• Towards a Society of the Commons[1]

  • Michel Bauwens , Vasilis Kostakis , Alex Pazaitis | 01 Mar 16 | Posted under: Κοινά
  • The re-emergence of the commons

    For much of the history of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, political conflict has been between state and market, the issue being whether to use state mechanisms for the regulation of the excesses of market players and for redistribution or, conversely, to privatise activities to the benefit of market players. This has been called by some the ‘lib’ (for liberal) versus the ‘lab’ (for labour and its derivative social movements) pendulum. In our current political economy, the latter has been discarded as a historical legacy without future.

    Indeed, the remaining physical commons (e.g. land, water resources, minerals, airwaves, public infrastructures, etc.) throughout the world are under threat of enclosure. The recent situation of heavily indebted southern European states point to this tendency. Unable to access the financial markets using their unreliable bonds, the technically bankrupt states are obliged to cede valuable public assets, either in the form of guarantees or under irreversible privatisation schemes in exchange for financial assistance from the EU and international institutions. These are assets that their people have inherited or collectively created, and, instead of passing them on intact or improved to the next generations, they are called to sell them off under threat of an economic collapse.

    At the same time, the re-emergence of the digital commons of knowledge, software, and design have celebrated human collaboration and recreated commons-oriented modes of production and market activities around it. In these new systems, value is created through contributions and not labour per se, with the output being commons, not commodities. During the last two decades, several commons-oriented projects, such as a myriad of free/open source software projects (FOSS) or the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia, have highlighted the emergence of technological capabilities shaped by human factors, which in turn shape the physical environment in which human beings live and work. They create what Benkler2calls new ‘technological­economic feasibility spaces’ for a new type of social practice. These feasibility spaces include different social and economic arrangements where profit, power, and control seem to decrease in importance and be replaced by a commons-oriented process at the core of value creation, while the market is on the periphery.

    From this new, communicational, and interconnected environment, a new mode of information production, different from the industrial mode, has emerged, spilling off and finding application in material production as well. We are witnessing the emergence of a new proto-mode of production in what has been called commons-based peer production (or just peer production), based on distributed, collaborative forms of organisation. It is developing within capitalism, similarly, as Marx argued,3to the way early forms of merchant and factory capitalism developed within the feudal order. Ultimately, the potential of the new mode is analogous to those of previous proto-modes of production: in this case, to emancipate itself from dependency on the old, decaying mode, so as to become self-sustaining and thus replace the accumulation of capital with the circulation of the commons. In an independent circulation of the commons, the common use value would directly contribute to the further strengthening of the commons and of the commoners’ own sustainability, without dependence on capital. How could this be achieved? In what follows we explore one potential path of such a transition.

    The partner state approach

    In short, in the old vision of value creation in industrial capitalism, value is created by private actors: labour and capital. This value is then captured by enterprises, which redistribute it in the form of wages to the workers; but, since private market players do not take into account the negative social and environmental externalities of their mutual exchange, an institution is needed as an external regulator, that is, the state. Civil society has no clear and recognised role in this relation and is explicitly considered secondary and derivative, as the very terms ‘non-profit’ or ‘non-governmental’ indicate, and mediates few political processes.

    In the new vision, value is created by contributors to the common good, as expressed in the digital commons of knowledge, software, design, and culture. Peer production systems are based on open input, which allows both unpaid and free contributions by those motivated by the primacy of utility motivations and, on the other hand, contributions by paid workers and freelancers. For example, the Linux core has 75% paid workers and 25% unpaid contributors.4Through its contributions, civil society has now become productive in its own right, enabling a leap from contributor communities to a vision of civil society playing a central role in value creation.

    For this vision to be realised on the macro-level, supporting infrastructures are needed which would provide economic sustainability while ensuring alignment with the commons, namely in the form of a non-capitalist marketplace. The latter would integrate externalities and re-introduce reciprocity in the market’s functioning, while co-creating commons and providing livelihoods for the commoners. Of particular interest in this context is the emergence of FOSS foundations at the micro-level of the commons economy, which are organisations that maintain the flow of cooperation through the maintenance of its infrastructures. It can be argued that they point the way to a new state form, which we have called the ‘partner state’.

    A partner state would require policies that represent a clear break with the political economy of capital. However, in conditions of a dominant market state, and given the complexities of the state form and the balance of power within its agencies, it is possible to think in terms of pre-figurative experimentation with a ‘partner state approach’ (PSA) in which the state enables autonomous social production. The PSA could be considered a cluster of policies and ideas whose fundamental mission is to empower direct social value creation and to focus on the protection of the commons sphere as well as on the promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory politics. We see the partner state as the ideal condition for a government to pursue and for the commons movement to fight for.5While people continue to enrich and expand the commons, building an alternative political economy within the capitalist one, the state, by adopting a PSA, would become a player in the meta-governance of the system as a whole, moving away from the binary state-control/privatisation dilemma to the triarchical option of an optimal mix of government regulation, private-market freedom, and autonomous civil society projects. Thus, the role of the state would evolve out of the post-World War II welfare state model, which could arguably be considered a historical compromise between social movements for human emancipation and capitalist interests. The partner state model, in turn, embraces win-win sustainable models for both civil society and certain market-oriented forms that recognise social and environmental externalities and are structurally linked to commons-producing communities.

    It should be emphasised that a PSA would not be opposed to the welfare state model, but rather should absorb and transcend it. A partner state should retain the solidarity functions of the welfare state, but de-bureaucratise the delivery of its services to the citizens. The social logic would move from ownership-centric to citizen-centric. The state should be de-bureaucratised through the ‘commonification’ of public services and public-commons partnerships. The currently favoured state-outsourcing in the form of public-private partnerships not only adds to the cost of public services and creates widespread distrust, along with the need for control to counterbalance the profit interests of the partners; it is also essentially anti-democratic as it does not provide for citizen participation. Public service jobs could be considered a commons, a pooled resource, and participation could be extended to the whole population. Furthermore, representative democracy would be extended through participatory mechanisms (participatory legislation, participatory budgeting, etc.). It would also be extended through online and offline deliberation mechanisms, as well as through liquid voting (real­time democratic consultations and procedures, coupled with proxy voting mechanisms).

    In addition, taxation of productive labour, entrepreneurship, and ethical investing, as well as taxation of the production of social and environmental goods, should be minimised. On the other hand, taxation of speculative unproductive investments, unproductive rental income, and negative social and environmental externalities should be augmented. In these ways, the partner state would sustain civic commons-oriented infrastructures and ethical commons-oriented market players, reforming the traditional corporate sector, in order to minimise social and environmental externalities. Last but not least, of great importance would be the engagement of the partner state in debt-free public monetary creation while supporting a structure of specialised complementary currencies.

    Alongside the partner state, an equally important second component of a social knowledge economy would be that of an ethical market. An ethical market process is one that reaps added value from cooperative creation, creating livelihoods for the commoners in the process and thus rendering peer production autonomous and self-reproducible. The difference with capital market forms, as well as with other solidarity economy forms, is in the logic of the operation, output, and relations, rather than in the market process per se. Ethical market players would coalesce around the commons of productive knowledge, eventually using peer production and commons-oriented licenses to support the social economy sector. They should integrate common good concerns and a broad spectrum of stakeholders in their governance models. Ethical market players would move from extractive to generative forms of ownership, while commons-oriented ethical company forms would be privileged. They should create a territorial and sectoral network of ‘chamber of commons’ associations to define their common needs and goals and interface with civil society, commoners, and the partner state. With the help of the partner state, ethical market players would create support structures for open commercialisation, which would maintain and sustain the commons. Ethical market players should interconnect with global productive commons communities (that is, open design communities) and global productive associations that project ethical market power on a global scale.

    The mainstream commercial sector should be reformed to minimise negative social and environmental externalities, while incentives that aim at a convergence between the corporate and the solidarity economy should be created. Hybrid economic forms, like Fair Trade and social entrepreneurship, could be encouraged to achieve this kind of convergence. We have elsewhere outlined the substantial sustainability effects of distributed production, following the logic that what is light (that is, knowledge) is global and what is heavy (material production) is local, that is, an open source circular economy that is designed for use and produces on the basis of need. To this end, distributed makerspaces for (g)localised manufacturing on demand should be created and supported, in order to satisfy local needs for basic goods and machinery. Such spaces can either be hackerspaces, fablabs, micro-factories, media labs, or other co-working spaces equipped with desktop manufacturing technologies and offering collaborative environments where people can meet, socialise, and co-create. Moreover, institutions for the support of productive knowledge should also be created on a territorial and sectoral basis. Education should be aligned with the co­creation of productive knowledge in support of the social economy and the open commons of productive knowledge. All publicly funded research and innovation should therefore be released under a commons-based license.6

    Additionally, commons infrastructures for both non-material and material goods have to be created. In such a political economy, society is seen as a series of interlocking commons, supported by an ethical market economy and a partner state that protects the common good and creates supportive civic infrastructures. Local and sectoral commons would create civil alliances of the commons to interface with the chambers of commons and the partner state. Interlocking for-benefit associations (knowledge commons foundations) would enable and protect the various commons. In addition, solidarity cooperatives should form public-commons partnerships in alliance with the partner state, while the ethical market sector could be represented by the chambers of commons. Also, the natural commons should be managed by a public-commons partnership based on civic membership in commons trusts.

    In a nutshell, the ethical economy would realise the value that is created by the commoners in the common pools, by creating added value for the ethical market sector. The realised surplus would go directly to the workers, who are also the contributors to the commons, thereby realising their self-reproduction independently of the classic capital accumulation economy. In Arvidsson and Peitersen’s sense,7ethical companies could take very different forms with their common goal being to contribute to the common good in general and to the commons specifically. They may be allied as entrepreneurial coalitions around certain specific common pools (but will likely use more than one commons). The different legal regimes may be for-benefit corporations, Fair Trade companies, social businesses, and workers’ or other forms of cooperatives such as solidarity cooperatives,8and integrate the common good into their statutes while being multi-stakeholder governed.9

    To recapitulate, it can be argued that the commons not only introduce a third term beside the state and the market, that is, the productive commons-producing civil society, but also a new market and a new state. These changes should take place concurrently in all three aspects of our social and economic life. On the basis of these generic micro-economic experiences in the field of commons-based peer production, it is possible to derive adapted macro-economic structures as well. This would be a civil society that consists mainly of communities of contributors creating shareable commons; of a new state form, which would enable and empower social production generally and create and protect the necessary civic infrastructures; and of an entrepreneurial coalition that would conduct commerce and create livelihoods (see figure).

    Figure 1: The commons-oriented economic model


    A concrete and modest proposal for a commons-oriented European productive model

    We argue that the commons can pull Europe back from the brink. After long-standing efforts at adjustment and convergence, the creation of new economic options in the areas worst hit by the crisis is evidently a matter of existence and sovereignty for those areas, and one of paramount importance for Europe’s social cohesion. The diffusion of technology has provided the ground for sustainable alternatives, harnessing and empowering the dynamics of distributed productive processes and relations that give prominence to future scenarios for a collaborative economy.

    Our rough proposal for a commons-oriented European productive model is an attempt to indicate the first step, with the development of the necessary participatory techno-economic blueprints for sustainability. The main idea is based on a possible conjunction of commons-based peer production processes and artefacts with the emerging capabilities of desktop manufacturing technologies, such as three dimensional printing and computerised numerical control machines. Of central importance is the role of the local contributors who create value in the circulation of the commons, focusing on their relation to the means of production. With desktop manufacturing technologies and more widely distributed access to the means of manufacturing, even more aggregations of creative communities and individuals can occur. Contrary to the conventional industrial paradigm and its economies of scale, peer production and distributed machinery could develop commons-based economies of scope. The advantages of scale rest on high-capital entry and cheap global transportation. Instead, the commons-based economies of scope share infrastructure costs in terms of intangible and tangible productive resources, utilising the capabilities of the new manufacturing tools, which, to a certain extent, are computerising the manufacturing industry.

    The necessary interventions for this model to function are focused on three levels: (a) a virtual space of the global knowledge commons, (b) a global network of local makerspaces, and (c) local societies. One of the main tasks is to start building the appropriate infrastructures that would connect the commons-oriented communities and the existing makerspaces with society at the local levels, which are largely unaware of the digital commons. The aim for societies at the local level is to exploit global knowledge in order to develop tailor-made, innovative solutions to address local challenges. These solutions will be materialised in a cost-effective and sustainable manner through the local makerspaces, utilising open source software and hardware technologies within a physical and digital collaborative network environment, thus further contributing to the global commons. The resulting collective intelligence will empower people through participation and interaction to adopt more sustainable productive patterns as well as collaboratively develop innovative solutions to local societal challenges.

    We envision a bottom-up participatory paradigm, which would include new, decentralised, and distributed systems of production and provisioning, inclusive governance, and commons-based value and innovation. Some of the least developed parts of the world need some of the most advanced technologies, and ICT and desktop manufacturing are the globally imagined tools that act locally in response to certain problems and needs. A diverse set of stakeholders, from small-scale producers, commons-oriented grassroots communities and individuals, to micro-enterprises, as well as public institutions, benefit from this (g)local process. An emerging production model occurs, whose slogan would be ‘design global – manufacture local’, which is small-scale production, on-demand, decentralised, resilient, and locally controlled but simultaneously developed on a global basis. The on-site local contributors are brought together in networked environments and benefit from the socially produced use value, while enriching and expanding the commons sphere.

