Three Commons

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Michel Bauwens, written in Florence on May 20, 2011, on the occasion of Terra Futura.

The three commons: from the digital commons to the common stock commons

Most readers will be familiar with two types of commons, which have often been discussed.

The first commons is the natural commons, consisting of all that nature and the cosmos has given us, without any human effort, through humanity may be involved in transforming these natural gifts in forms that are more useful for human life and society. It is these physical commons that have existed for thousands of years, have been on the retreat since the advent of capitalism, but have also been studied by Elinor Ostrom and her students, as a very successful way to maintain ecological balance and sustainability of natural resources. It is these natural commons that are also targeted by proposals such as those of Peter Barnes, who proposes to turn their governance into 'trusts', that are legally obliged to maintain their 'natural capital' for future generations to use and enjoy.

The second type of common is the cultural commons, i.e. the commons that we have shaped through humanity's active social life. You could call them, 'constructed' immaterial commons. In recent times, these self-produced commons have taken the shape of digital commons. Actively constructed commons of knowledge, code, and now, increasingly, design.

It is the specific problems in maintaining such commons, that leads to the discovery and stress on the necessity for a third type of commons. Indeed, the key problem today is that peer production functions in the sphere of immaterial production, but is in a situation of co-dependency with capitalism. Indeed, we do have successful free software and other commons, but the value created by voluntary contributions, or by waged labor, are captured by classic for-profit firms. In other words, the surplus value escapes the commons and the commoners themselves, a situation that is even worse on the corporate sharing platforms, where user-producers are not rewarded at all, and in crowdsourcing platforms, where the economic risk is transferred to precarious freelancers.

How can we insure that surplus value stays with the commons and the commoners, and insures the full and autonomous social reproduction of the comons-based mode of production? The answer is by allowing commoners to capture the surplus value themselves. This necessitates a third commons, that of common stock, or in other words, the means of production. In this scenario, commoners would create a new type of mission-oriented entities, dedicated to the financial sustainability of both the involved commoners, and the commons with whom they cooperate and which their work sustains. The means of production would be the common ownership of all those who create value with them, based on the usage of a commons. Dmytri Kleiner has proposed an interesting reform of the copyleft license, called the peer production license which may be crucial in the creation of a system of such common stock entities. Using this license, all other open and p2p players could freely use the commons, but those that operate in the for-profit economy, and would use the commons as a non-paid free externality for their own profit only, would have to compensate the commons.

So let's summarize the commons-oriented economy and its institutions:

  • At the core of value creation is the commons and the community, an open network format of contributors and users
  • the infrastructure of cooperation for the shared knowledge, code or design is maintained by a for-benefit institution
  • mission-oriented entities create exchangeable value on top of the commons; there can be a plurality of entities working around a commons and they can have a plurality of formats

However, if we want to maintain the surplus value within the sphere of commons-based peer production and make the commons and the commoners truly sustainable, then the preference must go to entities in which the common stock is owned by participants and contributors, or to an entity which holds the means of production in trust.