Towards a Commons-based Society

Key Documents:

The Future of the Commons: The market needs a counterpoise with a different calculus.The ideal counterpoise isn’t the state. It’s the commons. This article gives an overview of Commons-based actions already happening and where they might be taken.

Why The Commons Matters Right Now: A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use, and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture and is now on the rise...

Commons-based peer production  A term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler to describe a new model of economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinate...

What is a Commons-based society? A commons-based society refers to a shift in values and policies away from the market-based system that dominates modern society.... a brief overview of what a commons-based society is.

Our Commons Future is already here Maude Barlow gave this stirring plenary speech, full of hope even in the face of ecological disasters, to the Environmental Grantmakers Association annual retreat in Pacific Grove, California.

Beyond State Capitalism

Marx and the commons

The Partner State and the transition to a Commons-based society: a first overview of the “Partner State” theory

Commons/P2P Next Steps: Creating Sustainable Commons Based Institutions discussing the essential topics of conversation regarding the need to create sustainable commons based institutions. With Michel Bauwens and the attendees of the School of Commoning in its first workshop here are some of the trends and future possibilities for this pivotal area for the Commons.


Why The Commons Matters Right Now!


12 big lessons we've learned, by Alexa Bradley & Julie Ristau


Around the globe, people are rediscovering the commons as a way of naming what we want—a vision that extends beyond any one issue, to describe the kinds of relationships between people, resources, and power that foster community resilience, ecological stewardship and democratized decision making. The commons comprise all the forms of wealth we share—social, natural, cultural—as well as the way we take care of them, use them, enhance them and pass them on to future generations. As our OTC colleague David Bollier has noted, a commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use, and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture and is now on the rise.

The commons is a term with centuries of use and usefulness. The word itself originates in Europe but has been adopted and enriched in many places throughout the world that found it useful in naming their desired relationship to resources, one another, and power. In our contemporary political moment, the commons framework is gaining a new currency as a way of articulating a set of transformational questions, ideas, and practices that are rooted in a different worldview and value system.

The worldview that drives the old systems is still in place—an extreme market orientation that commodifies all resources and dehumanizes people as being only consumers or labor inputs. It is hard to think outside this dominant framework. It shapes much of our contemporary experience and has so strongly influences one particular way of seeing the world that it can eclipse all others.

In order to break through this dominant market paradigm and reveal that another way of life is possible, we need both new ideas and real-world examples of different approaches. The commons framework lifts up a potent counter narrative to the market paradigm and also offers the practical dimension of helping people create tangible ways to move towards a more commons-based society. These are critical dimensions that could help us leap forward at this pivotal "movement moment" in history.

Emerging initiatives are now appearing in many arenas—cooperative economics, open source culture, participatory governance, and food justice—give us a chance to practice different ways of organizing resources and interacting with one another. These efforts help us reconstitute our capacity for shared ownership, collaboration and stewardship. If we these as part of a larger body of work to reclaim and protect the commons, we can begin to connect them to one another strategically and to a broader goal of social transformation.

Drawing from our work with the commons, we offer the following ideas and observations that we believe can help us constructively and creatively make the most out of this movement moment.

12 Commons Dispatches for These Times

1. The commons and the creation of a commons-based society is a radical yet practical and necessary proposition for our times.

2. Commons exist all around us. We can learn from them. People everywhere for centuries have created both formal and informal systems to use shared resource and make collaborative decisions. Commons come in many forms—from communal fishing arrangements to libraries, from the rules governing waterways to the partnerships that define open source software, cooperatives, musical sampling and community gardens. While some of these forms are new, most have their roots in traditions and survival strategies from other times.

3. The commons is a way of naming a set of relationships and understandings. The existence of a commons is only possible within the context of collaborative, reciprocal and equitable relationships. These relationships hold a commons intact and ensure its fair use and continued health. The commons also calls forth a set of relationships that extend in ways that the market suppresses—to include future generations, other living beings with whom we share the planet, and the very resources on which we depend.

4. Commons are central to the life and vitality of community, offering a system of meaning and value that is not simply transactional or narrowly based on the market. Resources in a commons are part of the totality of a community—its economic survival, its history, its ecological health, its beauty, its identity, its resilience, the relationships among its people, its life blood.

5. The commons expresses an understanding that communities have a fundamental and equitable claim to our common inheritance of natural and created abundance, and play a critical role in the stewardship of those resources. A commons is what we share and how we share it.

6. The commons, then, begins with a claim. This claim is a collective one made by a community on the natural or social resources that are shared and belong to them all. It is a claim for equitable benefit whose history stretches back in time. In Europe, peasants asserted hunting and gathering rights that predated the legal authority of kings and landowners—these rights were recognized in the Magna Carta. And they were recognized in different ways by other cultures across the planet. This is a radical and liberating history.

7. The commons carry responsibility. The community entrusted with those resources must ensure their equitable and just use as well as their preservation for the future. Equity and stewardship are intertwined at the center of a commons with community members acting as the protectors, co-creators and beneficiaries.

8. The commons—as both an idea and practical arrangement—reminds us the vital difference between petitioning for access and sharing in the benefits. We cannot be satisfied with resources and spaces the powers that be designate for our "access" or "input;" we must assert our direct claim upon the resources necessary for our survival and well being.

9. There is a link between the material erosion of the commons and the erosion of the idea of the commons. As the ability to think in terms of the commons diminishes (to even be able to conceive of such a thing), the actual commons of our society are left vulnerable to appropriation, destruction and neglect. As we have lost much of our commons, we have unconsciously relinquished a sense of the commons. The same is true for the regeneration of the commons: we need to animate both commons thinking and the reclaiming or creation of actual commons.

10. We have all lived the commons in some manner, even if that word was never used. While the term "commons" comes from European history and the specific struggles of commoners to claim their rights, other cultures have similar and often more enduring traditions of communal ownership, interdependence. resource sharing and stewardship. Across these traditions and in our own memories there is great wisdom and practical experience to draw on as we forge the modern day commons.

11. The idea and language of the commons has been misused. Powerful colonizers and corporations and colonizers have used the language of the commons (as well as common good, common heritage, public interest and so on) to justify the appropriation of resources and dislocation of communities, particularly indigenous people. Resistance to this kind of co-optation and abuse is critical. We must actively work to link commons work to the struggles for equity, racial justice and human dignity.

12. We need a commons revival. Fostering, supporting and animating any kind of commons begins by asking a different set of questions that engage a broader set of people's experiences and help a community break out of constrained thinking. The goal is to equip communities with the ability to participate in and manage the communities in which they live. This in turn depends on people being able to see and claim resources in new or renewed ways. Because so much works against this possibility in our present society, we must pursue intentional strategies to animate and bolster commons work.

Kindred Spirits and Convergence

We are witnessing a growing wave of activity today that shares the same sensibility and orientation as commons-based work, although in many cases it is described by different names. We believe this multiplicity of names allows many kindred impulses in diverse places and cultures can find voice. It is important that we begin to see the links and shared purpose among all these efforts.

Now and then, a new concept comes along that captures the historical moment and guides social movements in a promising new direction. Rachel Carson captured such a moment with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, launching the modern environmental movement which is still growing and evolving in new ways. We think such a moment has come again with the re-emergence of an older concept—the Commons.

Julie Ristau is co-director of On The Commons, and Alexa Bradley is an On The Commons Fellow.

Excerpted from an essay in the new book Solidarity Economy 1: Building Alternatives for People and Planet



Alexa Bradley and Julie Ristau

OntheCommons - (retrieved on 29/10/2010)

This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic






If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the commons. Nick Dyer-Witheford discusses the circulation of commons and the conditions they would create for new collective projects and waves of organising.

It has been eight lean years for the movement of movement since its Seattle high point of 1999. Since September 11th 2001 many activists’ energies have been directed to opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq, other conflicts in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and abuses of civil liberties and media truth. But the war on terror has also had a deadening effect on oppositional hopes and imagination. Or so it seems to me, an academic in Canada whose political energies have recently been absorbed opposing his university’s making tanks for the US Army. Comrades are engaged in labour organising, post-carbon planning, the self-organisation of the homeless, municipal elections and other projects. But the optimistic sense of another world as not only possible but probable, imminent, has given way to something more sombre. Even in this no-longer-frozen North, the upsurge of popular movements and governments in Latin America is an inspiration. Otherwise, however, horizons have contracted.

Global capitalism appears – by profit levels – robust. Cascading ecological calamities, suddenly peaking oil, another 9/11, or an uncontrolled unwinding of US-China relations could all destabilise the world system. But not only are such scenarios contingent; it is uncertain they would be to the advantage of progressive movements. Neo-fascists, fundamentalists and martial law capitalists could be the beneficiaries, unless intellectual and organisational preparation lays the ground for a better alternative.

It therefore seems important to renew the discussion of what we want: to think through not just what we are against, but what we are fighting for (and hence who ‘we’ are), and to consider what might be plausibly achieved in present circumstances. Many movement activists and intellectuals are currently addressing this task, here and in other forums. My contribution will be to propose and discuss ‘commonism’.

‘Commons’ is a word that sums up many of the aspirations of the movement of movements. It is a popular term perhaps because it provides a way of talking about collective ownership without invoking a bad history – that is, without immediately conjuring up, and then explaining (away) ‘communism’, conventionally understood as a centralised command economy plus a repressive state. Though some will disagree, I think this distinction is valid; it is important to differentiate our goals and methods from those of past catastrophes, while resuming discussions of a society beyond capitalism.

The initial reference of ‘commons’ is to the collective lands enclosed by capitalism in a process of primitive accumulation running from the middle ages to the present. Such common agrarian lands are still a flashpoint of struggle in many places. But today commons also names the possibility of collective, rather than private ownership in other domains: an ecological commons (of water, atmosphere, fisheries and forests); a social commons (of public provisions for welfare, health, education and so on); a networked commons (of access to the means of communication).
Let us extend this term ‘commons’ in a slightly unfamiliar way. Marx suggested capitalism has a cell-form, a basic building block, from which all its apparatus of commerce and command are elaborated. This cell form was the commodity, a good produced for sale between private owners.

If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for sale, a common is a good produced, or conserved, to be shared. The notion of a commodity, a good produced for sale, presupposes private owners between whom this exchange occurs. The notion of the common presupposes collectivities – associations and assemblies – within which sharing is organised. If capitalism presents itself as an immense heap of commodities, ‘commonism’ is a multiplication of commons.
The forces of the common and the commodity – of the movement and the market – are currently in collision across the three spheres we mentioned before: the ecological, the social and the networked.

In the ecological sphere, decades of green struggle have disclosed how the market’s depletion and pollution of nature destroys the common basis of human life. This destruction runs from pesticide poisoning to clear-cutting to species-extinctions. What now highlights this process is global warming. The prospect of chaotic climate change destroying agriculture, water supply and coastland around the planet (although, as usual, most devastatingly in the South) throws into sharp relief the scale of ecological crisis. It also definitively displays the inadequacy of the ‘free market’ and its price system as a social steering system. The scale of intervention now necessary is indicated by George Monbiot’s recent ten-point plan to address global warming: targets for rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, borne primarily by the developed North; individual carbon quotas; high-energy efficiency building regulation; banning and taxation of high-emission devices; diversion of public funds from ‘defence’ and road building to clean energy and public transport systems; freezes and reductions in air travel and out of town superstores. One can debate every point in this prescription. But if Monbiot is even close to correct, the remedy required exceeds anything the market, even as ‘green business’, can do. It demands regulation, rationing and major public investment. Global warming (alongside other ecological crises, from fish stocks to water tables) puts back on the table precisely what neoliberalism attempted to erase: massive social planning.

In the social sphere, the red thread of labour, socialist and communist movements traces the attempt to replace the class divisions of capitalism with various forms of common wealth. Defeating this challenge was the mission of neoliberalism. It has had great success. Precisely because of this, intensifying global inequalities are now having universal consequences. The afflictions of what Mike Davis calls the ‘planet of slums’ cannot be walled off from the planet of malls. They return as disease (HIV/AIDS and other pandemics) or insurgency (‘terror’). In this context, two movement initiatives have picked up the issue of ‘common wealth’ in innovative ways. One is the movement of ‘solidarity economics’ focused on cooperative enterprises of various sorts and associated with the success of the Latin American left. I discuss this later. The other is a set of proposals and campaigns around what is variously known as a ‘basic’ or ‘guaranteed’ income, which, by assuring a modest level of subsistence, saves human life from utter dependence on a global labour market. Such programmes also address feminist political economists’ point about the market’s systemic non-reward of reproductive work (care of children and households). Basic income was initially proposed in the global North West, and in that context can be criticised as a supplement to an already-affluent welfare state. But basic income has recently appeared as a policy initiative in Brazil and South Africa. Some groups have proposed and costed a basic global income of $1 a day. Insignificant in a North American context, this would double the monetary income of the one billion plus people officially designated as living in extreme poverty. If one thinks this utopian, consider the $532 billion 2007 US defence budget. Again, there are more than enough debates to be had about a global basic income: it might, for example, be better conceived not as a cash economy payment but as a basic ‘basket of goods’ or a guaranteed global livelihood. But the failure of trickle-down market solutions to poverty and inequality (even in the midst of a global boom), and the increasing extremity of the consequences, creates opportunities for new common-wealth activism.

In the network sphere, the failure of the market appears in a different way – as capital’s inability to make use of new technological resources. Computers and networks have created the increasing capacities for extremely fast, very cheap circulation of communication and knowledge. These innovations were made outside of the market, in a strange encounter between public funded science (the military/academic sector) and libertarian (and sometimes revolutionary) hackers. Capital’s contribution has been to try and stuff these innovations back within the commodity form, realising their powers only within the boundaries of information property and market pricing. But digital innovation has persistently over-spilled these limits. Peer-to-peer networks and free and open source software movements have taken advantage of the possibilities for the reproduction of non-rivalrous goods and collaborative production to generate networked culture whose logic contradicts commercial axioms. The movement of movements realised these potentials in its early weaving of what Harry Cleaver called an ‘electronic fabric of struggle,’ using the internet to circumvent corporate media and circulate news, analysis and solidarity. Increasingly, however, free and open source software and P2P constitute an electronic fabric of production, equipping people with a variety of digital tools for everything from radio broadcasts to micro-manufacturing. Capital is attempting to repress these developments – through incessant anti-piracy sweeps and intellectual property (IP) battles – or co-opt them. But alternatives beyond what it will allow are expressed in ‘creative commons’, ‘free cooperation’ and ‘open cultures’ movements contesting the intellectual property regime of the world market.

