The future is commons
Sharing as anti-capitalist practice
Can you put a price on a person? Can the value of a life be completely and accurately measured? Is it possible to reduce a friend or a family member to a number? Under late stage capitalism, it seems like the answer is yes. For example, wages measure your perceived utility in society, and life insurance is calculated based on your personal risk (cost) factors.
You don’t need to look very far to see some of the problems with capitalism. The fact that we have billionaires, while so many are struggling to get by, mean that the immense economic inequality in our society is manufactured and intentionally created by capitalism. Capitalism relies on exploitation, and capitalism’s history is rooted in racism, expropriation, and inequality. The big issue I have with capitalism is that it obscures relationships. To me, at the heart of inequity is the erasure of all our relations. Capitalism is dehumanizing. Do you know who grew your food? Who are the “essential workers” stocking the shelves in the grocery store? Who are the hundred faces that put your phone together? What’s the name of your bus driver? Do you actually know or care who Devin is when UberEats asks you for a rating? Do you feel valued as an employee number on your payroll?
And what about the relationships we have with the nature around us too? What about our neighbours of land, rivers, mountains, and animals? Is there existence really nothing more than a resource for us to exploit? Do they not equally deserve to exist, as living and non-living beings (that are also vital to our existence through complex ecosystem services)?
When we reduce something to a number, we lose complexity and we lose meaning. We lose relationships. Instead of mutual and deferred reciprocity, we have tit for tat. Instead of caring for others, we have competition.
Sharing as a solution
How can we heal the relationships in our lives? I don’t have a solution for you because I don’t think it’s actually possible to stop capitalism. We cannot stop something built over centuries overnight. Instead, I think we need multiple small solutions. We need many, smaller alternatives. For those of you starting a New Year’s resolution today: if you want to get into shape this year, do you just simply lose or gain 10 pounds? No, you take multiple smaller actionable steps that you repeat continuously until they become new habits, such as going for a run two times a week, having a smoothie every morning, or doing a deadlift in the gym. We don’t end capitalism by ending capitalism. We end capitalism by acting out new non-capitalist futures.
So what does that actually look like? I have a very radical proposition: sharing. If you think about it, sharing is inherently anti-capitalist. If sharing was invented today, it wouldn’t. Sharing is the dividing and distribution of resources, especially if you already have an abundance. More importantly, sharing is different from capitalism because it _creates_ relationships. When someone gives you something you need voluntarily, you remember. Sharing creates networks of mutual reciprocity and obligation. The gift economy is also fundamental in many sustainable Indigenous modes of living, making sharing one way to advance decolonization.
Sharing as commons
Why will sharing work? Sharing works because it has existed long before capitalism. In my property class, we talked about the origins of capitalism and private property (which are intertwined). Before private property, private property didn’t exist. This seems obvious, but it’s important to realize that capitalism is kinda a new thing and people have lived happily before capitalism. So what was there before? The commons. Also called the wastes, the commons were resources that were shared by an entire community of people, such as a field, which everyone in the community was entitled to use. Sometimes the commons were pieces of unarable land (land that can’t be used to grow crops) that people could put cows or pigs on to feed. The commons were also highly social: they were regulated through complex nets of reciprocity and sharing: communities would meet yearly to decide who uses what and to prevent over exploitation. And because you know all the other community members, you have a strong incentive to keep good social ties with everyone, who in return also look out for you.
The thing is, the commons are a threat to capitalism. When everyone is happy and able to sustain themselves through subsistence and sharing, there is no need to go out and buy things, or even get a wage job. Why even bother? If you were able to get everything you needed by growing things, making things, and trading things with friends, would you want to go to work?
So if commoning is so great, how did commoning get replaced by modern day capitalism and private property? Enclosure. Enclosure is the process of making things that were once commonly available privatized, or able to be used by only one person. This was very unpopular and highly resisted by commoners who depended on the commons. But through violence, displacement, and even witchhunts (to disrupt the powerful self-sustaining roles of women), private property became massively powerful.
You may have heard of the tragedy of the commons, a popular cautionary tale of the dangers of sharing due to individual self-interest. This is a common misconception that was used to justify the enclosure of commons, when in fact a more apt term would be the tragedy of the unregulated free market. Commons were highly sustainable and regulated through social networks of obligations and relationships.
The commons is important because it is an alternative to capitalism. The commons is an evolved and scaled-up form of sharing. As an alternative to capitalism, commons actually makes sense and doesn’t rely on capital-based solutions to solve capitalism-created crises.
Why does communing work?
1. Commoning has existed before capitalism and has a proven track record.
Many people point to previous failed models of alternative modes of production as a reason for why things like quasi-communism would never work. Commoning was a robust mode of production before capitalism and still continues today in various shapes and forms. Two billion people around the world still engage in subsistence living and commoning.
2. You already use the commons every day
Do you use social media to access and share information? Do you use Wikipedia or other peer-collaborated forums? Have you ever checked out a book from a library? Do you use open source software or the Internet? Have you ever participated in a town hall, community event, church group, community garden, or brought a sick friend some soup? These are some examples of commoning that you might already participate in on a regular basis, and it would be hard to imagine life without it.
3. Commoning creates small-scale solutions that are easy to adapt and implement
Every time we participate in the commons, we participate in one of the many small alternatives to capitalism. Because networks of sharing and reciprocity may be inherently smaller, we can better leverage strong social connections and relationships to look out for one another. Small solutions also mean that they can be easily adapted to different circumstances that work with unique and individual needs, which capitalism fails at. And commoning adapts to changing technologies as well, such as through the Creative Commons, citizen crowdsourcing, and citizen science. Commoning works because sharing is a universal concept.
4. Commoning is co-created and non-coercive
Commoning isn’t about ending capitalism, rather, it’s about creating an alternative to capitalism outside of capitalism. And unlike capitalism, commoning isn’t coercive. You share because you want to. You share because you choose to care about others and want the community around you to succeed. Commoning’s focus on relationships is healing, creates resilience, and is necessary to unite people. We all have deeply-ingrained needs to be heard, to be a part of a community, and to contribute to the well-being of others. Commoning does that!
How will we stop climate change? How do we address systemic inequalities? How do we decolonize? How do we navigate social crises? How do we even begin to conceptualize the way forward? Sometimes, it feels impossible. Sometimes, I am reduced to lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, held down by nothing but the extraordinary weight of the problems outside of my control, problems that I didn’t start and can’t stop but still benefit from, problems that have been decades, centuries, in the making and unmaking. Sometimes, all I can feel is a bubbling well of rage and anger, of injustice and vengeance at the unfairness of it all.
But lately, things have been different. This is a story about hope, love, and transformative change. This is a story about new solutions and new possibilities.
When we think about alternative futures, I think about a future where commoning plays a bigger role in our lives. I think about a future where we have deeply meaningful relationships with our neighbours and community, a future of abundance and not manufactured scarcity, a future where people are happy to share and happy to receive. Commoning is a way of finding our way back to each other. Capitalism works hard, but human relationships work harder.