Culture of the Commons in a Time of Civilizational Transition

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* Title: The culture of the Commons in a time of civilizational transition.

  • Transcript of aLecture By Michel Bauwens, P2P foundation, in Ghent, Belgium, 2023, at the R.U.G. at the invitation of TepLab


Michel Bauwens:


The emergence of digital networks has vastly increased capacities for non-territorial coordination. The emergence of digital networks have created a challenge for traditional institutional governance modalities, including the world of art and culture.

It is our contention that a new logic of governance is emerging as a result of these changes in human organization:

People are creating and collaborating online and creating vast depositories of shared knowledge, through a logic of contributions, i.e. open systems that allow for permissionless contributions of members of a particular domain, with new types of quality control that occur ‘after’ the contribution People may generate livelihoods that create added value around these common pools. This is done through online communities, around the ecosystem, building shared knowledge, free software and open designs.

Finally, these ecosystems tend to create ‘for-benefit associations’ that manage the ‘infrastructure of cooperation’.

In the following lecture, given by Michel Bauwens for the Teatro Meia Volta in Lissabon, on October 25, these deep changes resulting from the emerging logic of ‘commons-based peer production’ are contextualized in the larger topic of civilizational change. At stake is the understanding of the commons in this process, following a particular hypothesis of the ‘pulsation of the commons’. This reading of history stresses the alternating ebb and flow of the extractive oriented institutions of the market and the state, and the preserving and regenerative institution and practice of the commons. As our global system entered into a ‘polycrisis’ with multiple dimensions, the re-emergence of the commons deserves our attention and understanding. As often, artists and cultural workers are prefiguring and adapting to these signals, often more so than other communities.

Figure 1: this ‘graphic mandala’ of the lecture was produced by artist Juliane Höhle; (; Contact via twitter @JulianeHoehle

Transcipt of the Lecture

Michel Bauwens: Just to give a little context. The P2P Foundation is a network of people who observe the emergence of peer to peer dynamics. People’s capacity to coordinate trends locally, transnationally, and create collaborations through the digital world that meshes with the physical world. This enables the capacity to build shared knowledge through The Commons.

These are commonly constructed, protected knowledge bases that inform the practice of communities, whether they are learning or producing, etc..

So I studied open source communities, free software, open hardware, open design, and then I went on to study urban commons. I did a study actually here in the city of Ghent in 2017 for the previous mayor (Bauwens & Onzia, 2017). In this mapping project, we looked at the fact that there were 50 urban commons in Ghent in 2008 and 500 in 2016.

This means a tenfold increase in urban commoning in just ten years. And you know, since we've seen that happening and we've seen documentation on the same trends in Flanders, Belgium, Netherlands, Catalonia and other places. It’s a real trend happening on the ground. Our last book is called The Cosmo-Local Reader (Bauwens et al. 2021). The book is about actual physical production: Communities that create things locally through distributed manufacturing, but connect transnationally with the global open design communities that they are associated with and need for their work.

So I'm not sure if you know this, but there's a network in Europe of 120 multi factories (Salati, 2018). These are craftspeople who look for, you know, seek cheap rents in old factories at the fringes of European cities, then create a co-op and cooperate in what they call an Invisible Factory. This factory is their commons where they share their design in these hundred and twenty different places in Europe.

That's a typical CosmoLocal production outfit. And so that's the work we do. But then COVID came and I was personally stuck in my adopted home town of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I don't complain because it is a very nice place to be stuck in. I took the opportunity of the isolation to look at macro history So my goal was to look at the place of the commons within a very large historical canvas. And so I started reading macrohistorians starting with Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, and then Toynbee, The Study of History, and Carrol Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations, and many of these kinds of authors. What I bring today is a kind of interpretation of the role of the Commons, not just today, but in a very big scale narrative of the evolution of humankind, and I would say even the web of life.

Let’s first define what a civilization is. It's a very contentious word, but basically, by making a synthesis of different authors, this is what you end up with: in order to have a civilization, it has to be organized as a complex social order containing separated social groups (castes, classes). It also has to have written language, a division of labor and a separate army that is distinct from the general population, in contrast with tribal organizations where the whole population is armed. This means that a caste or class structure is inherent to the civilizational model, which is maintained by some kind of repressive apparatus.

The first author I would like to talk to you about is really quite controversial as he was a national conservative in the twenties in Germany. The fact remains that every macro historian after Spengler is really dialoguing with Spengler. So he may be wrong in many ways, but he's wrong in an interesting way. Everybody that wrote later had to deal with his theses.

And his thesis is the following, it’s basically that a civilization is like an organism or a plant. It's born, matures, gets old and dies; and this is just inevitable. Basically, if you live in a civilization, there's nothing you can do about that. Maybe you can delay this a little bit and give it a new lease of life for a while, but that’s it. There's some kind of determinism, an ‘organismic’ determinism in how civilization evolves.

He says they don't learn from each other. A civilization is a kind of independent organism that doesn't learn from its neighbors, It is driven by an internal logic. And so you might think this is a strange thesis, and it probably is, but it's also very generative. For example, what really works if you follow that methodology is that you shouldn't compare Europe today with China today, but what you have to do is compare the end of the Roman civilization with the end of the Western civilization, with the end of the Chinese revolution civilization, etc … That method yields amazing correspondences.

For example, think about the end of the Roman Empire; you have Stoicism, Epicureanism and Christianity, and those are like coping philosophies, but they don't promise any utopia. If you're a Stoic, become independent of whatever is happening around you. Stay calm in the storm. Epicurus says go back with your friends to a garden and don't worry about politics. The Christians, on the other hand, say: don't worry about this world, rather, prepare for the next one in which your soul will dwell for eternity. So you can then look at the end of the Chinese civilization at some point, and you will find out that this particular juncture in the evolution of civilization, the same type of ideas, the same type of processes are at play.

