State Power and Commoning - Transcending a Problematic Relationship

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The commons – as a constellation of specific projects, a transnational network, and a discourse that makes bracing moral and political claims - is on the rise. It can be seen in renewed interest in classical commons such as farmland, fisheries, forests and water as well as in efforts to build communities around shared digital resources and re-imagine governance of city resources as commons, among many other initiatives. Much of the focus of commons is not on the resource alone, but on the social practices and norms of working together in equitable ways for shared ends,often known as “commoning.”

Commoning is often seen as a way to challenge an oppressive, extractive market/state order by developing more humane and ecological ways of meeting needs. However, as various commons grow and become more consequential, their problematic status with respect to the state is becoming a serious issue. Can commons and the state fruitfully co-exist – and if so, how? How might state authority, law and policy be re-imagined to affirmatively support commoning?

These are important issues because commons offer many promising, practical solutions to the problems of our time – economic growth, inequality, precarious work, migration, climate change, the failures of representative democracy, bureaucracy. But commons-based solutions are often criminalized or marginalized because they implicitly challenge the prevailing terms of national sovereignty and western legal norms, not to mention neoliberal capitalism as a system of power. Stated baldly, the very idea of the nation-state seems to conflict with the concept of the commons.

The challenge is not just a matter of how to manage common-pool resources that extend beyond national boundaries, such as oceans, space and the Internet. What is needed is a reconceptualization of state power itself so that it can foster commoning as a post-capitalist, postgrowth means of provisioning and governance. Can commoners re-imagine “the state” from a commons perspective? Can “seeing like a state,” as famously described by political scientist James C. Scott, be combined with “seeing like a commoner” and its ways of knowing, living and being? What might such a hybrid look like? What can on-the-ground experiments in cities like Barcelona, Bologna and Seoul tell us about these possibilities?

To address these and other related questions, the Commons Strategies Group in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation convened a diverse group of twenty commons-oriented activists, academics, policy experts and project leaders for three days in Lehnin, Germany, outside of Berlin, from February 28 to March 1, 2016. The goal was to host an open, exploratory discussion about reimagining the state in a commons-centric world – and, if possible, to come up with creative action initiatives to advance a new vision.

For the hurried reader: executive summary of the report


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Date of Publication
June 2016
Commons Strategies Group
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