On the Differences between the Pre-Capitalist Commons and the Post-Capitalist Commons

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Gregory Wilpert:

"Pre-capitalist commons have a several characteristics that simply do not apply to post-capitalist commons or, at least, do not apply in the same way. For example, one key difference is that pre-capitalist commons, such as the typical shared grazing land or the shared fishery, was based on scarce but renewable resources. As a result, clearly defined boundaries (characteristic #1) and rules governing resource appropriation (#2) play a central role in scarce resource commons. After all, if everyone can appropriate as much of the commons resources as they want (grassland or fish, for example), the resource will become depleted and no one would be able to take advantage of it any more. Post-capitalist commons, which tend to be knowledge-based, are potentially limitless or non-scarce (or “non-rival”), and thus these principles do not apply to them. Similarly, the 8th characteristic that Ostrom mentions, the need for multiple layers of organization in large-scale commons is also not as necessary in post-capitalist commons. The reason for this is that post-capitalist commons are based on networking and peer-to-peer principles that do not need hierarchical forms of organization in order to function efficiently.

All of the foregoing, about the difference between pre- and post-capitalist commons, does not mean that scarce-resource commons are irrelevant for post-capitalist commons. As a matter of fact, they can be extremely important, as is the case if we consider the planet’s ecosystem a global commons, which needs to be protected and where we need a collectively organized system or rules on how to interact with the global ecosystem. The main reason for making a differentiation between pre- and post-capitalist commons is to point at the differences in consciousness that the two require in order to function well.

There is a third type of commons, though, which we should identify, which also functions under a different type of consciousness from the previous two: the capitalist commons. This might appear to be a contradiction in terms, since we normally consider capitalism to be a system that militates against the principles of the commons. After all, the pre-capitalist commons were largely destroyed with the on-set of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 However, while capitalism was beginning as a form of exploiting workers, some thinkers who wanted to find a less exploitative and less alienating form of production, such as Robert Owen, proposed the creation of cooperatives. If we consider cooperatives to be a form of commons (the capitalist form), this type managed the shared social resource of labor opportunities, instead of a natural resource." (http://www.spanda.org/SpandaJournal_VII,1.pdf)