Friederike Habermann’s most recent book Ecommony – Turn to social cooperation (UmCARE zum Miteinander) is an inspiring account of alternative conceptions of the economy built on the principles of the commons and the logic of care towards a good life for all. Drawing from her everyday life, random human encounters, feminist theory, own activist involvements and observations, Habermann constructs an enthralling narrative throughout the book, leading the reader from the current political ‘window of opportunity’ as just the right moment for change, to an account of the past (yesterday), to possible futures (tomorrow), to necessary changes in the way our societies are structured and organised today (the day after tomorrow).
Our habitus vs. a new culture of sharing
The book starts out with a warning: Attention! This book allows an unusual thought: The world can become a better place. However, as Habermann observes, many people seem to feel unable to imagine alternatives to the current status quo, hindered by our way of thinking, our habits, and our limited imagination. At the same time, a movement around the world is proving quite the opposite: a new culture of sharing that embraces collaboration, the commons, and a new understanding of community. “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, Habermann quotes, with reference to Viktor Hugo – the ‘window of opportunity’ for a new economy is gaping wide open.
The idea of the commons is essential in this new framing of the economy, where commons are not understood as a mere resource, but as a way of governance between a diverse range of actors: “There is no commons without commoning”1, as Peter Linebaugh put it so aptly.
Many of the projects and initiatives around the world that try to make the world a better place are already, knowingly or unknowingly, based on the principles of a commons-based economy, ‘Ecommony’, as a play on words, which Habermann describes through the following four principles:
1. Possession instead of property: it counts what is needed and used, not the right to exclude others or for selling
2. Share what you can
3. Contributing instead of exchanging: become active out of inner motivation, with secured access to resources
4. Openness and voluntariness2
The first and third principle are similar to Karl Marx’s idea of abilities and needs, and describe the economic sides of production and of consumption – the second and fourth principle are a result of the other two.
Commons as a shift in power relationships?
Habermann first takes a closer look at consumption and the access to resources, which is closely linked to property and possession – two English terms I chose deliberately to differentiate between the two concepts she presents in German (‘Eigentum’ and ‘Besitz’). She links the idea of Erich Fromm’s ‘functional property’, the right to use a resource, to the commons as an early definition. The legal understanding of property, instead, excludes others from the right to use a resource, as opposed to possession, which merely means to have something at disposal. Our material dependence and anthropocentric vision of the environment as a mere resource becomes evident in this and opens up a question: can the commons make these power relationships obsolete for both humans and our co-natural world?
There are different approaches to it that need to be distinguished from each other: some see the commons as a welcome addition to the capitalist economy – which Habermann frames as ‘Un/Commons’3, if it entails the privatisation and exploitation of resources –, others see in it the much longed-for alternative to capitalism, possibly without state and market, where commons are collectively governed and co-produced.
Care as economy
Habermann goes on with the third principle of ‘Ecommony’: contributing instead of exchanging, which is closely linked to the logic of ‘care’. Care is a term being increasingly used in feminist debates to describe all caring activities that are motivated by the necessary, further described by Ina Praetorius in her text ‘Economy is care, or: The rediscovery of implicitness’4. Care introduces a logic that is unconditional, not driven by profit, and cannot be subdued by the market. Therefore, it seems, care activities are often overseen as a crucial part of our economy. J.K. Gibson-Graham’s iceberg diagram5 illustrates nicely how only the market economy, as the tip of the iceberg, is in the centre of our attention, whereas all the other economic activities in the household, on the streets, and elsewhere remain invisible. Care has received a more positive connotation than its sister term ‘reproductive work’ from former feminist debates: Silvia Federici calls for a new cooperative form of reproduction that supersedes the division between the personal and the political, between political activism and the reproduction of everyday life.6
This new form of reproduction has been experiencing a crisis, with more and more people lacking the time and/or money for care activities, as a result of neoliberal politics and the increasing privatisation of care. The term ‘care revolution’ has become a slogan at protest marches and conferences, coined by the social scientist Gabriele Winker, and has brought to life a wide network of groups and individuals concerned with care.7 The Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (Laboratory for New Economic Ideas) in Leipzig is currently planning a conference for this year’s fall, bringing the complex care thematics to the fore as being central to our economy and a good life for all.8
Caring and commoning
How are the logic of care and the commons related though? Habermann brings both ideas together in this book’s title, and reasons as follows: both are based on cooperation beyond the logics of the market and state. Both activities, caring and commoning, are motivated by the provision for something. Both principles are related to an understanding of nature as ‘pachamama’, the indigenous approach to ‘mother earth’, where humans are understood as a part of nature, not as a dominator of it. In a society where identities are constructed based on prevailing hegemonic conditions, queer feminism opens up new perspectives on how we understand power relations and the societal conditions of our human existence, so that ‘all people can be who they want to be – not as the fulfilment of a predetermined natural identity, but as the fulfilment of the possible potentials of the interplay between ‘reality’ and society.’9 Habermann refers to her former book Der Homo Oeconomicus und das Andere (2008) to stress how strongly our identities are linked to the economy – in order to change ourselves, we need to change the world around us.
