How the coronavirus is forcing us to think beyond market and state

The Corona crisis demonstrated in fast motion the dilemma into which market-state-thinking leads. This is where commons come into play, i.e. what people do and are able to do with each other in a self-determined, self-organised, needs-oriented manner and without any marketing interest.

If this article were a sonata, its minor key would show us the following: separation and connection of motifs result in a beautiful piece of music, whereas separation and isolation alone create a cacophony. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, all the talk about “social distancing” has made this idea clear. The term is confusing, because we’re supposed to physically distance ourselves from each other. But during a pandemic what we actually need to maintain our physical and mental health are both physical distance and social closeness. If we focus only on keeping distance but not at the same time on closeness – on taking care of the many relationships that support us – then we lose sight of important courses of action as well as the people needed to undertake them.

From a philosophical point of view, observing the world through a lens of separation and isolation reveals that we have missed a fundamental point: in real world social processes everything happens because of relationships and through relationships, particularly relationships of mutual dependence, i.e. interdependencies. We can, of course, differentiate the I from the You, and yet it is misleading to think about the I without the You as if they were completely separate entities. In fact, it is misleading because we are dependent on each other. As living organisms that unfold and grow, it is with each other and through each other that we become what we experience and understand as I. Biologically and developmentally, we are not “isolated individuals”, either in terms of how we understand ourselves or how we relate to the animate and inanimate world around us.

Market / state by design

Differentiation is important, while the idea that separation is truly possible is naïve. The pervasive paradigm of thought that pits market versus state also shows this to be true. We presume that they are two separate entities that contend with each other and, at best, seek “equilibrium” with each other. Over time they seesaw back and forth – “the state” is down while “the market” is up, and vice-versa – according to the political system, economic model or situation at hand. During the coronavirus crisis, in almost every country on earth, the state has suddenly become the heavier partner on the seesaw. The crisis is showing that “every society needs a state that is competent and capable of taking action,” writes Heiner Flassbeck, the Keynesian economist and former chief economist of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).[1] Indeed, after the political and economic measures taken to address the pandemic, questioning the need for state power will be more difficult. Yet even this judgment presumes that there are only two institutions with the power and legitimacy to solve problems: the market and state.

In the spring of 2020, the German government in a way left “the market” at the high end of the seesaw, where one is prompted to fret about the precarity of soaring so high while depending on the person at the low end. It was a short-lived moment only, and yet it caused widespread nervousness about the faith of the economy without the State’s support and protection. Not even a week after the lockdown, on March 24, 2020, Federal Minister of the Economy Peter Altmaier announced unprecedented relief packages of nearly 1.5 billion euros to rescue the German economy. One reason this happened so quickly, he explained, was because “many companies have to pay their employees’ wages next week…..Time is of the essence.”[2] A shop owner in my hometown demurred; she was of the opinion that any responsible company should have enough money on hand for two months at least – otherwise their financial problems might not only be a result of the crisis, but at least partially self-inflicted.

One reason for Altmaier’s haste clearly had to do with the intimate connection between the market and the state. This is the key to understanding many phenomena that we experience, with or without the coronavirus crisis: Our political system and the power of the state are not only deeply dependent on the fortunes of the market economy; they are at its mercy. Even though political and economic debate frames policy choices as favoring either market or state (some continually pleading for more market while others push for more state), the truth is that we are dealing with a market/state by design. Not only is the state dependent on the market, but the market could not function without the legal systems, market regulation, subsidies, and other supports of the state.[3] The pandemic is therefore affecting both political and economic systems. This situation makes it very difficult to think outside the realm of market and state, although this is exactly what is needed if we are going to surmount the crisis.

Of course, the market and the state should not just be lumped together. They are not the same, nor do they always follow the same logic. This can be seen when state institutions override the principles of business competition and profit maximization, as has been happening during this crisis. It is therefore important to keep the market from the state conceptually distinct, and not naïvely regard them as truly separate. During a crisis, the existential co-dependence of state and market outlined above becomes immediately apparent. It is no wonder that Germany had only one noteworthy exception to the first cautious easing of restrictions in mid-April 2020: the opening of car dealerships.

