openDemocracy as a digital commons

Anthony Barnett, a founder of openDemocracy, explains how the idea of the commons has increasingly informed his thinking about both digital media and the emerging struggle against a global regime of commodification.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 July 2013

Let's talk about the commons! And the digital commons. It’s a conversation that will shape how we think about the future of the planet. That's just for a start. Like all great issues people get turned on to it through the particular. For me it was trying to explain what openDemocracy is yet to become. If that sounds ungrammatical it’s because ‘the commons’ only sounds simple.

It means what is held in common or shared. This tangibility, the fact that obviously there must be a commons, like the oxygen in the air we all breathe, is the foundation of the commons as a concept.

But I was indifferent to its potential.

How can you identify the source of indifference? It just comes about. Looking back I took it for granted that the commons was inert if not residual, something that was a static and not interesting. It didn't move and it didn't move me to think about it. I associated it with fatalism. I knew and was sorry that the forests had been a commons and had been enclosed. (I didn't know the history of this struggle to prevent enclosure going back to Magna Carta that Peter Linebaugh has illuminated in his swingeing The Magna Carta Manifesto).

So my first mistaken presumption was that the commons was a finite natural resource that was largely gone; pre-human rather than something created and with future possibilities.

I must also have been influenced by the fatalism of the 'the tragedy of the commons', the notion that what is shared will be necessarily be destroyed by self-interest (and the only regulation that matters therefore being the regulation of self-interest).

Insofar as I could be said to have thought about it at all, I saw the commons as field of loss, that lay in the past or was at most residual.

Today, I'd argue 'the commons' as a concept could be a crucial part of a more human future.  Our destiny as a species could be government by market values, with the commodification of life shaped by corporate and financial power entrenched through the digital despotism of a security state – entrenching enormous inequality. The alternative is open government embracing the values of the commons, with personal rather than corporate property, the rule of law securing liberty, democracy with participation and market relations that are mutually beneficial and governed by optimisation not maximisation.  

Neither will be a finished or final state. But as 'the commons' is the challenger which has yet to learn how to contend with, let alone contain, the supremacy of capitalism its development has much further to go and is harder to foresee.  

The development of the microchip and digitalisation underlies the new form of opposition between capitalism and its potential nemesis (I won't say gravedigger as that makes it appear inevitable). The new technology has generated the internet which in turn is hollowing out old forms of organisation that relied upon broadcast communication such as the press, political parties, even the the nation state as we have known it. It is important to see these huge sifts in the communication, the instruments of hegemony and structures of feeling as aspects of a massive transformation of productivity itself.

If the internet appears somehow 'natural' it is because it has created a new commons with the web. But this was a human act, thanks especially to Tim Berners-Lee and CERN refusing to try and patent the “world wide web”.

When over ten years ago I and others launched openDemocracy we did so into this commons, though at the time I'd personally not have called it that. I had two core ideas.

First, that even for democracy in Britain let alone internationally, in the face of globalisation there was a need for open, international debate and coverage, free of vested interests and the limitations of old media. That with globalisation we were seeing forms of government by corporate power that are deeply flawed without knowing how to redress this. In an utterly unexpected way our belief that there is a crisis of global government was cruelly vindicated by 9/11 and America's daft response to it. Since then there has always been a demand for openDemocracy.

If that proved far-sighted (if in ways I certainly did not foresee!) the way I brought a print-model of a publication business to the web was not. It was utterly unsuited to it, indeed, and in effect went bust. openDemocracy was rescued by Tony Curzon Price who made it of the web rather than being just on the web and created its current federal organisation. From 2007 my continued executive involvement was only in helping edit the independent British section, OurKingdom.

Eighteen months ago Tony said he wanted to step down as Editor-in-Chief and with funding running out I offered to help search for and fundraise for a successor. I found the process discomforting in one acute respect. Returning to the pitch I had first used a decade earlier I now knew it was inappropriate. The business model, to use the jargon, had changed fundamentally.

It was implicit in Tony's early adoption of 'Creative Commons' in place of the old copyright which you can see and the end of most oD articles. It was explicit in Rosemary Bechler's approach. Tony had asked her to become Editor of the main site after she had written a long pamphlet, Unbounded Freedom, that celebrated the rise of the creative commons (published by the British Council it is no longer available on their website... I hope this debate will lead to oD publishing a new edition.)

The problem I found was this: I wanted to ask people to give money...  to support a publication so it could be free. But while not asking people to pay for content it felt like a form of really doing so. It felt like saying. ”Here is this magazine, it is free but please give us something instead of paying for it”.

It was not coherent as a pitch. oD is not a magazine like a commodity you buy or pay to have sent by mail. It is a gift of a space created by its editors and contributors, an invitation to share in something that is both open and protected. In a word, a commons.

Two external events woke me from catalepsy. The OurBeeb debate we hosted in OurKingdom aroused a determined refusal to engage by the BBC itself - except for its section working on digitalisation. There, Bill Thompson and his Commissioner Tony Ageh advocated the future of public service a commons, or as Ageh put it "a digital public space". While the BBC itself charges all UK television owners, the idea of public service broadcasting is a larger and more plural concept that draws on the values of the commons.

Graham Murdock confirmed this view of public service media by situating it historically.  He showed in a presentation to the Goldsmiths/Levehulme Media Power and Revolution conference last year (you can read the article based on it at oD) that the commons is something continuously created as well as always being set upon and enclosed by the rich and powerful. The great parks, urban squares and public museums may have been funded by slavery but were created as a commons. These were not celebrations of commerce or the circus of celebrity. But nor were they residual. They embody the opposite of market values even when they need funds and an ongoing workforce.

The 'commons' is the manifestation of the human that is not driven by the market demand for maximisation. It is a site of struggle. A recent presentation by Noam Chomsky links the Magna Carta to the right to fair trial (against the verdict of the drone) and its accompanying or 'Minor' Charter that gave it is name was the Charter of the Forests, ensuring rights to the commons of the forest and which, Peter Linebaugh argues, shoulod today be linked to the fight to protect the earth itself.

So the modern concept of the commons is one transformed by the internet and links future forms with the fundamental inheritance of the earth, its ecology and their fruits.

If you want to discuss and think about these huge issues and the strategies of democracy, liberty and self-government you probably need the conversations to take place in a space that you can call a 'commons'. It can have, and should have, criteria for behaviour and standards that protect it - and all within it. For the structure of the space itself can determine the outcome at least  as much as what is actually said, for it shapes how exchanges are heard.

To ask for support for openDemocracy not as a commodity but as a digital commons, then, while it changes nothing so far as the budget of income and expenditure goes, alters the meaning of the whole. What for me was a practical lesson in seeking support from others opened out into a different way of approaching democratic politics and how this can link with with a democratic political economy. From peer-to-peer economics advocated by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation to the issues of republican democratic wealth, an important intellectual change is underway which I'd argue links into the new forms of self-organisation inspired by the indignados and the occupy movement from Tahrir to Taksim. The modern commons will be one of its key ideas.

This is a contribution to oD's 'Digital Commons Debate' Edited by Dan Hind

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