Europe Commons Deep Dive

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Regional preparatory workshop for a conference on commons-oriented economics. Context via Overview of the Economics of the Commons Conference

Please note this is a closed invitation-only meeting for a small group of participants, which intends to solicit deep and free-form conversation.

This workshop took place in ...

The two other continental workshops are:

  1. Latin America Commons Deep Dive
  2. Asia Commons Deep Dive

Deep Dive Europe

arrival : friday 30 november 2012, afternoon departure : monday 3 december 2012, after lunch


From the Commons Strategies Group, the invitation:

"The commons as a focus of productive work, political activism and public policy is gaining momentum with each passing month. But it is less clear how commoners should engage – theoretically and practically – with mainstream economics. Since this is such a core question in advancing the commons paradigm, we believe that it is time for some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commoners to meet each other and begin a shared dialogue about this topic.

We therefore would like to invite you to participate in a retreat to discuss the linkages between the commons and the field of economics, with particular attention to the European context. The event is co-organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group, with support of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, and will be held from October 12-14 at the Böll Foundation’s office in Bangkok, Thailand. (We appreciate you arrive on the 12th by mid-day/early afternoon to be present for an evening round to socialize and get to know each other and to leave any time on the 15th thus making time for two full working days).

We see this event as a logical next step following the first International Conference on the Commons held in Berlin on October 31-November 2, 2010, an event that brought together a wide variety of commoners from both the physical and digital commons in more than 30 countries. Now that the commons is gaining currency/momentum in countries from India to Austria, Germany to Brazil, and Mexico to the United States and beyond, we believe that it is imperative to examine in greater depth whether and how we can transform the political economy with commons principles in mind.

This conversation is also becoming more urgent as interest in a major new book of essays about the commons attracts attention. In April, the Böll Foundation and Commons Strategies Group published the German edition of “Commons: Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat” [“Commons – For a New Politics Beyond Market and State”] ( ). The English edition, “The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State,” will be published in English in the US in September ( ).

We are currently planning three focused, intense gatherings – we call them “Deep Dives” – on economics and the commons. The two-day meetings will be held in Mexico City, near Paris and Bangkok in October, and November and December as a way to draw upon knowledge and expertise on three different continents and to help in the planning of a major international conference, “The Economics of the Commons,” to be held in Berlin on May 22-24, 2013.

At each Deep Dive, we will be convening about 15 to 20 thinkers, activists and writers who have a demonstrated expertise in and commitment to the commons or related fields of study and activism. Our goal is to develop more sophisticated understandings about the commons as seen through the lens of economics – and vice-versa, to re-imagine economics through the lens of the commons. How does economics need to change and grow? What kind of society would emerge if land, money and labor, and other crucial commons, would no longer be considered as commodities, but as inalienable commons belonging to humanity?

We want to pull together a wide range of knowledge, creativity, contacts and resources to discuss these questions, and identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action. This will be a retreat, not a conference, i.e. the focus will be on the free flow of deep discussions among peers.

The Commons Strategies Group consists of Silke Helfrich of Germany, an commons-activist and blogger formerly associated with the Heinrich Böll Foundation; David Bollier, an American author, activist and blogger at; and Michel Bauwens, a political scientist, economist a researcher into the emergent practices of commons-based peer production, peer governance and peer property.

Jost Pachaly, director of the Böll Foundation’s Bangkok Office, and Heike Löschmann, Head of International Politics Department at the Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin, are our partners in organizing this event, along with Nicolas Krausz of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation."

General Themes To Be Discussed

Prepared by Commons Strategies Group, October 4, 2012

In addressing the themes raised by economics and the commons, our workshop will deliberately use a flexible and open-ended format. We do not wish to present an fixed, structured agenda so much as elicit your special knowledge and perspectives on the topic. In previous gatherings on the commons, we have found this a highly effective way to surface ideas, identify major points of disagreement and consensus, and develop a more coherent understanding of the challenges we face.

