Towards The Partner State Model of Civic Commons Governance

A reprint of an earlier editorial:

“Can we learn something about the politics of the new mode of value creation, something that would be useful not just for particular communities, but to society in general? Is there perhaps a new model of power and democracy co-evolving out of these new social practices, which may be an answer to the contemporary crisis of democracy? The answer has to be an emphatic yes, supporting the argument that society is witnessing the emergence of a new model for the state. A peer-to-peer (P2P) state, if you will.

In the emerging institutional model of peer production, most visibly in the free software industry, we can distinguish an interplay between three partners: (i) a community of contributors that create a commons of knowledge, software or design; (ii) an entrepreneurial coalition that creates market value on top of that commons; and (iii) a set of for-benefit institutions which manage the infrastructure of cooperation. There is a clear institutional division of labour between these three players. The contributors create the user value that is deposited in the shared innovation commons of knowledge, design and code.

The for-benefit institution enables and defends the general infrastructure of cooperation, which makes the project collectively sustainable. For example the Wikimedia Foundation collects the funds to support the server space without which access to the Wikipedia would become impossible. The entrepreneurial coalition makes the individual contributors sustainable by providing an income; and very often they provide means for the continued existence of the for-benefit associations as well.

Amazingly though, current contributor communities are not democracies. Why is that so? Very simply, because democracy, the market and hierarchy are modes of allocation of scarce resources. In hierarchy, our superiors decide; in the market prices decide; and in a democracy ‘we the people’ decide. But, where resources are abundant – as they are with immaterial knowledge, code and design – communities contain the type of power that is meritocratic, distributed and everyone can contribute without permission. However, such a ‘permissionlessness’ requires expertise, not communal consensus. Peer production solves this tension in an elegant way a la Wikipedia.

What is the relationship between this entrepreneurial coalition and the commons from which they derive their value? The coalition supports the individual commoners in their livelihood, and may contribute to the for-benefit institution as well. For example, IBM pays salaries to the developers contributing to the Linux pool, and it supports the non-profit Linux Foundation, with subsidies. In this way, they co-produce and sustain the commons on which their success is built. Linux has become an economic joint venture of a set of companies, in the same way that Visa is an economic joint venture of a set of financial institutions. The point is that, even with shareholder companies the community’s value creation is at the core of the process; it is in other words, already an ethical economy.

Peer production also rests on the often-costly infrastructure of cooperation. There would be no Wikipedia without the funding for its servers, no free software or open hardware without similar support mechanisms. This is why open source communities have created a new social institution: the for-benefit association. It’s an important social innovation because, unlike classic non-profits or non-governmental institutions, they do not operate from the point-of-view of scarcity. The new for-benefits only have an active role in enabling and empowering the community to cooperate by provisioning its infrastructure, not by commanding its production processes. These associations exist for the sole purpose of benefitting the community of which they are the expression.

Now, what shall we call an institution that is responsible for the common good of all the participants; in this case, not the inhabitants of a territory, but of people involved in a similar project? This type of for-benefit institution has a very similar function to what we commonly assign to the state. Can we then, imagine, a new type of partner state? The Partner State, first theorized by Italian political scientist Cosma Orsi, is a state form that enables and empowers the social creation of value by its citizens. It protects the infrastructure of cooperation that is the whole of society. It does on a territorial scale, what the for-benefit institutions do on a project-scale.

Such a Partner State already exists, at least in a local embryonic form as the city of Brest. Michel Briand, assistant to the Mayor, and his team of city workers had a brilliant idea: why not use the virtual, to enhance physical social life in the city? The team created local versions of Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, helped local associations develop a online presence, invested heavily in training; and even had a physical library where citizens could borrow production material. One of their projects was the revitalization of old smuggling trails in order to attract the hiking crowd. So, they decided to ‘virtually’ enrich the trails.

And here is where their social innovation comes in: the city council did not do by substituting themselves to the citizenry (i.e. state provisioning), nor did they ask the private sector to carry this out (privatization or public-private partnerships). No, what they did was to enable and empower local teams of citizens, to create added value. Locally, the town of Stellenbosch has rolled out free Wi-Fi through crowd-sourced donations. There are of course other examples to mention as well. The Austrian region of Linz has declared itself a Commons Region; the city of Naples has created “An Assistant to the Mayor on the Commons” position, and San Francisco city council has created a Commission to promote the sharing economy.

Open source models show us a new possible reality, a model where the democratic civic sphere, productive commons and a vibrant market can co-exist for mutual benefit:

? At the core of value creation are various commons, where the innovations are deposited for all humanity to share and to build on.

? These commons are enabled and protected through non-profit civic associations, with as national equivalent the Partner State, who then empower and enable that social production.

? Around the commons emerges a vibrant commons-oriented economy undertaken by different kinds of ethical companies – whose legal structures tie them to the values and goals of the commons communities – and not absentee and private shareholders intent of maximizing profit at any cost.

Where the three circles intersect, there are the citizens deciding on the optimal shape of their provisioning systems. The only thing left to do is to have an answer to the crucial question: how does global governance look like in P2P civilization? We need to transform the global material empire, which at present dominates world affairs for the benefit of a few, and redesign the ineffectual global institutions that are presently inadequate to deal with global challenges. While peer production will undoubtedly also emerge as a drive for resilience in bad times, a really thriving commons-based society requires a Partner State: a network of democratically run for-benefit institutions that protect the common good on a territorial scale.”

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