The other thing that is so interesting with Spengler is, if you live today in the West and you read that book, it's just absolutely scary when you compare it to the end of Rome. I mean, the number of correspondences that, you know, are unlocked by reading Spengler and then seeing what happens today. So, for example, you might think that this hyper commodification that we have in neoliberal capitalism is really typical for our period only - That it's really something typically capitalist and western. Well, it actually happened in Rome and in Byzantium as well: they abolished feudal relationships on the land and made it into a pure commodity. So around the same time in the evolution of these civilizations, you see these very similar processes happening. Another example, when people start and stop making children, that's like a sign. That's the end of civilization. So I think in 155 A.D or so, some emperor wanted to force the Romans to have children and marry and It didn’t work. So Italy was emptied out, then Gaul, then Spain, then North Africa. So by the time the Germanic tribes came in, nobody was really there in sufficient numbers to defend the western part of the Roman Empire - It was empty.

This is a scary aspect of Spengler where you find this enormous amount of correspondence between the current time and what happened in other end times. Historical patterns identified in other places and times are visibly recurring today.

Another particular thing about Europe in Spengler is that he doesn't see it in a classic, medieval and modern scheme; but he claims that there were three succeeding civilizations over the same territory. We have the classical civilization, exemplified by the Roman Republic, which derived from the Greek polis and the Hellenic Empire of Alexander. But then the Roman Empire that came after the Republic was actually another civilization, It was the Middle East that had taken over. In other words, all the architects in Rome around the third and fourth century are Syrians and Iraqis, and they build buildings that no longer look like classical buildings.

They look like the buildings that you will see in the Orthodox countries and in Islamic architecture. And then he says that the year 1000 A.D marked the real beginning of Europe. The Germanic tribes, and their now christianized mentalities, kind of took over with the Ottonian dynasty in the Holy Roman Empire. That's really the start of Western civilization. So in other words, if you think that, as he says, that a civilization is about 1000 years old, you can make your calculation, this is where we are, at the end of a cycle started by Otto II in 998 A.D.

One person who really reacted to Spengler was Arnold Toynbee. He came from the English part of European civilization and wrote a 12 volume study of history.

The abridged version of 2 volumes is quite meaty by itself. He already starts challenging and updating Spengler. For example, he says the idea that civilizations don't evolve, that it is just an endless repetition - That's false. He sees an underlying growth in technological level, in knowledge that goes across civilizations. My preliminary interpretation (I haven't finished the Toynbee) is that there are three generations, the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian is the first layer. Then you have the period with the axial religions that come with a kind of ethics and challenge the pure mythological forms which until then had been the kind of reigning mentality. So then you get the Greek polis (where the invention of the non-imaged alphabet helps develop more abstract thinking), Buddhism and Christianity and all these various emergences. And then, of course, the industrial phase is a third layer. By following this logic, we can then try to conceive how we can see the next decades as perhaps actually a fourth generation civilization. Because civilization is a relationship between the land and the city, it's a time and space based organization. And today we have a very strong innovation, which is non-territorial self-organization, the capacity to create huge networks of cooperation, coordination that go beyond any single physical space. You could argue that this is calling for a deep reorganization of how civilization has functioned until now. So how do we make this kind of connection between the geographic which we know and the non geographic, which has reached a scale that was not possible before?

When you read Toynbee, you could say that we have three interlocking complex adaptive systems. We have first nature and climate, the physical world in which humans live.

We then have society and culture as the second layer, the human society itself.

And then you have the kind of brain mind constellation, the way that people over time change their mental structures, best described by Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin.

This allows us to look at how these three complex adaptive systems change in relation to one another. The basic concepts of Toynbee on their interaction is “challenge in response”.

So you have the post-glacialization (the melting of the ice after the Ice Age), starting around 12,000 BC or so. The process that actually creates ‘civilization’. You have a desiccation of North Africa drying up and you have a “swampification” of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The river deltas are overflowing because the sea level goes up by 120 meters. For Toynbee, civilization is a response to that challenge.

It's the people living in those regions that say: well, no, we don't want to go away, we want to keep living here. And that means we need to manage the water. And that then creates civilization, these complex societies that know how to deal with water and start producing grains and rice at a much higher rate. Another of Toynbee’s concepts is the one of universal empire and universal church. I will briefly explain that.

So again, we have here the vision of a civilization’s life cycle, and the end state of the civilization for Toynbee. This is very similar to Spengler: the existence of a universal empire. In other words, this kind of integrated territory, which has been the subject of rivalry between different states and countries and empires, ends up pretty much being dominated by one single force.

So at the end of a civilization cycle, you have something like the Roman Empire, at its most extensive. So that's what Toynbee calls the universal state. It also means that the task of the empire is to care for everybody within the empire. So at some point in the Roman history, you have the shift from an ethnic state, i.e. Rome as a city, taking care of the Roman citizens in the city, to the situation which says, well, everybody who lives within the Roman Empire is protected and taken care by the Empire.

So all the rights are extended throughout the universal empire, but that's also the moment when the empire starts slowly disintegrating. This happens when the costs of managing complexity become overwhelming. The universal church emerges when the empire loses its capacity to take care and protect its citizens. Spiritual movements will come up, that will start to do what the state can no longer do and hence will get more and more loyalty from the people.

So, for example, by the time the Germanic invaders arrive in the Roman provinces; these tribes are not able to manage this complexity that they find in a civilization. The only people they can rely on will be, in the case of Rome, the Christian churches because they're the ones organizing the people when the state has collapsed and providing the basic services as well as having the loyalty of these populations.

The universal churches create the seed forms for the civilization’s next phase. These new hegemonic forces, in this case the Germanic tribes, will have to make a compromise with this universal church or churches. That is really the basis of the next cycle of a new type of civilization.

Important to understand that a universal church is a tremendous ‘trans-valuation’ of the former empire. They are not the same. Think about the concept and practice of ‘ work’ for the Romans and the Greeks in the classical civilization: labour is for slaves and the ideal of a citizen is not to labour but rather work on himself or herself to become a better citizen.

And they can do that because they have the slaves. But for the Christians, originally a religion of the working slaves, they say, oh, no, we have to work and pray: as the expression went: ‘ora et labora’. Work becomes an expression of their religion. In their view, God creates order in the world and we Christians, we have to help the divine create more order in the world.

So from now on we have a new civilization where we have to work, it’s good to work, and that's a tremendous transvaluation, a deep change of values that can be read as a ‘reversal’. The universal church of the Christians is not just like a continuation of the Roman Empire, it brings a whole set of new values. And those values will be the basis of a new civilizational cycle. This is what we call the ‘seed forms’. I will talk about the commons as seed forms later on. Essentially, when a civilization declines and its old logic stops functioning, alternatives will be born by those seeking better alternatives (or simply to survive in a declining society). Logically, these solutions will carry another incipient logic. The logic of the seed forms, themselves subjected to Darwinian processes of trial and error, and subject to social tensions (elites may still be able to filter which of the emerging practices it allows or tries to destroy), will determine the new underlying logic of the post-transitional civilizational order.

Next on our list of macrohistorians is Caroll Quigley, who is an American historian who reacted to Spengler, just as Toynbee reacted from the UK. He has a very interesting notion that I think is very powerful. It's called the ‘ instrument of expansion’. In order to be a civilization, we need the capacity to create a surplus, either through conquest from the outside or through higher productivity internally, for example by improving agricultural production.

An instrument of expansion, for example, in the European context would be: feudalism, commercial capitalism and industrial capitalism. At some point these instruments turn into an institution, and an institution starts caring only for itself and for maintaining its privileges. After a while, it can no longer function on its instrument of expansion, which means the society and civilization using it will start to weaken and degenerate.

So you have these ascending and descending cycles. Feudalism turns into chivalry and creates a crisis of feudalism. Commercial capitalism ends up in mercantilism. Industrialism creates monopoly capitalism and creates a crisis of industrial capitalism. Toynbee doesn't talk about it, but we could think that neoliberalism was an instrument of expansion as well. This may be justified because it succeeded after the big crises of WWI and WWII; re-inventing a new form of colonialism and to tap into the surplus of global trade generated by unequal terms of trade, etc.,

Which then itself turns into an institution, exemplified by hyper financial exploitation which starts eating up the society, and then it stops being an instrument of expansion. That's the end of a civilization, unless you find another instrument of expansion.

Why is this interesting compared to Spengler? The reason is that Spengler is completely deterministic but Quigley says, no, you can always find a new instrument of expansion. If you don't find it, you're done. But if you find a new one, maybe you can go on and have a new cycle. So that's a bit more non deterministic, and allows for agency in ‘saving civilization’, something impossible for Spengler.

Lastly, we have to pay attention to a whole set of authors that are more materialistic. Spengler, Toynbee, and Quigley, are to a certain degree still integrative Renaissance thinkers. They think there is a material basis, but there's also a spiritual life. Societies have a soul, so these authors look for the internal (subjectivity, culture, spirituality) as well as the external. They spend a lot of time on ideas. Spengler believes actually that every civilization has a particular cultural priority, he calls it the prime symbol and he claims to have uncovered the prime symbols of the civilizations he has studied.

These authors look for something particular that gives dynamism to a particular civilization. The authors we are discussing now can be post-Marx's or neo-Marxists, like Wallerstein, and all are materialist in their outlook, i.e. looking for material causes. So they look more at power, armies, the details of the political economy. But they are also quite interesting. Here are just a few things which are, I think, interesting to think about.

David Wilkinson, for example, has a very interesting thesis called Central Civilization. One example would be the end of the Roman Empire. Well, not exactly, because that's how we think here on the western side of Europe. But it actually moved to Byzantium. So it never died, or at least for another thousand years. So what Wilkinson is saying is that there's always been since 3000 B.C., a central civilization which never collapsed, it just moved location.

There's always been a network of cities that continue to exist at the civilization level. I think this is quite interesting in terms of expectations for collapse: a lot of things can go wrong and can collapse and can decline, but probably there will be some sections in the world that will maintain a certain level of civilization.

I think it's worth thinking about. Peter Turchin, who has created a database called Shesta. It collects timelines, every material data of the history of civilization like pricing levels, volumes of grain, numbers of people in the army. I mean, everything that you can quantify that has been quantified.

It's an enormous amount of work. And of course, the idea is to be more scientific in historical interpretations.

So for the anarchists among us, the bad news is that there is no single example ever of any society with more than 200,000 people that didn't have extensive hierarchy and a bureaucracy. Smaller ones yes, but above that level, no single example had ever existed.

The people we have seen so far all agree about the cyclical nature of every civilization, phase A and Phase B , ascending vs descending phases. Here the notion of the commons will become important. So a civilization is based on extraction, on having a ‘instrument of expansion’, as it needs a surplus. So the first phase of a civilization is the phase of expansion; growing in size and productivity.

But that has two corollaries : one is population growth and second, the luxury needs of the ruling class. So those two things grow in the extractive phase of civilization until the point where it has overgrown the capacity of its regional basis to cope with this population growth and luxury needs. And then, of course, you have the decline phase setting in.

Low growth is followed by decline, stagnation may lead to collapse, This is universal. The book Secular Cycles from Peter Turchin shows that this happens in every single agricultural based civilization, no exception. So if you look then at the Handy’s study (Motesharrei et al. 2014), which is a very vast study of many political entities that have existed since the Neolithic. They all eventually ‘collapsed' and disappeared, without a single exception.

The two elements of the collapse they note are the following.

The more unequal the society, the more insulated the ruling class, the more it can overshoot and the deeper and longer will be the transition.

The less that happens, the softer the fall and the shorter the transition. This means that social equality is not just a luxury, but a vital aspect to diminish the pain of transitions.

I think this is very interesting.

One of the examples you could look at is the Ottomans, who lasted for 500 years and they had a solution, an extreme one, to say the least. When a new sultan would come up, they would kill all the brothers and the nephews and everybody. They kept the ruling class much smaller than usual. And they also used slaves for the administration so that they could remove incompetent or disloyal managers.

The real Ottomans didn't have the right to have a job in the army or in the administration. These are techniques that they used lasted for 500 years, which is exceptionally long for one continuous regime. So we should say a word about capitalism in this kind of context and this is where the work of Karl Polanyi comes in, in his landmark study, The Great Transformation. For example, his ‘lib lab’ theory is very interesting, and focuses on cycles within capitalism.

Basically what happens is that as long as you still have separate, yet interconnected civilizations, you have this cycle: phase A followed by Phase B, i.e a fast growth phase followed by stagnation/decline within each of them. But, once you have the global system emerging as of the 16th century, what you then have is basically a serial exhaustion of frontiers and that's an entirely different dynamic, since it is less sensitive to ‘regional exhaustion’. A region might be exhausted, but the food to the world system will then come from another region.

This new system has lasted for 400 years, which is exceptionally long, but it has done so by serially exhausting frontiers so that you can live in a particular country like Belgium. Maybe the food production is affected in a single region because the soil is exhausted, but it doesn't matter because you're going to get the food from somewhere else.

Of course, this works only until you reach the stage where you have global overshoot. Then you have a problem because then there's nowhere to go. So if you look at China, the Mayas, Rome, you see this kind of succession of capital cities. When a region is exhausted, they move or they get replaced by another political power within the same civilizational sphere, or the same power chooses a new capital. For example you have Rome, Constantinople, Ravenna as capitals of the Roman Empire which continues to exist despite these changes. It's like a similar continuous movement of the capitals in China and also in Mexico and the Yucatan region. When there is exhaustion, you can go to another region. Once you have exhausted every region, you are in an entirely different problem.

Now is the time to introduce the idea of the commons. I refer first to a marvelous book by Mark Whitaker, (2021); who is a professor in Seoul, working on a ‘Green Theory of History’. His book is called ‘Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe’. The book covers the ebb and flow of politically motivated environmental degradation and popular ‘regenerative’ resistance in ancient China, medieval Japan and Post-Roman Europe.

The main idea is that whenever you have a declining period in the state or market led economy, it's also at the same time a regenerative period for the commons. Sounds contradictory, but the local people, the ones who are actually close to the soil which they need to survive: they return to commoning whenever there's a decline phase.

So you have this kind of decline and growth of civilization, and then the mirror image is; you have the decline and growth of the commons within those cycles. When things go well, the commons decline and weaken. When things go bad, the commons grow and become stronger. This dynamic is extremely well documented in his book.

Let me give you two examples of the role of the commons in transition periods. The basic idea of a transition of complex adaptive systems is that they can only be chaotic - there are no examples in history of smooth transitions. You first need disintegration before the new order can be born. When a particular civilization is not able to cope with the existing complexity because of a lack of resources, it becomes too expensive to expand or even to maintain the existing level of complexity, it starts shrinking. The other scenario is that you have a new engine of complexity like the printing press in the 15th century or the Internet today which creates an explosion of differentiation so that the ideational glue of the existing institutions cannot cope. The result is fragmentation and polarization. Fragmentation because the glue is dissolving and the institutions that held the society together are losing their integrative capacities.

In Toynbee’s terminology, the universal state is no longer able to care, there's no more money, etc… There’s war, Civil War and, there will be emerging forces that want to re-simplify the civilization at a lower and more simpler level of integration, reducing the differentiation and complexity.

Let's think about the Christian ‘Revolution’ in the 5th century in Rome. Although Christianity built a civilization a few hundred years later, at the time of this transition, it's an engine of simplification. It evolves from the pagan pluralism to the Christian dogmas, from the complex trading complexes and cities to local production in the feudal domains.

I would argue that the 15th century is an example of a higher level of integration. Why? Because you have three centuries of civil war. And the Puritans, for example, said that they didn’t want ungodly people in the government.

This tension was eventually solved by creating a civic religion around the monarch as Hobbes argued, and by focusing on trade, as Adam Smith argued. The tryptic of capital, state and nation becomes a new integrating factor, but religion is not suppressed. Religion has just moved to the margins. People can still believe. So in other words, it didn't destroy the religious complexity, but allowed it to continue to exist, but absorbed in a higher level of integration and unification.

Would that be possible today, would we go ‘up’ or ‘down’ ? Nate Hagens, for example, talks about the Great Simplification.

Is there a way to go smoothly down if we cannot go up? Is there a way to go smoothly down that is not chaotic? That is not full of war? I would argue that the commons can play a role in avoiding the most dire outcomes.

As an example of what can be done, I’m referring to a contemporary movement in the world, or rather trend, called ‘Factor 20 Reduction’, which has been documented by the sustainability expert John Thackara. So the idea is: if we want to keep the same substantial level of public health, the same level of transport within a diminishing world of diminished access to resources, then the basic idea is to move towards more mutualization. Mutualization is simply another word for commoning, the mutual sharing and access to resources, in order to minimize their use. Think about urban commons such as associative or cooperative car sharing, co-operative housing, collective purchases of organic food, and the like.

All these are examples of the mutualization of the provisioning systems using a commons-based model. “Factor 20 reduction” refers to a 20-fold reduction in energy usage, as has been done in some German cities for the commercial transport infrastructure, replacing it with cargo bikes and electric vans. Think about the Commons as a strategy for a healthy simplification, maintaining the maximum amount of complexity in public services, but at a much lower thermodynamic cost.

I wanted to talk to you now about two examples of historic transitions and the role of the commons in these transitions.

The first one is you can find it in the book, the First European Revolution by Richard Moore, covering the period of 975 to 1050 AD.

A brief recap of the context: in the eighth century Charlemagne divided his land into three regions. The regions would become Germany and France, as well as Lotharingia, which got eventually absorbed by the two others.

The 8th century saw the rapid collapse of what remained of the older Roman structures, due to the Muslim invasions of the Meditterenian, which destroyed European trade networks. As a response, by the 10th century, you have the ‘peer to peer castellization’ of Europe, meaning that every little local baron builds his own castle to defend himself against several threats. His neighbors, the Vikings, who came from the North, the Avars who came from the East, and the ‘Saracens’ in the South. Europe was in a complete mess, and feudalism was born as a response to these threats. But it came with a substantial amount of ‘internal’ abuse, i.e. exploitation of the local peasantry, and theft from the Churches by the incipient ‘militias’, i.e. the proto-knights.

In 975, near Cluny, the largest Benedictine monastic community started a series of demonstrations, culminating in the Peace of God movement. So imagine a ‘holy procession, with in front the priests or the monks with the Holy Virgin, and the people in the back, and they started confronting the feudal lords with their ‘sins’.

It worked at that time because people were very religious. And lo and behold, as a result, hundreds of Peace of God charters were signed, in a relatively short period of time, including in Ghent by the way. A new social contract emerged that made possible the high growth of the 11th to 13th centuries.

The three rules agreed upon were:

  • Make love, not war

This is basically the idea that the feudals promised to marry their children instead of fighting all the time. So that pacifies to a certain degree, of course not completely, the intensity of the kind of permanent civil war that they had in the 10th century.

The second rule is primogeniture:

  • the oldest son inherits everything.

That sounds very inegalitarian, but imagine this: If you have to share your land among all your children, what you get is a parcelization of the land to the point where nobody can live from the amount of land that they get from their parents. This is, according to some analysts, how the Rwandan Civil War started. And so primogeniture pacifies the family because a lot of strife happened within the feudal families about who would get what. If it's shared and you kill your brother, that means you have more land for yourself. Once you have primogeniture, everybody knows who's going to get the land. The others can be either clerks or priests, so that's good for the church. Every fourth child goes to the church, and then the other may become young warriors, primed for foreign adventures like the Crusades. If you look at the Mongols, when did they start invading so powerfully? It's when they installed primogeniture, because then suddenly you have tens of thousands of young men with no ‘internal’ future.

Primogeniture creates internal peace, but it creates a surplus of young men. That is going to be a problem for somebody else.

The third rule and this is where the commons have come in, is that the commons were formalized, but at a cost of not hunting for meat.

  • Commoners lost their right to hunt.

Before the 11th century commons existed informally, and European villages were still quite nomadic. The Flemish historian, Tine de Moor, in a remarkable essay, The Silent Revolution, (2008); shows how, in just 70 years in Europe, you get all kinds of contracts for land commons, as well as thousands of guilds. A very rapid non-linear innovation in which monastic communities like the Cistercensiers also played important and crucial roles.

So this was the first European revolution.

This ‘institutionalization’ of the commons is going to create three centuries of very high growth in Europe. In three centuries, we will have tripled the population in Western Europe..

A word about the Cistercensiers: in 70 years or so, 90% of technical innovation in Europe was done by these types of monks, as documented in a book called The First Medieval Industrial Revolution by Jean Gimpel. And I think 70% of the land reclamation was done by these monks. The monastery was a collective property of the congregation, and all the surplus went into increasing their capacity, not for individual consumption and luxury goods for the elites. It’s a good example of what Carol Quigley calls an instrument of expansion, here applied directly to a commons-like structure.

I want to stress that the capacity to create a surplus is crucial. If you share all the time through direct consumption, you'll never grow. You'll remain small and marginal. If we want strong commons institutions, I think we should think in terms of these instruments of expansion. The Cistercians’ swarming methodology allowed them to grow virally in a very short time by splitting at a certain size, and by not having a completely centralized hierarchical infrastructure.

Okay, let me now take a second example from Japan. In the 16th century, the country was rocked by 100 years of civil war.

Every Japanese warlord fights against every other Japanese warlord. At the end of the 16th century, the Shogun eventually won. In this time of troubles, you have a very fast growth of a Buddhist movement called “Pure Land Buddhism”. They control a substantial amount of land, and are run as a commons, literally using the eight rules of the commons described by Elinor Ostrom. You can see the punishments, the graduated sanctions. Monastic communities and the peasants are armed.

What does the Shogun do after his victory ? He takes over the land, controlled by”Pure Land Buddhism”, because they are a rival to imperial power. But he retains their commons as imperial property. He also disarms the farmers, but he creates an ideology where the farmers are on top of the social order, just below the samurai.

You have the samurai on top, the peasants just under, because they create; the craftsmen under the farmers, because they change and transform what the peasants have created; and finally the merchants at the bottom as they are only trading what others have created. He forbids wheels, which is very good for employment, as he forces all these local lords to come every two years to Kyoto and spend all their money pleasing the Emperor, pretty much as Louis XIV did to pacify the French nobles who had revolted against his father. Kyoto as the Japanese Versailles, and Zen Buddhism the ideology to pacify the warrior class.

There is a kind of ‘ imperialization’ of the command lands, now protected by the Shogunate, and this will last for two and a half centuries until the Meiji restoration in 1873. At the moment, the Japanese understood they had to modernize to avoid colonization by European powers.

But the Togukawa period in Japan is one of the few examples of a demographically and thermodynamically stable society that lived within its regional planetary boundaries, under the energy regime of ‘wood’. This remains a very interesting example for today. So we know it's possible for a quite complex society to actually function within material boundaries, without reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles but remain an agriculturally-based civilizational society.

Of course we may not like all their solutions particularly those concerning excess children, as you could have two but not more.

I have given you two examples where you can see how the commons that grow in the preceding declining periods are absorbed within the new ascending phase of a changed system. In the next emerging civilization they have a key role, which contrasts with the enclosures of the commons, that marked the birth of capitalism. Capitalism is the first and only system that doesn’t recognize the moderating role of the commons, and as a consequence, results in universal overshoot.

In the cases mentioned, the people and the rulers actually made a conscious decision to integrate the commons in their overall social structure. In the Middle Ages, the most important religious festival next to Easter and Christmas was called the Rogantide Procession. The people in a parish follow the priests going around the village and reaffirm their commons.

This means that their commons were an important part of local identity. The ritual of the commons reaffirmed: “This is our common good”. This is the common property of the village. It was also called ‘beating the bounds’, as they would place stakes in the soil, to specify the boundaries.

Alan Page Fiske wrote a book called The Structure of Social Life outlining a grammar of four social relationships.

Kojin Karatani, a Japanese Marxist scholar, adds to it by historicizing their succession as a key ‘chaotic attractor’. He says there have been historically four coexisting modes of exchange going on. At all times, all of them existed, but one dominated (Karatani & Bourdaghs, 2014):

One of which, likely the first one emerging, being ‘communal shareholding’, i.e. the commons. you give something to a totality because the totality is good for you. As a free software engineer, you write a solution for Linux. There's nobody in Linux giving you anything back for it necessarily, but it's good for everybody that you do that. You create a common good that is for everyone. ‘Give a brick, get a house’, is the underlying logic that makes it of interest for everyone to contribute even though there may not be any direct reciprocity.

The second modality of exchange is the Gift Economy, he calls it equality matching. In other words: I give you something that actually creates an inequality; you're going to want to give me something back to re-establish the original equality that existed before the gift; except that both of us are now richer. Complex tribal federations use equality matching as a pacifying socialization mode in order to keep peace within the tribal federation, i.e. maintaining the peace through a giftting competition as it were, such as the famous ‘potlatch’ mechanism that was practiced by the Native populations in North America.

Every year you have a big festival and you give as much as you can and that creates your status. Then the next year another tribe will try to match your gift with an even bigger one, etc. It's also considered to be a way of eating up the surplus so that it doesn't create permanent and unequal classes. It's an anti-class formation kind of technique.

Authority ranking emerges once you have domination. If my tribe invades yours, you become my slave or tributary. The gift economy is not going to work as a general mechanism anymore in such circumstances. Right? it becomes protection cooped with redistribution. You give me your surplus. I use that surplus to build public works, to create an army, and I will redistribute the surplus to those that need it. Welfare is granted in exchange for protection. Put in a more neutral way: to have a permanent force able to protect a community against enemies, and for that, you need taxation, and that taxation will maintain a more complex class society with a much higher level of public services.

The general idea is

  • Most small bands were dominated by commoning, specifically the ‘immediate-return hunter-gathering’ communities,
  • Tribal federations are dominated by equality matching
  • Feudalism and tributary empires are based on authority ranking.
  • And then today we have market pricing. Within any empire the market is never dominant. Merchants always stay in a very subordinate position. It's administered by trade. It's only in capitalism that we get market domination.

Where am I going with this account ?

My hypothesis is that, if it is true that human civilization is a cyclic phenomenon, and if it is also true that within those cycles we see this kind of mirror of extraction and regeneration, then what happens today when we have a global overshoot?

The answer is that the commons has to become global.

That's my answer. So within the P2P Foundation, the kind of concept we use is cosmolocalism, i.e. cosmo localization. Given the thermodynamic overshoots, we have to go back to more local production. We spend three times more to move things around than to actually make them. So localization is a very big part of the solution that we need today.

At the same time, local societies tend to be static. And for example, if you look at agricultural and population levels amongst the Incas, you see that the population level and the food level goes up and down sometimes by 90%. When people are part of the Inca empire, they get 90% more food produced because of the complexity of imperial knowledge: when the engineers and the agricultural engineers that the empire has produced are no longer available, then food production implodes and the population implodes.

While localization is overall a necessary and positive phenomenon in terms of restoration of the earth and the soil; you can't do everything locally. We need to compete with extractive institutions like the market and the states, and in order to do that, we also need strong commons institutions that can protect the stabilizing commons. Today this means these commons must also be global.

What we get today, co-emerging with the peer production of shared knowledge through the digital networks, is the combination of local production with global open design communities. I call them protocol cooperatives. Think of the functioning of Occupy as an example, even though it was not very successful in the long run.

It is in terms of organization capable of rapidly mobilizing millions of people at the same time on the squares, that is remarkable. Why could they do that? Because they had shared protocols. If you followed those protocols like the ‘mike check’ and ‘occupying a square’ and the ‘progressive stack' to regulate speech, then you could say, “I'm Occupu’ and you have this collective coordination happening on the world scale.

