Circulation of the Common

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The 'Circulation of the Common' = Analytical concept proposed by Nick Dyer-Witheford in a landmark essay of the same title.. It refers to the social reproduction mechanism of Peer Production, in a process analogous with the Circulation of Capital described by Marx.


URL = [1]

Contextual Citation

Nick Dyer-Witheford:

"Let us extend this term ‘commons’ in a slightly unfamiliar way. Marx suggested capitalism has a cell-form, a basic building block, from which all its apparatus of commerce and command are elaborated. This cell form was the commodity, a good produced for sale between private owners.

If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for sale, a common is a good produced, or conserved, to be shared. The notion of a commodity, a good produced for sale, presupposes private owners between whom this exchange occurs. The notion of the common presupposes collectivities – associations and assemblies – within which sharing is organised. If capitalism presents itself as an immense heap of commodities, ‘commonism’ is a multiplication of commons.

The forces of the common and the commodity – of the movement and the market – are currently in collision across the three spheres we mentioned before: the ecological, the social and the networked." (


Nick Dyer-Witheford:

"Marx showed how in capitalism, commodities moved in a circuit. Money is used to purchase labour, machinery and raw materials. These are thrown into production, creating new commodities that are sold for more money, part of which is retained as profit, and part used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities… repeat ad infinitum. Different kinds of capital – mercantile, industrial and financial – played different roles in this circuit. So, for example, the transformation of commodities into money is the role of merchant capital, involved in trade; actual production is conducted by industrial capital; and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the task of financial capital (banks, etc).

We need to think in terms of the circulation of commons, of the interconnection and reinforcements between them. The ecological commons maintains the finite conditions necessary for both social and networked commons. A social commons, with a tendency towards a equitable distribution of wealth, preserves the ecological commons, both by eliminating the extremes of environmental destructiveness linked to extremes of wealth (SUVs, incessant air travel) and poverty (charcoal burning, deforestation for land) and by reducing dependence on ‘trickle down’ from unconstrained economic growth. Social commons also create the conditions for the network commons, by providing the context of basic health, security and education within which people can access new and old media. A network commons in turn circulates information about the condition of both ecological and social commons (monitoring global environmental conditions, tracking epidemics, enabling exchanges between health workers, labour activists or disaster relief teams). Networks also provide the channels for planning ecological and social commons – organising them, resolving problems, considering alternative proposals. They act as the fabric of the association that is the sine qua non of any of the other commons.

Let’s suppose that a publicly-funded education institution (social commons) produces software and networks that are available to an open source collective (networked commons), which creates free software used by an agricultural cooperative to track its use of water and electricity (ecological commons). This is a micro model of the circulation of the common.

This is a concept of the common that is not defensive, not limited to fending off the depredations of capital on ever-diminishing collective space. Rather it is aggressive and expansive: proliferating, self-strengthening and diversifying. It is also a concept of heterogeneous collectivity, built from multiple forms of a shared logic, a commons of singularities. We can talk of common earth, a common wealth and common networks; or of commons of land (in its broadest sense, comprising the biosphere), labour (in its broadest sense, comprising reproductive and productive work) and language (in its broadest sense, comprising all means of information, communication and knowledge exchange). It is through the linkages and bootstrapped expansions of these commons that commonism emerges." (



"This paper makes theoretical propositions to assist conceive an emergent communism, a “coming community" that is neither capitalist, socialist nor anarchic, and the place within it of “immaterial labor." [1] Its argument, in brief, is as follows.

Marx deemed the cellular form of capitalism to be the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners. His model of the circulation of capital traced the metamorphosis of the commodity into money, which commands the acquisition of further resources to be transformed into more commodities. The theorists of autonomist Marxism demonstrated how this circulation of capital is also a circulation of struggles, meeting resistances at every point. But although this concept proved important for understanding the multiplicity of contemporary anti-capital, it says very little about the kind of society towards which these struggles move, a point on which the autonomist tradition has mainly been mute. Today, new theorizations about multitude and biopolitics should to reconsider this silence.

I suggest that the cellular form of communism is the common, a good produced to be shared in association. The circuit of the common traces how shared resources generate forms of social cooperation—associations-- that coordinate the conversion of further resources into expanded commons. On the basis of the circuit of capital, Marx identified different kinds of capital—mercantile, industrial and financial—unfolding at different historical moments yet together contributing to an overall societal subsumption. By analogy, we should recognise differing moments in the circulation of the common. These include terrestrial commons (the customary sharing of natural resources in traditional societies); planner commons (for example, command socialism and the liberal democratic welfare state); and networked commons, (the free associations open source software, peer-to-peer networks, grid computing and the numerous other socializations of technoscience). Capital today operates as a systemic unity of mercantile, industrial and financial moments, but the commanding point in its contemporary, neoliberal, phase is financial capital. A twenty-first century communism can, again by analogy, be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons. These must however, also be seen in their dependency on, and even potential contradiction, with the other commons sectors. The concept of a complex, composite communism based on the circulation between multiple but commons forms is opens possibilities for new combinations of convivial custom, planetary planning and autonomous association. What follows expand on these cryptic observations." (

Excerpt on 'The Circulation of the Common


"Because the practical struggles of a multiplicitous movement, and the theoretical reflections that arise in tandem with them, have over the last decade and a half reached quite a high level, we might now be able to take another step. Having gone from the circulation of capital to the circulation of struggles, we can proceed from the circulation of struggles to the circulation of the common.

