Reflections on the Contradictions of the Commons

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* Article: Reflections on the Contradictions of the Commons. By Vangelis Papadimitropoulos. Review of Radical Political Economics, 2018, Vol. 50(2) 317–331

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"he Commons are an emerging economic anti-paradigm that favor decentralization over central control, self-management over hierarchy, transparency over privacy, and sustainability over growth at all costs. But the Commons are still in their infancy, and they face several contradictions, as they develop in mutual dependence with capitalism. This article is an attempt to tackle these contradictions by building on a number of proposals already presented by Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis, Stefan Meretz, and Jacob Rigi."

Summary, from the conclusion, by Vangelis Papadimitropoulos:

"In this article, I attempted to comment on the contradictions of the Commons. To do so, I began by defining the Commons, and I continued by describing the different forms of P2P production in relation to the dominant model of capitalism. I adopted Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis’s classification between two forms of P2P production: a capitalist one embedded in the form of a neo-feudal cognitive capitalism, and a Commons one developing in the form of Commons-based peer production. For the Commons to thrive and flourish, they propose the model of open coop-erativism between a partner state, ethical market entities, and the Commons, which would sustain a transition phase from capitalism to the Commons. They hold that the model of the multistake-holder cooperative could serve as the central axis of this transition until capitalism adjusts fully to the Commons in the long run. One of the most prominent examples is the Enspiral project. Next, I analyzed some of the contradictions of the Commons. I argued in particular that the Commons could just as easily be appropriated by capitalism, rather than vice versa, in a way that could actually result in what Kostakis has called “the parody of the Commons.” This reflects actually the Marxian argument that cooperatives cannot compete with capitalism in the long run given the immense asymmetries of power on money, resources, infrastructures, management, skills, and so on. But Marx also argued that technology can undermine capitalism inasmuch as it pushes costs to zero, including the labor commodity. Bauwens and Kostakis build on that pros- pect to point out that Commons-based peer production can beat capitalism on its own ground, that is, competition. Technology can render the Commons competitive and pave the way for a postcapitalist, ethical economy via the model of open cooperativism.Meretz and Rigi criticize Bauwens and Kostakis’s model of open cooperativism as being capi-talist inasmuch as it retains the categories of capitalism (the market, rent, commodity, surplus-value). They argue, instead, for a radical and a revolutionary approach, respectively, in which the Commons-based peer production would gradually replace capitalist production. Meretz argues that even the GPL production is exclusive and thus not communistic. He proposes, instead, an unconditional voluntary reciprocity developing in the form of open code. Rigi himself also rec-ognizes the current deficiencies of GPL, but he holds that the GPL is the only universal form of communism currently at our disposal. He, therefore, argues for the integration of the GPL/Linux model into a revolutionary P2P production. In my view, however, the reformist approach is the most realistic at present. Thus, I agree with Bauwens and Kostakis that the introduction of the PPL is vital for channeling a stream of income from the capital to the Commons. Any form of democratic financialization of the Commons is necessary for the Commons to reproduce and expand. But this is not enough for the Commons to flourish and thrive.All four thinkers miss that the contradictions of capitalism per se are reflected within the Commons in multiple forms. Today, the Commons face many contradictions: elitism, aristocracy, monarchy, autocracy, lack of transparency and solidarity, exclusion, discrimination, racism, pre-carious volunteering, and activism; the domination of self-interest and competition over solidarity and cooperation; the rational mastery of techno-economism; and the fear of the tyranny of the Commons over the heterogeneity of individuality. To tackle these contradictions, I argued that transparency of information, distribution of value, solidarity, and bottom-up self-management are the core variables of individual and collective autonomy inasmuch as they permit a community/group to formulate its values in relation to the needs and skills of its members."


Cognitive capitalism and extractive P2P production

By Vangelis Papadimitropoulos:

"Traditional proprietary capitalism suffers from an inherent contradiction: it aims at infinite growth in a finite planet, causing both an economic and ecological crisis. Kostakis and Bauwens (2014: 10–14) hold that the global economy is now at a turning point, where three different value models are competing for dominance. Traditional proprietary capitalism is accompanied by a neo-feudal cognitive capitalism, in which strong intellectual property rights are in the process of being replaced by centralized networks of P2P production (Bauwens 2005; Benkler 2006; Castells 2000, 2009), dominated by finance capital. Finally, the third model is the prospect of a decentralized and autonomous P2P production, which still needs major political reformations to become dominant.