Every open source community has such a protocol stack. The Wikimedia Foundation is the protocol holder of Wikipedia. Similar in function are the Linux Foundation, the Drupal Association and the numerous ‘FLOSS’ Foundation, the ‘for-benefit associations’ that manage the infrastructure of cooperation of these commons-based peer production communities.

This is the work we need to do. So imagine provisioning systems at the local level. You create urban commons in order to save thermodynamic expenditure, and still maintain a complex civic life that's local. But consider this: If you do FairBNB instead of Airbnb, why are you going to reinvent the wheel in 50 different cities? It makes much more sense to create a league of cities and to create a fractal type organization on top. So you have such an organization locally to help the actual physical production of the goods that are needed, but you have the same structure at a translocal level, to maintain the ‘immaterial’ forms of cooperation.

In the model first adopted by the Italian city of Bologna, now followed by 250 other cities involving one million urban commoners in Italy, you have the so-called ‘Quintuple Helix Model’ of multi-stakeholder governance: the city, the commercial sector, the research sector and the organized civil society, these four, will help the fifth: the commons oriented civic initiatives that produce ‘social innovation’. In France, Macron has invested €30 million in territorial development around maker spaces. These local collaborative spaces bring young, digital generations together, but you connect them with older craftspeople and you think about how to regenerate the local economy based on a real community.

I happen to think these makerspaces represent a real anthropological revolution because the Cartesian Western way was to split mind and body. The managers and the workers, the engineers and the workers. But here we have people designing what they make, and making it themselves. And then thinking and reflecting about what they have made. They function as a community and they function in relation with the local economic and social actors. This is an example of commons-oriented territorial development. That would be one of the means to create this cosmo-local revolution.

Toynbee distinguished three generations of civilizations.

Civilization is indeed a relation between the land and the city, a way to organize a territory. Civilization itself was a reaction to the challenge of the climate change of the post-glacial period, ushered in by agriculturization and sedentarization; it got a first upgrade with the alphabet, which added more abstract and rational forms of thinking to mythology; it got a second upgrade with industrialization, coping with increased urbanization and highly productive forms of energy, which created the artificial slaves that are the machines.

The now emerging fourth order civilization will be a civilization which integrates in itself this capacity for non-territorial organization, i.e. the fact of digitization and human coordination at planetary scale. It already produced what we have today, transnational finance, added to what we already had, i.e. international states, and I don't know if you noticed, but they're fighting it out right now in Ukraine.

Following Michael Hudson, let me offer the following hypothesis about this systemic war: On one side of the conflict we see the maritime ‘rentier capitalist order’ of Western Europe, the U.S.A. and their allies in the world system, where private classes are mostly in power, but paradoxically, this has created a powerful civil society and democratic institutions based on the resistance against this power. Michael Hudson identifies Ancient Greece as the place and time when the creditor class came into power; on the other side of the conflict is the state oriented, national sovereignist Eurasian model of ‘friendly’ emperors which take care of their people.

So, while the West has an antagonistic system, the result of popular resistance against ‘private’ rule, the Eurasian ‘East’ has a harmony-based system. In this system, society is seen as an organic whole, and the state takes care of the whole population, especially by keeping the ‘predatory’ market players in check. The people look up to the Emperor for protection, and all kinds of laws, such as the Jubilee which abolishes debt regularly, and Clean Slate legislation, periodically relieve the people of their debt burden, avoiding their fall into slavery. I am of course not implying that there are no contradictions between the claim of harmony and reality, but nevertheless, ideology and culture do matter in shaping the rules of a society. The reality is that market forces were never dominant in those societies before the western model became the hegemonic form of the current world civilizations, and that reality still influences the current ‘systemic’ struggle between that part of the world where market rule and democracy are paramount, and the other part that stresses state-sovereignty over market forces.

The problem with this type of conflict is that both systems are based on ‘rivalry’. States fight it out for resources. Market forces fight it out for resources. When you do that in a shrinking world, where resources are increasingly becoming scarce, this is a recipe for conflict and war.

What we propose runs counter to this: we need to build commons oriented Magisteria, first as a counter power, which represent the combined power of local production units, connected with these global design communities, which would become real commons-based institutions, able to protect certain domains, and the resources and web-of-life beings related to them.

Imagine these magisteria as coupled to ‘instruments of expansion’ as the monastic congregations were in medieval times, able to practice generative production of food and necessities, and able to protect the resource base which would allow such practices to continue to exist over the very long term. At some point, these emerging counter-institutions need to become the main set of institutions in global society.

Why? Because markets and states are extractive institutions. And once you have a global resource issue, the main societal institution needs to be protective. We need a regenerative preservative institution at the core of the next world civilization. As we suggested, this frames the next civilizational order as the ‘fourth generation civilization’, the one form that has mastered both an expanded social contract with the human population, extended it to interdependent life forms, and has fully integrated non-territorial coordination through the use of digital networks.

We can also frame the coming transition as the Second Axial Revolution.

There are many different interpretations to explain the first wave Axial Religions: more or less around the sixth century B.C., as described by Karl Jaspers you have the ‘simultaneous’ emergence of a new type of universal religion, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the Jewish prophets, but also Greek philosophy and the ‘Socratic’ form of human consciousness. All of them seem to have emerged more or less at the same time, and one of the ways to explain this, is that societies started to reach a stage of substantial urbanization, which really meant that this type of humanity could no longer find meaning in simple kinship, but were now living with people that they didn’t know before the emergence of imperial societies. These new religions are basically ethical systems. People needed to think about how to manage this complex society where they daily interacted with strangers, and to use rationality independently from mythology. Many people think the culprit of the current global environmental crisis is Western Christianity, the monotheistic religions in general, or that it is the result of capitalism. We disagree: the extractive capacity of every civilization has been there for several thousands of years. Every civilization has exhausted its natural resources, has poisoned soils and toxified its environment. This is what civilization actually is: the capacity for creating a surplus.

