No Commons Without a Community

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* Article: No commons without a community. By Maria Mies. Community Development Journal, Volume 49, Issue suppl_1, January 2014, Pages i106–i117,

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"The present interest in new commons is a very welcome development. It shows that more and more people understand that our present capitalist world system cannot solve any of the problems it itself has created. Most people who want to create new commons are looking for an altogether new paradigm of economy and society. Yet I think it is necessary to look more critically at the main concepts and arguments used in the contemporary discourse on ‘the commons’. Today there is a new hype about the ‘new commons’, including myths about the Internet as a commons and that it has created new communities. In this article I ask: what do we mean when we speak of ‘new commons’? What can we learn from the old commons? What has to be changed today? Is there a realistic perspective for new commons?"


Myths About the Internet as Commons

Maria Mies:

"The new discourse on the commons is to a large extent inspired by the belief that the Internet is a global commons. Even people who once were critical of the capitalist enclosures and the neoliberal policies of globalization, liberalization and privatization think that the Internet is a new global commons which would solve all economic, social, ecological and political problems in the world. Here are some of the main arguments of this belief in the Internet as commons: There are certainly more arguments of the defenders of the Internet as commons. But I think, these are the most important ones. I consider them as myths. In the following I compare the Internet as new commons with the old commons.

The Internet is neither private property of anyone, nor is it the property of the state. Hence it is a global commons. It can be used by everyone everywhere free of costs.

The Internet makes knowledge a universal commons. All knowledge in the world can no longer be the private property or privilege of any one or any elite.

Moreover, the Internet has truly created new social communities where people can make friends everywhere. They can see them, chat with them, exchange news and views with them, in a private or social chat-room like Facebook and Youtube as a global social network with the whole world. And free of costs.

The Internet truly creates real democracy because it creates the possibility for participation, and for transparency. No government, no party, no corporation, no bureaucracy can keep anything secret, because Internet specialists can discover these secrets immediately and expose them to the public.

The Internet has created the possibility for every citizen to influence local, regional, national and international politics. The Internet will therefore increase the sense of responsibility of every citizen.

The Internet will stop violence in the world, because if people do not meet each other face to face, attack each other, kill each other in reality but only virtually, they have an outlet for their aggressions and need not kill ‘real people’. Wars will become a thing of the past. Eventually all conflicts on earth can be solved peacefully by the ‘International Community’ represented by the United Nations which is responsible to keep peace on earth and solve all conflicts between nations.

The Internet overcomes all limits of time, space, and even of the real, material world. Thus it is a source of freedom for everyone.

The Internet once invented and established on our planet will stay. The Internet means progress. One cannot stop progress; we cannot go back to the Stone Age. Apart from that, the Internet is necessary and our daily life is no longer possible without it.

My counterarguments

The Internet is not a commons. It is in fact the private property of a handful of huge global monopolists like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and a few other global players. They control the hard- and software of all factories that produce and sell commodities based on the Internet. These commodities have a price. In a capitalist economy nothing is produced for free. But who pays the price? First of all, nature pays the price. The earth is exploited more or less for free in the search of those so-called rare minerals like gold, coltan, tantalum, platinum and others without which no computer could function. These ‘rare minerals’ are found for instance in the Republic of Congo but also in China and in Bolivia and in other countries. After the huge caterpillars have left the mining sites, they only leave huge holes in the earth, holes like wounds in the body of Mother Earth. Apple and the other IT giants will not and cannot heal these wounds. And the result of this violence against Mother Earth is warfare among the local communities, as is the case in the Republic of Congo. Hence, every computer is a product of a new process of global enclosures.

But there are also human costs which do not appear in the balance sheets of the IT corporations. The Internet may appear ‘cheap’ or even free of cost for the users, but the real human costs are paid by the workers who dig out these rare minerals from the earth in Africa or elsewhere. The recent strikes of miners in South Africa who dig out platinum from the earth were the consequence of their exploitation by IT corporations. The workers demand better wages and better working and living conditions. These conditions are worse today than they were under the Apartheid-Regime.

The Internet is also not free of costs even for its users. The hardware (computers, cell-phones, smart-phones, i-pads, i-phones etc.) cost a lot, particularly due to their inbuilt obsoleteness. Once a new gadget appears in the market it is almost immediately made obsolete and replaced by another, ‘better’ one. The old one cannot be repaired. The big IT corporations compete with each other for ever newer, ever faster, ever more sophisticated and cheaper hard- and software on the global market. But every new invention kills the old inventions which then become waste, electronic garbage, which then has to be dumped somewhere in the world. This dumping of E-garbage is free of cost for the IT companies, but not for the environment and the people who live near these garbage dumps.

