Essay of the Day: The Commons as a Challenge for Classical Economics

Silke Helfrich, David Bollier et al. argue that:

Commons are the enabler for all other social goals, including environmental ones, which in essence are social.

This document was prepared by the Steering Committee of the International Commons Conference “Constructing a Commons (ICC) based policy platform organized by the Commons Strategies Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which took place in Berlin/Germany in November 2012. The ICC and was a major gathering of commoners from about 35 countries, representatives of social movements, political decision makers and commons research among them. (Michel Bauwens, David Bollier, Beatriz Busaniche, Silke Helfrich, Julio Lambing, Heike Löschmann)

A. The commons will not succeed in challenging contemporary economics and conventional institutional design unless it:

· challenges the core beliefs of underlying conventional economics and the behavioral correlations induced by prevailing institutional designs;

· reinterprets the meaning of property from private ownership to collective stewardship; and

· develops coherent concepts that are also empirically provable and convincing alternatives to the conventional numerical “bottom lines”.

B. The inherent features of the commons are abundance and diversity.

· If we respect diversity and engineer for abundance, the commons continuously (re)-produce enough for all.

· Wherever we can – in case of nonrival resources and generosity – the product of the commons should be universally available; where we cannot – in case of rival resources – the product of the commons should be equitably distributed.

C. A viable society is based on cooperation and co-production rather than the classical division of labor that separates resource producers and providers from resource users, which treats nature, community and culture as exploitable externalities.

D. Markets are not the only source of wealth creation. The commons, which are responsive to popular, democratic voices and to the pressure on our biotic resources, can function as parallel economies to the cash economy, including subsistence and gift economies. Another promising way to do this is by developing community-based software platforms. Over time, such communication platforms can extend to new types of social exchange, for instance digital currencies, outside of national currencies and conventional markets. Such processes would strengthen resilient rural and urban communities and enable them to take the reproduction of their livelihoods into their own hands.

E. The whole economic system in modern societies deeply depends on the state, which creates entire industries and provides regulative structures. The demand for goods and services by the state is another example. In fact, public procurement and infrastructure development constitute the lion’s share of our economies. Therefore a shift towards commons-based public procurement is urgently needed. That includes, e.g., tax privileges for freely generated knowledge, information and infrastructures or bidding processes based on stipulated criteria that strengthen the participation of affected communities.

F. There is a need to clearly identify and communicate the “success criteria” of the commons and/or a loose taxonomy of successful commons. But developing indicators for creative and productive commoning is notoriously difficult. It is therefore essential to contribute to the development of inclusive metrics that recognize key criteria for broader wealth creation.

The Commons Challenges the Market/State Duopoly

A. The commons is the third element, beyond market and state, which needs structural and intellectual support.

B. The commons offers a rich set of governance models, and its constituting nature strives for a new style of social appropriation and participation. Despite its diversity and its dependency on certain laws or state support, the commons tend to be stable and to facilitate social autonomy and effective resource management. Nontheless, a successful commons is always the product of a continuous effort and struggle.

C. “The commons beyond market and state” does not necessarily mean without market and state, if we consider their rich history, enormous diversity and geographic dispersion. But it necessarily means that the people and their commons, supported by a partner state, become the core of wealth creation. It aims to create a vibrant ethical economy of new market forms that do not ignore natural and social externalities, but include them in their functioning logic.

D. Commoners transcend nation-state based citizenship and national civil societies. And their identity goes beyond that of passive consumer to responsible co-producer. Commoners are rooted in an enormous variety of mutually dependent communities. One of the core beliefs of the commons is the idea that the protection and creation of common wealth are not just beneficial to the commoners themselves, but to the local and global societies to which they also belong. A core belief in the commons is: I need others and others need me.

E: What we need is not just regulation by the state but greater responsibility of and accountability to affected communities regarding the criteria of human well-being. This is key. Instead of downsizing the state by strengthening the logic of the market, a commons-based policy campaigns for downsizing the scale and scope of the market by strengthening ‘commons institutions’. That means establishing institutions designed for acting as trustees for the commons and enablers of the commons. New social technologies and distributed networks – which must be based on sustainable energy use – can spur this process.

F. Global commons entail a new kind of multilateralism which empowers local people as global citizens and enables nation-states to collaborate more effectively to overcome global collective-action problems.

The Generative Logic of the Commons

A. For building commons we have to build resilient communities, which in turn need cooperative and deliberative forms of communication and decision making. The communities also serve as learning arenas for the unfolding of skills and the underlying attitudes and mindsets for commoning.

B. The commons as a self-organized form of peer-to-peer production follows its own logic. Peer-to-peer production assumes equipotency of its participants, is based on free cooperation, aims to the creation of common goods and seeks to serve the greatest good for everyone. We believe this mode of production can be at least as productive as models that ignore the commons. And in terms of addressing social wealth and the reproduction of diversity, commons-based production models can even be more successful than those based on command, control and/or selling.

C. Productivity cannot be simply an artificial measure of an enterprise’s performance; it must take into account all costs, including hidden subsidies, damages to the environment and other sorts of non quantifiable, non-market value that the commons routinely provides.

D. The commons is about taking one’s life into one’s own hands. Knowledge is key to do so, but knowledge is more than access to knowledge; and access to knowledge is something more than building technical infrastructure.

Rapid diffusion of knowledge and innovation to all who need it requires:

· the sharing of information, code, skills and design through universally accessible or community based platforms

· the skills for understanding and reflection and

· their appropriation for shaping our social habitats.

Conceiving knowledge as a commons guarantees a fair share of innovation, without the friction and suppression of sharing caused through excessive intellectual property regulations.

E. Institutional structures can articulate and make possible new commons, but they can also undermine the social connections and ethics that are indispensable to the commons. Therefore, a key challenge in devising effective commonsbased policies is to balance these two concerns properly. The bureaucratization of the commons is not a commons, but a paradox to which we must be attentive.

For the success of a commons oriented politics, an alliance and an earnest exchange of experiences and know how between all those who work on the social, ecological, cultural and digital commons, is imperative.

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.