A Commons-inspired “Occupy theory” of collective action

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This thread is part of the online component of the Occupy-Commons strategy conversation at the OWS Forum on the Commons in New York, February 16-18, 2012 described here.

Theory making (in Appreciative Inquiry) “refers to a theory of intentional collective action, designed to evolve the vision and will of a group, organization, or society as a whole. It is an inquiry process that affirms our symbolic capacities of imagination and mind as well as our social capacity for conscious choice and cultural evolution…”

“Social theory is therefore a communal creation.  Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ to be discovered, rather it is created, maintained and put to use by the human group…” (David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva)

What these quotes tell us is that the development of a theory of collective action is too important to leave to the theoreticians. It is an affair of all us, given that we are all what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals“. But why should we bother? Why should we get involved with it? What can a good social theory do for a social movement? According to Cooperrider and Srivastva, there are five things they can do for us:

1.   Establishing a conceptual and contextual frame.  Theory acts as a device that subtly focuses attention on particular phenomena or meanings while obscuring others. As with a new lens, a new theory allows one to see the world in ways never before imagined.

2.   Shaping expectations of cause and effect. Theories help shape common expectations of causality, sequence, and relational importance. By attributing causality, theories have the potential to create the very phenomena they propose to explain.

3.   Transmitting a system of values.  Social theory is infused with values. Every social theory facilitates the pursuit of some, but not all, courses of action. We would be better off to abandon the myth of value-free science, and to accept theoretical work as a very human enterprise.

4.   Creating a group-building language. The invitation to inquiry makes theory an actual shaper of society. Knowledge of a social system can be used to change the system itself.  This phenomenon, made possible through language, invites us to actively participate in the creation of our world by generating compelling theories about what is good, just, and desirable in social existence.

5.   Extending visions of possibility or constraint. Theories gain their generative capacity by extending visions that expand our sense of the possible. Theories designed to empower organized social systems will tend to have a greater effect than theories of human constraint.  The vision becomes a common vision to the extent that it ignites the imaginations, hopes and passions of others through the articulation of ideals which lend meaning and significance to everyday life.”

To develop together a Commons-inspired Occupy theory of collective action, we need to envision strategy as a practice-led social theory of collective action, which provokes such questions as:

  1. What interaction between “thinking” and “doing” is needed?
  2. How can OWS foster a politics of the commons? Or a politics AS commons?
  3. What kind of organizational forms, actions, structures, etc. can help us to build the commons (or from the commons) in political work and action? How would, or do they look like?
  4. What does “political work”, “political action” and “political thought” mean from the standpoint of the commons?
  5. How would a movement of the commons look like? Is OWS that movement?
  6. How can Occupy occupy the strategy space and equip itself with the organizational, material and intellectual resources it needs for helping the 99% win?
  7. How can those interested to learn thinking together better, faster, and more strategically, form and benefit from a strategy-focused knowledge commons?

(Questions 1-5 were offered by Vicente Rubio.)

Do the above questions speak to you? What is your question?

What do you think, where should we start exploring them?

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Categories: Commons, Identity & Strategy, Occupy Theory


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19 Comments on “A Commons-inspired “Occupy theory” of collective action”

  1. February 15, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    > How would a movement of the commons look like? Is OWS that movement?

    Another way of putting it is this. A question to ask from the Commons and Occupy movements: Are you really two or one?

    The answer depends on from where we’re looking at the question, from the perspective of their origin or destination, as political movements for the transformation social structures and institutions that don’t serve the multitudes.

    The Common is as old as the first cooperative structures of production free from the domination by Market or State. However its first step towards constituting itself as a global political and socio-economic movement happened only in October 2010, at the 1st International Commons Conference in Berlin. If you don’t have time to read all the materials that you will find on that page, then read the excellent Conference Summary by David Bollier.

    So, Commons and Occupy are coming from different starting point, but there’s much in common in where they seems to be heading and in their values and principles. Looking at them from that perspective, it would be interesting to explore how they can build on each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

  2. February 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    George, these are all good questions, but I have some comments around question 6 : How can Occupy occupy the strategy space and equip itself with the organizational, material and intellectual resources it needs for helping the 99% win?

    My questions are: what does strategy mean if we are working in the sphere of collective and connective intelligence, and emergence? it is not strategy as we understand from ‘normal’ management and common practice, right? What would the ‘right’ word be then?
    Next to that: how would we translate the ‘win’ in this regard? When we look from the point of ‘scaling across’ (as named by Berkana) and emergence what word would we then use here?
    I learned from you to be precise and explicit and I get it that if you take care of that, you come closer to the answers to the questions.
    My two cents for now,

    • February 18, 2012 at 12:41 am #

      Hello Ria!

      When I read your question about the possible meaning of ‘strategy’ in our context of collective intelligence and emergence the notion of building blocks for a strategy came up to my mind.