So, who pays the true costs for the Internet if we include all those ‘external costs’? In fact, if all these costs were included in the price of a computer or a cell phone, most people would not be able to afford them. And the big IT corporations would go bankrupt.

What about the Internet as knowledge commons? Has the Internet truly enhanced our knowledge in and about this world? The German psychologist and neurologist Manfred Spitzer (2012) found out that children and youngsters who sit for hours in front of their computers or their PlayStations suffer from ‘Digital Dementia’. Their school performance is very low. Many cannot read or write. Many leave school without an exam. They hardly know anything about the real world. They live in their virtual world and are hardly able to cope with the requirements of everyday life. The images they see on their computer screen are available all over the world at a finger's click. But I ask: Is this the knowledge commons or creative commons people mean when they talk of the Internet as commons?

For the old commons knowledge meant that everyone knew how to handle a hammer and a spade and all other tools necessary to produce and reproduce their life. They also knew at what time saplings could be planted or not, everyone knew the songs sung at common gatherings and at home, everyone knew the histories told by the old people about the community and the world. All shared the language, the culture of their village and their region and their country. Hence they knew all the skills necessary to live their life in the real world in a real community in which they felt safe and at home. They were proud of their identity and they fought for their own dignity, as we saw from the story about Papua New Guinea. Where is the identity, where is the dignity of the Internet users?

The next myth is that the Internet, above all Facebook, creates a global community: everybody can communicate with everybody in the world. One can chat, make friends, exchange photographs, talk about one's hobbies. Facebook is particularly popular with young girls and boys. They are users, not persons, and every user sits alone in front of a computer, using Facebook or some other IT gadget. The exchange between those atomized individuals takes place only virtually, not in reality. These users are just a mass of isolated individuals, who cannot touch each other, smell each other and see each other as living persons. Their communication is totally desensualized. Such a mass of users cannot be a community in the true sense, where everybody is responsible for the wellbeing of the whole community and for all its members, as we saw it in the old commons-based communities. In the Internet no user can protect herself or himself from vicious attacks, insults or any cyber-mobbing. Cyber-mobbing has already led to suicides. Nobody who participates in this ‘social network’ can do anything against this cyber-mobbing. The anonymity of the Internet even leads to insults of whole communities as what happened recently when an unknown ‘user’ put a picture in the Internet which insulted Prophet Mohammad. This insult lead to mass demonstrations of people living in Muslim countries all over the world in which even an American ambassador was killed. The Internet does not know ethics, it is a-moral, which means nobody feels responsible for the effects it has in the real world, even if these effects may lead to real wars.

Here we see an important difference between the old commons and the so-called Internet-commons. As we saw, in the old commons everybody was responsible to maintain and care for the commons. Everyone was also responsible to respect the community and all people living in it. Everyone was responsible to keep peace in the community. This responsibility is absolutely absent in the global social networks of the Internet.

Some people believe that the Internet promotes democracy all over the world. They say that the ‘Arab Spring’ and the struggle for democracy in Egypt would not have happened if the Internet had not existed. True, the Internet facilitated the fast exchange of information about the rallies in the Tahrir square in Cairo and in other countries in North Africa. But democracy needs more than quick information. To establish a true democracy, where all people can participate to discuss what democracy means in a particular country, at a particular period of time under particular social and economic conditions – all this needs time and many debates and dialogues about the new social perspective and a new vision. The Internet by itself cannot create such a vision. It is just a machine. Democracy cannot be created by a machine, by a deus ex machina.

That the Internet promotes peace is another even more dangerous myth. It rather promotes wars. One has only to look at the killer games which millions of gamers – mostly young boys or men – are addicted to.

Finally, the believers in the Internet as commons argue that the Internet liberates humankind from the constraints of time, space and even of matter. How true are these assumptions? Indeed, the Internet seems to have overcome the limitations of time: people can communicate in a second with other people. The whole global finance system is based on this immediate communication. But also normal people communicate more and more by e-mail and the Internet than by mail or telephone. They can also communicate with more people in a shorter span of time. But what is the price for this speed-driven communication? People get exhausted, burnt out, feel that they have to reply to every stupid mail message. Or they simply give up looking at the e-mail every morning. Time is the only thing that cannot ‘grow’. We can pack more and more activities in an hour, but we cannot ‘save’ time, nor can we extend one hour. Time rolls on and on. We cannot stop time.

The same is true for space. The Internet creates the illusion that I can be here in Cologne and at the same time in Ireland. But this is only an illusion. In reality, I sit here in front of my computer and click on the key board to finish this article. In reality I cannot be in two places at the same time. These limitations of time and space are due to the fact that we are part and parcel of Nature, and that means we are part and parcel of the material world without which life would not exist on this planet. Even this planet would not exist, it does not exist ‘virtually’. Matter matters." (