Pulsation of the Commons
* Article: The pulsation of the commons: The temporal context for the cosmo-local transition. By Michel Bauwens, with Jose Ramos. P2P Foundation, 2020.
URL = draft in Google doc
Draft version of a introductory chapter in a upcoming book on'Cosmo-local production', edited by Jose Ramos with the assistance of James Gien Wong, Sharon Ede, and Michel Bauwens. This is a version without notes and references.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Text
- 2.1 Introduction
- 2.2 Pogany: the time for the chaotic transition has begun
- 2.3 The Handy Project and Mark Whitaker’s Ecological Revolutions
- 2.4 Karl Polanyi’s double movement vs Carlota Perez’s adaptation of the Kondratieff Cycles
- 2.5 Revolution and Phase Transition - the Notion of Seed Forms
- 2.6 The Commons as Mutualization for the Anthropocene
- 2.7 Commoning as the Third Movement of the Anthropocene
- 2.8 In Conclusion: Why will the transition be cosmo-local ?
- Introducing Pogany: the time for the chaotic transition has begun
- The Handy Project and Mark Whitaker’s Ecological Revolutions
- Karl Polanyi’s double movement vs Carlota Perez’s adaptation of the Kondratieff Cycles
- Cliodynamics: rhythms of history according to Peter Turchin
- Revolution and Phase Transition - the Notion of Seed Forms
- The Commons as Mutualization for the Anthropocene
- Commoning as the Third Movement of the Anthropocene
In this preliminary essay, we’d like to give the readers a sense of ‘timing’, and offer an explanation of the context in which a transformation to the new mode of material production and value creation occurs.
Indeed, in this book of readings we are presenting a very bold hypothesis that a quite fundamental reversal of the logic of production is starting to occur, and that the model we are proposing, has strong claims to be a big part of the emerging post-capitalist logics.
Pogany: the time for the chaotic transition has begun
The first temporal framework we’d like to present is that of Peter Pogany. Pogany is a very original but rather unknown Hungarian-American thinker who published two books (Pogany, 2006, 2015). Rethinking the World is an arduous but rewarding new view of the world system and its structures. He’s one of the very few thinkers who links the thermodynamic basis of our world (i.e. how much matter and energy is at our disposal in the medium and long term, given the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the quality of matter degrades in a ‘isolated’ system like planet Earth (we get energy from the universe, but hardly any new matter), to the socio-economic system. More importantly, he links both these levels to a third one, the ‘mode of apprehension’, i.e. how human cultures see the world, what they can ‘see’, but more importantly, what they ‘can’t see’. This is important, since for example the typical left of center analysis usually focuses on material structures, but often ignores a systematic vision of human agency, while right of center analysis usually focuses on human agency and responsibility, but often ignores the structural constraints on human and natural systems. Here we have a sound integral theory which holds the three levels of reality in an organic and holistic embrace.
Based on the huge literature and findings of biophysical economics and books on the self-organizing of the universe and humanity (complexity theory), Pogany concludes that our world, i.e. human society embedded in nature, is a ‘complex adaptive system’ and reminds us that such systems change through ‘punctuated equilibrium’, ‘chaotic transitions’ and ‘bifurcations’. This is a huge statement as it means that humanity doesn’t adapt to radically new situations through reasoned debate, but through shocks in the system. First, the old system disintegrates and the old institutions lose legitimacy, then, a cambrian explosion of alternatives emerge, carrying the seed forms of the next system, but these alternatives need to fight it out before a new stable system emerges.
This also means that societal transitions are also about the installment of new logics, not just a re-arrangement of the old system. For example, the christian feudal society that replaced the imploded Roman Empire, believed that work was positive and sacred, which was fundamentally opposed to the Greco-Roman vision of work as a degrading activity for slaves. So, in our expectation of a new mode of organizing productive life more in harmony with the limitations of the material planet and its living beings, we should not expect a mere ‘business as usual’ adaptation. The new system must ‘transcend and include’ some of the achievements of the previous system, while solving its problem at a higher level of complexity and integration, or alternatively, it will disintegrate to a lower level of complexity.
Here is how Pogany sees our current context, based on his analysis of three succeeding ‘global’ stable systems.
What he calls Global System 0, a proto-global society, was the mercantile system that dominated Europe under the absolute kings of the 17-18th centuries. This stable system, for a while, was interrupted by a ‘chaotic transition’: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815).
