History and Evolution of the Commons

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This is a stylized interpretation of the history of the commons, from the point of view of what needs to be done now. So here are some limitations of the text:

  • I distinguish between the 'common', i.e. what we have in common, or should have in common, from the 'commons', the latter refers to real shared resources that are managed collectively, i.e. a human institution of governance. Hence, I do not consider here language, culture and 'organic' knowledge 'common(s) that are not managed collectively. Please bear in mind that every material commons is always also a knowledge commons, and vice versa, that no knowledge commons can exist without material infrastructure. In a similar wa every material commons is also a social commons, as it involves commoning, a human activity. This is a history of the dominant 'material' and 'knowledge' commons as they evolve over time.
  • As it focuses on the dominant form of the commons, this does not mean that there were no other commons of other types. For example, I consider the guilds to be also a form of social commons, but cities were a tiny part of the population in pre-modern times.


Draft by Michel Bauwens, 28/7/2017:

"Is it possible to historicise the commons, to describe the evolution of the commons over time ?

This is our first draft and preliminary attempt to do so.

To do this we must of course define the commons. We generally agree with the definition that was given by David Bollier and others and which derives from the work of Elinor Ostrom and the researchers in this tradition.

In this context, the commons has been defined as a shared resource, which is co-owned and/or co-governed by its users and/or stakeholder communities, according to its rules and norms. It’s a combination of a ‘thing’, an activity, commoning as the maintenance and co-production of that resource, and a mode of governance. It is distinguished from private and public/state forms of managing resources.

But it’s also useful to see commoning as one of four ways of distributing the fruits of a resource, i.e. as a ‘mode of exchange’, which is different from the more obligatory state-based redistribution systems, from markets based on exchange, and from the gift economy as a socially obligatory reciprocity between specific entities. In this context, commons is pooling/mutualizing a resource, whereby individuals exchange with the totality of an eco-system.

A number of relational grammars, especially that of Alan Page Fiske in Structures of Social Life, are very useful in that regard, as he distinguishes Authority Ranking (distribution according to rank), Equality Matching (the gift economy, as a social obligation to return a gift), Market Pricing and Communal Shareholding.

Kojin Karatani’s book about the Structure of World History is an excellent attempt to place the evolution of these modes of exchange, in a historical context. Pooling is the primary mode for the early tribal and nomadic forms of human organization, as ‘owning’ is counter-productive for nomads; the gift economy starts operating and becomes strongest in more complex tribal arrangements, especially after sedentarisation, since the social obligation of the gift and counter-gift, creates societies and pacifies relations. With the onset of class society, ‘Authority Ranking’ or re-distribution becomes dominant, and finally, the market system becomes dominant under capitalism.

Let’s now reformulate this in a hypothesis for civilisational, i.e. class history.

Class-based societies that emerged before capitalism, have relatively strong commons, and they are essentially the natural resource commons, which are the ones studied by the Ostrom school. They co-exist with the more organic culturally inherited commons (folk knowledge etc..). Though pre-capitalist class societies are very exploitative, they do not systematically separate people from their means of livelihood Thus, under for example European feudalism, peasants had access to common land.

With the emergence and evolution of capitalism and the market system, first as an emergent subsystem in the cities, we see the second form of commons becoming important, i.e. the social commons. In western history we see the emergence of the guild systems in the cities of the Middle Ages, which are solidarity systems for craft workers and merchants, in which ‘welfare’ systems are mutualized, and self governedgovernment. When market-based capitalism becomes dominant, the lives of the workers become very precarious, since they are now divorced from the means of livelihood. This creates the necessity for the generalization of this new form of commons,distinct from natural resources. In this context, we can consider worker coops, along with mutuals etc… as a form of commons. Cooperatives can then be considered as a legal form to manage social commons. With the welfare state, most of these commons were state-ified, i.e. managed by the state, and no longer by the commoners themselves.There is an argument to be made that social security systems are commons that are governed by the state as representing the citizens in a democratic polity. Today, with the crisis of the welfare state, we see the re-development of new grassroots solidarity systems, which we could call ‘commonfare’, and the neoliberalisation and bureaucratisation of the welfare systems may well call for a re-commonification of welfare systems, based on public-commons partnerships.

Since the emergence of the internet, and especially since the invention of web (the launch of the web browser in October 1993), we see the birth, emergence and very rapid evolution of a third type of commons: the knowledge commons. The emergence of this practice of 'knowledge as a commons' coincides with the strong resistance to the second enclosure of the commons, due to neoliberal intelltual property practices, and free software itself, which is both a resistance against privatisation, and a construction of new commons, shows the relationship between conflict and construction in this sphere.

