Hurdled with top-down decision-making and corruption it is time the people of the Balkans begin a process of transformation themselves: commoning. It is undeniable that governments are responsible for managing our countries, investing our taxes in our interests across many areas. This theoretical scenario has however failed to materialise ever since the states in the region started their transition to democratic governance and we have lost much in the process. In many aspects, political management here is not only incredibly poor, with abuses taking place daily, but development is also often shown to be regressing rather than progressing. We, as citizens of the Balkan countries, have yet to learn this, and perhaps some work tirelessly in bringing this to light, and raising awareness. Without a doubt, this is still a slow process, but there is very little left to do other than act, parallel to showing and demanding. We can act now and build a fairer economy, begin a radical transformation of our broken-down cities and community relationships, as well as reclaiming endangered heritage and rural landscapes.
Trying to define the commons has not come easy for theorists and commoners alike. Perhaps a simple explanation can be found in Hess and Ostrom (2007): Commons is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people. In Hess (2008) the definition was expanded on, within the specific context of cultural commons, therefore being defined as a resource shared by a group of people, where the resource is vulnerable to enclosure, overuse, or social dilemmas. We find that commons are not often owned (other than perhaps in the collective identity, or the case of cooperatives), but managed or governed by communities in order to protect and maintain them, securing their preservation for the common good. The ‘megatrend’ of privatisation and enclosure of resources that were once held in common, as well as new resources, has proliferated community actions, who have sought to care for, transform, and preserve them themselves, in contrast to government management or their transfer into private ownership. Commons can be found in all many spheres, most prevalent being economical, political, and cultural, as well within the physical, constructed, and natural resources. In this regard, I will present several practical ways in which commons management or governance has been practiced.
Can we contribute to an economy that is more equal and fairer for everyone in society? The answer is yes, and it is not a radical idea, but a concept which has been put in practice multiple times, and is increasingly being adopted.
Open cooperatives have these elements at their core. We call them open, because participation is not compulsory (as was the case in the former Balkan communist states, where the cooperatives were enforced) and anyone can join. There’s no search for investors or funding in the traditional sense (trying to attract wealthy people, or donations), and while there are elements of crowdfunding, it does not work like the average start-up project on Kickstarter either. Why? Because it involves large numbers of people investing, but who ultimately own the business by buying the shares in the company. These businesses are ran by members who also take part in decision making. Profits are usually invested in upscaling the production, and what remains is shared equally among its members. What if there is no profit left, or hardly any considerable amount? That hasn’t seemed to have bothered thousands of people who have invested in open cooperatives. With a one time payment, or share, you will have built not only a business (which creates employment and usually pays living wages), but become part of a community, and have a say in how and what it’s produced, the ethics of the company, as well as the overall quality of products.
Workers cooperatives are more specific, but have also contributed to a fairer economy. These businesses are owned by employees themselves and they participate in decision-making and also equally share the profits of their own labour post production and operation costs.
It goes without saying the leadership model for these economic ventures is different than those of standard businesses in the current market economy. The top-down models have been transformed into horizontal ones. Some have even moved on from the idea of majoritarian decision-making processes, opting for consensus instead.
A good example of a successful workers’ cooperative is Taller Lenateros from Mexico. The cooperative is located in Chiapas, and operates as a publishing collective ran by local contemporary Mayan artists. At its core the cooperative aims to disseminate information of Amerindian culture. The techniques they use are based on ancient, and ecological traditions for printed books, such as the extraction of dyes from wild plants. An example of an open cooperative is Positive News, from the UK. The cooperative element was introduced to give power to average citizens when it comes to journalism, and challenge the typical millionaire owned publications that enforce their own private agendas onto the content that is published.
One of the most successful alternative currencies that has recently been gaining ground is the time bank. It involves exchanges of goods and services without needing money. For example, in Helsinki, a group of people have developed a large scale such system, where thousands of people take part. Time banking has also gained ground in Northern Ireland, and other places around the world.
The time banks are based on credits, and the measurement is as the name itself suggests: time. Usually, everyone’s work is equal in importance, and for example one hour of accounting can be exchanged for 1 hour of babysitting.
