“All That We Share” isn’t enough

by Robert Jensen

A review of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons/How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us by Jay Walljasper and On the Commons

The New Press, 2010, 288 pages, $18.95

All That We Share is an exciting and exasperating book. The excitement comes from the many voices arguing to place “the commons” at the center of planning for a viable future. The exasperation comes from the volume’s failure to critique the political and economic systems that we must transcend if there is to be a future for the commons.

In the preface, the book’s editor and primary writer, Jay Walljasper, describes how he came to understand the commons as a “unifying theme” that helped him see the world differently and led him to believe that “as more people become aware of it, the commons will spark countless initiatives that make a difference for the future of our communities and the planet.”

Defining the commons as “what we share” physically and culturally — from the air and water to the internet and open-source software — the contributors recognize that a society that defines success by individuals’ accumulation of stuff will erode our humanity and destroy the planet’s ecosystems. Walljasper calls for a “complete retooling” and “a paradigm shift that revises the core principles that guide our culture top to bottom.” No argument there. Unfortunately the book avoids addressing the specific paradigms we must confront. Is commons-based transformation possible within a capitalist economy based on predatory principles and an industrial production model built on easy access to cheap concentrated energy?

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