    In short, the central context of this proposal is to broadly showcase the potential of commons-oriented productive and organisational models. Seeds of this model are observed in several commons-oriented projects, such as Open Source Beehives, Public Lab, RepRap project, Open Source Ecology, the Wikispeed car, the open enterprise Sensorica, or Wikihouse. These cases demonstrate how a technology project can leverage the knowledge commons to globally engage the community in its development.10They furnish concrete examples of how commons-based technologies and practices, along with desktop manufacturing, can enhance the autonomy of people and transform all sectors of production in the direction of economic and environmental sustainability. Just as networked computers democratised the means of production of information and communication, the emergence of networked makerspaces are democratising the means of making.

    The ‘design global – manufacture local’ approach is arguably a proposal that is concrete in terms of being based on solid, successful experience, and ambitious in envisioning a ground-breaking socio-economic paradigm, though modest in its objective of taking the initial steps towards mature peer production. Such a functional commons-oriented ecosystem would at least demonstrate the social productive dynamics that could revolutionise the global political economy. It is certainly to be expected that, in the course of a socio-economic reformation process, several powerful vested interests will attempt to interfere by creating barriers and restrictions or even by trying to exploit the new productive dynamics through rent-seeking and unproductive ventures. However, a successful demonstration of this model could arguably prove to be of crucial importance for the global class constituted by its contributors. They, in turn, would coalesce around a concrete and feasible alternative, conferring legitimacy on the political forces willing to proceed to a commons-oriented transition.



    APC magazine <http://apcmag.com/linux-now-75-corporate.htm/> (accessed: 12 August 2015)

    Arvidsson, Adam and Nicholai Pietersen, The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

    Xabier E. Barandiaran and David Vila-Viñas, ‘The FLOK doctrine’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-7-policies-for-the-commons/the-flok­doctrine/> (accessed: July 2015).

    Bauwens, Michel and Vasilis Kostakis, ‘Towards a New Reconfiguration Among the State, Civil Society and the Market’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http://peerproduction. net/issues/issue-7-policies-for-the-commons/peer-reviewed-papers/towards-a-new­reconfiguration-among-the-state-civil-society-and-the-market/> (accessed: July 2015).

    Benkler, Yochai, The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Boldrin, Michel and David K. Levine, ‘The case against patents’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27 (2013), pp 3-22.

    Dafermos, George, ‘Transforming the productive base of the economy through the open design commons and distributed manufacturing image’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-7-policies-for-the-commons/peer-reviewed­papers/distributed-manufacturing/> (accessed: July 2015).

    Kostakis, Vasilis and Michel Bauwens, Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    Marx, Karl, A contribution to the critique of political economy, New York: International Publishers, 1979.

    Pearce, Joshua M., ‘Physics: Make Nanotechnology Research Open-Source’, Nature, 491 (2012), pp. 519-521.

    Restakis, John, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, Gabriola Islands, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010.



    1. Sections of this essay are based on Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis, ‘Towards a New Reconfiguration Among the State, Civil Society and the Market’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), and Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens, Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy, London, 2014.
    2. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 31.
    3. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, New York: International Publishers, 1979.
    4. APC, 2010, <http://apcmag.com/linux-now-75-corporate.htm/> (accessed: 12 August 2015).
    5. As in the case of the FLOK Society project in Ecuador. See Xavier E. Barandiaran and David Vila-Viñas, ‘The FLOK doctrine’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http:// peerproduction.net/issues/issue-7-policies-for-the-commons/the-flok-doctrine/> (accessed: July 2015).
    6. For an extensive discussion of this proposal, see Michel Boldrin and David K. Levine, ‘The case against patents’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27 (2013), pp 3-22, and Joshua M. Pearce, ‘Physics: Make Nanotechnology Research Open-Source’, Nature, 491 (2012), pp. 519-521.
    7. Adam Arvidsson and Nicholai Pietersen, The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
    8. Their emergence has been described by John Restakis. See John Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, Gabriola Islands, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010.
    9. For example see the proposal for open cooperatives in Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis, ‘Towards a New Reconfiguration Among the State, Civil Society and the Market’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue­7-policies-for-the-commons/peer-reviewed-papers/towards-a-new-reconfiguration­among-the-state-civil-society-and-the-market/> (accessed: July 2015).
    10. George Dafermos, ‘Transforming the productive base of the economy through the open design commons and distributed manufacturing image’, Journal of Peer Production, 7 (2015), <http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-7-policies-for-the-commons/peer­reviewed-papers/distributed-manufacturing/> (accessed: July 2015). 

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