Thus, Bauwens and Kostakis demonstrate two general forms of P2P production:

(1) an extrac-tive P2P production with a for-profit orientation, coming in the form of a neo-feudal cognitive capitalism;

(2) a generative Commons P2P production with a for-benefit orientation, coming in the forms of global and local Commons.

Cognitive capitalism is considered to be a new type of capi-talism in which the control of information has replaced the traditional material production and distribution, becoming, therefore, the basic source of value (Boutang 2012). As such, cognitive capitalism is divided into two parts: netarchical capitalism, which can be both centralized and distributed, and anarcho-capitalism, which is distributed (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 25–27). Netarchical capitalism refers to front-end internet platforms that enable cooperation and P2P production, but they are under central control by back-end server infrastructures whose primary orientation is the accumulation of profit (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 23–29). This business model is often described as the emerging model of a sharing economy, in terms of which a series of companies unlock the untapped value of underutilized assets (cars, rooms, consumer goods, skills, capital, Wi-Fi, etc.) through the internet and transform consumers into micro-entrepre-neurs, trading, sharing, swapping, and renting products and services. These companies com-modify the attention capital or, in other words, the use-value of P2P cooperation by privatizing the data of their users and marketing them through advertising. Some of the most prominent examples are Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber."

Generative P2P production: From capitalism to the Commons

By Vangelis Papadimitropoulos:

"Bauwens and Kostakis point to a Commons-based peer production developing at the edges of traditional and neo-feudal cognitive capitalism. As already mentioned, the Commons refer to a shared resource governed democratically by its user community. In contrast to traditional capital-ism and neo-feudal cognitive capitalism, the Commons favor decentralization over central con-trol, democratic self-management over hierarchical management, access over ownership, transparency over privacy, and environmental sustainability over growth at all costs. As such, the Commons are divided into global and local Commons.Local Commons refer to autonomous P2P projects developed by resilient communities. Some striking examples are community land trusts that offer affordable housing, health and social care services, degrowth ecological and permaculture movements, Transition Towns, the Bologna project, car-sharing, interest-free banks, autonomous energy production, and so on (Bollier and Helfrich 2015). Despite the empowerment of the local governance and the optimization of local assets and infrastructures, local Commons seem more like centripetal lifeboat strategies that can-not but conform to the mainstream of capitalism. For this reason, Kostakis and Bauwens (2014: 48) are right to argue that local P2P production needs to connect to the global Commons.The key factor in the development of global Commons is the invention of free software, which has disrupted traditional capitalism. Whereas traditional capitalism is based on artificial scarcity, market pricing, profit maximization, and top-down management, free software can sustain a P2P production that aims at the distribution of value through hybrid forms of governance where hier-archy, autonomy, and cooperation coexist on different degrees and levels (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 52; Benkler 2006). Some examples of global Commons are Wikipedia, Wikispeed, Open Source Ecology, LibreOffice, Linux, Goteo, FarmHack, Arduino, Enspiral, Loomio, Sensorica, and so on (Bollier and Helfrich 2015). Blockchain technology can potentially foster the Commons development inasmuch as it can provide decentralized and transparent self-management of eco-systemic networks (holoptism), operating through mutual coordination (equipotentiality and stigmergy) on the basis of open design, open manufacturing, open distribution, open-book accounting, open supply chains, open finance, and so on (Swan 2015). Blockchain technology already supports platform cooperativism on the internet and mobile applications through which several groups (taxi drivers, photographers, farmers, designers, programmers, teachers, research-ers, innovators, investors, web developers, etc.) join forces on a mission to work together in a self-managed, decentralized, and autonomous manner (Scholz 2016a, 2016b). However, to what degree Blockchain technology and platform cooperativism can remain autonomous from big banks, corporations, and governments is a concern (Ortega 2016).For the local and the global Commons to merge, Bauwens and Kostakis articulate a Commons-oriented political economy that advances an open cooperativism between a partner state, ethical market entities (Bauwens 2014b), and the Commons, with the aim of gradually replacing the accumulation of capital with the circulation of the Commons. Platform cooperativism can be incorporated into a Commons-based peer production on the model of an open cooperativism, the central axis of which would be the multistakeholder cooperative that crystallizes the values of a self-managed democratic community of investors, produsers and prosumers. Multistakeholder cooperatives would serve as the transition business model until ethical market entities adjust to the Commons in the long term.The role of the partner state is of paramount importance, because it could boost the transition from capitalism to the Commons through a de-bureaucratization and commonification of the pub-lic sector on the basis of bottom-up self-management that establishes an open cooperativism between the Commons and ethical market entities willing to minimize negative social and envi-ronmental externalities. To this end, taxation of social/environmental entrepreneurship, ethical investing, and productive labor should be minimized, whereas taxation of speculative, unproduc-tive investments, unproductive rental income, and negative social and environmental externalities should be increased (Bauwens 2014b; Bauwens, Kostakis, and Pazaitis 2016; Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 66–67). In addition, education and publicly funded research and innovation could be aligned with the Commons-oriented economic model (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 68).Kostakis and Bauwens introduce a Peer Production License (PPL), designed and proposed first by Kleiner (2010) that would help strengthen the Commons in their coexistence with capitalism by directing streams of income from the market to the Commons. Ethical market entities that would like to use the Commons without contributing should pay a license fee as a form of direct reciprocity. A PPL differs from a Creative Commons License in that it allows the commercialization of one’s work rather than a more agile copyright protection. Instead of the capital capturing the use-value of the Commons by means of the GPL (e.g., IBM), the PPL is in line with the Open Source License in that it allows for the commercialization of the Commons knowledge in exchange for rent. This way, a stream of income directed from ethical market entities to the Commons would secure the autonomy of the Commons per se (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014: 63–67). It should be mentioned, however, that the introduction of the PPL still largely remains at a theoretical level with a few notable exceptions, as in the case of the “think global-print local” project (Utratel 2016).

Finally, Bauwens and Kostakis’s (2017) model of open cooperativism aims at the creation of a global counter-hegemonic power that consists of three institutions operating at a trans-local and transnational level:

(1) a Chamber of Commons representing commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalitions locally,

(2) an Assembly of the Commons also locally bringing together commoners and citizens, and

(3) a Commons-oriented Entrepreneurial Association connecting commons-oriented enterprises globally."

Commons Transition Strategies for Reform or Revolution

Vangelis Papadimitropoulos:

"These questions over possible pathways to transition are at the core of an important debate today. Stefan Meretz and Jacob Rigi have both criticized the reformist approach of Bauwens and Kostakis, each from a different angle.

Stefan Meretz (2014) claims that the introduction of the PPL deals only with the distribution of the surplus-value, leaving untouched the production of the commodity and the exchange logic itself. The PPL has nothing to do with “direct reciprocity” as it reproduces the commodity exchange of capitalism. In this way, PPL is trapped into a capitalist-like perspective. Open cooperativism is doomed to bend to the pressures of competition and take part in the process of exploitation. Meretz objects, therefore, to the commoditization of the Commons and argues in favor of an open-code, P2P production that would gradually replace capitalism without the support of an intermediate state. Meretz holds that even the GPL is not communist, because it is exclusion-ary. He calls, instead, for an unconditional, voluntary reciprocity based on open code.

Rigi (2014) agrees with most of Meretz’s criticism of Bauwens and Kostakis. He argues that the claim Bauwens and Kostakis make for keeping rent through the introduction of PPL is decep-tive. Bauwens and Kostakis justify the keeping of rent by arguing that the GPL allows the capital-ists to have a free ride on the Commons. The capitalists profit from the use of GPL by turning Commons use-value into proprietary exchange value. Thus, the PPL is necessary to secure the sustainability of the Commons by reversing a stream of income from capitalism to the Commons via the payment of a fee in exchange for the commercialization of the Commons knowledge. But Rigi thinks this is not true. He holds that software/knowledge/information, whether proprietary or free, has zero value. Capitalists thus cannot make extra profit by using free software. On the contrary, the GPL extracts Commons from capitalism. IBM, for example, transformed its propri-etary software into Commons to use Linux. Finally, Rigi claims that Bauwens and Kostakis’s project of open cooperativism perpetuates capitalism inasmuch as it adheres to the capitalist categories of the market, commodity, surplus-value, profit, and capital:

- But to the extent that capitalists are paying a fee to the cooperative for using knowledge this fee is a rent that is part of the surplus-value produced by the total social labor exploited by the total social capital. Hence, the cooperative exploits other workers by extracting surplus-value from them... To sum up the cooperative is implicated in the capitalist mechanism of exploitation either as an exploited or exploiting party in both the processes of the formation of values and that of the production of prices of the commodities they produce. (Rigi 2014: 395)

