Commons – Governance

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Summary by Natalie Pang:

"Benkler argued that the commons can be divided into four types based on two parameters.

The first parameter identified by Benkler ‘is whether they are open to anyone or only to a defined group’. Thus:

Commons type 1: If a commons is open to anyone, Benkler calls it an open commons. Examples are the ocean, air, water, and highway systems.

Commons type 2: If a commons is open only to a defined group he calls it a limited access commons. An example is a private golf course.

Benkler’s second parameter Benkler is ‘whether a commons system is regulated or unregulated’. Thus:

Commons type 3: A commons without rules is an unregulated commons. Example: unexplored outer space.

Commons type 4: A commons ordered by rules is a regulated commons. Examples: Wikipedia or a library.

Benkler’s typology it is clear that pairings types 1 or 2 must be paired with types 3 or 4 in order to describe the design of a particular commons, whether that design has emerged from tradition or whether it has been deliberately created. So while an information commons may be manifested as a repository of knowledge resources, its forms may differ (e.g. it may be open to anyone/everyone and unregulated; or it may only be open to a defined group but its use is unregulated within that group; or it may be open to anyone/everyone but regulated in that anyone who uses it needs to adhere to certain rules).

Source: Yochai Benkler in "The Political Economy of Commons", in Upgrade, juin 2003, vol. IV, n° 3,


Ostrom on the 9 principles of governance

Summary from Elinor Ostrom in her book Governing the Commons at

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.

2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.

3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.

5. A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.

6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.

7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.

8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

In chapter 4 of the book "Inequality, Cooperation and Environmental Sustainability" edited by Baland, Bardhan & Bowles, Princeton University Press, 2007., co-authored with Marco Janssen, entitled, "Adoption of a new regulation for the governance of common-pool resources by a heterogeneous population," she adds a 9th principle to the top of her list of, "crucial foundations for self-governed resource use."

She writes:

9. Accurate information about the condition of the resource and the expected flow of benefits and costs are available at low cost to the participants leading to a common understanding of likely consequences of continuing the status quo as contrasted with feasible changes in rules."

Against the Commons as a Resource Pool

Anthony McCann argues that seeing Commons as resources actually reinforces their Enclosure:

"discourses of “the commons” tend to be dominated by resource management models of “the commons”. It has also been suggested that a discursive dominance of resource management models tends to be symptomatic and constitutive of commodification and the process and practices of enclosure. If this is the case, then it makes sense that any dominance of resource management models in a particular discourse serves as an invitation to further investigation. A dominance of resource management models may be indicative not only of commodifying discourse, but of the extensions of absolute authorities and the presence of doctrine, and of the accelerative and intensifying impetus of enclosing dynamics. This is not necessarily so, but is worth checking for. It is also worth checking whether the discursive dominance of resource management notions foster and facilitate the profoundly impactful structural blindnesses to the implications of our own participation that also tend to be symptomatic of enclosure.

It is not inevitable that resource management models be used to speak of “the commons”. My critique of commodification and enclosure is also, then, a critique of the use of resource management discourse as an analytic framework for the study and critique of enclosure. This brings me to an interesting place, for, as it happens, resource management models have become the dominant models both for the study of enclosure and for the promotion of notions of “the commons” or “the commons”. I would suggest that this is not a coincidence, but rather a deepening of the enclosing dynamics that are and have been at work in these discourses, as new orthodoxies take root and old ones are given new life through the novelties of renaming. Foucault (1972) cautioned against academic circularity, noting that our scholarly discourses and practices may well be systematically forming the objects of which we speak. In and through the “discursive feedback” identified here, I would suggest that we may, through the current orthodoxies of "commons" discourse, systematically participate in the dynamics that we critique." (

More Information

  1. Our general article about the Commons and Enclosure
  2. Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Ostrom, Elinor
  3. Hess, Charlotte