All three domains – ecological, social and networked – evidence major market failures. Each illustrates the failures of a commodity regime, though in distinct ways. Ecological disaster is the revenge of the market’s so-called negative externalities, that is, the harms whose price is not, and indeed cannot be, calculated in commercial transactions. Intensifying inequality, with immiseration amidst plenitude, displays the self-reinforcing feedback loops of deprivation and accumulation intrinsic to market operations. Networks show the market’s inability to accommodate its own positive externalities, that is, to allow the full benefits of innovations when they overflow market price mechanisms. Together, all three constitute a historical indictment of neoliberalism, and of the global capitalist system of which it is only the latest, cutting-edge, doctrine.

Also in all three domains, movements are proposing, as alternatives to these market failures, new forms of commons. These too vary in each domain, although, as I will argue in a moment, they also overlap and connect. In the ecological sphere, commons provisions are based primarily on conservation and regulation (but also on public funding of new technologies and transportation systems). In the social sphere, a global guaranteed livelihood entails a commons built on redistribution of wealth, while solidarity economies create experimental collectively-managed forms of production. In the case of the networked commons, what is emerging is a commons of abundance, of non-rivalrous information goods – a cornucopian commons.

Of course, these three spheres are in reality not separable; any life-activity resonates in all three, so that, for example, ecological and networked activities are always social commons – and vice-versa. Indeed, my argument is that the form of a new social order, commonism, can be seen only in the interrelation and linkage of these domains – in a circulation of the common.
Marx showed how in capitalism, commodities moved in a circuit. Money is used to purchase labour, machinery and raw materials. These are thrown into production, creating new commodities that are sold for more money, part of which is retained as profit, and part used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities… repeat ad infinitum. Different kinds of capital – mercantile, industrial and financial – played different roles in this circuit. So, for example, the transformation of commodities into money is the role of merchant capital, involved in trade; actual production is conducted by industrial capital; and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the task of financial capital (banks, etc).

We need to think in terms of the circulation of commons, of the interconnection and reinforcements between them. The ecological commons maintains the finite conditions necessary for both social and networked commons. A social commons, with a tendency towards a equitable distribution of wealth, preserves the ecological commons, both by eliminating the extremes of environmental destructiveness linked to extremes of wealth (SUVs, incessant air travel) and poverty (charcoal burning, deforestation for land) and by reducing dependence on ‘trickle down’ from unconstrained economic growth. Social commons also create the conditions for the network commons, by providing the context of basic health, security and education within which people can access new and old media. A network commons in turn circulates information about the condition of both ecological and social commons (monitoring global environmental conditions, tracking epidemics, enabling exchanges between health workers, labour activists or disaster relief teams). Networks also provide the channels for planning ecological and social commons – organising them, resolving problems, considering alternative proposals. They act as the fabric of the association that is the sine qua non of any of the other commons.

Let’s suppose that a publicly-funded education institution (social commons) produces software and networks that are available to an open source collective (networked commons), which creates free software used by an agricultural cooperative to track its use of water and electricity (ecological commons). This is a micro model of the circulation of the common.

This is a concept of the common that is not defensive, not limited to fending off the depredations of capital on ever-diminishing collective space. Rather it is aggressive and expansive: proliferating, self-strengthening and diversifying. It is also a concept of heterogeneous collectivity, built from multiple forms of a shared logic, a commons of singularities. We can talk of common earth, a common wealth and common networks; or of commons of land (in its broadest sense, comprising the biosphere), labour (in its broadest sense, comprising reproductive and productive work) and language (in its broadest sense, comprising all means of information, communication and knowledge exchange). It is through the linkages and bootstrapped expansions of these commons that commonism emerges.

This concept has a clear affinity with the movements of solidarity economics that emerged from Latin America and are now gaining increasing attention in North America and Europe. Broadly defined, these aim to link self-managed and worker-owned collectives, cooperative financial organisations and socially-responsible consumption practices to create expanding economic networks whose surpluses are invested in social and ecological regeneration. Euclides Mance, one of the theorists of the movement, writes of such ‘socially based cooperation networks’ reinforcing their component parts until ‘progressive boosting’ enables them to move from a ‘secondary, palliative or complementary sphere of activity’ to become a ‘socially hegemonic mode of production’. This type of activity – to which, I think, basic income programmes would be complementary – seems to resemble the sort of cell-growth of commons envisaged here.

Mance says that this process is ‘not about the political control of the State by society’, but about ‘the democratic control of the economy by society’. Latin American activists will, however, be much better aware than I that the creation of grass roots alternative networks goes better with protection, support and even initiation at a state level. For that reason, one might think of the circulation of the common as involving not only a lateral circuit between ecological, social and networked domains, but also a vertical circuit between new subjectivities, autonomous assemblies (solidarity networks, cooperatives, environmental and community groupings) and governmental agencies.

The movement of movements has been tacitly split between autonomist and anarchist groups, with strong anti-statist perspectives, and socialist and social democratic movements, committed to governmental planning and welfare functions. Rather than either repressing this tension, or replaying it ad infinitum, it may be both more interesting for both sides and closer to the real practice of many activists to think about the potential interplay of these two poles.

Commons projects are projects of planning: the regulation of carbon emissions (or other ecological pollutants), the distribution of a basic income (or of public health or education) or the establishment of networked infrastructures are all extremely difficult on any large scale without the exercise of governmental power.

The nightmare of previously existing socialisms was the assumption by this governmental planning power of despotic bureaucratic forms. The antidote is a pluralistic planning processes, which involves a multiplicity of non-state organisations capable of proposing, debating and democratically determining what directions governmental planning takes. Thus a requirement of ‘commonist’ government is the cultivation of the conditions in which autonomous assemblies can emerge to countervail against bureaucracy and despotism, and provide diversity and innovation in planning ideas. Planning and anti-planning have to be built into each other: there should always be, to quote Raymond Williams, at least two plans.

As George Caffentzis has pointed out, neoliberal capital, confronting the debacle of free market policies, is now turning to a ‘Plan B’, in which limited versions of environmental planning terms (e.g. pollution trading schemes) community development and open-source and file sharing practices are introduced as subordinate aspects of a capitalist economy. But the question hanging over this encounter is which logic will envelope and subordinate the other: who will subsume who?

Commonism scales. That is, it can and must be fought for at micro and macro, molecular and molar, levels; in initiatives of individual practice, community projects and very large scale movements. If the concept is at all meaningful, it is only because millions of people are already in myriad ways working to defend and create commons of different sorts, from community gardens to peer-to-peer networks.

In my view, however, a commonist project would gain coherence and focus by agreement on a set of high level demands to be advanced in the ecological, social and network spheres at the national and international level, demands that could be supported by many movements even as they pursue other more local and specific struggles and projects. These demands might include some briefly discussed here: for example, a guaranteed global livelihood, carbon-emission rationing and adoption of free and open-source software in public institutions.

Such demands would be radical but not, in a negative sense, utopian. Success would not mean we had won: it is conceivable that capitalism could persist with these provisions, although they would represent a planetary ‘New Deal’ of major proportions. But achieving them would mean, first, that the movement of movements had won something, averting harms to, and bestowing benefits on millions; and, second, it would mean that we were winning: these altered conditions would create opportunities for new collective projects and waves of organising that could effect deeper transformations, and the institutions of new commons.

It might be objected that, in Marx’s description of the inner workings of capitalism, the commodity is presented as possessing a self-creating, self-reproducing dynamism, and that the fact that some commons – especially the ecological ones – are finite would prevent such dynamism. But this objection confuses a qualitative with a quantitative issue, or, more accurately, a social dynamism with a dynamism of production. The model proposed here, of circular interaction between ecological planning, basic income and open networks, argues for the expansion of the social relations of the commons: a secure level of livelihood for global populations reduces the need for constant environmentally destructive growth; open networks enable ecological and income planning to be democratically debated, monitored and revised in an ongoing collective process of general intellect; planning in turn ensures the infrastructures and access for this process. Whether or not this social dynamism would be productively dynamic – whether it would produce more or less goods – is a different question, to which the answer is surely ‘more of some, less of others’: less SUVs, energy mega projects and luxury mega-homes, more public transport, solar panels and decent basic housing. But the commons form, like the commodity form, is first and foremost a social relation, and its most important dynamism lies in the alteration of collective logics.

A computer, say, is a ‘rival’ or ‘rivalrous’ good. My possession of it deprives you of it. But goods like software are ‘nonrivalrous’. A piece of software can be copied costlessly and therefore we can both use it simultaneously.


Nick Dyer-Witheford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, Canada, and a member of the Counter-Stryker collective opposing military-academic-corporate collaborations. He is currently studying the contemporary usefulness of the young Marx’s concept of ‘species-being.’ He can be reached at ncdyerwi[at]
Harry Cleaver’s piece ‘Computer-linked social movements and the global threat to capitalism’ is available at George Caffentzis discusses neoliberalism’s ‘plan B’ in his chapter in Shut Them Down! (available at


Commons-based peer production

Commons-based peer production is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler to describe a new model of economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization (and often, but not always, without or with decentralized financial compensation). Often used interchangeably with the term social production, Benkler compares commons-based peer production to firm production (where a centralized decision process decides what has to be done and by whom) and market-based production (when tagging different prices to different jobs serves as an attractor to anyone interested in doing the job).

The term was first introduced in Benkler's seminal paper Coase's Penguin. His 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks expands significantly on these ideas. (Wikipedia)

International Conference on the Economics of the Commons


After the highly successful 1st International Commons Conference there will be another international conference focused on the Economics of the Commons in Berlin, May 2013.  

Organized by the Commons Strategies Group (with support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the FPH – Fondation pour le Progrès de l’Homme), there was a preparatory meeting for that, in Bangkok, October 12-14. The following text outlining some key issues was prepared by the Commons Strategies Group, for the Bangkok meeting.

“In addressing the themes raised by economics and the commons, our workshop will deliberately use a flexible and open-ended format. We do not wish to present an fixed, structured agenda so much as elicit your special knowledge and perspectives on the topic. In previous gatherings on the commons, we have found this a highly effective way to surface ideas, identify major points of disagreement and consensus, and develop a more coherent understanding of the challenges we face.

Having said that, we have assembled below a series of themes and questions that may be useful in spurring discussion. This is an incomplete “discussion draft” of issues that will likely deserve attention (in this and further conversations). But this list should not be regarded as a comprehensive, prioritized or “correct”; it is merely as a springboard for discussion. We urge you to bring your own ideas, open questions and issues so that we can collectively decide how the discussions should proceed. We are confident that this process will help us highlight fundamental ideas and develop new narratives and projects.

We would like to start our workshop by addressing the basic questions: What does a commons-based economy consist of? What are its basic principles and how can we “know it when we see it”? Does it require specific (infra)structures, principles and policy approaches?

Some commons scholars suggest that a commons-based economy is one that combines production, consumption and governance into a unified needs-based system, such that it is impossible to distinguish among them. Another definition is that production cannot be distinguished from reproduction because everything contributes to the reproduction of livelihoods. Perhaps there are other salient features of a commons-based economy that we should identify and explore.

Some specific issues worth exploring:


• Why and how does a commons generate value? Let’s get down to some basics of the human condition and relationships (ontology) and knowledge categories (epistemology) to understand the value-proposition of the commons.

• The very idea of “the economy” is a social construction, not a natural fact. Yet if we wish to transcend the familiar paradigm of “the economy” – i.e., the capitalist market and its logic – what are the handful of key principles that let us define a commons-based “economy”?

• What is the purpose of a commons-based economy? How can we starkly differentiate the commons worldview and provisioning model from that of market economics?

• How do the processes and social relationships of the commons differ from those of the market, and how does this matter? Can we consider this from an anthropological perspective?

• Are there identifiable typologies of commons? Do these conform to types of resources, cultural patterns, or something else? For political purposes, we may wish to assert a universal template of commoning (“principles of commoning”) and declare that the type of resource is a secondary matter. But is this entirely true?

• Can any general statement be made about the ontological power of the commons – i.e., how and why it self-organizes, generates value and innovates? Or is a commons destined always to be a subsidiary form that is necessarily embedded in markets and the state and dependent on them?

• How do commons protect themselves from free riders and abuse? What sorts of technological, legal or social innovations can work?

• How can the yearning for collective management and participation be “locked in” and secured?

• How do commons get started in the first place? Can we identify general differences between commons and commoning in the global North (which is “rediscovering” the commons) as opposed to the global South (where commoning has a long, deep and continuous history)?


How does the debate on commons-based economy relate to those of…

–feminist economy, especially the care economy and the subsistence economy;

–the Solidarity economy;

–the Transition Town movement

–gift economies (academia, blood and organ banks, community groups)

–the degrowth-debate

–Buddhist economy or other discourses present in the region

What can we learn from these various economies? Where are the overlaps and where the differences?


• What role can the commons play in arresting relentless economic growth, and how?

• What are some practical, incremental scenarios for using the commons to reduce growth and internalize externalities (without falling into the trap of market-based mechanisms that favor monetization of the value of nature or reproductive work)?

• Is a commons-based economy and peer production a force for “de-materializing” the economy? If so, how?


• How can the personal engagement and informal nature of the commons (in its canonical form) be preserved if the state is involved with it?

• How might we conceptualize a State that “enables the commons”? What are the politics of such a scenario?

• Does the formalization of a commons and external legal/financial support for it undermine the social practices and relationships that lie at the heart of a commons? If so, how can commons design themselves to be quasi-autonomous while securing support (or at least, non-interference) from the market/state duopoly?

• Michel Bauwens has proposed the idea of the “partner state” and a triarchy of governance in which market, state and commons co-exist and support each other. Is this a realistic vision, and if so, how might this vision be advanced?


Tell us about a particularly stable or popular commons in your country or region. Explain why it has succeeded and what impact it has.

• How does a commons interact with markets or not?

• If the commons is primarily a nonmarket form of provisioning, can it have any fruitful relationship with markets? If so, what sorts of limits or protections are needed to assure the long-term integrity of a commons? How can they be maintained?

• What are the patterns by which commons and market activity can interact constructively? Or are they necessarily hostile and adversarial?

• Given the structural economic and policy biases against recognizing the value of infrastructure-as-commons, how can commoners secure necessary infrastructure – roads, telecom, water, land, Internet – as commons?


• What does work, productive activity and labor mean in the context of a commons?

• Can money be converted into a commons?

• Is it possible (and desirable) to de-commodify them? If so, why?

• What are the viable alternative models?”


• Does a commons necessarily reduce inequality or what circumstances are needed to do so?

• What can make a commons socially regressive?

• What about people who do not have the education or basic resources to participate in commons (e.g., Internet commons)?

• Why and how does a commons foster social justice, stability and sustainability?

• Doesn’t a commons reduce incentives to work hard and innovate?

• Does the commons promote unsustainable live-styles? (e.g., a 3D printer for everyone!)

• How can the social solidarity and cooperation of a commons persist as it scales (i.e, as coordination and communication becomes more difficult)? Or perhaps there are different “tiers” of commons that should be regarded differently – much as a “state trustee commons” will differ from a small-scale tribal commons for water?


• Who are the key thinkers and activists involved in developing alternative economic paradigms that work and are philosophically coherent?

• What are some of the key alternative economic organizations and movements?

• How to “bridge” with them?

• How do we begin to develop actual projects to advance a commons-based economy?

• What sorts of knowledge, networks of people and organizations, and experiences are needed?


On the Internet:

• Can we make any useful generalizations about the differences and commonalities between open platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and digital commons (Wikipedia, open-access journals, collaborative archives)?

• Are open platforms helpful to a commons-based economy or mostly a means for corporate co-optation of social sharing and collaboration?

• Should we consider “open business models” a form of commoning (where open networked platforms are used to leverage social sharing) – or are they mostly a capitalistic form that seeks to exploit open networks?

• Should commoners welcome open business models or regard them with suspicion? What factors might affect a determination?

• If inalienability is important to preserving a commons – i.e., a community-managed resource that may not be monetized – then how can this be accomplished in reliable, lasting ways? How can we link inalienability with the value proposition of the commons?

Localism and commons:

• Is a commons necessarily local? And if a commons can work at larger scales, how does subsidiarity actually work?

The commons and a theory of power and hierarchy:

We should not succumb to romanticized visions of happy egalitarianism within commons. Issues of power relations must be addressed.

• Do commons empower people to break down predatory or hierarchical power relationships?

• Are there certain structures of power and governance within a commons that are essential?

• Can we imagine a typology of commons-based governance structures?

Workable commons seem to imply a different sort of culture than those associated with markets. But how and why do commons produce a different sort of culture?

Does a commons-based society entail a different form of spirituality or religion? Is institutionalized religion (which implies hierarchies and imposed norms) part of the problem today?”

Source: P2P Foundtion Blog

Our Commons Future Is Already Here

A stirring call to unite the environmental and global justice movement from Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow gave this stirring plenary speech, full of hope even in the face of ecological disasters, to the Environmental Grantmakers Association annual retreat in Pacific Grove, California. 



“Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now.”

We all know that the earth and all upon it face a growing crisis. Global climate change is rapidly advancing, melting glaciers, eroding soil, causing freak and increasingly wild storms, and displacing untold millions from rural communities to live in desperate poverty in peri-urban slums. Almost every human victim lives in the global South, in communities not responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The atmosphere has already warmed up almost a full degree in the last several decades and a new Canadian study reports that we may be on course to add another 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Half the tropical forests in the world – the lungs of our ecosystems – are gone; by 2030, at the current rate of harvest, only 10% will be left standing. Ninety percent of the big fish in the sea are gone, victim to wanton predatory fishing practices. Says a prominent scientist studying their demise “there is no blue frontier left.” Half the world’s wetlands – the kidneys of our ecosystems – were destroyed in the 20th century. Species extinction is taking place at a rate one thousand times greater than before humans existed. According to a Smithsonian scientist, we are headed toward a “biodiversity deficit” in which species and ecosystems will be destroyed at a rate faster than Nature can create new ones.

We are polluting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Every day, 2 million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population of 6.8 billion people. The amount of wastewater produced annually is about six times more water than exists in all the rivers of the world. A comprehensive new global study recently reported that 80% of the world’s rivers are now in peril, affecting 5 billion people on the planet. We are also mining our groundwater far faster than nature can replenish it, sucking it up to grow water-guzzling chemical-fed crops in deserts or to water thirsty cities that dump an astounding 200 trillion gallons of land-based water as waste in the oceans every year. The global mining industry sucks up another 200 trillion gallons, which it leaves behind as poison. Fully one third of global water withdrawals are now used to produce biofuels, enough water to feed the world. A recent global survey of groundwater found that the rate of depletion more than doubled in the last half century. If water was drained as rapidly from the Great Lakes, they would be bone dry in 80 years.

The global water crisis is the greatest ecological and human threat humanity has ever faced. As Vast areas of the planet are becoming desert as we suck the remaining waters out of living ecosystems and drain remaining aquifers in India, China, Australia, most of Africa, all of the Middle East, Mexico, Southern Europe, US Southwest and other places. Dirty water is the biggest killer of children; every day more children die of water borne disease than HIV/AIDS, malaria and war together. In the global South, dirty water kills a child every three and a half seconds. And it is getting worse, fast. By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40%— an astounding figure foretelling of terrible suffering.

Knowing there will not be enough food and water for all in the near future, wealthy countries and global investment, pension and hedge funds are buying up land and water, fields and forests in the global South, creating a new wave of invasive colonialism that will have huge geo-political ramifications. Rich investors have already bought up an amount of land double the size of the United Kingdom in Africa alone.

We Simply Cannot Continue on the Present Path

I do not think it possible to exaggerate the threat to our earth and every living thing upon it. Quite simply we cannot continue on the path that brought us here. Einstein said that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. While mouthing platitudes about caring for the earth, most of our governments are deepening the crisis with new plans for expanded resource exploitation, unregulated free trade deals, more invasive investment, the privatization of absolutely everything and unlimited growth. This model of development is literally killing the planet.

Unlimited growth assumes unlimited resources, and this is the genesis of the crisis. Quite simply, to feed the increasing demands of our consumer based system, humans have seen nature as a great resource for our personal convenience and profit, not as a living ecosystem from which all life springs. So we have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed either that nature would never fail to provide or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day.

Two Problems that Hinder the Environmental Movement

From the perspective of the environmental movement, I see two problems that hinder us in our work to stop this carnage. The first is that, with notable exceptions, most environmental groups either have bought into the dominant model of development or feel incapable of changing it. The main form of environmental protection in industrialized countries is based on the regulatory system, legalizing the discharge of large amounts of toxics into the environment. Environmentalists work to minimize the damage from these systems, essentially fighting for inadequate laws based on curbing the worst practices, but leaving intact the system of economic globalization at the heart of the problem. Trapped inside this paradigm, many environmentalists essentially prop up a deeply flawed system, not imagining they are capable of creating another.

Hence, the support of false solutions such as carbon markets, which, in effect, privatize the atmosphere by creating a new form of property rights over natural resources. Carbon markets are predicated less on reducing emissions than on the desire to make carbon cuts as cheap as possible for large corporations.

Another false solution is the move to turn water into private property, which can then be hoarded, bought and sold on the open market. The latest proposals are for a water pollution market, similar to carbon markets, where companies and countries will buy and sell the right to pollute water. With this kind of privatization comes a loss of public oversight to manage and protect watersheds. Commodifying water renders an earth-centred vision for watersheds and ecosystems unattainable.

Then there is PES, or Payment for Ecological Services, which puts a price tag on ecological goods – clean air, water, soil etc, – and the services such as water purification, crop pollination and carbon sequestration that sustain them. A market model of PES is an agreement between the “holder” and the “consumer” of an ecosystem service, turning that service into an environmental property right. Clearly this system privatizes nature, be it a wetland, lake, forest plot or mountain, and sets the stage for private accumulation of nature by those wealthy enough to be able to buy, hoard sell and trade it. Already, northern hemisphere governments and private corporations are studying public/private/partnerships to set up lucrative PES projects in the global South. Says Friends of the Earth International, “Governments need to acknowledge that market-based mechanisms and the commodification of biodiversity have failed both biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.”

The second problem with our movement is one of silos. For too long environmentalists have toiled in isolation from those communities and groups working for human and social justice and for fundamental change to the system. On one hand are the scientists, scholars, and environmentalists warning of a looming ecological crisis and monitoring the decline of the world’s freshwater stocks, energy sources and biodiversity. On the other are the development experts, anti-poverty advocates, and NGOs working to address the inequitable access to food, water and health care and campaigning for these services, particularly in the global South. The assumption is that these are two different sets of problems, one needing a scientific and ecological solution, the other needing a financial solution based on pulling money from wealthy countries, institutions and organizations to find new resources for the poor.

The clearest example I have is in the area I know best, the freshwater crisis. It is finally becoming clear to even the most intransigent silo separatists that the ecological and human water crises are intricately linked, and that to deal effectively with either means dealing with both. The notion that inequitable access can be dealt with by finding more money to pump more groundwater is based on a misunderstanding that assumes unlimited supply, when in fact humans everywhere are overpumping groundwater supplies. Similarly, the hope that communities will cooperate in the restoration of their water systems when they are desperately poor and have no way of conserving or cleaning the limited sources they use is a cruel fantasy. The ecological health of the planet is intricately tied to the need for a just system of water distribution.

The global water justice movement (of which I have the honour of being deeply involved) is, I believe, successfully incorporating concerns about the growing ecological water crisis with the promotion of just economic, food and trade policies to ensure water for all. We strongly believe that fighting for equitable water in a world running out means taking better care of the water we have, not just finding supposedly endless new sources. Through countless gatherings where we took the time to really hear one another – especially grassroots groups and tribal peoples closest to the struggle – we developed a set of guiding principles and a vision for an alternative future that are universally accepted in our movement and have served us well in times of stress. We are also deeply critical of the trade and development policies of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the World Water Council (whom I call the “Lords of water”), and we openly challenge their model and authority.

Similarly, a fresh and exciting new movement exploded onto the scene in Copenhagen and set all the traditional players on their heads. The climate justice movement whose motto is Change the System, Not the Climate, arrived to challenge not only the stalemate of the government negotiators but the stale state of too cosy alliances between major environmental groups, international institutions and big business – the traditional “players” on the climate scene. Those climate justice warriors went on to gather at another meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, producing a powerful alternative declaration to the weak statement that came out of Copenhagen. The new document forged in Bolivia put the world on notice that business as usual is not on the climate agenda.

How the Commons Fits In

I deeply believe it is time for us to extend these powerful new movements, which fuse the analysis and hard work of the environmental community with the vision and commitment of the justice community, into a whole new form of governance that not only challenges the current model of unlimited growth and economic globalization but promotes an alternative that will allow us and the Earth to survive. Quite simply, human-centred governance systems are not working and we need new economic, development, and environmental policies as well as new laws that articulate an entirely different point of view from that which underpins most governance systems today. At the centre of this new paradigm is the need to protect natural ecosystems and to ensure the equitable and just sharing of their bounty. It also means the recovery of an old concept called the Commons.

The Commons is based on the notion that just by being members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, language and wisdom. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of denying a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extended the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social security for all members of the community. Since adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, governments are obliged to protect the human rights, cultural diversity and food security of their citizens.

A central characteristic of the Commons is the need for careful collaborative management of shared resources by those who use them and allocation of access based on a set of priorities. A Commons is not a free-for-all. We are not talking about a return to the notion that nature’s capacity to sustain our ways is unlimited and anyone can use whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the world’s biological heritage as well as the knowledge that our ecosystems must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time.

Also to be recovered and expanded is the notion of the Public Trust Doctrine, a longstanding legal principle which holds that certain natural resources, particularly air, water and the oceans, are central to our very existence and therefore must be protected for the common good and not allowed to be appropriated for private gain. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, governments exercise their fiduciary responsibilities to sustain the essence of these resources for the long-term use and enjoyment of the entire populace, not just the privileged who can buy inequitable access.

The Public Trust Doctrine was first codified in 529 A.D. by Emperor Justinius who declared: “By the laws of nature, these things are common to all mankind: the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.” U.S. courts have referred to the Public Trust Doctrine as a “high, solemn and perpetual duty” and held that the states hold title to the lands under navigable waters “in trust for the people of the State.” Recently, Vermont used the Public Trust Doctrine to protect its groundwater from rampant exploitation, declaring that no one owns this resource but rather, it belongs to the people of Vermont and future generations. The new law also places a priority for this water in times of shortages: water for daily human use, sustainable food production and ecosystem protection takes precedence over water for industrial and commercial use.

An exciting new network of Canadian, American and First Nations communities around the Great Lakes is determined to have these lakes names a Commons, a public trust and a protected bioregion.

Equitable access to natural resources is another key character of the Commons. These resources are not there for the taking by private interests who can then deny them to anyone without means. The human right to land, food, water, health care and biodiversity are being codified as we speak from nation-state constitutions to the United Nations. Ellen Dorsey and colleagues have recently called for a human rights approach to development, where the most vulnerable and marginalized communities take priority in law and practice. They suggest renaming the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals the Millennium Development Rights and putting the voices of the poor at the centre.

This would require the meaningful involvement of those affected communities, especially Indigenous groups, in designing and implementing development strategies. Community-based governance is another basic tenet of the Commons.

Inspiring Successes Around the Globe

Another crucial tenet of the new paradigm is the need to put the natural world back into the centre of our existence. If we listen, nature will teach us how to live. Again, using the issue I know best, we know exactly what to do to create a secure water future: protection and restoration of watersheds; conservation; source protection; rainwater and storm water harvesting; local, sustainable food production; and meaningful laws to halt pollution. Martin Luther King Jr. said legislation may not change the heart but it will restrain the heartless.

Life and livelihoods have been returned to communities in Rajasthan, India, through a system of rainwater harvesting that has made desertified land bloom and rivers run again thanks to the collective action of villagers. The city of Salisbury South Australia, has become an international wonder for greening desertified land in the wake of historic low flows of the Murray River. It captures every drop of rain that falls from the sky and collects storm and wastewater and funnels it all through a series of wetlands, which clean it, to underground natural aquifers, which store it, until it is needed.

In a “debt for nature” swap, Canada, the U.S. and The Netherlands cancelled the debt owed to them by Colombia in exchange for the money being used for watershed restoration. The most exciting project is the restoration of 16 large wetland areas of the Bogotá River, which is badly contaminated, to pristine condition. Eventually the plan is to clean up the entire river. True to principles of the Commons, the indigenous peoples living on the sites were not removed, but rather, have become caretakers of these protected and sacred places.

The natural world also needs its own legal framework, what South African environmental lawyer Cormac Culllinen calls “wild law.” The quest is a body of law that recognizes the inherent rights of the environment, other species and water itself outside of their usefulness to humans. A wild law is a law to regulate human behaviour in order to protect the integrity of the earth and all species on it. It requires a change in the human relationship with the natural world from one of exploitation to one of democracy with other beings. If we are members of the earth’s community, then our rights must be balanced against those of plants, animals, rivers and ecosystems. In a world governed by wild law, the destructive, human-centred exploitation of the natural world would be unlawful. Humans would be prohibited from deliberately destroying functioning ecosystems or driving other species to extinction.

This kind of legal framework is already being established. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that protection of natural lakes and ponds is akin to honouring the right to life – the most fundamental right of all according to the Court. Wild law was the inspiration behind an ordinance in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania that recognized natural ecosystems and natural communities within the borough as “legal persons” for the purposes of stopping the dumping of sewage sludge on wild land. It has been used throughout New England in a series of local ordinances to prevent bottled water companies from setting up shop in the area. Residents of Mount Shasta California have put a wild law ordinance on the November 2010 ballot to prevent cloud seeding and bulk water extraction within city limits.

In 2008, Ecuador’s citizens voted two thirds in support of a new constitution, which says, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights.” Bolivia has recently amended its constitution to enshrine the philosophy of “living well” as a means of expressing concern with the current model of development and signifying affinity with nature and the need for humans to recognize inherent rights of the earth and other living beings. The government of Argentina recently moved to protect its glaciers by banning mining and oil drilling in ice zones. The law sets standards for protecting glaciers and surrounding ecosystems and creates penalties just for harming the country’s fresh water heritage.

The most far-reaching proposal for the protection of nature itself is the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth that was drafted at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia and endorsed by the 35,000 participants there. We are writing a book setting out our case for this Declaration to the United Nations and the world. The intent is for it to become a companion document to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes. The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth must become a history-altering covenant toward a just and sustainable future for all.

What Can We Do Right Now?

What might this mean for funders and other who share these values? Well, let me be clear: the hard work of those fighting environmental destruction and injustice must continue. I am not suggesting for one moment that his work is not important or that the funding for this work is not needed. I do think however, that there are ways to move the agenda I have outlined here forward if we put our minds to it.

Anything that helps bridge the solitudes and silos is pure gold. Bringing together environmentalists and justice activists to understand one another’s work and perspective is crucial. Both sides have to dream into being – together – the world they know is possible and not settle for small improvements to the one we have. This means working for a whole different economic, trade and development model even while fighting the abuses existing in the current one. Given a choice between funding an environmental organization that basically supports the status quo with minor changes and one that promotes a justice agenda as well, I would argue for the latter.

Support that increases capacity at the base is also very important, as is funding that connects domestic to international struggle, always related even when not apparent. Funding for those projects and groups fighting to abolish or fundamentally change global trade and banking institutions that maintain corporate dominance and promote unlimited and unregulated growth is still essential.

How Clean Water Became a Human Right

We all, as well, have to find ways to thank and protect those groups and governments going out on a limb to promote an agenda for true change. A very good example is President Evo Morales of Bolivia, who brought the climate justice movement together in Cochabamba last April and is leading the campaign at the UN to promote the Rights of Mother Earth.

It was this small, poor, largely indigenous landlocked country, and its former coca-farmer president, that introduced a resolution to recognize the human right to water and sanitation this past June to the UN General Assembly, taking the whole UN community by surprise. The Bolivian UN Ambassador, Pablo Solon, decided he was fed up with the “commissions” and “further studies” and “expert consultations” that have managed to put off the question of the right to water for at least a decade at the UN and that it was time to put an “up or down” question to every country: do you or do you not support the human right to drinking water and sanitation?

A mad scramble ensued as a group of Anglo-Western countries, all promoting to some extent the notion of water as a private commodity, tried to derail the process and put off the vote. The U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand even cooked up a “consensus” resolution that was so bland everyone would likely have handily voted for it at an earlier date. But sitting beside the real thing, it looked like what it was – an attempt, yet again, to put off any meaningful commitment at the UN to the billions suffering from lack of clean water. When that didn’t work, they toiled behind the scenes to weaken the wording of the Bolivian resolution but to no avail. On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. One hundred and twenty two countries voted for the resolution; 41 abstained; not one had the courage to vote against.

I share this story with you not only because my team and I were deeply involved in the lead up to this historic vote and there for it the day it was presented, but because it was the culmination of work done by a movement operating on the principles I have outlined above.

We took the time to establish the common principles that water is a Commons that belongs to the earth, all species, and the future, and is a fundamental human right not to be appropriated for profit. We advocate for the Public Trust Doctrine in law at every level of government. We set out to build a movement that listens first and most to the poorest among us, especially indigenous and tribal voices. We work with communities and groups in other movements, especially those working on climate justice and trade justice. We understand the need for careful collaborative cooperation to restore the functioning of watersheds and we have come to revere the water that gives life to all things upon the Earth. While we clearly have much left to do, these water warriors inspire me and give me hope. They get me out of bed every morning to fight another day.

I believe I am in a room full of stewards and want, then to leave you with these words from Lord of the Rings. This is Gandalf speaking the night before he faces a terrible force that threatens all living beings. His words are for you.

_“The rule of no realm is mine, but all worthy things that are in peril, as the world now stand, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair, or bear fruit, and flower again in the days to come.

For I too am a steward, did you not know?”_ —J.R.R. Tolkien



Maude Barlow is a former UN Senior Water Advisor, a National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project.

Commons Dreams -  (retrieved on 23/11/2010)

The Commons of the Future

Building Blocks for a Commons-based Society

The Commons of the Past

In many times and in many areas, production was organized around a pool of commons—resources that were jointly used and managed by a community of people, according to some community-defined rules. In many societies, water, air, forests and land have traditionally been “in the commons. ” They were managed and used by larger or smaller groups of people, but they could never become private property in the modern sense of the word, with an extensive bundle of exclusive property rights granted to the property owner (cf. [On the Commons 2006]). To give but one example, large parts of European agriculture were organized around a system of open fields during the Middle Ages. Each village had several large unfenced fields that were farmed by the families of the village. Each family was randomly allocated several stripes of fields to farm for their own usage; each family got stripes in different areas and the random allocation process was regularly repeated to avoid families ending up with only god or only bad land. The heavy plows and the oxen pulling them were also often shared by several families; and the livestock of all families grazed on common pasture lands (cf. [Hepburn 2005], [Wikipedia: Open Field System]).

Contrary to the myth spread by Garrett Hardin in his “Tragedy of the Commons” article [Hardin 1968], commons were not “anything goes” areas which anybody could use and abuse at will. Rather, there were community-defined rules stipulating how a commons could be used, protecting it from overuse, privatization and other forms of damage. The eventual demise of commons-based systems was due to a systematic process of “enclosure”: of driving away the villagers from the commons and privatizing the formerly common resources. The commons did not collapse, they were “stolen,” as common sentiment at that time expressed it (cf. [Hepburn 2005], [Wikipedia: Enclosure]).

The Commons of the Present

In many parts of the world, such common resources are still an essential basis of society. Additionally, several new communities which base their practice on the shared goal of creating and preserving a commons have emerged. The free software community has created a commons of hundreds of thousands of software programs that anyone can use, adapt, and pass on to others (in original or adapted form), as long as they comply with the rules defined for free software. These rules mainly serve a twofold goal: they protect the creators of the commons (by restricting/excluding warranty and protecting against misattribution) and they protect the commons themselves (from being privatized). There are two forms of protecting the commons (the created software) against privatization (enclosure): in the weak form, free software is governed by a license which ensures that the software will remain in the commons forever (even if the creator would like to privatize it again), but which doesn't protect derived works created by modifying the original software. The strong form, called copyleft, extends this protection: it postulates that any derived works must be licensed in the same way as the original work (if they are published at all), thus ensuring that all derived 1 Released under creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License The Commoner other articles in commons other articles in common March 2009 works will become part of the commons, too. The weak form of protecting thus ensures, at least, that the commons can never shrink, while the strong form actively encourages its growth.

The free software community, which sprang up in the 1980s, was complemented in the 1990s and early 2000s by a free/open content community setting out to create a commons of content (text, music, movies, and other media). So far, the most impressive outcome of this community has been the Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” whose English edition now contains more that 2 million articles. Just like the free software community, the free content community knows a strong and a weak form of protecting the commons they create, often using the Creative Commons family of licenses to do so. There are many related communities sharing and managing a self-organized commons in a similar fashion. The open access community is turning scientific knowledge back into a commons (as it traditionally had been), by encouraging the free sharing of scientific publications and of the data required for and obtained by scientific experiments. Wireless community networks are self-organized computer networks that provide open access points to the Internet and allow free data transfer to other computers. Community gardens are small pieces of self-managed common land which have emerged in many places around the world, often in urban environments, providing a connection to nature and a sense of
community to the people who cultivate or visit them. And the BookCrossing community is passing books that you no longer need on to others, based on the idea that books are meant to be read, not to sit uselessly in shelves. These are just a few examples of the phenomenon for which Yochai Benkler [2006] has coined the term commons-based peer production (though the last example is more about distribution than about production). Rowe [2008] gives a nice little overview over both the commons of the past and of the present and the ways in which they are connected.

The Commons of the Future

Are these new commons-based communities just a fad, or are they indicators of a serious new trend? Will there, maybe, even be an economic paradigm shift—will future production increasingly take place around a jointly organized and jointly managed commons, rather than around the exchange of private property on the market? I believe that we can indeed expect such a paradigm shift [Siefkes 2007].

If such a future commons-based economy emerges, it will probably resemble the commons of the present more than the commons of the past: it will often use the Internet for global
cooperation and coordination; it will rely on the powers of automation and modern technology to make production easier and more versatile. There won't be oxen pulling plows.

Two traits which the commons of the past and of the present have in common are that commons need communities (without sufficiently strong communities of people willing to create, maintain, and protect them, all commons would or did fall into disarray or become privatized) and that these communities make their own rules to protect and strengthen the commons (the conventions of the open field system and the licenses of free software are examples of such rules). Apparently, these are necessary preconditions for commons to flourish. Any future commons-based society will thus likewise be a community of people making up their own rules for creating, maintaining, and handling the commons. The characteristic trait of such a society will be that production will be based on commons.

If we take this seriously, it means that the resources required for production and the goods that are produced will go into the pool of commons, and that the goods which people consume or use will come out of it. Such a pool of commons won't emerge by itself, it needs a community of people who maintain and support it, as all commons do. Production The Commoner other articles in commons other articles in common March 2009 around a pool of commons thus means that people enter a joint agreement to help each other produce what each of them needs. It becomes their joint responsibility to preserve and protect the common resources of the Earth that make production possible, and to create and maintain a pool of common means of production and goods that is sufficiently large and versatile to provide for everyone's needs and wishes.

The core task of a commons community will therefore be to find out how best to handle this joint responsibility—to find out which rules and agreements work best to ensure that the pool of commons can indeed play its intended role. In my book [Siefkes 2007], I speculate about which specific rules such a community might give itself in order to do so. My point is not to predict the actual rules which such a community will follow. These rules will certainly vary over different areas and different times—the respective communities will find out which rules work for them, as the commons communities of the past and present have done. My point is to show that it is possible to successfully organize the commons-based production of everything, not just of free software and the Wikipedia.

Which general principles might we expect of such an agreement to handle the joint production of everything? While my book describes and motivates details, the following is a very high-level overview of the core ideas: Everyone can give as they like. That's what we already see in free software and related communities: people self-select to do things which they consider important or which they like to do—incidentally, the things which people like to do most often are also the things they do best. Of course, this does not mean that every contribution will be accepted (as it doesn't in free software): just because you fancy that you could be a doctor doesn't mean that people will trust you to operate them.

Taking from the commons means taking something as possession (something that can be used), not as property (something that can be sold and commercialized at will). The difference between possession and property is simple to explain: the apartment which I have rented is in my possession (I'm the one who uses it), but it is the property of my landlord or -lady (she's the one who owns it and has the right to sell it). Commons can often become possession, but never property. For example, fields in the open field system become the temporary possession of the family who got the right to farm them. Likewise, anybody can take free software into their possession (by downloading and using it), but nobody (not even the initial creators) holds full property rights over them (the creators cannot exclusively sell or license the software to a company, since they already donated it to the commons). If goods can become possession, but not property, this also changes the purposes of production. In capitalism, production usually takes place for profit, but profit requires property. Where there is no property, production is therefore driven by other motives: people help to produce something because they want to have it, they self-select themselves to do tasks which they enjoy doing, or they support production in order to give something back to the community. There are ample reasons why production takes place even where there is no profit.

Everyone can take commons into possession, as long as they don't take them away from others. That's what we see from the commons of the present: everybody can freely take software, content, and other kinds of information without having to give anything back, since by taking them you don't take them away from others: everybody else can just make another copy of the software and use it, too. This works for everything that can be copied at practically zero cost. If taking would mean taking away, the best way of solving this problem is to produce enough to satisfy everybody's wishes. If things cannot be copied freely, taking needs social agreements. Say there is only one bicycle left in the commons, but there are The Commoner other articles in commons other articles in common March 2009 two people who would like to take it. Neither of them can just take it at will, since doing so would take it away from the other person (she would deny the other one the possibility of taking it). Since things such as bicycles are produced, this is not necessarily a problem: it might be possible to produce enough of a good (two bicycles, in this case) in order to satisfy everyone's wishes. Doing so is an organizational challenge for the commons community: it has to arrange production so as to ensure that there are enough goods for those who want them, thus avoiding that taking becomes taking away.

Let's have a look at what this can mean in practice. Organizing production requires effort (time which people spent to actually produce the bicycles and other goods needed), and the community must therefore find a way to distribute this effort. It is possible that effort will distribute itself more or less spontaneously, if everybody self-selects themselves for the tasks they like do and does as much of them as they deem appropriate. If and when this isn't sufficient to distribute all effort, more explicit agreements will be necessary, say by coupling giving to and taking from the commons. In my book I mainly discuss two ways of doing so: either distributing effort evenly among participants (flatrate model: everyone contributes about the same amount of effort, regardless of how much they take) or else distributing it roughly proportionally to the effort required to satisfy everyone's wishes ( “the more you want, the more you have to give”). Some further details and possible
modifications follow automatically from the logic of commons-based production (for example that those who cannot contribute effort won't have to, since the goal of effort sharing is to ensure that enough is produced to satisfy people's wishes, not to exclude anybody). There may be other ways to share effort depending on the character of the resources at stake and the respective communities.

When effort is distributed, there will probably be a few tasks that nobody (or not enough people) wants to do, say because they are annoying, dirty, dangerous, or just plain boring. The commons community will have to find a way to distribute such tasks as well. One way of doing so is to “weight them higher,” i.e. to count short times of doing such a task as equivalent to longer times of doing other tasks. If I have to decide whether I would rather spent twenty hours writing software or else five hours removing garbage I might feel more inclined to choose the latter task, even if I
consider it less pleasant.

The second best way is to distribute limited goods in a fair manner. If it's not possible to produce enough of a good to satisfy all demands, the commons community will need ways of deciding who takes precedence. In my book, I discuss auctioning as a possible way to do so: those who are ready to contribute most effort in order to get the limited good will get it. By doing so, they will not only get the good they like to have, but they will also alleviate the task of co-producing the commons for everyone else: since the overall effort required for production stays the same, everyone else will have to contribute slightly less. Auctioning can also be used to allocate natural resources that aren't available in sufficient quantity for everyone who wants to use them, while other natural resources would be available for free (but only for using them, not for using them up).

Other solutions to the priority problem are possible, too. A community could, for example, try to satisfy urgent demands first, or it could trust the people involved to figure out among themselves who should take precedence. The commons communities will have to find out which approach works best for them—quite likely they will end up using a combination of several approaches. Cooperation will be organized by area and by interest, and units of cooperation will nest and overlap as appropriate. There will probably be lots of commons-based

The Commoner other articles in commons other articles in common March 2009 communities around the world, each of them organized by and for the people living
in a certain area and managing the commons that occur in that area. These regional communities will cooperate with each other as reasonable to handle activities that can better be organized at a larger scale, and to manage and share common resources that are unevenly distributed. Cooperation in regional communities will be complemented by cooperation in projects setting out to produce some specific good, where each project comprises the people interested in producing this good and willing to cooperate with each other (this generalizes the language use of the free
software community: a “free software project” is the group of people designing, implementing, and testing a specific free software program). Based on the experiences of the past and present, we can assume that each regional community and each project will find the rules and structures that suit them most, and that communities and projects will cooperate and join forces when it makes sense for them to do so.

Production will take place in projects of people who work together on an equal footing (as peers). When Benkler talks about “commons-based peer production,” he means that there are no command structures in the projects he describes—nobody can order others to do something, and nobody is forced to obey others. This does not mean that there are no structures—on the contrary, there are often maintainers who steer the course of a project and decide, for example, which contributions to accept and which to refuse. But while maintainers can prohibit participants to do things that they consider harmful to the project (throwing them out if they don't comply), they can never order anybody to do anything they do not want to do—all they can do is try to convince people that doing something makes sense. Moreover, nobody is forced to accept the existing structures as they are. If participants of a project are unhappy about some aspects of the project they can try to convince the others to change them. If that fails, they can still fork the project: they can break away from the others and do their own thing.

Commons-based societies worked successfully for centuries, until they were destroyed by the enclosure process accompanying the advent of capitalism—a process which is still going on in parts of the world. At the same time, capitalism has also produced the modern technologies which have made a new generation of commons possible. The renaissance of the commons is in full swing, and there is no reason why it should loose its momentum any time soon. A future commons-based society—commonism, as Nick Dyer-Witheford [2007] proposes to call it—might still be a few generations away, but the tendency is clear.


Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. Yale University Press, New Haven,
Connecticut, 2006. URL:

Dyer-Witheford, Nick. Commonism. Turbulence, no. 1, 2007. URL:

Hardin, Garrett. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, vol. 162, no. 3859, pp. 1243-
1248, 1968. URL:

Hepburn, John. Reclaiming commons—old and new. Presentation to the “Other World's
Conference,” 2005.

On the Commons Fellows. State of the Commons. 2006. URL:
The Commoner other articles in commons


Rowe, Jonathan. The Parallel Economy of the Commons. In: The Worldwatch Institute
(ed.), State of the World 2008, Chap. 10. W.W. Norton, New York, 2008. URL:
Siefkes, Christian. From Exchange to Contributions. Edition C. Siefkes, Berlin, 2007.
URL: German translation: Beitragen statt tauschen.
AG SPAK Bücher, Neu-Ulm, 2008.
Wikipedia. Enclosure. Last modified: 2008-09-18. URL:
Wikipedia. Open Field System. Last modified: 2008-09-14. URL:


By Christian Siefkes
Published in The Commoner -  (retrieved - 12/11/10)

The Future of the Commons

The market needs a counterpoise with a different calculus.The ideal counterpoise isn't the state. It's the commons.

The 21st century can't be a continuation of the 20th. We're too close to too many edges for that.
In the 20th century, the market triumphed over all. It defeated communism, levelled national boundaries to trade and brought material abundance never seen before. But the market's triumph was accompanied by huge unpaid costs : bills that are now coming due. Of these, the most momentous are those owed to nature and the poor.
The 21st century must not only pay these bills. It must, at the same
time, solve two systemic problems: How can we share a crowded
planet with billions of other humans, other species and ecosystems?
And how can we improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike?
The unbridled market can't solve these problems alone. It needs a
counterpoise with a different calculus. The ideal counterpoise isn't, as
many thought in the 20th century, the state. It's the commons.
Government's job in the 21st century is to restore the balance between
the commons and the market that grew so distorted in the 20th century.
This can be done without raising taxes or expanding bureaucracy.
What might America look like with a healthy balance between
commons and market? Here are some glimpses:
- A market sector that pays its way
Polluters and other commons users pay for usage rights. Pollution,
advertising and congestion are reduced. More money flows to common
purposes, without higher taxes.
- A stronger democracy
Spectrum fees cover most electoral campaign costs. Fewer elected
officials are indentured to monied interests

A great change in the stewardship of the Earth

is required if vast human misery is to be avoided

and our home on this planet is not to be

irretrievably mutilated.

Statement of scientists from 70 countries, including
102 Nobel laureates (1992)
- A culture of popular participation
An open Internet hosts diverse commons and provides access to
other media. There are shorter copyrights and new legal vehicles for
sharing creativity. Funding flows to the arts, non-commercial radio
and TV.
- Science in the public interest
University research focuses on common needs. Most discoveries
remain in the public domain.
- Every baby a trust fund baby
Everyone receives, as a birthright, a cash inheritance and yearly dividends.
This income comes from rent charged for use of scarce common
assets. The commons thus becomes a source of sustenance for all, as
it was in pre-industrial days.
Restoring a commons/market balance isn't a utopian dream. It's a
necessary and doable task. Nature and our ancestors have already done
the hard work : they created most of the wealth we simply inherited.
All that's missing - all we need to build - are appropriate legal and
institutional protections for that wealth.
The real utopians are those who believe the market can continue unbridled
forever. This dream has great allure, but it's a dangerous fantasy. The
reality is that, without a healthy commons, the market (and much else)
won't survive the 21st century.


This report has focused on poorly managed commons. But America
abounds with commons that work well. The examples below can serve
as models for the larger common sector we need to build.
- Public libraries let anyone sit, read, borrow books and access the
Internet for free.
- Blood banks, academic disciplines and many civic organizations are
communities of shared purpose. Members of such communities
(sometimes called gift economies) freely give their time and creativity
to the commons and reap benefits in return.
- The Internet and World Wide Web spread like wildfire because
their protocols and languages are free for all to use.
- Sidewalks are marvels of common use. With a minimum of law
enforcement and maintenance, they foster mobility, commerce and
social interaction.
- Parks in cities are islands of quiet and play. Typically they are fenced
but free and open to all. Some sporting fields require reservations.
Others have informal rules such as 'winners stay, losers sit.'
- National parks and wilderness areas protect habitat and provide
millions of Americans a direct experience of nature.
- Wildlife populations are managed partly through hunting and fishing
licenses, which limit human killing and raise revenue for conservation.
Sales of federal duck stamps, for example, have helped preserve 5
million acres of waterfowl habitat.
- State land trusts have been around since 1787, when Congress
required western territories to set aside land for 'common schools.'
Today over 150 million acres are held in trust by states. Much of this is
leased for timber, grazing or oil production, with revenues going to
public schools.
- The Texas Permanent School Fund owns submerged lands along
the Gulf Coast. Proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases launched the
Fund in 1954. Earnings from investments go to local schools.
- The Alaska Permanent Fund is like a communal savings account for
all Alaskans. Initial capital came from oil leases on state land. Today a
$23 billion diversified portfolio pays every Alaskan a yearly dividend.
Last year's was $1,54
Public libraries let anyone sit, read, borrow books and
access the Internet for free.
Community gardens are springing up in urban areas
around the nation, often on vacant land that had been
considered without value.

The Edwards Aquifer was more than a million

years in the making. Our mission is to protect it

for another million years.

: Edwards Aquifer Authority

- Agricultural land trusts buy conservation easements from farmers using private and public funds. Farmers continue to own and operate their farms, while trust-owned easements preserve the shared landscape and the farm economy.
- Community gardens rejuvenate neighborhoods and enable landless
city-dwellers to enjoy the fruits of gardening.
- The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land are private
trusts that have acquired and protected millions of acres from
- Soil conservation districts were created throughout America after the
Dust Bowl. They help landowners conserve soil, water and wetlands.
- Air quality districts were formed in California and elsewhere in
response to smog. Some now issue tradeable pollution permits.
- The Oregon Water Trust acquires water rights and uses them to
augment flows of rivers and streams.
- The Edwards Aquifer Authority caps withdrawals of underground
water and sells tradeable withdrawal permits.
- Seed banks preserve the diversity of plant species by keeping seeds
and regularly re-growing them.
- Open source software is licensed software (such as Linux) that
anyone can read, modify and redistribute. Because the code is shared
in a commons, bugs are fixed and improvements made more rapidly
than in most proprietary software.
- Creative Commons is an on-line licensing service that enables
creators to share their work without fear that someone will re-use it for
- Time Dollars are a currency that helps build community. Help a
neighbor for an hour and you get credit in a computer bank that you
can use when you need help yourself.
- The Music Performance Trust Fund was formed in 1948 by the
recording industry and the musicians' union. A small percentage of record
sales goes into a fund that pays for free concerts in schools, parks and
hospitals. Sales of corporate products thus support living culture.


The audit committee's main findings are:
1) The wealth we inherit together is badly managed. Many commons
are not even recognized as commons and therefore have no legal
or institutional protection.
2) To protect the planet and assure a decent quality of life for all
Americans, we must restore a proper balance between the commons
and the market.
We recommend a number of parallel ways forward:
- Strengthen common property rights
Common wealth needs legal rights. These rights should be equal to,
and sometimes superior to, those of private wealth. They should be
assigned to airsheds, watersheds, aquifers and other ecosystems
pressured by markets.
- Overhaul management
In theory, government is the trustee for our common assets. In reality,
government in the U.S. has largely abandoned this role. It's time to
appoint new trustees. 
The new trustees can be quasi-public entities like air quality districts
and the Alaska Permanent Fund, or non-profit entities like pension
funds and land trusts. The main requirements are: trustees must be
legally accountable to beneficiaries, beneficiaries must be broad
classes of citizens (including future generations), and resource flows
must be fully transperant.
- Make polluters and broadcasters pay
Polluting the commons can no longer be free. Someone : either
polluters or pollutees : must pay for it. The best solution is to make
polluters pay into trusts that use the revenue for common purposes
and/or dividends.
Broadcasters aren't polluters, but they've been using a common asset
rent-free, and want to sell it for a profit. That should be stopped.
- Pay dividends to owners
Because of the skewed distribution of private wealth, a small self perpetuating minority receives a disproportionate share of America's
non-labor income. To offset this structural inequity, some income from
common assets should be distributed on a one-person, one-share basis.
- Nurture non-corporate culture and the public domain
Copyright terms should be shortened and patents should be issued
more stringently. Internet sharing of information and creativity should
be encouraged. New funding flows for artists, live performances and
independent films should be created.
- Make protecting the commons an organizing principle for the
21st century
The boundaries between the market and the commons have shifted
too far toward the market. Starting now, all sectors of society need to
push those boundaries back toward the commons. Thus:
Religious leaders should remind us often that the sacred gifts of
creation belong to everyone and must be cherished and preserved.
Industry leaders should support capping and paying for pollution.
Media and entertainment companies should replenish the cultural
commons that enriches them.
Political leaders should stop giving away common assets to private
Courts should reinvigorate the public trust doctrine, the riparian
principle and our rights as common owners.
Economists should recognize the commons' role in meeting human
needs and making the economic engine run right.
Artists should develop new distribution systems that benefit both
themselves and the cultural commons.
Educators should include the commons in their curricula and involve
students in local commons.
Universities : themselves part of the commons : should focus their
research on shared needs, not private gain.
Creative thinkers from many fields should flesh out the details of what a large common sector would look like.

We are richer than we think. But we're leaving our children poorer.

All Americans are joint owners of a trove of hidden assets. These assets : natural gifts like air and water, and social creations like science and the Internet : constitute our shared inheritance. They're vital to our lives and make our economy run. Though it's impossible to put a precise value on them, it's safe to say they're worth trillions of dollars. The trouble is, our shared inheritance is being grossly mismanaged. Maintenance is terrible, theft is rampant and rents often aren't being collected. To put it bluntly, our common wealth: and our children's: is being squandered.


The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun
in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via

OntheCommons -  (retrieved on 16/09/2010)


This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic


The Futures of Power in the Network Era*

by Jose Ramos, Queensland University of Technology, Australia



This article asks questions about the futures of power in the network era. Two critical emerging

issues are at work with uncertain outcomes. The first is the emergence of the collaborative economy,

while the second is the emergence of surveillance capabilities from both civic, state and commercial

sources. While both of these emerging issues are expected by many to play an important role in

the future development of our societies, it is still unclear whose values and whose purposes will be

furthered. This article argues that the futures of these emerging issues depend on contests for power.

As such, four scenarios are developed for the futures of power in the network era using the double

variable scenario approach.



This article examines the futures of power in the network era from the vantage point of

two critical uncertainties: the contest of power in the political and economic domains. As

we move deeper into a cybernetic civilization, where the distance and indeed the distinction

between internet technologies and the people that use them begin to blur,1 new potentials and

predicaments emerge.

The key interest in this article is the empowerment of people in the face of significant

issues, dangers and opportunities related to both capital and state power. The aim

of this paper is therefore to interrogate the power dynamics across these two axes,

political and economic, and to postulate alternative futures that can inform wiser

strategies, policies and choices in the present that lead to better futures.


