Defending the Commons, Defending Life


August 31, 2006
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Commons Language

In a sense, President Bush has done humanity a service. He has provided a foil in a drama that was lacking one, and set in motion a politics that did not before exist.

The president did not invent the assault on that which we Americans own together—our air and water, our public lands, our Main Streets and public spaces, our public domain of culture and knowledge, and the rest. The enclosure of these for corporate gain has been going on for decades.

But generally it has been what my colleague David Bollier has called a “silent theft.” (See his excellent book by that name.) There was a residual sense of boundaries to be tiptoed across.

President Bush, by contrast, has turned the taking into a raucous frat party. Hey, some national park land with your brewski? Public airwaves? How about we dump some gunk into the air and watch the enviro pansies cringe? The naked greed and the brazen sense of entitlement have caused people to take notice. More, they have given shape to that which is being taken.

That’s the strange thing about the corporate incursions into our time and space: we haven’t had a language for them. The economic culture views the process from the standpoint of that which takes, rather than that which is taken from. The takers are called, collectively, the “market.” The process is called, collectively “growth.”

What exactly is taken? There has not been a word. The assumption is that the market—the realm of money—expands into a void. The world is little besides economic primal sludge that awaits the beneficent hand of the money makers to attain reality and life.

That’s mythology of course. But in the absence of a counter-language, the advocates for the taken have had to fight their battles by themselves. Water issues in one cubby, battles to preserve Main Streets from Wal-Mart and McDonalds in another; battles to save the gene pool from corporate control in another, ad almost infinitum.

One side had the market as a master narrative to glorify the taking. But there was no corresponding narrative or language to explain the loss and make possible a politics of opposition that was more than the sum of its disconnected parts.

“It is hard to focus our attention on the nameless,” William James, the psychologist and philosopher, once wrote. Politics really does start with words. That is why the emergence of the commons in the issues lexicon is so important. It gives a name to that which has been nameless, and therefore the possibility of a politics that is genuinely new. This politics is based not on government programs but rather on a parallel realm of productivity and value that needs protection just as the market does.

This new movement is starting to emerge. Defenders of the air and water, the public domain of knowledge, the cybernetic town square of the World Wide Web, and many other goods are invoking the commons as a central concept in their work. The social and environmental are coming together. It is almost as though the viral aggressions of the current administration have provoked an antibody against themselves.

Economists still scoff, and mainstream journalists follow. No news there. But the old narrative is playing itself out. As breakdowns in the natural and social realm continue, and recourse to the old mechanisms just makes them worse, the opinion establishment won’t have any choice but to accept a new narrative.

Jonathan Rowe is a writer and policy analyst, coauthor of the book Time Dollars, a YES! contributing editor, and a founder of the Tomales Bay Institute.