As promissed I finally post my speech (full length) for the Burning Ice Un-Economic Summit. The text includes a table contrasting the logic of the market with the logic of the commons. Comments welcome! And this is the presentation. If you open it, you’ll get to know Nessi! Special thanks to Gina P.
The Commons: Marginalized but Rediscovered, Year One of the Global Commons Movement
by Silke Helfrich
I spend most of my time helping to build the Commons Movement, in fact quite a few of us do, as my colleagues from the Commons Strategies Group. Together, we explore the commons and Peer-to-Peer Production. We want to contribute to developing a coherent political narrative for the commons. Actually, I consider this notion as the most fertile mothersoil for the convergence of movements – being them rural or urban, digital or environmental, social or academic, from the North or from the South.
But, have YOU ever heard about the “Commons”? Let alone the “Commons Movement”? If not, don’t worry! It’s a good moment to catch up. We live in “Year one of the Global Commons Movement” (to quote Michel Bauwens). This movement can be compared to a little child who is about to discover its own identity, develop his own personality, and who still has to learn to say: “I am.” Or “We are.”
The commons is a kind of mysterious animal. It’s like Nessy. Nobody seems to know exactly what it is supposed to look like and what it does. But everybody talks about and we are sure that it exists and is meaningful.
So, what is a commons then?
“A commons is a shared interest or value”, says anthropologist Stephen Gudeman. It is a shared value of how to reproduce our livelihoods beyond market and state, and how to do it in such a way that nobody is left behind and collective resources are neither over- nor under-used. The commons is a social ethic.
Each commons consists of at least three generic building blocks:
- First of all, there are the so called common pool resources: things we use together – the water, our genetic code, cultural techniques, the notes and the airwaves or the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit music and information, the time we dispose (Momo!) or the silence. In short: things we need and constantly use to be productive and creative. A common pool resource is not produced by anybody individually. It is just “given to us”
- as part of our natural inheritance – think of water;
- or as a collectively produced social or cultural good – think of software and language; –,
- or as a donation by groups of individuals – think e.g. of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.
When Salk was asked in a talkshow: “Who owns the patent” He answered: “Nobody. Can anybody patent the sun?”
Well, there are who think that everything is patentable. The problem is… that common pool resources can easily be privatized or put under central control. And that is what normally happens. And the worst thing is: we think it’s normal.
Actually, the history of capitalism is the history of the so-called “enclosure of the commons” both – by the market and the state. Common pool resources are constantly being converted into commodities or taken hostage by the powerful. Just think of petrol, which as a gift of nature should belong to all of us.
Whatever we do, whatever we produce – we need common pool resources. So, the very question we have to answer is: What do we want to do with them? Do we want to produce commodities and convert everything – our collective knowledge, our genes, solar energy, public arenas and spaces, water, beaches, social care etc. – into commodities? Or do we want to sustain and reproduce them as commons? It’s our choice.
Just bear in mind the difference between knowledge as treated in Wikipedia – i.e. a commons (collectively produced and sustained, free licensed, in this case accessible for everybody and the based on voluntary contributions, and it is not a product to sell on the market ) and knowledge as treated in the Encyclopedia Britannica (produced for the market, copyrighted, high access fees, controlled by the owners). Or bear in mind the difference between a public pond with potable water in a public space and the proprietary, branded bottled water in a supermarket.
Well, having said this, it is clear, that a common pool resource is not yet a commons. Instead, it has to be turned into a commons by its users. One cannot talk about the commons without talking about the communities that use and sustain it.
Something becomes a commons because a certain community shares a common understanding of how it wishes to use a shared resource. In other words: The commons is not about the resources. It’s about us!
The communities and their way to act is the second building block of the notion of the commons. Therefore, we should better talk about the commons as a verb and not as a noun. As the historian Peter Linebaugh said: „There is no commons without commoning.“ We need to embrace the notion of the commons and the virtues of commoning.
“Reciprocity, sense of self, willingness to argue, long memory, collective celebration and mutual aid are traits of the commoner.” (Linebaugh)
Let me give a few examples. A programmer recently explained at a German Commons Conference what the Free Software Community aims at: Free Software activists want to preserve the freedom to »use, study, apply, share and distribute the new versions of software code.” Immediately a woman stood up and said, “Well, that is exactly what we, peasants all over the world claim for. We want to use, study, apply, share and distribute our varieties.”