Methodology: two contests for power.

This article positions critical social changes in economy and politics as major

contest for power typified by uncertainty and indeterminacy.

On the political front is the increasing capability and indeed practice of

widespread surveillance by governments of their populaces for the purpose of social

control, if not outright repression. Reciprocally, citizen groups are increasingly using

network forms of activism to break through the veil of government secrecy, with the

espoused aim of creating transparency and accountability. Thus we might imagine

a worst-case scenario in which government apparatuses with totalitarian designs

win the struggle to control communications in the network age, creating a world of

mass surveillance, social control and terror, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984,

and resurrecting the horrors of Stalinism, but with much greater sophistication. Or

we may see dynamic citizen movements to create open governments which are

transparent and accountable (Greenberg, 2012).

On the economic front, we see the emergence of what Bauwens et al (2012) refer

to as ‘netarchical capitalism’, where great network conglomerates of the early 21st

century jostle for power, and in the process absorb, stifle or co-opt smaller network

enterprises. Reciprocally, an emerging peer-to-peer (p2p) economy may be outside

of anyone’s capacity to control, as a variety of p2p enterprises and industries emerge

that are both highly localized but embedded in a global open source service system,

displacing the existing corporate mode of service. This implies a struggle between

netarchical capitalism and community based p2p enterprises, where big network

conglomerates oligopolize, subsume or criminalize localized p2p alternatives, or

where we see a flourishing of p2p enterprises and industry which fundamentally

displaces netarchical and/or vectoralist capital.2

While the emergence of the network form is the foundational dynamic within

which associated emerging issues owe their source to, neither can the network form

be rendered in historicist terms as “outside” of human influence (Goldthorpe, 1971).

Indeed the futures of power in the network era rests upon the decisions, actions and

commitments that people make today. Thus in constructing four scenarios through

the double variable method (Inayatullah, 2008), what is posited are not simply

uncertainties related to emerging issues, but more fundamentally who wins major

struggles for power in the network era? The approach to developing scenarios here

is focused on highlighting the institutional patterns within each distinctive scenario.

Institutions can be seen as a meso or a mediating level in the circulation of

power, between the micro dimension of the individual and his or her subjectivity,

and the macro level of political economy (Boulet, 1985). Each scenario in effect

carries a distinctive political economy depending on the winners and losers in each

axis of uncertainty. What this political economy looks like is interrogated by asking

how key institutional structures or functions change in the areas of: education and

research, health care, law, policing and emergency services, agricultural production,

primary and secondary industries, media, government, transport, energy, and other


Within each scenario’s distinctive system of power emerges the overall

system purpose and identity characterized by its political economy; and within

each scenario’s distinctive system are nested an array of subjectivities – people

either conscious of unconscious of the systems they are embedded in. Soft power

must circulate in each scenario in a way that legitimates the winners, and delegitimizes

the losers. Or in other terms the political economy within each scenario

is accompanied by a distinct form of cultural hegemony.


Scenario development method

Within each of the two contests for power, network politics and network

economics, two critical uncertainties emerge, represented by two axes.

Figure 1. Four futures of power in a network era

With respect to the economic axis (horizontal in diagram 1 above) the question

that emerges is whether the network economy devolves toward p2p producing

communities, or whether this network economy is incorporated into large-scale

centralized corporations (netarchical capital). If network economic power shifts

toward a meshwork of networked communities and individuals (both local and

trans-local), we can call this a citizen driven p2p economy. If network economic

power is ensconced into large networked multinational corporations, we can call

this netarchical capitalism. In this polarity, major corporations, like Google and

Facebook, co-opt the potentials of the emerging p2p and sharing economies,

and provide the infrastructure and networks for sharing and exchange, though

suppressing and squashing its diversity and autonomy, while extracting surplus value

from such platforms

With respect to the political axis (vertical in diagram 1 above) the question that

arises with the emergence of network politics is whether surveillance technologies,

soft power and network control tilt in the favor of government, or alternatively tilt

in the favor of citizens. If existing forces for surveillance and social control have

their way, governments will increasingly collect large amounts of data on the lives

of the average citizen. When a person becomes of interest to the state they can be

surveilled and monitored, and effectively tamed. This condition would be one in

which citizens lose their capacity for privacy, while government is increasingly

shrouded in secrecy. If citizen movements for transparency and accountability have

their way, then the inner workings of government are pried open for all to see,

government transparency becomes the norm, and the citizenry tame government.

Importantly, in this polarity, individuals retain certain rights to privacy.

The scenarios in this paper are written generically, to allow for their application

across geographies. As an author, however, my own worldview, fears, hopes and

concerns are imprinted throughout the text. I grew up in California, where I spent

the first half of my life, and I therefore use the United States as an imaginative

and contextual backdrop. And thus the ‘uncertainties’ are uncertain by virtue of

geography. In other geographies they may be more certain or even less certain.

Particular countries may already be examples of one of the four scenarios, and I

have therefore added some examples (by way of speculation) in Appendix A.

Secondly, my notion of privacy is shaped by both historical and geographic

contexts. As a non-digital native I have a naturalized attachment to privacy as a

good, and am somewhat uncomfortable posting mundane aspects of my life online.

This is also influenced by the strong and foundational views in the US with regard

to constitutional rights to privacy. Residents of other countries, (e.g. Singapore) or

those from younger generations who post much of their lives on Facebook, may not

consider privacy an issue at all. Categories of analysis and problematization thus

arise from context and embodied disposition.


Emergence of the Network Form

The emerging network society creates new forms of network-based

organizations, not possible in a pre-network world. As Castells (1996) argued,

network organizations may have a ‘telos’, values and ideological direction. As such

‘networks’ are not only value free systems of pragmatic exchange (e.g. eBay), but

as well normatively constituted. In similar fashion, Kellener (2005) coined the term

‘techo-politics’ to express the emerging political nature of network actors. Earlier,

Arguilla and Rondfeldt (1999) used the term ‘noo-politik’ to describe a new type of

power dynamic in the age of networks . ‘Noo’ is drawn from the idea of a noosphere,

the domain of a global conversation, or more hyperbolically ‘global consciousness’,

thus implying a political struggle for popular global consciousness.

While networks are normatively charged inter-spaces, pre-network forms

(e.g. Tribes, Institutions, Markets) are persistent structural features of human

organization. As such, they too will partake in the network form, but very much on

their own terms (Ronfeldt, 1996). Tribal forms use the network form to strengthen

traditional identities in the face of globalized hybridity. Institutions use the network

form to maintain their cultural hegemonies of governance and power. Markets

use the network form to de-territorialize and open global market opportunities,

production and consumption. Yet while, as Rondfeldt argues, Tribes, Institutions,

and Markets will use the network form to their advantage, the network form is also

fundamentally disruptive in respect these previous forms.

A counter movement associated with network actors can therefore also be

discerned. First, rather than simply strengthening existing tribal identities, p2p

potentialities create new transnational tribal identities, satisfying critical existential

needs of affiliation, but in conditions of globalized hybridity. Secondly, rather

than simply strengthening the legitimacy of institutional forms, action networks

reconfigure institutional legitimacy toward openness, transparency and public

conversation. Thirdly, rather than simply strengthening market actors via transterritorial

opportunities and investment, p2p enterprises may displace or make

obsolete some market actors, in particular those extracting value through the

imposition of artificial immaterial scarcities.

One supposition here is thus: in the early development of the network era,

persistent human structures (Tribes, Institutions, Markets) will co-opt network

potentials and win out. Examples include Al-Qaeda’s early successes, China’s

lockdown of political organization on the internet, Nike’s global factory. As

the network era matures, incumbents fight ever more pitched battles, protecting

pharmaceutical’s IP, buying out and destroying rival social networking platforms,

jailing cyber activists. Early modes of co-optation are ‘vectoralist’ in nature, as

the corporate-state power structure imposes the idea of property and control on

immaterial intellectual resources (processes, designs, genetics, pharmaceuticals, art,

etc.), which are in themselves not scarce, but extensively reproducible (Wark, 2004).

This creates a division between the owners (vectoralists) and producers (hackers)

in a class hierarchy based on artificially created scarcities. More recent modes of

co-optation, following Bauwens’ argument, see a shift from vectoralist capital to

what he terms ‘netarchical capital’, what amounts to deriving surplus value from

participatory platforms - via the commodification of everyday relationships. As he


Netarchical capitalism is a hypothesis about the emergence of a

new segment of the capitalist class (the owners of financial or other

capital), which is no longer dependent on the ownership of intellectual

property rights (hypothesis of cognitive capitalism), nor on the control

of the media vectors (hypothesis of MacKenzie Wark in his book The

Hacker’s Manifesto), but rather on the development and control of

participatory platforms.3

Yet as the network era continues to evolve, developments empower civil

society as the realm capable of mobilizing network potentials with greatest

efficacy. Identities take a post-institutional turn. Political institutions are tamed by

‘sousveillance’ (the broad social network surveils the organization) from citizen

networks; production and exchange of everyday needs shifts toward p2p enterprises.

To rephrase Marx, the question now becomes, in our futures, who controls the means

of relationality?

To more deeply understand transformations in the network era, some context

via political economy is developed. Two major crises are at the heart of shifts in the

network era, a crisis of capitalism and the state.

Table 1: Three contradiction of capitalism and the state Capitalism State

The Crisis of Capitalism

The three contradiction within capitalism include 1) ecological externalities,

2) wealth and power stratification and 3) cosmo-localization. The first two

contradictions are drawn from neo-Marxist theory, (Galtung, 1971; Wallerstein

1983, 2002; Robinson 2004; Sklair, 2005). The third draws from Peer to Peer theory

through Bauwens et al (2012) and cosmo-localization via Ramos (2010).

The first contradiction is of an ecological nature. Capital accumulation through

various stages of the capitalist historical process has been partly based on the

capacity to externalize ecological costs. As ecological problems deepen, there are

both louder and stronger calls and demands to internalize ecological cost and to

apply ecological governance to capital enterprises. Likewise, as ‘nature’ as a source

of endless bounty becomes less and less a reality, and resources become more scare,

extraction shifts focus from extraction from ‘nature’ to extraction from industrial

(close loop) metabolisms. This works in tandem with the re-internalization of

ecological costs.

The second contradiction is of a social nature. In a neo-liberal world that

privileges highly mobile capital investors or venture capitalist, a transnational

capitalist class (TCC) is able to influence political processes, where the end

result is increasing social stratification between the policy empowered and policy

disempowered, hence between the have’s and have-nots. In classic Marxist terms

this can be considered part of the crisis of oversupply, a deflationary processes,

accompanied by a superstructure that legitimizes capitalist led policy. In both cases

stratification as a phenomenon owes its existence to a plutocratic (government by

the wealthy) policy process.

The third contradiction draws from the work of Bauwens et al (2012),

who argues we are shifting from a world typified by material abundance and

immaterial scarcity; to a world increasingly typified by material scarcities yet

immaterial abundance. The advent of a global digital knowledge commons and p2p

infrastructure has a profound and destabilizing effect on typical forms of capital

enterprise. A process that can be termed ‘cosmo-localization’ arises, where emerging

localized enterprises draw on freely available global digital resources, and can peer

finance and produce goods (Ramos, 2010). This subverts the established industrial

capital means by which citizens and communities satisfy their needs, allowing

them to sidestep reliance on large-scale capital enterprises in favor of local Maker

communities and enterprises.


Implications for network economics

From these contradictions we can look at key locales of struggle or tension

between the values in capitalist vs. p2p enterprises. For example, a typical struggle is

between vectoralist (film and music co.) attempts to criminalize file / torrent sharing,

while on the opposing extreme Pirate Party advocacy for a world of non-proprietary

digital content. 4 More moderate but significant are advocates like Lessig (2002) for

Creative Commons and the creation of mashable / remixable digital content. While

Wikipedia crowdsources content from the public under a general public license,

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is at the razors edge of neoliberal outsourcing, with

over 100,000 workers in over 100 countries doing basic intelligence tasks. This

stark difference reflects the very diverse and contrary nature of crowdsourcing

generally. Peer banking is emerging as an alternative to traditional institutional

banking.5 In small scale manufacturing prosumer 3D printing is significant, where a

printer costs approx. US $2000.00 and allows a user to draw from a global pool of

open source / shareable designs to make tens of thousands of things.6 Sharing and

peer procurement systems / services allow for ride sharing, house / room sharing,

tool sharing, etc, with the potential to disrupt incumbent businesses (such as taxi

companies and hotels).7

One critical argument made by advocates for sharing / p2p economies is that

the first two contradictions discussed (ecological and social) provide a mandate

for the third (cosmo-localization). Within conditions of ecological crisis, resource

costs increase, which then necessitates a more intelligent use of existing resources

drawing on a wealth of models, and via network enabled sharing platforms and peer

communities. Conditions of social crisis are typified by what Mike Douglass terms a

‘new normal’, described as:

“repeated economic crisis that result in chronically high levels of

unemployment, precarious employment, no long-term careers, no home

ownership, no pensions, and declining welfare for the majority of

people on the planet.”8

Because people must increasingly create social life outside of ‘typical’ economic

support systems, cosmo-localization empowers local actors / peer producers

with global knowledge resources and network enterprise capabilities, be this in

manufacturing, art, or science, etc. Cosmo-localization allows for a more efficient

use of resources and empowers creativity in discrete locales. But this is at odds with

the dominant industrial-innovation systems wedded to existing intellectual property

regimes. One example of cosmo-localization is the Handmakers Factory, which

has developed a pool of globally crowd sourced designs in clothing, that facilitate

people’s capacity to physically produce them in their locales.9

Fundamentally different principles, held by different groups, are at work in

creating the futures of the network economy. The open source and digital commons

movement aim to create global knowledge commons that allow for free localized

instantiation of value, with open and common use. Relationships, networks and

interaction are seen as sources of shared enrichment and value, not commodifiable.

Large scale platforms, operated through netarchical capital, see human relationships

and interactions as sources of economic rent. Netarchical enterprises provide

stability and integration across multiple platforms, but see user interactions as

commodifiable and exploitable. They seek to either buy out or destroy alternative

platforms – incorporating any useful elements into the existing system of shareholder

driven investment and interest, driven by the logic of accumulation within the global

political economy of capitalism.


The Crisis of the State

The crisis of the State also includes 3 major contradictions: 1) ultimate

authority, 2) legitimate governance and 3) the management of the commons. The

first two contradictions are well established in cosmopolitan theory (Falk, 2004;

Chandler and Baker, 2005; Keane, 2005; Kriegman, Amalric, and Wood, 2006)

while the third relates to a resurgent area of research pioneered by the Commons

Strategy Group (Bollier and Helfrich 2012).

