The Commons, as an idea and practice, has emerged as a new social, political and economic dynamic. Along with the market and the state, the Commons is a mode of societal organization.
Commons are a shared resource which is co-governed by its user community, according to the rules and norms of that community. Commons include not only the gifts of nature, such as water and land, but also shared assets or creative work, such as cultural and knowledge artefacts. The Commons is a concept and practice that has been steadily gathering increased attention. Deeply rooted in human history, it’s difficult to settle on a single definition that covers its broad potential for social, economic, cultural and political change.
The Commons is neither the resource, the community that gathers around it, nor the protocols for its stewardship, but the dynamic interaction between all these elements. An example is Wikipedia: there is a resource (universal knowledge), a community (the authors and editors) and a set of community-harvested rules and protocols (Wikipedia’s content and editing guidelines).
So how do we bring about a Commons transition?
1. Pool resources wherever possible
Commons-based peer production communities and their contribution-based technical systems of production can be characterized as open contributory systems, mediated through a number of filters to ensure high quality contributions. This allows commoners to freely contribute to one or more commons of their choice.
Pooling both immaterial and material resources is a priority. This capacity to pool productive knowledge is a key characteristic to obtain both “competitive” and “cooperative” advantage. Pooling — or in other words “the commons” — should be at the heart of the productive and societal system.
2. Introduce reciprocity
The mutual coordination characteristics of commons-based peer production have proven quite successful in the production of digital commons, but their inherent non-rival status (i.e. non- depletable, easy to reproduce and distribute) does not carry over to physical production, which is characterized by depletable assets, including human labor. To ensure the wellbeing and continuation of these assets, material production demands the principle of reciprocity, and the way to ensure it is by advocating for Open Cooperativism. Like an ecosystem, an economy does not work in isolation. Open Cooperativism seeks to enfranchise all participants in the economic value chain, not just those within the cooperative’s membership. This includes affective and reproductive labor, the creation of commons, and other forms of currently “invisibilized” work. This can be achieved through open contributory accounting systems, open supply chains and collaborative planning, as well as through the pooling of physical resources, mediated through special property regimens (where all contributors are participants in, and owners of).
3. Shift from redistribution to pre-distribution and empowerment
We need something beyond the welfare state’s logic of redistribution; we need a state that would create the conditions for the creative autonomy of its contributing citizens. This would require pre- distribution of resources rather than redistribution after the fact. The commons-based peer production ecosystem, as described above, comprises productive communities, coalitions of entrepreneurs, and for-benefit associations as the “management” or “governance” institutions. Broadened to the wider society, this structure gives a vision of a productive civil society which contributes to the commons. This would be supported by a predominantly generative market creating added value around the commons and protected by a partner state, where public authorities play a sustaining role in the direct creation of civil value.
The partner state, as well as being the guarantor of civic rights, would also facilitate the contributory capacities of all citizens. It would empower and enable the direct creation of value by civil society through creating and sustaining infrastructures for commons-based peer production ecosystems. Such a state form should be one that would gradually lose its separateness from civil society, by implementing radical democratic and even rotational procedures and practices.
While capitalism takes inequality as the cost of doing business and leaves its mitigation to an inefficient state, a commons approach builds in fairness from the start. The aim is to incorporate distributive actions in the generative enterprises and through their direct relation to the commons.
A partner state approach would transcend and include, not oppose, the welfare state model. It would retain the solidarity functions of the welfare state, but eliminate bureaucracy in the delivery of its services to citizens. The social logic would move from ownership-centric to citizen-centric, and the state should de-bureaucratize through the commonification of public services and public-commons partnerships.
4. Subordinate capitalism
Under capitalism, the markets are dominant and everything tends to be commodified. Capitalism is an extractive, profit-maximizing relationship. It exploits workers and gorges on the free labor of free and open-source software and open design workers, while cannibalizing the gifts of nature. But is the intention to get rid of markets altogether? Markets would continue to exist in a commons-oriented society, but they would be predominantly generative as opposed to extractive. By this we mean that markets would serve the commoners. Commons-based peer production participants today struggle to create livelihoods as they produce commons. While they could be supported by a partner state through basic income and subsidies, commoners can also create new market entities to facilitate the sustainability of their contributions and allow them to keep contributing to the commons.
One way to achieve this is through the use of CopyFair Licenses. In this approach, the free sharing of knowledge — the universal availability of immaterial commons — is preserved, but commercialization is made conditional on reciprocity between the sphere of the capitalist market and the sphere of the commons. This approach would enable the ecosystems of commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalitions to pool immaterial (and ultimately even material) resources to benefit all participants.
Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (or “CopyFair” licenses) provide for the free use and unimpeded commercialization of licensed material within the Commons while resisting its non-reciprocal appropriation by for-profit driven entities, unless those entities contribute to the Commons by way of licensing fees or other means. A first working example of a CopyFair license is the Peer Production License, in effect a fork of a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License which permits worker-owned cooperatives and other non-exploitative organizations to capitalise the licensed content, while denying this possibility to extractive corporations.
5. Organize at the local and global levels
Progressive coalitions at the urban, regional and nation-state levels should develop policies and laws that increase the capacity for the autonomy of citizens and the new economic forces aligned around the commons. These pro-commons policies should be focused not just on local autonomy, but also on the creation of transnational and translocal capacities, interlinking the efforts of their citizens to the global commons-oriented entrepreneurial networks currently in development.
Historically, commons have had a problematic relationship with conventional law, which generally reflects the mindset and priorities of the sovereign (monarch, nation-state, corporation) and not the lived experiences and practices of commoners. Still, in grappling with political, economic and legal realities, commoners often find ways to secure control over their common wealth, livelihoods and modes of commoning. It is also what is spurring many commoners today to invent creative new types of policy and law — formal, social, technological — to protect their shared interests, assets and social relationships.
The number of civic and cooperative initiatives outside the state and corporate world is rapidly increasing. Most of these are locally oriented, and that is absolutely necessary.
Today, there are movements operating beyond the local, using global networks to organize themselves. A good example is the Transition Town movement, and its use of networks to empower local groups. But this is not enough. A further suggestion is the creation of translocal and transnational structures that would aim to have global effects and change the power balance on the planet. The only way to achieve systemic change at the planetary level is to build counter-power, i.e. alternative global governance. The transnational capitalist class must feel that its power is curtailed, not just by nation-states that organize themselves internationally, but by transnational forces representing the global commoners and their livelihood organizations.
The Commons is now demonstrating its power as a “key ingredient” for change in diverse locations and contexts around the world.
This article is based on A Commons Transition and P2P Primer, a short publication from the P2P Foundation and the Transnational Institute examining the potential of commons-based peer production to radically re-imagine our economies, politics and relationship with nature.