The Commons


In much of our world, but not in the United States, there’s an ancient and beautiful concept called The Commons.

The Commons is our shared life support system. It can’t be owned, because it’s on hold for the future. The air, wilderness, the multitudes of species, our genes, the sky and ocean, flowing water, language, knowledge, culture and stories, democracy, ecosystems, and the airwaves are all examples of The Commons. The un-caged commons is the ground of all our assets.

The Commons is a parellel economy, as well as a counterpoise to the market. It balances the endless appetite of all our brainwashed cravings with real stability and sustenance. Industrial capitalism’s market economy cannibalizes The Commons, without counting any of it as value, but The Commons is the missing link between the economic system and the social system.

Unlike uncolonized Indigenous people who expressed the commons ritually, or older civilizations in Europe, Africa, and Asia that enjoyed access to a protected commons in their daily lives, we need to work to even find the Commons, which exists so quietly all around us, and is so taken for granted that it’s invisible. Once we do find it, we need protect it with our full consciousness, and with our bodies.

The wealthy founders of the United States came from Europe to create a country without a commons. This country and its constitution were built on the concept of private property, where everything is owned by someone. Private property is a notion so sacred that it’s still the most basic element in our political culture. Unquestionable in polite society.

Worldwide, the history of capitalism has been about enclosing the commons in a commodified market. Life is enclosed in invisible ways: fences are replaced by consumer culture. Main street is replaced by the mall. Our natural desires for real community are thwarted and replaced with fake spectacle that’s stolen from nature or other cultures and then sold back to us.

All spaces are filled in with the collective hallucination of spectacle: the entertainment and retail atrocities of consumerism. We pass though gateways of spectacle, sedated and surveilled, surrounded by traffic, electronic machines, and pretty things with hideous stories. Nothing is free of control or a price tag because there isn’t any common space.

Malls are made to look like they’re public spaces, but try speaking out in a mall, try getting signatures on a petition. Same with roads, streets, and parks. The state controls them all. The street is an endless window of consumerism on one side, and a metal river of cars flowing endlessly on the other. The controlled, one-way messages of our media substitute for first-hand knowledge, and for community. In this way, the corporate interpretation becomes our unified reality.

We have national parks, where we pay to Be, and national forests whose job is to sell off trees, oil, hunting and fishing licenses and other resources to private individuals or corporations to destroy our only public wilderness.

Giving our own meaning to the world and creating our own ways to play and act in it are fundamental parts of human life. But where are the spaces that encourage this? Because our world has so little free space, the real adventure of our hearts has been replaced by fake adventure, and the thrill of creation with the drill of consumption. We need to invent new games that can take place in the conquered spaces of our world, play and work that will join us together and conquer the alienation of privatization.

With car culture and suburban isolation, all of society is geared to keeping us out of the street. The street is a temporary place to move through, not a space to act in. The industrial consumption empire wants to keep everyone indoors, where nothing uncontrolled or spontaneous can happen. But the streets might be social democracy’s greatest arena, the alternative and subversive form of the mass media, where authentic communication and community can take place.

It’s in the streets that power must be confronted and dissolved, joyously transformed. The street party is about direct political action in real public space; an explosion of our suppressed potential and a chorus of diverse voices in solidarity. And ultimately, it may be in the streets where power to reclaim the commons will be challenged. In the struggle for car-free space, for consumption-free space, we subvert the spectacle. We take back public space from the enclosed private arena.

We delay. We disrupt. We move into the streets of this alienated world with many messy and inconvenient questions. This is civil liberty. This is a revolution of rising real appetites, the language of longing, the spontaneity that seeks an authentic identity. There’s a secret manifesto inside every one of us to redefine power and success, and to free ourselves from the deadly industrial compulsions of our present situation. There’s an intoxicating subterranean current that remembers we are animals. Unfinished animals. Uncaged and questioning everything.

What can liberate private space? Reclaiming the streets protests. Critical mass bike rides. Community gardens. Cooperatives. Public art and street theater. Mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. Declaring genetically modified free zones. Squatting. Lobbying for laws protecting air, water and species. Protesting. Seizing, even briefly, collective space, reclaimed and defended, to end enclosure and restore The Commons so that Life can continue. Because history isn’t something that just happens. It’s what we make happen. And our longing makes gateways to new worlds.

*(This piece was written for the Strange Cages Vox Feminista show. We did a reclaiming action in the streets that was pretty wild, and filmed it, and I read this piece over the top of the images.)

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