Capitalism and the Commons

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* Article: Capitalism and the Commons. By Adam Arvidsson.Theory, Culture & Society, 2019



"This article investigates the potential role of the commons in the future transformation of digital capitalism by comparing it to the role of the commons in the transition to capitalism. In medieval and early modern Europe the commons supported gradual social and technological innovation as well as a new civil society organized around the combination of commons-based petty production and new ideals of freedom and equality. Today the new commons generated by the global real subsumption of ordinary life processes are supporting similar forms of commons-based petty production. After positioning the new petty producers within the framework of the crisis of digital capitalism, the article concludes by extrapolating a number of hypothetical scenarios for their role in its future transformation."


"The paper divides in four sections.

  • After some background and a preliminary definition of key concepts (like ‘capitalism’ and ‘commons’),
  • I revisit the role of the commons in the development and crisis of European feudalism.
  • The following section seeks to untangle the complicated relation between modern capitalism and the commons, and identify the specific role of the commons in contemporary digital capitalism.
  • The fourth section suggests that the socialized nature of the digital commons is driving a revitalization of forms of commons- based petty production similar to those that contributed to undermining the feudal order in the 13th and 14th centuries, and draws up a number of hypothetical scenarios for the possible future transformation of digital capitalism that might result from this."



  1. Medieval Commons ; Medieval Commonism and the Ideologies of Ethical Markets‎
  2. Markets and Commons
  3. Anti-Markets ; Markets without Capitalism‎
  4. Crucial Roles of Petty Producers in the Transition to Capitalism

Author's Summary

Adam Arvidsson:

" What is the role of the commons in the future of digital capitalism? What scenarios do the growing economic and cultural significance of digital commons like Free an Open Source Software, Commons Based Peer Production and, lately, blockchain technologies entail? This essay suggest that as well as a significant source of resistance to capitalism, the digital commons also support new forms of market oriented ‘petty production’ (to use Marx’ term). In many ways, this is similar to the role that the commons - rural and urban - played in the crisis of feudalism in the European Late Middle Ages. Then as now, the commons were a powerful source of alternative lifestyles and social movements. They were also crucial to the development of a new market society that became a source of significant technological, institutional and cultural innovation, laying the foundation for a new capitalist mode of production. In the last section of the paper, I speculate on whether the digital commons can support a similar process of market-driven social transformation, and on how this might change the nature of digital capitalism in the decades to come. I have chosen the experience of European feudalism in the 12th to 14th centuries as my main point of comparison, rather than the ‘original accumulation’ of the long sixteenth century, and the Polanyian Great Transformation of the industrial revolution, which have been the most important historical references for contemporary scholarship on the anti-capitalist commons. This is not to suggest that we are in a new Middle Age, as Umberto Eco famously did in the 1970s (Eco, 1977), but rather to highlight the possible role of commons-based market actors in driving social change."

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