Commoning — or the governance of computers and potatoes — take very different shapes. Each community defines its own rules that depend on a huge number of variables.
And that is the third building block: a set of norms and – as far as possible – self-ordained rules. A commons-based society will be based on (the virtues of) commoning and on rules accepted by their users and designed in such a way, that they strive to maintain and recreate our commons.
Take Copyleft for software or other creative content as an example. The Copyleft idea – which is designed to facilitate sharing – says basically: If you take from the commons, then you are not allowed to say “It’s mine” – even if you add own work.
Or have you ever heard about the Indian System of Rice Intensification, SRI, a kind of “open source system of rice farming” as my colleague David Bollier said in a recent blogpost:
“Many Indian farmers are pioneering a new form of ‘agroecological innovation’ by using the Internet to share their innovations. SRI emerged outside of the scientific establishment as a way to produce higher rice yields through “knowledge swaraj„. Swaraj meaning “self-rule.” … the opening up of Indian agriculture to unfettered market forces has been catastrophic for millions of Indian farmers. Some 200,000 have committed suicide over the past ten years; most of them are attributed to the financial pressures and to loss of their traditional practices and identities to market-driven agriculture. …
The SRI practitioners use indigenous varieties of crops and shun chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The whole enterprise is a vast social network of Internet-mediated participation that is aimed at learning how to eke out better yields on marginal plots of land. … The SRI knowledge commons has scientists, farmers and citizens all talking together on the same platforms, rather than the “experts” declaring how agriculture should be pursued. Since 1999, SRI has been embraced in 40 countries as an “open source” system of rice farming. … SRI manuals developed by Indians are shared with farmers abroad. By 2010, there were more than 400 members from 25 countries in an online SRI group.”
It is obvious, that there is no master inventory of the commons. Each commons is the product of unique circumstances, local culture, economical and ecological conditions. In words of Erling Berge, Editor of the International Journal of the Commons at the International Commons Conference in November 2010 in Berlin:
“Each commons is one of a kind.”
But all of them are social spaces that allow us to have a good life – one that is more independent from the impersonal ethic of the market (contracts, money, marketing) and from the coercive mandates of governments.
That is the idea. Now, let us face reality. As a matter of fact, the commons is often patronized or dismissed for being supposedly ‘damned to fail’. Remember the so called “Tragedy of the Commons”, which in fact is a tragedy of no men’s land, of unmanaged common pool resources. This is not a description of the commons. But the famous metaphor coined by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 was so strong, that the stigma has remained.
Today, the commons are often excluded from policy discussions and commoners are often disempowered. This tendency is enforced by the dominant political thinking, which is used to thinking in dichotomies. Here the market, there the state, here the private, there the public, here the teacher, there the pupil, here competition, there cooperation, here the good thing, there the bad thing. As a consequence, we tend to look for Either-Or-Solutions, which leads to consider Market and State as the only two serious realms of action. The commons are usually left behind and ignored.
Therefore our challenge is manyfold. We can only bring the commons paradigm to broader public attention if:
- We find a powerful language for the commons and an up to date narrative that can be understood by everyone. “If we keep the commons unnamed, it is easier to neutralize or to ignore it.” (Bollier)
- We recover the history of the commons so that we can appreciate its role in different historical and political contexts. Like the Codices Justinianum, where we find a very relevant distinction between res nullius, res publicae, res privatae and res communes. The latter has often been ignored by modern law. Or the concept of the public domain (in our juridical context: Gemeinfreiheit) or the huge variety of collective property forms in our civic laws that can provide new legal forms to organize a commons.
Codex Justinianus revisted:
Stefan Meretz, http://www.keimform.de/2010/commonstheorie-und-perspektiven-des-widerstands/
- We avoid false dichotomies and try to get beyond either/or thinking and mainstream narratives – like the narrative of the homo oeconomicus or of scarcity. Resources are not scarce, they are made scarce.
- We understand the relationship between access to common pool resources and power relations in society. Access to resources is a source of power. That is why the commons is often exploited by both by Market AND State. “Both are hungry for the revenues that come from exploiting them and both often find it useful to support each other’s political objectives”, says Bollier. The State turns out to be a Market-State, as James Quilligan puts it. The commons is resisted because it requires significant transfers of power to the commoners — not as a right granted by authorities but as an inherent human right that we have and which has to be respected by authorities. This is a small but significant difference.
