2. The OntoShift to the Commons
If commoning has played such a long and prominent role in the history of the human species, why is it generally ignored in modern life? Why does it remain a terra incognita that is routinely mischaracterized and misunderstood? Over the years, as we talked with commoners in countless different contexts, we gradually came to realize that the problem isn’t commoning; it’s the flawed categories of thought used by mainstream economics, law, politics, and policy. Their vocabularies and logics presume a world based on individualism, economic growth, and the human mastery of “nature” (a term that implies a sharp separation of humanity from the nonhuman world). They presume an omnipotent market/state to remake the universe around these mythopoetic ideas. No wonder pockets of successful commoning seem like strange creatures from another planet!
One day, after pondering this curious mismatch between mainstream thought and the realities we have seen in our research and travels, we needed a break. We decided to stroll through the nearby Beneski Museum of Natural History, at Amherst College. It proved to be a serendipitous detour. While browsing impressive displays of dinosaur skeletons and fossilized footprints, we had a shared epiphany: Sometimes new truths can be revealed only by making a shift in ontological perspective — what we have come to call an OntoShift. We will explain this idea further in a moment, but first, our experience at the museum.
While most natural history museums in major cities have a penchant for the grand and spectacular, the modest, well-appointed Beneski Museum in western Massachusetts is a working space for teaching undergraduates how to make sense of geological mysteries. Many of the exhibits showcase the research of Edward Hitchcock, a leading geologist of the 1830s who discovered thousands of strange marks in rocks at local quarries and farms. At the museum, we saw numerous dinosaur skeletons and bones, including a fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex head, and dozens of slabs of sedimentary rock artfully displayed on the walls. Each set of marks presented a mystery from 270 million years ago. Were they “turkey tracks,” as many locals once called them, or perhaps the footprints of “Noah’s Raven,” a gigantic bird from Noah’s Ark? It was difficult to speculate, because no fossilized bones had been found at the time.1
For Hitchcock, a serious scientist and devout Christian, the frame of reference for theorizing about this mystery was his own eyes and the Bible. When he encountered deposits of gravel, loam, sand, and boulders on Cape Cod, he found it entirely logical to call them Diluvium, a reference to the great flood described in the Bible. As later scientists concluded, however, the deposits were in fact moraine, the rocky debris left by glaciers during the Ice Age. Even though Hitchcock corresponded with the likes of Robert Owen, Charles Darwin, and Charles Lyell, he remained convinced that the “footmarks” (as he called them), now preserved in sedimentary rock, had been created by large ancient birds.
And why not? The prehistoric world was only then being discovered. The word “dinosaur” was not coined until 1841 by British geologist Robert Owen, and the first dinosaur fossils in the US were not discovered until 1858. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was not published until 1859, and some of the most significant fossil discoveries were not made until the 1890s. For the Bible-believing Hitchcock, the idea of enormous lizard-like creatures roaming a very different life-world 273 million years ago was literally unthinkable.
In her 2006 book about Hitchcock, science writer Nancy Pick professed her admiration for his scientific achievements, but ruefully concluded in a fanciful letter to him: “I must tell you that most of your strongest convictions turned out to be mistaken. You were wrong to doubt the existence of an Ice Age. You were wrong to deny the theory of evolution. And, most painful of all, you were wrong about the animals that made your beloved fossil footprints. They were not gigantic ancient birds after all, but dinosaurs.”
It is tempting for posterity to condescend to previous generations because of what they didn’t or couldn’t know at the time. That is not our purpose here. What we find so interesting is the way in which a worldview frames and limits what we see. We can never really see the world “as it is” because our minds are too busy constituting and creating it. We naturally believe that the reality we perceive is self-evident and universal — “common sense” — but, in truth, any view of reality is based on some underlying presuppositions about the nature of the world. Our beliefs are shaped by invisible assumptions affected by culture, history, and personal experience.
Language is also critical in shaping our consciousness. The language used by a political economy and culture names certain phenomena that they regard as significant and imbues them with a moral content, while leaving other phenomena nameless and ignored. This establishes a mental picture, a frame for perceiving and not perceiving, an insight that politicians have found quite useful. For example, conservatives like to call for “tax relief,” implying that taxes are an unfair affliction and obscuring the truth that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”2 In his classic study of “the folklore of capitalism,” Thurman Arnold described how corporations are mischaracterized as persons possessing civil freedoms that would otherwise be denied them. Businesses and other organizations are described “in the language of personally owned private property, when as a matter of fact the things which were described were neither private, nor property, nor personally owned.”3 Cognitive scientists often point to the “ideologically selective character” of frames — a highly effective filter on perception.4
This helps explain why new truths often hide in plain sight. When John Maynard Keynes was struggling to reinvent economics in the 1930s, he wrote: “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”5 Hitchcock tried, but could not escape his inherited worldview. Owen, Darwin, and Lyell also tried (with some trepidation about the explosive theological implications), and for the most part succeeded. Such is the power of a dominant worldview: it invisibly organizes phenomena into a tidy mental frame that suppresses other, potentially important ways to see the world.
