Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons

It turns out that the fashion world has quite a large cohort of designers, fashion houses, scholars, and activists who want to revamp the global fashion marketplace. To my surprise, there is quite a movement underway to invent new ways to design, produce and distribute clothing. Disgusted by a global system that depends on underpaid, abused labor, prodigious amounts of waste, and odious marketing strategies, many fashion activists are eager to develop practical alternatives.

Recently I was invited to speak at a major fashion colloquium dedicated to this topic. The event, which drew about 500 people to Arnhem, Netherlands, was sponsored by the ArtEZ University of the Arts and an annual exhibition called State of Fashion. The conference described its mission this way: “Fashion is in dire need of more value-based critical thinking as well as design-driven research to thoroughly explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system.” It aimed to “collectively investigate how to move towards a fashion reality that addresses ethics, inclusivity and responsible consumerism in a more engaged way.”

Marlene Haase, Universität der Künste, Berlin: "Misfit" project dealing with donated clothing in Berlin.

[I remain a bit confused about the conference title, “Searching for the New Luxury,” because the event had few aspirations to make social minded innovations scarce and exclusive. I suppose the idea of “luxury” is too baked-in to the aspirational DNA of fashionistas to surrender easily.] 

I was impressed by the range and caliber of approaches to revamping the fashion industry. One of the most formidable efforts is being waged by a group called Fashion Revolution, a global advocacy group that was started after the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,200 people. Fashion Revolution has tried to make the fashion supply chain more transparent in order to prevent future abuses, as in this film “The True Cost,” about the actual (high) costs of garments. 

Fashion Revolution has also criticized the whole “fast fashion” segment of the industry, which has contributed to the doubling of garment production worldwide between 2000 and 2014. Fast fashion has produced prodigious amounts of waste. Some 40% of purchased clothes are rarely or never worn – the average garment is worn only 3.3 times over its lifetime – and about one-third of retail clothing is never sold, and is therefore burned or destroyed. The industry produces some 400 billion square meters of fabric waste each year.

“Sustainable fashion” was a term used by many speakers to point to clothing that is designed to cherished and last. Kristine Harper spoke about the “aesthetic sustainability” of clothing, probing the emotional attachments that we have with garments and how we might improve “sustainable design and durable aesthetics.” Orsola de Castro, a “recovering designer,” talked about how “loved clothes last.”

Another pioneer of sustainable fashion is Oskar Metsavaht, founder of the Brazilian Instituto-E and creative director of Osklen. He showed a short film describing his company’s aggressive efforts to find and develop new sorts of recyclable, sustainable materials for garments. Osklen has also created new sorts of supply chains and “conscious consumption.”

These sorts of ideas are seeping into fashion education these days thanks to people like Professor Pascale Gatzen, who developed an alternative fashion curriculum at the Parsons School of Design in New York City before moving on to teach at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, Netherlands. Gatzen explained her philosophy toward fashion: “Choices are made because they yield the biggest profit margins, not because they are more beautiful or because they make us happier. How you dress is about how you position yourself in the world. How do we take fashion back into our own hands and make it a catalyst for social change?”

Gatzen is keen in restoring craft to garment making. “There is a clear distinction between designing and making clothes,” she said. “I encourage my students to design through making, because it is important to teach a process in which they negotiate the dynamic relationship between materials, ideas and the sensibility that emerges from their bodies and hands.” To extend this idea, Gatzen founded a weaving cooperative in the Hudson Valley called the Friends of Light to produce handwoven jackets.The wool is grown from sheep on a nearby farm, so all materials are local and the production process is careful and holistic – so much so that it takes as much as 160 hours to make each jacket. 

The conundrum: the more labor-intensive and authentic a garment is, the more expensive it is likely to be. This plays into the whole high-fashion ethic and business model. Eco-responsible fashion should not be a “luxury.” Still, even if it costs more, it is worth attempting innovative production methods and recovering a sense of craft within garment design and production. It is also worth weaning people away from their addiction to low-price, low-quality “fast fashion.”  