- We co-invent and experiment with new forms of commoning that are in line with the inner logic of the commons.
The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons:
|Focus||What can I sell?
|What do we need?
|Homo oeconomicus||Homo cooperans|
|It’s about resources (allocation).||It’s about us.|
|Governance||Market-State||Polycentric / Peer-to-Peer Governance|
|Command (Power, Law, Violence)||Consensus, Free Cooperation, self-organization|
|Social relationships||Centralization of power (monopoly)||Decentralization of power
|Access to rival resources||Limited by boundaries & rules defined by owner||Limited by boundaries & rules defined by usergroups|
|Access to nonrival resources||Made scarce (to ensure profitability)||Open access (to ensure social equity)|
|Use rights||Granted by owner||Co-decided by user groups|
|For the resources||Erosion
Reproduction & Multiplication
|For the people||Exlusion & Participation||Inclusion & Emancipation|
The market has a well-developed and aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created. Just switch on your radio in the morning…
Market logic is based on the assumption that we are basically a homo oeconomicus – striving to maximize our own benefits. This narrative rests on the pillars of private property rights and the idea that the winner is the one who out-competes the others. In short: it’s a story of bigger, higher and faster.
The commons has yet to develop its own grand narrative. But here are some well identified essentials. First of all, it moves beyond the classic dichotomies of the haves and have-nots, of owners and non-owners, of public and private. It includes the missing third element: the commoners or usergroups, the co-owners, and the citizenry within their communities. It focuses on self-organization instead of “participation,” – the scope of the latter is something that has been basically pre-decided by “market laws” or authorities. After such predecisions, some suggestions of citizens are welcome. The difference between participation and self-organization/emancipation is like the difference between reading a recipe and making one’s own yummy cake.
The commons is about building robust and resilient communities. That means its storyline is about relationships, not transactions. Therefore metric systems are unable to assess the State of the Commons, or, as David says: it “cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the ‘Commons 500.’”
The commons follows a logic of inclusion and aims at social control over resources and productive means.
Part of the ‘commons movement’ constantly tackles the issue of ecological security, others don’t. I use to call them the “ecos” and the “technos” and I think, still, in year one of the commons movement, there is a major divide between the “ecos” and the “technos” which has to be urgently addressed if we want to make the movement grow. The Indian System of Rice Intensification is a good example for it.
At a first glance, this may look like a fuzzy storyline. But in my experience, people have an intuitive access to the commons. Even though unnamed, they know what it is all about, because it is simply part of their social practice. Ask people what they care for, what a meaningful live means to them: They will talk to you about robust and diverse social relations, cooperation, trust, solidarity.
The market and Nation-State as well as their conglomerations are built upon different beliefs. Just two examples out of many: The European Union is currently centralizing more and more power – supposedly “saving nation by nation” – meanwhile we learn from Commons research that centralized governance approaches harm the diversity of the commons. Commons governance needs to be polycentric, as Professor Elinor Ostrom has shown. Panaceas are revealed to be dangerous, and there is simply no such thing as a one size fits all solution. Because, remember: “each commons is one of a kind.”
Or take one of the favorite strategies of international cooperation for development: Securing private land titles. This is considered a key condition for rural development. But the strategy implies, that each peasant gets his little private piece of property which in case of emergency or upon pressure (say landgrabbing) are often resold to the already land-rich.
Thus, if we don’t analyze policy from a commons perspective, a strategy supposed to empower the poor can end up with disrupting social relations on the ground and enclosing the commons. That means:
- convert commoners into individual consumers and producers for the market
- make them more dependent on the ups and downs of that market.
- cut them off from their history and from the history of commoning.
We have to identify the structural and often hidden ongoing enclosures. Enclosure is more than “privatization”, “commercialization” or “development pressure” triggered by “path dependency”. The term “enclosure” captures the disempowerment of people and social disruptions, which use to trigger situations, that are difficult to roll back. You may compare it to the dismantling of public transport infrastructures. Once you remove the rail network in a country, you will not be able to manage to re-open public transport by train. It’s gone.
Remember the ‘father’ of the liberal property concept, the English philosopher John Locke. Locke considered it a divine right for people to claim private property rights for things that they have “mixed” with their own labor. What is usually omitted from Locke’s formulation are his significant qualification – “…so long as there is enough, and good left in common for others.”
