Exploring the commons

Today's rediscovery of the notion of the commons stems directly from the need to regulate and to explore how to enable the collaborative action of a multiplicity of protagonists who are autonomous and so not governable by simple authoritative mechanisms.

Marco Berlinguer
12 July 2012

Transform! started work in 2004 on the project ‘Networked Politics’, through which we explored a wide range of issues in two critical new terrains of contemporary politics: new organisational forms of collective action and the implications of an economy increasingly based on information, knowledge and communication.

In October 2009, we co-promoted the first Free Culture Forum (FCF) – an attempt to create an international space of networking and strategic reflection for a wide range of movements that have emerged across the world in different fields relating to the production, access, circulation and management of cultural works and knowledge goods. The FCF released a Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge, which condensed demands, principles and concrete actions to differently regulate the legal, political and economical challenges posed by the revolution taking place in the way that knowledge, information and culture are created, accessed and transformed.

The Charter lists a variety of ways of achieving sustainability developed by initiatives based on free culture principles, some more consolidated, some still experimental: “The economy models for sustaining cultural production include among others: non-monetary donations and exchange (i.e. gift, time banking and barter); direct financing (i.e. subscriptions and donations); shared capital (i.e. matching funds, cooperatives of producers, inter-financing / social economy, P2P-banking, coining virtual money, crowd funding, open capital, community based investment cooperatives and consumer coops); foundations guaranteeing infrastructure for the projects; public funding (i.e. basic incomes, mutualized fundings, grants, awards, subsidies, public contracts and commissions); private funding (i.e. venture investment, shares, private patronage, business investment infrastructure pools); commercial activities (including goods and services) and combination of P2P-distribution and low cost streaming. The combination of these options is increasingly viable both for independent creators and industry”. The Charter also promotes the principle of combining several sources of finance, as a way of guaranteeing independence of the creators. For a concrete example see netlabels.

What we call the Free Culture Movements comprises a wide range of experiences mainly emerging in the framework of the internet and the digital revolution. Although they developed independently, they are in effect loosely aligned along similar patterns and show a mutually reinforcing dynamism – or ‘viral spiral’, as David Boiler puts it.

All these movements emerged as a practical and cultural critique of what has been called ‘the second enclosures movement’ – that is, the northern state-aided aggressive policies of the extension of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) to knowledge, culture, information, communication (and even organisms and data). Resistance to these policies emerged alongside practical experimentations in different approaches to the regulation of property in the digital era and of how production can be organised in a networked world.

When we started Networked Politics, we wanted first of all to deepen the comprehension of the problems that had emerged in the innovative forms and principles of organisation in the global movements. It was in this way that we came to discover parallels with the organisational forms that had emerged in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, as well as with various experiences of web communities of collaborative production, like for example Wikipedia. Here there is a first cluster of issues which we thought ought to be looked at more deeply. These experiences have contributed to re-framing and managing, in rather weird ways, very complex problems related to the aggregation and coordination of communities of highly individualised members, the management of (diffused) conflicts and new styles of leadership. They experimented with the potential opened up by the new technologies for more accessibly distributed, more decentralised and finer tuned and differentiated capacities, knowledge, needs and aspirations of the protagonists involved. There isn’t any general working model there, but they offer a very rich field of concrete – sometimes very effective – experiences to better understand the current reshaping of fundamental political problems.

This goes together with a second question we have often dealt with, that is, why these ‘networked forms’ are emerging in so many movements and indeed in so many aspects of present-day society. Of course, technology matters. But the emergence of the network as dominant socio-economical paradigm has preceded (and long since transcended) the technological dimension (and the weakening of institutions centred on the nation-state). There are other forces at work which themselves have contributed to shaping this technological transformation, at least in so much as they have been shaped by it. Discussing this issue, we arrived at the conclusion that these forces have one of their fundamental roots in the movements of the 1960s and 70s and specifically in two salient facts: the shake-up of the Fordist, patriarchal, hierarchical institutions of post-war capitalism and the (connected) repercussions of the massive expansion of higher education. This, whether it is adequate explanation or not, urges us to  consider another set of problems. We need to better conceptualise the anthropological transformation which underlies these new patterns of social relationships, because such an exploration could facilitate a deeper understanding of the ambivalent and confused ‘transition’ we are trapped in.

Which leads us to a third area of issues: the movements we analyse have been emerging from the very core of societal innovation of the last decades. What do we call this? Post-Fordism? The knowledge economy? Informationalism? Cognitive capitalism? I could continue listing terms, which have, indeed since the 1970s, been proposed to capture this new reality. However, in my opinion the fact that we do not have a consolidated concept of the “thing” has to do with a still hybrid, highly contradictory and unresolved phenomenon, which characterises the forms of production, social relationships and institutional forms we are living in.