The real challenge for socially minded fashion, as I see it, is to develop a parallel economy that can somehow separate and insulate itself from the hyper-capital-driven marketplace that now prevails. That will be the only way to develop an alternative operating logic and ethic that can avoid the relentless co-optation of global fashion corporations and their relentless iconography of luxury. Unless such as scheme can be developed – at whatever rudimentary scale at first – social innovations will get locked into small niches as artisanal clothing or confined to the luxury market -- and genuine social innovation will be commandeered for superficial marketing.   

Can alternative fashion players develop their own vision, production methods, distribution apparatus, finance, and marketing, at a sufficient size? I’d love to see some serious, focused attention paid to this structural, systemic challenge. Piecemeal innovations can go only so far.

In my talk, I tried to imagine “fashion as an ecosystem of commons.” I introduced the basic idea of the commons and suggested a number of general strategies by which fashion could reconceive itself as a federation of commons. Alt-fashionistas might start by developing new ways to “beat the bounds” to protect their shared wealth and commoning – their collaborations, supply chains, and cultural vision. They should rely on practical experimentation, not ideology, and develop their own finance systems and distribution and marketing infrastructure. They should try to shed old vocabularies and learn the language of the commons. Here is a video of the keynote speakers at the conference. My remarks go from the timecode 20:43 to 41:14

World Commons Week, October 4-12

Finally, a designated global event to celebrate the commons and explore it in serious ways!

The International Association for the Study of the Commons – the academic body founded by the late Professor Elinor Ostrom and other scholars – is helping organize World Commons Week from October 4 to 12. At many locations around the world, commoners will host public talks and discuss various aspects of the commons, especially from a scholarly perspective.

Three main activities are planned: a policy seminar and conference in Washington, D.C., several dozen local events in different places worldwide, and a marathon of webinar talks for 24 straight hours by commons scholars. (I’ll be doing one of the talks!)

The policy seminar will take place on October 4 at the International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington, D.C., organized by Dr. Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the Institute. The next day, October 5, you may want to attend the conference “Celebrating Commons Scholarship” at Georgetown University on October 5, co-organized by Professors Sheila Foster and Brigham Daniels.

The local events range from teach-ins and workshops to mini-conferences and talks delivered by local scholars or commons practitioners. In Mexico, there will be a conference on watershed sustainability. In Germany, a talk on “Pseudo-Commons in Post-Socialist Countries.” In Africa, an examination of transboundary wildlife protection, “Commons Without Borders.”

If you’d like to host your own event and have it noted on the World Commons Week website, contact Professor Charles Schweik of the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy at cschweik /at/

Some Recent Interviews about the Commons

As you may have noticed, my blogging has suffered in recent weeks because of work on a new book with Silke Helfrich. Fortunately, we should be done soon. In the meantime, I have also given a few interviews that may be of interest. 

The British web magazine Beshara just published an interview of me, “The Revival of the Commons,” by Editor Jane Clark. It’s a beautifully presented webpage. Here’s one excerpt:

Jane:  …When there is this deep encounter with other beings, it triggers a natural desire to reciprocate, to share and communicate. So perhaps the commons brings out that aspect of our humanity which naturally desires to work toward the flourishing of our fellow creatures?

David: Yes, and I think this is why there is a kind of invisible tropism towards the commons. People sense precisely this potential of the commons and, without fully understanding or even if they have certain resistances or skepticism, they are nevertheless drawn to it. Through the many talks I have given and the conversations I have had over the years, I have come to see that the commons appeals to something very deep in people. It is about making human connections, about speaking to larger circumstances in life – and to deep time, both historical and present day. And it does so without all the encrustations of theological dogma.

These days there are very few discourses available to us where we can explore these matters outside of a theological one. Some kind of broad, cross-cultural exploration of our common humanity is long overdue. So I think that this aspect of the commons will grow as more and more people become involved with it.


Here’s another general introduction to the commons: an interview that I did with Adam Simpson of the Next System Project. The podcast -- Episode 17, “Social Transformation Through The Commons” -- is a 35-minute conversation that covers the basics about the commons. Adam was quite skilled in asking the right questions and eliciting things that might not have otherwise occurred to me!

