Patterns of COMMONING

Patterns of COMMONING

Voyaging in the Sea of Ikarian Commons and Beyond

By Maria Bareli-Gaglia

Our story begins in 2006, during my fieldwork at the Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean sea, when I picked up a hitchhiker, a woman named Frosini. As we began to talk, we realized that we were both anthropologists riding in the same car. This encounter was the start of a discussion on the commons, which still continues. It also marked the beginning of a collaborative endeavor to understand how commons are tied to land and local culture. What do the commons mean to people? What happens when people lose access to their commons? What happens to local cultures when natural and civic commons are enclosed?

Two years after our first encounter, as the 2008 financial crisis was starting to unravel, the daily agenda of Greek politics was marked by enclosures of natural and civic commons, through privatizations and commodification of public goods and services. In the name of “green development,” the government has been working closely with private companies to develop industrial wind parks along the mountain ridges of most of the Aegean islands. A new Land Plan was also legislated for the island, which re-designates uses of land in ways that seem incompatible with traditional uses of land. Perhaps the most characteristic example has been the designation of some areas below the mountain range, traditionally pasturelands, as “industrial zones.”

In 2012, the government announced its decision to downgrade the Hospital of Ikaria into a branch of the hospital of the nearby island of Samos, thus downgrading the quality and quantity of health services provided at Ikaria. That measure, along with other measures which promoted the commodification of health, threatened to sweep aside the very reason Ikarians, locals and immigrants had built the Panikarian hospital in 1958 – to give all Ikarians equal access to health services. For Ikaria, an island of 8,000 inhabitants, legislation promoting the privatization or commodification of natural resources, public goods and services was seen as a serious threat to their way of life.1

Frosini Koutsouti and I soon realized that Ikaria was a real-life laboratory for some key themes of our times: the various enclosures of the island’s commons, the people’s resistance in defending and/or reclaiming them, and their invention of innovative new commons. But how could we explore and document these phenomena? We concluded that such an endeavor could not be neutral, as if we could stand apart from local struggles. We could not ignore global neoliberal forces that are violently transforming citizens into consumers of goods whose production depends on relentless enclosures.

In 2012, Frosini and I formed a nonprofit group, the Documentation Research and Action Centre of Ikaria (DRACOI), as a “shelter” for our collaborative work on the commons. One major source of inspiration has been Ivan Illich’s Intercultural Documentation Center in Mexico, which he established in 1961 to document the role of “modern development” in the dismemberment of local cultures, the loss of traditional ways of life and the creation of poverty. Like Illich, we entered into collaboration with various locally based village associations, action committees, cooperatives and other collectivities. Our shared goals lay in protecting basic human rights like equal access to health, education and water. We also wanted to use the commons as a lens for understanding the larger processes of political and sociocultural transformation.

We began to realize that local responses to enclosures of commons could be “read” not merely as isolated moments of resistance against a neoliberal wave, but part of a much larger historical process of enclosure that began in England and elsewhere during the late Middle Ages. Local struggles can be seen as part of the double movement described by economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi, who explained that enclosures driven by the international market economy inevitably provoke countermovements of people seeking to reclaim their commons and create new ones. Seen in this light, the ideals of “green development”2 promoted by corporatists as a “solution” to the crisis resembles the “improvements” of nineteenth century Britain that require ongoing enclosure of natural and civic commons.3

In the course of our journey in the immense sea of literature, activism and dialogue on issues of the commons, we came across thinkers posing issues relevant to our own questions and aims. Each added to our navigational horizons. Some became passengers, joining us in common endeavors, for varying periods of time. We also joined larger “ships” of shared inquiry. Such was the “Mataroa” seminar, named after the historical ship that in December 1945 left Greece, loaded with young scientists, students and artists, who, over the course of their lives, contributed to the formation of the thought and visions that was culminated with May 1968. Our ambitious idea for Mataroa was that now an imaginary ship would return to Greece, loaded, this time, with concepts and ideas proper for a critical and radical understanding of contemporary reality. Those were the concepts of crisis, critique, and commons and their enclosures, as well as the idea of a Mediterranean imaginary – a vision of what the region could be.4

In 2013, the Mataroa seminar “arrived” at the port of Ikaria, bringing together twenty-seven researchers and commoners from the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, to share their stories. One participant brought the other, some found out about the meeting through its blog (, and each found the main concepts of the seminar to be fruitful organizing concepts for telling many different stories. All participants agreed on the need to deconstruct the idea of “crisis,” which was not to be taken as an objective condition of contemporary reality but as a powerful discourse for “Othering” as a powerful means of legitimizing conspicuous violations of the social contract and fundamental human rights.5

The question posed by the “Mataroans” was whether the main components of a new imaginary challenging the capitalist one could be identified. Instead of conceiving of more and more aspects of life in terms of market norms and “development,” could we imagine one that protects and regenerates the very sources of life? Could we discover whether a “Mediterranean Imaginary” existed in contrast to the imaginary of a Hobbesian “war of all against all” – a vision defined by such core values as offering and conviviality within communal institutions,6 and within familial and friendly ties?

