Reclaiming the Commonity

How we reclaim the lost commons and act on the issues that are too complex to comprehend.

In a state in India, over ten million people gather in circles of ten to thirty individuals once a week. Here, they make decisions on issues close to themselves and to the communities they are part of. Up to a million of these are children.

They call them Neighbourhood Parliaments, and they have no leaders, they handle decisions in a decentralised manner, speak only in turns, and decide on everything by consent.

Swarnalakshmi Ravi, who has spoken for the Children's Parliament (the kids’ part of the Neighbourhood Parliaments) at the United Nations, has described how this movement succeeds in giving every child a voice that others listen to as well as concrete power over their situation and local environment. Thus, the Children's Parliament has helped children escape hunger, poverty, child labour, and domestic violence actively participating in safeguarding commons such as roads, public spaces, natural areas, and schools.

It is this decentralised management of common resources—of commons—that makes Neighbourhood Parliaments a special inspiration and unlike other NGOs. According to Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, it is the decentralised community that is best suited to manage our common resources such as groundwater basins, fish stocks, and grazing areas. Through this concept, a community emerges that is not only accountable to each other but also to the nature it cares for.

There is no traditional hierarchy in Neighbourhood Parliaments. When they meet, they sit in a circle, and a meeting facilitator who is selected by consent guides the meeting. Each circle meeting begins with everyone ‘checking in’ as they call it, and ‘checking out’ again when the meeting is over. That means each participant shares what is on their mind, what they bring to the meeting that is important for the others in the circle to know, and what feeling they leave the meeting with when it is finished. In this way, psychological safety is prioritised so that everyone feels safe to speak up and take initiative.

Once everyone has checked in, the facilitator asks for consent on the meeting's agenda. All decisions, including the decision on the agenda, are made through consent in a Neighbourhood Parliament. In practice, this means that a proposer essentially has the right to implement their proposal as long as there are no objections. If there are objections, they don't block the proposal but are instead integrated into it, creating a sense of safety for everyone in the circle to try out any proposal.

This way there is never a question of being for or against; there are no votes or elections, and no one is allowed to speak outside the circle. Neighbourhood Parliaments are one of the most notable examples of so-called 'sociocratic' communities that, on a decentralised grassroots level, take direct responsibility for solving local challenges by giving voice and power to each member.

It is a modern version of a so-called commonity, a community that manages a commons—a resource with shared access. As mentioned, this could be grazing areas, fish stocks, or groundwater basins, and in more recent times, public roads, sewers, electricity grids, or indeed, even the internet. In other words, many of the things that in recent times we have tended to place under central public management or privatise.

In the West during the twentieth century, we have tenaciously debated the tragedy of the commons, lamenting that we can no longer figure out how to take care of our common resources. But in Neighbourhood Parliaments, they do just that. And their influence grows every day because they succeed in caring for the commons upon which we all depend.

When Problems Become Complex

In comparison, the collective apathy towards the climate crisis is tangible. No matter how many times there seems to be a broad agreement that we have to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions and regardless of the promises made to take action, it appears that these intentions fizzle out long before they materialise into concrete, funded initiatives.

And even if we look at it with the most optimistic view (perhaps technology will save us, or the market will guide us in the right direction), there is a myriad of other overwhelming crises to address afterwards: the sixth mass extinction of species, deforestation of rainforests, escalating inequality, uncontrollable surveillance, civilizational AI risks, distortion of public discourse by social media, an anxiety epidemic among children and youth, a stress epidemic among the rest of us, and so on.

When the scope of crises seems so all-encompassing, it is natural to ask whether there is an underlying cause to all these crises. Is it possible to identify one or a few causes that are common to all or even most of our current crises? Can we reduce the complexity?

The answer, for obvious reasons, comes in many varieties. Each of us can provide our perspective based on where we stand, our expertise, and how optimistic or pessimistic we are about different issues: Climate scientists write reports on global warming with ever-worsening numbers in each new release. Marine biologists warn that fish stocks are approaching a tipping point. Economists describe how resources are allocated into fewer and fewer hands. AI programmers list countless ways that artificial intelligence could eradicate humanity.

We all want action in the area we can best see the crisis from, and rightfully so. Each crisis is profoundly serious, and none of us can grasp the complexity of the combined crises.

So yes, the apathy is tangible.