Having said that, we have assembled below a series of themes and questions that may be useful in spurring discussion. This is an incomplete “discussion draft” of issues that will likely deserve attention (in this and further conversations). But this list should not be regarded as a comprehensive, prioritized or “correct”; it is merely as a springboard for discussion. We urge you to bring your own ideas, open questions and issues so that we can collectively decide how the discussions should proceed. We are confident that this process will help us highlight fundamental ideas and develop new narratives and projects.

We would like to start our workshop by addressing the basic questions: What does a commons-based economy consist of? What are its basic principles and how can we “know it when we see it”? Does it require specific (infra)structures, principles and policy approaches?

Some commons scholars suggest that a commons-based economy is one that combines production, consumption and governance into a unified needs-based system, such that it is impossible to distinguish among them. Another definition is that production cannot be distinguished from reproduction because everything contributes to the reproduction of livelihoods. Perhaps there are other salient features of a commons-based economy that we should identify and explore.

Some specific issues worth exploring:


  • Why and how does a commons generate value? Let’s get down to some basics of the human condition and relationships (ontology) and knowledge categories (epistemology) to understand the value-proposition of the commons.
  • The very idea of “the economy” is a social construction, not a natural fact. Yet if we wish to transcend the familiar paradigm of “the economy” – i.e., the capitalist market and its logic – what are the handful of key principles that let us define a commons-based “economy”?
  • What is the purpose of a commons-based economy? How can we starkly differentiate the commons worldview and provisioning model from that of market economics?
  • How do the processes and social relationships of the commons differ from those of the market, and how does this matter? Can we consider this from an anthropological perspective?
  • Are there identifiable typologies of commons? Do these conform to types of resources, cultural patterns, or something else? For political purposes, we may wish to assert a universal template of commoning (“principles of commoning”) and declare that the type of resource is a secondary matter. But is this entirely true?
  • Can any general statement be made about the ontological power of the commons – i.e., how and why it self-organizes, generates value and innovates? Or is a commons destined always to be a subsidiary form that is necessarily embedded in markets and the state and dependent on them?
  • How do commons protect themselves from free riders and abuse? What sorts of technological, legal or social innovations can work?
  • How can the yearning for collective management and participation be “locked in” and secured?
  • How do commons get started in the first place? Can we identify general differences between commons and commoning in the global North (which is “rediscovering” the commons) as opposed to the global South (where commoning has a long, deep and continuous history)?


How does the debate on commons-based economy relate to those of…

  • feminist economy, especially the care economy and the subsistence economy;
  • the Solidarity economy;
  • the Transition Town movement
  • gift economies (academia, blood and organ banks, community groups)
  • the degrowth-debate
  • Buddhist economy or other discourses present in the region

What can we learn from these various economies? Where are the overlaps and where the differences?


  • What role can the commons play in arresting relentless economic growth, and how?
  • What are some practical, incremental scenarios for using the commons to reduce growth and internalize externalities (without falling into the trap of market-based mechanisms that favor monetization of the value of nature or reproductive work)?
  • Is a commons-based economy and peer production a force for “de-materializing” the economy? If so, how?


  • How can the personal engagement and informal nature of the commons (in its canonical form) be preserved if the state is involved with it?
  • How might we conceptualize a State that “enables the commons”? What are the politics of such a scenario?
  • Does the formalization of a commons and external legal/financial support for it undermine the social practices and relationships that lie at the heart of a commons? If so, how can commons design themselves to be quasi-autonomous while securing support (or at least, non-interference) from the market/state duopoly?
  • Michel Bauwens has proposed the idea of the “partner state” and a triarchy of governance in which market, state and commons co-exist and support each other. Is this a realistic vision, and if so, how might this vision be advanced?


Tell us about a particularly stable or popular commons in your country or region. Explain why it has succeeded and what impact it has.

  • How does a commons interact with markets or not?
  • If the commons is primarily a nonmarket form of provisioning, can it have any fruitful relationship with markets? If so, what sorts of limits or protections are needed to assure the long-term integrity of a commons? How can they be maintained?
  • What are the patterns by which commons and market activity can interact constructively? Or are they necessarily hostile and adversarial?
  • Given the structural economic and policy biases against recognizing the value of infrastructure-as-commons, how can commoners secure necessary infrastructure – roads, telecom, water, land, Internet – as commons?


  • What does work, productive activity and labor mean in the context of a commons?
  • Can money be converted into a commons?
  • Is it possible (and desirable) to de-commodify them? If so, why?
  • What are the viable alternative models?"


  • Does a commons necessarily reduce inequality or what circumstances are needed to do so?
  • What can make a commons socially regressive?
  • What about people who do not have the education or basic resources to participate in commons (e.g., Internet commons)?
  • Why and how does a commons foster social justice, stability and sustainability?
  • Doesn’t a commons reduce incentives to work hard and innovate?
  • Does the commons promote unsustainable live-styles? (e.g., a 3D printer for everyone!)
  • How can the social solidarity and cooperation of a commons persist as it scales (i.e, as coordination and communication becomes more difficult)? Or perhaps there are different “tiers” of commons that should be regarded differently – much as a “state trustee commons” will differ from a small-scale tribal commons for water?


  • Who are the key thinkers and activists involved in developing alternative economic paradigms that work and are philosophically coherent?
  • What are some of the key alternative economic organizations and movements?
  • How to “bridge” with them?
  • How do we begin to develop actual projects to advance a commons-based economy?
  • What sorts of knowledge, networks of people and organizations, and experiences are needed?


On the Internet:

  • Can we make any useful generalizations about the differences and commonalities between open platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and digital commons (Wikipedia, open-access journals, collaborative archives)?
  • Are open platforms helpful to a commons-based economy or mostly a means for corporate co-optation of social sharing and collaboration?
  • Should we consider “open business models” a form of commoning (where open networked platforms are used to leverage social sharing) – or are they mostly a capitalistic form that seeks to exploit open networks?
  • Should commoners welcome open business models or regard them with suspicion? What factors might affect a determination?
  • If inalienability is important to preserving a commons – i.e., a community-managed resource that may not be monetized – then how can this be accomplished in reliable, lasting ways? How can we link inalienability with the value proposition of the commons?

Localism and commons:

  • Is a commons necessarily local? And if a commons can work at larger scales, how does subsidiarity actually work?

The commons and a theory of power and hierarchy:

We should not succumb to romanticized visions of happy egalitarianism within commons. Issues of power relations must be addressed.

  • Do commons empower people to break down predatory or hierarchical power relationships?
  • Are there certain structures of power and governance within a commons that are essential?
  • Can we imagine a typology of commons-based governance structures?

Workable commons seem to imply a different sort of culture than those associated with markets. But how and why do commons produce a different sort of culture?

Does a commons-based society entail a different form of spirituality or religion? Is institutionalized religion (which implies hierarchies and imposed norms) part of the problem today?


See also, the Master List of Europe Commons Deep Dive Participant Bios

  1. Nicole Alix France Paris
  2. Saki Bailey Italy Turin [email protected]
  3. Marco Berlinguer Italy Rome [email protected]
  4. Giacomo D’Alisa Spain Barcelona [email protected]
  5. Brian Davey UK Nottingham [email protected]
  6. Danijela Dolenec Croatia ZAGREB [email protected]
  7. Tommaso Fattori Italy Firenze (or Pisa) [email protected]
  8. Mary Charlotte Hess USA NY [email protected]
  9. Wojtek Kalinowski France PARIS [email protected]
  10. Hervé Le Crosnier
  11. Lawrence Lohmann UK GILLINGHAM, DORSET, UK [email protected]
  12. Stefan Meretz Germany BERLIN stefan ät
  13. Pat Mooney Canada Ottawa [email protected]
  14. Michael Narberhaus Germany Köln [email protected]
  15. Georgios Papanikolaou Greece Athens [email protected]
  16. Andrew Paterson (Finland) Helsinki agryfp [-at-]
  17. Stefano Rodotà Italy ROME [email protected]
  18. Enric Senabre Hidalgo Spain Barcelona [email protected]
  19. Hilary Wainwright


  1. Silke Helfrich CSG (Germany) [email protected]
  2. Nicolas Krausz, FPH
  3. Heike Löschmann, HBF
  4. Frédéric Sultan, Communautique


