurances — ones that provide for basic needs, by making people’s lives more safe and secure, thus enabling them to live and work together not only as individuals but also on society’s behalf. Many such assurances may correspond to what used to be called public interests and public goods.

Looking ahead, then, I’d try asking not so much what comprises the commons from a resource perspective. That’s old school. Let’s try asking instead what comprises the commons from an assurance perspective. That’d be new school, more in keeping with how much societies have advanced, and how far they’ve yet to go.

For me, thinking in terms of an assurance criterion leads to supposing that people at large in advanced societies seek to include the following: Assurances not only of fresh air and water, but also that food, medicine, and other products are made safe, free of dangers. Assurances that basic health, education, and welfare services are provided in equitable ways. Assurances that one’s vote counts. Assurances, in America, that the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and law more generally, not to mention many codes and regulations, are upheld and apply to all people (including corporations in their capacity as “persons”). Assurances of access to . . . well, I’m not sure how much to keep adding to this listing. Hopefully you get my point. I’m not trying to come up with a comprehensive list, just a preliminary indicative exploration.

As I wonder about what else might be listed, it seems even clearer that the commons is no longer so much about resources. It is indeed increasingly about practices — including policies — that assure rights and responsibilities, as well as accountability; practices that assure open and abundant access and usage; practices that assure universal services and public utilities, broadly defined; practices that require strategic risk management and quality assurance for the benefit of people at large; practices that make a society more robust and resilient, on everyone’s behalf.

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There appears to be a preference among forward-looking proponents on the Left that the commons be managed by commoners who organize into peer networks and cluster into a commons sector, without much if any involvement by established public or private sector actors. Building the commons is viewed as a way to break with standard dialogue about states versus markets — moreover, as a way to work outside the system, partly on grounds that working inside would reinforce the “state/market duopoly”.

From a TIMN perspective, I see some but only limited prospects for that view.  Instead, I’d surmise that an assurance-commons approach in a complex society means that all sectors must be involved: state, market, civil society.  Taking an assurance-commons approach would surely help propel the rise of a new commons sector, but many matters permeate into all sectors.  They would have to be involved and re-oriented as well (as the best versions of P2P theory also maintain).

Thus, assurance commons may require a strong state, big or small.  But an assurance state would not be simply a welfare state, nor an entitlement state, nor a regulatory state.  It may be partly all those things, but it would also be more, and less, and different, depending.  My notion is to include welfare programs in the assurance commons — e.g., Social Security and Medicare (or their successors) — since people have required assurances in those regards.  But assurance commons are not just about welfare; they are much broader.  They may require the kind of state posed in past posts at this blog: TIMN’s nexus state, P2P’s partner state, and/or Red Toryism’s civic state.

Assurance commons may well require a strong market system.  It’s almost a precondition:  Business enterprises generate deleterious externalities — e.g., air and water pollution — that lead to public demands for environmental assurances (e.g., regulations).  At the same time, advanced economies require healthy educated workforces — another matter that generates demands for assurances.  Furthermore, assurance commons as a whole tend to be expensive; a thriving innovative market system — a positive type of capitalism — is needed in order to generate the incomes and taxes that can help pay for assurance commons.

Assurance commons also require a vital civil society.  After all, it’s the main source of demands for assurances, far more than state or market actors.  Furthermore, civil-society actors seem likely to play increasingly significant monitory roles in the future, to see that assurances are  maintained and jeopardizers held accountable.  Indeed, assurance commons would benefit from the spread of monitory democracy enabled by a sensor commons, topics I’ve discussed in prior posts.

Another point:  Assurance commons will surely have different characteristics at different levels of society.  A nation may define for itself a national society-wide commons to some extent.  Yet, there may also be somewhat different commons created at state and community levels (e.g., via building codes).

Of course, not every assurance that people seek would or should pertain to an assurance commons.  For example, just about everybody wants their home to be safe and secure from intruders; but that does not mean that home alarm systems comprise an assurance commons.  The concept entails a definitional-boundaries problem that would have to be clarified if it is to be developed.  My start here is insufficient for defining exactly when an assurance pertains to a commons, though I tried to suggest some criteria above.