And even though it is tempting to seek a common cause, it is an open question as to whether trying to understand the interconnectedness is futile. The nagging question that all these interconnected crises pose is whether, as humans, we can even come close to understanding how these crises are related? Does anyone today possess the ability to look at the world from a neutral standpoint and objectively analyse their way to a comprehensive narrative about all the crises we face?

Perhaps we are forced to take a different path rather than trying to position ourselves outside the crises and observe the world as the objective researcher who dispassionately looks at empirical data. Perhaps the only viable way forward—the only path that doesn't involve either apathy or narrow-mindedness—is to find ways to navigate the hypercomplex metamodernity without fully comprehending it.

It Takes a Village to Overcome the Ego

It's not just the interconnectedness of our crises that seems challenging to observe, despite numerous examples of how they relate. Even our understanding of our lives today appears fragmented and disjointed. It's as if there's a lack of an immediate centre that life can revolve around. That we’re missing some kind of anchor that can serve as the vantage point from which we each can view the world and to which each of us can return when it all becomes overwhelming.

Throughout history, this anchor has taken many forms. It's the idea of the mother at home in the kitchen. It's the nuclear family in suburban neighbourhoods with community gatherings in the assembly hall. It's the best friend whose shoulder you can cry on. It's the nation that takes care of all its citizens, or the people that provide identity to those who can trace their lineage through generations. It might even be the dream of a larger transnational identity or the global humanity that must awaken to understand that we are all one big family.

But it seems like all these anchors are either too large or too small to provide what we need. Either we place unreasonable expectations on the shoulders of two or fewer parents who no longer even have their own parents in the house to help with the children—let alone siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts to lend a hand. Or we fumble for remnants of an idea such as Denmark and Danes as a unified homogeneous people where we all understand and take care of each other through our voluntary associations and state welfare programs.

And it seems like both of these institutions—the family and the nation—are themselves in their own crises and no longer able to care for their members, even when we all agree that both should. Yes, in many ways, these two institutions are the focal point for how we understand politics: either we believe that the family should live up to its responsibilities (right-wing), or we believe that the nation should live up to its responsibilities (left-wing).

In this way, Elinor Ostrom's criticism of both the privatisation and state centralisation of commons reflects the way we understand politics. Private ownership consolidates responsibility around the family, state centralisation consolidates responsibility around the nation. The debate about which of these two should live up to their responsibility is increasingly irrelevant, as neither the family nor the nation (or friendship or humanity) can do so, regardless. The nuclear family is overstretched and stressed; the nation is mired in political mire and systemic paralysis.

In other words, it's not the will that is lacking, even though we like to pretend it is. Therefore, in recent times we have started looking elsewhere to find this anchor. It turns out that both the family and the nation are quite new concepts in an historical sense. Both are mostly rooted in nineteenth-century romanticism, along with ideas like the people and childhood. Before this, we mostly identified with our local belonging—with the village and the local area. Not only with the people in it, but with nature, geography, the land's identity, and its lived, mythologised narrative.

Building on the works of German professor Christian Welzel, Danish philosopher Lene Rachel Andersen has proposed ten, concentric ‘circles of belonging’ within which we as humans build our identity. Whereas the names and exact number of circles is up to debate, the order, from smaller to larger, goes as follows: 1. Ego, 2. The family we grow up in, 3. Peer group, 4. The family we establish as adults, 5. Close community, 6. Nation and/or religion, 7. Culture zone, 8. Humanity, 9. Planetary life, 10. Life itself and future generations.

Based on the work of historian Benedict Anderson, Andersen groups circles 2 through 5 under the title ‘real communities’ as opposed to circles 6 through 10 which are ‘imagined communities’. The primary reason for this distinction is that up to circle 5, the close community, it’s possible for all of its members to know each other personally. 

Famously, Robin Dunbar claimed that a person can directly relate to about 150 people. If we exceed this number, we lose track of how people relate to each other and we approach the realm of imagined communities. Imagined communities are real, but they are held together by narratives, by ‘imagination’ so to speak. We will never meet the majority of the people in these communities, yet we identify with them because we share stories and culture.

