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Some Thoughts on the Commons

on Sun, 12/19/2010 - 16:27

Document: Some Thoughts on the Commons.
Prepared by the Steering Committee, International Commons Conference, to stimulate discussion and reflection.
(Michel Bauwens, David Bollier, Beatriz Busaniche, Silke Helfrich, Julio Lambing, Heike Löschmann) October 31, 2010

Key Thesis: Commons are the enabler for all other social goals, including environmental ones, which in essence are social.


1 Text

2 Discussion

3 More Information


STREAM I: The Commons as a Challenge for Classical Economics

A. The commons will not succeed in challenging contemporary economics and conventional institutional design unless it:

  • challenges the core beliefs of underlying conventional economics and the behavioral correlations induced by prevailing institutional designs;
  • reinterprets the meaning of property from private ownership to collective stewardship; and
  • develops coherent concepts that are also empirically provable and convincing alternatives to the conventional numerical "bottom lines".

B. The inherent features of the commons are abundance and diversity.

  • If we respect diversity and engineer for abundance, the commons continuously (re)-produce enough for all.
  • Wherever we can - in case of nonrival resources and generosity – the product of the commons should be universally available; where we cannot - in case of rival resources - the product of the commons should be equitably distributed.

C. A viable society is based on cooperation and co-production rather than the classical division of labor that separates resource producers and providers from resource users, which treats nature, community and culture as exploitable externalities.

D. Markets are not the only source of wealth creation. The commons, which are responsive to popular, democratic voices and to the pressure on our biotic resources, can function as parallel economies to the cash economy, including subsistence and gift economies. Another promising way to do this is by developing community-based software platforms. Over time, such communication platforms can extend to new types of social exchange, for instance digital currencies, outside of national currencies and conventional markets. Such processes would strengthen resilient rural and urban communities and enable them to take the reproduction of their livelihoods into their own hands.

E. The whole economic system in modern societies deeply depends on the state, which creates entire industries and provides regulative structures. The demand for goods and services by the state is another example. In fact, public procurement and infrastructure development constitute the lion's share of our economies. Therefore a shift towards commons-based public procurement is urgently needed. That includes, e.g., tax privileges for freely generated knowledge, information and infrastructures or bidding processes based on stipulated criteria that strengthen the participation of affected communities.

F. There is a need to clearly identify and communicate the "success criteria†of the commons and/or a loose taxonomy of successful commons. But developing indicators for creative and productive commoning is notoriously difficult. It is therefore essential to contribute to the development of inclusive metrics that recognize key criteria for broader wealth creation.

STREAM II: The Commons Challenges the Market/State Duopoly

A. The commons is the third element, beyond market and state, which needs structural and intellectual support.

B. The commons offers a rich set of governance models, and its constituting nature strives for a new style of social appropriation and participation. Despite its diversity and its dependency on certain laws or state support, the commons tend to be stable and to facilitate social autonomy and effective resource management. Nontheless, a successful commons is always the product of a continuous effort and struggle.

C. "The commons beyond market and state" does not necessarily mean without market and state, if we consider their rich history, enormous diversity and geographic dispersion. But it necessarily means that the people and their commons, supported by a partner state, become the core of wealth creation. It aims to create a vibrant ethical economy of new market forms that do not ignore natural and social externalities, but include them in their functioning logic.

D. Commoners transcend nation-state based citizenship and national civil societies. And their identity goes beyond that of passive consumer to responsible co-producer. Commoners are rooted in an enormous variety of mutually dependent communities. One of the core beliefs of the commons is the idea that the protection and creation of common wealth are not just beneficial to the commoners themselves, but to the local and global societies to which they also belong. A core belief in the commons is: I need others and others need me.

E: What we need is not just regulation by the state but greater responsibility of and accountability to affected communities regarding the criteria of human well-being. This is key. Instead of downsizing the state by strengthening the logic of the market, a commons-based policy campaigns for downsizing the scale and scope of the market by strengthening 'commons institutions'. That means establishing institutions designed for acting as trustees for the commons and enablers of the commons. New social technologies and distributed networks - which must be based on sustainable energy use- can spur this process.

F. Global commons entail a new kind of multilateralism which empowers local people as global citizens and enables nation-states to collaborate more effectively to overcome global collective-action problems.

STREAM III: The Generative Logic of the Commons

A. For building commons we have to build resilient communities, which in turn need cooperative and deliberative forms of communication and decision making. The communities also serve as learning arenas for the unfolding of skills and the underlying attitudes and mindsets for commoning.

