Should we worry about capitalist commons?

There is a particular strand of thinking, which we have featured on occasion on our blog, with authors such as Massimo de Angelis of The Commoner, Sylvia Federici and George Caffentzis of Midnight Notes, and Martin Pedersen, who particularly stress the need to be wary, and denounce, tendencies towards ‘capitalist commons’, which in there mind, have to be fought and resisted against.

I want to first discuss what aspects of this point of view I agree with, then discuss the eventual reservations or disagreements.

The distinction between capitalist and non-capitalist commons is of course an important one, whose validity should be acknowledged.

A non-capitalist commons is a commons that can socially reproduce itself and whose activities guarantee its continued existence to the benefit of the commoners; a capitalist commons is a commons which helps the (expanded) reproduction of capital and the capitalist system. The latter is distinct I believe from commons that are used and enclosed by non-commoners to their benefit, while weakening the commons and its use for commoners. An example of a pure ‘capitalist’ commons would be a patent commons that is constituted by an alliance of companies, and perhaps only usable by them.

Obviously, commoners should be wary of both mechanisms.

Nevertheless, we live in complex societies with many hybrid modalities, where such distinctions are not clearcut. I think the believe that commons are either pure or otherwise capitalist commons is a false dichotomy, and that the reality is that we have mostly hybrid commons processes that combine both aspects.

As an example I want to take the free software commons.

These commons usually consist of:

* a commons of code, which can be used by all developers, including the corporations that build more value on the code (mostly through the waged labour in their employ) and market services and products related to it

* a community of developers, a majority of which is usually also employed by said corporations, but generally also consists of volunteers freely adding to the commons

* a set of institutions that manage the infrastructure of cooperation needed by this commons, such as the FLOSS Foundations, and which may have representatives of said corporations on the board

Now, the role of corporations is usually very important: 1) they use and expand on the code, usually though by keeping substantial improvements only to themselves; 2) they hire developers in order to develop their commercial activities, and their services are therefore constituted by both the value created by this paid labour, but also by the common value created by other corporations and especially the free labour that went into the commons. I don’t think there is any doubt that such a commons aids the reproduction of the system of capital. The businesses created around such commons are usually also dependent on those commons, and contribute to their maintenance.

But does that mean that such a system is necessarily a negative one for the commoners? This is actually far from being the case. First of all, it guarantees the continued reproduction of the commons itself; in our actual society and economy, it is very difficult to expand digital commons without such corporate support; and the commons remain available to all, as guaranteed by the free software licenses; in addition, the paying of developers creates and maintains a livelihood around the commons, with free software developers actually constituting a kind of privileged labour aristocracy. The influence of these corporations is real, and sometimes (often?) dominant, and they use all kinds of value extraction and enclosure mechanisms, but nevertheless, they also contribute to the commons. And just as importantly: they are dependent on the commons and community of commoners and constrained by the license, the codes and norms of the software community.

This is why free software developers and commoners nevertheless consider such free software commons as a fundamental advance. It creates more freedom, makes the code base universally available, and often creates a vibrant economy. Many developers create their own enterprises and sometimes cooperatives as well. What is important here is that we have a system that both serves the reproduction of capital, but on a new basis of the commons; and a system which at the same time serves the reproduction of the commons and the commoners.

Such type of hybrid ‘capitalist-commons’ are without a doubt an advance over the purely wage-labour based forms of software creation. This is certainly the way the developers themselves see it, but also the wider community of digital knowledge workers.

That doesn’t mean that commoners should not want more and better modalities. For example, they could create enterprises that are not profit-maximisers, but cooperatives, or they could use the peer production license, which allows free usage of the commons only to other commoners and thereby creates a counter-economy. So the existence of a capitalist software commons can be both a social advance, have problematic aspects, be beneficial to different players, such as corporations, users and developers, etc..

The right attitude is to strengthen the commons part and the commons logic, to fight against abuses and enclosures, and if you have radical aims of social transformation, to continue to work according to these aims in the broader context of the totality of the shift towards p2p and commons-based modalities.

But we want to make a stronger argument. Not only are these advances beneficial, but they are actually crucial.

The reason is that the alternatives modes of production based on the commons, cannot be created ex nihilo, but must be created within an environment that is dominated by the alien logic of the older dominant mode of production, i.e. the circulation of capital.

It is simply inconceivable that a slave-based empire could undergo a phase transition towards the feudal mode of production, without the existence of proto-feudal modalities within that system; it is equally inconceivable that the feudal mode of production could have a phase transition towards the capitalist mode of production, without proto-capitalist modalities existing within that feudal system. It is the ultimate strengthening and intermeshing of these proto-capitalist modalities, which creates the basis for a political and social revolution that ultimately guarantees the phase transition.

In other words, the existence of commons-based peer production, as proto-practices for a full mode of production that has still to be created after a phase transition, is itself a vital condition for that later transition. These proto-practices have to evolve within the older system, first as emergent practices, then on a parity level, before they can become dominant themselves.

So the question of ‘capitalist commons’, requires an approach that recognizes to what degree they benefit the commoners in the short and mid-term, to what degree they make a particular commons sustainable, but also on a systemic level, to what degree they are part of a broader change that fosters proto-commons practices that can serve as a basis for ultimate expansion on a systemic level.

