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From Papadimitropoulos Vangelis

On the Contradictions of the Commons

There is no denial that the information technology infrastructure has immense potential to sustain a commons economy in terms echoing what Marx had envisaged as the free cooperation of autonomous producers, and what Castoriadis later on termed as the project of individual and collective autonomy (Papadimitropoulos 2016). However, both multistakeholder cooperatives and the commons (global and local) suffer from inherent contradictions, which reflect and reproduce to some extent the contradictions of capitalism per se.

Multistakeholder cooperatives or worker owned enterprises tend to adopt in the long run capitalist practices so as to remain competitive and survive. Consequently, they reproduce the same inequalities capitalism produces. For example, competitive pressure drove the Mondragon cooperative to close Fagor, an appliance manufacturer with 3,400 workers, and to hire Polish workers with lower wages. In addition, despite the remarkable 6.5:1 executive-to-worker income ratio – just a fraction of the 350:1 in the US ‒, there is considerable democratic gap with regard to participation in decision making, since the latter remains still largely in the interests of executives and low-level management – not workers (Kasmir 1996). It should also be mentioned that over 90 % of co-ops are consumer co-ops, meaning that the main owners are not workers themselves. Even in worker-owned cooperatives, workers are often not co-op members. Therefore, many co-ops are co-ops in name only. They are basically market entities that have adopted capitalist practices, since their main interest is to get a higher selling price or lower buying price in the market (Gindin 2016; Scholz 2016). This is the reason why Bauwens argues that co-ops should be oriented toward achieving the common good by taking into consideration the interests of all groups affected by the social project in question (Bauwens 2014a). In other words, multistakeholder cooperatives would rather turn into the commons.

But the commons themselves suffer from their own contradictions. One major problem is that the basic structural contradiction of traditional capitalism, which is the extraction of the surplus value of the worker by the capitalist, transforms in cognitive capitalism into the appropriation of the use value of commons peer-to-peer production by capital itself, as it happens in the case of start-ups and multinational corporations like IBM, Facebook, Google, etc. As Bauwens and Kostakis put it, the more communist the peer-to-peer production of open software and hardware, the more capitalist the practice (Bauwens and Kostakis 2014). This way, commons peer-to-peer production falls prey to a predatory capitalism that double exploits time and labour. Not only are workers exploited by capitalists within the capitalist production, but also volunteers are exploited by capitalists within the commons peer-to-peer production. Not only are volunteers not getting paid by contributing to the commons, but also their very contribution to the commons can be subject to appropriation by the capital. So a basic problem is how to reverse this process and channel a stream of income from the capital to the commons; how to guarantee a source of income for people who work on the commons; in other words, how to turn voluntarism into creative paid labour.

This problem is magnified inasmuch as capitalism has acquired and fortified in the last centuries − in many cases by force − an immense variety of property rights that expand nowadays in Asia, Africa and Europe by a neoliberal neocolonialism. Therefore, not only does not capitalism shrink, but it expands around the globe. So how could a reclamation of the Commons be feasible under those conditions? To be more precise, how could already fortified property rights transform into non-exclusive common rights? If one reject the argument of the old-school left for the re-appropriation of the commons through the central power of the state, one plausible answer would be the production of new commons with the aid of new technologies (3D printers, new communication technologies, the Internet of Things, etc, Rifkin 2014) that would attract both capital and consumers, creating thus a cultural shift from capitalism to the commons. This shift would be incorporated in the model of open co-operativism between a partner state, ethical market entities and the commons. Yet capitalism is far more organized, equipped and skilled in developing new technologies and new products. Capital perceives fast the hypercompetitive nature of peer-to-peer production and invests in it. This is clearly evident in the case of Blockchain technology in which banks and corporations have already invested and started building applications on it. Therefore, Kostakis is right to argue that we should not ignore a scenario of the parody of the commons.

Commons rely heavily on capitalism in several respects – finance, organisation, infrastructures, management, marketing, skills and so on – to the extent that the marxian argument that cooperatives could not survive the competition of capitalism in the long term seems to be confirmed anew. Given the main obstacle of competitiveness, the pivotal question remains the same: how can we channel a stream of income from the capital to the commons? The answer Bauwens and Kostakis provide is twofold: only a back and forth movement of expansion and “enclosure” of the commons seems as the only counter-weight to the current expansion of neoliberalism. And for this global anti-power of the commons to develop, only the commercialisation of the commons on the basis of an open co-operativism described above seems to provide with a viable solution. To put it differently, only a coalition of the public and the private sector with the aim of reformulating the commons and redistributing the surplus value accordingly can obliterate capitalism in the long term. But isn’t this a capitalist solution? Do not the commons become this way an entrepreneur reproducing anew the contradictions of capitalism? Do not these contradictions reproduce themselves within the commons resulting in the inequalities of the commons?

