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Some Thoughts on the Commons for reflection by the Commons movement

* Document: Some Thoughts on the Commons. Prepared by the Steering
Committee, International Commons Conference, to stimulate discussion
and reflection. (David Bollier, Beatriz Busaniche, Silke Helfrich, Julio
Lambing, Heike Löschmann)
October 31, 2010



Key Thesis: Commons are the enabler for all other social goals, including environmental ones, which in essence are social.




STREAM I: The Commons as a Challenge for Classical Economics

A. The commons will not succeed in challenging contemporary economics and conventional institutional design unless it:

• challenges the core beliefs of underlying conventional economics and the behavioral correlations induced by prevailing institutional designs;
• reinterprets the meaning of property from private ownership to
collective stewardship; and
• develops coherent concepts that are also empirically provable and
convincing alternatives to the conventional numerical "bottom lines".


B. The inherent features of the commons are abundance and diversity.

• If we respect diversity and engineer for abundance, the commons continuously (re)-produce enough for all. • Wherever we can – in case of nonrival resources and generosity – the
product of the commons should be universally available; where we cannot –
in case of rival resources – the product of the commons should be
equitably distributed.


C. A viable society is based on cooperation and co-production rather than the classical division of labor that separates resource producers
and providers from resource users, which treats nature, community and
culture as exploitable externalities.


D. Markets are not the only source of wealth creation. The commons, which are responsive to popular, democratic voices and to the pressure
on our biotic resources, can function as parallel economies to the cash
economy, including subsistence and gift economies. Another promising
way to do this is by developing community-based software platforms. Over
time, such communication platforms can extend to new types of social
exchange, for instance digital currencies, outside of national
currencies and conventional markets. Such processes would strengthen
resilient rural and urban communities and enable them to take the
reproduction of their livelihoods into their own hands.


E. The whole economic system in modern societies deeply depends on the state, which creates entire industries and provides regulative
structures. The demand for goods and services by the state is another
example. In fact, public procurement and infrastructure development
constitute the lion’s share of our economies. Therefore a shift towards
commons-based public procurement is urgently needed. That includes,
e.g., tax privileges for freely generated knowledge, information and
infrastructures or bidding processes based on stipulated criteria that
strengthen the participation of affected communities.


F. There is a need to clearly identify and communicate the "success criteria” of the commons and/or a loose taxonomy of successful commons.
But developing indicators for creative and productive commoning is
notoriously difficult. It is therefore essential to contribute to the
development of inclusive metrics that recognize key criteria for broader
wealth creation.



STREAM II: The Commons Challenges the Market/State Duopoly

A. The commons is the third element, beyond market and state, which needs structural and intellectual support.


B. The commons offers a rich set of governance models, and its constituting nature strives for a new style of social appropriation and
participation. Despite its diversity and its dependency on certain laws
or state support, the commons tend to be stable and to facilitate social
autonomy and effective resource management. Nontheless, a successful
commons is always the product of a continuous effort and struggle.


C. “The commons beyond market and state” does not necessarily mean without market and state, if we consider their rich history, enormous
diversity and geographic dispersion. But it necessarily means that the
people and their commons, supported by a partner state, become the core
of wealth creation. It aims to create a vibrant ethical economy of new
market forms that do not ignore natural and social externalities, but
include them in their functioning logic.


D. Commoners transcend nation-state based citizenship and national civil societies. And their identity goes beyond that of passive
consumer to responsible co-producer. Commoners are rooted in an
enormous variety of mutually dependent communities. One of the core
beliefs of the commons is the idea that the protection and creation of
common wealth are not just beneficial to the commoners themselves, but
to the local and global societies to which they also belong. A core
belief in the commons is: I need others and others need me.


E: What we need is not just regulation by the state but greater responsibility of and accountability to affected communities regarding
the criteria of human well-being. This is key. Instead of downsizing the
state by strengthening the logic of the market, a commons-based policy
campaigns for downsizing the scale and scope of the market by
strengthening ‘commons institutions’. That means establishing
institutions designed for acting as trustees for the commons and
enablers of the commons. New social technologies and distributed
networks – which must be based on sustainable energy use – can spur this
process.


F. Global commons entail a new kind of multilateralism which empowers local people as global citizens and enables nation-states to collaborate
more effectively to overcome global collective-action problems.



STREAM III: The Generative Logic of the Commons

A. For building commons we have to build resilient communities, which in turn need cooperative and deliberative forms of communication and decision making. The communities also serve as learning arenas for the
unfolding of skills and the underlying attitudes and mindsets for
commoning.


B. The commons as a self-organized form of peer-to-peer production follows its own logic. Peer-to-peer production assumes equipotency of
its participants, is based on free cooperation, aims to the creation of
common goods and seeks to serve the greatest good for everyone. We
believe this mode of production can be at least as productive as models
that ignore the commons. And in terms of addressing social wealth and
the reproduction of diversity, commons-based production models can even
be more successful than those based on command, control and/or selling.


C. Productivity cannot be simply an artificial measure of an enterprise’s performance; it must take into account all costs, including
hidden subsidies, damages to the environment and other sorts of non
quantifiable, non-market value that the commons routinely provides.


D. The commons is about taking one’s life into one’s own hands. Knowledge is key to do so, but knowledge is more than access to
knowledge; and access to knowledge is something more than building
technical infrastructure. Rapid diffusion of knowledge and innovation to
all who need it requires:

• the sharing of information, code, skills and design through universally accessible or community based platforms • the skills for understanding and reflection and • their appropriation for shaping our social habitats.

Conceiving knowledge as a commons guarantees a fair share of innovation, without the friction and suppression of sharing caused through excessive intellectual property regulations.


E. Institutional structures can articulate and make possible new commons, but they can also undermine the social connections and ethics
that are indispensable to the commons. Therefore, a key challenge in
devising effective commons-based policies is to balance these two
concerns properly. The bureaucratization of the commons is not a
commons, but a paradox to which we must be attentive.

For the success of a commons oriented politics, an alliance and an earnest exchange of experiences and know how between all those who work on the social, ecological, cultural and digital commons, is
imperative.


More Information

Comments are welcome at comments@commonsstrategies.org.

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