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If the preceding makes sense, it may have all sorts of implications.  Here are some that I can think of for this exploratory post:
The commons are bigger, broader, more significant, and more complex than people generally realize. Yet, the commons also remain largely ignored. Their/its presence and importance get buried under today’s aging politicized preferences for rhetoric about public vs. private or government vs. market approaches. Ways should be found to use the term “commons” more often, and to elevate recognition of it/them. I’ll close this post with a proposal for doing so.
The characteristics of the commons are shifting: As noted above, the commons become more about practices than resources as societies progress. Moreover, commons are not as much about economics as many past analyses and current formulations on the Left (and elsewhere) imply. Lots of political, social, cultural, and other (cyber?) matters are involved. I should think it would benefit the revival of the concept of the commons if it were not so frequently analyzed in such intensely economic ways. Assurance is not automatically an economic concept; thus it might help broaden and refocus discourse a bit — at least that’s my speculative hope.
Much as I like the idea of a “commons sector” (from both TIMN and P2P viewpoints), an “assurance commons” would not correspond to a distinct sector. The concept presented in this post is broader. But its activities would help stimulate the formation of a distinct sector, perhaps especially if it were to impel monitoring by NGOs in ways that accord with monitory democracy.
An assurance-commons approach would not make governance issues any easier to deal with, but it might help illuminate them. As Elinor Ostrom’s work has shown, people are learning to manage common-pool resources in polyarchic network-like ways, without having to turn to old hierarchy- and market-like ways. But assurance commons involve more than common-pool resources. They also involve some of the knottiest governance issues around — e.g., in the field of health — requiring extensive coordination among multiple public, private, and other actors.* Regulatory challenges abound. Thinking in terms of an assurance commons might (or might not?) help spotlight governance issues in ways that direct attention to needs for developing new network modes of governance alongside and intertwined with existing public and private modes.
A classic ideal about the commons persists in the assurance-commons notion: It’s up to people at large — civil society, not just government or business — what belongs in the commons. Much depends on their values and needs.

*[UPDATE — January 9, 2013: Apropos my reference above to governance issues in the health area, I’ve run across three discussions about commons aspects that I’d like to add to this post. One, by George Por, is about “managing health and healthcare as a commons” (source, summary). The second is about a working group at the University of Indiana that focuses on new designs for “managing the health commons” (source). The third is about a Rockefeller study for “catalyzing markets for global eHealth” by fostering an “eHealth Commons” (.pdf). All three seek to apply Elinor Ostrom’s principles to healthcare governance.]

* * * * *

A bottom line for this post — perhaps its punch line — is to propose the creation of a U.S. Chamber of Commons, modeled somewhat after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC).  Indeed, how about a whole series of chambers of commons, at local, state, and regional levels!?  They could form into a sprawling network whose purposes might include assessing and lobbying on commons issues, helping shape a commons sector, advancing the monitoring of commons matters, and congregating interested actors.

Thus, even though a U.S. Chamber of Commons might be modeled after the existing USCC, or after chambers of commerce more generally, the purposes would be very different, as would governance, sponsorship, membership, and audience.  I‘d imagine the two chambers would be rivals on many matters, but it may well be time for such a rivalry.  It might help reform and rebalance the American system at all levels.  In my TIMN view, this could aid America’s evolution from a stalled distorted triformist (T+I+M) system to an innovative quadriformist (T+I+M+N) system.

Who might be interested in seeing such a chamber created?  Lots of businesses and NGOs, I’d suppose, that are already known for having some commons-oriented views:  e.g., Wikimedia, Google, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Skoll Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Council for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP), Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Evergreen Cooperatives, Association for the Advancement of Retired People (AARP), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Cleveland Clinic — these are entities that come to my mind, with a little help from others*.

Yet these are just big names that come easily to mind.  Greater impetus might come from numerous non-profit activist organizations, community associations, church organizations, for-benefit businesses, and other commons-friendly enterprises that I am not yet familiar with (and that might object to the risks of a chamber being co-opted by the big names).  Once a chamber got founded, myriads would come forth — or so I imagine.  They may amount to a seemingly eclectic set of organizations — but that would be part of the strength and appeal of having a U.S. Chamber of Commons.

UPDATE: I first posted these ideas almost four months ago (December 3, 2012).  Now, I’m delighted to see that the idea of creating a series of chambers of commons has received the beginnings of significant support:

Michel Bauwens:

“I believe the time is there to start constructing the following three institutional coalitions:

“The civic/political institution: The Alliance of the Commons ...
“The economic institution: the P2P/Commons Globa-local « Phyle » ...
“The political-economy institution: The Chamber of the Commons ...