      At the transition network conference 2010 Rob Hopkins introduced the concept of Transition Pattern Language.

      Maybe we can start by naming some building blocks or patterns for an occupy strategy.

      Rob Hopkins:
      “Transition has a number of qualities, which include the following:

      – Viral: It spreads rapidly and pops up in the most unexpected places
      – Open Source: It is a model that people shape and take ownership of and is made available freely
      – Self organising: it is not centrally controlled, rather it is something people take ownership of and make their own
      – Solutions focused: it is inherently positive, not campaigning against things, rather setting out a positive vision of a world that has embraced its limitations
      – Iterative: it is continually learning from its successes and its failures and redefining itself, trying to research what is working and what isn’t
      – Clarifying: it offers a clear explanation of where humanity finds itself based on the best science available
      – Sensitive to place and scale: Transition looks different wherever it goes
      – Historic: it tries to create a sense of this being an historic opportunity to do something extraordinary – and perhaps most importantly of all
      – Joyful: if its not fun, you’re not doing it right ”

      There are lots of other building blocks described in the conference booklet.

      Would be great to have something like an occupy pattern language.

      All the best from Austria –

      • February 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm #


        What a great idea to connect strategy with the qualities (principles?) and building blocks (processes?) of a movement!

        We have much to learn from the Transition movement (that is a a few years older than Occupy) particularly, in the use of pattern language for naming and describing social practices that work well, and are worth replicating.

        Presented in a pattern language that is easily searchable and updatable, those practices can travel faster and farther. Besides Transition Towns, another a good example of the pattern language used to facilitate change is A Pattern Language for Group Process card deck that I recommend to Occupy process teams and process-oriented Working Groups to play with.

  3. February 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Ria, thanks for your rich, generative questions! I think what “strategy” means in the context of the Occupy movement could be one of the useful starting points of inquiry in this workshop. Traditionally, it refers to long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular purpose. However, Occupy seems to be still in a purpose-seeking phase, its reformist and radical anti-capitalist streams somehow at odds with each other, yet that diversity *is* a source of our strength. It also means, that the yet-to-define purpose should accommodate the orientation of both wings, and then the strategy serving it can be defined.

    Whatever it will be, it will certainly look neither as “strategy” in the sense of management theories, nor or in the practice of party politics, left or right. From its modest beginning, Occupy did evolve through scaling across, as you noted, not by scaling up to a central command, and most likely it will continue that way. “Scaling across” as described by Meg Wheatley and Debbie Freeze is how Occupy became a global movement:

    “Taking things to scale doesn’t happen vertically through one-size-fits-all replication strategies, although this is today’s dominant approach. Change happens as local experiments move horizontally through networks of relationship, scaling across communities and nations. People become inspired by one another’s discoveries and create their own initiatives; they also support one another as pioneers.”

    Whatever is the purpose of a movement, that kind of “scaling across” strategy will be successful only if we learn tapping into the whole pool of our distributed intelligence (collective intelligence) and mobilizing the surprising power of emergent connections (connective intelligence).

  4. February 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    from Sara Burke at OWS, quoting Vicente Rubio’s questions:

    How can OWS foster a politics of the Commons? Or a politics AS commons?
    How would a movement of the commons look like? Is OWS that movement?
    What kind of organizational forms, actions, structures, etc. can help us to build the commons (or from the commons) in political work and action? How would, or do they look like?
    What does “political work”, “political action” and “political thought” mean from the standpoint of the commons?
    What interaction between “thinking” and “doing” is needed?

    My hope would be that the various texts produced as part of the working groups and discussions of the Forum can “funnel down” somehow to address this series. So I will challenge myself and others to hold these questions in mind as we engage the Forum, beginning tonight and continuing through the various workshops. Lets try to keep our energy high enough so that — by the final session on Saturday night — we are excited to meaningfully engage these questions. This is a really important bridge to the future of the movement.

  5. February 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    from Susana Draper at OWS:

    thanks Vicente and Sara for the thoughts.  These are things that came to my mind as possible issues to add to the discussion: 

    How can a politics of the commons open the space for other ways of inhabiting the political, avoiding “personalisms”, the figure of leaders, mediatic production of political egos – i.e., a question of how we can really reinvent a sense of community?
    How can a politics of the commons deal with the necessity of using certain forms of so-called “specialized” knowledge while avoiding to fall onto (or reproduce) the neoliberal figure of the “expert” and the “professional” (professional of a field, or the professionals of politics).  This is important because it forces us to reflect on how expertise and professionalism tend to erase or underestimate certain forms of knowledge that different communities already have while blocking the possibility of opening an horizontal space for the political.
    In short: how does a politics of the commons (or a politics as commons) differ from former ways of doing politics and thinking about the political?


