28 January 2016

The Commons as a path for philanthropy to catalyse system change

In its quest to promote deep progressive change within society, philanthropy is often blamed for addressing the symptoms rather than the roots of problems. In other words, we seem to promote short-term and single-issue strategies, transactional reforms and techno-fixes that eventually reinforce the logic of the dominant system instead of attempting to build a new one 1. The current system, of course, is the ubiquitous market paradigm, which step-by-step has transformed citizens into consumers and the common good into a utopian fantasy of infinite economic growth.

If we take this critique seriously, two fundamental questions must be answered: Can the system be changed? And, how could philanthropy help spur a more transformative agenda?

To the first question, the answer is: Yes, obviously a paradigm shift is possible! In fact, it’s already happening in countless locations and projects around the world. The biggest problem is that the solutions exist right under our noses, but we do not recognise the patterns of possibility that they present to us.

As funders engaged in this field, we believe that the Commons discourse and concepts offer a way forward. It provides a practical, non-ideological way of simultaneously addressing the failures of the neoliberal economy and the modern bureaucratic state (“the market/state”), and their inability to meet ecological needs and assure social justice.

But the Commons is not just a critique. It consists of many highly generative, diverse and participatory solutions that are largely independent of both the market and state. Commons are already being implemented throughout Europe – in collectively managed housing, water systems, farmland, internet communities, alternative currencies, and institutions governed in a participatory way.

In terms of governance, Commons are an important answer to the democracy crisis. In most of the western countries, the electoral representative system is exhausted. Citizens are getting more and more frustrated and wish to be involved more directly in decision-making processes. Public-private partnerships are not so much a triumph of joining public power and the entrepreneurial spirit than a capture of the State and the Common Good.

Promising answers are likely to arise from the local level. Urban commons are thriving all over Europe, for example. Sometimes they consist of occupations of public spaces when privatisation or commodification are threatening a cultural place (Teatro Valle in Rome) or a green area (Gezi Park in Istanbul). But more and more, commons are arising through local experiments supported by city governments, such as the Urban Commons Charters in Italy that are inviting citizens groups and neighbourhoods to take charge of parks, neighbourhood spaces, social services and kindergartens with the support of the municipality. There are also commons-centric civic organisations such as the Assembly of the Commons projects in Ghent, Lille, Toulouse and the Chamber of the Commons in Chicago.

These new forms of public-commons partnerships are leading to new legal innovations and management entities, such as the Acqua Bene Comune’s management of the water system in Napoli. The commons-oriented municipal coalitions in a number of Spanish cities, such as the En Comu coalition in Barcelona, have launched a number of innovative experiments in commons-based management as well. The Law for the Commons Wiki curated by David Bollier is a first attempt to survey the more significant realms of commons-based legal innovation today.

Commons-based projects are often confusing to mainstream economists because they challenge such fundamental neoliberal premises as the scarcity principle. Yes, certain resources remain finite, but seen through the Commons lens, in which use value trumps exchange value, there is no need to have an over-abundance or limitless amount of land, energy, water or money. Sufficiency can become an operational principle.

The Commons provides all sorts of non-market means for meeting people’s needs. For example, the peer-to-peer mechanisms allowed by an open internet 2 provide an infrastructure for all kinds of services, from software code and Wikipedia knowledge to shared design and manufacturing based on open source principles. The collaborative economy, gift economies, and peer production are becoming the new realities of a revitalised social and solidarity economy.

In the face of such developments, the myth of capitalist proprietary innovation is breaking down. The creativity of peer-to-peer collaborations has proven to be much more efficient than the corporate system 3 and also more sustainable since it does not depend upon the planned obsolescence of products. Fablabs and other makerspaces are expanding the range of open design and hardware production. The big question is whether these types of not-for-profit activities will be able to flourish or whether they will be captured by typical capitalist businesses such as Uber and Airbnb, which don’t reinvest their profits in the Commons.

Beyond economics, Commons entail a huge cultural shift in values. While the capitalist narrative focuses on competition and the individualistic maximisation of profit, the Commons puts inclusive participation, cooperation and collaboration at the forefront of its vision of humanity 4. This cultural vision and worldview is not new; it draws upon such heterodox historians as Edward P. Thompson and Peter Linebaugh, of the “history from below” school 5, and extends to ecophilosophers like Andreas Weber and cultural activists like Banksy who see the arts as a means of popular education and civic participation.

What’s really at stake with the Commons is building a framework for a free, fair and sustainable society – that’s a challenging triad! Of course, the Commons is not a one-size-fits-all solution; in fact, it expressly sees each commons as a unique historical and cultural creation. The Commons helps us imagine functional, locally-adapted solutions that do not depend upon the State alone.

As for the question of philanthropy’s role in fostering Commons, our answer is that philanthropy needs to be more oriented towards system change. That means taking risks and departing from the mainstream, “respectable” notions of politics and policy. Achieving system change requires overcoming so many challenges and so many interconnected crises that we must get out of our comfort zone and develop a more independent, courageous type of grantmaking. In other words: if we don’t want to be part of the problem, we must participate in developing the solutions.

As we can see with the Commons alternatives, such a system change is not utopian. They exist already. But they are mostly underground, scattered, and under-resourced. Philanthropic money is badly required both to strengthen the political and cultural foundations of this new paradigm – through think tanks, policy research and other convenings – and to widely spread the associated practices and social innovations through coordination among European commoners.

Our foundations have taken the initiative to address these two challenges by launching a working group on the Commons within the EDGE Funders Alliance in Europe. Our three expected outcomes:

  • A deeper understanding of the different commoners movements and groups in Europe, and the challenges and opportunities
  • Engagement with other European foundations in developing a translocal and European advocacy agenda for the Commons
  • Great foundations’ commitment for advancing commons-oriented initiatives in 2016, 2017 and beyond, including collective strategies such as coordinated or pooled funding, collective convenings, and publications

EFC and its members are very much welcome! Join us and let’s embark together for a systemic change journey with the Commons!

Further resources:


  1. See for example the chapter 6 « Re.imaging funding » of the Smart CSOs Re:imagining activism. A practical Guide for the Great Transition
  2. Needless to say that the fight for keeping the internet neutral is the mother of all battles of the 21st century. Although it’s not very much advertised net neutrality is regularly under threat by the pressures of the telecoms companies.
  3. See, e.g., Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom(Yale University Press, 2006).
  4. One of the best documentation sources for the Cultural Commons is to be found in the publications of the European Cultural Foundation, especially the book Build the City: perspectives on Commons and Culture(http://www.culturalfoundation.eu/library/build-the-city-book).
  5. They both wrote on the Commons movement and its origins: see for instance The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (P. Linebaugh) and Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (E. P. Thompson)


Nicolas Krausz 

Programme Officer, Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation