In what follows two principal arguments will be developed. Even though the discussion of the commons has become increasingly dynamic, reaching ever wider audiences, the applied commons policies remain fragmented and operate almost exclusively on a small scale. In order to expand its scale, the appropriate institutional and legal framework must be determined, and this cannot be addressed without taking seriously the role of the state as regulator. The left is the crucial political actor in this effort, but its discourse about the commons has mainly been a defensive one, for example the defence of public services and of the right to land or water. It is time to enrich this discourse by the understanding that commons analysis truly ‘goes with the flow’ since it takes seriously the change of the production model in the framework of the knowledge-intensive economy and digitalisation.
As a result of structural changes, one way of producing economic value today is through immaterial goods such as research, knowledge, information, etc. It is an evolution with serious implications for capitalism. Commons theory claims that for these types of goods to flourish, features such as openness, networks, and P2P (peer-to-peer) modes of production are essential. That is the parameter which makes it possible for commons analysis to contribute to answers – from a social emancipation perspective – that deal with technology, artificial intelligence, big data, biotechnology, etc. These are central issues of our time, and we need to admit that the left is rather confused about them.
Some definitions are necessary since people often define the commons by whatever they consider to be a ‘good thing or idea’ from their personal perspective. Misunderstandings also often arise concerning the operational tools of the commons economy, such as the social economy or P2P modes of production, with the assumption that they are identical. The left frequently has hazy notions of the distinction between the commons and the public.
Commons are a shared resource which is co-governed by its user community, according to the rules and norms of that community (the protocol of resource stewardship). The category includes gifts of nature (water, land, etc.) but also shared assets or creative work (language, information, culture artifacts, etc.). P2P – peer to peer, people to people, person to person – a relational dynamic through which peers freely collaborate to create value in the form of shared resources, circulated in the form of commons. P2P expresses an observable pattern of relations between humans.
Inclusive by nature, commons as applied policies can enable grass- roots political participation and contribute to social empowerment and emancipation, which is the most important political deliverable in the process of commons transition.
Commons transition is not a promised paradise. It is a process based on certain values that under the given situation and balance of power makes it possible to deliver emancipatory results while societies transition towards the commons. It also makes it possible for the left to accomplish a necessary renewal of its narrative. At present in the western world the main examples of this process are found at the municipal level. Cities and peripheries like Ghent, Bologna, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Naples, Montreal, Lille, Madrid, and Bristol, along with several others, are creating spaces, institutions, and structures for citizens to manage affairs that most directly concern them. They are increasing transparency, enabling participatory budgeting, facilitating the creation of social care co-ops, turning empty lots into community gardens, co-creating skill- and tool-sharing programmes, and more. All of this has been known for some time now as the ‘New Municipalism’, a movement of citizen-led municipal coalitions that has achieved excellent results in electoral and political terms.
Commons operate more comfortably at a small scale, and consequently we can easily find examples at the local level. But when shifting to the national level, things become harder. Greece provides an interesting example involving applied commons policies at the national governmental level. In 2015, a board was created at the General Secretariat of Coordination with the task of researching, defining, and enforcing the most appropriate applied commons policies in different sectors. However, it soon became evident that there were cases in which, even if all the administrative obstacles were overcome and the political will existed to enforce such a policy, the institutional framework was unable to adjust. For example, there were cases in which a free license for hardware was needed, and even though GPL (General Public License) covered the software, for hardware there was no equivalent. In looking for the appropriate lawyers to work on the issue a second fundamental problem came to light: Lawyers are educated in preserving and creating new enclosures, not in protecting commons. They are educated to ‘enclose’ for the interest of private profit, not to ‘open’ for the benefit of society.
The importance of the state as a regulator in productive transformation towards commons is at the core of the whole process. The commons transition plan mainly relates to the partner state model and the construction of the respective legal and institutional framework, an issue to which we will return below, after an analysis of the particularities of the current production model.
It is important to bear in mind that there are two kind of commons: material, such as land and water, and immaterial, such as knowledge or digital common goods. Analytically, they need to be approached with different tools. There are fundamental differences having to do with their essential nature. With material common goods it is clear that when one person uses them another cannot. If I drink one glass of water its use is exclusive and another person cannot drink it. The process is inverted for immaterial commons: The greater the number of people that use a language, the richer and more important it becomes. Use by one person does not exclude use by another; rather, use by another is presupposed. The more people use digital commons like Wikipedia or Linux, the more important they become. And the value they produce corresponds to the number of people that use them at the same time.
This difference is very important, not only in defining a convincing strategy for promoting commons transition but also in order to understand the changes that are occurring in the production model and consequently in the value production process. In commons theory these changes are referred to by the term ‘value shift’. There appears to be a growing consensus among those dealing with the theory of the commons that a new value regime must be invented. This shift is characterised by an increased capacity to create common value through commons-based peer production and other practices of the collaborative economy. The key to the process is a shift away from extractive models and practices, which enrich some at the expense of the others, to generative value models and practices, which enrich the communities and resources to which they are applied.
There are two ways, two different strategies, to construct a commons narrative, bothofwhicharenecessaryforcommunicatingcommonsarguments not only to the public in general but also to opinion leaders, policy makers, politicians, bureaucrats, regulators, etc. Networking is presupposed in order to be able to have applied policies as well as an institutional framework that will enable commons economy. One line of thought in commons literature emphasises that humanity had been practicing commoning since its birth. In fact, its very existence has to do with the managing of resources as a common good. Fisheries, water, forests, and land were managed for ages by rules that took into consideration environmental protection and preservation for future generations. Those rules were inseparable from the traditions, myths, and culture of each community. Protection of the welfare state, the managing of taxation for the public interest and not for the multinationals’ profit, public services and resources managed as a common good – all of this is a crucial part of the discussion of commons theory.
However, my argument is that this aspect of the discussion – whose fundamental importance I take for granted – has mainly a defensive character that can be crucially enriched if we add or stress (depending on what our goal is in each instance) a more dynamic parameter, one that shows that it is commons analysis that ‘goes with the flow’. Capitalism was born into feudalism. It was a long-term process of a change of production model that took several hundred years. Technological and social evolution also changed the process of value accumulation. The commons narrative today stresses that something analogous is happening in recent decades to the framework of the capitalist economy. Technological and economic evolution is occurring, resulting in a new system of value production mainly related to knowledge and information. In recent years we have arrived for first time in human history at the point at which sectors of the economy that involve immaterial goods – mainly technology, big data, information, science, culture, and even emotions – have become more productive for the economy than sectors involving material goods. The biggest five companies up to the mid-2000s were in the oil, pharmaceutical, and bank sectors, which was in the tradition of classical capitalism. Today the five biggest companies are Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook. Apple has reached a financial value of a thousand billion dollars. This is epoch-making and gives an idea of the extent of the shift that has occurred.
This new system under construction can acquire one of two different forms: that of cognitive capitalism, which will renew itself on the basis of new enclosures and extractivism, generating profits from collective intelligence and giving nothing back to society – or it can take the form of an intensive knowledge economy, which, with the appropriate institutional arrangements, will contribute to a process of social emancipation.
An important advantage of the argument based on the change of production model is that while commons transition ‘goes with the flow, capitalism is restricted by its structural contradictions. The point is that in order for knowledge and information, as immaterial goods, to maximise value production there are some important presuppositions. Knowledge and information needs to be open and to circulate freely in order to produce maximum results, having the most brains possible involved. By contrast, capitalism by its nature constantly requires new enclosures in order to maintain itself. Knowledge and information enclosures reduce the amount of value that can be produced and are self-destructive for the capitalist economy. By contrast, the commons and P2P economy are connected to openness as one of its fundamental presuppositions. P2P modes of production are best adjusted to this type of evolving economy; they maximise the benefits of networks amongst peers and enable maximal openness and circulation. Commons economy goes with the flow – and that is an argument that a bureaucrat or a policy maker can feel obliged to accept when presented effectively.
Ethics and values are certainly important features in the discussion around commons, but in political terms they cannot be the leading operative concepts. People cannot be persuaded to embrace commoner values based only on their moral appeal. At the same time we also need to stress that at this historical moment capitalism is destructive of value production, which is bad for markets If that argument gets communicated effectively there is an opportunity to start having applied policies that will withdraw parts of the market from capitalism, which is the most decisive step in a struggle against it. The reason that it is important to convince a majority of the populations is that commons and P2P economy need a broad consensus and political alliances in order to start multiplying after one decade of discussing ‘What is commons?’ and practicing it in small scales and in local communities.
Having this kind of escalation of the commons as a strategic target, we need commons-oriented applied policies, we need licenses protecting commons like GPL, we need cooperative banks, we need Public Commons Partnerships (PCP), and we need a partner-state approach. Being able to enforce these kinds of applied policies presupposes political alliances and the requisite political hegemony. It is an argument that takes into consideration the change of production model that can be a precious asset in that effort. Furthermore, the argument about the efficiency of commons-oriented policies in the framework of knowledge-intensive economy becomes even more obvious when we come to the question of labour. Capitalism is facing another serious contradiction in that regard. For example, ‘be creative’ has been one of the slogans used by big corporations that are involved in knowledge, information, design, research, software, and other immaterial goods. However, creativity is not something that a worker or employee can force him or herself to do. It is not a matter of discipline. You cannot force yourself to be creative in order to pay your bills because it simply does not work that way. On the other hand, commons-economy and P2P modes of production provide an effective answer to that type of contradiction. The Fordist model with its clear divisions between labour and non-labour time does not fit into the framework of the knowledge- and information- intensive economy. An employer simply cannot measure effective and non-effective labour time because creativity cannot be fitted into that type of measurement. As with identities throughout human history, personal and professional spheres are interrelated. It is not possible to measure effective labour time, as the most productive idea may cross a cognitive worker’s mind while brushing his/her teeth. Or the most important networking having impact on an investment may occur during a music festival. Technology and information have relativised the need, in producing value, for labour of the type we knew. It has blurred the dynamics between labour and wages. And the state of things is so unstable that the coming wave of robotisation is being delayed because current social infrastructures cannot handle the consequences.
Openness and enclosures in the knowledge-intensive economy Trying to describe some of the key features of knowledge-intensive economy and its relation to the new model of value production brings us to – among other things – open source, open data, open design, open culture movements. This is where we find a new vision that was decisive for the rebirth of the commons discussion of recent years, related to the digital commons of design, of knowledge, of software, and of culture. Along with Wikipedia and Linux there is a myriad of free/open source projects – from 3D printing to open food data policies – highlighting the emergence of technological capabilities that reshape the economic and consequently social environment, as the functional principle ‘design global, manufacture local’. However, ‘openness’, P2P, and commons cannot alone protect themselves from corporate greed. For example, IBM has turned to Linux, and giant
private companies use Android without giving anything to the community in return. Bottom up innovation is vitally linked to new institutions and new rights. In human history communities have repeatedly had to defend their rights to land, natural resources, crafts, language, culture, etc. Today we need an equivalent effort for science and information, a new principle against new enclosures. With a lack of an appropriate legal framework and institutional stewardship the more open and accessible data are, the more this works in favour of the big market.
Due to the technological changes of the last decades we have arrived at a production model that is delivering maximum profits through research and innovation, mainly in industries such as software, biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence. Contrary to the neoliberal myth, none of these technological revolutions would have occurred without the leading role of the state. In many cases, from internet to nanotechnology, it has in fact been the state, not the private sector, that has had the vision of strategic change, daring to contemplate the creation of a new technological opportunity, making the large necessary investments and enabling a decentralised network of actors to do the risky research and allow the development and commercialisation process to occur in a dynamic way. What is new is that in knowledge-intensive economy when production and management of knowledge, research, and information are controlled by private actors there is typically market failure due to the enclosure effect. The private sector makes decisions on investments on the basis of a short-term horizon, driven by short-term profit expectations.
During the 1980s the distinction between basic research (discovery) and applied research (invention) was abandoned – which was another effect of the neoliberal era. That meant that algorithms, the human genome, plants seeds, GMOs, etc. became objects of patentability. The road was open for the market to privatise not only knowledge but also living things (biopiracy). In order to defend our societies from this neoliberal greed, the commons movement needs to be reinforced by certain institutional arrangements. The social outcome of research and innovation depends on the intellectual property-rights system and the legal framework of research. Developments – especially in areas such as biotechnology, big data, or artificial intelligence – can lead to an emancipatory development for society or to a collective nightmare. Both paths are open and waiting for us.
Knowledge production and research planning are too crucial for our societies to be left to private speculation. The state must intervene mainly by financing and organising basic research. The agreed on principle has to be that the results of research, in order to be fruitful and generate profits, should be free, open, and treated as a common good. This logically implies a certain division of labour between private and public. The private sector should be linked to applied research in large laboratories of large managerial enterprises, while the public sector should take responsibility for fundamental research and guarantee that humanity’s basic knowledge is treated as a common good.
An example of a commons-oriented applied policy in the field is Open Educational Resources (OER). Researchers, teachers, professors, and institutions share their knowledge and educational material by putting them under a Creative Commons license and making them available in an open and functional Public Reserve free for people to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. In an era in which education is one of the primary victims of austerity policies, institutional arrangements of this kind can be part of the solution.
If we want to avoid the future to which cognitive capitalism is leading us, we need to focus on the relevant institutional framework. At this point, policies to establish commoning can prove very useful, such as GPL or Creative Commons. We need public - commons partnerships, instead of the overused public - private partnerships that have been applied even to public goods like water or health, causing unconscionable damage to societies. A general partner-state approach and strategy and appropriate legal forms of common ownership and stewardship are new emancipatory tools that the left should have in its toolkit. There needs to be a targeted, proactive, entrepreneurial state, able to take risks, creating a highly networked system of actors harnessing the best of the private sector for the national good over a medium- to long-term horizon.