“In short, we need a alliance of the commons to project civil and political power and influence at every level of society; we need phyles to strengthen our economic autonomy from the profit-maximizing dominant system; and we need Chambre of the Commons to achieve territorial policy; legal and infrastructural conditions for the alternative, human and nature-friendly political economy to thrive. Neither alone is sufficient, but together they could be a powerful triad for the necessary phase transition.” (source;also here

David Bollier:

“They [policymakers] could start by recognizing the very idea of the commons as a useful, socially resilient and politically legitimate vehicle for achieving important work.” (source)

“ ... Ronfeldt has proposed an idea whose time may have arrived: let’s create a new federated network of commons enterprises called the “Chamber of Commons.” ...
“... It would be especially exciting if a chamber of commons could begin to span the cultural barriers that divide digital and natural resource commoners, not to mention international political boundaries. ...
“As this little thought-exercise suggests, clarifying the criteria for membership in a Chamber of Commons could be one of the biggest but most important challenges. ...
“... The best solution, I think, lies in having serious commoners, as members, decide the criteria on an ongoing basis, and pass judgment on any new members. After all, any participants in such a project would have a big stake in protecting the integrity of the commons concept and its reputation. ...
“... It’s time for various commons and commons-based businesses (coops, CSAs, etc.) to find ways to band together. We need to create a new focal point for making commoning more visible in an organized way. The mutual support, dialogue and new initiatives could only be enlivening.” (source)

My own view of the chamber idea is currently somewhat different. But no matter — these supportive elaborations compound my hope that going in this direction will gather substance and momentum.


*Many thanks to brother Stephen Ronfeldt and blog friend Michel Bauwens for comments on the last section.  Besides, Steve’s Public Interest Law Project and Michel’s P2P Foundation would make excellent additions to a chamber of commons, Steve’s at the state level, Michel’s at the global level.


[UPDATE — December 17, 2012: Ouch, I see I did a faulty job of searching for "chamber of commons" to find whether any already existed, and missed one that does. It's in fact called the Chamber of Commons, and is also known as the Rogue Valley Chapter, in Ashland, Oregon. The web site is, and I gather from exploring it that the chamber was founded in February 2012 as a “newly formed 501 c 6 business & non- profit advocacy, marketing and stewardship endeavor.” A brochure is available here (.pdf). My concept may be grander, but the founders of this local chamber were on to the basic idea first. (A big h/t to Michel Bauwens for pointing the chamber out.)]

[UPDATE — February 7, 2013: I added a quote from John Michael Greer.]

[UPDATE — February 13, 2013: I added quotes from Carl Pope and Jonathan Rowe, plus a reference to the NCRP.]

[UPDATE — February 19, 2013: I added a quote from Helene Finidori.]

[UPDATE — February 27, 2013: I added a quote from David Bollier.]

[UPDATE — March 29, 2013: I added a quote from Silvia Federici, plus a major statement by Michel Bauwens advocating the creation of chambers of commons.]

[UPDATE — April 2, 2013: I added quotes from David Bollier, indicating considerable support for the idea of creating a networked series of chambers of commons.]

[UPDATE — August 13, 2013: I added another quote from David Bollier.]

[UPDATE — February 12, 2014: I added a quote from Marvin Brown.]

[UPDATE — August 20, 2014: I added a quote from Burns Weston & David Bollier.]

[UPDATE — January 28, 20015: Added quote by Nathan Schneider.]

* * *

[ADDENDUM — August 12, 2013: Evidently it’s going to take a long time for ideas about citizens chambers of commons to gain traction. Meanwhile, here’s another view — from Gar Alperovitz and Steve Dubb, “The Possibility of a Pluralist Commonwealth and a Community-Sustaining Economy” — about building new organizations that, among other purposes, may help counter the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
“New organizations like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) have also been quietly developing momentum in recent years. BALLE, which has more than 22,000 small business members, works to promote sustainable local community development. ASBC (which includes BALLE as a member) is an advocacy and lobbying effort that involves more than 150,000 business professionals and thirty separate business organizations committed to sustainability. Leading White House figures such as former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have welcomed the organization as a counter to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Jeffrey Hollender, Chair of ASBC’s Business Leadership Council and former CEO of Seventh Generation, has denounced the Chamber for “fighting democracy and destroying America’s economic future” because of its opposition to climate change legislation and its support for the Citizens United decision.” (source / source)
I still prefer my idea — it would involve much more than sustainability or business — but BALLE and ASBC look viable and at least they’re underway.]