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting Kingston Radio, WKNY, in Kingston, New York, where Jimmy Buff is showing what a community radio station ought to sound like! Amazing diversity of music, news, cultural perspectives, and community-building. Jimmy interviewed me about the commons, and Peter Buffett, Co-President of the NoVo Foundation, about the state of the world.

Finally, I’m pleased to have played a role in a newly released theatrical film called 24 Davids, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Celine Baril.

The film is an idiosyncratic, oddly compelling film about a lot of cosmic issues and societal challenges as seen through the eyes of 24 people named David on three continents. Including me, filmed circa 2014. I look a bit younger.

Baril used portions of my interview as the voiceover for the film’s trailer, which should give you a sense of the film’s ambitions and tone. Also, here's a short clip from my interview.

I loved encountering the other Davids. Each of us offered our own grand speculations about the future of global civilization. Baril slyly provides a subtle emotional undertone to the film, linking a lot of different people and gritty everyday realities together. Unfortunately, I can’t find a listing of where the film is showing, but it appears that that AMC, a US theater chain, has scheduled some showings. Perhaps the film will make it to Netflix sometime.

*             *              *

Let me end by re-posting a lovely poem that Beshara magazine included at the end of my interview. David Attwooll’s “The Binding of the Moor,” is about an attempt in the nineteenth century to enclose the ancient wetland Otmoor in Oxfordshire, which led to the Otmoor Riots of 1829-1830.

We took a fine oat-sheaf, tight bound at the waist And set it on fire; and while it was burning Our Lady of Otmoor rode all round the moor-edge Until the great sheaf was just ash on the ground.

Her shining cloak circled the land that was Common And granted forever to us local people For kypeing of fish, for eel scuttles of osier And fowling and keeping allotments of geese.

Many hundred’s year later, the gentry’s men came And bound her with fences, and drained her with ditches. They built mighty banks and stopped up the Ray. They enclosed all our birthright and forced us all out.

So men blackened their faces and wore women’s cloaks And ventured at night with hatchets and billhooks And tore down the bindings. On the sixth of September All in broad daylight, a thousand folk walked

Seven miles round the moorland, past all seven towns Pulling down fences in spite of the Riot Act. Sixty-six of us they arrested that day And carted us off to the City for trial.

When we reached Oxford it was St Giles Fair Where the holiday mob freed all of us prisoners. We won the day, but the moor stayed a patchwork: A hundred years passed ’til the bindings were loosed.

When the waters came home and the chessboard dissolved They planned the M40 to drive through her middle: Over three thousand people bought one-foot square parcels Of Alice’s Meadow to stop them at last.

The only road now is a path full of puddles, The Roman road’s agger is a scatter of stones. The moor’s safe – for now – and free to the people And the bright cloak of water is home to the birds.

Now Underway, a Neocolonial Land Grab on Barbuda

Since 1834, when slavery was abolished on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, land there has been owned as a commons. The entire population collectively owns and controls the land, not private owners and developers. That may be about to change – with all the catastrophic results usually associated with enclosure.

After Hurricane Irma devastated 90% of the island’s buildings last year, it forced virtually all 1,800 residents to relocate to nearby Antigua or cities like New York and Toronto.  International investors, working with Prime Minister Gastone Brown, a former banker, decided it was a ripe time to invoke the Shock Doctrine. This is the idea popularized by journalist Naomi Klein to describe how the market/state collusion to exploit national crises to ram through predatory neoliberal policies, which would otherwise be fiercely resisted by the citizenry. 

In a great piece of reportage in The Intercept (January 23, 2018), Naomi Klein and Alleen Brown describe how the island government is taking advantage of the diaspora of Bardua residents. With no one around, it is an opportune moment to try to privatize the land and eliminate the communal ownership that has existed in Barbuda for nearly 200 years. A senator on the island described the communal ownership as something that was “born in the bowels of slavery and continued to grow in the post-emancipation world.”

