Logic of the Market versus the Logic of the Commons

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The Table

The Logic of the Market versus the Logic of the Commons

Market Commons

What can I sell?Exchange value

What do we need?Use value

Core beliefs Scarcity Plenty
Homo oeconomicus Homo cooperans
It's about resources (allocation). It's about us.
Governance Market-State Polycentric / Peer-to-Peer Governance
Decision making hierarchical horizontal
Command (Power, Law, Violence) Consensus, Free Cooperation, self-organization
Social relationships Centralization of power (monopoly)

Decentralization of power(autonomy)

Property Possession
Access to rival resources Limited by boundaries & rules defined by owner Limited by boundaries & rules defined by usergroups
Access to nonrival resources Made scarce (to ensure profitability) Open access (to ensure social equity)
Use rights Granted by owner Co-decided by user groups
Dominant strategy Out-compete Out-cooperate
For the resources


Conservation Reproduction & Multiplication

For the people Exlusion & Participation Inclusion & Emancipation

Commentary by Silke Helfrich

Silke Helfrich:

"The market has a well-developed and aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created. Just switch on your radio in the morning…

Market logic is based on the assumption that we are basically a homo oeconomicus – striving to maximize our own benefits. This narrative rests on the pillars of private property rights and the idea that the winner is the one who out-competes the others. In short: it’s a story of bigger, higher and faster.

The commons has yet to develop its own grand narrative. But here are some well identified essentials. First of all, it moves beyond the classic dichotomies of the haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, of public and private. It includes the missing third element: the commoners or usergroups, the co-owners, and the citizenry within their communities. It focuses on self-organization instead of “participation,” – the scope of the latter is something that has been basically pre-decided by “market laws” or authorities. After such predecisions, some suggestions of citizens are welcome. The difference between participation and self-organization/emancipation is like the difference between reading a recipe and making one’s own yummy cake.

The commons is about building robust and resilient communities. That means its storyline is about relationships, not transactions. Therefore metric systems are unable to assess the State of the Commons, or, as David says: it “cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the ‘Commons 500.’”

The commons follows a logic of inclusion and aims at social control over resources and productive means.

Part of the ‘commons movement’ constantly tackles the issue of ecological security, others don’t. I use to call them the “ecos” and the “technos” and I think, still, in year one of the commons movement, there is a major divide between the “ecos” and the “technos” which has to be urgently addressed if we want to make the movement grow. The Indian System of Rice Intensification is a good example for it.

At a first glance, this may look like a fuzzy storyline. But in my experience, people have an intuitive access to the commons. Even though unnamed, they know what it is all about, because it is simply part of their social practice. Ask people what they care for, what a meaningful live means to them: They will talk to you about robust and diverse social relations, cooperation, trust, solidarity.

The market and Nation-State as well as their conglomerations are built upon different beliefs. Just two examples out of many: The European Union is currently centralizing more and more power – supposedly “saving nation by nation” – meanwhile we learn from Commons research that centralized governance approaches harm the diversity of the commons. Commons governance needs to be polycentric, as Professor Elinor Ostrom has shown. Panaceas are revealed to be dangerous, and there is simply no such thing as a one size fits all solution. Because, remember: “each commons is one of a kind.”

Or take one of the favorite strategies of international cooperation for development: Securing private land titles. This is considered a key condition for rural development. But the strategy implies, that each peasant gets his little private piece of property which in case of emergency or upon pressure (say landgrabbing) are often resold to the already land-rich.

Thus, if we don’t analyze policy from a commons perspective, a strategy supposed to empower the poor can end up with disrupting social relations on the ground and enclosing the commons.

That means:

  • convert commoners into individual consumers and producers for the market
  • make them more dependent on the ups and downs of that market.
  • cut them off from their history and from the history of commoning.

We have to identify the structural and often hidden ongoing enclosures. Enclosure is more than “privatization”, “commercialization” or “development pressure” triggered by “path dependency”. The term “enclosure” captures the disempowerment of people and social disruptions, which use to trigger situations, that are difficult to roll back. You may compare it to the dismantling of public transport infrastructures. Once you remove the rail network in a country, you will not be able to manage to re-open public transport by train. It’s gone.

Remember the ‘father’ of the liberal property concept, the English philosopher John Locke. Locke considered it a divine right for people to claim private property rights for things that they have “mixed” with their own labor. What is usually omitted from Locke’s formulation are his significant qualification – “…so long as there is enough, and good left in common for others.”

In fact, exclusive property rights can be justified only if the common pool resources and the use rights of commoners are preserved." (http://commonsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-commons-year-one-of-the-global-commons-movement/)