The second stable system which emerged after that chaotic transition period was the first truly global system, i.e. Global System 1 (GS1), the so-called ‘Smithian’ capitalist system, based on the full dominion of Capital over Labor. That system and its institutions stopped functioning and was interrupted by the chaotic transition of WWI to WWII. During this transition, two other systems competed with ‘democratic capitalism’, i.e. fascism and the Soviet ‘communist’ system.
The third stable system, Global System 2 (GS2) emerged after 1945 and created a system of ‘weak multilateralism’ (GS0 had no multilateral institutions), and was based, at least in the Western countries, on a compact between capital and labor (the welfare system and the ‘fordist’ system of capitalism). This was also of course based on a hyper-exploitation of natural resources and on a neocolonial relation with the countries of the Global South. Though they largely obtained political independence for the new nation-states, they also were locked in unfavourable terms of trade, and had little or no power in the new institutions which were dominated by the victors of WWII.
Here is Pogany wrote after the onset of the Global Systemic Crisis of 2008.
"It is hardly a mere coincidence that the collapse of the global financial casino coincided with the divorce between cheap oil and the full utilization of the rest of productive resources. We will never see the two of them together again — a situation loaded with the awesome implication that the world will be knocked back and forth between recession and aborted recovery as the oil price roller coaster alternatively encourages and discourages profligacy with our body economic’s vis vitalis. This emergent cyclicality reveals that the collision between humanity’s material ambitions and the planet’s physical constraints is not a single dramatic event as symbolized by the more than three decades-old “overshoot and collapse” meme. Rather, it is an extended, macrohistorically recognizable temporal process."
So, I think it is fair to say that GS2 started unraveling in 2008. It’s not just the deep economic crisis which was caused and affected the financialized system, but also the weakening of the multilateral system based on US dominance; social unrest eventually resulting in right-populist victories, but also the rapid realization of the physical unsustainability of our current systems of production. Thus, we have entered, at the very least the beginning stages of a new chaotic transition. Pogany predicted this, and we believe that his logic for predicting the potential next stable system is very sound.
The social compact between capital and labor which has slowly unraveled due to neoliberalism after the 80s, but isn’t entirely destroyed. But, it has been weakened, and so has the multilateral system. Pogany it is quite clear where we have to go: the next system, Global System 3 (GS3), must be based on 1) a compact with nature, i.e we must learn to produce for human needs within planetary boundaries, and, in order to do this successfully with social stabilization, this must also be accompanied by a degree of social equity, i.e. the social compact can not be abandoned as it is the condition for a successful ecological compact. Finally, in order to do this, we will need strong and two-level multilateralism. A form of global governance will be needed which can embed human production, into relatively coercive planning frameworks as to the availability of resources for the long term survival of humanity. This view is expressed for example in the proposal by the R30 project for a ‘Global Thresholds and Allocations Council’.
This view of Pogany, of world history as a ‘pulsation’, between stable systems and chaotic transitions, is very much in line with other understandings of long term human and natural history. But note that for Pogany,, there is no certainty that humanity will succeed in this coming transition. It is not just that regression can happen, to a lower level of complexity that is no longer able to sustain that many human beings, but even a much deeper collapse is within the realm of possibility. But it does give us a clear meta-historic vision of the priorities we need to pursue in this chaotic transition.
The Handy Project and Mark Whitaker’s Ecological Revolutions
It is our hypothesis, that in the current conjuncture, we are again moving towards an emergence and eventual ‘centrality’ of the commons format. There is also a ‘cyclical’ argument to be made for this shift in the current conjuncture.
Alan Page Fiske has established a relational grammar for the allocation of resources in society, which Kojin Karatani (2014), in his Structures of World History (which examines the evolution of modes of exchange, and not, like Marx, the modes of production), has ‘historicized’:
The original modality of humankind is commoning, which is when everyone contributes and partakes in a common pool; it is a prime mode in hunter-gathering bands the gift economy, in which the gift creates social obligations for a counter-gift becomes the dominant modality in more complex tribal societies; authority ranking, when in a class-based polity, the rulers must legitimize their domination through the redistribution of resources, and finally, market pricing, where prices allow for the exchange of resources deemed of equal value.
As indicated just above, these four modes have nearly always co-existed (states and markets appear later in human evolution), but their relation has evolved over time. Original nomadic and horticultural resources mainly practiced commoning and the gift economy. State-based societies, i.e. more or less every society with more than 200,000 people has had state-like management, practicing redistribution through taxation (Turchin, 2018). Today, the capitalist market rules supreme, with the state at its service (Bobbitt, 2002). The commons has always had a subservient role in class societies, until capitalism made extraordinary efforts to marginalize it.