In fact, exclusive property rights can be justified only if the common pool resources and the use rights of commoners are preserved.
Now, the really great thing about the commons is that it is not just a concept. It’s alive and growing! In fact, today we see the rise of countless self-styled commoners – people who see the commons as a way of reframing politics, of re-conceptualizing production and revitalizing democracy.
There is an exploding universe of (digital) commoners (think of the vast network of free software programmers who created GNU/Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs; the Wikipedians who edit the largest and most up to date encyclopedia in history; the millions of artists and authors who – through Creative Commons or other free licenses state: “Yes, we want to share!”; the growing world of open access scholarly publishing, the Open Educational Resources movement and so on. There are
- commoners who are recovering urban spaces and agriculture;
- commoners who are implementing citizens control for radically decentralized energy production, distribution and consumption based on renewables;
- commoners who are building open-source hardware and infrastructures; and many others.
But there are some other people discovering the commons as well, and I’m not too sure they have the same ideas as we might. NATO held a conference last year on “the Global Commons,” by which NATO apparently meant NATO dominance over the oceans, space and the Internet – the global common pool resources. And in the same vein: If companies got used to “greenwash” their products there is no doubt, that they will start to “commons-wash” their activities if the term gains broader currency. We have to be aware of the risk that the meaning of the commons could be watered down, co-opted or used as a cheap moral posture.
But it is not a cheap moral discourse. It is not even a moral discourse per se. Commons are a social methodology, a governance system, a type of cultural ethic. It works with normal people like you and me, that is what Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and colleagues demonstrated in countless field studies.
Year One of the global commons movement — that means, we have an assemblage of movements around the globe which begins to become aware of its international and interrelated character. Without diversity this movement cannot exist. So, even though there are different and sometimes opposing perceptions and approaches to the commons, such as:
- preserving vs. building productive commons
- natural vs. digital commons
- modifying market/state power vs. replacing the market/state
The differences are mirroring the current stage of reflection, but – and this is important to understand – “They are differences within the same [paradigm].” (Stefan Meretz) I am convinced that “the same” is best denoted by the term commons.Many thanks to David Bollier for his help and advice!
„# We avoid false dichotomies and try to get beyond either/or thinking and mainstream narratives – like the narrative of the homo oeconomicus or of scarcity. Resources are not scarce, they are made scarce.“
I think that resources are scarce, always, by nature.
That (neo)liberal theory operates on the philosophical basis of scarcity observations – this is not a belief, but an observation – does not mean that there is problem with scarcity, but that there is a problem in how they approach the „problem“ of scarcity (here belief comes into the picture), which they – contradictorily – do by means of private property. Much of this thinking around scarcity derives from David Hume’s discussion on the „circumstances of justice“ (in a “A Treatise of Human Nature”, Book III “Of Morals”, Part II “Of justice and Injustice”, Section II “Of the origin of justice and property”) and has been translated by John Rawls to „moderate scarcity and limited altruism“. These are interesting discussions, but disturbing conclusions. However, that does not invalidate the observation of scarcity.
Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. Scarcity is not the enemy, as far as I am concerned.
Resources *are* scarce and that is why relations of commoning, i.e. community embedded practices with ecological sensitivity and labour solidarity, are required for the continued existence of the resources that are being commoned on and around.
To deny scarcity is not to avoid mainstream narratives, but rather to be captivated within it. It conflates scarcity with how scarcity is dealt with – or, it conflates the general with the particular.
Scarcity is not the problem, the challenge is how to deal with it.
Scarcity is not artificial, except in the case of intellectual property, and non-scarcity in that context only applies – strictly speaking – to distribution, and not to innovation and production, which always require scarce material means.
Scarcity is a reality – without commoning the river runs dry.
@j4ymp: Resources are *limited*, but they are not scarce by its own. Scarcity exists, when goods are there, but are not available. This is the case for commodities, because commodities can only be commodities when they are scarce although they may be not limited (each person could get one, but access is artificially restricted: you could go to jail).
Sometimes, there may be a coincidence of limitation and scarcity, but normally in capitalism scarcity coexists with abundance. Scarcity is the social result of producing and distributing goods as commodities.
You may argue, that (neo)liberalism has always talked about „scarcity“ and you are right. It is simply, because scarcity is the very fundamental part of their ideology. Don’t walk into the trap.