The common, and the commons, are terms that have amongst activists recently become, well, common. The usual point of reference is the lands collectively used for subsistence purposes by pre-capitalist agricultural communities and destroyed by enclosure in the process of primitive accumulation.[9] Although enclosure was resisted by overt and clandestine insurrections whose full dimensions were only recently disclosed by Peter Linebaugh and Maurice Rediker’s account of a “hydra-headed" rebellion, these struggles were lost.[10] But interest in the commons has been revived by opponents of global capital seeking a vantage from which to criticise the “new enclosures" privatizing of natural and social resources across the planet.[11] Some accounts romanticise the historical commons as a pre-capitalist utopia, rather than a marginal supplement to a hierarchic feudal order. Others invoke the commons only the better to plan their commercialization. But the concept remain an important lever for rethinking issues of collective production and ownership, and it is to this end, and with a profound debt to theorists such as John McMurtry and Massimo de Angelis who have already thought along these lines, that it is deployed here.[12]

If the cellular form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of communism is the common. A commodity is a good produced for exchange. A common is a good produced for shared use. Capital is an immense heap of commodities. Communism is a multiplication of commons.

The commodity, a good produced for exchange, presupposes private owners between whom such exchange occurs. The common presupposes collectivities within which sharing occurs, collectivities that coordinate, organise and plan this sharing. I will call these collectivities Associations.

We can thus postulate a circulation of the common. This traces how associations of various types, from tribal assemblies to socialist cooperatives or open source networks organise shared resources into productive ensembles that create more shared resources which in turn provide the basis for the formation of new associations. If C here represents not a Commodity but Commons, and A stands for Association the basic formulae is therefore: A ─ C ─ A'. This can then be elaborated as:

A ─ C . . . P . . . C' ─ A'; repeat ad infinitum.

Two notes on this formulae. First: we are dealing not only with Commons instead of Commodities, but with Associations instead of Money. The implication is that collective organization, not market exchange, governs the distribution of Commons, whether through mutual aid, public planning or gift economies. We will discuss this later. Second: in this formulation, the resources organised by Association into Commons production cannot be described as Labor Power and Means of Production, because these terms imply precisely the reductive abstraction and alienation that is inherent to commodity accumulation. To indicate that human creativity and ecological riches become something other than just factors of production when organized through Association , they are labeled here as GI, General Intellect and NM, Natural Metabolism. These may be the wrong terms, but we won’t discuss this further, because it is the topic for another paper.

If an agricultural Association (A) on the basis of its successful cultivation of a Common banana plantation (C) joins together with other such Associations, first to place more lands under cultivation, and then to form a industrial packing plant which then provides the nucleus for further cooperatively conducted activities, we have a circulation of commons. If the Associative organization of a publicly funded education system researches collectively created software that provides the basis for open source associations (A’) we have a circulation of commons. And if these open source software is then made freely available to our initial agricultural cooperative to enable its planning activities, we have a further circulation. The circulation of the common is thus a dynamic in which commons grow, elaborate, proliferate and diversify in a movement of counter-subsumption against capital, generating the “complex and composite" forms of communism.

We can describe this composite complexity by analogy with Marx’s differentiation of specific sub-circuits within the circulation of capital. Similarly we can differentiate specific moments in the circuit of the common, moments which give varied priorities in the basic relation of Associations and Commons, and which also have, at varying historical moments had a different weight or importance. So, we might speak of:

Primitive communism (so called), based on a terrestrial commons that involves the sharing of natural resources, such as land, game, firewood and water, on the basis of associations shaped by custom. In so as these associations take as their foundation the apparently given quality of natural resources, we can say they proceed from Commons to Association (C-A).

In contrast, various forms of planner commons emerged as radical project for the public ownership and state management in the factories and urban conurbations of the industrial revolution. Insofar as these centered on the marshalling of new industrial capacities of production into forms of collectivity, they proceeded from Production to Commons (P-C). The main examples are the command economies of authoritarian socialism and the welfare state of liberal capitalism, bit there are also the important minoritarian traditions of the cooperative and self-management movements.

Finally, a networked commons proceeds on the basis of social communicative capacities, from language on up, that enable Associative practices to occur. So the movement here is from A-C. Today we are seeing an explosion of new developments in this sub-circuit, including open source software, peer-to-peer networks, grid computing and other socializations of labor intrinsic to high technoscience, which we will discuss further in the next section.

Like the different types of capital, these different forms of commons have blossomed or blazed at distinct historical epochs. Indeed, the varying forms of capital and commons should be seen as each summoning each other, or provoking one another into being. Thus terrestrial commons were attacked by the forces of mercantile capital, which in doing so lay the basis for the industrial capitalism to which the planner commons was a response. The temporary success of these largely state based commons was then undermined by the fluid mobility of finance capital, whose appearance is however, inextricably tied up with the development of a means of communication—the Internet—which provided the basis for the mergence of networked commons. The concept of the cycle of struggles can be re-written as the story of this antagonistic spiral, between the circulation of capital and the circulation of the commons." (

More Information