An overview of thematics around the economics of the commons

From October 12 to 14 is taking place a preparatory workshop investigating themes around commons-oriented economics. The meeting takes place in Bangkok, in preparation of a larger conference to be held in Berlin in May 2013.

The meeting is (co-)organized by the Commons Strategies Group with support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the FPH – Fondation pour le Progrès de l’Homme.

The following text, outlining issues that can be discussed, was prepared by the Commons Strategies Group, October 4, 2012

“In addressing the themes raised by economics and the commons, our workshop will deliberately use a flexible and open-ended format. We do not wish to present an fixed, structured agenda so much as elicit your special knowledge and perspectives on the topic. In previous gatherings on the commons, we have found this a highly effective way to surface ideas, identify major points of disagreement and consensus, and develop a more coherent understanding of the challenges we face.

Having said that, we have assembled below a series of themes and questions that may be useful in spurring discussion. This is an incomplete “discussion draft” of issues that will likely deserve attention (in this and further conversations). But this list should not be regarded as a comprehensive, prioritized or “correct”; it is merely as a springboard for discussion. We urge you to bring your own ideas, open questions and issues so that we can collectively decide how the discussions should proceed. We are confident that this process will help us highlight fundamental ideas and develop new narratives and projects.

We would like to start our workshop by addressing the basic questions: What does a commons-based economy consist of? What are its basic principles and how can we “know it when we see it”? Does it require specific (infra)structures, principles and policy approaches?

Some commons scholars suggest that a commons-based economy is one that combines production, consumption and governance into a unified needs-based system, such that it is impossible to distinguish among them. Another definition is that production cannot be distinguished from reproduction because everything contributes to the reproduction of livelihoods. Perhaps there are other salient features of a commons-based economy that we should identify and explore.

Some specific issues worth exploring:


• Why and how does a commons generate value? Let’s get down to some basics of the human condition and relationships (ontology) and knowledge categories (epistemology) to understand the value-proposition of the commons.

• The very idea of “the economy” is a social construction, not a natural fact. Yet if we wish to transcend the familiar paradigm of “the economy” – i.e., the capitalist market and its logic – what are the handful of key principles that let us define a commons-based “economy”?

• What is the purpose of a commons-based economy? How can we starkly differentiate the commons worldview and provisioning model from that of market economics?

• How do the processes and social relationships of the commons differ from those of the market, and how does this matter? Can we consider this from an anthropological perspective?

• Are there identifiable typologies of commons? Do these conform to types of resources, cultural patterns, or something else? For political purposes, we may wish to assert a universal template of commoning (“principles of commoning”) and declare that the type of resource is a secondary matter. But is this entirely true?

• Can any general statement be made about the ontological power of the commons – i.e., how and why it self-organizes, generates value and innovates? Or is a commons destined always to be a subsidiary form that is necessarily embedded in markets and the state and dependent on them?

• How do commons protect themselves from free riders and abuse? What sorts of technological, legal or social innovations can work?

• How can the yearning for collective management and participation be “locked in” and secured?

• How do commons get started in the first place? Can we identify general differences between commons and commoning in the global North (which is “rediscovering” the commons) as opposed to the global South (where commoning has a long, deep and continuous history)?


How does the debate on commons-based economy relate to those of…

–feminist economy, especially the care economy and the subsistence economy;

–the Solidarity economy;

–the Transition Town movement

–gift economies (academia, blood and organ banks, community groups)

–the degrowth-debate

–Buddhist economy or other discourses present in the region

What can we learn from these various economies? Where are the overlaps and where the differences?


• What role can the commons play in arresting relentless economic growth, and how?

• What are some practical, incremental scenarios for using the commons to reduce growth and internalize externalities (without falling into the trap of market-based mechanisms that favor monetization of the value of nature or reproductive work)?

• Is a commons-based economy and peer production a force for “de-materializing” the economy? If so, how?


• How can the personal engagement and informal nature of the commons (in its canonical form) be preserved if the state is involved with it?

• How might we conceptualize a State that “enables the commons”? What are the politics of such a scenario?

• Does the formalization of a commons and external legal/financial support for it undermine the social practices and relationships that lie at the heart of a commons? If so, how can commons design themselves to be quasi-autonomous while securing support (or at least, non-interference) from the market/state duopoly?

• Michel Bauwens has proposed the idea of the “partner state” and a triarchy of governance in which market, state and commons co-exist and support each other. Is this a realistic vision, and if so, how might this vision be advanced?


Tell us about a particularly stable or popular commons in your country or region. Explain why it has succeeded and what impact it has.

• How does a commons interact with markets or not?

• If the commons is primarily a nonmarket form of provisioning, can it have any fruitful relationship with markets? If so, what sorts of limits or protections are needed to assure the long-term integrity of a commons? How can they be maintained?

• What are the patterns by which commons and market activity can interact constructively? Or are they necessarily hostile and adversarial?

• Given the structural economic and policy biases against recognizing the value of infrastructure-as-commons, how can commoners secure necessary infrastructure – roads, telecom, water, land, Internet – as commons?


• What does work, productive activity and labor mean in the context of a commons?

• Can money be converted into a commons?

• Is it possible (and desirable) to de-commodify them? If so, why?

• What are the viable alternative models?”


• Does a commons necessarily reduce inequality or what circumstances are needed to do so?

• What can make a commons socially regressive?

• What about people who do not have the education or basic resources to participate in commons (e.g., Internet commons)?

• Why and how does a commons foster social justice, stability and sustainability?

• Doesn’t a commons reduce incentives to work hard and innovate?