Ecommony in practice
The initiatives and projects outlined by Habermann in the next part of the book show the positive tendencies that are necessary for this change, such as the shared use of everyday items in neighbourhoods10, sharing homes with strangers from around the world11, the emergence of borrowing shops12, saving and sharing food from the bin13, creating a new abundance for all rather than the monkish abstinence and scarcity often feared in debates around degrowth – as long as these potentials are not turned into commodities by the market, as it has been happening through some profit-making companies.
Not only material resources, but also skills, abilities and knowledge can be shared, as online learning communities and platforms, creative commons licenses, Wikipedia, and other free knowledge initiatives show. They also show that people like to be active and productive out of inner motivation in order to contribute to something bigger. Habermann outlines a conception of work based on contribution that moves away from the widely spread barter logic, referring to Brigitte Kratzwald:
‘Humans do not only have consumptive, but also productive needs. It is satisfactory to contribute something to society, to be able to take part in shaping our society – given the conditions are adequate and can be chosen freely, and that one’s actions receive appropriate recognition.’14
The barter logic creates a sphere ‘that is not nourishing because the coercion of reciprocity destroys (…) the implicit appreciation of the other, writes Genevieve Vaughan, an experienced protagonist of the ‘gift economy’ (translated as ‘Beitragsökonomie’ by Habermann) – a problem encountered by some initiatives that are based on barter such as time banks or Trade School15, where knowledge is exchanged for anything needed by the teacher. An economy of contribution would also dissolve the care issue as the dichotomy of productive and reproductive work would become obsolete, avoiding the risk of subordinating care to the barter logic in both alternative and mainstream conceptions of the economy.
‘Peninsulas against the stream’
In the following chapters, Habermann looks at the history of property, work, money, and ourselves to make sense of our current situation, followed by an account of what technological developments are already in its becoming with potential to change the future. She ends the book with a hopeful vision for ‘the day after tomorrow’:
‘If we, naturally always unfinished, construct spaces of other implicitnesses – ‘peninsulas against the stream’16 – in which we bring to life collaboration, commoning, ecommony, care logics, or however we want to call it, then we start changing, whether we want or know or not.’17
These peninsulas can be unpredictable new beginnings, as Praetorius put it in her previously mentioned essay, where we can try here and now what a meaningful existence feels like.18
1 Linebaugh, P. (2008): The Magna Carta Manifesto. Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley (University of California Press), where this thought can be found, but not the exact quote (p. 278).
2 Habermann (2016), p.10.
4 Praetorius, I. (2015): Wirtschaft ist Care. Oder: Die Wiederentdeckung des Selbstverständlichen (Economy is care. Or: The rediscovery of implicitness, translated by the author of this review) Berlin: Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Downloadable for free here: https://www.boell.de/de/2015/02/19/wirtschaft-ist-care-oder-die-wiederentdeckung-des-selbstverstaendlichen. Accessed 6.2.2017.
5 See my previous review on their book Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities (2013).
6 Habermann (2016), p. 30.
8 There is an open call to become part of the planning group! More info: https://www.konzeptwerk-neue-oekonomie.org/projekte/care/. Accessed 6.2.2017.
9 Habermann (2016), p. 37.
10 More info: Fairleihen.de. Accessed 6.2.2017.
11 Such as Be Welcome, Servas International, and Warm Showers.
14 Kratzwald, B. (2014): Das Ganze des Lebens. Selbstorganisation zwischen Lust und Notwendigkeit. (The Whole of Life. Self-organisation between joy and necessity. Translated by the author of this review) Sulzbach/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag.
16 This was the title of Habermann’s former book Halbinseln gegen den Strom (2009), published by Ulrike Helmer Verlag.
17 Habermann (2016), p. 172.
18 Praetorius (2015), p. 26.