“Common good and the Commons” – speech to Ngara Institute

By Tim Hollo August 24, 2017

The below is a speech by Executive Director Tim Hollo to the Ngara Institute, on August 23, 2017.

Common Good: Democratic Futures for People and Planet

So, common good.

I want to talk you this evening about a version of that, a concept which has been much maligned but is a beautiful model for democratic futures for people and planet: the commons.

The commons is an ancient concept, imbued with deep understandings of connection, to each other and to the natural world we are part of. The commons, although often misunderstood as a “thing” – a field, or the atmosphere, which belongs to everyone and therefore to no-one – is better understood as a system.

The commons is a system by which a community agrees to manage a resource, equitably and sustainably. As Commons theorist David Bollier describes it, it is “a resource + a community + a set of social protocols”. The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, AND the people, AND the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, prevent free-loaders, share the benefits.

Many commons existed healthily for millennia, many still exist today. And many new ones are being developed, including online, such as Wikipedia and Linux. But more than systems for managing individual resources, the commons presents a model for a new (old) way of organising society, a new politics. It’s a radical path – neither capitalism nor socialism, but a truly ecological politics.

Why did the idea of the commons get so maligned? Well, it’s always faced many challenges. Human psychology and society is complex, and selfishness, the desire for wealth and power over others, sometimes outweighs care, compassion and cooperation. Commons are designed with that in mind, with structures in place to balance our desires. But throughout history, there are numerous examples of commons culture being replaced or over-ruled, usually locally or temporarily.

Then, along came the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of capitalism. Where previous systemic challenges, like imperialism, still included some form of balance internally, often a religious imperative to share, or a feudal system of devolved mutual responsibility, capitalism for the first time threw that out. Capitalism became the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition, non-cooperation its credo. Commons were systematically enclosed, people booted off land which was now a resource to be used instead of shared and protected.

It’s in this context that Garrett Harding wrote his famous essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, which should really be renamed The Tragedy of Capitalism’s Inability to Understand the Commons. Harding wrote of how individuals who, for some reason, can’t or won’t talk to each other, can’t or won’t cooperate with each other, will fail to manage commonly held resources. Well, that’s no surprise. But it’s not a description of a commons – it’s a description of capitalism.

None of this, of course, is to deny the tremendous benefits which have come from these centuries of what we like to call “progress”. Longer, healthier lives for more people; better food and water; literacy and numeracy; extraordinarily great art; the ability to travel, extend our horizons; the technological sublime – all the information in the world at our fingertips.

But it has also brought us to the point of crisis. Several crises, in fact. Several interlinked crises. We face right now a crisis of equity, a crisis of ecology, a crisis of society, and a crisis of democracy.

And one of the things that links them all together… is the inability to link things together, and the inability to link ourselves to the whole. Our fundamental crisis, in my opinion, is a crisis of disconnection, disempowerment, disenfranchisement. We are alienated from each other, from nature, from democracy, even from ourselves. We are alienated deliberately, by a system which is designed to keep us apart, to tell us we are separate from nature, to proclaim that “yes, we are all individuals”, to insist that we have great freedoms while systematically removing more and more of our capacity to have any real control or influence over anything real in our lives. The system, I believe, started to head that way accidentally, or incidentally, as it developed, through the problematic admixture of scientific principles, religious ideas, and the exercise of power. But it became a deliberate strategy. Margaret Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society, and then worked deliberately to make it so, alongside Reagan, Friedman, and the other architects of the neoliberal hegemony

Let’s look at a few examples of that disconnection.

First is our loss of capacity to feel part of the natural world. The separation of humanity from nature has been building ever since we first built cities. But it’s really that coincident development of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that performed the amputation.

Cartesian dualism, and the Burkean view that, in the state of nature, life was “nasty, brutish and short”, were the philosophical basis, while the newly ascendant economic imperative drove the enclosure of the commons, the clearances, forcing people into cities to sell their labour. Through this process, we begin to lose not just our connection to the natural world, but, starkly, our ability to describe it, our vocabulary. Blackberry no longer means a fruit we can pluck and eat, but a device to tie us to our labour even when on the toilet.

The natural world becomes a resource to be used. It becomes an “externality”, not even something to be counted among the things that matter. And when we do try to count it, we make it abstract, fungible, a product for sale – the Great Barrier Reef is ‘worth’ $56 trillion’? Ecosystems provide ‘services’?

In this system, we cannot protect nature. We will fail to do so until we stop treating it as separate, until we reconnect. As one of my favourite slogans goes, “we are not protecting nature, we are nature protecting ourself”.

Let’s turn to the rise of the extreme right: of Hanson in her burqa; of Trump and the new American fascists; of Brexit; of religious fundamentalist violence of various kinds.

