Forms of Consciousness and the Forms of the Commons

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Gregory Wilpert:

"A particular type of consciousness predominated in each of the three types of commons. By consciousness I mean the perspective from which we see and make sense of the world. This making sense of the world can be divided into at least three spheres: how we perceive the world cognitively, how we relate to the world affectively, and how we justify our interactions with others in the world morally or ethically.

We can analyze the three different types of commons – pre-capitalist, capitalist, and post-capitalist – in these three spheres as follows:

1. Pre-capitalist natural resource commons

a. Cognition: In terms of cognition the type of consciousness that predominated was one that developmental psychologists call “conventional”1 and that sociologists often call “traditional.” This means unquestioningly accepting the worldview that one’s ancestors or religious authorities impart.

b. Affect: One’s affective relationship to the world – or empathy – is limited to one’s social or ethnic group. That is, outsiders are generally seen as being less worthy or less deserving of empathy and understanding.2 The lack of empathy towards outsiders is not necessarily a willful refusal to empathize, but can also be the result of a psychological limitation simply because the “other” is too different to understand or appreciate.

c. Moral reasoning: The affective relationship feeds directly into one’s moral reasoning about how to treat others and act in the social world. Just as one’s cognitive ability, moral reasoning is based on traditional practices and customs that are unquestioned and which tend to prioritize members of one’s own community or group above that of outsiders.

d. Typical characteristics of the pre-capitalist natural resource commons: Based on the foregoing we can see how and why this type of commons tended to be organized. The boundary limitations mentioned earlier, which is typical of natural resource commons fit very well with a form of consciousness that limits cognitive understanding, affect, and moral reasoning to the members of one’s own group or community. A natural resource commons had to be limited to a particular group and the form of consciousness fit with this requirement. Social and cultural commons simply did not exist because both work and culture were usually organized along hierarchical status differences, where religious leaders or political leaders wielded power over others with less status-based power.

2. Capitalist social resource commons

a. Cognition: Here one’s ability to make sense of the world cognitively makes an important leap from relying on the meaning making of others to the meaning making of one’s own rational faculties. In other words, the person begins to question received wisdom and to try to elaborate an understanding of the world independently of others. In developmental psychology this is known as post-conventional reasoning. Historically the emergence of enlightenment philosophy of the 17th century was the main example of this transition in the West. However, just because one thinks one is thinking independently, does not mean that one is. Socially handed down frameworks and paradigms continue to shape this type of consciousness, but these are largely unconscious and not used as a justification for thinking the way one does.

b. Affect: The empathic range begins to go beyond one’s immediate community or social group and in principle expands to all of humanity. However, the empathic range is still limited by a false assumption that everyone else is similar to oneself. That is, the universalization of empathy goes hand-in-hand with the universal projection of one’s own affect on everyone else. It is thus a sort of false empathy, which assumed that one’s being in the world is the same as everyone else’s. It thus cannot take cultural differences properly into account.

c. Moral reasoning: Universal law and universal moral codes begin to emerge, where everyone ought to follow the same law and same moral code. This is thus particularly important for the emergence of universal human rights. It is no coincidence, though, that the first human rights that emerged were very individualistic rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, of assembly, of property ownership, and of equality before the law. These individualistic rights came first because they fit very well with the individual’s emancipation from the group and its traditional norms. This individualistic rational morality thus also made the emergence of capitalism possible, which freed the peasantry from feudal relationships and freed the entrepreneur to maximize profits regardless of what this might mean for others.

d. Typical characteristics of the capitalist social resource commons: Under capitalism two very different types of social resource commons began to develop. The first is the corporation, where the shared resource is the capital that has been invested in the corporation. One could argue, though, that the corporation is not a commons at all because the workers in a corporation generally have absolutely no say in how the corporation is organized or managed. However, if we consider that the shared resource is capital and that membership is limited to those who contributed the initial capital, then the workers are technically not members of this type of social resource commons.

The corporate investors, though, do jointly decide on the overall management and rules of the corporation. The second, perhaps more obvious form of social resource commons under capitalism is the cooperative. Here the shared resource is the labor opportunity that the entire business provides and that all who participate in the cooperative jointly decide on its management, rules, and organization. Both types of social resource commons (corporation and cooperative) depend on a form of consciousness that can accept anyone – of any social or ethnic group – as members, as long as they have the money to make the initial investment for membership. Also, the internal rules or governing principles apply equally to all members (this is true in principle also in pre-capitalist commons, but the homogeneity of membership, where everyone tends to be from the same social group, in this type of commons makes equality of membership a non-issue in pre-capitalist commons).

3. Post-capitalist cultural resource commons

a. Cognition: The cognitive ability to make sense of the world makes another major leap, this time to see the contextual and social frameworks of ones’ (previously presumed universal) understanding. That is, individuals here become more aware of their systemic embeddedness in social relations and how this limits their ability to fully understand the world. It represents a major leap in understanding because recognizing these limitations and frameworks is important for overcoming these. Some call the cognitive ability at this stage “systemic” because people see their embeddedness in systems of relationships and how these relationships affect their way of perceiving the world.

b. Affect: The ability to see relationships across social boundaries and to see all human beings as fundamentally equal also deepens and broadens the scope of empathy the people feel for others. While in the capitalist commons it was assumed that everyone is the same and that equality is based on a false sense of sameness, in the post-capitalist commons there is a recognition of equality despite the differences between people.

c. Moral reasoning: As we recognize equality in difference and difference in equality, the applicability of universal law is relativized in favor of adherence to key principles. That is, instead of insisting on equally applying the laws of one particular society on everyone else, key principles, such as concepts of fairness, justice, and freedom become far more important. Also, as we recognize that political human rights mean little in situations of extreme poverty and inequality, we begin to take social and economic human rights more seriously.

d. Typical characteristics of the post-capitalist cultural resource commons: While the capitalist social resource commons is universal in principle, in the sense that anyone who has the capital or money can join, the post-capitalist cultural resource commons is universal in practice. Membership boundaries thus become a non-issue. Also, there is greater flexibility in the application of rules and sanctions and greater tolerance for the wide variety of activities of all participants in the commons. This is further facilitated by technological advances, which network all participants with each other, thus creating a truly peer-to-peer society, in which inequalities and power hierarchies are seen as obstacle for the functioning of the commons. While individual rationality and the fulfillment of individual needs (or of corporate needs, which were seen as being the same as an individual) were predominant in the capitalist commons, in the post-capitalist commons there is a conscious effort to overcome the dualism between d. individual and collective. The development of the post-capitalist cultural resource commons is further advanced because cultural and knowledge exchange is much freer and uninhibited, both because of the ways in which technology makes such exchanges easier, but also because the recognition of equality in difference makes it more acceptable. The principles learned in the creation of cultural resource commons can then be gradually transferred to post-capitalist natural and social resource commons." (,1.pdf)