In his book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin describes how the evolution of technology has brought us to the emergence of a “collaborate commons”
The coming together of the Communication Revolution with a digitalized renewable Energy Internet and automated Transportation and Logistics Internet in a seamless twenty-first century intelligent infrastructure—the Internet of things (IoT)—is giving rise to a Third Industrial Revolution. The IoT is already boosting productivity to the point where the marginal cost of producing many goods and services is nearly zero, making them practically free and shareable on the emerging Collaborative Commons (2014, p. 13)
In his description of the collaborative commons, Rifkin uses many of the ideas and practices that I learned about several years ago from conversations about the commons with members of The Common Strategies Group—things like peer-to-peer production, collaborative networks, a sharing economy, and a focus on civil society organizations (Bollier and Helfrich 2012).
I have been following what might be called the “commons movement” since 2010, when Michel Bauwens of the Peer-to-Peer Foundation selected my book, Civilizing the Economy
, for the Foundation’s Book of the Year (P2P Foundation 2011). The idea of the commons is quite attractive, in so far as it highlights community cooperation in the production and distribution of provisions. One could even see the commons movement belonging to the legacy of sharecropping. It’s about sharing. The commons movement, however, ignores the exploitation suffered by sharecroppers and their rights for reparations. It invites us to a world beyond the messiness of economic and political relations, and to congregate in the realm of civil society not affected by a climate of injustice. It can make such an invitation because of its use of the traditional Western triadic framework.
10.3.1 The Commons and Triadic Thinking
No better illustration of triadic thinking than the title of the main text for the 2013 conference on the commons in Berlin: The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (Bollier and Helfrich 2012). The book’s sub-title tells much of the story. They located the commons “beyond” market and state. The commons exists in the third realm, or civil society, which is usually the place for non-profit and non-government organizations. This realm has been expanded by the increased role of corporate and nonprofit foundations in philanthropic endeavors, and thereby moving us toward a new kind of feudalism. Although many local commons activities are self-sufficient, they do not really alter this trend toward feudalism.
So what is wrong with government—the realm of interaction between citizens and civilians. In their recent book, two leading theorists of this approach to the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, state that they don’t like the idea of governance “because it is so closely associated with the idea of collective interests overriding individual freedom” (2019, p. 120).That seems to be true. That’s what the rule of law does. It put collective interest over individual freedom. Personal freedom, of course, is also a collective interest. That’s the reason for the Bill of Rights. In a military dictatorship, one could say that collective interests never override individual freedom—the freedom of the dictator! There seems to be something strange going on here. Let’s take a step back and review a bit of the background of this triadic thinking that separates the commons from both the State and the market.
10.3.2 The Commons Story
Most people who know about the idea of the commons probably know it from comments about Garrett Hardin’s 1968 famous essay on the “tragedy of the commons” (1968). The topic of Hardin’s essay was the problem of increasing global population. As Hardin saw it, over population was inevitable, because the procreation instinct was stronger than any effort to decrease birth rates. It turns out he was wrong. Protections are now that the global population will level off around 11 billion; a challenging increase but not a tragedy.
illustrated the threat of over-population—and our failure in dealing with limits—with the analogy of individual shepherds sharing a common pasture without any regulations on their individual behavior. If each shepherd acted in their self-interest, he said, each shepherd would increase their flock with the result that the total number of sheep would destroy the pasture.
Harden’s analogy of the destruction of the commons by individual shepherds over grazing the pasture became the story to refute, which was not that difficult when researchers examined how common resources were actually used. The economist, Elinor Ostrom, in her study in the actual practice of people governing common resources, demonstrated that peoples behavior was the opposite of what Hardin’s analogy suggested (1990). Ostrom shows that the right governing institutions can avoid the problem of over-use. She provides examples of such governing institutions as villages in the Alps of Switzerland governing the grazing on common pastures and villages of Japan governing common fisheries.
Few have noticed the difference in Harden’s essay between the global problem of over population and the local character of his analogy about managing a shared pasture. Refuting his view of the local issue has been easy because there are numerous examples, as Ostrom and others have shared, of local communities developing rules to share common resources. This research, however, has not answered the key question of Harden’s essay: how to manage global trends. Such global trends as increasing carbon emissions, continual global warming, and rising number of refugees, would seem to call for global responses. One can certainly “think globally, act locally,” but the result is that global trends continue unabetted. Addressing international issues requires nation states agreeing to honor International Humanitarian Laws. The effectiveness of 1949 Geneva Protocol for the protection of civilians, for example, depends on the enforcement of the rule of law. The same is true of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. These are agreements dependent on national governments; governments that could be responsive to the claims of civilians, at least that is the argument here. This assumes, of course, that people in these nations take seriously their role as citizens. So, what will it be: commoner or citizen.