This favor to the most important symbol of German industry was not only a political victory for auto industry lobbyists and a calculated statement of reassurance to global investors. It illustrates the deeper alliance and symbiosis of markets and state in the far-reaching conceptual blindness that results: Within a market-state-framework, people are unable to imagine a post-capitalist order and to entertain non-market solutions that don’t drive growth. They are not even capable of seeing them. The market/state is not likely to entertain non-market solutions to the pandemic and its economic impact that would erode this co-dependence. The basic patterns of nation-state action almost everywhere in the world are dominated by market ideology and market-based policies. Despite the remarkable effectiveness of spontaneous mutual aid projects initiated by ordinary people, the market/state has shown little interest in supporting this type of activity. The coronavirus crisis has quickly shown us the dilemma that politicians, as guardians of the market-state system that depends on jobs and growth, are facing. They perceive no other choices than creating jobs and re-booting growth.

In reality though, the economic shutdown spurred by the pandemic should invite us to reflect more deeply. It is allowing nature a minute to catch her breath. While many people remain dependent on the market economy, in the aggregate we need less money (remarkably, there is no meaningful public discourse about this), we use less gas, we fly less and we shop less. And it is precisely this not needing as much money, not flying anymore and not shopping as much as usual, that is being presented to us as a catastrophe that must be fought and overcome at all costs. In Germany, even incentives to scrap your existing (and still perfectly functional) car and buy a new one were once again being considered. Everything is being set up to stimulate consumption and, thus, the economy. In shutdown mode, we might begin to ask ourselves, “Do I really need this?”[4] But such reflection about our lifestyles and real needs is literally considered “a threat to the system.” Even the German Greens were demanding 250 euro shopping vouchers for everyone. A team of three writers for the weekly newspaper ZEIT have boiled it down to this: “The important thing is that people consume. And if they don’t, they are jeopardizing everything that depends on the value added in an economically developed nation: wages, fiscal revenue, social security benefits.”[5] In mid-May, the German public received its first, prognosis – that 2020 fiscal revenue will experience a drop of almost 100 billion euros.

The problem is thus twofold. On the one hand, our economic system is so dependent on the production of goods and relentless consumption that, despite ample inventories, public debate is all about the imminent catastrophe and collapse that would occur if we were to take just two or three months to turn the energy levels down, relax, take a rest, catch our breath, do nothing, live off of reserves, share and scale down. Yet in one of the richest industrial nations of the world, where the needs of most people are met, or can quickly be met, through redistribution, this option is seen as a trauma.

On the other hand, not only the production of goods[6] but also our political system is designed to require that nobody ever relaxes, takes a break, catches their breath and does nothing for a while, even though controlling the pandemic and healing the environment dictates it. The state’s singular job is to either stimulate consumption to re-jumpstart the economy or to stimulate the economy to jumpstart consumption. If the wheel ceases to turn, the system is in danger of collapse. Anything more than a short-term “shutdown” seems unthinkable. Therein lies the design flaw of our economy. It’s not a recent flaw; it has just become more apparent and ominous, given that another pandemic is sure to come and a reduction of our CO2 emissions in the long term will be essential. This design flaw of constant consumption and growth can only be overcome by thinking outside the box, beyond market and state, beyond the deeply ingrained ideas of classical and neoclassical economists, and beyond imperial ways of life.[7]

This is where commons come into the picture. As much of human history confirms, people are able to accomplish a great deal with each other in self-determined, self-organized, needs-oriented ways, without commercial interests prioritizing everything. Commons serve many purposes, as we will see, but they are hardly a promising source of tax revenue, which is surely one reason that they are largely invisible to the market/state system.

Commoning in pandemic times

Those who mix up commons with caritas – reducing the commons to pure altruism, sporadic neighborly help, or unconditional giving – overlook the transformative power that these practices hold. Whoever thinks of the commons mainly or exclusively as an historical artifact or legal entity, or a project for “managing resources,” will hardly be able to grasp that this concept holds a key to dealing with our current crises and the design flaws of market/state thinking.