But there is also strong historical evidence of a pulsation of the role of the commons, vis a vis the extractive economic systems in whose context they co-exist. In fact, the HANDY report (2014), on human and nature dynamics, takes a predator-prey hypothesis to look at human societies since the neolithic.Their conclusion is that all class-based peer polities, which are locked in a competition which each other, routinely end up over-using their resource base, At this point, the extractive logic stutters and there is a strong pressure to return to the commons,i.e. to give it a more important role in the overall mix. At such moments of crisis, reducing carrying capacity through mutualization is one of the most efficient way to avoid or soften societal collapse, or to recover from it. The pooling resources is a key way to reduce matter-energy footprints (Motesharrei, Rivas and Kalnay, 2014). The HANDY authors insist and show that equality is a key factor in the depth and severity of these crises. More authoritarian and extractive societies, insulate the ruling class from the environmental problems that are piling up, therefore, their fall is deeper and it takes them longer to recover; while in societies with a stronger egalitarian bent, there is more sensitivity to the signs of coming collapse: these societies have a smoother transition with reduced time spans for the recovery period. But it is clear that in this vision, there is a period return of commoning.
The conclusions of the HANDY research project seem very congruent with the research into ‘secular cycles’ by Turchin et al. (2009), and combines two factors. One is the evolution of the population numbers (demographics), the other is the evolution of the extractive mechanisms by the state and the elite. Peter Turchin and the cliodynamical school (i.e. the study of the temporal dynamics of large societies in history) using a vast set of databases about the historical record (wars, conflicts, famines, political and social revolutions, etc.) also concludes that there are long-term oscillations that are related to how population numbers tend to excede the local carrying capacity of the societies in question, and how ruling class extraction aggravates those conditions. So far, these scholars feel confident to assert that these secular cycles do occur systematically in agrarian societies (Abel, 2007). Hence, even though we are not aware of the studies of this school on the subject of the commons, we can posit that within those oscillations, and at the time when the local overshoot occurs as a crisis, there should be efforts to mutualize so as to stay within the local carrying capacity boundaries. Testing this hypothesisis exactly what the case studies provided by Whitaker, have done.
Indeed, according to Mark Whitaker (2009), in his 3,000 year review of ecological crises in Europe, Japan and China, and how societies/civilisations overcome these types of crises, the commons repeatedly play a crucial role. This expresses itself in political and social movements, which in the past took a religious expression, but Whitaker also looks at the role of the contemporary Green movement in Germany to confirm his thesis. The productive classes would follow the lead of religious reformers and/or revolutionaries, who insisted on a new balance between people amongst themselves, and on a more balanced relationship with nature.
“"Most argue environmental movements are a novel feature of world politics. I argue that they are a durable feature of a degradative political economy. Past or present, environmental politics became expressed in religious change movements as oppositions to state environmental degradation using discourses available. Ecological Revolution describes characteristics why our historical states collapse and because of these characteristics are opposed predictably by religio-ecological movements. As a result, origins of our large scale humanocentric axial religions are connected to anti-systemic environmental movements. Many major religious movements of the past were environmentalist by being health, ecological, and economic movements, rolled into one. Since ecological revolutions are endemic to a degradation-based political economy, they continue today.”
One example will be familiar with our western readers. Indeed, we can consider the mutualization of knowledge by the Catholic monastic communities, as an answer to the crisis of the western roman empire, as a paradigmatic case study.
These monks were also the engineers of their time and according to for example Jean Gimpel in his book about the first medieval industrial revolution, were responsible for nearly all technical innovations of that era (Gimpel, 1977). It effectively functioned as a knowledge commons; secondly, the monasteries themselves, seen as a mutualization of shelter and common productive units, provided shelter, culture and spirituality, at a dramatically lower footprint than the cost of the Roman elite; finally, the relocalization of production, through the feudal ‘manor’, was a third factor. The resemblance with our own conjuncture today is uncanny. Faced with ecological and social challenges, we see a re-emergence of knowledge commons, under the form of free software and open design communities; we see a drive towards mutualization of productive infrastructure, for example the emergence of fablabs, makerspaces and coworking spaces, and the emerging multifactory model (Salati/Focardi, 2018). Developments such as the capitalist ‘sharing economy’, which is focused on creating platforms for underutilized resources, partake in this trend; finally, new technologies around distributed manufacturing, which are prototyped in makerspaces and fablabs, point to a re-organization of production under a ‘cosmo-local’ model (Kostakis et al, 2015; Ramos, 2017b).