Rigi agrees with Meretz that GPL is exclusionary and dependent on the state. But despite its current deficiencies, he considers GPL as the first universal form of communism. “Communism is nothing but realization of individual potentials through voluntary participation in social pro-duction and making the product available to all members of society regardless of their contribu-tions” (Rigi 2014: 399). However, the GPL is not just a form of general reciprocity, because it inherently results in cooperation owing to its productive orientation. He perceives the Linux model of production, based on GPL, as the form of cooperation that subverts the capitalist divi-sion of labor both in space and time. He furthermore stresses that the GPL/Linux model can be applied to material production by means of digital copying and automation. GPL-oriented pro-duction can become the platform of a revolutionary social struggle of peer producing coopera-tives that will reduce their relations to the market to a minimum, while aiming toward a massive exodus from the city to the Commons. The transition from capitalism to the Commons requires the transformation of strategic means of production—namely, land and major instances of fixed capital—into Commons. Bauwens (2015) has responded to Meretz by arguing that it is precisely the sustainability of P2P production that the introduction of the PPL intends to guarantee. He furthermore points out that PPL does not demand equivalent exchange, but only a negotiated reciprocity, that is, a mini-mum reciprocity necessary to sustain the system. This sort of reciprocity is consistent with Marx’s ([1885] 1992) definition of communism. Finally, he holds that Meretz’s argument that P2P production will mature by its own means into an alternate system that will gradually substi-tute capitalism is a dangerous dream.