American historian Peter Linebaugh is often quoted as saying, “There is no commons without commoning.” His point is to emphasize that a commons is not so much a noun – a thing or resource – as a verb – the actions of commoning. A commons is about practices that create togetherness and patterns of behavior that differ from those that normally prevail in the market/state. Throughout the world, such practices are an important part of life and survival (especially in times of crisis), as cultural historian Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell (2009). Not only are commons older than the capitalist market economy, they will surely outlast the concept of the modern nation-state. Despite this, practices of social solidarity do not find their way into media coverage – and when they do, it is through a lens of charity, as a show of neighborly spirit or as a light filler story. The many varieties of mutual aid are not seen as seed forms of social practice that could help us escape the deep limitations of the market state. And so we remain within a kind of mental lockdown that pushes the commons and their agents to the fringes, ignoring the power and creativity of self-organization.

This dynamic was clearly at play in the early days of the pandemic in Hong Kong, a densely populated physical space of 7 million people, without any significant space to get away from the crowds. Fearing the government inaction, the people took infection control into their own hands. On the very same day that the city had its first reported infection, a team of citizens who had been engaged in political protests set up a website to track cases of Covid-19 infection, identify transmission hotspots, and cross-check news stories across multiple sources.[8] In a remarkably short amount of time, without government assistance, nearly everyone in Hong Kong equipped themselves with masks despite the government’s ban on covering one’s face in public (a rule imposed in the wake of the protests). The use of masks was entirely voluntary, not mandatory. The results have been impressive: while completing this article, hardly any new infections have been reported.[9] It’s important to note that the conditions have been favorable: important communication platforms had already been built in 2019 to help with the protests against Carrie Lam’s government and the population drew on their experiences of the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003. But the conditions under which the infection itself spread were favorable too: high population density, high-speed trains as well as several daily direct flight connections with Wuhan and the entry of more than 2.5 million people from mainland China into Hong Kong in January 2020 alone. And on the very same day that the city had its first reported infection, the same team of citizens who had been engaged in political protests set up a new website to track cases, identify transmission hotspots and cross-check news stories across multiple sources.[10]

Transcending the market/state structures has also proved to be a reasonable approach in Brazil. Right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro’s government has consistently ignored or minimized the looming health crisis, and labeling it “just a little flu”. Since protective masks were not available in sufficient quantities, one doctor got in touch with the Padre Miguel samba school in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. From that point on, the school’s sewing machines hummed along, making protective clothing instead of carnival costumes.

In the USA, faced with school closures, over 150 people and more than 80 organizations created a network through which they pooled their expertise in education and social work to support parents and children in homeschooling and childcare.[11] Also the global initiative of the scientific community CrowdfightCovid10 soon began to share knowledge and tools to use in the fight against COVID-19. Why do people do these kinds of things? Because it is necessary and it makes sense. Because they can. Because crises of this kind cannot be solved with market-based thinking. Because (some) governments fail to step up. But above all, because that is what many people regard as the normal thing to do. Practices of togetherness are matters of course that span all cultures and eras.

Barikama, a cooperative founded in Italy, has been celebrated for its pioneering work to ensure a steady food supply for the people in Rome while freedom of movement was restricted.[12] The word barikama comes from the Bambara language and means “strength” or “resistance”. The coop liberated migrant day laborers and seasonal workers from degrading conditions in the fruit and vegetable agricultural industry. These young people from different countries in Africa decided to produce vegetables and yogurt on their own terms.

On a global level, the approach of Masks4All took on the spurious wisdom that markets are the most efficient and rapid way to meet needs. In March 2020, scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs,[13] many of them from the Czech Republic, began a concerted effort to convince the public and political world that masks are fundamental to stop the spread of infection. It was already becoming apparent at this point that market-based logic – fewer goods meaning higher prices – would lead to a precarious supply of masks at prices that would be grossly inflated over actual production costs. With an unquenchable need for protective clothing in the healthcare sector and the general public, some mask producers became instant profiteers.[14] The Mettman Evangelical Hospital revealed in concrete terms what this meant for hospitals in Germany. Within weeks, the price of surgical masks soared by 1667 percent, FFP2 masks by 2500 percent, FFP3 by 3043 percent, and protective gowns by 638 percent.