This is not a new notion for the Balkans. Such exchanges of goods and services have been working very well in the past, maintaining strong communities, and helping establish good neighbour relationships. In the past, in rural Romania for example, all neighbours would help harvest someone’s vineyard, or plant a patch of corn for animal feed. In exchange those who benefitted would then go and help out the other neighbours. Similarly, people who had financial difficulties would come to help out in exchange for goods, such as food, some buckets of corn, or a few litres of the beloved Balkan grape rakija. There were no money based payments; and the measurement was one full-day of work (usually 12-16 hours). It was only recently (last 5-10 years), that money increased in importance, and people started to use ‘normal’ currency as payment for agricultural work. In some instances, people still help each other, but the neighbour dynamics have changed, and so the relationships have suffered. In agriculture, while in the past the goal was for everyone to have a good harvest, nowadays such production has turned more into competition. Whoever has the most money also comes into play in current relationships as one’s possessions and fortune are taking over education and knowledge in terms of social status. Money as in currency, in this way, also played a big, indirect role in changing our values too, not just the relationships.
Despite being old-fashioned, time banks as we currently call them, could help us change the direction money is leading our societies to. Also, when confronted with low disposable income, and pressure to secure much needed services and goods, we can make a difference by relieving the pressure built up by currencies, with exchanges we can all afford.
Transferring the commons to the political sphere
When asking ourselves: do we have ownership over the political process in our local communities, most often the answer will be no, especially in this region. The political elites are generally ignoring the ‘representative’ elements of democracy, and while they abuse their privileges, there are few checks and balances.
In other countries around the world, commoners or those who think like commoners, have entered the political space in order to drive change. Commons are seen as a solution to transform our current systems, in economic, political, and environmental ways. While some have entered institutions to represent these values, others have formed entirely new political platforms that advance commons goals. One of the core elements of bringing in the commons into the political space, is the internal democracy that commons are built up on. At the same time, the democracy desired is that everyone in society will benefit. Of course, the political aspect is very much linked to economics. For as far as we can remember, our worlds have been dominated by a capitalist system where profits, not people, matter. This spills into the political space, leading to issues beyond just social inequality.
Barcelona en Comú is one of the most successful such participatory platforms (not to be confused with Podemos, as it is usually the case), who strove to bring a bottom up approach to politics, advance commons based economic developments, and saw a social movement win elections (most notably, Ada Colau, leader of the platform became Barcelona’s mayor in 2015). The movement saw thousands of people campaigning, some distributing leaflets, others babysitting, and designers giving their skills to the the campaigns. While the Spanish local democracy experiment was successful, it was due to specific local circumstances. The lessons to be learnt here for the Balkans centre around the fact that activists and social movements can change politics, but not by joining the old parties, but through self-organisation and campaigning. Listening to, and allowing for citizen participation in decision-making helped secure Barcelona en Comú’s success by representing the disenfranchised and those from the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and backgrounds. As with any grassroots initiatives, the most chances for success are at the local level. Activism and commoning are but first steps in gaining trust, and showing what a community based approach can help achieve.
It is important to note that not all ‘radical democracy’ movements currently developing in Europe have the best intentions for equality and social justice, clear policies, or being true to participatory democratic values, and while Barcelona en Comú is in itself an experiment in advancing more left wing policies in practical terms focused on transformation and new solutions, it is interesting to follow-up on the dynamics between a more equitable local governance and the current political landscape.
Who owns cities? In today’s world, even increasingly in our region, the answer would not be us, citizens, but private investors. Under our watch, inch by inch, public space is being taken away from the public or abused for private interests. It comes as no surprise that urban commons have proliferated across the world as a form of resistance.
Through commoning, local residents are seeking to transfer the management of public space and buildings to regular citizens. In a plethora of examples, abandoned buildings have been renovated and repurposed for community needs, derelict spaces have been transformed into community gardens, and the commons have even expanded to theatres and parks. Of course, this kind of management is not spontaneous. It requires good organisation, rules and regulations. Thinking about concepts concerning the urban commons, such as ‘re-imagining spaces’ or ‘taking back a city’, can sound radical or rooted in anarchism, but to successfully manage the commons requires more strategic planning with many turning to Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles of commons governance. The urban commons have also sprung as a result of gentrification. As desirable areas, particularly in city centres attract more developers, residents are forced to move to the periphery of cities. Commoners wish to repurpose available spaces and buildings for the public good, and through community ownership, divest from the increasing enclosure of public space, which ultimately ends up being sold off for luxury apartments or hotels and change the dynamics of neighbourhoods and social relations. Apart from these negative consequence, one cannot forget to mention the environment. Proliferating construction works will lead to more polluted and toxic environments.
