The Commons – the story of our time

by Bruce Mason

Boston Common Founded 1634 • A revolution is underway. Under the umbrella of “The Commons,” a global grassroots movement is rising up and gathering together ancient and new forms of self-governance. Exciting economic models are being created and shared in response to the Market/State that’s overextended, horrifically inequitable and relentlessly consumptive. Alternatively, The Commons is being heralded as our best hope for human survival and renewed pursuit of happiness.

The Commons are the collective wealth we inherit, steward and create together to pass on to future generations – ideally undiminished or enhanced – gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, culture, traditions and knowledge. They vary widely, but Commons share self-organized governance, seeking equity and sustainability as goals, rather than being motivated by more and more mere profit.

In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, igniting the American Revolution. In 2014, an international independence movement is taking shape in myriad projects and numerous organizations, books, blogs and websites. The movement is igniting a “Coalition of the Commons” to take back what was stolen from us and our ancestors, through trickery and deceit and to reclaim our Commons for future generations.

There’s no master inventory of the phenomena – no complied list of existing Commons, including the ever expanding number of credit unions, car-shares, farmer’s markets and fishing co-ops. Pioneering production – controlled by and for people – is exploding in Do-It-Yourself innovation and cooperation. It’s also evident in scientific journals, flourishing community gardens, libraries and highly productive, ecologically minded agriculture. Timebanks enable bartering and sharing of people’s busy hours. There is unprecedented diversity in digital culture, including open-source software, Wikipedia and social media platforms. The list goes on, exponentially and endlessly.

More ‘experts’ are taking notice, including influential economic theorist and activist Jeremy Rifkin (The Zero Marginal Cost Society), who recently observed, “The capitalist era is passing… not quickly, but inevitably. A new economic paradigm – the Collaborative Commons – is rising in its wake and will transform our way of life.”

Some good, important, relevant news, for a change. Congratulations, you’re part of it – a commoner! One commonly cited derivation of “Human” is the Latin “humus” for “earth.” Putting your hands, heart and soul into soil and actively participating in habitat, boosts serotonin levels.

The beauty is we can build Commons ourselves, right now. It’s been here all along, deliberately dismantled, hidden, overgrown, neglected, forgotten or hidden in plain sight. Look to the edges of the status quo and The Commons are alive and well, especially in Europe and the global south. This burgeoning parallel social ordering and economy is affirming that another world is possible, an ageless alternative, re-making our place on the planet and loosening the death-grip on the Earth by predatory, global free trade markets.

Meanwhile, the first-ever scientific analysis of the US, as a democracy or oligarchy, has concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The long-awaited definitive study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (Martin Gilens, Princeton University and Benjamin Page, Northwestern University) has far-reaching implications, beyond borders.

And Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a massive, definitive, jaw-dropping study of inequity by Thomas Piketty, is sweeping the world. It’s an urgent call for wealth taxes – global, if possible – to restrain unprecedented, skyrocketing, inherited wealth that threatens to push democracy back into the Dark Ages.

The Commons had been central for most of human existence until people’s habitation was slowly worn down into privilege for the aristocracy and finally taken away. Land was enclosed. But the market was freed, released from community, morality, and more recently, accountability.

What had previously been described as greed had become desirable, even famously “Good.” Markets became even more dominant, especially during the Reagan-Thatcher ‘80s when business aggressively propagandized “free market” privatization. Corporations named public spaces, including stadiums, libraries and university buildings, while writing them off in unpaid taxes.

Common-good thinking had once balanced self-interest in public policy. Stripped away through deregulation and cutbacks, checks and balances became window dressing and impact assessments, meant to mitigate disaster, at best.

