Future of the Commons

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= Publication and conference


* Essay: The Future of the Commons. By David Harvey. Radical History Review, 2011 Volume 2011, Number 109: 101-107


Current thinking about the problem of how to manage common resources still dwells on arguments either in favor of or against enclosure, coming primarily from contemporary political and scholarly debate about the enclosure of the early modern agrarian English commons. Many considerations of the enclosure of the commons, however, have so far failed to account for a number of variables. For instance, the sensible management of common resources on a local scale may not function at all on a global one. Protecting forest biodiversity in areas populated by at-risk indigenous populations may call for trading off the protection of one commons for another. And commons also can be exclusionary, or can involve resources that are not scarce, such as intellectual property. In this essay, David Harvey argues that the real problem demanding our attention is private property, not the commons itself. The capitalist commons is being continuously enclosed, but it is also being continuously produced. To fulfill our common interests, we need to look to the powers of collective labor to address capitalism's destruction of land and labor resources.

Conference Notes

Retreat in Crottorf, Germany: The Future of the Commons«, June 24 - 28

URL = http://gemeingut.wikidot.com/future-of-the-commons

From Christian Siefkes:

Crottorf 2009 Intro Session

Input statement by David Bollier:

  • That which is generated in the commons must stay in the commons or at least the commoners must have control over how it is deployed.
  • How can we describe the economics of the commons? Hopes to instigate a more holistic commons-based economics.
  • Contradictions: inclusiveness vs. borders that are necessary for protecting the commons?
  • How can the relationships between the commons and the market be; can there be a constructive relationship between them?

By Massimo:

  • Global commons: what could be the communities managing them (unless we believe it could be the state?)
  • Commons as a pool of resources, as a community which sets itself the rules and boundaries, and the constituting force creating the commons: commoning as activity.
  • How do we scale up? How do we build a division of labor which is not rigid, which is not alienated, in which things are shared?
  • Efficiency (cost minimization) is a very poor measure, which leaves many things out. We should attack efficiency and pose the question of other measures—but which ones?
  • We must be careful not to frame the commons in the capitalist way (“we need them to increase our own national productive advantage”).


  • What are the windows of opportunity?


  • How can we govern the commons?

History Session

Intro by Peter Linebaugh: There was a complete re-interpretation of Magna Carta to justify property and capital. It’s time that we reclaim it as our own.

Only if we know where we’re coming from we can know where we might go to. That’s why history is too important to leave to the historians: we all know that they are paid by the powerful and will sing the songs that they want to hear.

Silvia: there were many enclosures. Not just the enclosure of land, but also enclosure of women’s bodies, enclosure/destruction of women’s knowledge about production, etc. And we see these same processes still going on today. The past is the presence in more than one way.

Michel: Communal shareholding as one of four fundamental modes of interaction: giving to the common (the whole), and taking from the common.

Production Session

Michel’s input:

Three players: self-organizing community, for-benefit association (non-profit foundation), ecology of businesses who profit from the commons and contribute to their development.

Three laws:

1. If these three players come together, they will out-compete any closed proprietary company active in the same area.

2. If two companies compete in that way, the one that opens up more will outcompete the other.

3. If there are two communities, the one that associates itself with a for-benefit association and an ecology of businesses will be more successful than the other one.

Silvia’s input:

Doesn’t like the material/immaterial or new/traditional commons distinction: “high-tech” vs. “low-tech commons” may be better.

Urban gardens as seeds of a new non-market form of production.


1. Was the destruction of the land commons necessary for the technological leap which made the emergence of electronic commons possible?

2. How can we give a material basis for the production of immaterial commons? How can we organize commons around the production of life?

Movement for the Community of Care: develops commoning approaches for elder care and how to deal with death, illness, and grieving.

Conditions for commons:

  • Responsibility is important.
  • There must be a material basis.
  • Must be committed to breaking down borders between the different worlds (women/men’s work, developed/developing countries etc.).

Me: Production in the commons—peer production beyond the immaterial sphere:

  • Resources and means of production are commons (or pseudo-commons that are available to all).
  • Tasks are commons: they are shared, spontaneously or through agreements, among participants.
  • The output is commons: if it’s immaterial, it’s freely available to everybody; if it’s material, it’s shared among participants according to needs and according to agreements between them; and if it’s no longer needed, it goes back into the commons.
  • Cf. Silvia: some localized productive communities already exist, e.g. urban/community gardens, community wireless networks. So common production of food and Internet access already works to some degree; for other things (such as clothes, furniture, means of transport such as e-bikes, maybe energy) it could work too. Production is for-use, not for-profit. Physical production is localized, while knowledge is globally shared and available to all.

Important conditions:

  • Means of production become smaller and more decentralized and affordable (cf. computers, printers, CNC machines etc.).
  • Goods become more adaptive, changeable and reusable (cf. ebook readers).

Reply to Richard: you are right that nothing would change if only the immaterial sphere changed (Negri’s ideas of immaterial, invisible communism are quite wrong); knowledge and physical resources must be global commons, though the latter can be locally managed.

Challenges (Risks) Session

Input by Pat:

Seeds and pesticides: very decentralized and informal market was taken over by a few big highly concentrated corporations, using lousy technology and excelling lobbying and marketing.

Wolfgang: biotech and synthetic biology change nature, the ecosystem on a very deep level—hence “leave it alone” would probably be the generally accepted philosophy among commoners; but nanotech doesn’t seem to cause such deep phenomenological changes, hence there is no basis for a general consensus against it.

Ian: science is/should be “sustainable collective critical inquiry into the world”—biotech and similar approaches aren’t critical.

Wolfgang: the commons of somebody should be be a no-go area for everybody else.

Massimo: we should prevent new technologies that are only created for making money, in order to put a stop on the money-making machine.

Challenges (Opportunities) Session

Input by me on the peer economy (cf. above). And by Andreas on the solidarity economy—4-5 characteristic points:

1. economic unit (whatever that means)

2. self-management

3. cooperation is egalitarian

4. enterprises must show solidarity towards society (not profit-oriented in the first place, or not even aimed at money-making at all)

5. (ecologically aware)

Samples: Umsonstladen (free shops), producer-consumer cooperatives, communal forests (Gemeinschaftswälder), urban gardening.

Social enterprises must also remodel their interrelations, they must add a societal dimension, breaking the market-mediated connection and moving to a commons-based connection. Otherwise, if they only change their internal logic but still produce for the market, they can’t really escape the logic of the market. “Solidarity-economy production chains” are a partial way of doing that; the solidarity economy must be decoupled from the capitalist market.

Input by Richard: tactics to deligimitize commoning:

  • exclusion and physical separation of people by incarceration and borders
  • criminalization: South-African “Land Act” threatens slum dwellers with high punishments for occupying land

People who don’t have power don’t count, that’s why their problems are ignored. Popular empowerment and disempowerment of the elites can be a strategy of addressing that.

All historical struggles (national liberation movements etc.) have a moment of popular empowerment which later—after victory—is suppressed by the new elite.

Slogans from below: “talk to us, not over us,” “struggle with us, not for us,” “we are the professors of our own suffering/struggle.” Liberation struggles only work if and since everyone is a commoner, a peer—they can’t work as expert movements.

Session on Where Do We Stand

Input by Stefan on indirect vs. direct social mediation and the 5-step model as a way for getting from here to there.

Franz: feudalism integrates a kind of commons by leasing the commons to the community and—in return—extracting a surplus from the community managing the commons. We’re seeing a certain reverting to this pre-capitalist, feudal way of managing a somewhat enclosed commons (cf. Google, Youtube, Flickr).

Input by Andoni on ontologies:

4 realms: body (our own), nature (natural environment), urban/city/polis (human-made environment), digital (virtual environment, communication).

Stefan: the basic value of commoning: I can only flourish if the others flourish; my own self-unfolding needs the self-unfolding of others, and vice versa.

Input by George on the force field we’re in. Neoliberalism: a form of capitalism that is directly intended on destroying the commons.

Andreas: capital might push people into the commons in order to lower labor costs (you don’t have to pay workers’ food if they get it from urban gardens).

Wolfgang: Marx hated the commons, wanted the primitive peasant way of production overcome.

George: Marx rethought this over time and became more positive about the potential of the commons, cf. his letter to Vera Zasulich regarding the potential of the Russian village community.

Michel: I don’t like this approach of seeing everything as resistance against a big enemy. What is important is building the commons.

Silvia: what disturbs me regarding the electronic commons is the lack of a critical perspective on technology, also in regard to the material basis of production. Political Strategy Session

Pat: What’s perceivable in real-world strategy during the next years? How do people plan to move forward?

David: What could we as a group (or large subset of the group) do?

Idea by David: Commons wiki.

Massimo: how to deal with the issue of power and other conflicts?

Franz: how can we use the commons discourse to reframe the debate on climate change from a technological one to something else?

Wolfgang: (1) how can we manage the global commons without falling into the trap of expert-run planetary management? (2) The age of economic growth is coming to an end—how can we foster well-being as opposed to gross national product?

Andreas: How can we react on the economic downsizing that is happening?

Michel: we should talk both about general strategy and practical cooperation.

Ian: How to talk about limits without falling into a kind of Malthusian discourse? How to be honest without being regressive?

Silke: there is and there isn’t a commons movement—there are lots of people in a kind of commons movement, but they are disconnected and invisible. We have a strong message, but how can we deepen it and how can we get it out to people? And a practical question: how can we generate income for the commoners in a commons-based way?

Peter: in the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 15/22/11 meanings for “common[s]” as an adjective/substantive/verb—so we shouldn’t expect too much unity. Corporate cooptators will create lots of verbal buzz quickly—in the past, commoners created secret, hidden languages to prevent being coopted.

General topic for the second part of the session: How to bring the commons into politics?