In our time, the great problem is not just that the institutions of the liberal state and capitalism are crumbling. It’s that our ways of perceiving and representing the world — the foundational stories that we tell about capitalism — are failing as well. These two problems are intimately connected, of course. Sometimes when political systems no longer work, it’s because they rely on old narratives about existence that no longer work or command respect. Cherished stories and categories of thought fail to recognize that realities have changed. Guardians of the prevailing order generally don’t want to acknowledge other possibilities — and so they cling to archaic language to validate their viewpoints. Sometimes new realities are not recognized because there is simply no vocabulary and logic to make them legible to the culture. Consider how the word “dinosaur” and Darwin’s theory of evolution opened up new ways of seeing, challenging Bible-based perspectives of the world.
As we tried to explain the phenomena of commoning, we experienced a similar frustration with a deficient discourse. We came to realize that the discourse of conventional politics and economics cannot properly express what we have witnessed. There is a lacuna in the contemporary vocabulary which serves to keep certain realities and insights shrouded in darkness. In the words of historian E. P. Thompson, “It was always a problem to explain the commons with capitalist categories. There was something uncomfortable about them. Their very existence prompted questions about the origin of property and about historical title to land.”6
Our point is that deeper registers of perception matter every bit as much as daily political polemics. Or even more. German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer once pointed out that it is a mistake to believe that one has to talk about politics to change politics. He was right. We need to talk first about our deepest presuppositions about the character of the world.
The Window Through Which We See the World
The study of the nature of reality and how it is structured — the windows through which we see the world — is called ontology. While we are not eager to plunge into these deep metaphysical waters — the topic can get very complicated and abstruse — a brisk swim is inescapable. One’s basic assumptions about reality determine what is seen as normal and desirable — what is good or bad, what is right or wrong. They amount to the “constitutional framework” of any belief-system, one that directly shapes our ideas of what types of political economy and governance structures are possible. A vision of reality that sees everyone as disconnected individuals, for example, is likely to lead to a social order that privileges individual liberty at the expense of collaborative institutions. A vision of reality that sees everyone as interconnected and dependent on each other and the Earth, opens up very different possibilities. Such a vision also requires different categories of analysis and different metaphors and vocabularies to describe the world.
You could say that one’s ontological premises create different affordances — i.e., capacities and potential uses that have larger political implications. A bicycle creates certain affordances for personal transportation (vigorous exercise, cheap mobility) that are different from those created by an automobile (faster, safer, smoother). Pen and paper offer different affordances for communication (cheap, easy to use) than smartphones (interactive, versatile). So it is with ontologies: they have different affordances for the type of world one can build. When talking about a vision of reality, one must always ask: What does it claim about how individuals relate to each other and to groups? Does it require that things and phenomena embody fixed essences? Is a person’s character fixed and given, or does it change through relationships? How does change occur — through individual agents that cause effects as a machine might, or through complicated, subtle, and long-term interactions among multiple agents in a larger environment? Are any of the phenomena that we observe historically and culturally invariant — i.e., universal — or are they variable and context-dependent?