All these gain their power by tapping into disconnection and disenfranchisement. Economic inequality is one driver, but it’s only part of it. What is deeper is the sense of disenfranchisement, and that’s not just a sense; it is real. “Take back control” the Brexit slogan, makes sense. It is absolutely right that “elites” have taken control of our lives, have bought or stolen or been given our institutions, our democracy.

However, what all these demagogues do is the classic fascist bait and switch. They grab the disconnection and bring people together, not in order to cooperate to build better futures, but rather as the mob, primed and ready to incite. They rile people up about unfairness and inequality and lack of control, and then misdirect it, away from the real causes of corporate power and towards some scary other, like Jews, blacks, immigrants, gays, the unemployed. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, they use the cover to complete the corporate take-over of the state.

Just as we cannot protect nature until we connect ourselves to and within nature, we won’t be in a position to fight fascism until we are able to truly show we are connecting and enfranchising all people. We fight their exclusionary “we” by showing that an inclusive “we” is not just possible, but better.

Hanson and co, and their toxic hatred are of course, far from the only problem in our politics. The corporate take-over that Naomi Klein writes about is a key driver of the loss of legitimacy and effectiveness of government, as are the related issues of the erosion of respect for evidence, science, expertise.

Another is that government no longer has any real presence in our lives thanks to privatisation and corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services. The relationship between citizen and government becomes one of customer and service provider, in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role. We face a deep democratic deficit, with the undermining of the power of voting, of protest, of parliaments, even. See the access corporations have to parliaments and MPs. See investor-state dispute resolution in international trade law, where companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often when citizens have no such power themselves.

Our adversarial system, where politics becomes a gladiatorial battle rather than a tournament of ideas, similarly contributes to disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Another strand is the over simplification of political disagreements to superficial caricatures, the idea that we can’t deal with complexity. Which, of course, when we’re stressed, we can’t, so we turn to populism.

We turn away from politics and democracy because we no longer believe they can achieve anything. We desperately need to reclaim them!

If it is the deliberately constructed crisis of disconnection that is at the heart of all our crises, in order to tackle any of these crises, we must tackle them all together, and we must do so by rebuilding connection. By building a democratic, equitable, ecological politics of the commons.

I noted that I see commons-based ecological politics as distinct from both capitalism and socialism. This is critically important in the context of current debates within the Greens, and within social democratic politics around the world as well. I propose it in part as a way through Greens ructions, and a way past Corbynism.

Let me make myself a little clearer: we do not face a choice between the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of centralised control. We do not face a choice between privatisation and public ownership. This is not a binary, as it is often presented by both ‘sides’.

The commons presents another model that is about participatory, deliberative democratic paths, embedded in nature, based on the principle of subsidiarity, or putting control into the most local hands possible, and limiting the opportunities for domination and free-riding.

Under capitalism, nothing is connected, everything is atomised, all is abstraction. Under socialism, people are connected, but often excluding the natural world, and not always sufficiently democratic and participatory, due to its preference for centralisation. Under commons-based ecologism, everything is connected.

For the right, government should get out of the way of business but maintain social order. It’s a rhetoric of freedom with an increasingly obvious undercurrent of hard control.

For the old left, government knows best. It’s a rhetoric of democracy with an undercurrent of paternalism. Neither of them gives people back control over their own destiny. Neither of them can deal with the disconnection and disenfranchisement which are at the heart of the crises we face.

For the commons, however, government’s role is to enable people and communities to find their own way, within the context of equity and sustainability, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse. This is, of course, a part of the left – a green left. It implies strong regulation of corporations and markets, because they are based on rewarding free-riding. It implies high taxes on the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth because they are the basis of cooperation and trust. It implies true equity, deep equity, systemic equity.

But here’s the kicker in the capitalism / anticapitalism debate: I don’t think we need to “tear down” capitalism. Not anymore. Because we no longer live under true capitalism – we live in a corporatocracy. The ultra rich have taken control, as capitalism’s obsession with competition essentially ensures that they will. Most of us live comfortable enough lives that we’re ok with that, especially when we’re misdirected to think about other things – our lives kept deliberately busy, binge watching the next series on Netflix, hating on the people over there.

But that’s not all. While capitalism is crumbling, a whole lot of people are out there already building a new world based on commons principles. The commons era is here. It’s always been here and it’s growing again.

What does this look like?

One obvious element is the growth of sharing and repairing. From local “buy nothing groups” to repair cafes, from community gardens to swap-meets in the park, these practices of the commons, fundamentally non-capitalist, non-socialist practices, have always existed. But they are experiencing a new boom as people search for connection to each other and alternatives to the increasingly obviously destructive nature of consumerism. Of course, there are those who seek to turn these practices into corporate capitalist versions, like Uber and AirBnB. But there are also brilliant approaches in the other direction, such as the Swedish Greens’ introduction of tax breaks for repairing goods rather than replacing, institutionally supporting commons practice.