B. The commons as a self-organized form of peer-to-peer production follows its own logic. Peer-to-peer production assumes equipotency of its participants, is based on free cooperation, aims to the creation of common goods and seeks to serve the greatest good for everyone. We believe this mode of production can be at least as productive as models that ignore the commons. And in terms of addressing social wealth and the reproduction of diversity, commons-based production models can even be more successful than those based on command, control and/or selling.

C. Productivity cannot be simply an artificial measure of an enterprise's performance; it must take into account all costs, including hidden subsidies, damages to the environment and other sorts of non quantifiable, non-market value that the commons routinely provides.

D. The commons is about taking one's life into one's own hands. Knowledge is key to do so, but knowledge is more than access to knowledge; and access to knowledge is something more than building technical infrastructure. Rapid diffusion of knowledge and innovation to all who need it requires:

  • the sharing of information, code, skills and design through universally accessible or community based platforms
  • the skills for understanding and reflection and
  • their appropriation for shaping our social habitats.

Conceiving knowledge as a commons guarantees a fair share of innovation, without the friction and suppression of sharing caused through excessive intellectual property regulations.

E. Institutional structures can articulate and make possible new commons, but they can also undermine the social connections and ethics that are indispensable to the commons. Therefore, a key challenge in devising effective commons-based policies is to balance these two concerns properly. The bureaucratization of the commons is not a commons, but a paradox to which we must be attentive.

For the success of a commons oriented politics, an alliance and an earnest exchange of experiences and know how between all those who work on the social, ecological, cultural and digital commons, is imperative.


J. Martin Pedersen: Some thoughts on language use in "Some Thought on the Commons"

A definite article vs. a plurality of ideas:

J. Martin Pedersen:

"For the purposes of developing the concept of commons as a policy platform - and keeping in mind the notions expressed in internal, post-conference discussion via email about "being wary of fundamentalist common-ism" (which is a "hypothetical" reference to the potentiality of "totalitarian tendencies ... inherent in all of us, once we start to think that our solution is the only good one, and needs to be imposed ..") - and with respect to the phrasing of these "Thoughts on the Commons" - I want to suggest that language is a form of magic that conjures up ideas in ways where even the smallest of differences can result in the sending of very different signals.

In this case - of this document - I do not think that the use of a definite article, such as in "...the commons...", is the best way forward, since a potential totalitarian seed can already be found in the use of a definite article. Compare: "thoughts on the idea" with "thoughts on ideas". (Some of the last surviving anarchists of the Spanish Revolution used to refer to "anarchism" --which they experienced as a viable form of social organisation throughout large parts of Spanish society when workers took control of the economy in the greatest commoning project of all times--, as "the idea" - that signals that their long struggle, successfull at first, and then defeated by the combined forces of Soviet state-capitalists and facists/nazis left them with "nothing" but the memories of "the idea"). Let us not start there! Let us prefigure a different trajectory for the concept of commons.

Instead I would suggest to call this document "Some Thoughts on Commons", because there are so many different kinds of commons. There is no "the commons". There is "the concept of commons" for what concerns policy making purposes, but it refers to a wide set of practical ideas and approaches to collective management and ownership of resources etc. You can find a commons that is thoroughly hierarchical and partriarchal and you can find other commons that are egalitarian - and everything in between.

For example where it reads: "The commons offers a rich set of governance models..."

I would suggest: "Commons offer a rich set of governance models"

That means that the key thesis would read like this instead (with additional cosmetic/flow oriented edits and a socially grounded conception of "environment"):

"Commons enable many social goals and goods, including environmental justice and food sovereignty".

In this way, by leaving out the definite article and pluralising commons (by leaving out the third person, singular "s" in "offers"), the text signals to the reader that the concept of commons is not a singular idea, but that the term "commons" refer to a plurality of options. Of course sometimes one wants to refer to a specific/particular commons, but there is no (grammatical) problem in using commons sometimes as plural, sometimes as singular - what is important is the way in which these choices send certain signals to the imagination of the reader, which in turn have philosophical and political implications.

Some might think that this is pedantic and hair-splitting nonsense, but keep in mind that a system of thought is likely to have sensitive dependence on initial conditions, so let us not start where the anarchist commoners ended upon subjection to the full force of opposition to freedom and self-determination, but pick up where they began and where they peaked, namely by creating diverse and federated commons where workers and local communities seize control of resources, infrastructure and the economy as such, and let us address these phenomena in the plurality that they deserve, and at the same avoiding any totalitarian tendencies, even if they are only potential and seem far fetched at this stage. After all, life is what we make it and the future is now."

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