The ostensible goal of the privatization policy is to provide a humanitarian response to the hurricane by facilitating outside investment and development. But the real goal is to open the door to investors and developers, who have long resented the democratic limits on development on Barbuda. They are eager to buy up pristine Caribbean land at bargain-basement prices and spur standard-issue Caribbean luxury resorts and ancillary businesses. The most notable such investor is actor Robert De Niro, who plans to build a luxury complex called Paradise Found Nobu.

According to Klein and Brown, “a sweeping 13-page 'amendment' to the hard-won Barbuda Land Act was officially introduced in Antigua and Barbuda’s House of Representatives” on December 12, 2017.  “It includes changes that entirely reverse the meaning of the law. In the amendment, a clause declaring Barbuda ‘owned in common by the people of Barbuda’ was deleted and replaced. ‘The fundamental purpose of the Act is to grant to Barbudans the right to purchase the [land],’ the amended act reads.”

An outrageous act of enclosure, cast in the name of humanitarianism. Not surprisingly, international media coverage of these developments has been virtually absent. One exception:  a twelve-minute video documentary by The New York Times.

The transition to a scheme of private ownership of land – and the rampant “development” that would ensue – would radically change the culture of the island and strip Barbudans of their control over their land and rights of self-determination. It would also force many residents to leave the island permanently because they could no longer afford to live there, except as employees at the new luxury hotels and resorts.

In light of the diaspora of residents, it is hard for the to fight back. If anyone knows of people or groups actively involved in efforts to save the communal ownership of Barbudan land, please let me know and I'll share the information here.

Update: There is a Facebook group dedicated to the Barbuda land grab and recovery delays at

To my readers:  My apologies for the absence of blog posts in recent weeks.  I am in the middle of writing a book that I hope to complete soon. Thanks for your patience!

The Commons Transition Primer Demystifies and Delights

You are not likely to encounter a more welcoming set of texts and infographics to introduce the commons and peer production than the Commons Transition Primer website.

The new site features four types of materials suited different levels of interest: short Q&A-style articles with illustrations; longer, in-depth articles for the more serious reader; a library of downloaded PDF versions of research publications by the P2P Foundation; and a collection of videos, audio interviews and links to other content. 

The website does a great service in introducing topics that are sometimes elusive or abstract, giving them a solid explanation and lots of working examples. Go check it out!

Start with a series of Short Articles that addresses such questions as "What is a commons transition?" and "What is distributed manufacturing?" Then browse the Longer Articles section and read “10 ways to accelerate the Peer to Peer and Commons Economy,” a visionary piece on the movement to design global and manufacture locally. 


The Library contains a number of major reports on how to embark upon a commons transition. The organizational study of Catalan Integral Cooperative as a post-capitalist model is fascinating. Check out the new conceptualizations of value in a commons economy, and the two-part report on the impact of peer production on energy use, thermodynamics, and the natural world. 

There is also a wonderful overview of some leading commons, especially tech-oriented ones, in a collection of fifteen case studies. These explore such projects as Wikihouse, Farm Hack, L’Atelier Paysan, Mutual Aid Networks, Spain’s Municipalist Coalitions, and the Ghent’s urban commons (in Belgium).

Elena Martinez Vicente has produced a number of fantastic infographics that really help demystify some abstract ideas (the new ecosystem of value creation, patterns of open coops, cosmo-local production). Mercè Moreno Tarrés did the dazzling original art for the site, which helps make the material so engaging.  

The Commons Transition Primer was produced by the Peer to Peer Foundation and P2P Labs with support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Kudos to Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel for conceptualizing the project and preparing much of the material, and to Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis for their contributions to the text.

George Monbiot on the Commons

George Monbiot, a columnist for the British newspaper and website The Guardian, may be the most prominent champion of the commons that I’ve discovered in mainstream journalism today.  He has long been a compelling, out-of-the-box thinker on all sorts of economic and environmental issues.  Now he is introducing the commons to his large readership and explaining its importance and its historic neglect by economists and politicians.  Bravo!