With these kinds of policies it should be possible to reduce the damage done by the monopoly of intellectual property and patent systems. The information economy erodes the market’s ability to balance prices since markets are based on scarcity whereas information is abundant. Capitalism’s defence mechanism is to create monopolies – the giant high- tech multinationals – on a scale that has never been seen in the last two hundred years. What is more, there is the idea of the positive externalities of globalisation that restores system balance as a positive counterweight to the negatives, an idea similar to the ‘invisible hand’ that presides over the market. Open knowledge circulation is considered one of the most important of these. However, if knowledge gets captured, as happens through patents and intellectual rights in cognitive capitalism for short-term private profit, then the result is a reduction of value production, and the system is forced to destabilise itself.
At the same time during the last decade there has been a spontaneous expansion of the cooperative economy and P2P production. A dynamic grassroots activity is occurring that expresses the reaction of societies to austerity, especially in southern Europe. It is not a product of policy enforcement by some political power or party, and it certainly would seem to be an opportunity for the left, which is supporting some of these efforts at a grassroots level.
Almost undetected by the capitalist economy’s logistics, several fragments of economic life have started to move on the basis of a different structure, creating a net: parallel currencies, time banks, carpools, local exchange systems, food cooperatives, cooperatives, and self-organised spaces with a variety of uses, such as self-organised kindergartens, are being multiplied every day without being noticed by the economists and accountants. In most cases, as has happened in Greece, they are the result of a collapse of the previous structure caused by the crisis. Very often people are practicing commoning, solidarity economy, or P2P without even knowing it. For official economics these kinds of activities are mostly not considered to belong in the category of ‘economic activity’. This is a crucial point. These practices exist because they are able to respond to specific social problems in times of need. They are functional because they operate according to contemporary structures and values that in the commons and P2P economy are fundamental, such as openness, free time, sustainability, networked activity, or sharing of resources (material and services), etc. Also very important is the idea of shifting the focus of struggle from ownership – the cornerstone of capitalism and the legislative environment based on it – to management. Commons movements place the emphasis on the right to use and the right to have access to a resource, not on its ownership.
New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new types of legal
contracts: a new entrepreneurial subculture has been created, but we are still at the point of trying to describe it by terms such as ‘commons’ or ‘P2P production’. The important question is: In what ways is capitalism going to be affected by these evolutions? In a system that needs constant expansion in order to maintain itself the removal of economic sectors offers an ominous prospect. Wikipedia, for example, deprived the advertising industry of 3 billion US dollars. It can be an alternative, but only if these small-scale structures are going to be nourished, fostered, and protected as part of a political plan and official applied policies. At least in their initial stages. And this presupposes a radical change in our mindset about technology, ownership, and labour.
Early examples of the partner-state approach can be found in some urban practices such as the Bologna ‘Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the City for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons’ or several policies of the Barcelona en Comu citizen platform. The Bologna Regulation, which allows engaged citizens to claim urban resources as commons and declare their interest in managing them, is based on an article of the Italian Constitution. After an evaluation procedure, an ‘accord’ is signed with the municipality specifying how the city will support the initiative with an appropriate mix of resources and specifying a joint ‘public- commons’ management. In Bologna itself dozens of projects have been carried out, and more than 140 other Italian cities have followed its example. The key is the reversal of the logic, which now becomes: the citizenry initiates and proposes, the city enables and supports.
As neoliberalism through the last decades used and expanded a pre- existing formalised institutional structure and a legal framework that supports it, we need to construct our own institutions that will support the commons paradigm in order to expand it and protect it from capitalist enclosures. The creation of local institutions that will protect commons-oriented enterprises and make it possible for the people working in them to make a decent living can be crucial – institutions like a Chamber of Commons that will manage open licenses, such as PPL or copy SOL, and support the P2P and cooperative economy. It will protect and reinforce openness in the same way that capitalist institutions support the private and the closed. It will provide the institutional opportunity for those who are involved in the social economy, for public administrators, those who implement policy, and entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and propose reinforcing policies. Assemblies of commons that bring together, at the local and national levels, citizens and commoners who maintain common goods can also be very useful, as can a commons-oriented entrepreneurial association, as well as an international association that will connect the existing commons-oriented enterprises in order to share expertise and articulate a common voice.
Global and local coalitions between political parties (left, greens, social democrats, or parties like the Pirates, on the model of the Progressive Caucus in the European Parliament) that have included commons in their agenda, can formulate a Commons Discussion Agenda that is necessary for coordination. At any rate, surely in any list of the more promising issues in terms of political alliances, the commons would be among the first. It is the political parties that are the logical agents to fight in the European Parliament and national parliaments for the necessary legislative adjustments on the level of constitutional and private law, such as legal forms of common ownership.
All of this is related to administrative participatory mechanisms that also can, and should, be institutionally enforced, like participatory legislation or participatory budgeting.