[ADDENDUM — October 13, 2013:  Michel Bauwens, in a new post about “Transition Proposals Towards a Commons-Oriented Economy and Society” (here), provides further momentum for the idea of a chamber of commons, by including in his vision the following points:
“Ethical market players create a territorial and sectoral network of Chamber of Commons associations to define their common needs and goals and interface with civil society, commoners and the partner state” …
“Local and sectoral commons create civil alliances of the commons to interface with the Chamber of the Commons and the Partner State” …
“Solidarity Coops form public-commons partnerships in alliance with the Partner State and the Ethical Economy sector represented by the Chamber of Commons”.
Meanwhile, thanks to David Bollier posting about “How to Build a “Shareable City”” (here), I see that a new report titled Policies For Shareable Cities: A Sharing Economy Policy Primer For Urban Leaders (2013) identifies civic initiatives for constructing “the sharing economy”:
 “[T]he sharing economy can democratize access to goods, services, and capital – in fact all the essentials that make for vibrant markets, commons, and neighborhoods. It’s an epoch shaping opportunity for sustainable urban development that can complement the legacy economy. Resource sharing, peer production, and the free market can empower people to self-provision locally much of what they need to thrive.” (p. 4)
“This is the sharing economy.  It is characterized by an explosion of practices such as carsharing, ridesharing, cooperatives, community farms, shared housing, shared workspaces, and a multitude of new micro-enterprises made possible by platforms that connect supply and demand at the peer-to-peer level.” (p.6)
Nowhere does the report mention the idea of creating citizens chambers of commons, but I’d speculate that such a chamber could prove invaluable for promoting appropriate initiatives.]

[ADDENDUM — May 11, 2015: Michel Bauwens advanced the proposal in his A new evaluation of the FLOK experience in Ecuador: what’s next? as published on April 7, 2015:
“The Commons transition plan is based on a simultaneous transition of civil society, the market and the state forms. …
“In the Commons Transition Plan, we are making also very specific organizational proposals, to advance the cause of a commons-oriented politics and a ‘peer production of politics and policy’.
“At the local level, we propose the creation of Assemblies of the Commons, institutions that bring together all those that are creating or maintaining commons, immaterial or material, but we propose to restrict membership to civic organizations and not-for-profit oriented projects.
“At the same time, we propose the creation of local Chamber of the Commons, the equivalent for the ethical economy and ‘generative’ capital, the what the Chamber of Commerce is for the for-profit economy. Our aim is to reconstruct commons-oriented social forces at the local level, and to give them voice. These assemblies and chambers could produce a social charter, that would be open for political and social forces to support, which in turn would guarantee some forms of support from these new institutions.” (source)]

[ADDENDUM — May 8 & 15, 2015: And here’s a new sign of momentum: announcement of a gathering of activists in May to consider Creating a Chamber of Commons: A Continuing Discussion (source), leading to the question Could Chicago be the first city to create a Chamber of Commons? (source), partly on grounds that Chicago Chamber of Commons Points Way to Thrivability for All (source).]


jessilydia said...

This is a fine survey of current thinking, but misses a couple of the greatest strengths and deepest weaknesses of the commons approach.

It's great strength is that nature and society are both chock full of brilliant examples of commons, in which apparently competing stakeholders thrive as a cohesive community by inadvertently cooperating. How that self-organization works is by the parts taking advantages that also avoid conflict, a simple rule and strategy that seems to work to build up quite complex organization.

If you learn how to study natural systems you find virtually all of nature's most beautifully organized things, like how the cells of our body interact to create the shared commons of our bodies, as well as how the employees of a business interact to create the commons of that business. Whether you observe such smoothly working collectives as being spontaneous or planned, whether long or short lived, they exhibit many of the same growth and self-organization principles, and so are great text books to study for how it’s done, and get used to thinking about whole system organization on multiple scales.

The great problem, though, is "how it's done" in nature is really not much at all the way people think. Nature uses accumulative physical processes integrating changes developing everywhere at once. People tend to think by a logic of social values, that skips over how nature works entirely, and don't even distinguish between what they're observing and the images they create for them in their minds.

So… Not having the ability to refer to the natural world and the mental world as made quite differently becomes a huge handicap for the commons movement, as "a commons" the way it is being discussed involves using mental images to work with natural systems, like using flashes of light to control rivers or something incompatible like that.

People also get so attached to the social values around which our social networks coalesce, that gets in the way too. We may inadvertently depict nature as working through our own social values, which she definitely doesn't, but seems quite common in both science and society where nature is depicted by working by our explanations. Our theories are quite observably not what nature uses to work, of course, but it can be very hard to stop thinking that way.

So, succeeding with creating thriving commons for our benefit, of nature's brilliant forms, both really does seem to be the solution, and really requires a revolutionary change in our thinking. It seems we need to add another "silo" of thought to our (vast) collections, one for putting our values aside for clearly observing nature's own pristine processes and forms of organization and how they change, without a veil of social values clouding our vision. It’s not hard once you find the trick, of noticing those moments when you drop all pretense in quite ordinary circumstances, and remember how to turn that on when and for as long as you like. jlh

Anonymous said...

Thanks David for quoting my last post. I have based it on Ann Pendleton's talk where she actually mentions your work on TIMN framework.