The commons that can’t be named

A defining characteristic of life is the ability to make distinctions between things. This is critical to being able to identify how some things are different to others and to develop behaviours and systems based on these differences. A simple cell has a wall that lets in some nutrients while keeping others out; at an early age we learn to discern the difference between our own and our parents’ bodies. As children we learn to paint and draw by understanding inside and outside of lines, as architects we collect materials to make subtle divisions between inside and out. Expert knowledge can easily spot a fake from an original or a pinot from a cabernet, and so on. This observation is mundane, and yet it is crucial to reconsidering our relationship with the world around us. The Western world and its modern project have performed superbly at making such distinctions. We live in a society that is a great big distinction-making machine. The arts and sciences of maps, manuals, dictionaries, wikipedias, encyclopaedias and classification systems are dizzying lists of reality that excite, entice and inspire.

Yet attachment to the alluring content of these lists has profound consequences:

  1. Distinction requires definition and naming and this creates the conditions for claims of ownership. Ownership implies the existence of things that can be transferred by sales, deals, and theft. This is the character that joins the impressive scientific search for knowledge and the subsequent capitalist enclosure of these new domains. This process operates on that which is already understood and known, such as land and material resources, and the newly discovered such as airwaves and DNA.
  2. What remains camouflaged by this description and characteristically lost within our distinction-system is the awareness of the commonality that underpins the world. We intuitively characterize things into objects and stuff into materials, and by doing so we realise meaning and purpose in the world. But we also establish a veil between our lives and that which-is-not-named, the things and stuff that are too big, too small, too complex, too profound, too obvious, too complete or too ubiquitous to see. In doing so it is too easy to forget the common grounding of reality. Preoccupied with what we own, what we have, what we look like, what we identify with, what we see, what we perceive, what we know, and what we understand, we easily forget that lying not only beneath all of this but also within and without everything is a commonality that is just as true as our careful and clever distinctions.

By becoming aware of the common we also become aware of the work that is involved in making it distinct and naming it. Through the endeavours of cataloguing, archiving, labelling, indexing, critiquing, tasting, testing, and accounting we manage, control and stabilise these distinctions. Through the work of creating, improvising, urbanising, making, synthesising, problem solving, innovating, and inventing we realise new and undiscovered commons. As collectives of people and assemblages of materials and objects what would happen to our economic and social systems if we became more sensitive to these three factors: the common from which everything emerges, the work both creative and analytical that we use to engage and experiment with it, and the powerful distinction making-machine that dominates our way of being.

We need a new community of pirates. Men and women committed to defending the commons and standing up to the excesses of enclosed wealth. So put down your ipads and put on your eye patches and let us work to enlarge that stage of the commons upon which we must all play our part. –KESTER BREWIN

The Christchurch that can be named

As you’d expect after a major natural disaster, Christchurch has been awash with crises: damaged houses, broken sewerage systems, destroyed neighbourhoods, shifting demographics, the removal of democratic systems, schools shifting, overwhelmed councils, a disregard for heritage, damaged roads and footpaths, insurance delays, complex bureaucracies, closed parks and pools, environmental damage, land sinking, fears of climate change induced flooding, massive gender shifts, broke universities, conflicting visions for the city, a lack of talent in key areas, consenting issues, overlapping power structures, disrupted routines, dealing with grief, long-term stress, businesses forced out of the cbd for over two years, inconsistent urban planning, a lack of consultation, the removal of the regional council, broken bridges, damaged roads, and so on and so on. Each of the things in this list is evidenced by many individual examples — it is a list of lists. It is easy to think that each of these problems is a tidy and discrete entity that is remediated by the application of effort and resource to return it to normal. That normality is achieved when the roads are fixed by a road fixing team, and the democratic problems by elections, and the insurance problems by more effort. There is some sense in this, and these technical solutions are naturally important. But to think that this massive rolling muddle of nature, economics, and politics can be ‘fixed’ through technical means is to miss the underlying issues creating the various situations.

The first step is to realise the interconnectedness of the problems and crises. They are crises for the very reason that they cannot be fixed through normal means. The problems are large and complex enough to transcend the normal operations that drive cities. Each problem relates to a thousand others, and these to a thousand others again, and it is only when the city has the time to carefully pick through each in the right order that progress starts to happen. The various overlays that drive our society such as property rights, business ownership, mortgages, and political representation are threatened by the fact that the problems transcend the boundaries that keep these things functioning in normal life.

The second is that this interconnectedness represents the commons. Not only are the natural and cultural resources that underlie our world common to us all, our common world, but the large events that happen have meaning because they affect all of us, perhaps not evenly, but commonly. The waves of crises are difficult and not evenly distributed — inevitably the mobile and well-off are better prepared to rebound and take advantage of the new opportunities — but they are spread through networks of commonality, of shared roads, rivers and communities. The incredible response from people outside of Christchurch after the quake and the on-going internal support networks struggling now represent this shared commonality.

Lastly, crisis presents new opportunities and leads to the creation of new commons. Technical solutions are problematic because they are based on the idea of returning to a past romanticised by its rude destruction. When new cultural, social and economic structures have formed in response to the problems of the quake, these in turn lead to more new things. The commons produced by these new cultural forms will be enclosed by the frames we use to operate our society. This is the way we chose to live, and it isn’t without its problems.

The least we can do is remember the resources we use and create that flow through us — our bank accounts, our houses, our bodies, our relationships, our wallets, our fridges — are part of a much bigger chain than we conventionally imagine. We might have developed some clever ways to sell or exploit our common world, but it is from this common ground that everything we will ever know emerges. It was around long before us and will be here doing its emergent thing long after we leave.

This was first published in Freerange Vol.7: The Commons published by Freerange Press.