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The Commons Moment Is Now
A farmers' market
Photo credit: flickr/burke_wicker, Creative Commons license

by Jay Walljasper

Public recognition of the commons is rising, best seen in this dramatic statistic from the source that best measures the zeitgeist of our times: google. In June 2004, a google search for “commons” turned up 6.3 million hits. That search repeated in November 2008 yielded 255 million— 40 times as many references in just over four years. Internet growth accounts for a part of this gain, but it’s clear that the phrase “commons” and the wealth of ideas behind it are entering popular consciousness.

But as powerful as this idea is, the commons is not widely understood by the public. The phrase resonates in most people’s ears, but is often understood to mean specific concerns such as public lands or civic spaces. The commons actually represents an interconnecting web of critical concerns that reach deep into the realms of culture, ecology, technology, economics, politics, human relationships and social systems. There is a need for public education campaigns that excite people from all walks of life about the potential of a commons-based society to improve their own lives and reorder society’s priorities.

The growing interest in creating a commons-based society is fueled in part by the auspicious historical moment that is dawning all around us. It’s reminiscent of the time thirty years ago when liberalism was losing its footing and conservative policymakers refashioned their old political rhetoric based on social exclusion and apologies for corporate capitalism into a shiny new philosophy known as “the market.” Previously the thrust of right-wing thought had been focused on what they were against (civil rights, labor unions, social programs etc.), but claiming the market as their mission allowed them to showcase what they were for. The success of that “re-branding” has shaped our world.

The commons now offers a similar opportunity to turn things around in the political and economic spheres. Yet unlike the theory of the market, the commons is not just old wine in new bottles; it marks a substantive new dimension in political and social thinking.

The promise of a commons-based society offers considerable appeal for progressives after a long period in which the bulk of their political engagement has been in reaction to right-wing initiatives. Activists across many social movements, now aware that an expansive political agenda will succeed better than narrow identity politics and single-issue crusades, are starting to embrace the language and ideas of the commons. This line of thinking also appeals to a few traditional conservatives who regret the wanton destruction of social and environmental assets carried out in the name of a free market revolution. In the truest sense of the word, the commons is a conservative as well as progressive virtue because it aims to conserve and nurture all those things necessary for creating a better world.

At this moment in history growing numbers of citizens—including many who never before questioned the status quo—are willing to explore perspectives that once would have seemed radical. Millions of Americans are now making shifts in their personal lives such as buying organic foods, trying alternative medicine, collaborating in creating software, and beginning to search for something that offers a greater sense of meaning in the world. They may not yet understand the idea of the commons, but they are looking for something different in their lives.

The time seems ripe today for a decisive shift in worldview. People everywhere are yearning to tap the potential of the human spirit to create a better world, and the dream of a commons-based society holds great practical potential to transform that hope into constructive action.

This is an excerpt from an essay published by On the Commons.

Jay Walljasper, co-editor of and senior fellow of Project for Public Spaces, is author of the Great Neighborhood Book.

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