The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.

oOo

Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.

Notes

  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.

 

26 thoughts on “The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

  1. I feel like I have a mild disagreement with you somewhere, but I can’t quite pinpoint where!

    But I certainly agree with the overall point that the term and idea of “the commons” has been uncarefully overused. Ostrom, for her part, relatively carefully and specifically defined commons, unlike almost everyone else who talks about the term (myself included). That said, you put your finger on exactly why the use of the term “commons” often makes me feel slightly weary…. your 6 points cover a lot of my own critiques of its overuse. I am, perhaps, closer to your greenish-leftist-etc. fellow travelers in my enthusiasm for the commons, but I think idiosyncratically so. What I find most exciting about Ostrom’s work is not how almost everything is a commons and that treating it as such will lead to greater flourishing of communities across the world, but that she was able to find consistent patterns of human collaboration. Those *patterns*, I argue, almost certainly extend beyond common property management as useful ideas to engage and build on, and I think that aspect of her work has been inadequately built upon. That is, I think a non-capitalist suite of general rules/patterns of collaborative work could be developed/honed, building on her work (and that of others within, and outside of, common property resources). I think we can combine knowledge of what seems to have worked in some common property systems with new ideas and creativity of folks int he world, as well as combine Ostrom’s insights with that of (capitalist) economics and more liberatory social (and socialist) thoughts and theories as well. (My very limited stab at this is the unwieldy idea of “eco-commensalism,” as I clunkily develop here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssMRWihQnuM .)

    And I suppose other bits of my fondness for Ostrom also comes from a combination of my love for a good Judo-flip of using capitalist logic against itself, and the pleasure of arguing from Nobel-winning authority about the importance of localism. After all, I think Ostrom likely would have agreed with much of what you say–she was usually pretty cautious about how widely her findings applied and how dangerous it was to oversimplifiy them, not to mention that her husband, I believe, was much more Hayekian than many of her greenie-etc. admirers. Which is to say: “self-determination of the community, recognized by higher-level authorities” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/0012-9623-94.1.17/full), for her, included stronger local power against not just “big government” but against elite and corporate interests.

    I must admit I haven’t read Raworth’s book, and have found some of her popular opinion columns to be inspiring, but the extent to which I read “self-determination of community” to mean resistance and political activism to form and support new positive spaces quite parallel to your proposals does not seem to translate to the high-profile articles of Rockstrom (of planetary boundaries fame); and to the extent that other collaborative efforts are similar to “commons”, it seems that way too many spend way too little time on two other Ostromian “rules”, which implicate (but do not exhaust) the problems you point out: “clearly developed and defined rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions; …collective-choice arrangements allowing most parties-at-interest to participate in decision-making processes.” If we are to honestly define “parties-at-interest” for many of the “commons” highlighted by Raworth and others, it would require (to my mind) a slowing-down of many of these vaunted commons, because deliberation–*particularly* inclusive deliberation–takes time. And if inclusive deliberation leads to decisions to not treat something as a commons after all, I’m ok with that 😉

    All in all, I agree with you about “commons” being stretched to be meaningless. Though I also blame that, in part, on the very limited common vocabulary available to us for *sharing/collaborative* spaces and idea(l)s in mainstream contemporary Western society. The idea–extended sloppily from already-overextended biological metaphors of “selfishness” (which properly speaking ought to require cognition, or at least the possibility of cognition and sense of self vs. others that is lacking in most of the non-human biological world)–that everyone is motivated by self-regard has so penetrated Western thought that we have precious few ways to conceive of collective enterprises full stop, I think. “Commons” has become shorthand, it seems, for every collective/collaborative activity that generates unprettily-termed “positive externalities,” which to my mind is actually many if not most collective activities. Given that positive externalities are hard to measure and verify in conventional economic terms, and the term itself is opaquely technocratic, I’m not surprised “commons” has come to such heavy use, and the term used to associate so many contemporary efforts at collective efforts with the collectivities of the past. “Positive externalities” is the ideal of “knowledge from nowhere,” in that it sounds and feels impartial and ungrounded in any given culture or community, when well-conducted and inclusive collective work contributing to human flourishing will always be culture-specific. “Commons” seems to evoke both the technical (given scientific credibility by Ostrom’s work) and the cultural-historical (given the extensive history of certain common management schemes).