Generally, these sorts of questions about reality are not seen as relevant to the practical, rough-and-tumble world of politics and governance. But given the institutional instability of our times, we believe that nothing is more strategic than to reassess the fundamental ways in which we perceive reality. Such an inquiry might be called onto-political, because our different premises about reality have enormous implications for how we conceptualize the social and political order. If we believe that God exists as an omnipotent force and is the source of truth and meaning in all human affairs, we will construct a societal order that is different from ones in which humans see themselves as entirely on their own, without divine guidance and protection. Because perspectives on reality affect how we build social and political institutions, we cannot just look at the world through a window — as if it were the only self-evident way of perceiving. We need to pause and start to look at the window.7 Margaret Stout, an administrative theorist, puts it simply: “Ontology is important to political theory because it frames presuppositions about all aspects of life and what is good and right.”8 (emphasis in original)
The OntoStory of the Modern West
The moment is ripe for those of us in the secular West to ponder the general belief system developed during the Renaissance and expanded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the capitalist societies that arose from it. We moderns live within a grand narrative about individual freedom, property, and the state developed by philosophers such as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. The OntoStory that we tell ourselves sees individuals as the primary agents of a world filled with inert objects that have fixed, essential qualities. (Most notably, we have a habit of referring to “nature” and “humanity,” as if each were an entity separate from the other.) This Western, secular narrative claims that we humans are born with boundless freedom in a prepolitical “state of nature.” But our imagined ancestors (who exactly? when? where?) were allegedly worried about protecting our individual property and liberty, and so they supposedly came together (despite their radical individualism) to forge a “social contract” with each other.9 As the story goes, everyone authorized the establishment of a state to become the guarantor of everyone’s individual liberty and property.10
Today we are heirs to this creation myth explaining the origins of the liberal, secular state. The story transfers theological notions about omnipotence (God, monarchs) to the sovereign state (presidents, parliaments, courts).11 The Leviathan state acts with sovereign power to privilege individual liberty over all social affiliations or identities based on history, ethnicity, culture, religion, geographic origins, and so on. The primary elements of society are the individual and the state. As one commentator notes, liberalism assumes a human nature “that causes self-interested, atomistic individuals with independent, static preferences to compete in an effort to maximize their own benefits with little or no regard for the implications for others. In this political form, representation is won through competition among sovereign individuals and majority rule.”12
This story is also the basis for capitalism, which presumes a social order based on individual autonomy and fulfillment to explain why we have market competition and hierarchies. The Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan once identified autonomy, rationality of choice, and the spontaneous coordination of people in the “free market” as the fundamental principles of his discipline.13 In modern times, these presumptions have become ordering principles for much of everyday life. Individual freedom of choice — to choose our favorite TV channels, brand of beer, and political parties — is celebrated, with little thought given to the ways in which the spectrum of choices is determined in the first place.
To probe our presuppositions about the world is not merely an academic exercise. It is immensely consequential in practical ways. Different presuppositions affect how we perceive the world and therefore what types of political systems we regard as realistic and desirable. In a metaphor often used by German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, fishermen who use nets with a mesh of five centimeters may understandably conclude that there are no fish in the sea smaller than five centimeters. After all, three-centimeter fish never show up in the nets. If you are committed to certain presuppositions about reality, it will be difficult to escape the larger ramifications of your nets of perception. The linkage between ontology and the larger polity and political economy might not be self-evident to ordinary people or policymakers, but the idea is not so complicated. Imagine you build a house and you lay a small, weak foundation. How can the structure possibly last? Or you install a certain number of pillars that can carry, say, ten tons of weight. A few years later you want to add a new floor that would weigh fifteen tons. The house would collapse. Does it really make sense to invest in a heavy addition to the structure if the foundation itself is flawed?
This scenario arguably describes the problem with modern capitalism. It relies on faulty premises about human beings and therefore it can no longer support the grand edifice of the global modern market/state. Its institutional forms are increasingly ineffective, harmful, and distrusted, as seen in the rise of voter alienation and anger in the US and many European countries. When our commitment to “individual freedom” is conflated with the legal “personhood” of globe-spanning corporations, and when climate-changing capital investments are regarded as “private property,” it should not be surprising that the resulting economic system is highly disruptive and literally lethal to the planet. Mainstream critics may attack “capitalism” and “the state,” but they are less prone to inquire into the onto-political premises that undergird their vision of reality. That’s because most of us have internalized those norms. The “prevailing life-motif” of modern capitalism and the liberal state, writes Greek social critic Andreas Karitzis:
promotes the idea that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature are just backdrops, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, lacks a sense of respect for the previous generations or responsibility to future ones — and indifference is the proper attitude regarding present social problems and conditions.14
The visible pathologies of capitalism — ecological destruction, social precarity, inequality, exclusion, etc. — do not stem only from soulless corporations and cynical politicians. They derive from a deeper, more fundamental problem — a fallacious understanding of reality itself. Facing up to this issue seems to be asking a lot. It’s difficult to truly see the onto-foundations of our socio-economic and political order, let alone do something meaningful to change them. Our cultural norms are subtle, subliminal, and not usually recognized.