Input by Wolfgang on climate change: the atmosphere so far has been an open access regime, not a commons. Using the atmosphere is a source of economic power, hence it is so difficult to turn it into a global commons. The atmosphere is indeed the only natural global commons, since all other commons are based on resources that have some territorial boundaries.

Fair sharing of the atmosphere as a commons would mean that everybody gets just and equal access to the atmosphere to the degree that it isn’t overused. But the struggle for the atmosphere isn’t one of world citizens, but one of nation states struggling for their respective share of economic power. That’s what makes negotiations so difficult and fruitless.

The “Sky Trust” Proposal aims to eliminate nation states from the picture (after they have enacted that proposal) by auctioning access to the atmosphere. The revenue would go into one or several fonds and would be used, for example, for ecological leapfrogging in the poorer countries (the original Sky Trust Proposal just proposed to pay out the dividend equally to everybody). There are difficulties of dealing with the equality issue here, but it’s a start.

Input by Nicola: actually, rich countries are just trying to negotiate the most suitable terms for them; it’s a great resource grab: who gets what’s left of the atmospheric space—nobody is willing to accept limits on their potential for economic growth.

The issue is closely connected with capitalist production in general; within the capitalist framework, commons-oriented solutions are probably impossible to find. What is the community that manages the commons? It’s not the nation states.

Silke: are there actors reframing the climate change debate in a commons-oriented way?

David: as a short-time strategy, such a reframing is impossible, since the politicians (even those that are potentially more on our side) don’t get it. Peter Barnes renamed the commons-oriented “Sky Trust” to the capitalist “Cap and Dividend” to make it more salable (and it still doesn’t work).

Andreas: we should not participate in the negotiations following the Kyoto Protocol, since they are giving a legitimacy to the nation states which we should deny them, as they are inevitable tied to the capitalist system producing them.

Franz: the Transition Towns movement is a way of working towards change relying on local communities instead of the state.

Andreas: a practical measure would be to close down the production of cars altogether.

Wolfgang: going for emissions, i.e. the last phase, was already a political decision. An alternative would be to make a moratorium on oil production, to phase out gas and coal production, and to impose strict limits on the most relevant industries (e.g. only one-liter or electric cars, limits for meat production, etc.).

Franz: activate communities to focus on solutions in a community-oriented, localized way; that will work better than focusing on higher-level politics directly.

George: To deal with a commons, we need a community, and the nations aren’t a community.

George: there will be a tremendous amount of criminalization of the commoners as their influence grows. We’ll have to deal with that. The only hope I have for success is that there doesn’t seem to be an alternative.

Richard: crises always lead to backlashes—violence against women, religious fundamentalism etc. A progressive discourse must integrate some concept of global citizenship, of humanity as a connected whole.

Wolfgang: there are four logical ways of dealing with scarcity:

1. Social exclusion: limit those who get access. Commons perspective: all the commoners need access—in this case, all of humanity.

2. Expansion: go for the last possible means to escape that scarcity, including dangerous and risky means, e.g. nuclear power, geoengineering, genetic engineering. Commons perspective: prevent the spreading of crisis from one commons to others.

3. Improve the efficiency of your means: efficiency, green technology etc. Commons perspective: this is a good and necessary thing.

4. Reexamine your goals: what do you want, want to you really need? → sufficiency. Commons perspective: here commons are part of the solution, since commons-based solutions will often be a better way of managing usage.

Richard: three criteria for commons: North-South global justice, livelihood outside the industrial sphere, ? What Is To Be Done? Session

Miguel invites everyone to contribute to the thematic forum of next year’s World Social Forum, which will be about “Crisis of Civilization”: “Commons/Decommodization of Life” will be one of the four main axes of the event. Anybody interested should just contact him.

Silke: There will be the First World Commons Forum in Salzburg in September, organized by the Global Marshall Plan Foundation, targeted at decision makers and the media; maybe there won’t be networking between them and us, but we could use the space to continue the debate.

Massimo and me: but there is a risk of being coopted to a message we don’t really like.

David: send me stuff for onthecommons.org in order to reach a larger public.

Andoni and David: we are interested in assembling a wiki-based encyclopedia of the commons—contact us if you want to contribute.

Michel: you can send me stuff for the P2P Foundation blog, too; and add contributions to our wiki.

Rainer: I would be interested in the different strategies in dealing with property regimes, e.g. in the sphere of “intellectual property”: whether to improve it in detail, get rid of it completely (incl. civil disobedience—“illegal” copying—on a massive scale), or create a new regime (such as Creative Commons).

Prashant: Creative Commons relies on the copyright model, it’s not really appropriate for countries such as India which don’t have a strong tradition of copyright, but a tradition of sharing and informal use and reuse.


  • Global Villages Network is cooperating with a number of villages in Russia to set up a network of interactive lessons: “Virtual University of the Villages.” Looks for universities and places willing to join in.
  • Invites everyone to cooperate with the “Open Source Ecology” project in order to create an open-source modular production environment appropriate for both the North and the South.
  • Please contribute to a series of articles presenting a mosaic of localized, commons-based production to Russian authorities