Toward a Common Theory of Value

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= series in Kosmos Journal by James Quilligan


"This series of articles will attempt to reconceptualize the social and natural order of economics through an analysis of the commons—the natural, genetic, physical, social, cultural and intellectual resources which people manage by negotiating their own norms and rules. (For brevity’s sake, Part One uses the term ‘commons’ loosely to refer to both self-organized commons and unorganized common pool resources—a distinction which will be spelled out in subsequent articles.) The recurring theme in these writings is the creation of a commons-based economy which expresses a more inclusive type of value than in traditional economics. A common theory of value—rooted in philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, communication, organizational behavior, technology, history, culture, environmentalism, economics, law, and social and political theory—will explore many of the leading ontological presuppositions in our present belief systems."


" Karl Polanyi called Aristotle’s economic formulation “probably the most prophetic pointer ever made in the realm of the social sciences; it is certainly still the best analysis of the subject we possess” (The Great Transformation, 43). Yet, as Part Two suggests, Aristotle’s guideline needs to be recalibrated for the economic realities of the 21st century, since household sufficiency doesn’t begin to describe the many facets of the commons that we recognize today."

Part Three broadens this inquiry by considering the epistemology which underlies Aristotle’s framework. It analyzes how our economic knowledge is predicated on the ways we know.

"This article shows how such top-down models (intellect over instinct, person over property, capital over labor, rich over poor, supply over demand, wealth over well-being, society over nature, State over community, global over local) are just as much a part of economic history and present day policy as the horizontal forms of human exchange."

"The previous articles in this series considered how objective and subjective principles have been applied in economic thinking. We noted that the left hemisphere of the human brain is categorical and sequential in its objective construction of reality, building the edifice of knowledge up from fragments, piece by piece, to the larger system. By contrast, the right brain experiences the world as timeless Being, a great flowing network of subjective interconnection and unity, processing reality from the Whole to the Part.

Until 6th century BCE, the social applications of these two hemispheres seem to have been in relative balance—neither was favored over the other. But a close look at the writing, diagrams, formulas, maps, historical and natural records from that historical period indicates how the left hemisphere began to dominate within individuals and society. Aristotle was the first to examine this phenomenon in economic terms (Politics, 350 BCE). He wondered why M-C-M’ (the Money-making utility of trade in the marketplace) was eclipsing C-M-C’ (the sharing of useful Commodities in the household). He worried that the Part was separating from the Whole of the commons, where value really comes into existence. "


On Commons Economics

James Quilligan:

"A commons-based economics raises the possibility of experiencing value through the practical relationships that arise among individuals, the resources of the world, and that which exists between people and the world. This challenges the (neo)liberal orthodoxy of Immanuel Kant, who said that the non-empirical nature of metaphysics lies beyond immediate experience, whether external or internal. By revealing the connection between outer and inner experience, which are two completely different sources of knowledge, the commons offer analytic constructs which have previously been neglected, preventing economics from reflecting the real human condition. A commons-based economy arises from where we live and how and what we do. These articles propose a common turn—a theory of value bringing right understanding of the world without having to reach for a final explanation of its existence or rely on some parallel universe of economic abstractions.

The delineation of this common worldview, arising from both outer and inner experience, provides the foundation of a new essentialism in economics and even suggests the outlines of a teleological structure (an emergent stage development sequence in economics will be explored in subsequent articles). It also provides a way of examining the premises of the Market State and understanding how the present social order may be transformed at all levels—local, state, interstate, regional and global—through institutions and policies of shared production and shared governance." (

The Pendulum between embedded and disembedded monetary systems

James Quilligan:

"Many reviews of economic history begin with gifts, move to barter, and then explore money, banking and credit. But as numerous scholars have observed, barter has played only a marginal role in economic exchange. Anthropologist David Graeber (Debt: The First 5,000 Years) maintains that credit existed long before barter and money. Surveying the monetary history of world civilization, he traces long-term swings between credit and debt systems in which barter was not a significant factor (Figure 1).

During eras like the Agrarian Age and the Middle Ages, for example, virtual credit systems were dominant and the economy was deeply embedded in everyday households and communities (C-M-C’). Economists Bernard Lietaer and Stephen Belgin (New Money for a New World) have described how the principle of demurrage—a fee charged for holding a currency without spending it—created prosperous societies in Ancient Egypt and Medieval Europe through a form of social sharing and redistribution based on credit. Serving as a kind of deflationary algorithm or negative interest rate, demurrage supported the polycentric values of matriarchal culture, customary traditions and community democracy (although such societies were not completely free from centralized command structures of production and distribution).

Following these long stages of social cohesion and interconnectedness backed by credit, the historical pendulum veered to debtbased systems of money (M-C-M’), which encourage individual separation and social disconnection. During periods such as the Roman Empire and Modern Capitalism, powerful monocentric systems (of hierarchy and patriarchy) impose a single currency upon citizens to ensure the payment of tributes or taxes to a governing authority. The economy is disembedded from society through the accumulation and concentration of capital by a ruling class and the separation of local resource producers and users. For the people in these communities, oppressed by hierarchical governance, consolidation of wealth and debt payments, daily life is conflictual, static and isolated." (

On the necessary return of Inalienablity

James Quilligan:

"The Internet has launched an unprecedented period of sharing and collective action. Open software communities, wikis and collaborative websites have become an extraordinary source of productivity, innovation and efficiency. Self-organized resource communities such as Trade School, Gift Circle, Giftflow, Neighborgoods and Shareable are demonstrating new possibilities for decentralized creativity, inclusiveness and cooperation in the circulation of resources. These open networks are helping people rediscover the self-determined customs and norms that traditional communities have always used in nurturing and protecting their common resources, whether in fishing grounds, grazing pastures or community plazas. Increasingly, resource producers and users are becoming active participants in their own cultures, revitalizing their communities through open source incentives and creating an inclusive sense of self. From Slow Food and Slow Money to free software and open access publishing, new forms of community self-organization and social technology are restoring human relationships to their former connectedness and sufficiency in local values.

At the heart of these social ethics and practices is the principle of inalienability, a recognition that our individual, separate selves are vitally connected to other people and to the Earth. Since our Being is inseparable at this foundational level, we realize that the greater cycle of natural and social gifts—which we inherit from our ancestors, enjoy during our lifetimes, and pass on to those who come after us—must be protected from the expropriating grasp of ownership, profit and interest. Inalienability teaches that the commons are so essential to human life and identity that they should never be turned into fungible units of money or commodities for the marketplace.

This realization of Being—expressed through the humility and gratitude of gift exchange—resists all monetization of the commons through cash exchanges, legal contracts, commodification or property rights. Such enclosures destroy natural resources, undermine social relationships, dehumanize individuals into passive consumers and dispossess people from their commons." (

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