    Long and short, I think we can learn much from the patterns of rules from “commons” work as we try to think of how to build and support new (and old) collaborative/sharing/collective spaces, but we need not be bound to the idea of commons nor only the “rules” discovered in scientific literature thus far. But I think the commons discourse has perhaps represented a rare area where local knowledge and the ideal of “context-free”/generalizable Western science has entered into something like genuine conversation (though admittedly, most of the “conversation” has been one way). So I have some sympathy for its overuse. But I would be just as happy if the Raworth’s of the world found other ways to speak about alternative governance and collaborative spaces, as we reclaim more ways of being from the private-exchange-centric and myopic visions of the capitalist system.

  2. Delightful post Chris.

    I want to comment just because I am triggered whenever anybody says 3D Printing or Stewart Brand. So my comment is a totally tangential vent, which at best I hope will add on to your critique, and not distract from actually important discussion.

    So…

    I love Greer’s explanation for the fetishization of ideas in his obituary for William Catton, As Night Closes In

    Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

    I take my own swing at the TED mentality in We have enough Ideas (or, No pie for you.)

    And then, a favourite bucket of cold water on 3DPrinting—Tinkering back America | Five Islands Orchard

    And part of conversation I was involved in about 3DP, 3D Printing in the Home: Fad, Fantasy, or the Future?

    • Hmmm, and I fully expected the ‘universal basic income’ comments above would somehow have triggered a Ruben remark. Maybe next time.

      • For or against?

        I do support a universal basic income, as constrained by a healthy ecosystem.

        But I see little discussion and have no hope that any universal basic income will not just be captured by capitalism. It will be a help for a few years, and then I would expect we would find ourselves in the same spot we are in now. I think parallel systems of price controls would be necessary.

  3. Jahi/Ruben – thanks for those thought-provoking responses. Nose too close to the grindstone right now to reply properly but I’ll try to come back to you next week.

  4. I am still trying to fully understand this:

    “There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons.”

    I can see the paycheck from my job buying groceries from the store as mostly a set of private market transactions. And the potatoes we grow in the garden are clearly household provisioning, but what about the wheat harvest that I share with my friend Jill?

    She owns the land (in partnership with others), and the combine, and she, or her partners do the planting. I repair her combine and drive it around the field to harvest. We could spell all this out in a private contract, but that is not how it works. When I need repair parts, I nab them from one of my old combines. If I need to buy a belt, then Jill pays. Tools and grease gun I get from her partner Tom. This year I told Jill that I would do the complete harvest, including secondary cleaning and storage, since the grain I cut last year got left out in the rain and spoiled.
    So my wife and I unloaded the grain wagon and ran the wheat through my seed cleaner that I leave in Jill’s garage. Then I took home whatever amount of grain that I wanted. Everybody wins. Jill gets a reliable harvest, and I get more grain for less labor than if I had planted and harvested on my own land.

    It seems to me that this arrangement falls somewhere between your four categories. It is bigger than household, since we are co-provisioning but don’t share a household with Jill. It is private between us, but has not much to do with any kind of market, except that Jill grinds her wheat and sells flour. It is not a commons, because our terms are not formal, change according to the situation, and apply only to us. I like the word cooperative, though that may have other legal meanings. Perhaps this is the area between “commons” and “sharing”. In any case, it is my preferred way of doing business, and I try to encourage all my friends to work this way when we can.