Whether because of our dualistic politics or for any other reason, it seems our circles of belonging have changed in recent times. Increasingly, we identify first and foremost as individuals, then as cultural participants (or consumers). The nuclear family, friends, and nation come further down the list. Largely forgotten seems to be our close community, the ‘village’ around us. In other words, the circle of belonging that has historically been a primary source of identity for us as humans plays hardly any role for the (meta)modern human.

When this change started is difficult to pinpoint. The encounter between the new world and the old in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century North America is often described by Native Americans as the meeting between one people who saw themselves as belonging to the land they inhabited and another people who saw the land as something that could belong to them or their kings. Without undermining the fact that America housed some of the world's largest cities and most powerful nations before Europeans arrived, the meeting between these two continents was, in many ways, a meeting between a people who had retained the anchor of the localised village—their close community—and a people who had lost it.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’, says a well-known African proverb, reportedly from the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. A child that is raised not just by their parents but by the entire village, learns that the village and the land it inhabits are the most important things—not the child or the individual member of the village. Any child raised without their village and without something to replace it must lack the anchor of something more important in life than oneself, or, for that matter, one's own child. Maybe it is only when we are raised in the security of a close community that we can truly care for the land and the future generations.

The Commonity’s Emancipation from Ourselves

This village or close community that takes care of the land it inhabits is called a fælledskab by the Danish authors Søren Hermansen and Tor Nørretranders. It refers to the fælled, or commons, that the community, or fællesskabet (related to fellowship), cares for. A commons, in their words translated to English is ‘common resources that are shared among the people who use them (...) Everyone has equal access, no one has ownership or control, the commons is shared’.

The Danish term is derived from an old form of the Danish word for community that is closer to the concept of the commons, perhaps because it had the meaning of a working community. Among other things, it was what a community around a cooperative was called, i.e. a fælledskab managed the common resource that was the co-op. It resembles the English word commonity, which is also an older form of community. It is that special community which is better than each of us, as individuals, at managing things that have common value for us all.

There is a particular quality of the commonity that gives it a unique ability to responsibly manage the commons, to take care of the needs of the commons before those of the community. It is a quality that we do not find in either private or state ownership. It is the quality that Neighbourhood Parliaments' sociocratic circle meetings bring forth when they give equal voice to all and use objections to qualify their proposals. It is, in fact, the quality that we have often ourselves trusted that either democracy or the market could create for us, and that we envy both bees and the ants for having: collective intelligence.

In a neighbourhood parliament, collective intelligence is generated by transforming resistance into amendment. The data that resistance holds, which often either gets ignored, opposed, or merely accepted if it's a person in power delivering that resistance, is instead used to improve the quality of the proposal. This occurs when the facilitator asks for objections to a proposal. The facilitator does not ask for agreement with the proposal, but instead specifically asks only for objections. When an objection is raised, the facilitator asks the member how the objection can be integrated into the proposal. If neither the member nor the proposer can see how to do this, the rest of the circle can suggest ways to integrate it.

Proposals are thus qualified through objections and changed directly in the meeting. In this way, it becomes a collective responsibility to develop the proposal for the common good and not just the individual's best interest. A particularly interesting thing happens when thousands of circles function in this way: anyone can take initiative without asking for permission and without having to stand alone in presenting it. Thus, the scattered actions of the circles come together in an organically-evolving self-organisation, a so-called autopoietic organism that, by constructively processing all incoming data, can respond to complex problems that none of the commonity's individual members understand.

Such collective intelligence is not a magical or intangible effect but rather a very measurable phenomenon connected, among other things, to machine learning and other approaches to so-called emergent intelligence. The classic tale of collective intelligence comes from when the English statistician, Sir Francis Galton, in 1907 recorded local fair participants’ guesses of how much an ox weighed. They were all more or less incorrect. Some guesses were completely off, while others came close. But when he calculated the average of all the guesses, the answer was much closer to the actual result than even the best of all the individual guesses.

The point of collective intelligence is that directed problem-solving from a community is more competent than that of an expert. Not because we don't need experts, but because experts become smarter by solving problems in a community—even if that community is not made up of experts like themselves. Yes, in most cases, it is even a disadvantage if a community consists only of experts in a single field. The more diverse the group is, the more perspectives it can hold simultaneously, and the more complex problems it can handle. Albeit this is only if all inputs are constructively directed, which above all means having a way to limit irrelevant or misleading inputs while creating an open-minded and inviting space for otherwise controversial inputs. Not an easy task!