However, there is a way forward: we can begin to cultivate a different, deeper sense of reality by looking closely at the language and metaphors that we use, and the stories we tell. The self-awareness that results, when combined with our actual experiences and practices in commoning, can point the way to a new onto-political order based on different presuppositions. The first step is to recognize the hidden beliefs that shape our perceptions and political culture. We must learn to see that everything is interdependent, and that our individual well-being depends upon collective well-being. Our polity must be “attuned to the relational dimension of life,” as Arturo Escobar puts it.15
OntoStories as a Hidden Deep Dimension of Politics
Many public debates that are ostensibly disagreements about policy or process are, in fact, disagreements about the nature of reality and how it should be. They presume certain human ideal-types and existential realities that frame the dominant discourse. Take the idea of the “self-made man” in capitalist societies. It expresses the cultural fantasy that individuals can truly become successful all by themselves, without help from others. That story then becomes a frame for public discussion. Our presupposition that the Earth is a separate, nonliving thing existing apart from humanity, leads to a perception of land and water as “resources” that can be appropriated and marketized.
The very categories of thought inaugurated by the early modern philosophers established standard ways of thinking that modern societies now regard as self-evident. As men like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and John Locke first articulated, the world is supposedly a clash of dualities such as the individual and the collective, humanity and nature, and matter and spirit. The public realm is seen as separate from the private realm. The objective is cast against the subjective. This dualistic habit of thought, as a way of registering reality, leads us to believe that some realms of life are wholly separate and distinct from others, and indeed, diametrically opposed to each other. Modern capitalist societies have built entire cultures around such presuppositions. They reflect what scholars call an OntoStory about reality.
OntoStories can have countless forms that are expressed in many different ways. But at the end of the day they can be classified according to a few traits. There are stories based on the idea that “being simply is” (static) and stories in which existence is a constant becoming (dynamic). In a static world, the present is experienced as a reality that always is and always will be, much as members of the caste system in India regard their world as “just the way things are.” Such a static view of reality is likely to find political expression in theocracy, monarchy, or similar authoritarian rule. In a dynamic world, by contrast, the present reality is always unfolding and becoming something new.
There are OntoStories predicated on the idea of a single, unitary source of existence, which is likely to find expression in political forms such as socialism and collectivism. Or conversely, stories that posit many sources of existence are more likely to support a political order of modern liberalism and social anarchism. In some OntoStories, truth and meaning come from a transcendent source (God, a king, a pope), and in others from an immanent space of lived experience (the divine within each human or all beings).16
In any case, OntoStories always reflect a vision of the world and establish the affordances of the system — its structured fields of possibility. The narratives give respectability to certain archetypes of existence and human striving. Human energies are channeled in culturally acceptable ways. The ubiquitous world of advertising and marketing, for example, is not just about selling products; it is about reinforcing an ideal of human satisfaction through individual consumption. It tells an OntoStory about how the world is and should be. Our identity in the world is defined by what we buy or should buy. Nowadays, large corporations are increasingly devising elaborate OntoStories to define reality and thereby advance their political and economic interests. Based on vast quantities of user data, Twitter has devised a classification system of humanity — people who buy cooking supplies, people who live within five miles of a Walmart, etc. — in order to sell those datasets to advertisers.17 The insurance industry has developed complicated classifications of human disease and injury to determine what medical expenses will be reimbursed. Many courts rely on data analytics about criminals (race, age, neighborhood, income) to predict their likelihood of committing another crime and thereby set “appropriate” jail sentences.18 Such categories of thought reflect a vision of human existence, social behavior, and causality.
US national security agencies have actually contrived an OntoStory to advance their political interests, as Brian Massumi chillingly describes in his book Ontopower.19 Rather than try to deter or prevent terrorist attacks based on known, provable facts — the historical standard for military intervention — the US Government now declares its own version of time and causation. The asserted possibility of a terrorist threat, as unilaterally determined by security experts, is used to justify lethal state aggression against “terrorists” before anything has happened. Notional threats are defined as provocations. Future possibilities are declared to be actionable facts in the here-and-now. It is a subtle way to redefine time and causation. By spinning a “threat-o-genic” narrative, writes Massumi, the US military redefines reality, seeking to legitimate the state violence and mass surveillance that follows.
These stories help us see the role that ontologies play as a subterranean force in political struggle. Once we accept the idea of the self as an indivisible, bounded unit of autonomous agency, everything else naturally follows: the way we approach the world, the mental frameworks that scientists use to analyze phenomena (“methodological individualism”), the way we act in the world and conceive of leadership, the way we build institutions and policies. One might argue that the most significant field of political contention these days is not taking place in legislatures or courts, but at this level of “reality-definition.” After all, what better way to advance one’s long-term political goals than to propagate a self-serving version of “reality”? It preemptively marginalizes alternative visions of the future while fortifying the existing political and economic order.
Ah, but there is a rub: no ontology, however widely accepted, is guaranteed to work or command respect. An ontology may not persuade or live up to its own claims. Hitchcock’s theory that fossilized footprints were evidence of ancient birds could not credibly explain the discovery of dinosaur fossils. Darwin’s new narrative about evolution could. In similar fashion, today the ontological foundations that undergird capitalism are looking more antiquated than ever. The idea that individuals are born free and sovereign — the cornerstone of the liberal state and “free markets” — has always been something of a fable. But nowadays the credibility of this story is starting to fray as people realize that they inhabit a highly interconnected world. The slow-motion collapse of various ecosystems is also discrediting the idea that humanity stands apart from “nature” and that we are wholly autonomous individuals.
While countless angry political confrontations around the world are ostensibly about state policies or laws, many such battles are in fact OntoClashes. They reflect profound disagreements about the nature of reality. Clashes between Indigenous peoples and state power are perhaps the most common example. Typically, the nation-state regards some element of nature as a market resource to be exploited — an idea that many Indigenous communities see as a gross violation of their cosmovision. In New Zealand, for example, the Maori have fought the government’s approval of oil drilling in ancestral fishing waters, in violation of the Waitangi treaty with Queen Victoria signed in 1840. In her studies of this conflict, anthropologist Anne Salmond noted that the state and Maori have “fundamentally different onto-logics about human relations with oceans.”20 The state approaches the ocean as a nonliving resource. As such it can be divided up into quantified, bounded units and exploited with an abstract market logic. Oil extraction is perfectly logical to the New Zealand state, whose legal system is constructed to privilege such activity. By contrast, the Maori see the ocean as a living being that has intense, intergenerational bonds with the Maori people. The ocean is imbued with mana, ancestral power, that must be honored with spiritual rituals and customary practices. (If this sounds irrational to you, consider this: such a worldview has worked remarkably well to protect both the oceans and human societies.)
OntoClashes between the nation-state and commoners are obviously not confined to premodern cultures. Geographer Andrea Nightingale has studied Scottish fishermen who object to “rational” fishing policies and practices that regulators seek to impose.21 In crafting catch policies, for example, the state presumes that fishermen are competitive individualists seeking to maximize their personal catch. But the state fails to see the many nonrational subjectivities that define the lives of Scottish fishermen. Working on small fishing vessels in the ocean is dangerous, difficult work, and so fishermen have learned the importance of cooperation and interdependence. Fishermen’s lives are deeply entwined with “community obligations, the need to preserve kinship relationships [with fellow villagers], and an emotive attachment to the sea,” writes Nightingale. State policies presume a very different reality of life and “rationality” than that experienced by fishermen.
Despite the prevalence of such OntoClashes, modern capitalism and the liberal nation-states remain obsessively committed to their vision of reality. It constitutes a kind of “riverbed”22 of the polity through which everything flows. But increasingly, the state’s OntoStories seem like relics from a different period of human history — a tattered, ill-fitting suit of clothes that is not functional or attractive. It is time to consider the question: how might one imagine and design a different suit of clothes?
The Nested-I and Ubuntu Rationality:
The Relational Ontology of the Commons
The world of commoning represents a profound challenge to capitalism because it is based on a very different ontology. This is not widely appreciated because many people continue to view the commons through archaic ontological perspectives — which is to say, through the normative lens of modern, Western culture. They have internalized the language of separation and methodological individualism. They view objects as having fixed, essential attributes and being disconnected from their origins and context. Commoning has a different orientation to the world because its actions are based on a deep relationality of everything. It is a world of dense interpersonal connections and interdependencies. Actions are not simply matters of direct cause-and-effect between the most proximate, visible actors; they stem from a pulsating web of culture and myriad relationships through which new things emerge.
For those of us acculturated by Euro-American cultures, it is not so easy to recognize the ontology that underlies the commons. Our very language contains all sorts of hidden biases that point us in different directions and fail to name the webs of relationality. That’s why, in order to truly see the commons, we need to shed inappropriate old concepts and invent new ones. English itself as a dominant world language filters out many insights about commoning that are often better expressed in other languages and cultural experiences.23
We deal with this issue in greater depth in the next chapter, but for now, we wish to illustrate how basic presuppositions about reality are so powerfully consequential. In trying to communicate the realities of commoning, we kept coming up against the duality of the concepts I and we in English. The very words assert an opposition that commoning transcends. But seeing the world through a binary choice of I or we inhibits a real understanding of commoning. Language itself is a problem in communicating a different OntoStory. As we pondered this quandary, one day a solution occurred to us: the term Nested-I. It is an expression that helps us describe the practices and identity of a commoner. It overcomes the deeply rooted assumptions about individual identity and agency being opposed to collective goals. The Nested-I is an attempt to make visible the subtle, contextual social relationships that integrate “me” and “we.” Even if our Western mindset does not easily acknowledge the idea, that reality is everywhere.
Despite the void in our language, anthropology confirms that we humans are inescapably Nested-I’s. In many non-Western cultures, according to British social anthropology professor Marilyn Strathern, “… the singular person can be imagined as a social microcosm … Indeed, persons are frequently constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them.”24 For Strathern, an individual does not achieve autonomy by counterposing his or her self-interests to societal interests, but rather by “celebrating his/her own self-contained sociality.”25 People’s identities are “multiply constituted” through an “enchainment of relations.”26 Or as the poet Walt Whitman famously put it, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the celebrated polymath of Enlightenment culture, regarded his life as a synthesis of myriad relationships:
Everything I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, people of intelligence and dunces. Childhood, maturity, and old age all have brought me their thought … their perspectives on life. I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.27
One of the great unexamined truisms of our time — in pointed contrast to Goethe — is that a person can make a fortune through his or her individual efforts and become “self-made.” To think that anyone can truly exist or develop apart from friends, family, colleagues, or society is absurd — a “pliable, pernicious, and irrepressible myth,” as one observer has put it.28 Developmental psychologists will tell you that an individual can only come into being through engagement with others. “It takes a village to raise a child,” as the saying goes. And vice-versa: the collective can only come into being through the contributions and voluntary cooperation of individuals. Anthropologist Thomas Widlok suggests that perhaps we should talk about all of us as having “entangled identities,” “joined lives,” and an “extended self.”29 In other words, individuals and collectives are not incompatible opposites like oil and water. They are conjoined and interdependent. Just as the terms “I” and “we” only have meaning in relation to each other, the very terms individual and collective are relational — they can only convey meaning through one another. Using the term Nested-I helps us get beyond the idea — prevalent in the most respectable intellectual precincts of economics, evolutionary science, biology, and various other social sciences — that the individual is a self-evident category of thought.30
Another term that we came up with to express the relationality of commoning is Ubuntu Rationality. In various Bantu languages in South Africa, the relationship between “me” and “the other” is expressed by the word Ubuntu.31 We use Ubuntu Rationality to refer to a way of thinking that seeks to align individual and collective well-being. The Kenyan Christian religious philosopher and writer John Mbeti translated the word Ubuntu in this way: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.”32 The individual is part of a “we” — and, in fact, of many “we’s.” The two are deeply intertwined.33
In Western languages, we have no synonym for Ubuntu, but we do have social practices that reflect its spirit. To be sure, there are tensions between the individual and the collective, but if people strive to develop deep, honest relationships and ongoing dialogue, such tensions are minimized and the supposed duality recedes. And we have many reasons to do so: if we reflect on social reality, we can see that Ubuntu is a source of identity and a social safety net. The individual achieves meaning and identity through the social context of communities and society — and society constitutes itself through the flourishing of the individual.
These ideas have been developed in different contexts by feminist political theorists, ecophilosophers, Indigenous peoples, traditional cultures, theologians, and religious seers. Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher, wrote, “Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.”34 The central point of philosopher Martin Buber’s classic of existential philosophy, I and Thou, is that life is relational. We find meaning in direct encounters with other living presences, whether with other humans, nature, or God — and we encounter separation when we regard others as objects, expressed as an attitude of I-It.35 Other visionaries have expressed similar ideas in their own ways. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”36 Rachel Carson, in her first major essay, “Undersea,” in 1937, and later in Silent Spring, described life as a profoundly interwoven web.37
In later chapters, we will introduce other terms that name the relational phenomena of commoning more precisely. For now, it is enough to note that philosophers would call our perspective a relational ontology. In a relational ontology, the idea is that relations between entities are more fundamental than the entities themselves. Let this idea sink in. It means that living organisms develop and thrive through their interactions with each other. That is the basis for their identity and biological survival. That is the basis for their aliveness. As a living social organism, a commons embodies a relational ontology that is expressed through recurrent behavioral patterns such as the Ritualizing of Togetherness and Trust in Situated Knowing. Commoners strive to preserve relationships in addressing conflicts and reflect on their peer governance.
While scholars have theorized many different sorts of relational ontologies, they disagree about what specific “relations” between entities actually matter and what they mean. In general, relations are seen as conveying meaning or expressing value — e.g., the relationship between people and a shared symbol, such as a flag, is often associated with collective identity and pride. But there are so many conceivable types of relations that it is impossible to propose a unified philosophical account of relational ontologies. People may have relationships to the land that they cultivate, subjective or spiritual relationships, biological relationships to parents and extended families, circumstantial relationships with friends and work partners, and transient connections to people on the internet, among many others.