The first contradiction concerns ultimate authority. Over the last century the

nation state has assigned to itself the status of ultimate authority. Today the nation

state is in crisis in part because it neither has the capacity to address many global

/ interstate challenges, but importantly its design often prevents it from acting

outside of national interests. Meanwhile, a variety of citizens group, some local and

others transnational have assumed moral stances that are transnational / global in

character. This process is seeing the transfer of ultimate authority from the state to

transnational citizen groups.

Historically, the development of the state after the treatise of Westphalia saw the

gradual erosion of all competing forms of ultimate authority, (the church or other

groups). Empires had accommodated overlapping systems of authority, in particular

the ultimate moral authority of religious elites. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, as

the state developed, alternative or competing systems of ultimate cultural authority

were sidelined or dissolved. Nationalism as ideology represented a marriage of

cultural authority / allegiance with the states instrumental power. Today we inherit a

system where the state assumes itself as the ultimate moral authority along side its

status as the primary holder of instrumental political power.

This emerging contradiction concerns how transnational civic organizations

challenge and attempt to displace the state as the ultimate moral authority, as these

citizens take a planetary view inclusive of many or all nations, e.g. in the area

of climate mitigation, human rights, transparency, etc. To be clear, however, the

challenge to state authority is not a general challenge to its authority - the majority

of its law making process. The general authority of states is vast. This change merely

displaces the state as the ultimate authority, a status it had accrued over the past

century. The key gap then is between the transnational citizen organizations’ status

as new ultimate moral authorities and their lack of instrumental capacities to enact

change. While the state increasingly loses its status as ultimate authority, it retains

vast instrumental political capabilities.

The second contradiction concerns the crisis in the democratic process or

legitimate governance. Notwithstanding the increasingly plutocratic mode of

policy making in the West through neo-liberalization (USA + Eurozone), access

to information, the capacity for citizen group to engage with the complexities of

the policy making process, renders existing systems of democratic representations

antiquated (Dator, 2007). Increasing citizen engagement and desire for devolved

localized governance or direct / participatory democracy runs counter to the

increasing closure of the political process.

The third contradiction relates to the State’s limitations in the governance and

management of shared Commons. The State’s role in protecting ecological commons

(oceans, rivers, beaches, ground water, etc.) and building social commons (roads,

services, libraries, etc.) is perpetually constrained by virtue of the need to satisfy

powerful State-producing interests (industries, investors, military, voters, media,

etc.). The outcome of this power brokering process creates winners and losers, as the

State ‘closes ranks’ with these interests, rather than producing policy geared toward

common interests. This is especially acute today, where transnational capital dictates

much national policy, whose investors are abstracted from those concretely affected

by such policies (as per the second contradiction of capitalism). Communities are

forced to develop parallel systems of governance outside the state system which can

achieve adequate levels of social and intergenerational enfranchisement (Bollier and

Helfrich, 2012).


Implications for network politics

Networked civil society organizations have become confident political actors

with ultimate moral authority on their side. Despite limitations in instrumental

power, they express a new socio-political reality, what Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1999)

articulated as ‘noo-politik’:10

Noopolitik is an approach to statecraft, to be undertaken as much

by nonstate as by state actors, that emphasizes the role of soft power

in expressing ideas, values, norms, and ethics through all manner of

media. This makes it distinct from Realpolitik, which stresses the hard,

material dimensions of power and treats states as the determinants of

world order. (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1999, p29)

In the case of Wikileaks, for example, ‘they’ (a plural network of actors) do not

consider the state an ultimate authority, but rather their own cause to expose state

secrets as a superior moral position. To instrumentalize their cause members engage

in new ‘techno-political’ strategies (Kellner, 2005), and yet their leader remains

holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for fear of being extradited to a US grand jury

and being tried in a kangaroo court. The gap between instrumental power and soft

power is stark. The US’ attack on Wikileaks is a response in the context of soft

power – as soft power works by strengthening or weakening the legitimacy of actors,

whether they be economic, state, or non-state. As Arquilla and Rondfeldt presciently

argued, where Realpolitik is used to repress the noetic sphere of information and

culture, it amounts to a failure in information strategy (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1999,


In networked environments where populations with smart phones have extensive

sensing (sound, video, air composition, radio activity, etc.) capabilities, citizens can

surveil each other as well as police and businesses, police can surveil government

and citizens, government can surveil citizens, commerce etc. The video recording

of the Rodney King beating, which led to the Los Angeles riots, provided an early

example of these new potentials. The widespread diffusion of mobile computing

makes the possibility of ubiquitous ambient sensing common place (via visual,

audio, text, etc), as seen in the recent uprising in 2007 in Burma, 2008 in Iran, the

recent Arab Spring and Occupy movements. The shift toward mobile and ubiquitous

networking will increasingly extend the capacity for people to document and

transmit an environment.

The internet pioneer, Josh Harris, a dot-com entrepreneur who founded Jupiter

Research and, pioneered extreme experiments in the eradication of

privacy, was behind the bizarre avant guarde project “Quiet: We Live in Public”,

predating the show “Big Brother.”11 Of course the idea was well developed in

George Orwell’s 1984, and it could be argued this practice has existed for as

long as repressive political regimes have found ways to spy on their populace in

comprehensive ways. One recent example includes Nokia’s assistance to Iran’s

regime in tracking political dissidents.12

Netarchical conglomerates, such as Google and Facebook, have added a new

dimension to this, as part of the movement toward Big Data. Passive data collection

has become an internet era norm in a new service model in which data mining

algorithms learn to know us better than we know ourselves. Drawing on this

trend, US defense firm Raytheon has developed predictive software called Rapid

Information Overlay Technology (RIOT) aimed at neutralizing ‘security threats’

based on such public data.13 RIOT follows the development of other systems such as

Palantir.14 Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US, and ambiguous legal language

in the Patriot Act opened the door to government surveillance of citizens, security

agencies such as the NSA have revived large-scale communications surveillance.

Despite the defeat and discarding of the controversial Total Information Awareness

(TIA) program, the NSA has continued to develop surveillance infrastructure

through programs like TrapWire, which provides all encompassing surveillance

capabilities, now well established through US communications infrastructure.15

Segments of civil society, businesses and governments are engaged in both

reactive and proactive activities to guard and extend their powers within the new

field of network politics. The vanguard for techno-political global civil society,

WikiLeaks, is just the first in a series of social innovations that will attempt to

break through the veil of government and corporate secrecy (Greenberg, 2012).

Reciprocally, governments have already (China) or are in the process (USA) of

developing large-scale comprehensive surveillance systems designed for ensuring

social control and neutralize dissent.16 Meanwhile, the network conglomerates

already have the most comprehensive platforms for peering into the world of people,

aided by the very same consumers that use them.


The Four Scenarios

Scenario 1: Caged Chickens

[Formula: Gov. and business collude / citizens dis-empowered]

The Occupy movement of 2011 could only be squashed through coordinated

paramilitary force. Elites in the United States quickly understood that they were on

the precipice of losing power, and began to reformulate a more aggressive strategy

for power maintenance. Systems developed for counter terrorism, such as TrapWire

and Echelon, began to be focused on citizen activists. Bloated government security

agencies had ample resources to infiltrate and identify dissidents and agitators, be

they 17-year-old anarchists or 70-year-old libertarians. New laws were put into place

that blurred the line between foreign-born terrorist activity and political radicalism.17

A series of terrorist attacks, attributed to political radicals, but which many

suspected were planted, galvanizes the United States. Adbusters and Democracy

Now! are designated terrorist-affiliated organizations and shut down, along

with hundreds of other politically active organizations. As in the aftermath of

9/11, thousands of suspected terrorists are rounded up and rendered offshore for

detainment, interrogation and processing. The state apparatus uses systems like

Palantir to easily anticipate civic protests and neutralize protest leaders.18

In the aftermath of a weakened and cowed civil society, the further maintenance

of power using soft means becomes easier. Ambiguous legislation is used to silence

institutional dissent. Media companies can lose their licenses when television and

online news reporters say the wrong things. Self-censorship becomes the order of the

day. The pervasiveness and power of the corporate-state surveillance system allows

the government to neutralize dissent in its most nascent forms. An email to a friend

expressing dissatisfaction, a random joke about the government, or association with

the wrong person at the wrong time. A culture of fear begins to seep into everyday

life. Many ask will I be next, or when will they come for me?

The 21st-century corporate-state becomes stronger. The circulation of power

from government to business and vice versa interlocks. The massive influence

of corporate money to government is not only normalized, but a cottage political

science industry (funded by industry but convenient for government puppets)

emerges that constructs the corporate-state as a “natural state of affairs” in the

evolution of society. It is argued the corporate-state offers people great efficiency,

safety and security, and identity.

While the stratification of wealth was an issue at the turn of the century, the

second order consequences of hyper-stratification could never have been imagined.

But by the first quarter of the 21st century strong patterns emerge. The elite now get

global educations, traveling widely and gaining crucial worldly experience, while

the vast majority are locally trained in a technical capacity - liberal and reflective

learning is prohibited left wing propaganda. New medicine can prolong the life of

elites into their 120s and 130s, but the vast majority live till their 60s, succumbing to

a variety of industrial illnesses connected to the biological environments they ingest

or live in. The wealthy live in safe enclaves, the rest must deal with substandard

security and policing. Most law making reflects a struggle between powerful

interests, wealthy families and corporations mobilizing large sums of money to

mount sophisticated legal battles that dwarf the common wage. Increasingly the

‘inner commons’ or ‘mental commons’, ones mind, attention, time, is enclosed

and commodified. To gain momentary satisfactions, people are encouraged to sell

‘personal futures’ (future labor and loyalty) as a commodity. One can ‘leverage’ their

future mind or body. The age of network endenturement arrives.

Netarchical conglomerates enable people to connect, but all networking is

through sanctioned channels. Citizens are monitored, and all nongovernment

organizations are registered and tightly regulated. Those people which offer

countervailing wisdom are silenced, often through a series of “bad luck” incidents,

the loss of a job, inability to find a new job, or if that does not work through more

severe intimidation. People disappear and rendition, torture and terror exist behind a

veil of silence.

Research and technology development is geared toward making production

and consumption more efficient across the system. Networks allow allocation

optimization. The state has an interest in middle aged healthy citizens who produce

for the industrial state and who make loyal workers, but not much interest in older

people, or those that do not fit into this system. You have become a caged chicken.

Don’t stop laying eggs, or you end up in the pot.


Scenario 2: Peer to Peer Patriots

[Formula: Gov. and citizens collude / big business disempowered]

Under pressure from international competition, rising energy prices, traditional

primary and secondary (resources and manufacturing) sectors go into major decline.

The anticipated post-recession recovery from the great financial crisis of 2008 never

materialized. Instead, recession led to a “new normal” of out of work but active

class of “creatives”. In the early 2010s new sharing startups begin to emerge that

allowed people to peer procure basic services like transport, health services, and

entertainment. But as the crisis of the new normal deepened, with more straight out

of college jobless, more intensive “post-industrial” enterprises emerged to satisfy the

basic needs of people.

The mix of creative classes, from artists, graphic designers, architects,

entrepreneurs, and others, with time on their hands and needs to meet, begin building

a new economy based on peer systems of production. Grow-your-own solidarity

farms, micro-manufacturing based on open-source design pools, cradle to cradle

collectives, 3D / additive manufacturing for highly engineered products, and other

peer enterprises begin to take hold as new forms of economic activity.

At first these new peer based industries offer basic livelihoods for those who

cannot get a “regular” job in the new normal. But as these enterprises grow in

strength and popularity, they begin displacing traditional industrial forms. Wikispeed

was only the first of hundreds of “design your own car” enterprises that churned

out high-efficiency and low-cost modular automobiles. Traditional automotive

companies attempted to enforce legal monopolies to support their traditional scale

based manufacturing, but provincial and state-based citizen campaigns targeting

and attacking politicians with close industry ties force legislatures to open a wide

variety of activities to peer production communities. Soon these communities are

legally enfranchised and competitively displacing older economies of scale based

production and services.

“traditional American industrial corporations come up against a

situation in which cheapening, distributed means of production means

no profitable outlet for all the investment capital sitting around.

“Capitalism is eating itself …. The days of companies with names

like General Electric and General Mills and General Motors are

over.” Desperate Fortune 500 corporations, selling off corporate

jets and other assets at fire sale prices, attempt to buy into garage

micromanufacturing operations as a Hail Mary pass to stave off

irrelevancy and bankruptcy.” Doctorow (2012) in …Kevin Carson


And yet these nascent industries also understand that without political support

with the right legislation, the fledgling revolution could be reversed. Already,

finance capital and netarchical conglomerates attempt to buy out peer production

enterprises. Google and others develop competing sharing and micro-manufacturing

platforms in the hope of cashing-in on the surge. Backroom corporate lobbyists

attempt to convince government regulators that citizen-based enterprises are not

capable of proper regulation. The issue comes to a head when a Christian extremist

group massacres 52 people using weapons produced through homemade 3D printing

devices. A battle ensues between an alliance of Netarchical and industrial capitalists

that wish to enclose or lock out p2p capabilities into rentier platforms, while

hundreds of thousands of peer production and sharing communities come together

into political federations.

Local and state governments know that a return to a pre-p2p economy would

mean increasing joblessness and a weakened economy unable to compete globally.

Yet the radical potential opened by p2p processes is potentially destabilizing. People

are also worried about the shadow of decentralized production and finance (BitCoin

has become the primary platform for money laundering by global mafias).

Governments increasingly take the role of guarantors of security. While they

leave the economic engine in the hands of the p2p pioneers, issues related to

terrorism, the availability of 3D printable weaponry, the increasing threat of nano

weapons, homemade drones, child pornography and other network era pathologies

further push citizenry to accept the state’s much needed role in surveillance and

control. A consensus emerges that all people must be surveilled in order to maintain

security. Yet the ‘surveillor’ must also be surveilled. Institutions exists in a complex

and interlocking system of surveillance. As well, the state’s role evolves toward

increasingly disciplined eco-governance / eco-efficiency, where resources are

strictly monitored for reuse. “Eco-crimes” are punished with severity. Additive

manufacturing cooperatives must abide by strict disposal and re-use laws.20

The collapse of the industrial sector precipitates a weakened Wall Street, with

citizen initiated reform of speculative practices. However, the bigger shift is how

p2p financing displaces Wall Street, as crowd and community funding are the

engines that propel p2p enterprises.

