The commons: beyond the market vs. state dilemma

Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prizewinner who died this week, pioneered this work. Value is created through the logic of sharing with others in an open and even casual way. Innovation is no longer a monopoly, unassailably colonised by mercantile initiative.

The concept or perspective of ‘commons’ has for some years now been drawing in large numbers of people and groups from all over the world, and it has had a significant impact on spheres of debate and in academic circles. Interest in the idea was manifested a few years ago (2009) in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for economics to the political scientist Elinor Ostrom for her work on management of the commons. The investigative work of this professor of literature from the University of Indiana, who died just a few days ago, took in a multitude of experiences from all over the globe, demonstrating that the existence of common goods and spaces — that is, the non-attribution of property specific to its users — would not necessarily mean the over-exploitation of resources and the erosion of that heritage. In this way, she was responding to the influential work of Garrett Hardin (1968) who situated common goods in a system that inevitably ended in ‘tragedy’. 

This recognition of Elinor’s Ostrom’s work coincided with a great revival of interest in the ‘commons’ from scientific perspectives and a large array of other disciplines including climate change, cities, digital commons, water, scientific production, seeds, and cultural heritage, among many others. And this has brought with it the overlapping of many scientific and academic projects in this field, as well as the growing presence and influence of the concept in more recent debates around perspectives on innovation and change, raising an alternative to the traditional binomial between market and state.

What are we talking about when we refer to ‘common goods’? We are talking about goods and resources that, rather than being bound by ideas of property or belonging, assume by their own natural and economic vocation functions of social interest, serving the interest not of public administration but those of a given collectivity and the people who make it up. And so, common goods require a different rationale to the one that has dominated the economic, social and political debate for so long. We refer here to the binary logic that always forced us to choose between public and private property. In the case of commons, the direct relation between common goods and the people making up the totality tells us what needs there are and what are the necessary goods for satisfying them, thus modifying the juridical conception that has held up structures of property since the establishment of Roman law. People have needs that are not met by the rigidity implied by property structures. We are not talking about just another type of property: this is the very opposite of property, the non-transmissibility of common goods being a key element in the debate. 

In the early days of mercantilism and the consolidation of liberal states, one of the great conflicts that arose was precisely over the offensive against common goods, which was based on the belief that a lack of a clear sense of property implied a lack of interest in the sustainability of the goods or resources, a lack of interest that in the end would bring about their ruin, thus stunting general economic development. Indeed, the ‘open fields’ of England and the ‘communal mountains’ of Spain alike were effectively subjected to a heavy privatising pressure in the form of enclosures, ownership and division of land into plots. The new prevailing view was that only privatisation led to growth. And that in the end we all benefited. As we know well, the ideal of ‘homo economicus’ is born of that criterion of economic/individual rationality, and liberal-capitalist logic is built on that foundation. 

The ‘tragedy of the commons’, as Ugo Mattei has recently pointed out, throws into relief two contradictory positions held today. Hegemonic representation, essentially founded on social Darwinism, holds up competition, conflict and emulation as the essential triad of reality. That conception grew out of a ‘modernisation of the progress’ of market forces that leant on public political institutions. This is how communal goods and communal life were atomised, colonised and brought to an end. At the other extreme, we have a holistic and ecological view of the world, based on relationships of reciprocity, cooperation and community. The commons breaks with the individualistic vision as conceived by the capitalist tradition, a vision that has progressively transferred the idea of rights to individual people. The commons take inclusion and everyone’s equal right to access as its starting point, while property and the idea of the state that upholds it is based on a rivalry of goods, and thus on exclusion and concentration of power in institutions that insure and protect it. The commons try to situate themselves outside the subject-object reductionism that would lead to their commodification. The commons cannot be commodified (because they cannot be transferred, or alienated), and they cannot be the object of individualised possession. And so they express a qualitative logic, not a quantitative one. We do not ‘have’ a common good, we ‘form part of’ the common good, in that we form part of an ecosystem, of a system of relations in an urban or rural environment; the subject is part of the object. Common goods are inseparably united, and they unite people as well as communities and the ecosystem itself. 

For many years there has been tension and conflict between private and state methods for managing collective assets. The great struggles of the industrial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were couched in this dichotomy, which inspired but was also nourished by ideologies that argued for decades about the greater efficiency or greater justice enshrined in various formulae for social, economic and thus political organisation. We are talking here of the ‘commons’, of what is commonly held, and that refers to spaces, themes and initiatives that have their own boundaries, their own social rules for use, norms for punishing or dissuading ‘free riders’ who only want to profit from the commons. When we talk about the commons, we must invariably refer to the community and the relationships that sustain and run it. 

The experiences that Ostrom and others have systematised and analysed show the importance of the structures or institutions that can manage common goods, reinforce interdependencies and dissuade those who want to take advantage of them opportunistically. The key is the capacity of common goods to reinforce interdependencies, the advantages of sharing, of feeling involved (which does not always arise in the case of public goods) and reduce the temptation to outsource costs (an aspect that characterises private goods). The more articulation and reinforcing of interdependencies there can be, the more aware people will be of the advantages of sharing, and the weaker will be the tendencies to segregate and to outsource costs.

