How to start thinking and speaking like a Commoner?

The world of commoning represents a profound challenge to capitalism because it is based on a very different ontology. Many of us have internalized the language of separation and individualism. We value objects according to their market value, as opposed to their attributes and local context. Commoning has a different orientation to the world because its actions and values are based on a deep interconnectedness and relationality of everything.

Language is not only a powerful tool by which we communicate and coordinate with each other. It also shapes our perception and self-awareness. Through language, we create and express ideas and values, hence language is an important building block for creating culture.

To help us better grasp the ontology of the commons and begin to unlearn the separations which capitalism has caused, we turn to a term which can be found in multiple Bantu languages throughout South Africa: Ubuntu. Though it has no synonym in Western languages, the concept can be roughly translated to, “I am, because we are.” (Kenyan Christian religious philosopher and writer John Mbeti). In other words, Ubuntu implies the deep interdependence of “me” and “others”. The term also acknowledges the tensions that can exist between the individual and the collective and honors the processes dedicated to resolving these tensions. 

Inventing a new language for a commons society : Silke Helfrich & David Bollier at work (French version coming soon) 

Misleading binaries from our everyday language: 

In their book ,“Free, fair and alive”, Silke Helfrich & David Bollier propose “keywords from a fading era” which illustrate some of the reasons why it is challenging to reflect the subtleties of the commons through our market-focused language. We have chosen a few terms from the book which are often understood as contradictions in our everyday language. In a commons ontology these terms are best understood as two sides of the same coin, one side is the prerequisite for the other side’s existence. 

Collective/Individual: This binary is often used to suggest that the interest of an individual is positioned against the interests of a collective. This idea is reflected through the term “self-made man”, an illusory concept since an individual can only develop skills and identity through their participation in a collective. And vice-versa: the collective can only come into being through individuals. In other words, the two are interdependent, not polar opposite entities.

Consumer/Producer: Standard economics generally regards consumers and producers as a duet: a business produces, an individual consumes. But as commons and open networks empower people to self-provision (individually and collectively), the two functions can merge. 

Market/State: Although markets and states are often presented as separate and oppositional — the public sector vs. the private sector — they are in fact highly interdependent. It’s helpful to think of them as partners in a shared vision. The public and private sectors are mutually committed to a worldview based on market capitalism, as the market economy’s structure depends on public financing and civil infrastructure. And states, for their part, look to markets as sources of tax revenue, jobs, and geo-political influence.

Glossary of Commons-Friendly Terms:

As we begin to grapple with a commons ontology, we have started collecting words and expressions related to the commons and translating them into Tunisian Arabic. This Glossary is a growing collection of terms through which we also welcome new suggestions from our readers in the hopes of building a locally rooted commons vocabulary. 

The following terms are featured in “Free, fair and alive”, and are highlighted by the writers as they help us learn to name, see, and understand commoning more clearly.

Care: Care is a disposition and empathetic engagement that manifests in how someone undertakes an activity, including economic ones. Care also describes elemental human activities which are based on an awareness of interdependence, neediness, and relatedness. It can be seen in raising children, nursing family members and friends, peer governance and provisioning, and stewarding nature, among other activities. The term, which has a long history in feminist studies, recognizes the importance of decommodified work and intrinsic value, which are generally ignored or undervalued by market culture. For more on care and how capitalism and patriarchy depend on unpaid “reproductive labor” to sustain themselves, we recommend looking into Silvia Federici who for more than five decades, has been researching, lecturing and writing about. This type of labor obviously includes bearing and raising children, but also refers to the countless tasks needed to maintain households such as preparing food, cleaning, taking care of elders and running errands.

Care-Wealth: When people take care of forests, farmland, water, or urban spaces, these become part of their shared memory, culture, social lives, and identities. Thus when commoners provision for themselves they become stewards of care-wealth — things, living systems, and relationships that are the focus of affection and care and constitute the basis of their livelihoods. The term resource, on the other hand, invites us to regard shared wealth as something to be used, extracted, and turned into an element of an economic calculation.


Illustration of the Nested-I concept by Mercè Moreno Tarrés from “Free, Fair and Alive”. 

People living in modern liberal capitalism tend to regard the individual as an isolated person independent of larger systems of community, nature, and politics. This is reflected in common divisions such as individual vs. collective, public vs. private, and objective vs. subjective.

To use the term Nested-I rather than “individual” is to recognize that one’s identity, skills, and aspirations are ultimately rooted in human and nonhuman relationships. With this self-awareness, the person who recognizes themself as a Nested-I realizes that self-interests and larger collective interests are not opposed to each other (individual/collective), but can be aligned. The Nested-I stands in contrast to the “Isolated-I” which is perfectly depicted by homo economicus, the model of a human being used by economists: a person who is self-interested, rational, utility-maximizing, and absolutely autonomous – the infamous “self-made man”.

Heterarchy is well-explained by the original Greek ετεραρχία: the term heter means “other, different,” and archy means “rule.” In a heterarchy, different types of rules and organizational structures are combined. They may include, for example, top-down hierarchies and bottom-up participation (both of which are vertical), and peer-to-peer dynamics (which are horizontal). In a heterarchy, people can achieve socially mindful autonomy by combining multiple types of governance in the same system. For example, a hierarchy form may exist within a heterarchy, as long as all people within the structure agree to it. 

A heterarchy is a hybrid that allows for greater openness, flexibility, democratic participation, and federation.

Free, fair, and alive : the insurgent power of the commons / Silke Helfrich & David Bollier, Page 153

Peers are people who have equal social and political power relative to other members of a group or network. Peers have different talents and personalities, but they see each other as having the same rights and capabilities to contribute to a collaborative project and to decide how it shall proceed.

Provisioning. Meeting people’s needs through a commons is called provisioning. The term is an alternative to the word “production,” which is inextricably associated with the neglect of the nonmarket spheres of family, community, and care, and a focus on market prices. The purpose of provisioning is to meet people‘s needs, whereas the purpose of production is to generate profits for those producing the goods and services. A basic goal of provisioning is to reintegrate economic behaviors with the rest of one’s life, including social well-being, ecological relationships, and ethical concerns.

DIT means do-it-together. It is complementary to DIY, do-it-yourself, which in practice mostly means do-it-together. DIT helps name a form of DIY that is commons-based. Both seek to avoid relying on money and markets.