Let’s put it simply. We are still living in a capitalist society; and in the last twenty years, one major change has been the qualitatively new importance of information, communication and knowledge both in the economy and in society at large. These two frameworks are overlapping, but they do not necessarily coincide which leads to some important problems and tensions worth closer study.

First, where knowledge, information and communication play a central role, the processes of production appear intrinsically and more immediately social. They benefit and rely on flows and networks of production which go beyond the formal boundaries of any specific organisation (not to say single individuals). This gives more prominence to the forces of cooperation and of mutual interdependence and presses any institution to experiment in organisational logics based on openness to the ‘outside’. This, for example, is one reason for the success of open source within a growing segment of IT-industry. More significantly this ‘openness’ is the logic behind the internet itself: an open architecture is its initial conception and the secret of its incredible (and fundamentally unplanned and decentralised) development.

But there is also another aspect of this social nature of production that needs to be noted: in many senses, the flows of production appeared to shift away from the formal boundaries of what is traditionally considered productive work, to spread into society at large. The gargantuan literature in business and media studies about the increasing blurring of the divide between consumer and producer has to do with this phenomenon. But just consider Google’s model of value production – that is, offering for free online services and platforms of social networks, to then exploit the user- generated data and contents in various ways – and here is one emblematic example of this shift.

In any case, the general problem which then emerges is that the social nature of these processes seems to put pressure on any regulatory, governance and accounting system closed within the boundaries of formally isolated organisations. This is well reflected in the proliferation of mechanisms of governance that stems directly from the need to regulate the collaborative action of a multiplicity of protagonists who are autonomous and so not governable by simple authoritative mechanisms. But, more deeply, this configuration also brings people to questioning the adequacy, legitimacy and efficiency of property regimes as we know them, be they private or state mechanisms. The increasing rediscovery of the notion of commons by these movements and many beyond them – has its roots here. Though yet arguably indefinite, it reflects the search for a new conceptual guide in the design of institutional frameworks more attuned to these new relations of production.

Let’s now turn to another aspect: the nature and organisation of work. When we look at the qualities which need to be mobilised and at the forms of organisation of production in these spheres, we observe an increasing importance of attitudes and capacities such as creativity, flexibility, development of information, continuous learning, problem-solving, initiative, communicational and relational skills, decision-making, attention, experiential/practical/”tacit” knowledge. Now, what makes these qualities peculiar is that they are embedded in individuals and are not easily reproducible and controllable through planned command or automated mechanisms. Moreover, they depend on motivations which are not easily reducible to the monetary, as is recognised in the same management literature and experience and as the experience of FC-movements widely confirms. The necessity to deal with such a workforce and processes of production has been indeed one of the major sources of the crisis in the Fordist organisation of production and of innovation in management styles. But the puzzle for governance in these productive forces – which reflects a blurring of entrepreneurial and managerial functions and of dependent work – is far from being solved.

However, there is another dimension where the experience of the FC-movements is interesting. There are experiments of a different kind around these problems and these potentials which have contributed to re-framing in a different way complicated problems related to the meshing and mobilisation of different motivations, non-hierarchical division of labour, collaboration and coordination, and so on. And quite interestingly, they have done all this by experimenting with new notions of what constitutes property, working on the basis of a distributional/sharing – rather than exclusive – approach to property, conceiving themselves as producing common resources.

There is, finally, a third cluster of problems which I would like to highlight in this brief and very incomplete map. The increased immaterial and social nature of the processes of production and of products is creating a series of problems in the systems of measures. Economists, policy-makers and the business literature all struggle to define new parameters for the measure of the value of capital, of work, of wealth, of productivity. Such problems are evidently further complicated by the digital revolution, which made it possible that a digital product, once created, can be potentially reproduced “easier, faster, ubiquitously and almost free”; and which, moreover, is subversively creating social practices that are exploring an economy based on principles like, “not scarcity, not rivalry, not exclusivity”, that is something which evidently troubles basic rules both of economy and of the control of the appropriation of value. In this lies another clue that fundamental difficulties are emerging, which point toward what could be called a crisis of the system of value – which, indeed, has many other roots, well beyond this realm.

All this doesn’t mean that these problems are not solvable in principle within a capitalist framework. We can already observe innovative mechanisms of accumulation which effectively deal with these new developments. What is more dubious is that they can be managed without fundamental changes in the institutional framework.

To conclude then, let me refer to an earlier historical sequence: Fordist forms of production, to be deployed in a non-destructive way, required the invention of a new institutional framework, which crystallised in the Keynesian revolution; which, in turn, to be effectively deployed required the invention of a new system of (public and private) measures and accounts, which culminated in the famous – and today widely contested concept of – Gross National Product. Doesn’t this resonate with the present?


Thanks go to Transform! and Red Pepper for cooperating on this article

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData