The enlivenment approach is not just an abstract philosophical re-imagining of the world. It is an emerging reality in countless corners of the earth. The principles of enlivenment do not apply to the living biosphere alone, but to a wide variety of social innovations that are attempting to build a new sort of economy based on a personal practice that enhances the participants’ aliveness. These phenomena can be seen in highly diverse contexts – traditional societies, indigenous cultures, Internet culture, urban spaces, land and water management, and many others. Self-organised communities of people are bypassing the NeoDarwinian/neoliberal model by inventing their own, novel forms of self-provisioning and governance.
It should not be surprising that this highly eclectic, uncoordinated social transformation is emerging mostly from the fringes of the mainstream economy. It amounts to a real-time reinvention of economics and governance by living communities of practice. Theory is still trying to catch up with the phenomena, but it is clear enough that commons-based initiatives are enacting the principles of enlivenment with varying degrees of self-awareness. The emergent new forms are blending the interests of the individual and the whole, and of meaning and material production and exchange. In ways described in Section IV, these enlivenment-based models are integrating the social and the natural, and sense-making with practical action.
This section will review some of these contemporary practices and projects and show how they explicitly honour aliveness, relationships and community as central elements of building new types of livelihoods. It is striking that many of these projects explicitly reject the roles and rituals of conventional economics and state bureaucracies. They also tend to rebuff the cultural ethic of consumerism and mainstream market logic, and to affirmatively honour participation, openness, accountability and a rough equality. In this commons-based economy, people are not “consumers” and “producers” whose roles are defined by goods bought and sold through market exchange. They are, instead, commoners who initiate, debate, deliberate, negotiate and plan amongst themselves as part of the process of meeting their collective needs.
Can a consumer society become a commoners society?
Since market players despise alternative provisioning schemes as unwelcome competition, commons-based alternatives tend to flourish mostly on the edges of the mainstream economy and in cultural backwaters. Enlivenment communities often thrive in precarious milieus of the global South, for example, where people with little money have little choice but to devise solutions outside of the bioeconomic corporate market system. The older, neglected practices of commoning are often a viable if not enlivening alternative to the impersonal, predatory norms of the market economy.
It is important to note that, even though the market economy tends to obscure this “hidden social economy”, commons-based systems play a significant role in meeting people’s needs.1 An estimated two billion people in the world depend upon commons of forests, fisheries, water, farmland, wild game and other resources for their everyday subsistence.2 Huge segments of the software and computer industries now revolve around open-source software platforms whose code is freely shareable and modifiable.3 This infrastructure, in turn, now hosts a complex global culture of digital commons that includes Wikipedia, collaborative websites, Creative Commons-licensed content, open access scholarly journals, music remix and video mashup communities, among many others. The commons can also be seen in countless academic disciplines, community institutions, urban spaces, social activities, alternative currencies and blood and organ donation systems. Despite all this, leading economics textbooks continue to ignore the commons as a functional alternative to current markets. As one commentator noted, mainstream opinion regards the commons as “no more than the institutional debris of societal arrangements that somehow fall outside modernity.”4
An obvious reason why so many commons persist and flourish, even in our age of modernity, is precisely because they are rich sources of personal, social and even spiritual satisfaction. In their structure and operations, such enlivenment communities are focused not just on people-and-their-needs in a traditional economic sense – the production, distribution and allocation of physical resources – but also with people’s inner needs, their relationships to each other and a basic fairness and equality. The new provisioning forms generally attempt to bring individual interests and the whole into greater alignment as part of the process of meeting needs.
The animating forces of enlivenment economics are often invisible to conventional economists because the indicia of “wealth-creation” – private property rights, legal contracts, money, market exchange – are missing. But enormous “wealth” is nonetheless being created through commons; it’s just that the value generated is not usually monetized or wrapped in a legal envelope of property rights. The appeal of this hidden economy is not so strange. More and more people instinctively understand that the mainstream economy is deadening, whereas the commons-based economy – by fostering participation, personal initiative, social solidarity, etc. – helps people feel alive again. As I stressed throughout this essay: The new approach to our physical and mental householding reveals that a subjective, felt and experiential perspective is at the core of a true economics.
Commoning as an exchange of plenitudes
These dimensions of the enlivenment economy raise a fundamental question that economists – by the very narrow definitions of their discourse – simply ignore. Namely, “How can the economy be shaped to meet our needs and make us feel more alive?” Those two criteria are not entirely separate, after all. We might refine this line of inquiry further to ask: “What are the predominant needs here?“ And “How can everybody’s needs be met?“ As you can easily see, such questions reflecting an enlivenment perspective bring us deeply in the realm of the commons – or more accurately, commoning, the everyday practice of managing a commons.
Commoning is an attempt to redefine our very understanding of “the economy”, which respectable opinion regards as a complicated machine driven by human automatons (homo economicus) and requiring constant oversight and correction by an anointed priesthood (economists). This is a dualistic, Enlightenment-style regime – one that pits business against customers, and the state against business (and business-as-state against humans). This sort of economy valorises rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.
The commons shatters these dualisms. It reconfigures our roles so that we are not simply “producers” and “consumers” with narrow economic, material interests, but participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living being. They realize that their physical needs (hunger, thirst, health) are entangled with their search for existential meaning (a good life, joy, meaning). Finally, they realize that commoning, as an alternative system for meeting needs, is about a constant enactment and re-definition of a multitude of relationships, both material (metabolic) and psychological (symbolic).
An economic structure is alive only if all of these dimensions are satisfied. This happens to approximate the principles of the commons, in which our social and personal needs amalgamate with ecological complexities – a kind of integrated biospheric householding.
Some examples help illustrate these ideas. When villagers in India share seeds and use traditional farming practices, they are integrating their needs for food with the natural cycles and features of the local ecosystem. This stands in stark contrast to a farming “economy” that looks to global prices, genetically engineered seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers and monoculture crops – all of which are designed to monetize agricultural production and maximize returns to capital. The latter economic system appears to be highly “rational” in trying to organize structural efficiencies and so forth, but it is highly deadening because it essentially turns individuals into mindless servants of a global economic machine. The system eliminates spaces for human agency and the meeting of embodied personal and social needs – the “vernacular spaces” in which humans can devise their own rules, express their own values and negotiate preferred structures for meeting particular needs. One of the great, under-reported scandals of our time is how western corporations have brought industrialised farming methods to rural India. More and more farmers fell into deep debt as they became dependent upon proprietary seeds, volatile global markets and corporate farming methods, among other factors. The result has been an epidemic of nearly 200,000 farmer suicides in India since 1997.
Maybe this is the reason that commoning practices have attracted so much interest lately: they provide a direct and personal counter-experience to the inner emptiness that the prevailing bioeconomic model systematically produces. The Newtonian, dualist bioeconomy has little room for local variation, custom, tradition and ethical principles – all of which are irrelevant and extrinsic in a strict economic sense. In this way the normal functioning of “the economy” strips away the very sense of meaning, belonging and interpersonal commitments that define us as convivial, alive organisms.
Redefining wealth as enlivenment: the life-center model
In most regions of the world, corporate and national interests converge and both reflexively seek to maximize economic advantages by eliminating those things that stand in their way. “Economic development” is taken as equivalent to human development. But in most cases, the economic gains accrue to a small elite of investors and any human development is a secondary and transient byproduct. In the meantime, the many things that generate a sense of life and personal integration – smaller scale enterprise, community traditions and stability, environmental beauty, social exchange and belonging – are swept aside.
The point of commoning projects and the policies that support them is to restore enlivenment to the center of any economic activity. An economically sound project must also be an enlivening project. This means that it must try to reflect the shared interests of all and honour deeper human needs and the integrity of the natural surroundings. The nations of Ecuador and Bolivia have tried to move in this direction by adopting provisions in their constitutions to protect Buen Vivir. As Bolivian writer Gustavo Soto Santiesteban explains, this concept, derived from the traditions of indigenous peoples, is aimed “at making visible and expressible aspects of reality that are ignored by the dominant paradigm. It is a proposal from a radical and spiritual perspective of ecology, and is logically incompatible with development and industrialization.” Soto said that Buen Vivir implies several meanings manifested in community life: the fact of animals, persons and crops living together; living with Pachamama (“Mother Earth” – the water, the mountains, the biosphere) and finally, living together with the community of ancestors (w’aka). It is a community practice that finds organizational expression in the … rural agricultural space where reciprocity predominates. It is evident that these enunciations are made from the commons, from the community, from the first-person plural, and not from “me,” from the individual. Strictly speaking, the “individual” without community is bereft, orphaned, incomplete.”5
Buen Vivir is clearly aimed at fostering feelings that we all seek, like the feeling to be at home in a community or village or old-style-city where people know one another. Probably overcoming alienation and anonymity is the most important point in designing sustainable and common-economic projects.
It is easy to associate such aspirations with a premodern, pre-industrial society, but in fact enlivenment is the “magic ingredient” for economic revitalization even in industrialised countries such as Germany. In a recent survey for the German ministry of traffic and infrastructure,6 the success of economic development projects launched in the failing, depopulated rural areas of eastern Germany has been assessed. It turned out that the only truly flourishing projects could be those that gave participants close personal connections with their communities and a sense of personal satisfaction.
Economic turnaround required policies that foster enlivenment. The two are synergistic. The report to the German ministry concluded that any successful economic revitalization project must: 1) build on the natural assets of the surrounding while protecting their value; 2) build community by fostering social encounters, organising traffic and encouraging day-to-day livelihoods (schools, cafés, groceries, bakeries, etc.); and 3) promote bottom-up participation and innovation (i.e., the removal of external constraints that may prevent the community itself from deciding how to pursue change and spend monies).
Professor Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her decades of theorizing and fieldwork study of commons, had investigated how lobstermen in coastal Maine, communal landholders in Ethiopia, rubber tappers in the Amazon and fishers in the Philippines could manage their shared resources sustainably, without over-exploiting them. She found that assuring maximal freedom on a local stage is a critical factor. Policymakers must not only give actors the opportunity to connect with one another and with their local environment, but give them the freedom to be creative and responsible. We can express this empirical finding in terms of the enlivenment paradigm and its more specific maxims of 1) general principles but local rules; and 2) interbeing – a balance of individuality and the whole, as discussed in the last section. Local freedom is necessary to grant cohesion to the encompassing whole.
This local freedom is also one of the most cited advantages of markets – the unleashing of decentralized energies. But this trait is more often than not thwarted by the structural concentration of markets, in which large corporations and market oligopolies stifle local market participation and innovation – a fact that has been proven many times.7 Large market players make it their business to erect as many barriers to competition as may be legally permitted. In any case, markets are designed to maximize private gain and to “externalize costs” (displace them onto other people and the environment) as much as possible. By contrast, commons are under no compulsion to maximize economic output or privatize gains. With no structural imperative to be acquisitive or greedy, and every incentive to keep their local ecosystem sustainable and clean, commoners are more likely to be willing to support and advise fellow commoners.
The “barefoot economy” as a model of enlivenment
Unlike market economics, commoning is not only about producing and distributing resources, but about constructing meaningful relationships to a place, to the earth and to one another. This is the hidden leverage power of commoning. Economists are not likely to see or understand these “invisible forces” because their vector of analysis is “rational” game theory and the workings of egoistic machines and selfish genes. The social, moral and spiritual worlds of human existence have no real standing in standard economics. Yet these forces are precisely what bind together a commons, enabling it to function as a provisioning paradigm that is durable, effective, socially satisfying and ecologically constructive.
For Donella Meadows, who spent her late life researching how to identify and define hidden leverage points for influencing systems that seem impervious to change, these feelings of enlivenment would be an overlooked but profoundly influential trigger for real change.8 Economic thinking in the existing paradigm is not likely to generate sustainable solutions because it is reluctant to recognize any meaningful role for self-organized human purpose and meaning in socio-economical decisionmaking. The purpose is always the same and always known in advance: unfettered economic growth. Therefore, even those who are desperately looking for change will typically overlook entirely feasible solutions and fail to catalyse systemic change because they are locked into a stunted worldview. Real solutions will not emerge unless actors first reframe their vision in a different paradigm.
Enlivenment can serve as such a lever for change because it opens the door for commoners to do something “completely crazy” – that is, undertake a plan that is wholly unauthorized by a central, expert-driven model but that nevertheless makes absolute sense in human terms to real people on the ground, who reap immense personal satisfactions from honouring their intuitions, feelings and firsthand knowledge.
This was precisely the origins of free software and open source software in the 1990s: programmers began to identify and solve coding problems that software companies had rejected as too trivial, ambitious or simply unlikely to make money. Businesses must generally make serious investments and anticipate large returns before they can provide certain goods and services, and so “risky” and “speculative” endeavors are avoided. But hackers operating as communities of shared practice could work on all sorts of important challenges that were deemed below the threshold of “rational” market action. They could freely “scratch their itch,” as the hacker saying went, and trigger a whole cascade of socially driven collaboration resulting in useful software programs. No one functions as a producer or consumer, and the resulting program is not a “product.” Everyone acts as “stewards” of the resource, and even the resource itself is more an element of the community itself than a separate, objective “other.” This fits in among the Enlivenment principles: The borders of “resource,” “system,” and “consumers” are blurred. There is only one encompassing commons which unfolds through the initiatives of a host of materially embodied actors.
This is particularly true for our participation in the abundance of nature. The same dynamic can be seen in countless commoners who engage with their nearby rivers, fisheries, wild game, forests, farmlands and other resources. Their relationship is one of stewardship and meaning. The poet/farmer Wendell Berry contrasts this ethos with that of market culture, saying, “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.”9 Cultivating relationships with the more-than-human and with each other starts to create, as if out of thin air, new and mysterious leverage points for transforming systems in sustainable directions. But none of this is possible unless we can learn to rely on our embodied feelings as organisms and honour human communion with other humans.
It turns out that really sustainable projects – sustainable in the long term – are always projects that satisfy the participants in a multidimensional way. They are projects that satisfy a richer scope of human needs that lie beyond the material, utilitarian self-interests of Homo economicus.10 We can get a deeper understanding of this idea by looking at the “matrix of human needs” conceived by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef as a pivotal argument in the concept of his “bare-foot economics”. Max-Neef’s goal was to design economic models that could care for the real needs for the poor of the global South who obviously do not profit from corporate capitalism.11 This work amounts to a novel establishment of a first-person-science (or in this case, a “first-person-economy”) because it identified embodied human needs that can be objectified and put into useful relationship to one another. Max-Neef’s goal was to insert and integrate human needs into an economic theory, much as the commons does so in non-economic terms.
Max-Neef’s matrix of human needs is explicitly intended as a basic economic theory. His brilliant insight was to take economics at its word. It claims to be the science of allocation and distribution in order to satisfy human needs. So what are those needs? Max-Neef’s framework of the economy clarifies that the range of our needs is much broader and richer than that set forth by bioeconomics, which explicitly eschews any substantive assessment of needs and collapses it into a single metric, “utility”. In the Darwinistic/neoliberal economic model, a human being (just as a corporation) is essentially a machine programmed to win and to kill as a strategy for surviving and prospering.13 Max-Neef’s idea of the barefoot economy introduces into economic reasoning new, empirical dimensions of need, meaning and feeling in a non-trivial and non-esoteric way. These analytic categories make legible some actual dimensions of human need that should influence our understanding of the emerging commons-based economy.
Urban gardening and the pattern language of the commons
A fashionable example of realizing objective benefits and at the same time experiencing subjective joy (or coolness) is the global urban gardening movement.14 Within the last decade or so in major Western cities a growing number of community gardens have arisen and started to become a non-negligible factor in many neighbourhoods. Urban gardens act as a focus of health, communication and multi-ethnic inclusion. They don’t just cultivate high quality food, they cultivate a different urban ethos – the idea that the city is not owned by corporate developers and defined by cars, concrete walls and administrative orders. The city belongs to everybody.
Community gardens provide a real, physical space for people to realize new identities and to assert a modicum of autonomy over their lives and their food, through cooperation and sharing. Once again, this ethic can only arise through subjects having experiences, and in turn generates knowledge-forged-by-practice. Urban gardening is about making a livelihood but at the same time about learning the “gesture of the living“ and the “pattern that connects,“ as Gregory Bateson put it, because it is the way we communicate with ourselves, with other humans and with anything alive.
Commons philosopher David Bollier states: “More people are starting to realize that public spaces like parks, community gardens, farmers’ markets and festivals are also important to the economic and social health of a community. There is a dawning awareness that commons-based infrastructure like wireless Internet access is a great way to use a public resource, the airwaves, to help people connect with each other…. The emerging commons sector provides benefits that corporations can’t provide such as healthy ecosystems, economic security, stronger communities and a participatory culture.“15
Keeping in mind Bateson’s idea of enlivened structures as expressive of “the pattern that connects,” it is useful to see urban gardens and other commons-based innovations as a type of “pattern language,” a term originated by architect and artist Christopher Alexander. His basic idea is that living reality always follows a “pattern language“ expressive of embodied existential needs that cluster in “centers of life.” Anything that enhances aliveness is organised into meaningful patterns that we can readily discern and that offer satisfaction for us – for the simple reason that we are also alive.16 Interestingly, this is also a fundamental principle in the arts and in nature itself.
Alexander goes on to propose that any design that has living meaning – from architecture to political structure to urban design – should try to identify and embody the language of existential-aesthetic patterns. These patterns emerge as living beings experiment and consolidate their knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, what is pleasing and enlivening and what isn’t. The world is shot through with pattern languages that embody and express the sensual commons of the world, Alexander suggests. He more or less compiles a list of “hidden principles” of the commons, proposing, for example, that we “organize the planet as a commonwealth of independent regions.“17
As the economic researcher and activist Franz Nahrada observes, the identification of patterns-for-meaningful-aliveness dissolves the separation of practice and theory because the theoretical “plan“ must always be lived and felt to be understood as relevant. Commoning exchanges are not meant to be fully theorisable because much of their functioning comes from the contagious energy and feeling of one’s own aliveness as it is being experienced and practised. This is fully in line with my proposal to develop a first-person-science that embraces both empirical subjectivity and poetic objectivity, as described above.
The idea that commoning follows certain patterns of enlivening entanglement among human agents and their habitat – while fulfilling material and inner needs of both – is the heart of embodied enlivenment discussed in Section III. Meeting needs, building community, experiencing aesthetic pleasure and joy – they are all combined in a single paradigm of commoning. One might say that commons are universal building blocks that can be used as “centers of aliveness.”
Biospheric householding and the play of life
These examples show that the shift from a neoDarwinian/ neoliberal economy to a world of “biospheric householding“is not a utopian dream.18 It is happening now. It is the subject of a burgeoning academic literature and activist initiatives and policy proposals.19 The common goal of so many of these efforts is to design human exchange circles that entail new, more fully human ways for people to relate to one another and to the more-than-human-world. The goal is to foster more hospitable contexts for human sense-making so that humans can become productive participants in the nourishing cycles of the biosphere, and not mere bystanders or exploiters of it (i.e., producers and consumers). Being an active participant in the biosphere does not mean to “obey all its laws”, but to enact freedom within the constraints of existential and ecological necessity.
For the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Schiller the paradox of equally fulfilling our need to belong and our need to be autonomous is the culmination point of culture. In his concept of “aesthetic education“ Schiller expressed his conviction that a negotiation of these paradoxes was necessary to live a true and meaningful life, a life that fulfils its potential and at the same time reveals the aliveness of the larger whole, and in this sense is aesthetic or poetic.
To find a reconciliation to this paradox, Schiller did not choose the solution that Hegel (and in his wake, Marx and Engels) opted for a little later in history – to dissolve the contradictions in a “higher synthesis.” Hegel and his followers aspired to actualize a supposed world-spirit and by this achieve a classless society, whereby any failures to do so or any human suffering could always be blamed on failing to get the dialectics right. Schiller, however, decided to stick close to the practice of the living, and in particular to the profound lessons learned in early childhood.
For Schiller, the entanglement of individual autonomy and larger necessity could only – momentarily – be fulfilled through play. Play unfolds from a person’s free choice about how to do what is necessary, and this opens up new possibilities in the process. We are fully human only in play, Schiller believed. We are natural only in play, one might add.20 It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the practice of an enlivened economy amounts to nothing less than the practice of a rich and playful life. That vision, the deep attraction and satisfaction of serious play, may be the most potent, imaginative force for helping us deal with the realities of our time.
In this sense the wisdom offered by Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins seems entirely applicable to the poetic practice of the Enlivenment: “If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.“21