While one could explore many types of relational ontologies, we wish to focus on two general types and highlight how they differ. Each tells us incompatible stories about the nature of being, and each has different political ramifications. One type is called undifferentiated relational ontology. Here, the source of being lies within all living beings as a transcendent force. One can imagine it as a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, in which the largest doll encompasses and absorbs all the smaller ones within its embrace. When “the whole” incorporates everything that is “within it,” the pieces might be called “undifferentiated” in that all parts are defined by the whole. No element encompassed by the whole necessarily has its own individual agency or differentiated character. All elements are more or less equal, and are considered so. Politically, such an ontology implies a forced collectivism or a centralized monoculture because every individual and thing is regarded as an undifferentiated part of the whole.
Differentiated and undifferentiated relational ontology
In contrast, the realities of commoning and a commons-based society can be expressed only by a different ontology, one that recognizes the inherent diversity and differentiation of living systems within the whole. This ontology must allow space for every individual to unfold their unique self. People are born with different talents and desires in different circumstances and upbringings, and everyone faces unique circumstances. A realistic ontology should not attempt to flatten out actual individual differences and reduce them to a universal standard.
The type of ontology that best describes the realities of commoning is therefore a differentiated relational type in which the source of being arises from all living individuals and manifests in very different, situational ways. At the same time, each living being is connected to others and shares certain elemental aspects of life and consciousness — just as blood flows through all human bodies and yet every human being is unique. In a differentiated ontology, individuals are individuated and yet related to each other and part of a larger whole at the same time. Every living thing is “in a constant state of mutual becoming,” as Margaret Stout puts it, in dynamic engagement with the whole. Since each living element is constantly evolving and affected by multiple influences, the world has no singular definition or representation. We do not live in a “One-World World,” as Arturo Escobar puts it, but rather in a pluriverse. A diversity of life-forms are conjoined by our common humanity and engagement with life on Earth.
Complexity Science and Commoning
It is tempting to regard this entire discussion as an abstract distraction of little practical value. But let us suggest how a shift towards a relational ontology has created a new paradigm of discovery, complexity science, which is revolutionizing biology, chemistry, evolutionary sciences, physics, economics, and social sciences, among other fields. Complexity science has important things to say about the commons, too, because it sees the world as a dynamic, evolving set of living, integrated systems.38 While individual organisms may have important degrees of agency, they can only be understood in the context of their myriad relationships and constraints by larger structures. The kidney in the human body is not an autonomous unit, for example. It is nested within a larger set of physiological systems within which it must adapt — and the human body in turn must dynamically coexist within a still larger environment.
By viewing the world through this window — a relational ontology that moves beyond mechanical metaphors and individualism — it becomes possible to offer much better explanations for all sorts of human and ecological phenomena. We can begin to understand a commons as a life-form, not as a “resource,” and as an organic, integrated system, not a collection of discrete parts. The window on reality that a commons expresses is more encompassing and real (in our estimation!) than ontologies that consign relational dynamics to the background as “exogenous variables.”39
Complexity science offers a more coherent way of explaining how functional design can emerge without a designer. Design happens as adaptive agents (such as commoners) interact with each other. The self-organization of agents — what we call “peer organization” in a commons — gives rise incrementally to complex organizational systems.40 There is no master blueprint or top-down, expert-driven knowledge behind the process. It emerges from agents responding to their own local, bounded circumstances.41 As people experiment, regularize, and refine the ways in which they engage with each other, they find solutions to problems. The kernel of solutions that work well can be described as patterns. A pattern is not a blueprint; it is a template that includes many variations that are similar but not identical. That’s because each variation reflects a particular time, context, set of actors, etc.
The principles of complex adaptive systems are seen in the self-organization of microbes as they adapt to host organisms, ants as they build their nests, and other living creatures that somehow self-coordinate to generate an overall order for their collective. Biologist Stuart Kauffman, a pioneering theorist of complexity science, has identified key principles of autocatalysis that can occur when one form of matter comes into contact with another.42 Based on experimental insights, he has proposed a theory for the origins of molecular reproduction — a dynamic that others have confirmed in biological metabolisms, chemical networks, and physics, among other realms. The rise of spontaneous order, as it is sometimes called, occurs through the interactions of local agents without any outside supervision or control. It tends to be driven by positive feedback loops within a system that reinforces constructive, order-creating behaviors. Self-ordering and self-healing properties are woven into systems and their constituent elements at a very deep level, making them unusually resilient in the face of disruptions.