  1. Collaborative Meeting Notes on Europe Commons Deep Dive Workshop
  2. a 23-page interpretive summary of the workshop by David Bollier, can be downloaded here

In French, a review of the discussions by :

Reflections from the European Deep Dive on the Commons

by David Bollier:

"At a small workshop outside of Paris, France, twenty-two of us – mostly Europeans except for two of us – got together to discuss the economics of the commons from an on-the-ground perspective. We wanted to identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action. This was the third of a series of “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, held in the fall of 2012. The two other ones were held in Bangkok for Asian commoners, and in Mexico City for Latin American commoners.

This gathering, in Pontoise, France, was exciting because the participants were some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commons activists. The dialogues took place at La Bergerie, a lovely retreat center run by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which graciously hosted the event. Our talks probed the conflicts and contradictions in commons thinking, and tried to get each of us to look beyond our own issue-silos and subcultures. I recently completed a 23-page interpretive summary of the workshop, which can be downloaded here.

The report examines such issues as how shall we conceptualize the commons; whether commons have intrinsic purpose or not; the tensions between liberal constitutionalism and the commons; and future steps in building a commons paradigm. Below, I excerpt a few portions of the report that strike me as especially interesting.

“The commons means to me….”

Here are some of the ways that participants completed the sentence, “The commons means to me….”

….that there are some goods that are so related to fundamental human rights that they must be common goods (Stefan Rodotà);

…a different way of seeing and acting in the world from those ways encouraged by what I call the “market/state” (David Bollier);

….a different mode of production that is based on different ontological relationships than those of markets, upon which larger legal forms and institutions are built (Silke Helfrich);

…the capacity to create and maintain a world in which we want to live, and to create and maintain our livelihoods (Stefan Meretz);

…the ability of a local community to constitute itself as a commons with its own choices, moral norms and actions (Charlotte Hess); and

…a connecting structure (natural or artificial) organized around integrative institutions by a given group of people (Giacomo D’Alisa).

Danijela Dolonec of the University of Zagreb, in Croatia, outlined four key principles of the commons from her perspective:

Understanding humankind as inherently cooperative and social – i.e., “more than rational.” This view implicitly critiques the homo oeconomicus model of human beings that conventional economics is based on.

A needs-based philosophy (as opposed to an interest-based one) that strives to enact equalitarian social and political principles. This principle recognizes that one’s economic conditions are a precondition for political participation and are, in fact, the material base of our lives.

Acknowledging environmental limits and the material basis of human society. This perspective must then be integrated into all human practices and governance systems.

Democratic participation in horizontal self-governance. The goal should be to broaden the realms of our lives that are based on democratic self-management.

In defining a commons, said Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies Group, “it is very useful to distinguish between commons and common-pool resources.” The resource is not the same as a commons. “It is analytically misleading to define a commons based on the characteristics or type of a resource,” she said, “because the status of a resource as a commons is something that a community decides.” The distinctions about whether a resource is a public good, club good, etc., are less important than whether a community (or a network) decides that it regards a resource as fundamental to human life, culture and livelihoods. Thus, a commons is not simply the equivalent of a “public good”; nor is it a “common good” in the sense that economists use the term.

Do commons have an intrinsic purpose?

Larry Lohmann of The Corner House stressed that any definition of the commons must include a sense of the larger collective good as a core purpose: “Can we really exclude, in our definition of the commons, what the commons is for? One of Elinor Ostrom’s criteria for successful commons – ‘natural resource management’ – stealthily introduces three concepts that are each, in every imaginable historical way, anti-commons – ‘natural,’ ‘resource’ and ‘management,’ while obscuring the central subsistence orientation of the commons. This is a problem with technocratic interpretations of commons.”