Just as important is not to be blinded by any perceived absolute ‘enemy’, but to see the interests of the commoners first and foremost. Each commoner’s community is involved in its own construction, struggles and negotiations, and makes its own arrangements with the surrounding ecology of enterprises, which depends in part on local, national, and global balance of forces; and the goal must be to make its own commons autonomous and for the maximum benefit of the commoners and the surrounding society. Rather than striving for acceptance of any a priori credo of anti-capitalism, because that is in the end the goal of the authors we mentioned above, what is really needed is to be in relations and concrete solidarity with the commoners, within the larger context of global social change towards a commons-based society. Within the context of ‘really existing’ hybrid commons, which are part of the broader process of reproduction of capital, what matters is to strengthen those elements which strengthen the circulation and expanded reproduction of the common(s).

Within the broader context of a capitalist society in which profit-maximising companies are geared towards maximal surplus value extraction, the existence of commons will always be precarious at best, and subject to enclosures and exploitation, such as the well-known capture of the value of the free labour of the commoners. Nevertheless, even within that contradictory process, there is a further strengthen of modalities of commons-based peer production, which is a harbinger of the society to come. And some forms of netarchical capital actually have a vested interest in the continued existence of the commons. These activities are contradictory but still contribute to the creation and strengthening of particular commons, which are also in the interest of the commoners, user communities and citizens generally.

Within the broader context of a political economy based on the circulation of capital, there can be no fully independent social reproduction of the commons, but, many elements of such full social reproduction are being born and gradually intermeshed, and it is our task to further strengthen that process, within a context of hybrid capitalist commons. Most commoners are not necessarily motivated by a political and social vision of such a future commons-based society, but their social conditions as digital knowledge workers nevertheless lead them to construct and protect concrete commons. This process is absolutely vital for the transition, and any political and social phase transition can only occur when sufficient numbers of them revolt against the limitations imposed on this hyperproductive modality, by outmoded, repressive and life-undermining modalities of capital. This process is underway but requires a continuing strengthening of commons-based modalities.

4 Comments Should we worry about capitalist commons?

  1. AvatarRob Myers

    Just as important is not to be blinded by any perceived absolute ‘enemy’, but to see the interests of the commoners first and foremost.

    Thank you! This is an excellent explanation of the problems with doctrinaire anti-capitalist critiques of free software/free culture.

    That doesn’t mean that commoners should not want more and better modalities. For example, they could create enterprises that are not profit-maximisers, but cooperatives,

    Yes there are some examples of software co-operatives:

    And there are legal hacks using more modern organizational forms as well.

    I am suspicious of the promotion of mutuality by the current right-wing government in the UK, though.

    or they could use the peer production license, which allows free usage of the commons only to other commoners and thereby creates a counter-economy.

    I would say that the peer production licence is an example of the kind of oppositional thinking that is critiqued elsewhere in the post. I admire it as a hack and I understand its motivation. But I think that it observes and defends the modalities of capital in the name of opposing them, denying the nascent commons movement access to “vital” developments just as other anti-capitalist rather than pro-commons positions do.

  2. AvatarPoor Richard

    Great piece, Michel.

    As you acknowledged in an article subtitled “The Ubiquity of Mixed Systems”, when we try to superimpose theories, doctrines, and ideologies on actual human behavior we nearly always end up needing to think in terms of mixed or hybrid systems.

    As you importantly noted in that same piece, an “arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” It is vital that in developing p2p theory we work from actual examples, cases, and histories, as you have done in this post with the example of the free software commons.

    The present post also takes important steps in describing the relation between the staus quo at any given time and emergent relations and phase transitions. This reminds me of the “include and transcend” trope of Ken Wilber.

    Terminology can be inclusive or divisive. The same system, relation, algorithm, etc. can be expressed in many different kinds of terminology. Often a particular terminology is chosen precisely to signify affinity with one group and/or distinction from another, as in the case of “capitalist” terminology and “anti-capitalist” terminology.

    My own preference is for terminology that is familiar and comfortable to people in the center in mainstream culture, especially when I am discussing ideas that may be culturally unfamiliar or uncomfortable to many. By choosing “business” terminology that is native to the mainstream, and even native to my political opponents, I sometimes alienate my own friends on the left. But my intent is a kind of rhetorical “Jujutsu” (a Japanese martial art for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no weapon).

    Wikipedia says: “‘J?’ can be translated to mean gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding. “Jutsu” can be translated to mean “art” or “technique” and represents manipulating the opponent’s force against him rather than confronting it with one’s own force.”

    Or maybe I just take a perverse pleasure in being provocative towards my own philosophical and political community. Or both. (whatever)

    Regardless of what terminology we use to discuss P2P and commons, we should not forget that we are discussing actual relations. In our lives we have one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to many relations–relations between people and people, people and groups, people and objects, groups and objects, groups and the environment, etc. You can find many of the same, identical relations across many cultures, past and present, spoken of via many different metaphors and ritualized/institutionalized in many different ways.

    Our choice of terminology and metaphor should be audience-appropriate, but analytically we need to focus on functional relations, values and criteria. We can call something public, private, civic, social, or common. We can call something a group, a partnership, an association, a corporation, a collective, or a community. But people can differ wildly about what any of those terms mean. Any distinctions we attribute to those terms really arise from a more basic and fundamental class of issues: consent, transparency, accountability, democracy, inclusion, sustainability, reciprocity, justice, fairness, dignity, & etc., etc., etc. Too often we argue at the level of public vs private or common vs corporate and fail to ever connect with those underlying assumptions, values, and relations.

    Michel, in the present post I think you have taken valuable steps towards a non-ideological, doctrine-neutral analysis and I really dig it.


  3. Pingback: Bside » Empresa del Procomún (2/3)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.