10.3.3 Commoner or Citizen
Although modern commoners use Elinor Ostrom’s research on the Swiss villager’s management of the commons almost like a Bible, it is often misread. Here is what she wrote:
Access to well-defined common property was strictly limited to citizens, who were specifically extended communal rights. As far as the summer grazing grounds were concerned, regulations written in 1570 stated that “no citizen could send more cows to the alp than he could feed during the winter.” That regulation, which Netting reports to be still in force, imposed substantial fines for any attempt by villagers to appropriate a larger share of overgrazing rights (p. 62).
This is not a description of some self-governing entity beyond the market and state, but instead a description of how citizens govern an economics of provision, which is quite a different picture than the previous picture of the location of the commons in civil society. Here, the commons exists in the overlap of the economy and the State; a space for citizens to cooperate in developing laws and regulations for their collective interest. Ignoring Ostrom’s use of the word “citizen” not only misrepresents what she wrote about managing the commons, it also ignores the social location and position of the commons, as well as commoners.
When one locates the commons beyond the market and State, it is easy to forget that individuals and organizations in this realm—the realm of civil society—are embedded in economic and state relations. They also belong to social trends that are dominated by a climate of injustice. As we already know, silence about injustices does not make them go away. Statements like the one below, from the Introduction to The Wealth of the Commons, seem to ignore these social realities
We are commoners— creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger holes. We may have many unattractive human traits fueled by individual fears and ego, but we are also creatures entirely capable of self-organization and cooperation: with a concern for fairness and social justice; and willing to make sacrifices for the larger good and future generations. (2012, p. xv).
This statement fails to address one’s own social identity or relationships with other social worlds; not because the author aims to create a local identity, as a member of a community, but rather a universal identity. In their recent book, Bollier and Helfrich see the idea of citizen as belonging to a “fading era.” They write:
Citizen, also called “a national” identifies a person in relation to the nation-state and implies that this is a person’s primary political role. The term “citizen” is often used to imply that noncitizens are somehow less than equal peers or perhaps even “illegal.” A more universal term is Commoner (2019, p. 61).
Do commoners vote, run for political office, develop policies for the homeless, for those with disabilities or who are sick? Or they just free individuals; free from those who are vulnerable and need protection, free to enjoy their privileges”. Or, to put it another way, should we dismiss the nation-state, and live as though we could only manage the local? This book’s answer is no; the current trends of American prosperity are unsustainable. To change its direction, people need to move into a civic realm defined by civilian/citizen cooperation in repairing and healing past injustices and creating a climate of justice in which we can design a viable future. Furthermore, dismissing the nation-state ignores the central challenge in the civic realm: the challenge of learning how to move toward a climate of justice.
To better understand the advantages and disadvantages of the commons movement, we can explore its relationship to four elements of our interpretive framework:—the Earth, humanity, social, and civic. The commons approach addresses the issue of the Earth quite well. It envisions the Earth as belonging to communities who share in its provision and protection. On the other hand, the commons approach ignores the issue of our racialized humanity, probably due more to social amnesia than social conflict. In fact, this approach appears to not be aware of the social incoherence of civil society. Finally, it totally ignores the role of the militarized civic in maintaining a global climate of injustice that must be transformed into a civilian civic to foster a climate of justice.
It’s important to remember that the government has the military, the law enforcers, the courts and prisons, and the obligation to protect its people. These will either be controlled by citizens or not. Citizens, of course, by definition, are also members of cities, Cities can be seen as a commons in the sense that they belong to all inhabitants. Still, they are not governed by commoners, but by citizens.
If one takes a step back, the commons movement fits more or less with the social trend of the new feudalism. It tends to ignore the big issues, which leaves them to the elite, and focuses on local gardens; sometimes with financial help from Foundations and wealthy donors. If one believes that it’s too late to change course, then why not develop a communal plot on which to live together? That may be an option for people of privilege, but not for civilians. They need, in many cases, protection from the elites—the drivers and maintainers of unjust systems—and they need a responsible agent to listen to their claims for protection. They need a responsive collection of citizens—a responsive government—to hear their claims. Empathic persons will not suffice here, because they ignore their own role in creating relationships that have left some vulnerable to others. Creating a commons will not work either, because it ducks its head from the really heavy winds that are determining the future. Our third option seems to move us in the right direction.