    • February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      Susana Draper asked:

      > How can a politics of the commons deal with the necessity of using certain forms of so-called “specialized” knowledge while avoiding to fall onto (or reproduce) the neoliberal figure of the “expert” and the “professional” (professional of a field, or the professionals of politics).

      Here’s an idea waiting for unpacking in conversation with all in whom it strikes a chord. It starts with recognizing that our Working Groups are the embryonic forms of participative democracy, from which the new institution of the new society may grow out. (I wrote more about that here). Will those institutions need specialized knowledge to function effectively for the sake of the common good? Certainly. Then the question is how to avoid the experts gaining higher status and power than other citizens, and override the innate wisdom of the multitudes?

      In my scenario, citizen panels formed in every area of social life (an evolved and expanded version of today’s Working Groups) will contract and engage in dialogue with expert panels who share the values and principles of Occupy. How about that, as a first step?

      • February 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

        I see this partially an issue of thinking or believing. I’ll never forget the story Ralph Nader told about his father in the documentary “Ralph Nader an Unreasonable Man” When young Ralph would come home from school his father would ask him, “Today in school, did you learn to think or to believe?” Part of overcoming the hierarchy of experts is to think about about what they say and not just believe it because they are an expert or supposedly have greater experience and knowledge. Think critically and if it doesn’t fit your experience, ask questions until it does. And reject it if you can’t find the right answers – this goes for stuff you read too.

        Since most of us have been socialized in a very hierarchical patriarchal way – “father always knows best” this is much easier said than done. That is why the horizontal education and information sharing process is so important. We must create a process where every piece of information and misinformation is at the same time given the most charitable interpretation and also rigorously and critically evaluated. Please excuse the generalization, but Americans as a people tend to be especially prone to believing rather than thinking. In part this is because of our education system but also because of the pernicious influence of religion in everything – most especially politics. It also stems from the unquestioning belief in the “founding fathers” mythology and American exceptionalism.

      • February 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

        A few additional thoughts on “experts” and horizontal information sharing. The process structure is fundamental. While it is important to have “experts” participate in working groups etc. they should not be accorded special status or given special privilege such as being able to address the group first or be accorded more time to speak. A horizontal process values each person’s experience, knowledge and wisdom apart from their “credentials,” aka status in the knowledge hierarchy. For the process to work we must listen to and evaluate what people say not who says it. And, above all we must make space for all to have their voice heard.

  6. February 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    hi Sara,

    > So I will challenge myself and others to hold these questions in mind as we engage the Forum, beginning tonight and continuing through the various workshops.

    I take the challenge and am happy to hold space for a conversation about those question, which is, indeed, important bridge to the future of the movement. In fact, Vicente’s questions became a source of inspiration for this thread of our online workshop. Since the “Occupy-Commons strategy conversation” is scheduled for the last session before final one, a summary report, as an output from this thread could become one of the inputs to the final session.

    The more you all at the Forum use this thread to jot down your “politics as commons”-related thoughts today and tomorrow, the richer the summary will become. That’s of course, not to replace but to enhance the quality of face-to-face conversation!

  7. February 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Great discussion George. I’ll be attending the event ans will endeavor to make all participants aware that it is ongoing.


  8. February 16, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    I like questions as a starting point for discussion. Maybe its just the old philosophy major in me, but the Socratic method has always been a good way to proceed with these kinds of things. Which is a good way to make a general comment about the strategy workshop and occupy – its all about the process. When the process is right the end result flows from it organically. And with a good process there is often no need for an “end” result. Part of what I’m talking about in regard to the future of occupy is what John Holloway calls “changing the world without taking power”

    There are two books that have shaped my thinking about occupy and its future more than any others, both are most highly recommended: Change the World Without Taking Power; by John Holloway. The full text of John Holloway’s popular, influential and debate-provoking book, originally published in 2002. http://libcom.org/library/change-world-without-taking-power-john-holloway A good quickie read on Holloway is: Change the World Without Taking Power; John Holloway; Transcription of a video by O. Ressler, recorded in Vienna, Austria, 23 min., 2004. http://republicart.net/disc/aeas/holloway01_en.htm

    The other book is Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina; Edited by: Marina Sitrin AK Press, 2006. As far as I know there is not an online version available. For me this book is the embodiment of “all people are organic intellectuals” although I would slightly change the subtext to the role of socially conceived “practice” in transformation. Maybe that would be how I would start to answer question #1. All theory, i.e. thinking, stems from doing. Once again, I would turn to Holloway: “the transformation of power-to into power-over is centred on the rupture of the social flow of doing……. severing of the done from the doing is the core of a multiple fracturing of all aspects of life.”

