An initiative by DutchCulture & De Balie

REPORT: Expert session #6 “The Commons!”

The European Cultural Foundation (ECF) and Forum on European Culture hosted this expert meeting on the commons in the beautiful attic of Castrum Peregrini.  Our ambition with this session is to better understand the broad field of the commons in order to facilitate and learn from the exchange between thinkers, practitioners and existing networks and thus be better equipped to supporting societies where active citizens have the cultural means to be active. We did therefore gather experts working in different fields of commoning, to research the possible futures for scaling up the potential for democratic change.

Below you can find a written report on the session summarizing the public presentations of Tine de Moor, Marcos Garcia, Valerio Gatto Bonanni, Aetzel Griffioen, short representations of the participants’ talks and the plea of Lieven de Cauter.

Welcome by ECF, Friso Wiersum
Under the thematic focus Connecting Culture, Communities and Democracy, the ECF is working together with Connected Action for the Commons, a network and action research programme. The network works on topics related to the commons, e.g. public space, culture, economy and democracy, as a group and in independent, diverse activities. “We are co-developing and exchanging expertise and engaging our local communities into the work we do.” The aim of the programme is to combine influence, highlight and connect new practices with European policy makers and gain knowledge from each other.

Historical overview: Commons as institutions for collective action by Tine de Moor  
Tine de Moor is one of the most prominent academic experts on ‘commons’ in the world. She pleas for a ‘terminological hygiene of the term’ – as it helps us to understand each other. “Otherwise everything is the commons – but not everything is. We have to be careful how we use the term in order to make sure others don’t abuse it.”   She places the current ‘third wave’ of the commons in a historical frame: over the last 20-30 years a huge wave of privatization and liberalization has been going on, characterized by increasing connections between market and governments – the so-called public/private partnerships. To counter this wave with an alternative, collectivities of citizens are developing. These collectivities can take all sorts of forms – they also approach the market as a collectivity and are approached by the market as a collectivity. Some public goods are now private and run by collectivities. We should discern who is what in relation to whom. Tine notes that there’s a tendency to frame [parts of the] sharing economy as commons. “But Uber and Airbnb are not about sharing, I think, they cause negative economic, ecological finalities.” And commons are about relations in which you as a member are willing and capable of putting aside your own short term benefits for long term benefits of the collectivity.   We have seen that before: The first wave of the commons took place in the late Middle Ages, when new initiatives sprang which later decided to split up: guilds, waterboards. A second wave – whose structures we can find in our societies – took place between 1880 and 1920: cooperatives, associations, labour unions. Since 1990, de Moor argues, we see a rise in new cooperatives – which is a loose form of legally recognised entities in the Netherlands.   “When you talk about commons, it’s not just a group of people doing something together or sharing. It is a combination of users and resources, if you combine those and want to solve a social dilemma you need to have internal rules.” This is slowly emerging, and it is a hopeful sight. Something else Tine sees happening now are cooperatives active in different fields of society reaching out to one another as they notice their working methods are similar.

RESPONSES ECF Princess Margriet Award Laureates Medialab Prado’s director Marcos Garcia, and Teatro Valle’s Valerio Gatto Bonanni respond to Tine de Moor.

Marcos Garcia – Medialab Prado
“We’re trying to learn from common spaces, as we are trying to be a public institution able to include our users in more active ways. The question for us is how to make our institution permeable to the users to make decisions, develop their capacities to contribute to the common goal. We try to offer a platform where users can make their own projects in collaboration with other users.   We try to make a difference between traditional public policy that tends to provide services for all, because they think the public is homogenous. Medialab Prado is open to anyone, that means that anyone that enters is listened to, thus in terms of cultural policy, we go from a content provider model, to a context provider, where the users, the public are not just receivers of services and content, but are part of the project in the way they build it. In a metaphor of the internet: the stage we’re now at Medialab Prado has to do more with 2.0 platforms. Medialab Prado is not a commons but a platform where users develop their own concepts. The benefit of their contributions go to the public.

We find one of the greatest challenges in how the public can be transformed – we live in a moment of transition. I think it’s good to be able to do this gradually. If we think the commons paradigm is something desirable, there is first a need for a community that can express a need. This community is a learning community, in two ways: in exchanging knowledge and skills to develop a project. This can be considered a commons. Secondly, all communities experiment with cooperation: how we learn to work with, and listen to other people, in creating rules, acknowledging others etc. This is the most interesting part. These platforms are a good way to learning how to live together. How to build a community which is sustainable through time. So the longer we exist, the more we will be a common.”