Another, often used by sharing models, is the rise of online commons. One of the reasons for the recent growth in these practices, I believe, is that the connective capacity of the internet lends itself to commoning. Open source is a clear demonstration of how commons practice can create huge value, and a challenge to those who say only competition can do so. Linux and Wikipedia are prime examples, and Creative Commons licensing is an institutional reflection of it.

One of my personal passions is working to reclaim public space from advertising. This is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests to profit from, and we can and must reclaim it. Cities such as Sao Paolo and Grenoble have done so, banning billboard ads, and Paris, Chennai and others are limiting it. A small group of us have recently beaten back a proposal by the ACT government to relax the restrictions on billboard advertising that is one of the precious things about our beautiful city. Other forms of reclaiming public space commons going on include the fun “parking” parties, turning parking lots into guerilla parks, to the more pointed Occupy campaigns. In a sense, occupying a politician’s office is a form of reclaiming the commons, isn’t it?

There is increasing interest and movement again towards worker and community coops, from fruit packers and dairy farmers to baby-sitting clubs, from food coops all the way through to large scale energy cooperatives. Coops and mutuals, while they can operate under both capitalism and socialism, are a commons practice. They are, essentially, all about a group of people coming together to equitably and sustainably share a resource, with commonly developed rules.

Taking coops to a remarkable institutional level, we’ve seen the arrival some modes of truly participatory politics, such as the recently elected government of Barcelona. Spain, of course, has a long history of coops, with the most famous being Mondragon. In the wake of the GFC, with Spain deep in recession and government (and EU institutions) driving austerity, a tremendous coop-based people’s movement arose across the country, the Indignados, the movement of the squares, food sharing coops, childcare sharing coops, healthcare coops, housing coops, squatters groups and more. At a national level it petered out politically, with Podemos never quite meeting expectations. But in Barcelona, it was powerfully organised into a political movement called Barcelona en Comu – Barcelona in Common. I was lucky enough to travel to Barcelona earlier this year and met with some of the people involved, hearing about the direct line between building those coops, organising them together in grassroots ways, with both practical projects and theoretical thinking, leading to the creation of a political project which won minority government last year. Now, of course, they are struggling with how to create institutional change, particularly with national and global powers arraigned against them. But they have successfully taken back control of water supply, legitimated squats, are working to make energy a public right rather than a commodity, and much more. It will be fascinating to watch their progress.

I also travelled to London and met with the people behind the Participatory City project there. Trialled in south London and now starting a far larger project across the huge and very poor Borough of Barking, they are working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own urban commons projects, from cooking coops to knitting groups, from pop up shops to creative cafes, partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community. They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills from homelessness to drug addiction to family violence. They see it as a different mode of politics: not public, not private, not paternalistic, but participatory.

At a lower level, it’s worth noting that governments around the world are experimenting with participatory democracy in a direct response to demands for greater democratic involvement, and societal tensions caused by disenfranchisement. Often they are focussed on local planning issues, but they are also used to get to answers on difficult questions of public policy, sometimes effectively like in South Australia’s citizens juries, and sometimes disastrously and as a distraction, such as the postal vote on marriage equality.

A final idea I want to raise is the growing push for a Universal Basic Income, something the Green Institute has been driving public debate on here. Essentially, all a UBI is is a system where income doesn’t start at zero, to ensure that nobody in our society lives in poverty. Just like we agree that nobody should do without health care, and nobody should go without at least a basic education, nobody should be left in poverty. But, deeper than its redistributive effect, it is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources, time, energy, support they need to take the steps they might want to take in life. It is an enabling policy for the great majority of people, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and inherently devaluing free-loading and greed-based behaviours.


That is very far from an exhaustive look at how commons practices, when envisioned and implemented systemically, can help address the crisis of disconnection at the heart of the social, economic, ecological crises we face. So much more is going on, and so much more is possible.

To encapsulate the vision of commons-based ecological politics:

We all have dreams and hopes. For most of us, they’re not about greed or wanting something other people have. They’re about wanting to be who we can be. The job of government isn’t to get out of the way, it’s not to tell us to do something else, and it’s certainly not to pull the rug out from under us, and leave us on our own to do it. The job of government is to create a nurturing environment to enable us! To provide us with support, with tools, with health and education and housing, with clean air and water and a healthy environment, with good food, with a basic income, with mutually developed rules to prevent free-riders, and with the opportunity to participate as fully as we choose to in building our own common destiny.

To recalibrate the title of tonight’s event – “The Commons: good democratic futures for people and planet.”


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