On the Commons

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On the Commons
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We Power

From people's quiet yearnings, come new possibilities for a shift from me to we

By Julie Ristau & Alexa Bradley

The dynamics of social change are complicated that that, as shown in this essay by On the Commons Co-director Julie Ristau and Program Director Alexa Bradley. It pinpoints the power of our yearnings to set the stage for future action. We live under the market paradigm today, they write, in which “people’s social, political, and even personal consciousness is conditioned by their belief in the market as the only efficient system to organize society.” That means it takes time for many people to respond to events like the economic crisis, and that when they do it comes out first as feelings, not as policy proposals. But three years after the crash, there’s an upsurge in outrage about the richest one percent high-jacking the U.S. economy—and rising interest in the commons as a way to find our way of this mess. — Jay Walljasper

Adapted from the On the Commons book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons .

Young and old together, we will not be moved. (Credit: By David Shankbone, a photographer offering many vivid images from Occupy Wall Street under Creative Commons licenses at flickr.com)

The commons continues to rise up within us as a yearning—a deep sense that that life means more than buying and selling.

Through our experience with numerous community projects, we’ve come to see how deeply contemporary society is immersed in the market mentality. So long as market fundamentalism remains the lens through which most Americans see the world, it will be very difficult for people to envision a commons-based society, let alone work to revive actual commons that are under threat in their communities.

This realization led us to examine how people’s social, political, and even personal consciousness is conditioned by their belief in the market as the only efficient system to organize society, and to look for points of entry for introducing commons-based ideas to the wider public.

It is jarring to realize just how far modern culture has drifted from the commons existence that for ages was central to human society. Our sense of we has been assaulted, chipped away at, forgotten. Of course, we can’t retreat back to the past. But it’s important to look at what we have lost and how that affects us today.

Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science who popularized the phrase “paradigm shift,” defines a paradigm as “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on, shared by the members of a given community . . . [as] a set of unassailable, unconsciously accepted truths.” He goes on to describe the dramatic revolution of thought needed to make a shift—to break out of the deeply held beliefs of an old paradigm that no longer serves us.

Claiming the Commons

What happens when we apply this thinking to our market-based society and the re-emerging idea of the commons?

In one of our workshops, participants hit upon the idea of colonization as a way to describe how we became separated from the commons. Our culture is saturated in the market paradigm. The concepts of consumer, ownership, private, worth, and profit define how we think about ourselves, our relationship to each other and everything we encounter. It displaces all other ways of making connections and finding meaning.

Colonization denotes total economic, social, and cultural domination of one people by another. It instills a belief system—a paradigm—that legitimizes large-scale theft and repression, making them seem entirely natural.

The market paradigm justifies damage that is done to people’s lives as inevitable and dismisses the possibility of another way of life as naive and romantic. The commons continually erodes under the force of the market paradigm and eventually disappears from our view. In accepting the complete dominance of the market paradigm, people unconsciously relinquish a part of themselves that is sustained by the commons.

Imagination = Hope

Envision what would happen if the commons paradigm became a fundamental framework for modern life, gradually outstripping the market paradigm. That’s not easy to do. It requires a leap from our usual thinking. It involves cracking open the constraints on our imaginations that prevent us from seeking a true transformation of society.

Yet we have found that people identify and value commons experiences in their own life as well as in the stories of their families, communities, and country. The commons is an imaginable (even if largely forgotten) reality, not just a theoretical concept. A reawakening of our ability to embrace a com¬mons perspective seems possible.

To explore the potential of a commons paradigm means not just formulating policies and programs, but excavating our feelings and recollections. Remembering is the first step in locating missing information that we can use to discover a new story about how we can live and thrive. As is often said, we cannot return to the past, but we can appropriate it, recover it, and use it to shape a new direction for the future.

Challenging the Old Story

Before any new commons paradigm can emerge, we must understand what the old market paradigm tells us about what’s possible and what’s not. Even though we don’t often think about the old story that runs through our heads, it keeps a remarkably firm grip on our overall thinking in the following ways:

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