Distributed computer networks allow for the generalisation of peer to peer dynamics, i.e. open contributory systems where peers are free to join in the common creation of shared knowledge resources, such as open knowledge, free software and shared designs. Knowledge commons are bound to the phase of cognitive capitalism, a phase of capitalism in which knowledge becomes a primary factor of production and competitive advantage, and at the same time represent an alternative to ‘knowledge as private property’, in which knowledge workers and citizens take collective ownership of this factor of production. To the degree that cognitive or network-based capitalism undermines salary-based work and generalized precarious work, especially for knowledge workers, these knowledge commons and distributed networks become a vital tool for social autonomy and collective organisation. But access to knowledge does not create the possibility for the creation of autonomous and more secure livelihoods, and thus, knowledge commons are generally in a situation of co-dependence with capital, in which a new layer of capital, netarchical capital, directly uses and extracts value from the commons and human cooperation.

But we should not forget that knowledge is a representation of material reality, and thus, the emergence of knowledge commons is bound to have an important effect on the modes of production and distribution.

I would then emit the hypothesis that this is the phase we have reached, i.e. the ‘phygital’ phase in which the we see the increased intertwining of ‘digital’ (i.e. knowledge) and the physical.

The first location of this inter-twining are the urban commons. I have had the opportunity to spend four months in the belgian city of Ghent, where we identified nearly 500 urban commons in every area of human provisioning (food. Shelter, transportation).

Our great discovery was that these urban commons function in essentially the same way as the digital commons communities that operate in the context of ‘commons-based peer production’..

This means that they combine

1) a open productive community with

2) a for-benefit infrastructure organisation that maintains the infrastructure of the commons and

3) generative (in the best case) livelihood organisations which mediate between the market/state and the commons in order to insure the social reproduction of the commoners (i.e. their livelihoods).

In our vision, these urban commons, which according to at least two studies are going through an exponential phfase of growth (a ten-fold growth in the last ten years), are the premise for a further deepening of the commons, preparing a new phase of deeper re-materialization.

We can indeed distinguish four types of commons according to two axes: material/immaterial, and co-produced/inherited.

Ostrom commons are mostly inherited material commons (natural resources); inherited immaterial commons, such as culture and language, are usually considered under the angle of the common heritage of humanmankind; knowledge commons are immaterial commons that are co-produced and finally, there is a largely missing category of material commons that are produced. We are talking here of what is traditionally called ‘capital’, but in the new context of an accumulation of the commons, rather than a accumulation of capital for the sake of capital.

Let’s see the logic of this.

In pre-capitalist class formations, where the land is a primary productive factor, natural resource commons are an essential resource of the livelihood of the commons, and it is entirely natural that the commons take the form of the common governance of natural resources tied to the land.

In capitalist formations, where the workers are divorced from access to the land and the means of production, it is natural that the commons become ‘social’; they are the solidarity systems that workers need to survive, and they are the attempts to organize production on a different basis during the rule of capital, i.e. they can also take the form of cooperatives for production and consumption.

In an era of cognitive capitalism, knowledge becomes a primary resource and factor of production and wealth creation, and knowledge commons are a logical outcome. But the precarious workers that are in exodus from the salaried condition, cannot ‘eat’ knowledge. Therefore, the commons also take on the form of urban infrastructure and provisioning systems, but must ultimately also take the form of true physical and material productive commons. The commons are therefore potentially the form of a mode of production and industry appropriate to the current conjuncture. During a time of market and state failure regarding the necessary ecological transition, and heightened social inequality, commoning infrastructure becomes a necessity for guaranteeing access to resources and services, to limit unequal access, but also as a very potent means to lower the material footprint of human production.

Therefore, current urban and productive commons are also the seed forms of the new system which solves the problems of the current system, which combines a pseudo-abundance in material production which endangers the planet, and an artificial scarcity in knowledge exchange, which hinders the spread of solutions.

The knowledge commons of cognitive capitalism are but a transition to the productive commons of the post-capitalist era.

In this new form of material commons, which are heavily informed and molded by digital knowledge commons (hence ‘phygital’), the means of production themselves can become a pooled resource. We foresee a combination of shared global knowledge resources (for example, exemplified by shared designs, and following the rule: all that is light is global and shared), and local cooperatively owned and managed micro-factories (following the rule: all that is heavy is local).

This cosmo-local (DGML: design global, manufacture local) mode of production and distribution, has the following characteristics:

  • Protocol cooperativism: the underlying immaterial and algorithmicalgorhitmic protocols are shared and open source, using copyfair principles (free sharing of knowledge, but commercialization conditioned by reciprocity)
  • Open cooperativism: the commons-based coops are distinguished from ‘collective capitalism’ by their commitment to creating and expanding common goods for the whole of society; in Platform coops it is the platforms themselves that are the commons, needed to enable and manage the exchanges that may be needed, while protecting it from capture by extractive netarchical platfors
  • Open and contributive accounting: fair distribution mechanisms that recognize all contributions
  • Open and shared supply chains for mutual coordination
  • Non-dominium forms of ownership (the means of production are held in common for the benefit of all participants in the eco-system.

In our opinion, the current wave of urban commons, is a prefiguration of the coming wave of scaled up material commons for the production and distribution of value in post-capitalist systems."


Voir Histoire et évolution des communs