Today we see an exponential rise in knowledge commons; infrastructural commoning is also emerging rapidly, and not just in the southern European countries where state and market failure is the most obvious. A recent study on urban commons in the Flemish city of Ghent, showed the existence of nearly 500 urban commons, active in all areas of human provisioning (Bauwens and Onzia, 2017), a jump from the 50 existing ten years earlier.
The difference with earlier cyclical re-emergences of commons in times of crisis is that the current exhaustion of resources and dangers to our ecosystem are global in nature, requiring transnational and globally coordinated responses (while being local at the same time, hence: cosmo-local).
There is ample evidence that the commonification response to societal and civilizational crises due through over-extraction of resources, was not just a restorative strategy, but also in itself created the conditions for prosperity.
Adam Arvidsson (2019), relates the remarkable integration of commons and markets after the 11th cy. The ‘First European Revolution’ that started in 970 (Moore, 2000), the so-called ‘Peace of God’ movement, was a social revolution that united monks and peasants in France and neighbouring countries. It established a social contract (the Peace of God charters were signed in several hundred cities and regions) that allowed for a productivity rise in the countryside, creating an exodus to the re-emerging cities which had shrunk in the preceding period (5 to 10th cy.). There, the city workers created guilds, i.e. productive commons, while free farmers created agricultural commons through contracts (de Moor, 2008), creating a new ethical economy that had strong elements of redistribution and solidarity. The European population doubled in 3 centuries and tripled in Western Europe. Another example is the Tokugawan period (Lane, 2014) in Japan (between 1600 and 1868), which started after the emperor retook control of a largely deforested Japan, and protected the land as imperial commons. This period was known not only for its prosperity but also because it succeeded in creating a long term stable ecological society, with a stable population level.
Other authors have made similar observations.
William Irwin Thompson earlier identified the civilizational tendency for overshoot across Babylonian, Greek, Roman and European civilizations, where a civilization’s core growth comes at the expense of its peripheries, and where the overshoot ultimately undermines the viability of the core civilization itself. Thompson pointed toward a commons framework as a solution, an arrangement he termed enantiomorphic. Finally, Thomas Homer-Dixon’s detailed analysis of energy use within the Roman civilization also came to a convergent view: growth dynamics were early on based on large “energy returns on investment” (the amount of energy needed to exploit new energy sources), but diminished over time as social and ecological externalities mounted up.
As a civilizational crisis emerges, a number of related dynamics can also emerge. The image of the future that helped to animate the extant civilization may begin to lose power. Images of the future may become dystopian, and narratives that are civilization-contradicting emerge and serve to unravel the core belief and logics that have wedded people to the old system. A creative minority from a variety of perspectives produce new seed visions that attempt to offer solutions amidst crisis. Some of these may be “fantasy” visions and solutions that reiterate the core logic of empire without addressing its contradictions, giving people a false sense of hope. Some visions and solutions, however, are based on a square reading of limits of their civilization’s contradictions (e.g. in our context, growth), and invite new pathways that are outside of the epistemological orbit of empire.
The merit of this comparative review is in providing an understanding of the non-exceptionality, or even regularity, of civilizational overshoot. For example, Whitaker’s thesis and documentation argues that every class-based system based on competition between elites creates a “degradative political economy” and an overuse of both internal and external resources. Against this, in predictable fashion, eco-religious movements arise that stress the balance between the human and the human, the human and the totality (the divine), and the human and the environment. These ideas, led by religious reformers but followed by people who directly face the challenges of production and survival, lead to temporary re-organizations of society. It is these commons-based transformations that allow overshooting systems to find new ways to work within the biocapacity of their own regions. It is this dynamic—which until now has played out on local, regionally limited scales—that is now necessary on a planetary scale.
Of course, we don’t just live in an abstract world with a general world history, but we do now live very specifically in a capitalist system, which is unlikely to be overthrown or transcended in the very short term. It therefore also matters that we look at cycles and rhythms that are specific to the capitalist system. The two authors that can help us here are Karl Polanyi and Carlota Perez.
