A treasury of Jonathan Rowe's insights
By Russ Baker
Originally published in Who What Why
The commons is the multitude of wonderful things we all share, but rarely consider. Some of us, in our own battles in our communities, have long been fighting for the commons—and didn’t even know it.
In his posthumous book, Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, Jonathan Rowe writes:
To get to San Francisco from where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It’s just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are mainly ranches, not much changed from a century ago.
Recently, a sign appeared by the road there. “SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE,” it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders.
Then I saw the [sign’s] smaller print: “Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing.”
That story makes me smile, because it so Jon Rowe. A close friend and idea co-conspirator, Jon tirelessly challenged the American anthem, “more, faster, bigger, louder.” For years, in one article and column after another, he asked that we pause our relentlessly self-centered, materialistic spree long enough to consider where it might be leading us.
If one thing most defined Jon’s work, which appeared in The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Monthly and other publications, it was his ability to help us better see ourselves, our lives, and our culture—with clear, simple, oddly beautiful prose.
Life was once rich in occasions for spontaneous interaction. People shopped on Main Streets, visited on front porches, attended political events in public venues. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had their famous debates in county fairgrounds and town squares all over Illinois, and farmers and townspeople sat for hours in the heat and dust to hear.
Today most Americans live in suburbs conceived as staging areas for consumption. They move about in the enclosure of cars and shop in the anonymity of malls from which community activities are largely excluded. Politics consists mostly of negative ads shown on television screens. Then people wonder why they feel lonely and depressed, and why the sense of community has vanished.
Over the course of his life, Jon was and did many things—he worked in government, in journalism, he lived in several of the nation’s biggest East Coast cities and ended up as an activist and radio host in a tiny West Coast town. Along the way, he discovered that our definition of “progress” was seriously misleading, because our statistical indices, such as the Gross Domestic Product, count almost everything business does as progress: i.e., each tree cut down is counted as a plus, while the downside of all those trees lost is not taken into consideration.
He also saw that what we share in common is more important than the things that divide us or put us into constant competition. This wasn’t just some abstract notion. It was about real things you inhale, stand under, stroll upon.
I remember whenever Jon visited me in New York, he would register genuine joy at all the things that make this metropolis seem so human-scaled: the small businesses with the owner on the premises, the vest pocket parks, the walking, the streetcorner interactions—how I could descend from my apartment onto a street teeming with opportunities to eat, read, and immerse myself in the passing parade.
Jon died unexpectedly before he had a chance to fully explain and implement his ideas concerning the little-understood concept of “the commons”—and certainly before enough people got to learn of them and of him. Indeed, when I looked up “The Commons” on Wikipedia, I found a number of commons advocates listed (including Peter Barnes, Jon’s close friend and collaborator), but Jon’s name was not even included. That’s why a group of his friends got together after his death in 2011 and pledged to help spread his ideas in his absence.
The result is Our Common Wealth, a collection of his writings from 1993 forward.
Commons: An Uncommon Concept
The commons, simply put, is everything not claimed as private or governmental property. It is the multitude of wonderful things we all share, but rarely consider. The commons includes things you can see and touch, as in a beach or mountain, but it is also conceptual. It exists when we decide to work together for a common interest rather than in pursuit of individual gain. Some of us, in our own battles in our communities, have long been fighting for the commons—and didn’t even know it.
The term “commons” dates back to medieval England, when it referred to certain rights that everyone had, even on land owned by the aristocracy, for example, to graze their animals. Over the years, the term has evolved. The basic notion, though, is much older—Roman law actually declared certain things intrinsically common property, notably air, wildlife, and navigable waters. As Jon noted:
Government does not own these and therefore cannot privatize them, even if it wants to. Much like trustees of an estate, governments are legally obliged to maintain these assets for the benefit of all, including future generations.
But the commons is under constant assault.
Inch by inch, Jefferson’s vision for America is turning upside down. Centuries ago the concept of private property emerged as a means of liberation. It helped break the shackles of royal power and served as a bulwark against the state. But as Jefferson intuited, taken too far, private property becomes another version of what it once opposed.
In fact, we’ve become so enamored with the promises of privatization that we’ve permitted it in almost every sphere, no matter how illogical or inequitable. Take water, “a gift of nature” traditionally available to all save the drought-stricken. This common resource is now under threat from developments like the disappearance of public water fountains and the growth of a humongous bottled-water industry.
Meanwhile, the very gene pool we share with all life is being divided up into patentable tranches, like the corporate seeds that have drawn the ire of both small farmers and consumer groups.