While government is not in the business of primary production of goods and

services, the state plays a key role in regulating emerging p2p industries, such

as peer banking, peer manufacturing, and peer media. Citizens appreciate the

government’s oversight role in these key sectors, and there’s an acceptance of the

intrusive, if not soft authoritarian approach that government now takes. Government,

in partnership with citizen-based ubiquitous monitoring, makes sure that p2p

production adheres to basic standards.

Because government is still the power base for surveillance, instances

of corruption and abuse of surveillance powers exist. However, government

surveillance powers must draw upon citizen based mobile sensing, and thus requires

power sharing. In addition government sits in un-easy tension with respect to the

new economic power of p2p communities. Peer producers, through economic

federations, are able to influence policy outcomes.

The values of the creative class that created the p2p revolution become

more solidly embedded in the legitimacy of government based surveillance and

enforcement. While it started as a counterculture movement in the 60s and 70s,

and transformed into the creative class in the first decades of the 2000s, oddly this

group has morphed into a type of ‘green conservativism’. While socially very liberal

(e.g. pro GLIBTI rights etc.), these people are hardworking savers and community

builders, the Protestants of the 21st century. A new type of wealth emerges from

green practices, eco-efficiency, whole systems design, education and conservation.

This creates a new class dynamic based on the ascendancy of the green conservatives

vs. 20th century ‘unconscious consumers’, previously known as modernists (Ray and

Anderson, 2000).

While many find the intrusiveness and extent of social control within this new

system unbearable: antisocial (e.g. anti-homophobic) and anti-green behavior

is quietly and efficiently removed through the ubiquitous regulation of fellow

networked citizens, the majority are content that the primary needs of security and

economic provision are satisfied, and society has become more eco-friendly.


Scenario 3: Republic of Google

[Formula: Big business and citizens collude / gov. disempowered]

The 192 companies bought by Google from 2002 to 2011 was only the

beginning. As p2p enterprises began to emerge driving a shift towards sharing and

micro-manufacturing, big conglomerates like Google did not fail to notice.

The dynamics and power struggle for control of these new enterprises

was complex. On the one hand, traditional industries, like taxi companies and

supermarkets considered network sharing and peer-based systems enemy # 1: rideshares

and grow-your-own farm solidarity schemes. They lobbied government to

shut them down, arguing they were unregulated forms of enterprise, dangerous and

were not paying taxes. On the other hand, network conglomerates coveted these

emerging enterprises as a source of network rents. Network conglomerates naturally

sympathized with the p2p enterprises, but wanted in on the action.

A pincer movement emerged by which netarchic capital displaced traditional

industries while enclosing and buying out community-based p2p enterprises.

Netarchical pre-eminence in the early 21st century ensured its influence on

government. A series of netarchic-sponsored laws were enacted which provided

tax loopholes for peer based production, while at the same time requiring costly

regulation, insurance and oversight. This had the effect of simultaneously

legitimizing network based service provision which would displace traditional

industries, while making it hard for small p2p community scale enterprises to run.

Unsurprisingly, as netarchy wins the legal battle, companies like Google buyout

or “out-attention” thousands of small-scale p2p enterprises (under threat of duress)

at fire sale prices, or p2p community leaders are co-opted (“you can work with us

or work with no-one, your choice”). Soon services like “Google Manufacture™”,

“Google Grow™” and “Google Share™” are thriving platforms that allow people

to network and peer produce basics, from transport, to food, to health services, and

just about anything else, but require a new class of digital sharecroppers to offer an

ongoing network rent to participate.

A new dynamic begins to emerge in the political landscape. Governments are

increasingly weakened through round after round of fiscal austerity (especially

with netarchic capital offshored) following major financial crises related to the

economics of debt. Governments print money but are ultimately unable to service

financial commitments, and topple like dominoes, as strong states become weak

states, leaving impoverished pensioners whose paper dollars revert to the value of


Network industries thrive, as the de-territorialized flows of ideas, designs,

services and goods, based on individual talents and productive capabilities,

underpin a dynamic and emerging cosmo-local economy. At first this network

economy faces the challenge of decoupling from state-based currencies which are

volatile and are losing value as states print money with abandon. BitCoin and other

alternative currency enterprises are the first to address the need for this decoupling.

However, with the enclosure of p2p enterprises by netarchical capital, the highvalue

flows in the emerging network economy are captured by platforms developed

by conglomerates. The conglomerates require their own currencies by which they

force users to transact business within the corporate family, that are fully integrated

across the variety of peer-based sharing and micro manufacturing bases. Currencies

are developed by conglomerates, GCoin, FBCoin, based on the BitCoin open-source

protocol, which become credible and tradable on exchanges globally.

The netarchic conglomerates become powerful economic islands that span

across city states and regions. As governments lose their economic capacities, the

big netarchic conglomerate platforms take their place as providers of basic needs

and services. Conglomerate platforms provide the funding for education, driven by

network capabilities and requiring corporate loyalty. Employees can access peerbased

health services, while health service providers are ensconced into rentier


Netarchic conglomerates, which become transnational network entities that also

connect with localized sharing and micro manufacturing, require the development

of new legal codes and frameworks, and thus expand their jurisdictional and

jurisprudential capabilities in the face of weakened states. Contract law between

conglomerates, or between a company and a peer provider become central.

Protection services are connected with those who are closer to the centers of

corporate power. Research is driven by the Corporation for the Corporation, and

large-scale energy provisioning for the corporation becomes a priority, while those

outside of any number of corporate families experience the harsh realities of longterm

post-peak oil energy decline. Ragged feral nomads live beyond the network


As state finances crumble they lose the capacity to surveil the population. On

the other hand, citizens are ubiquitous in the halls of government. The capacity for

citizens to share and peer into the world of government becomes more extensive,

information which is automatically shared with big netarchic conglomerates,

Google, Facebook, and other powerhouses of the network age. Citizens, ensconced

into a system of perpetual ambient data gathering become the instruments by which

government is undermined. Government loses the weapon of secrecy, which is now

reserved for the rentier class of netarchic capitalists.

Citizen attempts to use government to tilt the balance of power are met

with subtle yet effective marginalization. Successful p2p managers and digital

sharecroppers cannot be political. Businesses have become disproportionately

powerful, and, unlike government, are able to control flows of information much

more effectively than government, and can counter citizen attempts to make business


Yet the netarchic conglomerates must remain somewhat accountable. Digital

sharecroppers can jump corporate ship if desperate, people can move physically

and virtually in this globalized world of economic islands and city-states. People’s

‘enfranchisement’ within the Corporation, through stock, reputation systems,

and contracts form the basis for their survival, and is the counterbalance to the

exploitative nature of the rentier systems that privileges the netarchical capitalists.


Scenario 4: Federation of the Commons

[Formula: Citizens divide and subdue market and state]

The 2010s were marked by a pitched struggle between an insurgent citizen

movement and the ruling political and economic elites. Different manifestations

of the movement, in the US, Russia, China, the EU and elsewhere, were correct in

their diagnosis of power, the fundamental challenge to democracy was the influence

of big business on government, and politician’s reliance on corporate monies to

maintain power.

The Occupy movement and Arab spring were only the beginning, as wave

after wave of techno-political activism swept the world. WikiLeaks was the first of

many platforms that began to dismantle the inner workings of government secrecy

(Greenberg, 2012). In response to this, using the pretext of the threat of terrorism,

governments attempted to surveil and detain the most radical agitators. And yet,

the government’s capacity for surveillance increasingly could not be matched by

the sousvalent capacities emerging across civil society. Leaks proving governmentbusiness

collusion continued to hemorrhage out of leaky institutions. Repressive

government tactics, the use of paramilitary force and unlawful detainment, was

quickly made public and condemned. The government-business power complex

began to lose its popular credibility in many countries around the world. Civil

society’s soft power was winning.

This culminated in a globally coordinated campaign to break the power nexus

between many governments and big business. The campaign used general strikes,

protests and sit-ins that aimed at national referendums for constitutional reform. The

reforms would limit the power of corporations to influence government, limit the

power of corporations to produce media to influence the public, and limit the power

of government to use media as a tool for self-promotion and self legitimation.

Throughout this period netarchic capital had been attempting to cash in on the

p2p enterprise and sharing economy. Influencing government to enact laws and

policy that forced sharing and p2p enterprises into costly regulation and insurance,

the network conglomerates attempted to legally lock out public and commons based

enterprises, and offer their own substitutes on their rentier platforms.

Yet throughout this period p2p guilds had become a new economic and political

force. They were able to wage defensive political actions to resist the strategic

enclosure of relationality as orchestrated by netarchic capital interests. The guilds

mobilized the public to choose citizen based platforms.

P2p guilds had expanded into complex trans-local entities that exerted power

locally but coordinated and pooled across national and global scales. They had

become politically fearsome forms that influenced government policy toward

supporting peer production.

When the new constitutional referendums came into play, p2p guilds, no longer

hobbled by the imposition of laws imposing artificial scarcities, restrictions and

monopolies, are able to expand rapidly, replacing, substituting and making obsolete

many of the core functions provided by both netarchic platforms, as well as older

industrial forms that had protected their interests through lobby influence on

government policy.

New sophisticated cosmo-local investment pools drawing from p2p networks

provide the financial mechanism within which long-term investment is funneled

into p2p enterprises. A new financial ecosystem, using new currencies, allow peer

producers to exchange abstract value (currency value) with other peer producers

globally, with greater efficiency and lower cost then with pre-existing currencies.

The result is a new range of circulatory systems across peer producing industries.

Cosmo-localization becomes the new global norm. P2p guilds increasingly

interlock with other peer producing guilds to form complementary ‘social

metabolisms,’ complex organs of peer producers reciprocating dynamic value.

While manufacturing in primary production is localized and customized, through

3D printing and p2p cottage industries, reciprocally, these localized manufacturing

processes draw from an explosion of global commons content in artifice design. The

end of artificial immaterial scarcities, which were maintained through the influence

of incumbent business interests, leads to a productivity boost and a new wave of

wealth creation.

New social formations flourish. Community sourced but globally enriched

education drives transformations in learning. Health becomes multi-spatial across

local barefoot doctors, to national insurance schemes, linking with global commons

oriented expertise. A new commons oriented jurisprudence emerges to articulate new

types of commons based rights and responsibilities. Research and development is

increasingly driven by diverse citizen and stakeholder needs. Micro manufacturing

forms into ‘meta’ manufacturing processes across thousands of producers enabling

large-scale and complex, highly polished products and services. As industry becomes

flexibly scalable, energy production too is decoupled from the grid, developed for

thousands of contextually specific applications, making huge reductions in energy

use. Protection services are citizen directed, peer managed and inclusive.



The four scenarios offer one way to discern power dynamics and strategies in

the evolution of the network era. They can be used to inform how we may begin

strategizing toward our preferred futures. As proposed in the appendix, we may find

that particular nations are in or moving toward one of the four scenarios already. We

may ask, what is the pathway from one scenario position to another?

A more fundamental question, however, is normative: what are our values,

and how does this influence what futures we consider desirable? From the

author’s vantage point, with respect to the value of the fullest expression of human

empowerment, scenario four is clearly the most desirable. In this fourth scenario,

a federation of the commons, citizens and communities are actively engaged in

shaping the fabric of their lives and societies through a process of ‘deep democracy’

(Ramos, 2012). But others may find greater affinity with a different scenario.

Paraphrasing Ashis Nandy (1992), one person’s utopia may be another’s tyranny.

This exercise was merely a starting point. This paper was intended to provoke

conversation, hopefully toward the refinement of our understanding of social forces,

political dynamics and the alternatives we confront. It is neither conclusive nor

all encompassing. There are of course other axes that can be used. There are other

scenario development methods. There are other assumptions that can be employed.

For example, it may be that citizens partner with the state to create new p2p

governance systems, challenging the assumption that one side must win over the

other (Ramos et al, 2011).

The stakes are high, and if we are serious about creating the futures we prefer,

we will need to create high visibility public conversations that catalyze new

intelligent pathways for making our ideals a reality. A central theme and argument of

this paper, following in the footsteps of others (Dator, 2005) is simply that there is

no given future, the future is shaped by our capacity to imagine alternative futures,

visualize and design them, strategize pathways and implement effective actions.

No better example exists than the late Aaron Swartz’s efforts to stop the SOPA

legislation.21 It is true that some people and groups have more power than others,

economically, politically, and culturally – but no person or group has a monopoly on

human aspirations. Visions are by design hard to achieve, but with intelligence and

determination they are realizable.  



Speculative overview of position of eight nations within scenarios




Jose M. Ramos

Smart Services CRC

Queensland University of Technology

28 Fontein St.

West Footscray,

Vic. 3012



1 accessed Jan 2013

2 accessed Jan 2013

3 accessed Jan 2013



6 and accessed Jan 2013


8 From personal communication Oct 2012 documented in: http://theforesightepidemic.


9 Accessed April 2013

10 Noo-politik is a contraction of ‘Noos’ (Greek for ‘mind’), and ‘politik’ (a play on

the political discourse of Realpolitik). It signifies a new political reality in which

culture, mediated through ICT, is the critical space of contestation and the mediator

of political power.

11 The TV show Big Brother can be seen to have had a norming effect toward the

acceptance of surveillance structures by the public, with significant changes post

9/11 patriot act.

12 See:

with-monitoring-technology/7080 accessed April 2013


Accessed Feb 2013


11222011.html Accessed Feb 2013

15 See:

leak accessed Jan 2013



accessed Jan 2013


medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews#.UOpRtYV8MXw accessed Jan 2013

18 accessed Jan 2013

19 accessed Jan 2013

20 accessed Jan 2013


accessed Jan 2013



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What is a Commons-based society?

A commons-based society refers to a shift in values and policies away from the market-based system that dominates modern society, especially over the past 30 years. The foundation of the market is narrowly focused on private wealth, while the commons is built upon what we all share—air, water, public spaces, public health, public services, the Internet, cultural endowments and much more.

One of the most compelling ideas being raised today is the possibility of evolving from a market-based society to a commons-based society. The commons has always been an element of human civilization. But its central role in sustaining all societies has recently been rediscovered, inspiring new lines of thinking in fields ranging from high technology to public health to business.

A commons-based society is one that values and protects commons assets, managing them for the benefit of everyone. Market-based solutions would be valuable tools in a commons-based society, as long as they do not undermine the workings of the commons itself.




SOURCE (retrieved on 17/12/2010)



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