There was also a general lack of capacity to provide the public with masks for everyday use. For this reason, Masks4all[15] put instructions online for making masks – either with or without a sewing machine. The initiative cited Republican Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who made a very concise point: “Some people have said that covering their faces infringes on their rights, but…it’s about protecting your neighbors…Spreading this disease infringes on your neighbors’ rights.” Masks4all’s motto is even more to the point: My mask protects you, your mask protects me. This reveals perhaps the most compelling aspect of the crisis – masks reveal our interdependence on each other. Your health is dependent on mine. My safety depends on how careful you are. The health of the individual depends on the health and precautions of all.

A similar lesson applies to life in general. It is the basic assumption of commoning as well as the basic idea of an economy that recognizes that we become individuals out of and through our relationships. This basic idea – “I am because you are,” without which commoning cannot be understood – will no longer need much explanation in the future because it describes a commonly shared experience from the recent past: A mask does not primarily protect the person who is wearing it – it protects other people in case the wearer is infected but asymptomatic. Those who see individual freedom as threatened, however, are probably only thinking in terms of the isolated individual’s freedoms. They have lost sight of society. The idea that “I-can-do-what-I-want is very close to nothing-can-be-done-about-it,”[16] writes cultural critic Georg Seesslen.

Knowledge is powerful, free knowledge even more so

The examples above share a few motifs. One of the most important being: freely shareable knowledge is much more powerful than commodified knowledge in advancing the common good. Only when knowledge is shared generously can it yield the richest, most desired outcomes for everyone, under the best possible conditions. Therefore, commoners criticize the idea of dealing with knowledge as one would deal with a chair or a bicycle. A chair or a bicycle could, of course, also be shared. In this case they would be used in turns, but if we “share” a bicycle or a chair that narrows our individual possibilities of immediate and instantaneous access to them. This difference is also laid out in neoclassical economics textbooks, and it shows how illogical it is to treat something that can multiply through sharing in the same way that you would treat something that tends to lessen through sharing. Consequently, one of the recurring motives of the commons is to share knowledge or to design usage rights in such a way as to protect the commons knowledge. This approach, as famously applied in free software communities and Wikipedia, explains why these bodies of shared knowledge are so popular and expanding.

Open-source hardware can also solve physical-production problems created by market thinking. It could even ease the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems worldwide, according to an international team of researchers working on a project coordinated by the University of Sussex.[17] In combination with 3D printers, freely available designs for microscopes and respirators, among other equipment, could directly benefit healthcare worldwide. Collaborative production instead of mass production is the order of the day, says neuroscience professor Tom Baden, a member of the research team.[18] But this would be possible only if, in addition to globally available designs, we would have “much lower implementation costs” than with mass production and could benefit from “easy adaptability to local resources.” The scientists participating in the research project of the University of Sussex are not only familiar with open-source blueprints for appropriate protective gear available online; they also know which of these solutions pass their official functionality tests. However, getting open-source hardware designs approved by authorities is a long process, which is why Baden says it would be incredibly useful for governments to find a reasonable way to expedite the testing and approval process.

Even more relevant is how we handle knowledge in the production of drugs and vaccines. The coronavirus crisis could mark a turning point in this regard. Many scientific publishers, which normally operate under rather heavy restrictions, have made coronavirus research results available quickly and at no cost. The discussion of who will own future vaccines has also picked up speed. History shows us that the notion that ideas, knowledge and research results should be in the public domain instead of commodified will be critical for discussions for the future of COVID-19 vaccines. After Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1955, journalists asked him who owned the patent. Salk answered with the often quoted words: “Well, the people, I’d say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Dr. Salk, who came to be a national hero in the USA, found it ethically offensive to imagine that a life-saving vaccine could be produced with profit maximization in mind, distributed by “the invisible hand of the market” and made unaffordable for so many people. Accordingly, he transferred the responsibility for the polio vaccine to the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of the 1950’s. In the following decades, however, a different idea prevailed. Nation-states started expanding the scope and length of patents to drug manufacturing companies and, in some cases, allowing exceptions to generic production for their own respective domestic markets. In response to COVID-19, a different tune is now being played. At the Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference[19], EU council president Ursula von der Leyen as well as several heads of state including Angela Merkel declared that the coronavirus vaccine should be understood as a “unique, global public good” that should be produced “by the whole world for the whole world.”[20] The pharmaceutical industry immediately rejected this approach, stating, “Companies must retain ownership of their developments.”[21] And their position will certainly be adopted or viewed positively by many because it echoes everything we have been accustomed to hearing for decades. Meanwhile, little attention is paid to the fact that collaborative, solidarity-based drug research and development processes and innovative ownership structures already exist. Public-minded innovations are not only possible, they are being enacted by groups like the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI), which is discussed below. This brings us to the second motif.

