Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life

by Silke Helfrich

The market has always been with us. What’s new about life in the last three hundred years — and especially the last thirty — is that the buying and selling of goods is the overriding goal of human civilization. The market is seen not just as an efficient way to do some things — it’s increasingly heralded as the only way to organize our society. The market has become the ruling paradigm of the world, a way of life that is wiping out efficient, equitable and sustainable commons-based practices.


Silke Helfrich — a commons activist based in Jena, Germany — explores what we lose when the market is deployed as the solution to all our problems and answer to all our dreams. In this chart, she illustrates how radically different a market-based society operates compared to a commons-based society. This is excerpted from the book The Wealth of the Commons, which she edited with David Bollier. — Jay Walljasper

Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life

Market Way of Life
Commons Way of Life
Core QuestionWhat can be bought and sold?What do we need to live?
Idea of the IndividualHumans maximize benefits for themselvesHumans are primarily cooperative social beings
Social PracticeCompetition predominates; we prevail at the expense of othersCooperation predominates; commoning connects us with others
Power RelationsCentralization & monopolyDecentralization & collaboration
Change AgentsPowerful political lobbies focus on institutionalized politics and governmentDiverse communities working as distributed networks, with solutions coming from the margins
DecisionmakingHierarchical, top-down; command & controlHorizontial, bottom-up, decentralized, self-organized
Decision PrincipleMajority rule(s)Consensus
Property RelationsExclusive private property: “I can do anything I want with what I own”Collectively used possession: “I am co-responsible for what I co-use“
Core FocusMarket exchange and economic growth (GDP) is achieved through individual initiative, innovation and “efficiency”Common weath and sustainable livelihoods is achieved through cooperation
ResourcesScarcity is maintained or created through social barriers and exclusionsThere is enough for all through sharing (of finite resources) and a sense of abundance (of limitless resources)
Results for ResourcesDepletion, exploitation, enclosureConservation, maintenance, reproduction, expansion
KnowledgeKnowledge regarded as scarce asset to be bought and soldKnowledge regarded as a plentiful asset for the common good of society
Relationships to Nature & Other HumansSeparationInterrelational
SocietyIndividual vs. collective interest >exclusionMy personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others, and vice-versa. >Emancipation through convivial connections

2 Comments Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life

  1. Avatarmikeriddell62

    I suspect there will be a transition phase that will employ the markets to invest in the common good.

    Going straight to a system of commons from a market economy just doesn’t sound realistic in my view. Change is more incremental than that.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    agreed mike, and most of our work here is about this transition, which is not contradictory however, with recognizing the different value systems (even as they may have to work together and hybridize)

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