A similar point was made by Silke Helfrich of Germany on several occasions during the workshop. How can the definition of successful commons that focus on preserving resources (e.g., water, land) be bridged with a definition of successful commons that focus on access and openness (e.g., most digital commons)? For example, Open Source Ecology (OSE) is producing a number of modular, inexpensive, locally sourceable pieces of agricultural equipment (tractors, etc.) using open, collaborative techniques. The idea is that such equipment will be more ecologically responsible, affordable and user-friendly. But open source and digital commons projects are not necessarily as sustainable as OSE, she said. As an example, she cited WikiSpeed, an open source manufacturing project that is attempting to build an inexpensive, safe modular car that can get 100 miles per gallon of fuel. Helfrich questioned whether these projects are really commons, or simply more efficient, participatory ways to produce things for (capitalist) markets.

- “WikiSpeed might be developed and treated as a commons, but once the developer makes the decision to sell its work as a commodity, the commons is lost.”

Helfrich was adamant that “the commons is not about organizational form or property rights. It’s about the purpose. If commoning ends with a sale on the market, then what about all the other people who have a stake in the process of commons-based production?” “Open” systems give no guarantee that the long-term social or ecological interests of contributors will be respected or protected.

Saki Bailey wondered: “Are we defining the commons as something that occurs outside of the market? Are we saying that commoning cannot be used for market activity? A production process may be open to everyone, but the output may be oriented to the market. Is this a viable mode of realizing use-value over exchange-value?”

Stefan Meretz, the free software and free culture advocate, cited a German company that uses Liquid Democracy, a software platform that enables democratic participation in organizational contexts. He noted that this company had adopted “a kind of ‘internal commoning’ for completely alienated products and goals. Such a firm is not a commons.”

The World Bank took a keen interest in the Commons two decades ago, said Larry Lohmann, “because they saw it as a way to mitigate some of the more dangerous effects of their own neoliberal doctrines. For example, the Commons provided ‘escape hatches’ to help unemployed people subsist. The commons was something that the World Bank could promote. This is just one of many other examples [of the co-optation of the commons], such as the use of Facebook for surveillance and data-mining of people’s social connections,” he said.

For Helfrich, such examples illustrate “why we need a shift from commons-based peer production to commons-creating peer production.” In other words, she said, the commons must have the capacity to protect and reproduce itself. It must have within its very structure the capacity to assure its own longevity and self-protection. Otherwise, capitalist forces will simply be able to free ride on the commons (e.g., open access, open source), convert it into an instrument of conventional market production, and perhaps even destroy the commons. Commoning would simply become another “market input.” It is therefore important that commons are capable of capturing the fruits of their labor, and that the commons can re-create themselves and other commons.

Liberal constitutionalism and the commons

“Under modern constitutionalism,” said Saki Bailey, “citizens cede their fundamental rights to the state so that they can be legally enforceable.” Unfortunately, she said, the nation-state and liberal constitutionalism have been vehicles by which private appropriation of common goods has occurred. The state model of individual rights has been essential to the breakup of collective management, as seen in the decimation of Native Americans and First Nation peoples.

Bailey continued: “Even within Europe, as Hardt and Negri point out, the social contract was used by feudal lords to effectuate the conquest of property on the continent. The state has succeeded in reducing ‘the multitude’ to one voice, via representative democracy, for the purpose of robbing people of their property rights.”

Stefano Rodotà said that, for him, the commons means that there are some goods that are so fundamentally related to human rights, as opposed to economic rights, that that they must be treated as common goods. Liberal constitutionalism is not going to protect these rights or the commons, he asserted. Rodotà noted that the very idea of human rights was bourgeois in origin, and based on liberal constitutions. “But we had a second revolution after World War I, during the Weimar Republic, in which social rights – and implicitly, the interest of the working class – were recognized. “We cannot understand the modern state without this reference,” he said.

He continued: “Now, if we look at what is happening in many different areas of the world – Brazil, South Africa, India – you can see a ‘new generation of rights’ being asserted that shows a connection between fundamental rights and the commons.” These new rights define the “constitution of needs” that people have, outside of the liberal constitution. Fundamental rights are being reinterpreted from other cultures and traditions outside of Europe, as seen in demands for compulsory licenses for essential medicines that bypass patent monopolies. These “new rights” are about affirming the right of subsistence and the right to dignity, Rodotà argued. “Formal equality was a fiction when first announced following the ancien regime,” he said. “That is not as true now.”

