Beyond Commodity

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Stefan Meretz:

"In her studies Elinor Ostrom found, that “neither the state nor the market” is a successful means for commons management (1990). Based on traditional economics she analyzed the practices of natural commons and finally simply proved liberal dogmatics wrong. Markets are not a good way to allocate resources, and the State is not a good way to re-distribute wealth and manage the destructive results of markets. Best results occur if the people organize themselves according to their needs, experiences and creativity and treat resources and goods not as commodities, but as common pool resources.

This is exactly what happens in Free Software. Interestingly it took many years to understand that Free Software is a commons and that it is basically identical to what Elinor Ostrom and others were talking about much earlier. One weak aspect of the traditional commons research and the early phase of Free Software was that a clear notion of a commodity and a non-commodity did not exist. It was the Oekonux Project which clearly said: Free Software is not a commodity. This dictum is closely related to the insight that Free Software is not exchanged (cf. pattern 1).

Critics from the left argued that being a non-commodity is limited to the realm of immaterial goods like software. From their viewpoint Free Software is only an “anomaly” (Nuss, Heinrich 2002), while “normal” goods in capitalism have to be commodities. This assumption, however, is closely linked to the acceptance of the scarcity dogma (cf. pattern 2). Moreover, it treats capitalism as a kind of normal or natural mode of production under conditions of “natural scarcity” (as they think). This view completely turns real relations upside down. Capitalism could only establish itself by enclosing the commons, by depriving the people from their traditional access to resources in order to transform them into workers. This enclosure of the commons is an ongoing process. Capitalism can only exist if it continuously separates people from resources by making them artificially scarce. A commodity – as nice as it may appear in the shopping malls – is a result of an ongoing violent process of enclosure and dispossession.

The same process occurs in software. Proprietary software is a way of dispossessing the scientific and development community from their knowledge, experiences, and creativity. Free Software was first a defensive act of maintaining common goods common. However, since software is at the forefront of the development of productive forces it quickly turned into a creative process of overcoming the limitations and alienations of proprietary software. In a special field Free Software established a new mode of production which is going to spread into other realms (cf. pattern 10).

Goods which are not made artificially scarce and are not subject to exchange are not commodities, but commons." (


From the comments area [1]:

Christian Siefkes

"I agree that they are not commodities, but are they really always commons? Free software is certainly a commons, since everybody can use it, improve it, share it. But what if a bakery was operating in the same way, producing goods (bread etc.) that aren’t made artificially scarce and aren’t subject to exchange. The bakery is probably a commons, but what about the bread? If I eat it, nobody else can eat it, which doesn’t seem right for a commons.

Personally, I usually say that such projects produce “commons or possession [Besitz]”, leaving it open whether goods that are produced for personal possession, usage and consumption (but not for sale/commercialization) are really commons, or whether they are something else, a third category of goods. I would be interested to learn more about how you see that, and whether you would really consider such goods as commons."

Stefan Meretz

(24.11.2011, 23:08 Uhr)

"I agree with you: The conclusion is a bit shortened. Additionally I would add, that goods never by itself »are« commons, but can be treated as commons if some responsible people decide to do so. Does that also answer your question about a »third category of goods«?"

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