This is obviously a more complicated story than we can delve into here. For our purposes, it is enough to note that the dynamics of self-organization43 can generate a stable, living order within a sea of chaotic, random entropy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics posits that the universe is in a state of constant, increasing entropy that is always moving toward disorder. But according to some novel scientific theories, living organisms — cells, plants, animals (and commons?) — are able to temporarily capture and structure the use of entropic energy flows to sustain life. Aliveness and order spontaneously arise from chaotic disorder. A living organism relies on semi-permeable membranes to allow it to access what is useful in the external environment and filter out what is harmful, all in ways congruent with its particular context.44 “Identity and environment are thus reciprocally defined and determined with respect to each other,” writes biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon, author of Incomplete Nature.45 There is no divine watchmaker or external force imposing order. Rather it emerges through an organism’s internal systems for metabolizing energy and creatively adapting to its environment. The parallels between this biological process and commoning are highly suggestive and worth pondering.
Conventional scientists scoff at many of these ideas, to be sure, but numerous biologists, chemists, evolutionary scientists, and physicists have embraced complexity theory precisely because it explains things that standard science, operating within a more mechanical, individualist, and agent-based framework, cannot. A relational ontology enables scientists to see the world in more dynamic, holistic terms. It lets us become more self-aware of the reality that we are personally immersed in living phenomena. While economists have generally resisted this idea (it would shatter too many foundational principles of standard economics!), Kate Raworth, in her brilliant book Doughnut Economics, has proposed a real-world economic framework that recognizes a new ontology — that people are social and relational (not rational and individualistic); that the world is dynamically complex (not mechanical and tending toward equilibrium); and that our economic systems must be regenerative by design.46
The philosopher and biologist Andreas Weber has expressed the view of being that we take in this book: “The world is not populated by singular, autonomous, sovereign beings. It is comprised of a constantly oscillating network of dynamic interactions in which one thing changes through the change of another. The relationship counts, not the substance.”47 Weber’s book Matter and Desire is an extended reflection on this theme, that life on Earth is about “‘reciprocal specification’ — an act of mutual engendering. Only through a moment of encounter does one’s own character come fully to fruition. The world is not an aggregation of things, but rather a symphony of relationships …”48
Making an OntoShift to the Commons
If the world is truly relational, it should be clear the one reason why Garrett Hardin, in his famous “Tragedy of the Commons” essay, could not really see the commons as a viable social system. He could see the world only through the lens of an individualist ontology. Living within this framework, he literally could not comprehend commoning or imagine a set of political affordances based on dynamic relationships.
So to truly understand the dynamics of the commons, one must first escape the onto-political framework of the modern West. One must make what we call an “OntoShift” — a recognition that relational categories of thought and experience are primary. This is not merely about looking at interactions among independent individuals. It is about intra-actions, a term used by physicist and philosopher Karen Barad to describe how relationships themselves are a force of change, transformation, and emergence. As one Barad commentator puts it: “When bodies intra-act, they do so in co-constitutive ways. Individuals materialize through intra-actions, and the ability to act emerges from within the relationship, not outside of it.”49 Seen from this perspective, relational categories are not simply cause-and-effect interactions among independent objects, such as billiard balls bouncing around a pool table. They are interactions that engage the inner dimensions of living organisms, and in this way generate change and value. Furthermore, there is no single, essentialist individual, but rather many dynamic “I’s,” each of which is implicated in many communities and thus a part of “many we’s.”
You might ask yourself, how can these ideas actually work? For people accustomed to thinking in an individualist ontology and in dualities, it’s a big challenge to see the world as relational. It requires developing a different sense of reality. No one can simply announce that he/she is adopting a new perspective. A new orientation must be learned and practiced. Saying goodbye to old habits of thought requires practice. Like giving up smoking, it requires willpower, attention, and the deliberate learning of new habits. That’s what the next several chapters are meant to do for those who want to “think like a commoner” and make an OntoShift.
OntoSeed at center of galaxy of commoning practices.
So far, we have cast a foundation for a different understanding of reality. In the remainder of the book, we supply the materials for constructing the house. The new structure can help us envision different sorts of community, social practices, and economic institutions — and above all, a new culture that honors cooperation and sharing.
The first step in this journey is language. We must reflect on how the words and logic of our everyday language convey old habits of thinking and limit our sense of what is possible. So let us train ourselves to see the world in a new way through new words, relationships, and social practices.