We scarcely discuss the injustice and inutility of large corporations taking what we all own and doing whatever they want with it, without compensating us. Consider the Earth’s atmosphere,
It really is remarkable when you think about it (alas, most of us don’t think about it) — this corporate seizure, cannibalization, despoliation of things that we all own communally. Such takeovers are blessed by a government that corporations increasingly own. Yet if we take the time look more closely, we can see a state of affairs that violates the most basic principles of the social contract. Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the first polio vaccine, understood this. When asked in the 1950s who would own the drug, he replied: “There is no patent….Could you patent the sun?”
Well, six decades later…..almost.
… Corporations now claim ownership of everything under the sun, if not the sun itself: body parts, business practices, DNA. They even claim ownership of the English language. McDonald’s has asserted trademark claims to 131 common words and phrases, such as “Always Fun” and “Made For You.”
The Cost of Market Mania
The Internet has promised something different—information abundant and free. It has spawned an atmosphere of exuberant creativity and generosity. In the early days of the Web, a fellow named Jimmy Wales had an idea that probably sounded crazy to many at the time: create knowledge online for free, using volunteers who got paid nothing at all. Today, that idea is called Wikipedia. It is the ultimate commons—and how many of us would want to do without it?
But if the Web presents new opportunities for sharing, it also presents opportunities for corporations to fence off profitable chunks of cyberspace. These days, corporations are trying to block municipalities from offering their citizens universal free wi-fi. The reason? The corporations can’t make a buck off it. So they employ an army of influencers to convince us that something as innocuous as this is somehow harmful.
Jon Rowe was outraged by this power play.
Municipal wi-fi isn’t a step toward socialism any more than free sidewalks are. Free sidewalks mean more business, not less, for enterprises that connect to them. Just so, city-provided wi-fi is good for enterprises that do business via the Web, as opposed to those that sell connections. The argument that municipal wi-fi is bad for free enterprise is totally specious.
When FDR’s co-ops extended wires to isolated farms, private enterprise did not suffer. To the contrary, it had new customers for light bulbs and refrigerators and many other things. Even markets benefit from a world in which some things aren’t run for private profit.
The alternative is to put everything on the market. Yet the market is not quite so wonderful and majestic in all its aspects as we are constantly told. Jon Rowe was particularly struck by the enormous burden placed on befuddled consumers to sort through the endless and deliberately confusing “options” offered by health insurance providers, cell phone services, banks and the like, making it punishingly difficult to figure out what is in our interests and what is a rip-off.
Indeed, part of Jon Rowe’s brilliance was to see our “market mania” as itself largely the creation of marketing—and to see that the commons could use a little of the pixie dust.
A few centuries ago, people looked at economic life and saw many seemingly unrelated things. They saw factories and farms, shipping firms and theaters, and so on. Then, in 1776, Adam Smith came along and said, “These aren’t separate things. They are different aspects of the same thing—the market.” His insight gave mental shape to the whole, and the idea of the market with its beneficent “invisible hand” has dominated public imagination ever since.
It has certainly made life easy for the Wall Street Journal. Without the market to cast a devotional glow upon private transactions, the Journal would be left with just a welter of deals to report. The market ties those mundane transactions into a larger narrative of uplift and grace. The editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course; it is embedded in the magical word market.
We need to do something similar with the commons—to embed it not with myth but with truth, possibility, and morality. The true part is, The commons is real, huge, and invaluable, and it belongs to all of us. It’s also being destroyed—not by itself, but by too much privatization. The possibility part is, We have the capacity to save the commons, though time is short. The moral part is, It’s our right and duty to save the commons.
For the growing number of militant and outspoken Libertarians, for whom “Austrian economics” is the Kool-Aid of choice, Rowe has a cautionary note. For this, he relies on no less an authority than Wilhelm Ropke, an Austrian economist greatly influenced by Ludwig von Mises.
Ropke, according to the Ludwig von Mises Institute, “devoted his career to combating collectivism in economic, social and political theory.” Yet in a book he wrote called A Humane Economy, Ropke confessed that his beloved market was not to be entirely trusted. “The highest interests of the community and the indispensable things of life have no exchange value and are neglected if supply and demand are allowed to dominate the field,” he wrote. “The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits and conditions.”
Besides, anyone who thinks that private riches and possessions are entirely self-earned is willfully blind. As Rowe noted:
Virtually all “private” wealth emerges from collaboration among individuals, society and nature. The most “self-made” men and women draw upon a vast pool of knowledge and natural gifts they did nothing to create. They also benefit from schools, roads and other public services, including enforcement of contracts and property rights. Warren Buffett, whose candor is in the same league as his wealth, says that society is responsible for “a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”
In fact, the vaunted market economy as it actually works in the real world is replete with private interests eagerly accepting taxpayer subsidies. This ranges from our buying roads for private timber companies harvesting public land—more than we get back in fees from them—to media conglomerates getting free access to public airwaves so they can bombard us with ads.