Another interesting development, said Rodotà, is “how creativity and labor are occurring inside the commons.” Since there are new ways of extracting surplus value in the digital domain, we need to consider recognizing rights there as well, he said. A helpful book on this topic – and on the use of social action to “property disobedience” to change the scope of property law – is Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership (2010), by Eduardo M. Penalver and Sonia Katyal.

Larry Lohmann agreed with Rodotà that the right to survival and subsistence is one of the key justifications for making resources common goods, especially in the global South and in pre-19th Century Europe. He noted that John Locke and, in a more extreme way, Thomas Malthus, cited the imperatives of “Nature” to argue that people actually don’t have a right to survival. “Malthus’ position lies near the beginning of an anti-commons tradition that runs all the way down to Garrett Hardin, whose main mission was also to provide an ideological justification for the extinction of the right to subsist.” This view is shared by most if not all of today’s technocrats and orthodox economists, as well as political figures like Mitt Romney, he said. This has provoked an important, continuing historical struggle: to declare that everyone has the right to survival.

To complicate this scenario, however, Lohmann made another point – “that a universal right to survival may not necessarily be compatible with the right to exclude, which is necessary to commons. This is an apparent tension that we need to acknowledge.” Yet he went on to suggest that, when we examine how the right to exclude is articulated in particular cases, we may find that this tension is more imagined than real. For example, forestry commoners in rural Thailand may object to someone who uses hired labor and pickup trucks to sweep through the forest to take all the mushrooms to sell on the market – but they may well be quite tolerant of the vagabond who is picking mushrooms because he’s hungry or the tourist who wants a snack. Their principle of exclusion, in other words, tends to be applied less to outsiders as such than to capitalist outsiders. They are not “managing ecosystems within biophysical limits” but rather defending commons (subsistence rights) against capital (the right to accumulate). But in all cases involving strangers, they would probably have to discuss among themselves what to do before deciding what to do.

Silke Helfrich suggested that the “right to exclude” that so many commons depend upon need not be based on the right to survival or subsistence; it is better connected to the contributions that commoners make in maintaining their commons. “The right to exclude should belong to those who have historically protected the commons – and therefore have shown the commitment to it and made the personal investment in it,” she said. “This principle has obvious implications for indigenous peoples as stewards of ecosystems. Contributions to the commons confer an entitlement.”

Future Steps in Building the Commons Paradigm

There was general agreement that building new alliances requires the creation of new enabling structures for commoning among diverse communities. The point is less about “pushing out” ideas and messages about the commons that about opening up an ongoing process and “spaces” for dialogue so that commoners can co-create new structures and initiatives.

“We cannot pre-define or even preview the outcomes of this process,” warned Silke Helfrich. Other participants added that this is precisely why we have to guard against evangelizing. “We should guard against the idea that we already know the answer,” said Larry Lohmann. Hillary Wainwright agreed, adding that evangelizing is inappropriate because “the community and the discourse are both in the making, simultaneously.”

Instead of seeing future challenges as one requiring a “grand overview” and a “blueprint for action,” said David Bollier, “we need to see the challenge as “building an ecosystem over time.” That means building discourse, enabling connections and developing new social and knowledge circuits. It must be an organic social process that is collectively driven by the participants themselves. Frédéric Sultan of Remix the Commons added that the real challenge is finding ways to “develop connections between the cells of this ecosystem.” We need infrastructures to support commons work that are fairly neutral so that connections among people can more easily develop and have universal reach.

While different participants had different emphases, most of the discussion revolved around the idea of creating clearinghouses for knowledge exchange, enabling structures that host dialogues and collaborative planning, and mapping initiatives that help identify the range of commons-based activity already occurring.

George Papanikolaou said that we need to “aggregate a sense of commons projects and build awareness among diverse projects with each other.” He warned that the commons means different things to different people, and this not only causes confusion but opens the door to cooptation of the commons discourse. Papanikolaou said that it is important that we “develop our identities” as commoners, especially since most of us have to “balance our internal ‘schizophrenia’ about the commons while dealing with the existing political world.” (

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