Encouraging self-organization rather than counting on the state

Skeptics may wonder who would provide a vaccine as a “common or public good”[22] and ensure its availability in the long term. Anyone who believes that the nation-state should be responsible for everything public and should have sole decision-making power will naturally count on the state.

But this is problematic in two respects. On the one hand, the relationship between the public and the state is more complex, because the public is not created by state power but rather by all citizens. The term “public good” is therefore less appropriate as a description of the state’s range of duties than as a marker denoting the limits of state power, an insight which should manifest in any decision-making processes. On the other hand, the direct “public-state” nexus overlooks the fact that the market and the state are indeed different but not separate. The concern expressed by EU politicians that brutal nationalism could emerge in the American healthcare sector[23] is not without a certain irony since the fly in the ointment is actually the less brutal concept of national sovereignty.[24] This idea of national state sovereignty – combined with the principles of market economics – will sooner or later deter participants from thinking and acting from a position of global solidarity.[25] The systematic interlinking of the market and state results in the state having national market interests that not only fuel the dispute over who owns the vaccine, but also push to undermine the 1.5 degree climate goal. These concepts cannot begin to address the challenges of an independent world which become apparent in times of climate crisis, mass migration and pandemics.

Therefore we need ways of organising, producing and owning that meet the demands of the public, take everyone’s needs into account regardless of nationality, and offer real opportunities for collective decision making. We need commons governance by design, not as exceptions. In contrast to a market/state that functions under national sovereignty,[26] this commons-based approach would recognize our interdependence – not just in isolated cases, but as a matter of principle and long term strategy. It would encourage self-organization and solidarity, provide the proper conditions to enable them, and make it easier for people to take matters into their own hands.

Anyone combing through the news for this perspective will unfortunately have to search quite thoroughly.[27] The German Government took one step in the right direction with the #WirVsVirus [We vs. virus] hackathon[28], and the Istanbul municipal government took inspiration from the social practice in Turkish restaurants where strangers frequently pay the bills for others. So now, in the face of the crisis, the government created a digital platform that lets friends and strangers pay the water and gas bills of people who can’t afford to do so. The municipal government adopted this practice in April 2020 in order to support people with financial difficulties in the wake of the coronavirus crisis who could no longer pay their own gas or water bills. The bills of families who are officially confirmed as in need, could be posted on the website and anonymously covered by strangers. Just a few days after the Istanbul program was launched, almost 100,000 bills amounting to around 10 million lira (nearly 2.5 million euros) were settled, and another 120,000 bills were still waiting for donors.[29] Instead of acting on pure charity, in this case better conditions for self-organization were created in order for people to be able to cover their utility costs on a mass scale, even as their incomes were suddenly dropping. This demonstrates a basic example of how a public-commons partnership can be implemented instead of reflexively opting for a public-private partnership.