The Second Axial Age is the age in which humanity has learned to manage its relation with the natural world, without exhausting it. This may very well require a ‘post-civilizational’ ethics!

My own inkling is that can we extend the kind of humanistic ideology that we have adopted, to learn how to treat humans equal by bestowing them with universal human rights, to somehow extend that empathy to the broader web of life and even maybe to resource communities? ‘Entangled humanism’ might be a good way to denominate this approach.

Back to Peter Pogany, and his model of societal transitions within capitalism, i.e. as of the 16th century. and he shows we already had two chaotic transitions.

First, we had the mercantilist system, the Ancien Regime, which collapsed with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

So we have a relatively stable system that disintegrates with the Napoleonic wars and creates a new system when that chaotic transition process is over. He calls the original mercantilist system “Global System Zero” (GSO), because it was not fully global yet, only ‘proto-global’.

The second stage is the ‘Smithian’ capitalist system, characterized by the dominion of capital over labor. There are no international organizations, only alliances of countries. Zero multilateralism. That period, GS1, ends with the chaotic transition between the First and the Second World War, a process that started in 1914..

The second chaotic transition from global system one, the Smithian capitalist system, ushers in the emergence of Global System Two, which introduces the generalization of the welfare system, which may be interpreted as a social contract between Capital and Labor, and was introduced in the Western countries. It also developed functioning global institutions, such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, so Pogany calls it a period of ‘weak multilateralism’.

If you look at the thermodynamic expenditure, our use of matter and energy, we also see that this ‘Western’ capital-labor contract was actually obtained first at a cost of nature, and to the detriment of the Global South, which was subjected to forms of neoliberal ‘neo’-colonialism. The 1950s is when the ‘hockey stick’ of rapid resource use growth actually starts.

Industrialism was pretty bad for nature, but it really became exponential with GS2. GS2 ended in 2008, with the global financial crisis. For Pogany, we are now in the chaotic transition from global system two to the hypothetical Global System Three.

The way he puts it is we are going to go from weak multilateralism to strong multilateralism. We need institutions that can keep peace at a world scale and protect nature. What he proposes is extending the social contract to all humanity, i.e. including the Global South, but also to nature. For him, these are the two things that we need to do for the future. These two changes are interconnected, as strong multilateralism is needed to protect natural resources and dependent communities from exaggerated extraction.

Basically what I'm adding to this analysis, is that the way to achieve this outcome is the strengthening of the institution of the commons, in order to make it the core of the next civilizational model.

Achieving this outcome means that first, we must build up counter power and actually, it’s a matter of saving our lives locally by ensuring our access to energy, food, transport and housing, but with the ultimate aim of making the commons the central institution of a cosmo-localized global order. This is the gist of my proposal. It’s a world that combines a maximum amount of diversity and local differentiation, but also recognizes that the protection of the earth and its beings require trans-local and trans-national cooperation, preferably to institutions that are an expression of civic cooperation, not just imposed by states or market forces.

I emit the hypothesis that ‘makerspaces’ might be a key to such a strategy, and to explain this, let me do a brief excursion from the Hindu tradition, which believes in the devolution of humankind over time.

In this conception of ‘world history’, in the first phase of human society, the Brahmins ruled and society was seen as supported by a stool that has four legs; then the Warriors rule, you only have three legs, society is less perfect; then the merchants rule and finally the ‘workers’ caste. Then we have reached the Kali Yuga, the final degeneration, signaling the end of a full cycle of human history; with total destruction. This means a new cycle will emerge, restarting the whole process.

It is legitimate to interpret the Hindu caste system as actually representing psychological types, distinguishing the spiritual people, the warrior people, the businesspeople and the working class people. What I find so interesting in the maker-spaces is, is this mixture of these types. I call them Brahmin workers. Imaging a new cycle that is actually ‘integrative’, that combines both the material and the spiritual.

Can we recreate through education people that can think and make; who can make and feel, you know, a kinship with non-human beings? Right. I think this would be the ideal situation for me, for education is to work on this task.

I live in Thailand and we have the same problem here. Like the average age of a farmer in Thailand is 56. And what education does it take these kids from these farming backgrounds and completely divorces them from their background. They become brains. I am myself a typically late 19th century public intellectual type, not an example of what we need in the future.

So we must no longer take the kids out of their real environment and take them to places like schools, where they sit down 8 hours a day. But we need something that is integrated: between body and mind, between human and nature.

A very tall order, perhaps. One example of where this might go: I am following a group called New Polity, American Christian Democrats and they just opened a school called St Joseph the Worker. As you probably know, Saint Joseph was a carpenter.

The founders say the big problem today is an overproduction of elites. We are producing all these smart people. And then they end up precarious. What are they doing against such an outcome with the St. Joseph initiative? In the neoliberal education system, you have to borrow money. Then you get your diploma and you have a huge debt and maybe, in one out of ten cases you'll get a job in university. Most students will have a precarious existence, working with short-term projects and being unemployed many times between projects. They made an analysis of what kind of crafts can create a good life for people today. There's about 50 jobs that, even under neoliberalism, even under capitalism, have always been able to sustain a family. So 50 types of crafts.

What they will do is they will train these people in the crafts. And they teach them philosophy around the dignity of work. So these are crafts people who are going to be very physical, able to work with wood and materials. And at the same time, they are reading Thomas Aquinas and Dorothy Day. These students will be able to produce things,but will also have a good classic education where they learn to engage with ideas and coherent thinking and all of that. We need to find an education that has the best of both worlds.

Links of interest mentioned in the text

Factor 20 Reduction

Protocol Cooperatives - URL =

Seshat Global History Databank - URL =

Togukawa Period -


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