Valerio Gatto BonanniTeatro Valle Occupato
“Teatro Valle was an occupation of an unused theatre in Rome from 2011 to 2014. I want to talk about members and users, because this is a metaphor we try to explain: the use and access of this good, this teatro, how we made this theatre a common good.   Teatro Valle was like a big onion, with different layers that are permeable: ranging from the heart out: the collective, active participants, users [people who use the space, propose a workshop, a show, come to see a show, but participants in a soft way], frequenters [public, people that sometimes come] and finally the external layer is the society, in its larger definition.   We organise horizontal assembly weekly with different groups to discuss general issues e.g. organizing the works of the theatre, how to organise the life in general, in respect to media and political conflicts. Then other groups plan other activities related to different topics: European invitation, children theatre etc. Everything in the consensus method. Trying to find a good compromise in our choices, which includes long discussions which proved interesting. We also worked in having people moving from group to group, even in the foundation we tried to include this.

We liked working in circular formation. Making the production an open process. We used this mechanism for dance, dramaturgy and for political events. Another important feature was our timebanking – which worked well. But we had difficulties with financing, which we tried to do from public money, products, ticketing, crowdfunding.   Another peculiarity of our history is that we are an occupation: we started out from the great need of citizens reappropriating the space, then turned into a platform provider, than an institution – with us talking to institutions, writing laws, talking to lawyers, collaborating internationally. We had to. As we didn’t want to remain a social centre trying to be near the bottom, serving only very specific citizens, but we tried including everything.”

Statement Aetzel Griffioen – Rotterdam Vakmanstad, SkillCity
SkillCity is an institution for primary, secondary and tertiary education. We give six courses, technics, gardening, philosophy, culture, cooking, Judo, all based in the philosophy of the eco-philosophy of the commons. And I was asked to allude on how we work with [local] government.   We started as a war machine – we wanted to change education, and started changing other things. From war machine, we moved to becoming a commons. We are a foundation, it makes it much easier legally to enter schools and do a lot of the work we do. I would say we are pretty OK, but dealing with one person in a department, with competing departments within governments, a small change in personnel can have huge consequences.  So as to the second question of success in commoning, together with governments: Will political struggle disappear? No, it’s not possible. Politics is a way to dealing with conflict. There’s always an outside, there’s always fractions within institutions. So conflicts, especially political conflicts, will always be part of our work. As they will be of various processes of commoning: Commons need to grow. We need to understand that conflict and mediation are the heart of commons. Commoning is always about mediation of conflict and finding ways of doing this – and this is the social dilemma Tine mentioned.

Discussion on three tables with moderation from ECF team members
Our round table talk then split up in three smaller groups, each of them discussing the question whether commons arise in times of conflict, the possible focus on culture one can have in commoning practices and if commoning leads to building better democracies. Time was short for answering all these huge questions, but some of the line of thoughts are represented here:

“Crisis would be a better word, like Teatro Valle was a response to a certain crisis. Some resources are very difficult to solve as a commons.”   “In some places arts and culture is the only free and common ground, to experiment. It’s like a free zone, space for experiment.”   The downside is that the system then remains intact – the state will say, bravo, artists are working with refugees, let’s retreat now. When you zoom out, you see commoning is not part of the larger picture. Art is serving the system, thus we need to be critical. The same applies to urban activism, it’s the spearhead of gentrification.”   “Creating a space for mutual understanding, even if people disagree. In this, culture can play an important role in providing this safe space.”

“Culture is not a given, it needs to be defined each time and in each context you operate in.”

“Commons (the concept, the practices, the governing principles) is becoming a culture in itself, one could even say – a heritage, which needs protection and maintenance.”

Commons as a Concrete Utopia –  Lieven de Cauter
“It is crucial that we are aware that we are living in time of conflict. Not an open conflict, this is a time of “silent theft” as David Bollier calls it. Monsanto takes away the right to reproduce seeds, tries to monopolize genetically modified materials, thus stealing a common good of mankind. We see this exemplified in the potato war in Wetteren.   Wetteren is just a small front in the battle for common good. And this also illustrates how we can proceed in this battle. We should think of the commons, in small concrete examples, as a starting point. Then we should think of the common, without -S-, as a founding principle for another politics. The -S- should be cut, since something common invites political principles of co-duty, of self-governance etc. It is politics.   I see this discussion on the commons as a part of the rediscovery of the continent of the commons. And like discovering a continent – we don’t know where we’ll end. This not knowing, to me, is very much part of the commons. The discussion itself is very important.

Since, even if we might disagree which one is commons and which is  not, with or without -S-, we all feel we are struggling on the same side in a conflict. Thus, I would give all the benefit to this new field we are discovering. Because: How to protect the biosphere, that is the only real question for me, and how can the commons help us? Without biosphere, no commons at all.   The biosphere has no community, it’s an open access resource and there’s no set of rules to manage it. Protecting the plural universal commons: this is the horizon of our rediscovery of the commons.   Thomas More saw the same horizon 500 years ago: enclosures as double crime – disappropriation and criminalization of the poor. Rereading his Utopia, we can redefine the concept of the commons, of something we share in common. Utopia is the response to the enclosure of the commons. In every common there is a utopian spark.”