George Monbiot of The Guardian

Monbiot speaks about the need for a new “restoration story” that he calls the “politics of belonging” – a theme explored in his recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. He explicitly focuses on the commons in his column of September 27:

"Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.

"Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.

"Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.

"There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons."

Monbiot proceeds to discuss the work of the late Elinor Ostrom and recount the violent history of enclosure in the guise of “free market” progress.  Unlike most other mainstream commentators who are all too eager to suck up to the powerful (Thomas Friedman, call your office), Monbiot is daring enough to go beyond the tired orthodoxies of our time and educate his readers:

Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.

In another column (February 8), Monbiot discusses “how people can truly take back control: from the bottom up.”  He doesn’t play into the “populist-baiting” that is standard in corporate journalism, but intelligently explains how participatory democracy at the community level actually works. He even names such examples as time banking, free universities, transition towns, food assemblies (direct buying from local producers), local currencies – and examples that I’ve never heard about, such as “Men’s Sheds (in which older men swap skills and escape from loneliness), turning streets into temporary playgrounds (like the Playing Out project), secular services (such as Sunday Assembly), lantern festivals, fun palaces and technology hubs.”

Monbiot clearly understands that the commons is not a cynical ploy for shedding state responsibilities, but an empowering vehicle that is often more humane and efficient than state bureaucracies:  "A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.”

For a powerful video interview with Monbiot on the challenge of replacing neoliberalism, reinvigorating democracy, dealing with climate catastrophe, and the commons, visit Open Democracy here. 

Great Lakes Commons Issues “Currency of Care”

The Great Lakes Commons project has embarked upon an ingenious campaign to reimagine money, value and water protection by issuing its own time-limited “Currency of Care.” The bills are not likely to be used for commercial transactions.  In a way, that is the point – to spark a new conversation about money, value, community and the Great Lakes. 

The Great Lakes Commons is inviting people to give a Currency of Care note as a thank-you to people who have done something to protect the Great Lakes in big or small ways.  Or you can give notes to people as a request that they do something to protect the lakes in the future.  Paul Baines, an organizer of the project, notes:

“Each note represents the act of giving gratitude or requesting action. Each note carries the most precious value: acts of thanks and care for the Great Lakes. Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for their water protection through past actions (saying ‘thanks’) or future actions (saying ‘please’).  Because our current money systems only acknowledge economic utility and gain, our Great Lakes Commons currency needs a wildly different theory of value -- such as past/future actions for water care.”

More than 5,000 individually numbered bills have been distributed, all of them due to expire at end of year.  Why the expiration date?  Because “this currency is for sharing not saving,” the currency webpage explains.  “The value of this currency comes through its use -- its current.  The rules of today’s dollar system rationalize hoarding and controlling money to make more money.  The needs of healthy people and living water are denied not because there isn’t enough money in the world, but because it makes ‘sense’ to accumulate/hoard more and to spend it otherwise.”

The issuers of the Currency of Care make the point that “money is not just a medium of exchange, but a disciplinary force on what we value, the story of a meaningful life, and our position within this story.”  The point of the currency project is to promote a new vision of money and value:

“We need a new story for money and a new currency can help us tell it.  Right now our money commodifies time, ideas, muscle, relationships, and all of creation in order to create more money.  But what if the value of money was based on caring for water?....

“There is no money to be made protecting water as the source of life.  Financing Great Lakes care today comes through either altruistic charity or legislated compensation.  Water restoration costs are a fractional expense for a pollution-based economic system.  Advocating for a friendlier version of the current system denies its core impulses and interests.  Let’s be honest -- degrading the living earth makes obscene amounts of money and defines our current story about ‘progress.’”

Inaugurating an actual, tradeable currency that asserts its own type of value and creates new circuits of value is, of course, a very complicated enterprise.  Just ask the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which has successfully developed the BerkShares currency in western Massachusetts.

The Currency of Care should not be mistaken for such a project.  It is more of a performance art project and public-education campaign that asks us to think about reconnecting money’s value with our values.  It asks us base the value of currency on things that really matter, such as the integrity of the Great Lakes as an ecosystem. 

