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Silke Helfrich on the commons and the upcoming International Commons Conference

As more and more of the world’s population has gained access to the Internet so a growing number of free and open movements have appeared — including the free and open source software movements, free culture, creative commons, open access and open data.


Once these movements became widely visible — and successful — people were keen to understand their significance, and establish what, if anything, they have in common. Today many observers maintain that they share very similar goals and aspirations, and that they represent a renaissance of “the commons”.


There is also an emerging consensus that, contrary to what was initially assumed, this renaissance is not confined to the Internet, and digital phenomena, but can also be observed in the way that some physical products are now manufactured (e.g. by advocates of the open source hardware movement) and in the way that many are now recommending the natural world be managed.


For instance, argue self-styled “commoners”, when local farmers establish seed banks in order to preserve regional plant diversity, and to prevent large biotechnology companies from foisting patent-protected GMO crops on them, their objectives are essentially the same as those of free software developers when they release their software under the General Public Licence: Both are attempting to prevent things that rightfully belong in common ownership from being privatised — usually by multinational companies who, in their restless pursuit of profits, are happy to appropriate for their own ends resources that rightfully belong to everyone.


Once understood in this broader context, commoners add, it becomes evident that the free and open movements have the potential to catalyse radical social, cultural and political change; change that, in the light of the now evident failures of state capitalism (demonstrated, for instance, by the global financial crisis) are urgently required.


Larger movement



In order to facilitate this change, however, commoners argue that the free and open movements have to be viewed as component parts of the larger commons movement. In addition, it is necessary to embrace and encompass the other major political and civil society groups focused on challenging the dominance of what could loosely be termed the post-Cold War settlement — including environmentalism, Green politics, and the many organisations and initiatives trying to address both developing world issues and climate change


But to create this larger movement, says Jena-based commons activist Silke Helfrich, it will first be necessary to convince advocates of the different movements that they share mutual objectives. As they are currently fragmented, their common goals are not immediately obvious, and so it will be necessary to make this transparent. Achieving this is important,adds Helfrich, since only by co-operating can the different movements hope to become politically effective.


To this end Helfrich is currently organising an International Commons Conference that will bring together over 170 practitioners and observers of the commons from 34 different countries.


To be held at the beginning of November, the conference will be hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin. The aim of the conference, says Helfrich, is to spark “a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and the convergence of the scholars studying the commons and the commoners defending them in the field.” Helfrich hopes this will lead to agreement on a “commons-based policy platform”.


What is the end game? Nothing less, it would appear, than a new social and political order. That is, a world “beyond market and state” — where communities are able to wrest back control of their lives, from faceless, distant government, and from rootless, heartless corporations.


As Helfrich puts it, “the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called ‘invisible hand’ of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”


Well qualified



Helfrich is well qualified to organise such a conference. She has already run three conferences on the commons, and she has a deep understanding of development politics. Between 1999 and 2007 she was in charge of the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean — where she focused on globalisation, gender issues, and human rights.


Since her return to Germany in 2007, Helfrich has developed an international reputation for commons advocacy through her German-language CommonsBlog, and she moderates an interdisciplinary political salon called “Time for the Commons” at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


She has also written many articles and reports on the commons for civil society organisations, and recently edited an anthology of essays on the commons called To Whom Does the World Belong? The Rediscovery of the Commons.


The full post, plus an interview with Helfrich, is available here.

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