Directing inputs to constructively guess how much an ox weighs is simple. Directing inputs to constructively allocate fishing quotas for international waters is complicated. Directing inputs to constructively act on global warming is complex. And as long as our problems are complex, we cannot expect to handle them with simple or even complicated means. We cannot simply demand that the problem be solved, because no one person exists who can provide a simple solution. Not the President of the United States. Not the richest person in the world. Not Blackrock. Not Chat-GPT. Not even the UN. No one has the power to solve our problems—not even those who believe they do.

That is why we need problem-solving that can handle higher complexity. Even the seemingly simple or complicated problems we face are far more complex than we often understand. When fish stocks decline, we can limit fishing through quotas. When fjords die, we can stop sewage discharge. But if we want to solve the problem at its root, we must investigate whether there are alternatives to ploughing the soil's humus every year, whether we still want to drain our swamps and divert water into streams and rivers, whether we can get by with less agricultural land, for example by changing our eating habits, or if there are even more factors behind it that we don't know, and that we don't know we don’t know.

As long as we consider problems as simple or complicated but not as complex problems, our solutions to them will at best be symptomatic treatment, or at worst, accelerate the crises that the problem is part of. As the American philosopher, Daniel Schmachtenberger says, ‘the way we solve problems is actually our main problem’.

Neighbourhood Parliaments’ sociocratic decision-making processes can guide us towards a decision-making space that incorporates greater diversity in its voices without sacrificing constructiveness. Simply increasing diversity or constructiveness alone is by no means sufficient, but these are two crucial first steps toward a problem-solving tool that can overcome complex problems with many different needs, interests, considerations, and opinions.

It's tempting to exclude voices of those we see as opponents. We rightly fear that including voices distant from our own may skew the conversation and seize control of the decision-making space. Can we involve polluters in discussions on how to limit pollution? Can we involve war criminals in discussions on how to prevent war crimes? Perhaps not always. But if we fail to include the voices we identify with the problem, we won't have all of the key stakeholders for any project: those who must ultimately implement it.

The Commonity We Lost

In the town square of the Danish village Davinde, is a tree they call Flødebolletræet—the cream puff tree—because its crown is pruned in the same rounded shape as a cream puff. Around the tree is a circle of cut stones. A few times a year, the village's township gathers to prune the tree and drink the obligatory Ting-place schnapps, while sitting on the same stones that have always been used when a town meeting was called in Davinde. This meeting was part of a system known as Ting-governance.

The township is the ritualised remnant of Danish Ting-governance as it existed before governance became centralised around the cities, and before self-governance in the villages was sidelined by laws written in the capital. Especially before 1526, the village Ting served a central function in the governance of Denmark, and it was from here the common town fields and other commons were administered, and tasks were distributed. Each landowner in the village was directly represented in the township, and each village Ting sent representatives to shire Tings and from there to county Tings and national Tings.

During this time, the state functioned more as a conglomerate state where regional assemblies were responsible for the actual administration of the realm, and each district and village mostly took care of itself without outside interference, unless it was to recruit soldiers for wars. According to accounts from national, shire, or village Tings, a decision was always described as a consent among those present. Not a vote and, except for special veto rights for the king, not by order of the chairman or any other official role. The Tings were consent-based.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that there are so many similarities between Neighbourhood Parliaments and the Nordic Ting system. Perhaps this form of governance speaks to us in a way that is more than just a preference for inclusion and direct democracy. Perhaps the small, manageable circle is the natural first unit in any popular government. The place where everyone can be heard without it taking an eternity to go all the way around the room. There is, however, a big difference between the historical Nordic Ting system and Neighbourhood Parliaments in India. The values behind who is included in such assemblies have changed noticeably, and Neighbourhood Parliaments never act as courts or carry out sentences as was historically part of the function of the Tings.

But it shows that our ancestors had their commonities. And we can obtain them again. They are not far away. In Denmark, they are lying in wait in the form of stone circles in the countryside and town squares in the cities. Probably in other places as well. They only require a circle and people to fill it. Problems to solve for the Tings are plenty, and the need to be able to handle complex problems will only increase in the coming years.

In both the USA and Europe, Neighborhood Parliaments are spreading under the name Sociocratic Neighborhood Circles (SONEC).

There is currently a project underway under the EU's Erasmus+ program across Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Learn more at

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