For the commons this means, that we have to deal with limitations where occuring. However, scarcity disappears by itself if we are not treating goods/resouces as commodities. Because commoning is to find need-based rules to satisfy needs under given circumstances (including limited resources etc.).
@ StefanMz: „Don’t walk into the trap.“
Interesting that you see should see it as a trap to go beyond the economistic conclusions to the observation that scarcity is a real issue. I think quite the contrary: it is a trap to stay within the ideological conclusions (rhetoric) that (neo)liberals draw from the observation of scarcity, which I think is a sensible observation. Why waste time and energy on proving scarcity wrong, when it is the conclusions drawn from that observation that is the problem and not the observation in itself. Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater…
@j4ymp: If you accept the underlying basic assumption, you cut your mind arguing against neo/lib ideology. Scarcity is not an observation, it is an ideologeme proving itself to be an unquestionable truth. If you accept scarcity as something natural, then you treat social relations as natural ones. It’s is the same as with the notion of property: it is a social relation in regard to stuff. Take your own arguments seriously, then you are able to de-mystify scarcity, too (as you impressivly did with property on IP).
Don’t let the baby sitting in ill bathwater, rescue it 😉
Ich würde sogar noch weitergehen. Ich finde diesen „Abundance“-Ansatz sehr spannend. Also nicht von Knappheit, auch nicht einmal von Begrenztheit, auszugehen, sondern von der „Möglichkeit des Überflusses“. Das bedeutet nicht Naturalismus oder Essentialismus. Also genau so wenig wie Ressourcen „von Natur aus“ knapp sind, genaus so wenig können wir sagen, dass Überfluss „natürlich“ ist. Ob wir in Knappheit oder Überfluss leben ist immer eine Frage sozialer Arrangements und Beziehungen. Interessant finde ich aber die Frage, wie eine Wirtschatstheorie aussehen würde, die von der Idee des Überflusses ausgeht, und anstatt zu untersuchen, wie man knappe Güter am besten verteilt, die Frage stellt, wie wir die Gesellschaft organisieren müssen, um Überfluss zu erzeugen. Wie z.B. hier:
ok, the same in English, sorry 😉
Asin my opinion an „abundance-approach“ seems to be very interesting, I’d go even a step further. Possibly we should start neither from scarcity nor from limitedness, but from the perspective that abundance is possible. That doesn’t mean naturalism or essentialism. Whether we live in scarcity or abundance is always a question of social arrangements and social relations. But I wonder how an economic theory starting from the notion of abundance could look like, if it didn’t ask how to allocate scarce resources but how to organise society to achieve abundance, like those concepts do:
Pingback: Tweets that mention The Commons: Year One of the Global Commons Movement « CommonsBlog -- Topsy.com
— „the perspective that abundance is possible“ … & … „I wonder how an economic theory starting from the notion of abundance could look like, if it didn’t ask how to allocate scarce resources but how to organise society to achieve abundance
Indeed, relative abundance should be possible, at least to strive for. There is scarcity unless we common. That is what I hear in your words: abundance is *possible*. If it *is possible* we don’t have it, – else it would be „what we have“, not merely possible. We don’t *just have* abundance, it is not a naturally given, but a socially acquired state of affairs. Something to work for.
Scarcity is quite real – as a consequence of not-commoning, or bad commoning – we can see it everywhere. No need to discount the (neo)liberal distortions of scarcity by calling it a myth – /that/ is a rhetorical trap – but rather, as Brigitte says, confront the nature of scarcity and say: Commoning can create abundance by communities interacting with nature, nurturing, thinking, digging and so on………. Or: scarcity in nature + commoning = abundance.
Capitalist democracy, by contrast says: scarcity in nature + commodities = abundance (i.e. economic growth, industrial development for some).
Thanks for all the work and the great ideas shared here. I hope to join you and others in the overall direction you are going. I would like to suggest a slightly different version of the relationship between the commons and the market. This essay seems to present them as separate logics and ways of relating. I would like to seem them as coupled, and the question is how they belong together.
Instead of thinking of separate spheres, I like to think in terms of container and contained. What provides the context or the foundation for what. In our current economy, for example, the commercial serves as the foundation, for the most part, of the civic. Those who own property or trade properties largely control our civic and political life. I think that needs to be reversed, so civic norms and civic relations become the foundation for property ownership and the trading of properties.
