The Commons

The past decades have seen an increasing emphasis on ‘economic thinking’ in the policy arena. Despite crises hitting society one after another, the portfolio of economic trickery used to address societal problems has become bigger and bigger. This neoliberal approach has failed in many respects, and came to the detriment of a different set of solutions — solutions that are based on the philosophy of care, or rather, of the commons. We urgently need to redevelop that philosophy if we are to prevent a new round of crises of capital, society and ecology. 

The commons is the realm in which communities build shared knowledge, tools and services. Traditionally, a ‘common’ was a field where cattle grazed or crops were grown by members of a certain community. The use of the common was strongly moderated by rule and tradition. Many examples of historical commons are well studied and show high levels of institutional sophistication (see, for example, the extensive work of Elinor Ostrom, and this website).

Today, the idea of the commons is expanding to include a wider range of shared resources and sharing activities. It is not the same als the ‘sharing economy’, however. The sharing economy refers to systems of sharing goods and services that are ready to be consumed or used as factor of production, whereas commons are shared sites of production and upkeep. Sharing economy tools and resources are often also of commercial nature, while the commons are, by definition, not.

The definition of ‘commons’ of Wikipedia — a wonderful example of a global commons, by the way — is as follows: “The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.” As much as I like this definition, I think ‘commons’ can also refer to resources that are ridded of their actual state as a commons — because they are enclosed, for example — but will never lose their commons nature. Are not all cultural and natural resources, once developed, product of the community by default? Private or public ownership are superimposed states, which might improve development of and access to a resource, but might as much impair them. The current attitude, in which developed resources are seen as ‘capital’ rather than as commons, induces a strong bias towards market and capitalist solutions that often do more harm than good.

Typically, commons advocates emphasise that true commons are built up of three layers: a resource, a community, and institutions. A grazing meadow or a collaborative web encyclopedia is a common when it’s not just the resource, or just a resource used by a community. Only when a set of rules applies that prevents asymmetries of access and cost-benefit ratios among users, it fulfils the criteria. True as that may be, in keeping with the previous paragraph I say that the word ‘commons’ may be used when the criteria are fulfilled latently. In the same way as much stuff is now rather speculatively called ‘capital’, other stuff (or indeed, the very same stuff) may be referred to as ‘commons’ before they are truly so.

A fourth, subjective, layer might actually be the most important of all. It’s the commons attitude, or commons nature. Both cultural and natural agents are generative by default, contributing to life, exchanging gifts and maintaining heritage continuously. Only when a superimposed system (such as our current political-economic system) promotes egoistic incentives, this conduct is inhibited. This has went on so far, that we even have started to believe man* is an egoist species, and that commons are little more than tragic.

A commons vocabulary will help us reimagine an economy and society that are organized horizontally and fuelled by voluntary contributions (see also the ‘peer-to-peer’ model). The word itself, like many other words, has evolved over time and readjusts once more today. Presently it adjusts to the context of the twenty-first century. In this century, man* has evidently lost its innocence in planetary terms; but on the other hand, online networks provide new opportunities for community and reciprocity — at least, as long as the web does not get capitalised and enclosed, too.

* In case one condemns the word ‘man’ for being gender biased: please take note of the particular context.

See also: Patterns of Commoning

Last updated: September 7, 2016 at 13:37 pm