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Book review: Wealth of the Commons

As the collaborative consumption movement and the sharing economy continue to expand rapidly, an ever greater number of people worldwide are recognizing the importance of the things we have in common. The “Wealth of the Commons” is a book containing a diverse and exciting number of global voices that challenge us as they explain what it means to take these “commons” seriously.

The Wealth of the Commons, edited by veterans of the commons David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, is a revolutionary book full of constructive input for the growing sharing economy, including a diverse group of voices drawn from intellectuals and activists across the globe. Instead of attempting to provide formal definitions or grand plans, they ambitiously and artfully combine diverse viewpoints from people with similar sympathies, bringing together all sides together to plant new seeds for the growth of a democratic commons.

What is the “commons”?

What is the “Commons”? In a certain sense, it is defined against a social darwinism that emphasizes competition and zero sum games, the ugliness of contemporary capitalism and a statement that democracy in self-declared “democratic” lands is “largely a sham” as control is monopolized by a “closed oligopoly of elite insiders.” The commons, then, become a way of re-emphasizing community and democracy in the wake of hyper-individualization, a recognition that the “mechanisms and processes of representative democracy are no longer a credible vehicle for the change we need.” Instead, we, the people, can come together to transcend and remake the political and economic order.

Natural ecosystems used to solve real problems

The book continues as a series of essays on community building and collective transcendence, drawing frequently from the natural world, a stimulating essay by Andreas Weber on the economy of ecology, challenging the mainstream view of life as an endless process of optimization; a piece by Ugo Mattei on how ecosystems can be used as a model for both philosophical and legal thought, and a preview of Bollier’s forthcoming book on Green Governance. Editor Silke Helfrich also contrasts for-profit ways of thinking with the commons paradigm in a table that should be required reference for anyone in the collaborative or sharing space, illustrating the principles behind successful decentralized organization.

Diversity and Innovation

In some ways, given the diverse topics and large size of this book, it is best approached through careful consideration of individual essays. The essays, of which there are seventy two in total, are helpfully divided into five sections: on the commons in general, on capitalism and economics, on social innovation, on knowledge and information technology, and on the challenges of governance. One of the best ways to understand what is at stake here is to read the transcript of the spirited debate held between members of the International Commons Conference in 2010, which tackles the ideas of growth, abundance, and consumption of resources in the context of information technology, something that expresses both the diversity and the kindred spirit of their viewpoints.

The end of social darwinism?

Throughout the book is a dramatic sense that Darwinism, carried to its logical conclusions, brings us into destructive war of all against all, and that a commons capable of combatting against the excesses of for profit individualism must reach both forward and back. In the context of the commons, this means both utilizing  new technology to combine likeminded people with the goal of collaboration, and to re-emphasize communal values that have been undermined by the relentless emphasis on profit in modern society and the monopolization of democratic discourse by those who value profit first and foremost. The commons in this sense is like a tree; deep roots ensure that rapid growth remains stable and sustainable.

The commons grows and grows

The book ends with a series of beautiful stories illustrating how the commons movement is growing in strength and cohesion each year, something that certainly is felt by the many contributors to Ouishare and peer organizations like Shareable.net. Simply gathering such a diverse set of voices in the same place represents a small but significant step forward, as we observe global consciousness evolving to meet the environmental and social challenges of our day. A further evolution in the commons is certainly at hand. It is a hopeful and exciting future that awaits us.


Header image of book from www.wealthofthecommons.org