From the communism of capital to capital for the commons

A paradox: the more “communist” the sharing license used in the digital commons (no restrictions on sharing), the more capitalist the practice (multinationals can use it for free).

Vasilis Kostakis Michel Bauwens
20 January 2017

Sensorica's New EconomyTwo prominent social progressive movements are faced with a few contradictions and a paradox.

On the one side, we observe a re-emergence of the co-operative movement and worker-owned enterprises that, however, suffer from certain structural weaknesses. They have loose connections with each other and thus fail to form a global counter-power capable of confronting transnational capital.

On the other, we have an emergent field of commons-based peer production initiatives, such as the free and open-source software projects, that create digital commons of knowledge, software, culture and design for the whole of humanity. Nevertheless, such initiatives are often dominated by venture-capital-funded start-ups and large multinational enterprises that exploit the same commons.

Thus we have a paradox: the more “communist” the sharing license used in the peer production of digital commons (that is, few or no restrictions on sharing), the more capitalist the practice (that is, multinationals can use it for free). Take for example the GNU/Linux commons that has become a “corporate commons” as well, enriching for-profit corporations such as IBM. It is obvious that this works in a certain way and seems acceptable to many free software developers. But is this the optimal way?

Our argument focuses on the social logic that the licenses used for sharing the digital commons often enable. They allow anybody to contribute, and they allow anybody to use. In fact this relational dynamic is technically a form of “communism”: from each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs. This paradoxically allows, for example, multinational corporations to use the free software code for profit maximization. At the same time, the majority of the contributors participate on a voluntary basis, and those who have an income, make a living either through wage-labor or alliances with capital-driven entities.

What is to be done?

We suggest a two-step strategy to tackle this “communist” paradox.

First, we argue for commons-based reciprocity licensing, which has been called copyfair as a play on copyright and copyleft. Copyfair allows commons-contributing entities to use the common material for free, but non-contributory capitalist entities have to pay for a license for the right to commercialize that material. In this approach, the free sharing of knowledge is preserved, i.e. the universal availability of digital commons, but commercialization is made conditional on reciprocity. The Peer Production License exemplifies this line of argument.  So, reciprocity is created between the sphere of the capitalist market and the sphere of the commons. This simultaneously allows the entities participating into the ecosystems of commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalitions to pool and mutualize their digital resources and benefit in tandem.

Second, we argue for a synergy between the commons-based peer production movement and elements of the cooperative movements. We propose the model of an “open cooperative”, i.e. an entity that would be legally and statutorily bound to creating commons and shared resources. Open cooperatives would internalize negative externalities; adopt multi-stakeholder governance models; contribute to the creation of digital and material commons; and be socially and politically organized around global concerns, even if they produce locally.

Perhaps a good way to understand this twofold proposal is to look at the functioning of the medieval guild system. Externally they were selling their goods on the marketplace, but internally they were fraternities and solidarity systems. This is a historical analogy to understand the double logic of the new entities connected to the commons. In a commons-centric economy, this could be achieved through open participatory systems that would connect producers and consumer/user communities, through mutual solidarity, as we know for example from the model of consumer-supported agriculture. Open cooperatives would thus intertwine contributors with various roles in a solidarity ecosystem.

Building counter-power

The only way to achieve systemic change at the planetary level is to build counter-power, i.e. alternative global governance. The transnational capitalist class must feel that its power is also curtailed by transnational forces representing the global commoners and their livelihood organizations. We therefore favor commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalitions that strengthen commons and their contributory communities and create an economy for them. 

Examples of such translocal and transnationally operating coalitions already exist. Amongst the best known are Enspiral (originally based in New Zealand); Sensorica (originally based in Montreal, Canada); Las Indias (mostly based in Spain but with many hispanic members from Latin America); and Ethos VO (based in the UK). We believe this new type of translocal organization is the seed form of future global coalitions of a commons-oriented cooperative ecosystem.

This essay was based on Bauwens, M., & Kostakis, V. (2014). From the Communism of Capital to Capital for the Commons: Towards an Open Co-operativism. tripleC, 12(1), 356-361.

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