So what does that mean for the question of how to provide a vaccine? It could be a public good generated by the state for exclusive use by its citizens, or a common good created by non-state commoners and generously shared with everyone.[30]The path suggested by Jonas Salk has great appeal. WHO, or another collaborative global organization constructed as a commons-public partnership, could take on fiduciary responsibility for the vaccine. It could pioneer innovative research and financing models through which civil society organizations and private companies could cooperate. True to the motive of free knowledge, patents for medicines and vaccines could be not only suspended in times of crisis – they would be abandoned altogether. This is not just some wacky ideological claim. It’s a successful practice that the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) has been demonstrating for decades. DNDI researches, develops, tests and shares drugs – together with state, multilateral and private partners – especially for diseases that “aren’t worth it” to companies and therefore are not researched despite high mortality rates and millions of affected people. If no profit can be expected from a new drug, then, according to market logic, no research investment can be expected either.[31] That is surely a key virtue of a commons: where nothing is invested, there can be no plummeting of profits and resulting disruptions. There is no production to shut down and no threat of sudden unemployment. From the perspective of the market economy, the field is irrelevant, no matter how many people suffer or what they actually need. That is exactly what commons do differently. Commons place the needs of people at the center of the work, and collectively distribute the responsibility of production and distribution. This approach has the virtue of eliminating market-based costs (advertising and marketing, competitive litigation, patenting costs, talent recruitment, etc.) while shielding the venture from the costly overhead that is likely to collapse in the face of a pandemic anyway.

Producing and using collectively

When there is no imperative to convert goods into commodities for sale, everything can basically continue as it was before. In the almost 280 CSA farms[32] that have remained active throughout the crisis, for example, crops are grown, harvested and distributed just as they were before the coronavirus (in compliance with proper hygiene precautions, of course). Boxes full of food are delivered, week after week, not to customers but to members, who continue to support their CSA in times of crisis. This was also the case in the very dry summer of 2018 and is no different in the coronavirus-plagued spring of 2020. No state was needed to step in and save these enterprises. An economic “shutdown” is not a fundamental problem for CSAs, since the risk in this kind of agriculture is diversified among many members. Its systems operate independently of seasonal labor and money is handled on the basis of voluntary contributions and redistribution of benefits.

When the market economy crashes, it tends to produce perversely anti-social effects, as seen when milk producers pour their supplies into sewers[33] even as people go hungry, and as flower growers destroy their harvests rather than put them in public squares for everyone to enjoy. Commons can adjust more readily to fluctuations, avoiding waste while more consistently meeting needs. A member of Verantwortung Erde[34] (Responsibility Earth) in Villach, Austria, put it this way: “The people, the materials and the capability remain the same [in a crisis]. We simply just carry on.”

Similar to how the municipal government in Istanbul created a platform so that people could more easily cover strangers’ utility bills, there are also agricultural organizations that lay the ground for much-needed reorganization, literally. They take land – one of the most important means of production – out of the market, and therefore out of speculation. In doing so they not only give those who work the land more independence, they also reduce infrastructure costs. In an exchange about the role of the commons in pandemic times,[35] one member of the German cooperative Kulturland[36], which is actively decommodifying land, confirmed a growing interest in this model and summed it up this way: “We anticipated the future and now have begun to live it in advance. We have a lot of land waiting for many great projects.”

The Commons as a path forward?

I would like to close with the idea that the time for the commons is right now. The commons create resilience, reduces dependence and lessens power imbalances. The commons makes possible something that would seem unthinkable under the dominant economic model: “shutting down” without crashing. It is possible to just let things be because we do not need them at the moment. Everything is not already over-leveraged to provide returns to capital. It becomes possible to operate at a relaxed pace, in “power saving mode,” as long as we have enough to live on. There is no need to produce gratuitous things just so that people can keep their jobs and ensure their survival. With commons, it becomes possible to engage in many meaningful activities that have nothing to do with profit-driven business models.

With this in mind, maybe the world is not quite ready for the commons just yet. The old, persistent ways of thinking and outdated economic and political ideas from the 19th century still stand in the way. I do believe, however, that this crisis has created better conditions for us to learn how to think like commoners. After all, we not only share collective experiences, we can also see how quickly everything can change.

Moving ahead, there will no longer be a need to justify why the change to an economy based on “less production and more local, synergistic production methods (e.g., neighborhood workshops and reuse, repair and recycling centers) is ecologically necessary and more suited to handling an epidemic.”[37] It will become evident why we need to distinguish jobs that are “relevant to the system” from activities that are “relevant to life,” and to recognize the latter as the primary and actual basis of any post-coronavirus economic model. (“Systemrelevant” is a German term used during the corona crisis to describe the work of doctors, nurses, care-takers, cashiers and others, who are “in normal times” are not really considered relevant.) It will become clear that the motifs behind commoning are not just for “small communities,” but describe processes of self-organized collaborative creation that depend on effective communication platforms. Finding new, more creative answers to the question of legal ownership and control will be unavoidable.

