As much as anywhere in the United States, South Bend has prospered by capitalizing on the promise of the commons — which means assets belonging to all of us, from water and wilderness to the Internet and cultural treasures. The commons also refers to a new ethic of sharing and cooperation that can help solve pressing problems of the 21st century, advocates say. This ethic has come to influence decision making at all levels in South Bend, bringing big changes to city hall, businesses and neighborhoods.
Over the past five years, 6,800 new housing units have been built in the area, along with a spate of new offices, restaurants, bars, stores, theaters and galleries. South Bend’s newly completed downtown farmer’s market complex draws tens of thousands of visitors each day, and Lafayette Street is referred to as the “Wall Street of Credit Unions,” with more than a dozen cooperatively owned financial institutions headquartered along a three-block stretch. One of these, the Mondragon American Trust (MAT), which popularized the concept of transforming suburban subdivisions into eco-villages, is now larger than all but two Wall Street banks. MAT was modeled on Spain’s successful Mondragon cooperative, founded in 1956 and by 2010 one of the country’s largest companies.
Notre Dame University, located here, established the nation’s first department of Commons Studies, an interdisciplinary program initiated by the economics, political science, humanities, business, environmental science, art history and theology departments. “We were excoriated at the time for indulging in muddle-headed foolishness that had no place at an institution of higher learning,” remembers the founding director, Professor Eugenia Tomacek, now an advisor to the U.N. Commissioner for Commons Development.
While the ideas of the commons sound theoretical and abstract, commons-based policies show practical results. The South Bend unemployment rate hovers around one percent and the city ranks high for the quality of its municipal services and the strength of its civic organizations. Because such a sizable share of economic activity rests in the hands of locally owned business and cooperatives, South Bend’s new wealth is spread around the community, not piped to a corporate headquarters far away.
High school graduation rates are the highest ever in the city’s history, with 93 percent of students going on to college or technical training programs. The St. Joseph river and local lakes are clean enough for fishing and swimming. Three light rail lines, coupled with policies to promote bicycling and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood businesses, give the once-gritty city an almost Parisian quality of urban charm.
Stuck in the past?
Even with the city’s impressive performance, some charge that South Bend is looking backward, paddling against the stream of economic progress that has powered human advancement and prosperity since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
B. Dietrich Campbell, former president of the South Bend Area Chamber of Commerce, thunders about the “inanity of those who put their faith in shimmering, shadowy ideas about cooperation and community, when it has been proven over and over that the privatized workings of an all-out market economy is the only way to stay above water in a competitive world. The gimmicks being tried today in our city will soon collapse, leaving us worse off than ever.”
Campbell was forced out of his position with the Chamber of Commerce six years ago, replaced by the owner of a family-run sporting goods store. This year, for the first time, the Chamber signed on as a co-sponsor of the South Bend’s famous Common Wealth Festival, which was launched 15 years ago by local activists as a celebration of what South Bend residents share in common — from parks and arts organizations, to local online communities and loyalty to the Notre Dame football team. Last year, the Common Wealth Festival attracted 800,000 visitors, making it the second-largest event in the state behind the Indiana State Fair, but ahead of the Indianapolis 500.
“I don’t know of another place that has done a more thorough job of bringing government, community groups, nonprofit institutions and private business together to solve pressing problems and make sure that future generations enjoy the bounty of the commons in their daily lives,” declares Salaam Sanchez, director of the prestigious E.F. Schumacher School of Business at the University of Puerto Rico. “South Bend is pointing us in the direction of a sustainable, prosperous and — dare I say — pleasurable future.
“A few die-hard market zealots still complain that all this emphasis on the commons is a retreat from human progress,” Sanchez adds. “But that only makes sense if you believe that progress inevitably means rising environmental disasters, increasing poverty, mounting social alienation and the commercialization of almost everything in our lives. Only a fool would accept those terms.”
As goes South Bend, so goes the nation?
While South Bend has accomplished the most of any American community in promoting a vision of the commons — thanks to the enthusiastic work of citizens coming out of neighborhood organizations, social movements, labor unions, the business community and religious congregations — you see similar policies being put into action everywhere from Bangor to Berkeley, Ottawa to Oaxaca.
Nearby Gary, Indiana — once an economic basket case in anyone’s eyes — is now thriving as the center of the revived Lake Michigan fishing industry. Hard-hit Buffalo, New York, flourishes as the home of world-renowned green engineering firms. Even after the closing of its military bases, San Antonio is booming thanks to its emergence as a media capital known as the “Tex-Mex Hollywood.”
Even stalwart Republicans now concede that measures to boost the commons represent a necessary correction to the reckless privatization of public assets that started with Ronald Reagan and intensified under George W. Bush and the Rise of the Tea Party. No one, not even on the farthest reaches of the American right, wants to put lobbyists back in charge of writing energy, economic and environmental legislation.