Karl Polanyi’s double movement vs Carlota Perez’s adaptation of the Kondratieff Cycles
Karl Polanyi’s classic history of the emergence and evolution of capitalism (1944), stresses the pulsation of history which he calls ‘the double movement’, which periodically challenged the balance between market and state, but was also accompanied by the ebb and flow of commons. As also shown by Carlota Perez in her book on ‘Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital’ (2002), capitalism is marked by waves of economic progress and stagnation, ending in crisis, which last 50-60 years on average. At some point on the economic arc, a particular combination of energy use, geopolitical domination, land use and managerial practice, accompanied by specific forms of technological infrastructures, will set in motion a high growth phase. In this phase, capital needs a lot of labor, which strengthens in, so it is accompanied by pro-labor reforms and the market is more strongly embedded in societal needs and demands. It is to be noted that the welfare advancements of this period are most often not top-down inventions and innovations, but generalizations of the mutualized seed forms that had been created in the crisis phase of the previous descendent wave. Thus, both the Atlee and Roosevelt New Deal reforms were inspired by the forms developed as commons, but were then bureaucratized through there state-driven generalization to the whole society.
When this first ‘ascending’ part of the Kondratieff cycles ends, there is a supply crisis, as capital makes less profit. The political form of this cycle is a conservative revolution in favour of capital, which ‘frees’ the market from societal constraints and which sets in motion a lower growth period, accompanied by financialization, which is less favourable for labor. Social movements weaken, and it usually ends in a crisis of demand, as citizens/workers/consumers are suffering from stagnant incomes and high debt levels. This demand crises will reset in motion social unrest and pressure to re-embed the market in society but also, as the situation of the working and middle classes deteriorate, set in motion a renewal of commoning among civil society actors. This is the double movement, also called the lib-lab pendulum (referring to the British case study of Polanyi), lib meaning the phases of deregulation/privatisation/marketisation, lab referring to the re-regulation. Liib periods are marked by demutualization from the top down and through market pressures in the early deployment, but as the welfare systems degrade, and after the systemic crises that mark their end, remutualization occurs. We have remarked above that this dynamic should also be seen in the context of the general hostility of capitalism towards the commons. The growth of capitalism and its coming into dominance is linked to the destruction of the landed commons of the peasantry, the so-called enclosures. The peasants who lost this land , and also the access to independent livelihoods, were forced to migrate to the cities. Just as their ancestors did in 11th cy., in order to survive, they created social commons, i.e. they pooled their risks. Thus were born the seed forms of what would become the new welfare state. We hoped to have demonstrated here that capitalism is also marked by oscillations, an ebb and flow, of the commons in society.
So where are we now: we can now also see the convergence of more long term trends, with the shorter term dynamics within capitalism. The longer term trend towards exaggerated extraction by the capitalist system, which has created the conditions for the Anthropocene (see below), merges with the more short term ending of a capitalist Kondratieff cycle. If a radical transformation of capitalism is not in the cards ‘in the short term’, this could mean that before me move to a more fuller commons-centric form of civilization, we will go through attempts by capital to integrate these commons features, into a next Kondratieff cycle, without of course, a guarantee of success. But it will mean that elements of social commons (which today often take on a ‘p2p’ form and of natural commons (climate change and energy scarcity reforms), are definitely on the agenda and that a new Perezian cycle must include p2p and green elements.
Our preliminary conclusion: we are both going through a meta-historical event, the loss of our balance with nature at a global level, and at a change within the cycles of capitalism. Both these temporal events, which both lead to a re-strengthening of the commons, are converging in one single global process, which brings the necessity of a re-emergence of the commons to the fore.
Revolution and Phase Transition - the Notion of Seed Forms
Following the iconic examples of the French and Russian revolution, some of the radical left traditions, in particular Marxist-Leninism, has been focused on how to strategize the final assault on the bourgeois state. Other left traditions (anarchism / autonomism) emphasize and exodus from the state. And still other left traditions take a gradualist approach. But an examination of the phase transition towards industrial capitalist structures rather shows a greater variety of moments of change, with many different kinds of actors, as when Bismarck introduces the welfare state in Prussia/Germany, or when the Russian Tsar liberates the serfs, or the constitutional civil wars in England and the US. Moreover, if one looks at the earlier phase transition, say from the Roman system to the ‘feudal’ system, one sees a very long transition based on seed forms that slowly emerge, start interacting with each other, and create the conditions for a phase change that can take on multiple forms. So, essentially, we see the socialist tradition, in its main remaining forms, reiterating a debate from within the capitalist mode of exchange, either about the right share of the fruits of labor (social-democracy), or to re-orient the functioning society with the state as the agent of capital, but still within largely the same organizational frameworks based on salaried labor.