  9. February 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    After quoting Vicente’s questions,

      1. What interaction between “thinking” and “doing” is needed?
      2. How can OWS foster a politics of the commons? Or a politics AS commons?
      3. What kind of organizational forms, actions, structures, etc. can help us to build the commons (or from the commons) in political work and action? How would, or do they look like?
      4. What does “political work”, “political action” and “political thought” mean from the standpoint of the commons?

    Ed wrote in the “Introductions” thread:

    They are all related to that old question, which comes first in politics, theory or practice? but that is not quite my main question. That would be “how do we create a new horizontal politics in a world defined by vertical, aka hierarchical, politics?

    • February 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      Ed and all, what do you think, can the concept “biopolitics” introduced by Foucault and re-defined by Negri and Hardt bring some value to exploring the question: “how do we create a new horizontal politics in a world defined by vertical, aka hierarchical, politics?”

      See: “Biopolitical production is used, too [by Hardt, Negri, Lazzarato and others], to describe the kind of politics and political actions that oppose capitalist biopower. In this sense, biopolitical production would describe the production of forms of life [technical, social, subjective ecologies] alternative to, and confrontational with capitalism.”
      from Mapping the Commons: On biopower and biopolitics

      More from Hardt and Negri on the commons:

      “the multitude is singularities which act in common/ the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class/ biopolitical production is transforming the city, creating a new metropolitan form/ the biopolitical city is emerging/ the metropolis is embedded in the common and open to aleatory encounters/ the metropolisation of the world/ ‘polis’ = the place where encounters among singularities are organised politically/ the felicitous encounter produces a new social body that is more capable than either of the single bodies was alone/ the organisation of encounters in the metropolis is not only a political matter but also immediately an economic one/ metropolis = ‘mother city’ that dominate and controls the colonies/ the site of hierarchy + exploitation, violence + suffering, fear + pain/ the site of antagonism and rebellion/ but also this is where the multitude is finding its home!”

      • February 16, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

        At its most basic, biopolitics is what we might call permaculture – organizing human economic activity to be sustainable over the long term, i.e. permanently. Last night I was watching the excellent documentary “Dirt: The Movie!” In it Vandana Shiva said we were “An angry culture at war with the Earth.” Biopolitics is politics and economics that are in harmony with the biosphere rather than as now one that is literally at war with it. The State is more than just a means of governance, the State is an integral and inseparable part of the capitalist economic system. Once again, scale “small is good,” is a defining factor of biopolitics. For a theoretical and scientific description of biopolitics I would cite Kropotkin “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution.”

  10. February 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Why and how to form knowledge commons for horizontal strategy?

    To boost the power of our collective thinking, sensing, and self-reflection, we need to discover/invent the appropriate tools and methods for it. That requires sustained attention by Occupiers who feel called to work on that.

    Using Elinor Ostrom’s commons design principles and supported by those remarkable commoners among us, who support both Occupy and the Commons movement (e.g. Bollier, Quilligan, Steisslinger), we can co-create a commons for the production of our collective thinking, sensing, and self-reflection. I imagine it as a people’s think tank with porous membrane, always open to new members, and having sufficient boundaries and structure to protect it from abuse.

    What would be your vision for such a people’s think thank? What goals would it pursue? How would it support and be supported by the movement everywhere? How would thinking and doing marry in the practice of this commons?

    What accountable structures for the production and governance of this commons will make it sustainable?

  11. February 26, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    Sepp Hasslberger makes ‘a case for soft money’ in his blog on the p2p foundation site.

    Questions and related topics he explores are:

    • Do we need money at all? What do we mean by ‘the gift’ or ‘barter economy’?
    • How did money develop?
    • “Hard currency”
    • The price of money
    • The wealth pump
    • “Soft money”
    • “Fuzzy” money?
    • Whatchamacallit?
    • How to keep track of those credits?
    • What is bad money?

    Michel Bauwens’ comment to Sepp’s blog invites us to look into the real meaning of balance in the context of the modern world, what Nature can teach us about evolution and about symbiosis versus predation.

    “The generic rule of symbiosis is collaboration between species, with a large predominance of vegetal/animal partnerships committed to the recombination of vegetal ADN between distant individuals, and subsequent geographical spreading of new identities through dissemination of seeds — whereby the first step, called pollinization, is mainly carried out by flying animals, and the second by both terrestrian and flying animals through their excrements containing non digested seed. Note that some vegetals do it all by themselves through airborne seeds of the helicopter or parachute type (which by the way reminds us that neither the windmill and the chopper, nor the parachute are human inventions).”

    He adds at the end: for practical reasons, the new-age part-time farmer community is deemed to entail a dramatic downsizing of dairy livestock in favor of vegetal crops, thus eliminating one of the biggest environmental pollution sources.


  1. Strategy workshop: Welcome – Introductions – Burning Questions | The Future of Occupy - February 17, 2012

    […] Growing a Commons-inspired “Occupy theory” of collective action […]

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