By Yavor Tarinski
The commons offers a framework and a process for effectively and equitably stewarding of the resources communities need to live in dignity. If we have a collective right to a resource, we should be able to participate in decisions about that resource’s use.[…] So what about this for a radical idea: let people participate in the decisions that most directly affect their everyday lives.
During the last years there has been an increasing interest in the paradigm of the commons. Much have been written and done in this field. There has been an explosion in digital commoning with new platform co-ops, wiki-projects and free software to be successfully challenging the domination of corporations in this sphere. But advances have been made and in the non-digital world, with urban agricultural projects, charters of rights and municipal platforms being developed and experimented with.
We could say that the commons are gaining certain momentum and are situating themselves among the viable alternatives to the present politico-economic system. However, the notions and strategic approaches to commoning vary, each of the visions with different level of antagonism to contemporary capitalism and statism.
The economization of the commons
Among the most common interpretations of the commons nowadays is being done on the basis of accessibility and usage. The question of who can use them becomes central characteristic attribute. Thus often the commons are being equalized with notions like gift economy and even communism, making distinction between them unclear and giving them an economistic outlook.
There are however, certain problematics stemming from these definitions. By emphasizing on their accessibility and usage, we allow for the reproduction of old misinterpretations and blurry notions. Does it matter who’s in control if the resources at hand remain at the disposal of all? Is usage the same as management and does it allow comprehensive stewardship?
Historically speaking, this economistic logic has produced massive contradictions like authoritarian socialism. Socialists have been advocating for the supremacy of the economy in the human relations and the accessibility to the generated wealth as basis for “meaningful” life. But this allowed for certain interpretations to take place that later proved to be disastrous. The nationalization was sought as possible tool for such accessibility, nesting the state with unlimited power in supposed exchange for equal shares of the economy for all. Everybody was supposed to have access to housing, education, food, electricity etc. as long as the party functionaries remained in control of the state. Thus the struggle for authority took central place.
Being essentially part of heteronomy, economism, even when found among so called libertarian tendencies, appears to keep its authoritarian nature. As long as the main goal is free access to all, there is little matter who’s in charge. Thus the emergence of new emancipatory imaginary is being obstructed by the maintenance of the present logic of “rational” consumption at any cost.
Nowadays this logic is most common among digital commons, but its influence is beginning to spread beyond this sphere. Many platforms and software programs are being praised as commons, because of the free access they allow to users. But in reality they are being managed by private owners and corporations that extract value from the above mentioned accessibility.
Of course there are many, even among the ranks of the supporters of the economistic definition of the commons, that acknowledge the importance democratic participation plays in their management. But often it is of secondary importance, an best-case scenario. And as such it allows for the flexibility of “being realists” and thus mixing it with vertical modes of governance. Thus is being opened space for hierarchical and bureaucratic entities like the state, to enclose commons, claiming that they do so in favor of the people. We can see that many political parties are using this theme in their electoral campaigns as well.
From economism to direct democracy
With all this said there is need of redefining the commons. Can they be defined primarily on the basis of the free access they allow? Is commonism, as some have been suggesting, a new doctrine for the 21st century?
If the commons are to remain a comprehensive alternative to capitalism, they must not participate in its imaginary — economism. It is not their usage and accessibility that makes them radically different from contemporary enclosed forms of private property. It is their essence — that they are of common interest for the wider community, which on its part is collectively playing the role of steward of them.
In her groundbreaking work, Governing the Commons, Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom’s focus is directed towards, as the very title suggests, to the way they are being managed. Conducting her research in many countries around the world, she discovered how local communities managed to prevent supposed tragedies of their common-pool resources through direct-democratic processes.
We can add here the development of the water cooperatives around the world, and especially in countries like Bolivia, these forms have proven quite successful comparing to private and statist entities. Since water is of indisputable common interest, the introduction of cooperative management of it has allowed for this interest to take more physical dimensions. Not only the people will have free access to the invaluable resource, but they will take its destiny in their own hands — making it a real commons.
In the current internet age too attempts at democratic management of the digital commons are being made. The idea for creation of platform co-ops and collective management of server farms is trying to tackle the ongoing economization. Of course we must bear in mind that these proposals are just small part of the contemporary commons landscape.
We should note here, that if we conceive of the commons only as resources that should be accessible to all members of society, then we must seriously think what would that potentially indicate. If this access is being mediated by extra-social structure like the state, then we will be dependent on it and predisposed to blackmail. If this leviathanish organization have the final say over them, then we speak of just different form of private property. If it is society to exercise real right over the commons, then it should have to directly manage them, without the intermediacy of third parties, no matter how “progressive” or “enlightened”.
With this said we should add that to think of the commons solely in terms of property is economistic and essentially, part of the capitalist imaginary. Often what we call commons is in practice part of the planetary ecosystem, invaluable for our existence as well as for that of nature itself. Thus we should conceive of our relation with them as stewardship. That is, we manage them in democratic and sustainable manner, that will allow for their regeneration and will not harm the environment. This implies also processes of conscious self-limitation, achieved through democratic deliberation, as many communities of commoners have demonstrated in practice.
This is radically different imaginary from the present one, which places at its core the question of politics, I.e. who decides. In Ancient Athens people called commons (koina) all the affairs that were of common concern to all the community and thus everyone had the right to intervene in their management. This was the culture of direct democracy, unlike today’s system, which has being telling us that we can participate only as consumers and voters.
The paradigm of the commons have emerged as valuable source of inspiration for activists and communities to begin thinking beyond the contemporary political and economic dogmas. But as everything else, it cannot exist in a vacuum. It can link itself to the contemporary imaginary, thus helping patch certain systemic gaps of capitalism, until it wears itself down and the new hip “think” comes.
But it could also be incorporated into the broader project of direct democracy, rooted deeply into human history. In this way the paradigm of the commons will be able to challenge in theory and in practice the main pillars of the contemporary system like hierarchy, exploitation, enclosure, discrimination, and offer new imaginary significations, simultaneously allowing us today to begin building the infrastructure of tomorrow.