The expansive capacity of the concept of commons in the current context and in the digital world

It is important to understand that the debate over the commons coincides with great technological changes that demand and invite us to work from a scientific perspective, which is necessary to increase the capacity for innovation and cross-fertilisation, and from a social perspective, to ensure processes of social change and transformation. Clearly some of these dynamics will make more sense from academic perspectives and others from more political and citizen-led perspectives. This is at once its appeal and its weakness. Charlotte Hess, a colleague of Elinor Ostrom’s, has set about mapping the sectors interested in the idea, and she distinguishes between ‘cultural commons’, ‘market commons’, ‘neighbourhood commons’, ‘knowledge commons’, ‘social commons’, ‘infrastructure commons’, ‘global commons’… The different sectors are defined by the type of resources that are being considered. Logically, ‘knowledge commons’ are transversal, and so they are present in the other orientations and specialities. The point is not simply to disseminate or transfer knowledge, but to start with a scrutiny arising from the interactions of people and collectives engaged in concrete experiences and the academic capacity to learn, systematise and distribute (Bauwens). In this sense, we understand that it is important to connect the traditional ‘procommon’ with the new perspectives provided by a digital reality, thus facilitating a rethinking of the processes of collective action at key moments of social transformation on a global stage. 

State-market relations, and the ideological and political variables that characterised their distinct frameworks of conditionality and dependency, have left a significant mark on the past two centuries. Today we are in a visible process of transition towards a new framework. The new social reality that is configuring itself via technological change has multiple effects and is opening new avenues for social and scientific innovation. It is clear that the internet, as a platform for communication and exchange, has generated and will continue to generate numerous initiatives that break the traditional models of creating wealth or knowledge, for instance. As we have already suggested, possibly the most obvious example, and the one most intrinsically connected to the process of creation of the internet, and its functional characteristics, is the movement created by the possibility of sharing, of building collectively, of collaborating to create goods and knowledge based on aggregation and cooperation between users. 

As we have already argued, when we talk about the commons, we are not simply referring to a resource or a thing. We are talking about a resource attached to a community; to relationships, social values, conventions, processes of involvement and/or mobilisation, and norms that help to organise this resource and the social derivatives that collective use and governance demand. The experience in the field of natural resources analysed and systematised by Ostrom helps us to raise the issue of the commons to the level of a socio-economic paradigm (Bollier). And as a result it brings us to the key question in the process of epochal change we are going through and which we are attempting to analyse and evaluate here. To what extent is it possible for people to decide on and govern the management of their resources and needs in a cooperative, shared way?

At this crucial juncture, the internet represents a platform for multiplying the historic potential of the commons that we have briefly sketched in this article. The very design of the internet, its capacity to reduce drastically the costs of connection and interaction, and its ability to improve cooperation between its users, has produced an obvious renewal of the potential of the commons. Cooperative innovation and collective cultural creation find in the internet a unique opportunity for spreading themselves. The internet manages to innovate by cooperation, changing the logic of the market whereby innovation is directly linked to competition and thus to non-cooperation (despite the existence of examples of cooperative innovation promoted by companies when the costs of that innovation are too great to be assumed by a single company. An example is the manufacturing of new car engines; but that cooperation is soon interrupted in the competition to commercialise the innovation that was achieved, and so the companies return to the ‘natural’ course of things: competition and rivalry.) This does not mean to say that that same capacity cannot easily be marketised or utilised (as some techniques of crowdsourcing have shown, as have the constant battles among market operators to appropriate innovations).

What the internet has thrown into relief is something that had been taking place for years in the world of the commons, and in the defence of natural resources as described by Ostrom, or in the area of cooperativism that has led to so much development — albeit unequally — in the world. What is valued in online cooperation is the very possibility of sharing, of taking part, of generating value without competing. The conclusion we quite naturally come to is that if we cooperate, we all win, and if we only compete, some win while many others lose. What we are also seeing is that the logic of the commons allows for progress in projects, or responses to problems, that from a market perspective are not viable, or which turn out to be too marginal or risky. Value is not created through a logic of money and gain, but through the individual’s commitment to choosing what he or she wants to dedicate him/herself to, of using what one finds or what one likes, and through the logic of sharing with others in an open and even casual way. Innovation is no longer a monopoly, unassailably colonised by mercantile initiative.

Clearly, when we talk about the commons we are not speaking of some universal panacea that will magically resolve everything. It is rather about understanding that there are links beginning to be forged between the old, traditional collective ways of managing resources, goods and subsistence, and new forms of cooperation and collective creation of value linked to great technological change and to globalisation. And so, faced with problems that purely marketised options and purely state-owned options have had, the existence of a cooperative, communal nexus expressed in the idea of the common good open up new possiblities for research, transmission and experimentation. 

We are also interested here in the democratic implications of the debate over the role of  ICT’s, which lead inevitably to debates around access and regulation -  precisely the domain in which politics has traditionally operated. Harold Laswell once said that politics is about deciding who gets what (access), when and how (regulation). Today we see political ferment gathering around these ever-more-frequent conflicts that do not find an adequate response in the traditional market-state dichotomy, and creating new social dynamics that increasingly turn to the arena of the commons to try to find a way out of their dilemma.

Rather than the vision of competition for scarce resources, the way of the commons is to look for support in what is needed, and not to consumption; to use more than to exchange, in the conviction that there are sufficient resources for all. In its concern for ‘us’ rather than an emphasis on resources; in its ability to share from the standpoint of autonomy as opposed to the idea of an authority that imposes rules when faced with inevitable conflict - this is an anthropocentric vision of cooperation and not a competitive and rational-economic vision. It exercises more concern over access and use than over property. More attention is paid to individual and collective wellbeing in sharing than to competing. 

In this sense the abiding logic of the commons is not based, as we have seen, on a balancing act between the roles of the state and the market, but on the idea of a polycentrism, decentralisation and agreement between those touched by common problems. More cooperation, less competition. More conservation and the dynamics of resilience with regard to resources and their relationship with the environment than erosion, limitless exploitation and unstoppable appropriation.

Joan Subirats is part of a cross-disciplinary group which has been meeting in Barcelona for some months to discuss the commons. This article is a small tribute to Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012). It was translated into English by Ollie Brock.

About the author

Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona

Related Articles
Exploring the commons
Marco Berlinguer