We do not question the mantra of “private over all,” in part, because we have elevated economists to quasi-deities, and abdicated the responsibility to ask: does the creed of “selfish is best” really make sense for our lives?
For most economists, context barely exists. They fixate on a hypothetical molecule of economic action called homo economicus. This is the imagined creature who inhabits the economics texts and computer models that are the silent dictators of analysis and policy. He or it seeks only and always to maximize his “utility.” He has no social affinities, no lapses of judgment, no capacity for thinking about anyone beside himself. He goes through life with a relentless calculus of personal loss and gain. Basically he has the emotional development of a three-year-old, only with better math skills.
It is of course easy to dismiss Jonathan Rowe as a naïve sentimentalist, irrelevant to the “march of progress.” But as we more rigorously calculate the costs associated with that march, we see that this is no longer simply a philosophical discussion. Increasingly, we see that we are running out of space, and resources, and time.
As Rowe noted, where once commons were abundant and products scarce, today we have the reverse. As a result, the quality of our lives is greatly diminished..
For this reason the commons is not a relic. It is a parallel economy that does real work, a counterpoise to the market that provides antidotes to many pathologies of the modern age.
Some aspects of the commons are intangible, but no less vital. Here’s one: quiet. Studies show that sleep is essential to high performance in work and school, that it improves health and increases energy.
The market’s answer is drugs for sleeping and concentration—more products for sale, in other words. But does not quiet get better results at less expense? Critics say noise controls are obstacles to the economy. In reality they are economic measures that meet a real need.
Even more intangible: childhood itself.
Not long ago, kids played their own games. They were weaned on centuries-old stories that spoke to them at a deep emotional level. Storytelling in families established a bond between generations and provided a window to the adult world. Today this cultural ecosystem is dying. Kids are immersed in narratives constructed for the purpose of making them want things. They play games devised by corporations, and their toys are expensive devices in which the content lies in the product rather than the child. It is not coincidental that kids are petulant and overweight and have trouble focusing their attention.
What’s Wrong, and What Could Be So Right
It turns out that, as Jon noted, neither the market nor big government work so well that we cannot find plenty of areas in which the commons produces results as good or better–like the ad hoc community self-help associations that sprang up after Hurricane Sandy.
In fact, throughout the United States and the world, we see examples of innovations in the commons, from the opening of downtown public spaces to the spread of farmers markets to the enlivening of neighborhoods where families voluntarily tear down back fences to create larger shared spaces.
One of the ideas that excited Jon was “time banking.” Individuals “bank” good deeds in a central repository from which they themselves may later “draw” benefits. This kind of “pay it forward” exchange could be especially useful for our aging population, encouraging people in their prime to help others and then get the help they need at a later stage in life. And that’s just for starters.
In the American West, there is a growing movement to tear down dams so that water can flow back to its most beneficial uses. In much the same way, there’s a need to release time back into the commons. To put it another way, more flexibility to the workday, and more time off, does not mean a slackening of work effort.
Rather, it means a shifting of work time from the market to the commons. The best thing Bill Clinton did as president may have been the Family and Medical Leave Act, which enabled parents to spend up to four months with newborn children before returning to work. Business lobbyists predicted economic disaster. Instead, we had an economic boom, and parents got a few months to be real parents.
Time is the basic human resource and the starting point of freedom. To use more time for commons work could be the next freedom movement, the one that truly claims the promise of the Industrial Revolution.
In short, Jon Rowe thought that shared innovations, interests and spaces had an intrinsic value warranting at least the same protections and encouragements afforded the private and the governmental. Thus we would see measures to limit the ability of behemoths like WalMart and shopping mall companies to blithely destroy Main Street, and measures to stop big corporations from hijacking the Internet by imposing two-tiered pricing benefiting big users. As defenders of the commons, we must assert our shared interests by saying, “Here, but no further.”
Steps like these would not mean more government intrusion into economic, environmental, and social space. Rather, they would make it possible for something besides corporations to occupy these spaces.
Indeed, more and more, non-corporate activities are occupying our spaces. As I was finishing this article, I took a walk down to New York’s Lower East Side for the Ideas City Festival. Though small local for-profits also participated, the event was defined by the presence of innovative and joyously free or inexpensive concepts and enterprises, there for everyone to enjoy. I saw people collecting junked electronics for recycling, a bus that brings mobile gardens to green-starved inner cities, a lending library of sketch books prepared by strangers from all over the world, people teaching others how to fix objects, on and on it went.
After all, sharing really isn’t so bad, once you get used to it. If you can just get over the bad words with which it is unfairly associated.