The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons

Excerpted from Silke Helfrich:

Today, the commons are often excluded from policy discussions and commoners are often disempowered. This tendency is enforced by the dominant political thinking, which is used to thinking in dichotomies. Here the market, there the state, here the private, there the public, here the teacher, there the pupil, here competition, there cooperation, here the good thing, there the bad thing. As a consequence, we tend to look for Either-Or-Solutions, which leads to consider Market and State as the only two serious realms of action. The commons are usually left behind and ignored.

Therefore our challenge is manyfold. We can only bring the commons paradigm to broader public attention if:

  • We find a powerful language for the commons and an up to date narrative that can be understood by everyone. “If we keep the commons unnamed, it is easier to neutralize or to ignore it.” (Bollier)
  • We recover the history of the commons so that we can appreciate its role in different historical and political contexts. Like the Codices Justinianum, where we find a very relevant distinction between res nullius, res publicae, res privatae and res communes. The latter has often been ignored by modern law. Or the concept of the public domain (in our juridical context: Gemeinfreiheit) or the huge variety of collective property forms in our civic laws that can provide new legal forms to organize a commons.

Codex Justinianus revisted:

Stefan Meretz,

•    We avoid false dichotomies and try to get beyond either/or thinking and mainstream narratives – like the narrative of the homo oeconomicus or of scarcity. Resources are not scarce, they are made scarce.
•    We understand the relationship between access to common pool resources and power relations in society. Access to resources is a source of power. That is why the commons is often exploited by both by Market AND State. “Both are hungry for the revenues that come from exploiting them and both often find it useful to support each other’s political objectives”, says Bollier. The State turns out to be a Market-State, as James Quilligan puts it. The commons is resisted because it requires significant transfers of power to the commoners — not as a right granted by authorities but as an inherent human right that we have and which has to be respected by authorities. This is a small but significant difference.
•    We co-invent and experiment with new forms of commoning that are in line with the inner logic of the commons.
The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons:

The market has a well-developed and aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created. Just switch on your radio in the morning…

Market logic is based on the assumption that we are basically a homo oeconomicus – striving to maximize our own benefits. This narrative rests on the pillars of private property rights and the idea that the winner is the one who out-competes the others. In short: it’s a story of bigger, higher and faster.

The commons has yet to develop its own grand narrative. But here are some well identified essentials. First of all, it moves beyond the classic dichotomies of the haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, of public and private. It includes the missing third element: the commoners or usergroups, the co-owners, and the citizenry within their communities. It focuses on self-organization instead of “participation,” – the scope of the latter is something that has been basically pre-decided by “market laws” or authorities. After such predecisions, some suggestions of citizens are welcome. The difference between participation and self-organization/emancipation is like the difference between reading a recipe and making one’s own yummy cake.

The commons is about building robust and resilient communities. That means its storyline is about relationships, not transactions. Therefore metric systems are unable to assess the State of the Commons, or, as David says: it “cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the ‘Commons 500.’”

The commons follows a logic of inclusion and aims at social control over resources and productive means.

Part of the ‘commons movement’ constantly tackles the issue of ecological security, others don’t. I use to call them the “ecos” and the “technos” and I think, still, in year one of the commons movement, there is a major divide between the “ecos” and the “technos” which has to be urgently addressed if we want to make the movement grow. The Indian System of Rice Intensification is a good example for it.

At a first glance, this may look like a fuzzy storyline. But in my experience, people have an intuitive access to the commons. Even though unnamed, they know what it is all about, because it is simply part of their social practice. Ask people what they care for, what a meaningful live means to them: They will talk to you about robust and diverse social relations, cooperation, trust, solidarity.

The market and Nation-State as well as their conglomerations are built upon different beliefs. Just two examples out of many: The European Union is currently centralizing more and more power – supposedly “saving nation by nation” – meanwhile we learn from Commons research that centralized governance approaches harm the diversity of the commons. Commons governance needs to be polycentric, as Professor Elinor Ostrom has shown. Panaceas are revealed to be dangerous, and there is simply no such thing as a one size fits all solution. Because, remember: “each commons is one of a kind.”