• Does the commons promote unsustainable live-styles? (e.g., a 3D printer for everyone!)

• How can the social solidarity and cooperation of a commons persist as it scales (i.e, as coordination and communication becomes more difficult)? Or perhaps there are different “tiers” of commons that should be regarded differently – much as a “state trustee commons” will differ from a small-scale tribal commons for water?


• Who are the key thinkers and activists involved in developing alternative economic paradigms that work and are philosophically coherent?

• What are some of the key alternative economic organizations and movements?

• How to “bridge” with them?

• How do we begin to develop actual projects to advance a commons-based economy?

• What sorts of knowledge, networks of people and organizations, and experiences are needed?


On the Internet:

• Can we make any useful generalizations about the differences and commonalities between open platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and digital commons (Wikipedia, open-access journals, collaborative archives)?

• Are open platforms helpful to a commons-based economy or mostly a means for corporate co-optation of social sharing and collaboration?

• Should we consider “open business models” a form of commoning (where open networked platforms are used to leverage social sharing) – or are they mostly a capitalistic form that seeks to exploit open networks?

• Should commoners welcome open business models or regard them with suspicion? What factors might affect a determination?

• If inalienability is important to preserving a commons – i.e., a community-managed resource that may not be monetized – then how can this be accomplished in reliable, lasting ways? How can we link inalienability with the value proposition of the commons?

Localism and commons:

• Is a commons necessarily local? And if a commons can work at larger scales, how does subsidiarity actually work?

The commons and a theory of power and hierarchy:

We should not succumb to romanticized visions of happy egalitarianism within commons. Issues of power relations must be addressed.

• Do commons empower people to break down predatory or hierarchical power relationships?

• Are there certain structures of power and governance within a commons that are essential?

• Can we imagine a typology of commons-based governance structures?

Workable commons seem to imply a different sort of culture than those associated with markets. But how and why do commons produce a different sort of culture?

Does a commons-based society entail a different form of spirituality or religion? Is institutionalized religion (which implies hierarchies and imposed norms) part of the problem today?”

3 Comments An overview of thematics around the economics of the commons

  1. Poor Richard

    “Some commons scholars suggest that a commons-based economy is one that combines production, consumption and governance into a unified needs-based system, such that it is impossible to distinguish among them.”

    I would put this differently: production, consumption and governance are sufficiently integrated when there are no more externalities. Externality is almost too simple an idea, and its importance is easily lost in the intellectual fashions of the day.

    “The very idea of “the economy” is a social construction, not a natural fact.”

    The “ecosystem” is also a social construction. The word is not the thing (Korzybski). On the other hand, the words ecology and economy can be applied almost interchangeably. Ecology is the natural economy. If we took this approach, it might help us improve our social economy via lessons from nature. But there are ways we don’t want to “go back to nature”. We don’t want to go back to the nature Hobbes characterizes as “the war of all against all” and “red of tooth and claw”. So natural and unnatural are not sufficient bases for comparing anything.

  2. Poor Richard

    The problem with reinventing the wheel ex nihilo is that you might end up with a better wheel or a worse one. A better approach is to start with a sample of existing wheels and try to understand the advantages and flaws of each.

    I suggest the discourse on the commons should center on cases rather than on theories or principles. When we look at cases we see things we like and dislike, even if we may not know why. Theories and principles can help us explain what we like and don’t like, but seldom help us recognize it.


  3. Helene Finidori

    Could this conference be the opportunity to discuss and put into motion the idea of ‘growing the commons’ as a meta-narrative for a paradigm shift?

    Ann Pendleton-Jullian in her talk suggests the need for a new type of metanarrative to change the world, something strategically ambiguous towards which to head despite our differences, and that would aggregate coherence from a variety of micro narratives that shape events and build trust at the grassroots level.

    The idea of growth or expansion of the commons is worth looking into as such meta-narrative or vision. An idea I have developed in an article here:

    The commons in its widest definition -of what shapes and enables social entities and in turn is shaped by social entities- is ‘fuzzy’ and ambiguous enough to encompass many forms of objects (common goods), processes (manners in which) and outcomes (results such as well-being, prosperity…). Commons are at the same time the whole and parts, the input and the output…

    Much of the initiatives around sustainability, thrivability, social innovation, resilience are geared toward maintaining the integrity and growing or nurturing a piece of the commons, and could be expressed as commons oriented even if not organized as an intentional commons.

    Growth itself, when you think of it, is a great meme! It got [almost] everyone these last decades rolling up their sleeves to do it best -even when not for self enrichment-, with the result that we know! Unfortunately not applied to the right things… If the concept of growth, rather than applied to GDP and profits, consumption, addictions, and other toxic or enclosing behaviors and practices and non relevant metrics, or means that lose tracks of ends, was used to (re)generate, and expand a variety of enabling outcomes (capabilities, abundance, health, well being, thrivability, resilience), and all types of resources and inheritances and ways of doing things right, we could accelerate the paradigm shift…

    Several articles adopt a wide view of commons and offer an approach to the transition using part of the current paradigm:
    Tom Atlee: Wholesome Capitalism
    David Ronfeldt: Speculations on assurance commons
    Benni B: The Commons as a strategic perspective for social movements
    Another article of mine: The commons at the core of our next economic model

    The conference could be an opportunity to formulate this meta narrative and examine how various micro narratives can be expressed in a way that connects to the commons. And also to formulate the basic principles for the integrity of the commons and ‘beneficial’ growth. This would give the commons a voice, and set a framework to prevent or limit the cooption and corruption of the commons vocabulary. It could provide a basis for viral communication.

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