To promote new stories of value, the project invites people who receive or give the notes to share their stories on the Great Lakes Commons online map. People are asked to share:  “What was it like getting and sharing the notes? What kinds of conversations did it spark?  What types of past/future actions did people reward?  Where did their note go or where did it come from?”

One supporter of the Great Lakes Charter Declaration, Steve Edgier, gave his notes to activists who are protecting the Great Lakes from stormwater runoff and monitoring for sewage discharges.  Another person gave a Currency of Care to the Marquette Poets Circle for their work in “tending poetry and community along the wild shore of Lake Superior.” 

Since its inception several years ago, Great Lakes Commons has done great work in helping people to express and imagine relationships of care to those much-abused bodies of water. Here's hoping that the Currency of Care widens the circle of engagement.


“Sharing Cities” Book Shows Variety of Urban Commoning

So what might the commons actually achieve for you if you live in a city?  How might you experience the joys of commoning? Check out Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a fantastic new book that describes more than 100 case studies and model policies for urban commoning. Researched and published by Shareable, the book is an impressive survey of citizen-led innovations now underway in more than 80 cities in 35 countries. 

We all know about conventional approaches to “development” championed by investors and real estate developers, usually with the support of a city’s political elites. Much less is known about the commons-based agenda for improving cities.  Sharing Cities is an inspirational reference guide for creating such an agenda. It details a great variety of policies and projects that are empowering ordinary citizens to improve their own neighborhoods, reduce household costs, and make their cities fairer, cleaner and more liveable. 

I was thrilled to learn about Kitchen Share, a kitchen tool-lending library for home cooks in Portland, Oregon; the consortium Local Energy Scotland that is orchestrating shared local ownership of renewal energy projects; and the “community science” project run by Riverkeeper that carefully collects data about the water quality of the Hudson River.

For urban residents who have to contend with unresponsive, high-priced broadband service, how exciting to learn about Freifunk, a noncommercial grassroots project in Münster, Germany, that has built a free Internet infrastructure for everyone.  Like in Barcelona, the project converted routers into WiFi access points, creating a “mesh network” of over 2,000 nodes that has brought the Internet to places with no connectivity.  Freifunk is now the largest mesh network in Germany. 

Or what about the Nippon Active Life Club in a number of locations in Japan? This project is a timebanking system that helps people cooperate to provide eldercare. If you help an elderly person with yardwork, cleaning or general companionship, you earn time credits that you can either redeem for services or gift to older family members living in other cities. In 2016, the network of timebanks had nearly 18,000 members in 120 locations around Japan. 

The book documents many other great projects and policies, all of them divided into thematic categories such as housing, energy, mobility, food, waste, land, etc. The book itself is the product of commoning among 18 Shareable staff and fellows as well as book production experts.

You can request a free download of Shareable Cities as a pdf file (the book is licensed under a Creative Commons license, Attribution-ShareAlike. But the printed version is so handsome and well-designed that you may well want to acquire the hard copy and make a donation to Shareable for all the great work it does.

The Charter of the Forest, Now 800 Years Old!

Two years ago, we heard a great deal of hoopla on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, celebrating it as the landmark advance for the rule of law and limits on the power of the sovereign. Far less attention was given to a companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which guaranteed the customary rights of commoners to access the forests that were so vital to their livelihoods.  

These rights were secured after a long civil war against the King, who had relentlessly expanded his claims of exclusive control of the forest, punishing violators with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. So it is fitting that we pause a moment and recall that 800 years ago, on November 6, 1217, King Henry III granted the Charter of the Forest, formally recognizing in writing the customary rights of commoners to have access to the things essential to their everyday lives.

The Charter of the Forest, with the Great Seal of King Henry III

Commoners depended on the forest for nearly everything. It provided  wood for their fires and houses, pastures for sheep and cattle, and  wild game for food. The forest had mushrooms, hazelnuts, berries, dandelion leaves, and countless herbs.  The forests were a source of acorns and beech mast for pigs; brush with which to make brooms; and medicinal plants for all sorts of illnesses and diseases.