Competition and cooperation, for example, belong together. All successful competition depends on cooperation. Today, of course, many cooperate or really collude because they will lose everything if they do not. In this case, competition forces cooperation. We need to reverse such relationships, so cooperation becomes the basis for competition. So I am suggesting that we think in terms of how we should relate opposites rather than how we should separate them.
Hi Marvin, the idea was to present (schematically) the core beliefs underlying the commons and the market as different. And they ARE different, they reproduce different logics so to say.
I agree, that in real life tboth spheres are normally interlinked, but not in terms of „container and contained“ (Does the market contain the commons? Does the commons contain the market? … I think, it is not that easy.) The only thing that provides the fundament for BOTH are common pool resources: you need them regardless of the how you shape your social relationships and regardless of what you produce: if commons or commodities.
As far as the relationship of the terms within the separate spheres is concerned, I agree with you in the sense, that I try to visualize the „dominant“ core idea in each sphere. I e. the commons strives for cooperation which does not exclude competition, the market strives for competition which does not exclude cooperation. (you are right, both belong together) But the aims are different.
One cell of the chart caught my eye as something we should guard against. The „Decisionmaking“ row claims that commons-based decisionmaking involves „Consensus, Free cooperation, self-organization“ — whereas the market-state’s decisionmaking is „Command (Power, Law, Violence).
This is fine as far as it goes. But it strikes me as too easy on the commons — because so much „consensus and cooperation“ only works if there already is a „backstop“ authority with the power of legal coercion or power behind it. A public library or land trust or open source community is vulnerable as an institution if its commoning is not (indirectly) supported by a body of public law (and the threat of legal coercion), if only to recognize the property rights or state-granted charter upon which each depends. Richard Stallman found that social norms alone were not enough to get his fellow hackers to share their software code; he also needed to invent the GPL with the force of copyright law & enforcement standing behind it.
I’m sure you get my point. We shouldn’t imply that the commons = „peace and love“ while all the serious, hard decisions about power and governance structures belong the province of the nasty market-state. Difficult disputes about the structures of power and governance also occur within commons. We need to candidly deal with this fact and even the minimalist hierarchies that many commons entail.
David, I agree with you: This is an „eye-catching“ start and it works 🙂 I usually prepare presentations for my talks but I might try some time to just present the chart and start discussion 🙂
When I talk about the commons (and about this chart) I usually insist that this is not the „easy going, cosy world“ … but, that the commons is struggle: Constant struggle and discussion FOR „consensus, cooperation and self-organization“ … and that it needs monitoring and sanctions, but those are based as well on consensus or are at least widely recognized by the users, monitoring – as Ostrom showed – works quit good if it is self-organized and so on. That is the idea.
Now, as for the role of law: I think you’re right. I might add „law“ to the commons column as well.
@ all. Thanks!!
Let me comment a few things:
First of all the issue of the baby and the bathwater (i.e. scarcity vs plenty).
@j4ymp: Actually for me, this discussion is not a „waste of energy“ at all. It is the contrary: an energy saver. It took me exactly 10 seconds to realize, that resources ARE not scarce (‚by nature‘) but they ARE MADE scarce (‚by us‘). As Stefan said. Resources are rival or finite, but not scarce.
And this slight shift in wording, which expresses an important shift in perspective, helps us to focus the problem: I.e. US and not „the nature of things“.
If we can make resources scarce, we can also avoid it. And that is what commoning has to deal with.
I remember last year, I had a public talk in Florence, transmitting this idea … and sbd. answered. „You are right, it seems to me, that the concept of scarcity should be renamed. In fact it’s „scare-city“. Because usually if we are told, that things are scarce be begin to be scared and start taking from the „scarce resources“ whatever we can before they finish. In thats sense, Stephan is right: Scarcity is the problem, because it is part of an worldview and an ideology which is far away from commoning and makes you compete with the others on the run for the last scarce resources.
So, as you said: „There is scarcity unless we common.“
Let’s face it: It takes us 10 seconds.
I think we miss millennia of human, social relations if we take abundance as a starting point: social relations of commoning are the foundations of most crops we feed off.
If: „without commoning, there is scarcity“, then what makes that scarcity?
