What is commoning and why is it so important?

By Winne van Woerden

Healthcare is more than just hospitals: it’s about health and care and it is a rich field of practice. The act of caring occurs in many places in society, both within and outside the formal healthcare system. Last year, I collaborated with Commons Network to better understand the features of this informality in healthcare in the form of so-called ‘commoning practices’ at citizens’ initiatives in the Netherlands. We wanted to learn about the future of health and care in a post-growth economy and society: one that is by design centered on human and planetary well-being rather than on GDP growth. Today we publish the third article in a series about this research. In May, we are officially launching our findings in the form of a publication. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Last week, I told you about the key theoretical explorations that underpinned our study. I placed degrowth thinking in the domain of health and discussed a novel framework, the ‘health and degrowth paradigm’. At Commons Network, we continue to explore the links between health and degrowth and commons and caring and economy. Today, I will discuss the act of commoning and the underlying theoretical framework.

The act of commoning: a triad of social relations, sustainable provisioning and peer governance


In their book Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons, published in 2019, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, two leading commons activists and our friends and advisors, conceptualized commoning as a triad of three spheres:

  • social practices
  • acts of provisioning
  • forms of peer governance

As the authors emphasize, these three components shouldn’t be understood as isolated entities, but as three integrated and interconnected spheres influencing each others’ functioning. The result of people engaging in the act of commoning is the emergence of commons: a generative and neglected social lifeform compiled of complex, adaptive, living processes that generate wealth through which people address their shared needs with minimal reliance on markets or states.

In their book, Helfrich and Bollier discuss each sphere in detail and explore several patterns which they identified to occur at each sphere after years of studying commoning practices in-depth. You can preview Bollier’s and Helfrich’s book (or even better purchase a version for yourself and your friends/colleagues) here.

For our study, we wanted to link our findings to the degrowth-health paradigm. We therefore decided to stick to the three spheres only, and use them as a tool for structuring our thinking process when studying commoning practices in the domain of healthcare. I will briefly discuss each sphere of the Thriad of Commoning below.

The social life of commoning


The social life of commoning should be understood as the specific patterns of cooperation, sharing and ways to relate to each other as people engage in commoning practices. As Bollier and Helfrich argue, commoning is primarily about creating and maintaining relationships, among people in small and big communities, between humans and the nonhuman world and between us and future generations. Bollier and Helfrich argue that ‘commoning represents a profound challenge to capitalism because it is based on a very different ontology, or meaning framework, based on a deep relationality of everything. It is a world of dense interpersonal connections and interdependencies’.

On the other hand, a vision of reality that sees everyone as disconnected individuals is likely to lead to a social order that privileges individual liberty at the expense of collaborative institutions. Bollier and Helfrich therefore speak about ‘the OntoShift of the commons’. (Bollier and Helfrich, 2019).

Additionally, in our own book Our Commons: Political Ideas for a New Europe, we  argue that “the practice of commoning represents social and cultural shifts in our value models”. Such new values and practices enable communities to be generative instead of extractive. The social practice of commoning thus indirectly favors reciprocity as well as social and ecological sustainability.

Commons-based provisioning


Commons-based provisioning, or provisioning through commons, is about meeting people’s needs by producing things and services together. This means that commons inhabit a proper space within the economy. Although the commons have for long been neglected within economic thought, a new wave of progressive economic thinkers is reclaiming and defending the commons, most notably Kate Raworth when devising her Doughnut Economy.

As Raworth emphasized when we interviewed her for our book, ‘the market and the state have been the subject of an ongoing ideological boxing match, fighting over which side can deliver the most growth, while the commons and the household have been neglected for decades if not centuries’.

As Bollier and Helfrich argue, since the aim of commons-based provisioning is to provide a stable, fair, satisfying and ecologically minded way of life, it is a form of provisioning with no economic growth imperative built into it. Instead, it is about creating wealth in a regenerative way, where a focus lays on producing durable and useful ‘goods’ that have an ongoing social importance for both makers and users. The roles of producers and consumers are blurred, which relates to the idea of reciprocity, central in degrowth thinking.

Bollier and Helfrich argue that the key to commons-based provisioning would be the (re)production of what they call non-monetary ‘care wealth: the process of effective labor converting a commodity into something that is cared for. Commoning would not only provide the basis for re-integrating production and consumption – hereby shortening the chain of economic processes – but also allow for re-incorporating care into our conceptualization of the economy. In their own words: ‘commons-based provisioning means putting the care sector at the center of economic thinking, hereby validating a different logic for organizing the economy through asserting different standards of valuation’.

It seems that care is not only a key value of the degrowth paradigm, as I wrote last week, it also stands at the center of the commons.



Commoners must be able to monitor how their self-established rules are followed. Commons need clearly defined boundaries for governing themselves. This process of governing through commons is often called Peer-governance. Peer-governance is distinct from governing for people (top-down decision-making) and from governing with people (which may be called participative decision-making). Instead, it is governing through people. The dynamics of peer-governance would provide regularity and stability to a commons, revolving around interpersonal social relationships as well as deal with property, money and markets.

Furthermore, as Bollier explains in one of his earlier works Think like a commoner: A short introduction to the life of the commons, ‘since commons ask us to consider social rules that are compatible with a more cooperative, civic-minded and inclusive set of norms and practices, governing through commons is more about stewardship than about ownership’.

On the commons and degrowth


The commons should be understood as a real-life practice emerging from the bottom-up as people engage in alternative commoning practices. This is where the commons narrative differs from de degrowth paradigm: where degrowth is first and foremost idealistic, the commons are both idealistic ánd pragmatic. It appears as if the commons promote a shift towards a world that the degrowth vision puts forth. Put differently, the commons provide the degrowth paradigm with essential vocabulary for making its story about socio-ecological transformation tangible and rooted in real-life practices.

As Bollier and Helfrich write in Degrowth bible Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, ‘both discourses [the degrowth and the commons paradigm] re-interpret the notion of wealth while linking it to an idea of enhanced liberty in connectedness. A critique of growth sets the frame (what to do?), while the commons develops a narration for how to live and structure our social relations within this frame. (…) Commoners tend to set forth the proposition that there will be enough produced for all if we can develop an abundance of relationships, networks, and forms of cooperative governance. This kind of abundance can help us develop practices that respect the limits of growth and enlarge everybody’s freedom to act in a self-determined way’.

Through today’s blog, I wanted to give you ideas on how to give meaning to the act of commoning. However, it is crucial to understand that there are many ways to define the commons and commoning and even more suggestive experiences and instructive patterns. In recognition of this diversity, Bollier and Helfrich emphasize in their book that ‘the best way to become acquainted with the commons and the act of commoning is by learning about them through real-life examples’.

The upcoming weeks, I hope to take you on this learning journey by sharing some key practical insights from our study on the act of commoning in the realm of healthcare. Next week: Step 1 of the Degrowth-Health paradigm in practice & the Social Life of Commoning in Healthcare.

If today’s article gave you ideas that you’d like to share with me, please do! Reach out to us at @CommonsNetwork on Twitter or by following our newsletter here or send us an email at thomas @ commonsnetwork . eu.


Silke Helfrich

David Bollier