“More than any other kind of landscape,” wrote English naturalist Richard Mabey, “[the English forests of the 13th Century] are communal places, with generations of shared natural and human history inscribed in their structures.”

How is it that the Charter of the Forest has been nearly forgotten? Historian Peter Linebaugh explains in his wonderful book The Magna Carta Manifesto that the two charters of liberty were often publicly linked.  Indeed, the very term Magna Carta was used to distinguish the Great Charter of 1215 with the "lesser" one issued two years later, the Charter of the Forest. 

It wasn’t until 1297 that King Edward I directed that the two be treated as the single law of the land. In 1369, King Edward III issued a law that incorporated the two into a single statute, with the Charter of the Forest becoming chapter 7 of the Magna Carta. Over the centuries, the Charter of the Forest, seen as a minor subset of the Great Charter, receded from public memory. 

The Medieval manuscripts blog maintained by the British Library has a nice post on “how our ancient trees connect us to the past,” which mentions the Charter of the Forest and provides a rarely seen image of it. (Thanks to Juan Carlos de Martin and Ugo Mattei for alerting me to this.)  The post noted that there are over 120,000 trees listed in the British Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory, some of which are over 1,000 years old and were around at the time that the Charter was issued. 

The blog post discusses how the Charter of the Forest “rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1152, where lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully.  (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders to the point of creating hardship.)” An early case of reclaiming the commons, one might say.

But what does the Charter mean for commoners today? 

Two years ago, at an event celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, I gave a talk at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, called “Who May use the King’s Forest: The Meaning of the Magna Carta, Commons, and Law in Our Time.”  My focus was on the functional legal significance of Magna Carta (i.e., the Charter of the Forest) in meeting people’s everyday survival needs and in fulfilling human rights. 

The document is significant because it assured that everyone may access the common wealth that we all inherit as human beings – or as I put it, Who may use the King’s forests? The commoners of the early 1200s had a ready answer to this question: “What do you mean, ‘The King’s forests’?  They belong to us!  They’ve been ours for centuries!” 

This is the forgotten legacy of Magna Carta: its frank acknowledgment that commoners have rights to the things essential to human life: the right to use the forest, the right to self-organize their own governance rules, and civil liberties and protections against the sovereign’s arbitrary abuses of power.  All of these preceded the very idea of written law.  They were considered human rights based on fundamental needs and long-standing traditions.

It is fascinating to realize that, with the rise of the modern nation-state and capitalism, these rights have been steadily pared back and in many cases eliminated. There is no longer any broad enforceable right of access to resources essential to human survival, for example -- although Italian legal scholar Stefano Rodota worked hard to try to resurrect this principle.

The struggle to resurrect a law for the commons in modern times is barely underway. But it is becoming clear that commoners must reclaim from reckless market/states their right to act as stewards of the planet's ecosystems. Let us raise a toast to the Charter of the Forest and remember what it stands for.  We will be needing inspiration and instruction for it in the years ahead. 

Update: Felicity Lawrence just wrote a piece on the Charter of the Forest in The Guardian, "For a fairer share of wealth, turn to the 13th century."  Also, here is an excellent piece, by Dr. Guy Standing, a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, which appeared in OpenDemocracyUK.

Re-imaging Politics through the Lens of the Commons

This essay of mine appeared on September 21 at journal-e, published by the 21st Century Global Dynamics website, UC Santa Barbara.

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?   Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.   Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.   The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

Cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has said, “I’ve given up on fixing the economy.  The economy is not broken.  It’s simply unjust.” In other words, the economy is working more or less as its capitalist overseers intend it to work. Citizens often despair because struggle for change within conventional democratic politics is often futile—and not just because democratic processes are corrupted.  State bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems. The limits of what The System can deliver—on climate change, inequality, infrastructure, democratic accountability—are on vivid display every day. As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future.   The fundamental problem in developing a new vision, however, is that old ideological debates continue to dominate public discourse. Politics is endlessly rehashing many of the same disagreements, failing to recognize that deep structural change is needed. There is precious little room for new ideas and projects to incubate and grow. New visions must have space to breathe and evolve their own sovereign logic and ethics if they are to escape the dead end of meliorist reformism.