The seminar was convened without a budget and depended entirely on the local gift economy of Ikarians, who provided hospitality to researchers and commoners. The logic of the gift also penetrated the organization of the seminar, which would “open up” to local society through a series of public talks on current political and social developments in the Mediterranean and beyond, and on issues relevant to Ikarian experiences. With that in mind, the organizing committee invited some of the “Mataroans” to publicly share their experiences and ideas. Some discussed the popular uprisings in Egypt (Samah Selim), Turkey (Merve Cagsirli) and Kentucky (Betsy Taylor). Others addressed the international experience of privatizing systems of water management (Dimitris Zikos), the experience of neoliberal environmental management of commons in Tanzania and Senegal (Melis Ece), and the idea of degrowth (Giorgos Kallis). Another presentation, inspired by American and European press accounts of Ikarian longevity, examined “slacker politics” (Kristin Lawler). (“Slackers” are people who always seek to avoid work.)

The Mataroa seminar-ship left the port of Ikaria for unknown destinations of new initiative, leaving behind a wealth of material available to anyone through a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. As a kind of countergift to our hosts in Ikaria, the Ikarian stakeholders of the Mataroa initiative prepared a publication that documented this dialogue about the commons.7 Instead of just publishing the proceedings of the seminar, we created a collection of essays that extended the dialogue sparked by the public talks during the seminar. We invited citizens and groups who are fighting privatizations and commodifications of natural resources, public goods and services, to share their thoughts and experiences. These included the vice chair of the local Association of Health Workers at the Hospital of Ikaria, for example, and SOS Chalkidiki, a coalition of collectives struggling against a huge gold mining plan that will have great environmental, economic and social consequences.8

This experience convinced us that, if we are to place the notion of the commons in our analytical epicenter, or use this notion as a compass, we cannot but do it in collaboration with people of praxis, within their own moral and social economies. Politically engaged research must facilitate the co-construction and exchange of knowledge in ways that empower people and give them new tools to serve their ongoing struggles. The journey in this immense sea of the commons continues and new initiatives are already planned with new partners and enduring friends.9 The endeavor of creating a methodology of the commons has just started, many collaborations are to be made, and many more lessons remain to be learned.


Bareli-Gagia photo

Maria Bareli-Gaglia (Greece) is an economist, currently pursuing her PhD in Sociology/Social Anthropology (University of Crete).Her thesis involves the study of the annual festivals (paniyiries) at Ikaria. She is chair of DRACOI, a nonprofit, which aims, among others things, at creating the conditions for an equal exchange of knowledge between locals and researchers.


  1. For an account of the islanders’ discourses and the ways they perceive and respond to crisis, see Bareli M., 2014, “Facets of Crisis in a Greek Island Community: The Ikarian Case.” in Practicing Anthropology, 36:1 (Winter 2014), pp. 21-27.
  2. See essay by Arturo Escobar.
  3. Esteva, Gustavo. 1992. “Development.” In Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London, UK: Zed Books, Ltd., pp. 6-25.  See also Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2001. “Foreword.” In Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.
  4. The idea for a “Mataroa Summer Seminar” belongs to Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, and the title of the meeting at Ikaria was “Against Crisis For the Commons: Towards a Mediterranean Imaginary.” Besides Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, Frosini Koutsouti and me, the organizing committee consisted of Takis Geros (Panteion Universtiy of Athens), Penny Koutrolykou (University of Thessaly), Helena Nassif (Westminster University) and Stayros Stayrides (National Technical University of Athens).
  5. See, for example, the report of the International Federation for Human Rights and its Greek member organization, the Hellenic League for Human Rights, on the downgrading of human rights as a cost of austerity in Greece, Dec. 2014, available at
  6. See essay by Marianne Gronemeyer.
  7. The fruit of this endeavor was an edited volume, “Dialogues Against Crisis, for the Commons. Towards a Mediterranean Imaginary” (2014), which was made possible by members of the Mataroa initiative as well as of the team behind the electronic local magazine, to whom we remain grateful.
  8. The editing of the book was also a collaborative endeavor, which I took up with a woman of praxis, Argyro Fakari, a high school teacher, who is active in the struggles of the educational community to guard the public character of the Greek educational system
  9. The “Dialogues” project is continued in the journal Esto, the quarterly publication of an initiative based at the island of Kefallonia, which aims at the creation of a “Free University.”
Patterns of Commoning