(( (By the way, Scarcity is not a neoliberal observation – scarcity based, economistic thinking derived policies are – and the kind of scarcity in today’s economistic thinking is derived from Hume, who was probably rather best labelled a conservative)).
If it does not take commoning to create abundance out of nature’s scarcity, then it is implied that all it takes to create abundance is to stop capitalism – no need for commoning at all?! – since abundance is a naturally given, not a socially acquired.
This is a strange position that makes little sense to me – and I think it devalues commoning entirely, since it makes commoning and commons something like the icing on a cake that already tastes nice enough. But it doesn’t taste nice enough: life is a struggle, always has been, and if it weren’t for consumer capitalism where externalities are exported, everyone reading this would know that all too well. If we do not recognise that the sometimes, somewhat apparent abundance in nature is an achievement of millennia of commoning, nurturing, rituals, ceremonies, indeed a consequence of an intergenerational struggle, then we are committing the very same – arrogant – mistake as capitalists: we take everything for granted within our own generation, while denying the blood, sweat and tears of ancestors.
Well, I confess, I am confused: I took that idea from you! “ There is scarcity unless we common.“ (perhaps me rewording sounds a little awkward in English, no idea). But I just wanted to say the same thing, when I said: „Without commoning, there is scarcity“. Consequence: What we need is commoning.
So, where is the problem?
The „problem“ is that some people claim that scarcity is not „naturally given“, but a socially incurred cost that capitalism has brought upon us. A neoliberal manipulation, they say.
I am saying that scarcity is a natural, base condition to which we respond by commoning. Scarcity is what is there if we don’t act – either act to work with nature to achieve abundance or act against capitalism, which only create abundance for the few, but perpetuates scarcity for the many. That was how this particular tangent started. StefanMZ called it a trap to recognise scarcity, while I consider it the very escape of the neoliberal scarcity trap to confront the fact of scarcity by engaging in commoning – by recognising that commoning is struggle.
So the „problem“ is that – in my view – the position of denying scarcity conflates the observation of scarcity in nature with the particular neoliberal policies that play on and indeed perpetuate the condition of scarcity for many and accrue riches to the few.
It is at the end of the day a („mere“?) philosophical point we are discussing here – one of assuming a starting point for a philosophy of commons. There are arguments that we should deny scarcity because it is a neoliberal artifice and say: Nature is abundant. I think this is misleading and quite false, as already stated and repeated in your terms: commoning is struggling – „against“ nature (by going with it instead) and against social oppressors.
So I am not sure that we – you and I – are necessarily in disagreement, but there is some degree of disagreement about starting point in this discussion of a philosophy of commons.
While this is perhaps of little direct, here and now importance to practical strategies – we know it is a struggle that we face – it is of an overall importance in that a good philosophical foundation is useful. Capitalism’s philosophy is messy and patchy – which makes it easy to argue against, but arms and power maintain that the emperor is wearing clothes. Commons should not need that militarised defense, but instead have a solid argumentative basis; and I am of the opinion that the anti-scarcity position defended by Stefan and others is a rhetoric trapped inside the neoliberal economistic universe – a kind of, by structural analogy – my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Well, it is not always so.
Scarcity is a naturally given, abundance for all is socially acquired through commoning, or it can be socially acquired for the few – at the cost of the many – through exclusive ownership of the means of production and the consequent commodity form.
I don’t conclude from the fact, that scarcity is a social product and not naturally given, that the contrary (?) is true: By nature there is abundance. This would be as false as to say, by nature there is scarcity.
There is only one thing given by nature: We humans are producing our livelihoods in a societal way. Societally producing livelihood historically led to different social forms. By social form I don’t only mean direct interpersonal relationships, but also the social form the goods took and the mediated interpersonal relation in respect of the products (property, commodity, scarcity etc.). These social forms are not given, are not beyond history, but historically specific (This btw. implies that with the end of capitalism these specific forms will vanish and will be replaced by other forms).
So you are right, our disagreement has philosophical roots. For me recognizing scarcity being a social and not a natural form is a question of truth, and not a tactical argument against neo/liberalism. By far not. But it is not by accident that neo/liberalism and all liberal economic thinking (including traditional socialism) base on this assumption, because you never will win a fight against „nature“. Finally, the trap is a philosophical one.
OK, I see. We agree that abundance is not a given. That is good.
