To the unaccustomed eye, contemporary society offers precious little encouragement to ‘be a commoner’, yet the articles in this edition of (Un)usual Business show how opportunities to exercise our commoning muscles are within easy reach. Indeed, commoning practices are all around us if we care to look for them. We learn that commoning is happening at all scales, ranging from the household level with apartment block experiments in communal living, to the neighbourhood level with Repair Cafés, to the city level through refugee support networks that, in turn, implicate the global scale. From these fascinating explorations we might begin to imagine commoning as a ‘post-capitalist politics’ for our times—a politics that invites everyday participation in ethical negotiations that matter:
What to do with the electric coffee grinder that just broke? Throw out as junk and add to the growing material waste piles that our society is drowning in? Or sit down with others to learn how to repair and reuse?
How to regard those whose lives in ‘their place’ have been made untenable by violence and economic depression, and who are now seeking shelter in European cities like Utrecht? Ignore or turn away, citing cultural difference as a rationale for heartlessness? Or sit down together, cook and share a meal, make connections and reflect on the contingencies of history that render some birthplaces in this world ‘safe’ and others (hopefully temporarily) unliveable?
The idea that we make and share a commons has renewed relevance
From the micro scale of decisions around personal consumption to the global scale of mass movements of displaced people, the idea that we make and share a commons has renewed relevance. But if we are to face the multiple challenges of climate change, economic vulnerability and terrorism with resilience, we must learn to become even more adept at commoning. This means becoming more capable of taking responsibility, practicing care, sharing the benefits and allowing access to what collectively sustains us.
There is any number of things that stand in the way of this kind of capacity building. One is the fear of losing something, especially control—control over the TV channel changer, control over the reliability of the appliance, control over the look and feel of the city streets, or indeed control over the shape and trajectory of the economy. The practice of commoning takes for granted that control is only ever a chimera, that security and stasis can only ever be a momentary romance, and that when this romance becomes a reality, violence and oppression are not far away. The household where rules are non-negotiable, the nation where borders are rigidly sealed, the society in which growth of material consumption is mandatory,—these are sites where the political has been evacuated. The process of commoning puts control in its place, as something that is only grasped fleetingly within a world of change, flow and becoming other.
Another thing that stands in the way of commoning capacity building is the idea that there are simple top down solutions to complex problems that call for delicate, empathetic and grounded negotiations. Whether it is living communally and deciding how to fairly share domestic chores, or being together in a city setting and learning to appreciate differences in behaviour and belief, or facing up to our attachment to newness and trying to reuse and revalue, the negotiations involved in commoning are not necessarily easy. It is only through practice that they might become so. These articles give a glimpse of what that practice might involve. They show that the work involved in commoning brings with it a lot of joy, laughter and good feeling.
This article was published in the (Un)usual Business journal Utrecht Meent Het #2 (September, 2016).