Above all, though, everyone has internalized what interdependence means. Remember? Your mask protects me and my mask protects you.

The logical next step is to expand the commons…and now![38]

Silke Helfrich completed her studies in adult education and Romance languages as well as sociology with a focus on economics. She works as a freelance author, researcher and widely sought-after speaker. Silke is also cofounder of the Commons-Institut e.V. and the Commons Strategies Group as well as co-initiator of the Netzwerk Ökonomischer Wandel (NOW). Her most recent publication, co-written with David Bollier, is the book Free, Fair and Alive. The Insurgent Power of the Commons, transcript, 2019.

Many thanks to Sigrun Preissing, Johannes Euler, Horst Göllnitz, Joanna Barelkowska and Jörg Haas for their extremely helpful guidance in writing this text. Also, thanks to Timothy McKeon for his excellent translation and David Bollier for his editing.

Cross-posted from the Heinrich Böll Foundation Website.

[2] Tagesschau from 03/24/2020

[3] In the interest of space, I will use this abstract concept without expounding on it further.

[4] The question highlights the idea that the economy should essentially fulfill our needs.

[6] For a moment, it becomes clear that it is not possible for care workers to stop and take a rest. Care is not only “relevant to the system” in the sense that it is the core and basis of all economies. Care work is always of the utmost vital importance, no matter what shape the market is in.

[7] Cf. Brand, Ulrich und Markus Wissen (2017): Imperiale Lebensweise. Zur Ausbeutung von Mensch und Natur in Zeiten des globalen Kapitalismus. Munich: Oekom.

[8], accessed on 06/08/2020

[9] The figures on 06/08/2020: Confirmed cases – 1107 (many of them having had to return to Hong Kong from their studies abroad); Recovered – 1048; Dead – 4; In hospital – 55.

[10], accessed on 06/08/2020

[11], accessed on 05/15/2020

[13], accessed on 05/17/2020

[14] Report by Lena Kampf, Markus Grill, Arnd Henze, Georg Wellmann, Florian Flade and Christian Baars, Tagesschau on 03/29/2020

[22] For more on the difference between these two terms, see Silke Helfrich: Gemeingüter sind nicht, sie werden gemacht:

[23] Geberkonferenz für Impfstoff : Zeichen gegen „brutalen Nationalismus

[24] Commons researchers Pierre Dardot und Christian Laval explore this in: The pandemic as political trial: the case for a global commons

[25] The memorable appearance of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the coronavirus crisis on German television (03/31/2020) shows that this diagnosis also applies within nation-state alliances.

[26] The tension described here is also reflected in exceptional situations when, for example, governments act differently than usual in times of crisis. For example, the Portuguese government decided to open up the health and social security system to everyone in Portugal during the Corona crisis, regardless of their residency status. Such measures are the “duty” of a “society based on solidarity in times of crisis,” according to Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita. Cf. Portugal regulariza imigrantes para dar acesso ao sistema de saúde:, accessed on 05/20/2020

[27] Together with students from the Cusanus Hochschule, the author analyzed the 8 p.m. Tagesschau news from March 1 to May 5, 2020, focusing on the public debate of how to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic. In this debate, the term “community” was used mainly in connection with “debts” and the term self-organization was left out completely.

[28], accessed on 05/17/2020

[29] as well as the municipal government website:, accessed on 05/17/2020

[30] In politics, both terms are used as if they were the same thing.

[31] More about DNDI in Helfrich/Bollier 2019: S. 312 – 314. DNDI is not dependent on one single source of financing, nor is it dependent on one single national state. The organization currently belongs to the WHO COVID-19 Technology Pool,, accessed on 05/21/2020

[35] Online conversation on 04/04/2020

[36], accessed on 05/23/2020

[38] This corresponds to the three convergent strategies identified by the Netzwerk Ökonomischer Wandel (Network for Economic Change) (NOW), accessed on 05/13/2020