The Intrapersonal Commons

The ideas of commons, commoners and commoning are becoming clearer to people.

In my understanding, a living and working commons is much more than the shared resource. For people to benefit from a commons, shared between people, and to prevent its enclosure, commoners need to maintain and govern their commons. Silke Helfrich has called this process “commoning”, to mean “taking responsibility for common stewardship” of what the commoners need, and that stewardship is strongly aligned with the long term health and wellbeing of the natural environment of the world in which we live.

Silke Helfrich and David Bollier have also written a strongly related piece on whether commoners can “become self-aware of their collective potential”. I’m asking whether commoners can become aware of their inner, personal potential from development of self-governance.

Denis Postle uses the term “psyCommons” (wildernessweb; David Bollier; P2PF wiki) to mean “a ‘common pool resource’ of our learning from experience”. It is what we use to navigate the interpersonal interactions of our daily lives. Here as well there is some threat of attempted enclosure. In this case, the commoners are — simply — all of us who interact socially. This common pool is a vital resource for our mental health and our social wellbeing. It may be difficult to see any explicit governance processes, because these are part of the fabric of everyday social life and interaction, but social psychologists could give many insights into what happens.

The “intrapersonal commons”, as I am proposing the term, is not an external, physical, social commons. It is not the “psyCommons”, though it complements it. It is a way of thinking about what is inside each individual person, or within their psyche, if you like. While body parts can be named through the study of anatomy, these parts of the psyche are not so obvious, and different people have talked about them in a variety of ways. Given this variety, it seems reasonable to suppose that the parts of the intrapersonal commons may differ between different individuals.

To get a feel for this variety of make-up, we can listen to voices from science, from literature, and history about how people have tried to grapple with this reality. There is a vast wealth of testimony, through the ages, to people experiencing inner conflicts, and often to those people trying to tame, or in other ways come to terms with, their inner urges, instincts, motives, impulses, needs or passions. I could start citing examples here, but perhaps it is better to leave this for later historical exploration with interpretation. I guess that you know enough of what I mean, for now.

Whatever these sometimes conflicting parts of ourselves are called, they are contained within the same body, with the same brain. You could say it is the brain which is the resource in common, but perhaps it is more natural to think of it as our mind, because we easily imagine the brain as a bodily organ that can be prodded by electrodes or scanned with sophisticated technology, while our minds are construed in terms of our conscious experience.

As an aside, I have read that in the extreme cases of split personality, it seems that different parts of the mind isolate themselves from each other, with (for example) different memories attached to different personalities. So in these cases, the mind would not be a fully common resource. But that is far from the normal case.

How, then, do we govern ourselves, including all these parts within each one of us? Addressing this question is a common aspect of these age-old discussions of our inner make-up. What I want to do here is to point out, and reflect on, the analogies between governing ourselves and governing an external commons. I hope this will help in several ways.

First, we may look at the research on good governance of commons, and draw insights from there on the governance of ourselves. Commons work well with some kind of peer governance, not with hierarchy. And, most of what I have read or heard on self-governance emphasises practices that include sufficient space, and reflection, to allow us to become aware of several of our parts — rather than being ruled by the first impulse that comes to mind, or the one dominant faculty within us.

Second, we may look for ways in which intrapersonal and external commons interact. The good governance of an external commons depends, in part, on the participation of commoners who govern their own intrapersonal commons well. And, conversely, it seems plausible that the governance of external resources, as well as the tacit governance patterns of the psyCommons, is mirrored in the way that people involved learn to govern themselves. We all know how much we learn by example, and this includes by analogy. Inner alienation can lead to outer alienation, and vice versa.

Third, and perhaps most significant in the contemporary discussion of Commons Transition, I want to explore the question of how positive changes may depend on changing external and intrapersonal governance together. Is our behaviour as good commoners, externally, held back by our poorly adapted patterns of intrapersonal governance? Or, could it be that our attempts to improve our intrapersonal governance are held back by what we experience of imperfect psyCommons, and by the patterns of governance of external resources? If so, then Commons Transition needs to focus on harmony of the inner and the outer. We need to focus on hand-in-hand movement, recognising that if we neglect either side, inner or outer, it may be much harder to reach our desired destination.

My sense is that, in focusing on hand-in-hand movement forwards, we can reconcile many of the dualities in our lives — to heal them, maybe. My intention is to place the ideas and practices of the commons centrally in this healing process, because, for me, the commons stands for the kind of connections that I value in my life. I value connection between peers, with reciprocity, with a focus on mutual service, and with an emphasis on the respect and valuing of each individual commoner, and all the diverse faculties within each one of us. When we are fully connected within ourselves — intrapersonally — there is so much positive power we can demonstrate. When we are fully connected between ourselves — interpersonally — there is the great power of solidarity. What can we not achieve through bringing these both together?

Please join me in exploring these and related ideas. In particular, I would greatly value help in fleshing out examples from people’s lived experience.