From the outskirts of Paris, to Athens, more and more citizens are commoning their cities. In the Colombes neighbourhood of Paris, residents do not only co-own community gardens, but also small recycling plants and eco housing. In Greece, due to hard austerity measures and lack of investment in public spaces, groups of people have started to maintain public areas themselves, ensuring their sustainability. Perhaps one of the most advanced urban commons developments is the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, where the local government has pledged and in practice supported many collaborative projects. The city of Bologna regards its residents ‘as resourceful, imaginative agents in their own right. Citizen initiative and collaboration are regarded as under-leveraged energies that – with suitable government assistance – can be recognized and given space to work.’
With a lot of work, commoners in this case have managed not to work on the offensive, but to co-opt their government into supporting the development of the alternative commons form of governance for public spaces and services.
Commons Management of Natural and Cultural Resources
When it comes to natural and cultural heritage, what comes to mind are the residents from the Vjosa and Valbona river valleys in Albania, who are about to see their beautiful rivers and areas destroyed by HPPs and dams. The Sana river in BiH, with its crystal clear water, is also at risk. In fact it would be hard to think of any river in the Balkans that has escaped the plight of hydro power plants which are built all over the region though construction permits given away by national governments. Although considered ‘renewable’ hydro power destroys ecosystems and biodiversity. This is not in the public interest, it is an abuse pursued for the small, short-term, and sometimes private gains of those in power.
When it comes to cultural heritage, it’s interesting that instead of tourism which presents the beautiful history in the region, foreigners come to observe abandoned places, ghost like castles, and some forgotten ruins. And the future generations? If lucky they will perhaps be able to observe some trace of what was once a ruin. The need to protect these resources in the Balkans is greater now than ever. If us, the citizens will not protect them, they will simply disappear. While civil society is increasingly putting pressure on their respective governments, small successes have taken place, but will this ensure continued protection?
As many cases of commons management have proven, under the watch and governance of a community, people have ensured sustainability and continuity. The process nearly eliminated competition and exploitation, through strict rules. This is a natural process, since it is in the interest of the whole community who benefits from a (natural) resource that it regenerates. Recent research, clearly backs up the theory that collective ownership of common pool resources has a sustainable effect, while past research undertaken by Elinor Ostrom won her a Nobel Prize in Economics. Although examples of governments ceeding the rights to natural and cultural heritage to local communities are present mostly in rural communities, especially in the Global South, the concept has increasingly been sought in urban environments too.
From forests in Romania (the Obstea Commons of the Vrancea mountains) to pasture lands in Ethiopia and whole regions of the Swiss Alps, people have sustainably maintained their resources to date. Most of these resources have been under community management for many years, and both citizens and their natural resources have been preserved. The Obstea commons in Romania for example date back hundreds of years, given to the locals as a present from a local ruler in the 16th century. When asked whether they would rather the commons were transferred to private property, the residents cannot conceive this, neither older people more likely to align with traditional ways, not the young. In contrast, forests managed by the state or those in private property have suffered over-exploitation due to demand by furniture companies, with many people campaigning days on end to stop the massacre of their common forest resources.
These are but a few of the alternative ways in which we can advance the commons. It is an appeal to re-think the way we build our economies, protect and manage resources, and the role of communities in ensuring the preservation of our values, neighbourhoods, cities, pastures, rivers, castles, arts, and beyond. Abuses of common and public goods take place nearly daily, and while we have demanded that our governments change their ways for more than 20 years, we need to reflect on the damage that is still being done and the potential to our actions. What if we could save an important part of cultural heritage? Can we wait for change, and will we ultimately see it crumble? If asking whether we can do more about it, the answer is definitely yes. Our Balkan Commons platform (which focuses primarily on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Macedonia), has many resources available to develop or reclaim the commons, and we encourage you to browse the theoretical and practical materials, which will always be free to read, build upon, and distribute. Most importantly, anyone can join in sharing case studies, continuing to raise awareness of abuses of common resources, and develop new ideas on how we can overcome these challenges with the help of the commons.