Is It Time to Occupy the Commons?

A report from the Occupy Wall Street Forum on the Commons.
ows flower guy by ed yourdon

Photo by Ed Yourdon

I am just back from Making Worlds, an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Forum on the Commons consisting of workshops, presentations and discussions last Thursday through Sunday that explored the intersections of the Occupy movement and growing efforts around the world to reclaim and reinvent our commons.

If ever two emerging movements had synergy and much to offer each other, it is these two. Both the commons movement and Occupy spring from a shared sense of urgency about need for a different path toward the future, given the widespread human suffering and ecological destruction caused by the dominant economic system. The commons movement brings working models for shared resource governance. Occupy represents a highly energetic mass movement that is determined to redefine the politics and possibilities of our times.

As the Occupy movement considers how to expand the influence and energy of last fall’s uprising into the next wave of work, it is looking at strategies for social transformation that combine a commitment to deep democracy, equitable economics, life-sustaining interdependence with the natural world, and a liberatory remaking of social relationships. It is not surprising then that the commons, as both a worldview and practical approach for sharing resources, would provide fertile ground for strategies and solutions.

Some 100 people participated in the Forum—both longtime commons proponents and others new to the ideas, people from New York and around the world, all engaging in rich and thoughtful conversation. The group was hungry to look at how the commons might offer new ways of reclaiming or creating shared resources and deeper community links, allowing us to “embody the vision of the society we want to create,” as Sylvia Federici, an activist and teacher at Hofstra University, put it.

The conversation was wide ranging with the crowd engaging enthusiastically about open source and digital democracy, water and seeds, culture and education, community/solidarity economic models, alternative banking, public assets and public space, and issues related to families, sexuality and health. Throughout the discussion speakers noted that commons of all kinds are defined by a type of social relationship in which the users of a given shared resource are also the co-creators, producers, protectors, stewards and decision makers. As Marcela Olivera, a Bolivian activist on the staff of Food & Water Watch, stated, “the commons is a social construction, not a thing. The commons will come from the doing and living of them.”

James Quilligan, of the Global Commons Trust brought this thought into a discussion about the relationship between the commons in both public and private realms. He cited the need for communities to “common” resources in either realm by reasserting their rightful claim, not just on benefit or access, but also in direct stewardship and governance. Where that is threatened, he said, “we must reclaim and negotiate in order to roll back the enclosures that deny people their livelihood, well-being and shared wealth.”

Most of the conversations expressed a belief that needed solutions will arise from the creativity and actions of people and communities, not the embattled and often bureaucratic public sector or the private sector. One of the challenges noted over the three days is the need to continually sustain the commons and the understandings and practices that are necessary to do that.

In that light, University of Southern Maine philosophy professor George Caffentzis talked about the long-standing lobster fishing commons in Maine as illustrative of what it takes to create and maintain a commons over time. He identified three conditions that make it possible to share and co-manage these fishing areas:

  • *The shadow of the future*– the recognition of ecological limits that must be respected if we are to sustain the commons;
  • The development and preservation of communal values;
  • The perpetual creation and production of the commons given that they will be under siege from both the market (privatization, individualism) and the state (bureaucratic rules rather than local decision making). These observations rang true as we looked at various commons—past and present, natural and created, vibrant and endangered.

The planners of the Commons Forum, a working group of OWS, put together a remarkable resource of writings and web links for any one interested. These are posted on their wiki at

The organizers consider this an initial exploration in what they see as an on-going dialogue within OWS about the commons and commons strategies.


  • Peter Barnes: How our shared resources could become a source of common wealth.

  • As winter arrives and police crack down, how can occupiers keep their movement alive—and help it grow? Veteran activists share lessons from Spain’s Indignados.

  • A bill of rights that protects people and nature, but not corporations? Your community could be next.