Similarly, the constituent factors of the capitalist system emerged as early as the 11th century AD. For the development of capitalism we saw such early seed forms with the Italian city-states, mercantilism as the consolidation of this logic and the current era through forms of both predatory capitalism and green capitalism. Thus, the longue dureé of the phase transition we are part of is dependent on the creation of seed forms that ultimately ‘burst’ into the organizational logic of the societies from which they had been planted.
For the emergence of a post-capitalist commons political economy the seed forms are much more recent, from the 20th century, and the longue dureé can be seen through the distributed experiments (involving commons and commoning) that indicate and bring forth a new organizational logic. This is not to say that there will be no ‘revolutions’, but that they are the result of more long-term changes in the productive systems and structures, and the social forces they create. If we have capitalism, it’s because we had capitalists, if we have a post-capitalist commons transition, it will be because we have commoners. So what then is the nature of these seed forms for a post-capitalist commons transition?
To recap, from Pogany we have learned that societies change through chaotic phase transitions, in which the old binding elements start disintegrating and new seed forms, preconfiguring potential futures, start competing in a Darwinian explosion. We can therefore not necessarily predict which seed forms will ultimately be the seeds of the successor system. Nevertheless, given the crucial role of the limits of carrying capacity to the growth of human societies, and the equally important role of mutualization in lower human footprints, we feel fairly confident that the current emerging p2p and commons-oriented seed forms, will play a crucial role in the current transition.
The Commons as Mutualization for the Anthropocene
Much is now written about the so-called “Anthropocene,” a new epoch that signifies humanity as more than just a passive traveller on planet Earth. The Anthropocene signals humanity as a transformer, or a terraformer, of our planet—producing effects comparable to grand geological shifts. For the purpose of this discussion we can distinguish three “movements” of the Anthropocene.
The first movement is, of course, the significance of humans as a species with planetary impacts. This is the popular definition of the Anthropocene—humanity has become such a powerful aggregate force that we can assign a geological era to ourselves! If this were the only dimension of the Anthropocene, however, then we would be no different than the species that generated the first planetary crisis approximately 2.5 billion years ago, anaerobic cyanobacteria, which led to the Great Oxygenation Event where the planet was literally poisoned by excess oxygen, a waste product of cyanobacteria.
Fortunately, the Anthropocene also signifies an awareness of ourselves as a planetary species with planetary impacts. We are not just blindly having planetary impacts, we are increasingly aware of our powerful and precarious effects. We have the power to reflect on who we are, to evaluate what it means to be human. While the first movement of the Anthropocene—human instrumental power —is far more advanced than the second movement—reflective planetary awareness—this second movement is catching up with the first, for obvious reasons.
Finally, a third movement of the Anthropocene closes the loop on the first two: reflexive planetary responses. Reflexive planetary responses signifies the capacity for humanity to leverage the second aspect, reflective planetary awareness, toward coordinated, intelligent responses to the challenges we collectively face. This third movement of the Anthropocene is by far the most embryonic, and yet ultimately the most crucial, without which we have little hope of any real long term viability. These three aspects play out a classic action learning cycle, act—reflect—change, but at a grand scale that we have only begun to experience today.
The body of ideas and research on the commons is a critical part of the second movement of the Anthropocene: our capacity to interpret and understand ourselves in the current era; while the praxis of the commons, termed “commoning,” is critical to the third movement of the Anthropocene, our reflexive planetary responses.
The stakes are high. The Anthropocene is a crucial time for humanity, in which our very survival is at stake. In this chapter, we want to argue for a crucial link between the necessity to reduce the human footprint on the planet and its natural resources, and the modality of the commons, i.e. the pooling and mutualization of resources.
This hypothesis was one of the key reasons for the creation of the P2P Foundation, as from the very beginning, we gave the following analysis of the global problematique:
1) Our current political economy proceeds from the point of view of permanent and unlimited growth, something which is both logically and physically impossible on a finite planet. We called this the “pseudo-abundance” of the material world.
2) Our current political economy proceeds from the point of view that marketization and commodification are the best way to manage and allocate immaterial resources as well, via intellectual property. This creates an artificial scarcity for what are objectively abundant resources, especially in the context of a digital society and its means of cheap reproduction and distribution of knowledge. We called this “artificial scarcity in the world of immaterial resources.”