I agree with Bauwens’s response to Meretz, and I disagree with some parts of Rigi’s argument. First, Bauwens and Kostakis are introducing PPL with the aim to rent and not sell Commons knowledge. Thus, the PPL aims at the commercialization and not the privatization of Commons knowledge. Second, the fact that knowledge-information can be reproduced at nearly zero cost does not mean that it cannot produce added value. Not only do venture capital start-up funds and multinational corporations such as IBM reduce their costs by using free software—and therefore increase their profits—but they also profit enormously by extracting added value through new business models, services, infrastructures, finance, and so on. Instead of IBM paying ten pro-grammers to produce software, it pays significantly lower salaries to a community of peer pro-ducers to produce the same software with much better quality. Third, the argument that the Commons exploit their contributors by renting their surplus-value to capitalism is not true, given that the profit is redistributed within the Commons. Bauwens and Kostakis perceive the Commons in terms of the medieval guilds or the Enspiral project, in which they are externally trading their goods in the marketplace, while acting internally as solidarity systems that redistribute their income in new projects through a collaborative funding process. However, the flows of capital from ethical market entities into the Commons via the PPL can be considered a form of transvest-ment or expropriation of the working class’s surplus-value, returning back to the “source.” Besides, Rigi himself concurs with a minimum cooperation with the market given that we cannot avoid but coexist within capitalism—at least for the time being. The transference or transvest-ment of value (land, labor, capital) from capitalism to the Commons is unavoidable in any poten-tial scenario of a future transition to the Commons, either one that is reformist or state-driven or both. In any case, expropriated surplus-value returns to the “source.”We cannot at present—despite Meretz’s desire—pass from an economy of money to a utopia beyond money, commodity, scarcity, labor, and the state. On the contrary, the state can potentially facilitate the transition from capitalism to the Commons by various means: education, infrastruc-tures, the legal system, and so on. To create a more autonomous, just, and equal society, we need to transfer resources (money, infrastructures, human capital) from capitalism to the Commons, and this can happen either in a reformist (Bauwens and Kostakis), a radical (Meretz), or a revolution-ary (Rigi) way. All three approaches can be considered as different formats of Commons-based peer production depending on the conditions. At present, the reformist approach seems to me the most realistic. Therefore, I agree with Bauwens and Kostakis that the introduction of the PPL is vital for channeling a stream of income from the capital to the Commons. Any form of democratic financialization of the Commons is necessary for the Commons to reproduce and expand. But is this enough for the Commons to flourish and thrive? Is it only a matter of distribution?Castoriadis (1988), among others, observed that the basic structural contradiction of capital-ism, reproduced by the state itself, is the division between directors (managers) and executants (workers). Weber, however, argued for the inevitability of bureaucracy and the limited scope of collective self-management in contemporary societies (Kreiss, Finn, and Turner 2011). Yet, inter-net and free/open-source software today offer an immense potential for the creation of a partici- patory culture based on autonomy and cooperation. But, still, the Commons are in their infancy with the division between managers and executants penetrating them in multiple forms. Today, the Commons face many contradictions: elitism, aristocracy, monarchy, autocracy, lack of trans- parency and solidarity, exclusion, discrimination, racism, precarious volunteering and activism, the domination of self-interest and competition over solidarity and cooperation, the rational mas-tery of techno-economism (Papadimitropoulos 2016b), and the fear of the tyranny of the Commons over the heterogeneity of individuality.Bauwens (2014a) admits that P2P projects are said to be, most often, “benevolent dictator-ships,” controlled by a core of founders on the basis of their larger input into the constitution of the project. This model of course has nothing to do with communal shareholding and the example of the hunter eating last from his prey. Hierarchy results quite often in authoritarianism. What’s more, most of the so-called decentralized autonomous projects developed on the Blockchain infrastructure seem to be more libertarian than Commons.In support of the above comes a new study that shows that Wikipedia has turned into another conservative, corporate bureaucracy ruled by a leadership elite with privileged access to informa-tion and social networks (Heaberlin and DeDeo 2016). This clearly illustrates the gap between a technocratic elite and the members of a “community.” The oligarchy of the experts undermines the principles of equipotentiality and holoptism. The technological gap is co-substantial with an implicit techno-centrism (Morozov 2011) and techno-pragmatism, dangerously ignoring that technology is part of the social imaginary, which has much more complex dynamics than tech-nology itself. Society is a much more complex network of highly diverse imaginaries and power relations that cannot simply be reduced to an algorithmic design.For these reasons, an adequate education is of outmost importance for incorporating technology into society and vice versa. We need an educational care to accompany knowledge with the mission to reach out for the unprivileged (the poor, the unemployed, the workers, the illiterate) and support them substantially. We need information that is unbiased by mainstream media propaganda. We need to do away with the capitalist imaginary of individualism and utilitarianism that translates everything into calculated costs and benefits for a self-interested maximizer (individual, corpora-tion, or state). We need to create a new anthropological type that combines a minimum conception of the common good (the planet, the community/group) with an ethical pluralism translated into the P2P infrastructures that support the intercompatibility of multiple individual and collective imagi-naries (Papadimitropoulos 2016a). We need to transform power relations and income inequalities into the equipotential intercompatibilities of cultural diversity with the mission to unleash human creativity and establish a more autonomous society. Thus, P2P production could crystallize the free flux of difference and similarity floating in the magma of the imaginary significations of society. As Castoriadis argued long ago, there can be no exhaustive plan of social change, no well-described pathway to another society, and no recipe for revolution except for the equality of all in participat-ing in the creation of the “rules” governing society as a whole (Castoriadis 1988).To this end, transparency of information, distribution of value, solidarity, and bottom-up self-management are the core variables of individual and collective autonomy inasmuch as they per-mit a community or group to formulate its values in relation to the needs and skills of its members. Transparency in terms of open accounting, open protocols, and open supply chains, as proposed by Bauwens, is the necessary condition for incorporating competition into an economy based on cooperation, trust, and autonomy. Cooperation is not to be forced in any way, but we still need to have free access to all information available to be truly autonomous in our judgments and choices. Transparency is the necessary condition of individual and collective autonomy.I agree with Bauwens that the key issue is the balance between efficiency and participation; we need not waste time in endless deliberations in search for a “final” consensus. It is essential, however, to abolish the distinction between directors and executants to wipe out the capitalist imaginary that penetrates the Commons in multiple forms. Following Castoriadis, I hold that freedom is the equality of all in participating in the formation of the law-ruling society. Freedom is the equality of autonomy for individuals thinking and acting within collectivities. Therefore, we should be aware of the danger of a reversed bureaucracy that could result either in the oligar-chy of a technocratic elite or in the tyranny of the Commons, both oppressing equally the hetero-geneity of individuality inherent in the cultural diversity of any collectivity." (

More information



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The critics

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TripleC 12 (1): 362–65

  • Rigi, J. 2014. The coming revolution of peer production and revolutionary cooperatives. A response to Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis and Stefan Meretz. TripleC 12 (1): 390–404


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