It’s no surprise then that public consultation is endangered, if not extinct, and protest, less and less effective. For example, oral presentations to the Enbridge NEB Joint Review Panel – which gave a thumbs-up to the pipeline – tallied two people speaking for the project; 1159 against. Control has been concentrated into a tiny, numerically shrinking elite. In the language of the Commons, “enclosure” and “clearances” – acts of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources – are once again evident in one-way thinking, even imagining, of what’s real and do-able. Edward Snowden spoke passionately in defence of the Internet at the Vancouver TedTalks… against a ‘2.0 Enclosure Act.’ (See the article “Take back our Internet from NSA & Prism, Common Ground, April 2014.)

It’s become increasingly difficult to even discern the common good in complex daily life. We’ve been sucked into divisions, ceaseless novelty and distraction, frenzied competition and non-stop “information” – but little wisdom. The disappearance of an airliner is the top story for months, with little or no mention of climate change, corruption, food safety, security and a US putsch in Ukraine.

The Commons movement is fuelled by: a growing awareness of big agriculture’s overriding concern with efficiency, profit, chemical processing, GMO’s and trumping ecological stewardship; by reports of rip-and-run resource extraction such as fracking Earth’s gas, which ruins the water table; by copyright industries cynically treating culture as tightly controlled “product.”

Cracks in capitalism are opening up new attitudes and more feasible Commons, proliferating in alternative currencies, collectives and countless natural resource trusts.

Common wealth is being created by commoners. Often, no cash is exchanged, no contracts signed, nothing added discernibly to the GDP, but much improving life. Much of the Commons remain under the radar, outside the glare of corporate media. Value is accruing through circulation, rather than accumulating in myriad tax havens and schemes.

Humans progress, of course, including re-thinking the conventional knowledge that we’re all selfish, utility-maximizing, materialists. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” seems to champion competitive individualism. But he also argued that humans are innately drawn to community and cooperation. In fact, he ranked this instinct as important as any other, concluding that evolution requires a working out of these tensions.

Postmodern scientists – associated with chaos theory and quantum physics – have discovered, that, in nature, everything is one. Matter dances in intricate, infinite interconnection, interrelated in ongoing dialogue and self-organizing co-creation.

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (2009) for landmark work on The Commons, as more closely modelled from nature, mutual trust, a shared sense of common good and sustainable, ecologically friendly management. This new understanding simultaneously supports traditional knowledge, debunking the worldview of nature as inert and subject to the dominion of humans. Common good may once again mean something – more akin to Aboriginal culture where self-respect and social esteem were earned by sharing generously, adding to general community welfare, fulfillment of self within shared well-being.

Critics may dismiss the rise of Commons consciousness as “utopian.” Evidence to the contrary is close at hand. The magazine you are reading is free, thanks to advertising support from enterprising and visionary individuals committed to health, community, peace and justice.

Two Local Examples

Nelson Commons model
Nelson Commons

In Nelson, BC, the 12,000-member Kootenay Co-op – Canada’s most successful natural food co-op – was bursting at the seams. Two years ago, they purchased the former Extra Foods supermarket site in the heart of downtown and launched “Nelson Commons.” After extensive community consultation, project plans – in a scale unprecedented for a co-op – include a 20,000 sq. ft. store, additional retail space and also 54 condo units. Co-op membership loans raised $1.8 million. And in financial partnership with the Nelson and District Credit Union and Vancity, half of the Nelson Commons units have been sold with construction slated for this summer, a model for co-ops and progressive commons housing initiatives. For more information on the project, visit or call 250-352-5847.

On Gabriola Island, in 2010, a ground-breaking public trust was formally recognized – the first in Canada – “in perpetuity for the benefit of the land and the people … not favouring one generation over another,” democratically engaging co-creation rather than consumption, by participants, not volunteers, in the Gabriola Commons (

The contemporary Commons movement is a source of hope to recover dignity and self-determination, a way of life and being human – with enormous potential for meeting people’s needs more effectively while establishing limits on exploitation for profit.

Think like a commoner and a shared world based on fairness, participation and accountability is closer than you think. Act like a commoner and learn how to rebuild and reclaim our shared inheritance.

See “Rethink, reclaim The Commons” in this issue.


Boston Common photo © Americanspirit

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