What You Should Read To Understand the Commons

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Personal recommendations by Michel Bauwens.

Get in the Mood through Fiction

  • Neil Stephenson's Diamond Age was the foundational book for the creation of the P2P Foundation. While it does not really focus on commons 'per se', it was the first book that described a fully (dys <g>)functional networked society, organized around Phyles, i.e. trans-local entrepreneurial ecosystems organized around communities. Well worth reading and many of its scenes are actually coming alive today.

  • Walkaway. By Cory Doctorow. I haven't read it yet, but I heard Cory explain the ideas, and Alberto Cottica of Edgeryders confirms it is the most consequential description of a commons-oriented economy as yet. [1]

The Context

For a short overview on the evolution and succession of different types of societal organization, see my essay: The Pulsation of the Commons

* The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. by Kojin Karatani. Duke University Press, 2014

The commons, i.e. 'communal shareholding', is one of the four important ways humanity has used to exchange and allocate resources, together with the gift economy, distribution according to rank, and the market. Alan Page Fiske's The Structure of Social Life documents many examples of each, but Karatini's great contribution is to historize this evolution. It's a rather fantastic synthesis of the anthropological and historical literature on the subject, and I very warmly recommend it.

* Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation. (1944)

This is a great history of industrial capitalism, from its emergence in the UK in the late 18th century, after the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of the basic income provided by the Tudor Kings, up to WWII. It describes a 'double movement' between periods of liberalization of the market, in which market forces want to be freed from societal regulations, and the periodic efforts of people's movement, to re-embed the markets in society. Polanyi is the great author and historian about how pre-capitalist markets functioned.

* Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Carlota Perez. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK, 2002

Very much in complementarity to the pulsation of the double movement as described by Polanyi, Carlota Perez's book dives into the cyclic Kondratieff cycles that accompany technological revolutions within the capitalist system.

* The Ever-Present Origin. Jean Gebser.

It's not enough to understand the evolution of socio-economic structures, we must also understand the cultural intersubjective and subjective mentalities that co-evolve with them. This is 'the' book, to understand the evolution of consciousness, in its archaic, magic, mythological and rational forms. Gebser sees how each mode of apprehending the world, has its generative phase, but also its 'deficient' or degenerative phase. The rational mode of consciousness becomes deficient when calculations dominate everything, and the whole can no longer be seen. Civilizational changes are also 'mutations of consciousness'.

* Rethinking the World. Peter Pogany. 2006.

If you have read Karatani to understand the evolution of socio-economic systems and Gebser for the attendant 'modes of consciousness', then we still have the task to integrate them. No one has done this so far, but Peter Pogany, a Hungarian-American trans-disciplinary researcher, who has also connected socio-economic structures in their thermo-dynamic realities. So this is basically a three-level history of the world (thermo-dynamic reality, socio-economic system, mode of apprehending the world). His second book is focused more explicitly on the current transition and is called Havoc. How does the global system evolve to finally take into account the planetary boundaries that determine the survival of any form of civilization? I recommend reading Havoc first, it's about 60 pages, and if you are hooked, you can go for the real meat, i.e. his first, more theoretical book. Pogany's theory of change is a theory of pulsation: from stable system, via chaotic transition, to new stable systems, and so on, forever.

* Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe. by Mark D. Whitaker

We have learned from Pogany that societal evolution works through 'pulsation' but how exactly does that function ? This book is perhaps not very well written, but it is very important for the examples it gives. Confirming the famous HANDY study about collapsing civilizations (all civilisations since the neolithic have collapsed), Mark Whitaker details important cases. Basically, every society that is a class society in which ruling classes compete with each other in a peer polity system, will inevitably overreach in the use of its own resource base, leading to eventual collapse. But this collapse is met with the opposition of popular movements, which used to be religious and spiritual movements, and have now become political in our secular age. It is these movements that bring back the commons as the solution against the over-reach of the extractive classes. And so we can now understand the pulsating rhythm which regularly brings back the commons as a vital societal institution.

For more details, see: Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions

* The HANDY Model for Civilisational Collapse Scenarios By Eugenia Kalnay et al.

This is the broader context of what Whitaker describes in his case studies. There is a broad dynamic in which every class-based society or civilisation, in which actors are forced to engage in competition in a peer polity context of rival powers, inevitably over-use their resource base. The conclusion is inevitable and backed by looking at societal collapse since the Neolithic: over-exploitation of either Labor or Nature results in a societal collapse.

Source: Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies. By Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas and Eugenia Kalnay. Ecological Economics Volume 101, May 2014, Pages 90-102

* Beyond Civilization. Keith Chandler.

Not to be confused with the book of the same title by Daniel Quinn, this book shares the same premise. There have been two modes of organizing society: the tribal mode based on ethnic societies, and the civilization mode, class societies that through their enlarged territoriality, go beyond this ethnical organization, but also institute hierarchical class societies. Like Karatani, Chandler shows how the premises of egalitarianism point to a 'beyond civilization', to new forms of post-civilisational tribal organization, organized around the new nomadic technologies that are digital networks. This book focuses on how the world religions were answers to the tragedy of life induced by class societies.