“Those were dark days, which thankfully are now in the past,” declares Newt Gingrich III, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute (once known as the Heritage Foundation). “It was a huge mistake to equate belief in markets with obedience to corporations. Activists on the right can admit when we were wrong. Small, independent businesses, working with grassroots communities, have been the salvation of our country and we intend to make sure that the balance of power does not tip too far in the direction of government. The public sector can do some things very well — but not everything.”
A cultural revolution hits home
Political action, of course, represents only part of the overall thrust of the commons. Probably the greatest impact has come in the flowering of community and civic organizations dedicated to improving people’s lives. Anneka Chang, bestselling Christian author, notes, “From the rise of shared-family housing to the Teen Service Corps and the creation of new neighborhood plazas in many towns across the land, the commons brightens our lives from morning to midnight. It amounts to a spectacular shift from ‘me’ to ‘we.’”
Indeed, the daily rhythm of modern society has evolved since the harried days when demands of the market economy drove almost every aspect of life. “The long working hours, financial anxiety and lack of time for family, fun, friends and faith seem like a bad dream now,” Chang offers. “The rediscovery of the commons prompted people to think more about what really mattered to them.”
The commons goes global
So how did the idea of the commons sweep through a nation that once believed fervently in extreme individualism, no matter what the social costs?
Scholars and journalists chronicling this social movement offer many theories, all of which note the rise of the digital commons. Americans took advantage of the Internet and other new technologies to make closer contact with people in other countries, gaining exponentially more knowledge about what was happening around the globe. Ordinary citizens in places like South Bend learned that Germans had better — and less expensive — health care. They learned that Ecuador’s national constitution protected the rights of ecosystems. They were shocked to discover the “workaholic” Japanese spent fewer hours on the job each year than Americans, and enjoyed at least a week more vacation.
This learning process intensified into widespread action during the late 2010s as the ideas of the commons took hold globally. Indigenous people’s successful claims for national autonomy in Colombia, Brazil, and Australia fueled similar efforts from the Yukon to the Yucatan. The “Free the Streets” movement that erupted first in Dubai, then Jamaica, China and Los Angeles inspired citizens to organize for massive reductions in automobile traffic.
No great idea about how to improve our lives stayed in one place for long. Wilderness restoration practices pioneered in Madagascar took root across the northern hemisphere. Denmark’s savvy strategies to care for an aging population were soon implemented throughout industrialized nations. The Common Wealth festival dreamed up in Karachi, Pakistan, was imitated in South Bend, Warsaw, Lagos, Delhi and hundreds of other places.
“Democracy took a great stride forward with the rise of the global commons,” declares Fernanda Vasconcelos Ruiz, an outspoken librarian who became governor of the Mexican state of Jalisco. “Suddenly people had access to unlimited information, which before had always been controlled by the experts, the media and the politicians. Now, a plumber or a schoolteacher could propose a solution with the same expertise and data as a big shot. It inaugurated a new epoch of citizenship, with very positive results for the common man and woman.”
The widening reach of global communications also — paradoxically — ignited people’s passion for locally rooted culture. Hussein “Mahatama” Usmani, founder of the Karachi Common Wealth festival and now U.N. Commissioner for Commons Development, notes, “The hallmark of our era is that people have one foot in the wider world and one foot firmly planted in their own community. We live in the “Glocal Age,” where people can enjoy the best of what’s global and what’s local.
“I think this is why we are experiencing fewer armed conflicts and large-scale terror campaigns these days, even as we cope with the ordeals of water shortages,” Usmani continues. “The strong instincts all humans possess for group identification are now channeled into their own region or city, rather than into abstract allegiances like Pakistan or India, Muslim or Hindu. It’s much healthier for us to fiercely believe that our local football team is the best, or that our cheese tastes better than what’s eaten anywhere else.”
Round-the-world in your own backyard
The “glocal” spirit of the commons is on full display here at the Common Wealth Festival in South Bend, which opened last night. At the TED (technology/entertainment/design) Bazaar, folks are urged to download the latest movies, music, blogs, software, greenware, smartware, slowware, poetry, architectural codes, news reports, video mash-ups, engineering specs, gaming templates, typography and fashion designs from everywhere across the planet. At the same time, festival-goers can sample 75 different beers, 40 wines, 13 bourbons, 31 vinegars, 116 cheeses, 56 different kinds of sausage and eight varieties of West African-style cassava brew, all made right inside the city limits.
“South Bend is the center of the universe — to those of us who live here,” exclaims Mayor Lakeesha Kluzynski, who admits to liking the Polish sausages best. “That’s the great gift of the commons — letting us discover the wonderful things around us that we all share.”