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How Obama and JFK Evoke the Ideals of the Commons

Jay Walljasper – Author, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons

Posted: January 23, 2011 12:04 PM

This week the country awaits to hear what direction Barack Obama charts for the next two years in his State of the Union speech. A masterful orator, Obama often reaches higher toward the common good in his vision than in his policies. He’s one of a number of American leaders who have evoked the ideals of the commons, including John F. Kennedy and Paul Wellstone.

“I believe that for all of our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

These words from President Obama struck a chord with many Americans, even those–on both the right and left–who remain skeptical of his policies on health care, war, economic policy, the role of government and more.

He touched many of us, still reeling from the Tucson tragedy, when he eulogized 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green as “a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday too she might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.”

This was not a political speech, although its political implications may be longstanding. Obama, as he does in his best moments as a leader, reached past the deep-seated differences that deadlock Washington to grasp a larger meaning for America.

Of course, the precise interpretation of that meaning is up for grabs as commentators of all stripes sliced it and diced it according to their needs. But let me offer one more perspective, which views Obama’s words in not-the-usual light.

I believe Obama was evoking–perhaps not consciously–the ideals of the commons, which is a very old idea being embraced by growing numbers of people as a new source of hope. The commons is a worldview that emphasizes the value of people working together for the common good rather than as isolated individuals seeking private gain. The phrase can be defined as “all that we share”–what belongs to us equally and must be protected for future generations. This includes everything from national parks to public libraries, Social Security to blood banks.

I have just published a book, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons that chronicles the gradual emergence of a commons movement–people around the world who are discovering that what we own together is as important as what we possess privately. This new group of “commoners” can be identified by their belief that modern society is too obsessed with ME, ME, ME and needs to be realigned in the direction of WE. And the movement’s ranks are being boosted by the enduring economic crisis, which is convincing many people that strong communities and social solidarity is a more a reliable ticket to the good life than individualistic pursuit of wealth.

This is not a social movement on the scope of the civil rights or feminism, at least not yet. And, indeed, many people who embody its ideals may not even use the word. They may describe the work they do on behalf of their communities, the environment and social equity as simply “the common good” or “common sense.”

The commons is not a recognizable political force either, although South Americans have scored some significant victories in beating back schemes to privatize their water supplies and voters in Akron torpedoed plans to sell their sewer system to a corporation. Shining examples of commons-based solutions can be found in even the reddest of states. Alaska’s constitution decrees the state’s resources belong to its citizens, so a share of revenues from oil pumped on public land is distributed equally to each resident. North Dakota operates a state-owned bank, which some say is a major reason it is the only state that has not been rocked by the Great Recession.

Yet the commons means more than simply enlightened government. Some of the most rousing examples of the commons at work come from the Internet, which itself functions as a commons with no owner and the opportunity for everyone to take part (at least for now). Innovations like open source software, Wikipedia and Creative Commons licenses are based on this ethic of sharing. Community land trusts and cooperatives offer other models of commons-based collaboration outside of private market or government control.

Barack Obama is certainly no spokesperson for this movement. (If it has one at all, that would be Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, who has championed the value of the commons over 30 years of international research.) In fact, Obama has disillusioned many commoners with moves like extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

But as speaker with a gift for tapping into deep currents of the American soul, Obama sometimes summons the spirit of the commons, as he did in his inaugural address: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart, not out of charity but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

And since the commons is not a new idea at all, but actually an integral component of human civilization from the beginning, its traces can be found throughout American history from Thomas Paine’s observation that “Nature’s gifts are the common property of the human race” to John F. Kennedy’s wisdom that, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures.” That’s from his inaugural address, delivered fifty years ago last week.

But the late Senator Paul Wellstone summed up the value of the commons most succinctly, when he declared, “We all do better when we all do better.”

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