As I explained in a recent piece for The Nation magazine, insurgent narratives and projects are actually quite plentiful. Movements focused on climate justice, co-operatives, tradition towns, local food systems, alternative finance, digital currencies, peer production, open design and manufacturing, among others, are pioneering new post-capitalist models of peer governance and provisioning. While fragmented and diverse, these movements tend to emphasize common themes: production and consumption to meet household needs, not profit; bottom-up decisionmaking; and stewardship of shared wealth for the long term. These values all lie at the heart of the commons.   For now, these movements tend to work on the cultural fringe, more or less ignored by the mainstream media and political parties. But that is precisely what has allowed them to evolve with integrity and substance. Only here, on the periphery, have these movements been able to escape the stodgy prejudices and self-serving institutional priorities of political parties, government agencies, the commercial media, philanthropy, academia, and the entrenched nonprofit-industrial complex.

Why is the public imagination for transformation change so stunted? In part because most established institutions are more focused on managing their brand reputations and organizational franchises. Taking risks and developing bold new initiatives and ideas are not what they generally do. Meanwhile, system-change movements are generally dismissed as too small-scale, trivial or apolitical to matter. They also fade into the shadows because they tend to rely on Internet-based networks to build new sorts of power, affordances (structural capacities for individual agency), and moral authority that mainstream players don’t understand or respect. Examples include the rise of the peasant farmers’ group La Via Campesina, transnational collaboration among indigenous peoples, platform co-operatives that foster sharing alternatives to Uber and Airbnb, and the System for Rice Intensification (a kind of open source agriculture developed by farmers themselves).   Rather than try to manage themselves as hierarchical organizations with proprietary franchises, reputations, and overhead to sustain, activists see themselves as part of social movements working as flexible players in open, fluid environments. Their network-driven activism enables them to more efficiently self-organize and coordinate activities, attract self-selected participants with talent, and implement fast cycles of creative iteration.

System-change movements tend to eschew the conventional policy and political process, and instead seek change through self-organized emergence. In ecological terms, they are using open digital networks to try to create “catchment areas,” a landscape in which numerous flows converge (water, vegetation, soil, organisms, etc.) to give rise to an interdependent, self-replenishing zone of lively energy. As two students of complexity theory and social movements, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, write: 

When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

The old guard of electoral politics and standard economics has trouble comprehending the principle of emergence, let alone recognizing the need for innovative policy structures that could leverage and focus that dynamic power. It has consistently underestimated the bottom-up innovation enabled by open source software; the speed and reliability of Wikipedia-style coordination and knowledge-aggregation, and the power of social media in catalyzing viral self-organization such as the Occupy movement, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Syriza in Greece. Conventional schools of economics, politics and power do not comprehend the generative capacities of decentralized, self-organized networks. They apply obsolete categories of institutional control and political analysis, as if trying to understand the ramifications of automobiles through the language of “horseless carriages.”

Instead of clinging to the old left/right spectrum of political ideology—which reflects the centrality of “the market” and “the state” in organizing society—we need to entertain new narratives that allow us to imagine new drivers of governance, production and culture. In my personal work, I see the enormous potential of the commons as farmers and fisherpeople, urban citizens and Internet users, try to reclaim shared resources that have been seized to feed the capitalist machine—and to devise their own governance alternatives. In this, the commons is at once a paradigm, a discourse, a set of social practices, and an ethic.    Over the past five years or more, the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy. The commons has also provided a language and ethic for thinking and acting like a commoner—collaborative, socially minded, embedded in nature, concerned with stewardship and long-term, respectful of the pluriverse that makes up our planet.   If we are serious about effecting system change, we need to start by emancipating ourselves from some backward-looking concepts and vocabularies. We need to instigate new post-capitalist ways of talking about the provisioning models and peer governance now emerging. Influencing unfolding realities may be less about electing different leaders and policies than about learning how to change ourselves, orchestrate a new shared intentionality, and hoist up new narratives about the commons.