* R. I. Moore. The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215. Oxford and New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2000

Now you are ready for a real and more in-depth case study. Here is a book that details the first societal revolution in the western system, which took place from 975-1050, after the emergence of the 'Peace of God' movement, which created the conditions for a new social compact, that would allow European society to double its population in the next three centuries, and allowed the free, guild-managed medieval cities to emerge. As shown by Tine de Moor's essay on the Emergence of Commons and Guilds as Silent Revolution, this was the time of the rapid emergence and expansion of guilds and contract-based rural commons, and as Adam Arvidsson has shown in his essay, Capitalism and the Commons, these commons were instrumental in creating the bottom-up ethical economy that was the market form in the free cities of the medieval west until capitalism (which has entirely different roots), took over. What Moore does is to show the non-linear transition that completely changed European civilization in just a few decades.

* Adam Arvidsson. Changemakers. The Industrious Future of the Digital Economy.

You've studied the past transition described by R.I. Moore, but what about today? While we focus on the post-capitalist potential and effects of the new commons at the P2P Foundation, Adam Arvidsson focuses on the coming transition, and how the new commons is once again creating new market forms. He describes how both the downwardly mobile precarious classes in the West, and the upwardly mobile classes of the poor in the Global South, use the commons to bypass capitalism and create market forms that work for them. Arvidsson is a very keen observer of both the commons and the new markets, and so this is also a crucial book, which augments the earlier insights of Alain Tarrius ('Etrangers de Passage, Poor to Poor, Peer to Peer').

For a shorter intro on the relation between commons and markets, see also Adam's essay, Capitalism and the Commons; and the essay by Tine de Moor, The Silent Revollution

* The Mystery of Money. Beyond Greed and Scarcity. Bernard Lietaer, 2000.

Under capitalism, wealth is created through extraction, of people and nature, while 'generative' work, is dependent on subsidies from the state and philanthropy from the private sector. It hasn't always been that way. In the book on the 'archetypal history' of money, using the work of Jean Gebser as well, Lietaer shows that pre-capitalist societies, such as the high middle ages in Europe, had a dual currency system, consisting of cold and warm currencies (yin and yang, male and female), with the warm currencies dedicated to generative work, and the money supply subject to demurrage, to discourage accumulation. A fascinating work of monetary history, on money seen as a commons.

Companion book: Debt: The First 5,000 Years. David Graeber. Melville House Publishing, 2011 (see our entry: First Five Thousand Years of Debt

  • Bauwens, M., Kostakis, V., & Pazaitis, A. (2019). Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto, London: Westminster University Press.


This is a book by a colletive related to the P2P Foundation. It summarizes ten years of research on the emergence of peer production, peer governance and peer property, and offers recommendations for institutional design for the relations between the commons-based citizen collectives, generative market forms, and enabling/empowering 'partner state' dynamics based on public-commons cooperation protocols. All the books before were about the history of our world. This applies the learnings of the past, to the present and the future.

Further Suggestions

Suggested by Simon Grant:

Note from Michel Bauwens: Lawrence Taub's book uses a progressive interpretation of Hindu-based sociological types, as well as using gender and other factors, to speculate about future developments.

Suggested by Kamiel Choi:

The Commons

* Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. By Elinor Ostrom. Cambridge University Press, 1990

There are many books by Ostrom and even more by the authors and researchers of the scientific network she has created, i.e. IASC. This is probably a good start to understand the specificity of the natural resource commons, and how they have been historically managed as distinct institutional form from the market and the state.

* Yochai Benkler. The Wealth of Networks. Yale University Press, published: 2006

This is the book that introduced the concept of Commons-Based Peer Production which is at the heart of our work at the P2P Foundation. Compare it to The Wealth of Nations to understand its importance as a pivotal book introducing a new mode of production, that started scaling with the use of digital networks. The focus is indeed on digital and knowledge commons.

* Think Like a Commoner. A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. by David Bollier. New Society, 2014

This is a book to understand the 'mentality' behind the commons, which can help in establishing a identity for commoners and citizen-contributors. David Bollier is a gifted writer and wordsmith so these books take you on the inner journey necessary to understand the internal dynamics of commoning. With Silke Helfrich, Bollier has further edited to large and substantial collections of essays: The Wealth of the Commons and Patterns of Commoning, with lots of documentation of the new commons-centric patterns emerging in current society. These learnings are summarized in a joint treatise Free Fair and Alive, the Insurgent Power of Commoning. New Society Press, 2019.

* Bauwens, M., Kostakis, V., & Pazaitis, A. (2019). Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto, London: Westminster University Press.

The P2P Foundation has undertaken nearly ten years of study into both open source communities and urban commons, and lately, paying attention to 'physically' productive commons. We observe the seed forms and their expression of new post-capitalist logics, which reorganize the spheres of market practice and public authorities, around the commons. This is our synthesis of how contempary commons see new institutional interactions between the commons, markets and state, and how this may prefigure a new societal and civilisational format, able to solve the major social and climate-ecological issues of current neoliberal capitalism. If you want to know, 'what comes next', this is a vital read.

Further Suggestions

* Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. Common: An Essay on Revolution in the 21st Century.

Translated from the French, this is a huge book that goes into long 'legal' and 'institutional' history of the 'common'. Authors that use the common usually have a more radical understanding and use the concpet of common without s, to indicate it is a 'ontological' alternative to the market, and not a mere common resource, usually specifically arguing that it cannot be a form of property. This book goes into Roman law, english medieval common law, the debates between Marx and Proudhon around the collective sources of value, and much more. You will learn a lot.

* Commonwealth. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt.

This is the concluding book from the trilogy that started with Empire and Multitude, and an expression of the rich tradition of interpreting social life that is autonomous Marxism. It is certainly not an easy read, but of interest to get to know the more radical interpretations.

Insights from the Work of the P2P Foundation