How private capital erodes the commons, both online and offline (1)

Excerpted from Tom Slee:

(in the second installment, Tom Slee looks at 3 mechanisms of appropriation)

“Cities have long been sites of commons and commerce: full of trade and private enterprise but shaped by parks and streetscapes, neighborhoods and rhythms of daily life that grow from non-commodified sharing. In his 2012 book Rebel Cities, David Harvey observes how, in cities, “people of all sorts and classes mingle … to produce a common of perpetually changing and transitory life,” from the irrepressible energy of Manhattan to the café culture of Rome to Barcelona’s distinctive architecture to the symbolic meaning of modern Berlin. Yes, by 2009, volunteers had spent a hundred million hours building Wikipedia, but cities put this dramatic number into perspective: Every year the citizens of Canada alone volunteer roughly 20 Wikipedias for hospitals and children’s sports, for charities and the arts — the equivalent of more than a million full-time jobs in a population of 30 million — and there is no reason to believe that the count is complete or that Canada is exceptional.

The similarities between urban and digital worlds are not incidental. Both are cultural spaces, and cultural spaces have always been iceberg-like. Above the surface, market forces and state interventions; beneath, a mass of noncommercial activity organized, at least in part, as open commons. But while digital entrepreneurs look to the “Internet’s way of working” to disrupt the bricks and mortar of our cities, urban experiences have sober lessons for the digerati if they will listen: The relationship between commons and commerce is fraught with contradictions. Harvey never once mentions computer technology in his book, but his reflections on cities make a compelling case that money-making and sharing are far from natural allies, and that the role of openness must be questioned if commons-based production is to be a real alternative.

The economics of culture are those of monopolistic competition. Each and every cultural work is a unique creation and, like other unique goods, they offers the prospect of “monopoly rents” for any who can corner the market on that work. Open commons are themselves cultural works, and while the tending of commons is collective and non-commodified by definition, the commons itself is a magnet for private capital. As Harvey points out, “the common, even — and particularly — when it cannot be enclosed, can always be traded upon … the ambience and attractiveness of a city … is a collective product of its citizens [but] it is the tourist trade that commercially capitalizes upon that common.”

So a non-commercial common attracts commercial capital, but is this a problem? After all, open commons are not scarce resources, prone to depletion like clean water or ocean fish stocks. Your enjoyment of a city park or a downloaded song does not hinder me from enjoying the same. What turns the contradiction into a tragedy is that private capital tends to destroy the qualities that attracted it in the first place. While commons and commerce can never be completely disentangled, it is large-scale capital that is most damaging, and it is the commitment to openness that blocks off ways to prevent the damage.

Private capital damages open commons through three mechanisms. It erodes the common, it alienates the community that tends the common, and distorts the essential nature of the common.”

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