I am not fully convinced that „We humans are producing our livelihoods in a societal way“ is the only thing we can take for granted, but it is possible that scarcity is not the right term. However, it is clear that scarcity is – as many other things in Western thinking – a very old term that has taken on a distorted meaning and implications in liberal, capitalist, then neoliberal contexts. I will have to read and think more about that, but it has origins to do with public goods, rather than private interests, in Aristotle (who despised commercial/commodity actors), as far as I recall.
I feel that it needs replacing – if it is considered misleading due to contemporary misunderstandings – to provide a meaningful context for understanding and organising social relations.
My intuition is that terms and concepts that have been bastardised should not simply be discarded, but rescued – not just be rescued for their own sake and uncritically, on the contrary, – rather for the process of it, which might reveal things of importance. I don’t think such an investigatory process has been undertaken with respect to scarcity – the term is rather rejected on the basis of its distorted meaning and its opportunistic, economistic implementations.
With respect to „you never will win a fight against „nature““ – well, that depends on the criteria for winning and on what „fight“ is supposed to mean. Achieving survival is a sort of victory – many people lose that fight during gestation already. Not much spoken of in our culture perhaps, but a reality. How many pregnancies did your mother lose before you turned up?
My experiences in life – my own, and working in a rain forest with tribal/indigenous peoples – suggest that life is a struggle – with and against the environment, which doesn’t just give us what we need and want, but offers a context in which commoning can lead to abundance. Without commoning, a lot of stuff is scarce – friendships, faith, honour, recognition, water, fruits, nuts (and bolts), certainly land, dwelling opportunities and so on.
Of course this struggle cannot be definitively „won“, since nature will take you back in the end – ashes to ashes, funk to funky – and that’ll be that. Meanwhile, though, organising social relations vis-a-vis the „environment“ (including the fucked up environment handed down to us by non-commoners) seems to me to be of primary importance.
However, the concept of scarcity might be too scarred. But can we do without a notion of why we common, why commoning is neccesary?
Thank you for explaining something of your background! Concerning your last question: »But can we do without a notion of why we common, why commoning is necessary?« This sounds a bit, that commoning is a special behavior and has to be reasoned. It isn’t, and it hasn’t. Commoning is the »natural« way of producing our livelihoods. Capitalsm is the exception. Commoning has been always there and is always there. Capitalism could not exist without commoning, without enclosures, but commons could exist without capitalism. I tried to explain this at the commons conference: http://www.keimform.de/2010/the-generative-logic-of-the-commons-slidecast/ Thus commons and commoning do not need especially to be justified or reasoned.
Capitalism does not only enclose the commons but also our minds. It puts itself to be the »natural way of producing«, but it is not (I can not discuss the problemtic of attributing something as »natural« here). Why not just rescue »scarcity« from alian use? Because scarcity abstracts from social relations. If you accept that goods/resources *are* scarce (and not *made* scarce), then this would be on the same fault like accepting Hardins old notion of commons that *are* »free goods«. It is the same logic of argumentation: »Scarce goods« have to be »traded on markets« and »free goods/resources« have to be privatized — both for the sake of saving them from »running out« or »becoming overused«.
Therefore, the same argument why we are rejecting Hardin’s notion of »open access commons« can be applied to the liberal notion of »scarce goods« (but not not falling into the other trap of »natural abundance« per se): Open access is not a goods property, but a socially agreed rule, scarcity is not a goods property, but a socially made result of producing them as commodities.
My personal experience from publicily rejecting the notion of scarcity is that people learn much more. If they are open, they start thinking, because they feel that it is at the heart of old ideology.
Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » The logic of the market versus the logic of the commons
Pingback: WSF Dakar: Shifting from the Logic of the Market to the Logic of the Commons « CommonsBlog
You must change the system from the present ownership system – a Price System – to an energy based system – to a Technocracy. With equal access to purchasing power for adult citizens in terms of energy it is the ultimate in a commons economy.
Pingback: Riecht nach Land und löst Probleme in der Stadt « CommonsBlog
thanks for a really excellent article. You are total on the right track!
I have found this wonderful paper, please read, I am sure you will enjoy http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/2105/paci.pdf?sequence=1
I am currently writing an environmental history book on commons
Pingback: Open Source | Pearltrees
Pingback: Ciudad, comunidad y huerto: los diggers del fin de los tiempos | Ecología Política