Parody of the Commons

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Full reference: Kostakis, V. & Stavroulakis, S. (2013). The parody of the Commons. TripleC: Cognition, Communication, Co-operation, 11 (2): 412-424.


"This essay builds on the idea that Commons-based peer production is a social advancement within capitalism but with various post-capitalistic aspects, in need of protection, enforcement, stimulation and connection with progressive social movements. We use theory and examples to claim that peer-to-peer economic relations can be undermined in the long run, distorted by the extra-economic means of a political context designed to maintain profit-driven relations of production into power. This subversion can arguably become a state policy, and the subsequent outcome is the full absorption of the Commons as well as of the underpinning peer-to-peer relations into the dominant mode of production. To tackle this threat, we argue in favour of a certain working agenda for Commons-based communities. Such an agenda should aim the enforcement of the circulation of the Commons. Therefore, any useful social transformation will be meaningful if the people themselves decide and apply policies for their own benefit, optimally with the support of a sovereign partner state. If peer production is to become dominant, it has to control capital accumulation with the aim to marginalise and eventually transcend capitalism."

From the Tragedy to the Parody of the Commons (excerpts):

Benkler (2006) postulates his assumptions about the conditions for the development of peer production, taking for granted a general stable economy. He does not deal with the threats Commons-based peer production will face once exposed to a hostile economic environment.


The initial P2P architecture of the Internet, based on the end-to-end principle, has been distorted into a client-server format where the server has the absolute authority over the client, who stands unprotected with limited intervention possibility (Kempf and Austein 2004). The “addiction” of the client to assign tasks, which concern him/her on the first place, to the supposed convenience that the server offers is a phenomenon observed in proprietary, centralised social networks and SaaS models (i.e., “Software as a Service” acronym; for example, think of Facebook). This exemplifies the tendency of the user population to neutralise and detach from issues important for their online and offline future.


In 1968, Garrett Hardin first introduced the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons referring to the degradation of a finite resource used by a group of individuals who act independently and rationally on the basis of their self-interest. If individuals agreed to assign private management responsibility, which would implement a protection fence around the resource against the “rational” behaviour of all, the resource would be safe (Hardin 1968). Elinor Ostrom (1990) understates Hardin's approach claiming that if those, who share a certain resource, belonged to a local community, then they would adopt the optimal solutions to serve their interests. In certain cases the aforementioned statement cannot apply, because of a lack of confidence amongst community members due to the high communication costs and/or because of the small benefit from the problem solving. However, the criteria that Ostrom (1990) articulates are also immanent in Hardin's definition as a matter of the rational behaviour of individuals. Ostrom (1990) correctly denotes that the resource sustainability can be achieved by adopting best practices without the need of privatisation. What eludes both Hardin and Ostrom is that the best practices or the technical means are defined by those in power. There is arguably almost no possibility of implementing measures that would not enforce the established structure. The shared resource may not become private, but the extra-economic support of other privatised means in the infrastructure of the common resource (e.g. friendly policies toward activities regardless of business plan) could gradually eradicate the resource. Once again, the ruling agenda defines whether the technical means can be considered best practice.


Benkler (2006, 378) explains that traditionally the tragedy of the Commons is described by (i) the absence of incentives, i.e., nobody invests resources in a project since no privatisation follows; (ii) the absence of leadership, i.e., nobody has the appropriate authority to guide and accomplish such a project. What Benkler says is this: Let's assume that Hardin's proposition is true: Privatisation secures the sustainability of a resource. But how do we get there? To begin with, what is our incentive to assume ownership or management of a common resource, if we do not charge for its use? And suppose that the incentive has been found: Are we capable of achieving the sustainability goal when this capability is part of collective intelligence? The difficulty to meet both conditions means inadequacy of assuming responsibility, hence, the common resource has no future, according to Hardin. Benkler (2006) states that this does not apply in peer production: Commons-based communities manage to find their own ways. However, counter-examples can be found against the cases Benkler brings to the fore to support his argument.

Defining the Parody of the Commons (excerpts):

We name “parody of the Commons” the introduction of privatisation in the management of the common resources realised either by the assignment of ownership to individuals or by the interference of state regulation, when capital is the prevailing force as well as the appropriation of the financial results. Both routes rely on the assumption of owning better information pools, which is challenged by the current developments of liberal-democratic societies. If Commons-based peer production does not become the dominant mode of production, the conditions for a tragedy will be arguably met and then the emancipatory promise of the Commons will be torn apart. It can be claimed that the state policies have to be considered as a parameter. We argue that the state intervention – when it legislates enforcing or facilitating measures – actually applies Hardin's schema following other routes. The state perceives as “public” all goods and resources of some value and then intervenes introducing regulations for the “common good”.


We define two main features of the parody of the Commons. The first feature is the institutional integration, which is the absorption of the proportional dividend of every individual by a mandatory private appropriation enforced through legislation. The applied policies cannot affect free software communities in large scale, but they directly harm other forms of Commons as much as any other type of industrial unit involved with the production of any material.


The second feature is the external outsourcing, according to which, regardless of the partners’ intentions and plans, the project is converted into a mode of crowdsourcing/aggregation economy.