The questions above reflect actually the argument of Stefan Meretz who claims that the introduction of the Peer Production Licence deals only with the distribution of the surplus value leaving untouched the production of the commodity and the exchange logic itself. Meretz thus objects to the commercialisation of the commons by arguing in favor of an open code peer-to-peer production that would gradually make capitalism disappear (Meretz 2014). Bauwens, on the other hand, argues that it is precisely the reproduction of the peer-to-peer production that the introduction of the Peer Production License intends to guarantee. He furthermore points out that PPL does not demand equivalent exchange, but only a negotiated reciprocity echoing what anthropologists call “general reciprocity”, that is, a minimum reciprocity necessary to sustain the system. This sort of reciprocity is both consistent with Marx’s definition of communism and Fiske’s definition of the communal shareholding. Finally, he holds that Meretz argument that peer-to-peer production will mature by its own means into an alternate system that will gradually substitute capitalism is a dangerous dream (Bauwens 2015).

I agree with Bauwens that the introduction of the Peer Production License is vital for channeling a stream of income from the capital to the commons. Any form of democratic financialisation of the commons is necessary for the commons to reproduce and expand. But is it enough for the commons to flourish and thrive? Is it only a matter of distribution? Of course it’s not. The asymmetrical power of the capitalist market in relation to the commons − regarding resources, skills, infrastructures, communication media, etc. − reflects within the commons in several respects. Bauwens argues that peer-to-peer projects are said to be, most often, “benevolent dictatorships”, controlled by a core of founders on the basis of their larger input into the constitution of the project (Bauwens 2014a). This model of course has nothing to do with communal shareholding and the example of the hunter eating last from his prey. What’s more, most of the so-called decentralized autonomous projects developed on the Blockchain infrastructure seem to be libertarian rather than Commons.

In support of the above comes a new study that shows that Wikipedia has turned into another conservative, corporate bureaucracy ruled by a leadership elite with privileged access to information and social networks (Headerlin and DeDeo, 2016). This clearly illustrates the gap between a technocratic elite and the members of a “community”, which reproduces the oligarchy of the experts, undermining thus the principles of the equipotentiality and holoptism. The technological gap is co-substantial with an implicit techno-centrism (Morozof 2011) and techno-pragmatism, dangerously ignoring that technology is part of the social imaginary, which has much more complex dynamics than technology itself. Society is a much more complex network of highly diverse imaginaries that cannot be simply reduced to a “scientific” logic. This is why an adequate education is of outmost importance for incorporating technology into society and not vice versa. We need an educational care to encompass knowledge with the mission to reach out for the unprivileged ones: the poor, the unemployed, the workers, the illiterate, and support them substantially. We need to avoid the reproduction of an economism that translates value into terms of costs and benefits, reproducing thus the inequalities of capitalism. We need, therefore, to “trickle down” knowledge, value and management; to “turn upside down” the system and unleash the human creativity oppressed by the capitalist bureaucracy with the aim to establish a freer, more diverse and just society.

For this reason, I claim that the principles of transparency, distribution of value and bottom-up self-management are of outmost importance for the success of any commons. I agree with Bauwens that the key issue is the balance between efficiency and participation; we need not waste time into endless deliberations in search for a “final” consensus. It is essential, however, to abolish the distinction between directors and executants in order to wipe out the capitalist imaginary that penetrates the commons in several respects. Transparency is the basis for both trust and autonomy. Following Castoriadis, freedom is the equality of all in participating in the formation of the law ruling society. Freedom is the equality of autonomy for individuals thinking and acting within collectivities. Yet, we should be aware of the danger of a reversed bureaucracy that could result either in the oligarchy of a technocratic elite or in the tyranny of the commons, oppressing in both cases the heterogeneity of individuality inherent in the cultural diversity of any commons. We need instead to transform inequalities into the equipotential inter-compatibilities of multicultural diversity, circulating value according to the needs and the capacities of everyone.


  • Bauwens, Michel, and Kostakis Vasilis. 2014. From the Communism of the Capital to the Capital for the Commons: Towards an Open Cooperativism. TripleC 12(1): 356-361.
  • Healderlin Bradi, and Dedeo, Simon. 2016. The Evolution of Wikipedia’s Norm Network. Future Internet 8(2), 14.
  • Kasmir, Sharryn. 1996. The Myth of Mondragon. State University of New York Press.
  • Meretz, Stefan. 2014. Socialist Licenses? A Rejoinder to Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis. TripleC. 12(1), 362-365.
  • Morozof, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Public Affairs. New York.
  • Papadimitropoulos, Vangelis. 2016. Socialisme ou Barbarie: From Castoriadis’ Project of Individual and Collective Autonomy to the Collaborative Commons. TripleC, 14(1): 265-278.
  • Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Scholz, Trevor. 2016. Platform Cooperativism. Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York.