3) The two first mistakes are compounded by the fact that our economic organization produces more and more human inequality.
Commoning as the Third Movement of the Anthropocene
By virtue of this second movement of the Anthropocene—our capacity to see ourselves as interdependent with other people and species for our wellbeing and common futures—the third movement of the Anthropocene is brought forth. This is a movement of “implication,” whereby the person through their emerging relational awareness is “plied into” a shared concern. They become aware that they share with others a common interest. A commons has shifted from something implicit, real but unidentified, to something explicit—its reality has been relationally formulated.
The explication of a commons, a domain of shared concern, is simultaneously the invocation of a community who must steward the good of that commons—commoning. A particular commons can only be as such because it is valued by a particular group of people. Because it is valued, that group tends to that commons—protecting it, extending it, or creating it. In the case of a natural resource, it is the local inhabitants who want to protect such localized commons for their own use. These are the examples that Ostrom studied and gained fame for.
In the case of public and social commons, these are created by political entities, such as municipalities, states and federal systems, which are meant to extend a common good to a whole political community. Universal healthcare is one example of such a public commons, where a public good that a political community cares for is created. Peer produced commons are created by networks of participants, such as with open source software or sharing networks. These are not pre-existing commons, but rather are created by that community from their own activity. Because a particular community, for example the Linux community, cares about this shared commons, they work to develop and protect it.
Finally, in the case of planetary life support systems, the value of this as a commons is fundamentally implicit—that is, it does not appear valuable to a community until it is activated by virtue of a contextual shift. When the ozone layer became threatened due to certain industrial pollutants, which in turn fundamentally threatened human well being, the ozone layer became a commons for collective governance, an “object of commoning.” To enact ourselves as commoners is also to enact ourselves as protectors and governors of the commons which we are implicated in, and which we have explicated through language, speech, and practice.
For an issue as basic as climate change, the climate as commons represents the awakening of the individual to the fact that they/we share an atmosphere with seven billion others (and countless species) as a commons of concern. Through the accident of circumstance such commoners have been “plied into” a shared concern. The planet’s atmosphere has thus shifted from an implicit commons to an explicit commons. Commoning as an act of governance mirrors this movement of self awareness—those who share this commons for their mutual well being and survival must make a shift toward becoming active protectors, shapers, and extenders of that commons. This is the movement from a commons-in-itself to a commons-for-itself. In practical terms, with respect to our atmosphere, everyone is a commoner, and this implies a radical democratization of planetary governance. This third movement of the Anthropocene thus depends on both an emerging awareness of our shared commons and an emergent subjectivity that responds to this awareness through commoning as a relationally charged form of action.
The transformation of subjectivity in the 21st century, of the experience and the definition of self, is the reawakening of our embodied relationality in respect to multiple categories of the commons, and its expression through our emergent practices of commoning. This can be from our connection to our local community or the resources that the local community manages for its well-being, but can also be in connection to what we experience in relation to the future of Earth’s atmosphere and its suitability for human life, through which the community which is enacted is a global one in which all of us, and our children and/or grandchildren, are all critical stakeholders.
In Conclusion: Why will the transition be cosmo-local ?
Why do we believe that cosmo-local production models are critical as a new form for the next global system ? As a reminder, this is what we mean by cosmo-local production, which is not merely about combining the local and the global:
- Cosmo-local production requires global and collaborative knowledge production, based on free association; it is a guarantee that ecological and social problems can be solved both locally and globally, without endangering local specificity, adaptations and differences; it recognizes the true abundance of knowledge and cultural resources that should not be endangered by artificial scarcities
- Cosmo-local production is based on the subsidiarity principle in material production, i.e. intelligent localization, which dramatically reduces the footprint of material transport; local communities can choose wisely within their concrete resource boundaries
The local production units are based on solidarity and mutualization
We believe that cosmo-localization, understood in this specific way, ‘transcends and includes’ the best of the previous socio-economic systems, while also ‘negating’ its degenerative aspects.
Indeed, it negates:
- Artificial scarcity regarding knowledge, which excludes those without means from using the best solutions for the ecological and societal problem solving
- It fully recognizes the material limitations of our planet and the need of other beings as well as our mutual interdependence, by radically reducing the human footprint
- It fully recognizes that a successful ecological shift, cannot happen without sufficient social justice