Hence, we argue that the Commons firstly emerge as a tragedy due to long-term inertia and then evolve to a farce or a parody. As soon as the gradual destruction is perceived (tragedy) everybody agrees to privatise the management and in case they do not agree, the state may force agreement in order to implement the assignment. The common resource remains common by its name only (parody). We argue that, unfortunately, this is a likely scenario. To put it in software terminology, this constitutes a security hole in the ecology of peer production, and, for the moment, no patch (i.e., solution) has been proposed. The question, therefore, is whether the peer producers will actually benefit from the development of P2P relations and the production of commonly produced use value, or whether the Commons- based peer production phenomenon will just constitute a part of a neoliberal Plan B, put in Caffentzis' terms (2010).

Overcoming the Tensions (excerpts):

In times when the global economy is relatively stable, the parody of the Commons can be easily avoided. There is insignificant migration of labour power from the corporate model towards the Commons, hence no serious pressure to apply institutional integration and the mobility of community members practically cancels the consequence of crowdsourcing. But in an era of economic collapse and while mobility becomes a risk, gradually more people direct their attention to communities, with many of them doing so for survival purposes.

The state seems to face Commons-based peer communities as ordinary economic units subject to heavy taxation while supports “intellectual property”-based activities. Those activities are injected into communities blocking their growth. The hope that the multiplicity of communities will help them rise into dominant relations of production is refuted since the political system will allow communities to grow only if their operations and functions become integrated to the established mode of production. History shows that the capitalist mode of production allowed no other form of production. The future of pre-capitalist or novel production modes was predetermined: destruction or integration. While P2P relations are not dominant, their dependence on a friendly economic environment becomes imperative.

A recent example where a Commons might be commodified is the case of ERT's digital archive. ERT was the Greek state television and radio network. It was a constituent of the public sector and had been funded through a mandatory tax implemented into the bill of the public electricity enterprise (DEI) for decades. In December 2007, the launch of the effort to digitise the old ERT archives was announced, which first delivered results a few months later. Although initially this endeavour was considered an important step for the public availability of a unique cultural wealth, the decision to be distributed in that specific way was met with the opposition of several Commons-oriented communities and civilians. According to the protesters, behind this initiative lies an “innocent fraud”: The digital archive remained in the exclusive ownership of ERT. Patented file types and video, text and picture formats were selected to implement the digitisation while download and further use of the material was forbidden. Further, in the current event of ERT's dissolution as a consequence of the Greek crisis, (at the time of this writing, August 2013, the fate of ERT's archive is still unknown) this national cultural aggregation, created and funded by the Greek citizens, may revert to private ownership. Already during the summer absence of a public Greek network, private stations broadcasted parts of the archive. The ERT case highlights the traditional concept for state ownership of public goods: The state manages a resource on behalf of the civilians over which they have no authority. And in turbulent times the exploitation of the Commons, as part of “shock doctrine” policies (see Klein 2008), more easily takes place contributing to and catalysing the process of capital accumulation. An effective treatment is arguably the use of means that guarantee the smooth growth of communities. Structurally, a measure is the adoption by society of the five maturity conditions to enter the Commons: open standards, free software, P2P architecture, advanced learning system and communities. As far as the political context is concerned, the parliamentary democracy, for instance in Greece, is trying hard to secure the current status quo by demolishing various citizens' rights and occasionally violating constitution. One should not rest his/her hopes on the political party system and the associated policies mainly due to three characteristics inherent to political party policies: i) restrictions on democracy is a policy to overcome economic crisis; ii) supranational centralism in deciding and applying fiscal and monetary policies serves the vision of a United Europe; iii) in a long period of depression, increased capital borrowing is the best method to return to growth.


The answer to the problem should be a type of democracy capable to emerge from the activity of Commons-based communities and the interactions among them. A political project at both national and international level is required to release the healthy forces that demand the construction of communities for the benefit of their members. Given the estimated lengthy time period of the economic crisis as well as its structural peculiarity, which is a combination of monetary inflexibility and debt accumulation regardless the possible reduction of deficit,the parody of the Commons can be eliminated only if communities adhere to their mission: To ensure a high maturity level and make their requests for a Commons infrastructure a government policy towards a “partner state”, i.e., democratically-run, civic institutions that protect the common good (see Bauwens 2012; Kostakis 2012).

This high maturity level could be achieved through the establishment of a democratic legal jurisdiction, which would impose restrictions on the exploitation of the Commons (Kleiner 2010; Fuchs 2013; Bauwens and Kostakis in press). Peer production might be collectively sustainable but it is not individually: Most of the peer contributors cannot make a living and they are dependent on wages from the capitalist market. We side with Bauwens and Kostakis (in press) who suggest “the creation of Commons-friendly, ethical enterprises, consisting of the commoners themselves, who also control their own governance and have ownership. Such enterprises would be legally structured so that theirs is an obligation to support the circulation of the Commons”. The development of the Peer Production Licenses, introduced by Kleiner (2010) as a copyfarleft type license, could be part of the debate. These licenses could be oriented towards a plural form of ownership, which would include “maker ownership (i.e. a revisiting of worker ownership for the P2P age), combined with user ownership, i.e., a recognition that users of networks co-create value; and eventually a return for the ethical funders that support the enterprise” (Bauwens and Kostakis in press). In that way profit making is allowed, but profit-maximisation would not be the driving force of economic development.

Against the capital accumulation, which leads to the parody of the Commons-based communities' political struggle should include the creation of an infrastructure that protects, ena- bles and catalyses the circulation of the Commons. In that way peer production i) could become sustainable on the personal level as well; ii) expand more easily to the manufacturing of tangible products building on its conjunction with the emerging desktop manufacturing technological capabilities (see Kostakis 2013); iii) and, thus, protect itself against capital accumulation with the aim to marginalise, control and eventually transcend capitalism.

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