Or take one of the favorite strategies of international cooperation for development: Securing private land titles. This is considered a key condition for rural development. But the strategy implies, that each peasant gets his little private piece of property which in case of emergency or upon pressure (say landgrabbing) are often resold to the already land-rich.

Thus, if we don’t analyze policy from a commons perspective, a strategy supposed to empower the poor can end up with disrupting social relations on the ground and enclosing the commons. That means:

  • convert commoners into individual consumers and producers for the market
  • make them more dependent on the ups and downs of that market.
  • cut them off from their history and from the history of commoning.

We have to identify the structural and often hidden ongoing enclosures. Enclosure is more than “privatization”, “commercialization” or “development pressure” triggered by “path dependency”. The term “enclosure” captures the disempowerment of people and social disruptions, which use to trigger situations, that are difficult to roll back. You may compare it to the dismantling of public transport infrastructures. Once you remove the rail network in a country, you will not be able to manage to re-open public transport by train. It’s gone.

Remember the ‘father’ of the liberal property concept, the English philosopher John Locke. Locke considered it a divine right for people to claim private property rights for things that they have “mixed” with their own labor. What is usually omitted from Locke’s formulation are his significant qualification – “…so long as there is enough, and good left in common for others.”

In fact, exclusive property rights can be justified only if the common pool resources and the use rights of commoners are preserved.

Commons alive

Now, the really great thing about the commons is that it is not just a concept. It’s alive and growing! In fact, today we see the rise of countless self-styled commoners – people who see the commons as a way of reframing politics, of re-conceptualizing production and revitalizing democracy.

There is an exploding universe of (digital) commoners (think of the vast network of free software programmers who created GNU/Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs; the Wikipedians who edit the largest and most up to date encyclopedia in history; the millions of artists and authors who – through Creative Commons or other free licenses state: “Yes, we want to share!”; the growing world of open access scholarly publishing, the Open Educational Resources movement and so on. There are

  • commoners who are recovering urban spaces and agriculture;
  • commoners who are implementing citizens control for radically decentralized energy production, distribution and consumption based on renewables;
  • commoners who are building open-source hardware and infrastructures; and many others.

But there are some other people discovering the commons as well, and I’m not too sure they have the same ideas as we might. NATO held a conference last year on “the Global Commons,” by which NATO apparently meant NATO dominance over the oceans, space and the Internet – the global common pool resources. And in the same vein: If companies got used to “greenwash” their products there is no doubt, that they will start to “commons-wash” their activities if the term gains broader currency. We have to be aware of the risk that the meaning of the commons could be watered down, co-opted or used as a cheap moral posture.

But it is not a cheap moral discourse. It is not even a moral discourse per se. Commons are a social methodology, a governance system, a type of cultural ethic. It works with normal people like you and me, that is what Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and colleagues demonstrated in countless field studies.

Year One of the global commons movement – that means, we have an assemblage of movements around the globe which begins to become aware of its international and interrelated character. Without diversity this movement cannot exist. So, even though there are different and sometimes opposing perceptions and approaches to the commons, such as:

  • preserving vs. building productive commons
  • natural vs. digital commons
  • modifying market/state power vs. replacing the market/state

The differences are mirroring the current stage of reflection, but – and this is important to understand – “They are differences within the same [paradigm].” (Stefan Meretz)  I am convinced that “the same” is best denoted by the term commons.

Many thanks to David Bollier for his help and advice!

2 Comments The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons

  1. AvatarCarlos Boyle

    I can add to this set of categories the Tönnies´

    “Just as the natural desire of the individual mind becomes pure and rational will, which tend to cancel and subjugate their predecessors, original collective forms of Gemeinschaft became Gesellschaft and the Gesellschaft rational will, in the course history, popular culture gave rise to the civilization of the state.”
    A group of argenine sociologists, studdieng territorial organizations of de Buenos Aires conourbano, the Great Buenos Aires, discovered that the transitions remaeked by Tönnies can go forth like he says, but also, and that´s the news, can go backward from a contractual association to a community organization.
    They arrive to this conclusion studding 530 organizations, the community organization re razed after de Argentinean crack after 2001. So organizations can also be Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft depending on the demmand they need. They conclude that from each necessity borns an organization, and that organization can be either one.

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