    You also talk about the “… hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design.”
    All good examples of intellectual effort that requires patience and skill and practice. Also good examples of intellectual products that are easily distributed via fast, cheap current methods. But we are not in our current predicament because of the cost of distribution of intellectual products. We are in our current predicament because of the ultimate cost of manipulating physical objects in the material world.

    Back when I still thought talking about the internet was interesting, I would bother people by saying that the internet isn’t really revolutionary, it is just a faster postal service, or more expensive telephone. As soon as I can download a pizza, then I will believe it is revolutionary.
    That will never happen, 3D printing notwithstanding.
    I am with Ruben exactly, and for anyone who believes otherwise, I recommend his links above. Those articles still hold true after the 3 or 6 years since their first posting. The part of the linked articles that I appreciate most is their solid grounding in the real world of how we design and produce material objects.
    There is a phrase in engineering: “from concept to completion”. Much of the writing about technology that I see conflates the two. Many people seem to believe that having an idea means that you are done. The concept is the easy part. Cheapest too. Thus the bit:

    “Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place”

    This will never happen. Not in large enough extent to become the primary driver of the economy, and what progress is made toward that unreachable goal will be made by the burning of trainloads (and boatloads) of fossil fuel. Maybe the current economy will shed its fossil fuel capacity and shrink back to whatever solar generation we have managed to install, but I don’t think that is what Kate Raworth meant.

    Production and circulation are indeed very different. Circulation is not even transportation. That is, my tractor design can be transmitted at the speed of light via wire, but the completed tractor will need a large truck for delivery.

    Private appropriation is another topic. I understand why Raworth might use the commons to argue against it. The enclosures were (and continue to be) outrageous. I am outraged, and I not only didn’t live through the enclosures or suffer from them, but I probably even gained a little from them in some tangential way.
    I agree with you that Raworth’s arguments don’t really apply, but I understand her motive to use any argument she can muster against such an outrage. It is a long topic, and I have taken up too much space already, but I think the central issue is greed. Commons are a communal way of limiting greed, and the enclosures are a brute celebration of greed.

    Thanks for spurring me to organize these thoughts, such as they are.

    • I like the word cooperative, though that may have other legal meanings

      Cooperatives are big business. And it appears they exist all over as well. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative

      I’m a member of a couple co-ops and the customer of another. They work well for me. I’d still lump them with private markets more than with a commons, but the distinction does get a bit fuzzy.

      And your work with Jill and her partners – fascinating. This warms my heart. It seems just a bit more formal than pitching in to help the neighbors when something goes sideways.

    • “The internet isn’t really revolutionary, it is just a faster postal service, or more expensive telephone. As soon as I can download a pizza, then I will believe it is revolutionary.” How well formulated! I will instantly “share” that expression of yours!

  5. Hi Chris. Just a couple of quick comments, written in a rush. I haven’t read Doughnut Economics but have heard enough of Raworth’s statements around it at this stage to have my suspicions that it brings very little new to the table of green thought (though perhaps your full review, when written, will correct me on that). Its ideas of social floors and ecological limits strike me as decidedly uncontroversial in the realm of ecological economics, so I’m glad you’re trying to think more deeply about the banalities (albeit important banalities) underpinning her work.

    As such, you’re completely on the button about the stretching and overuse of the term commons. It especially raises my heckles when it’s wrapped up in vague statements like “ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing”. What on earth actually connects those three things, I wonder? Distributed small-scale 3D printing is overwhelmingly used for more dead-end consumption – the creation of plastic knick-knacks and trinkets usually, with no immediate sign of that changing given current technologies, or transforming global production. Though I hope I’m wrong, I can also only assume the unrelated topic of renewable energy is also dealt with fairly shallowly in the book (which I hope to read soon), as a panacea, without grappling with the many sticky issues which exist around energy provision.

    However, like Jahi, something about the commons strikes me as needing a little defending from how you’ve framed it in this post. I think my discomfort is the attempt, given admittedly mostly-superfluous phrases like ‘collaborative commons’, to reduce the commons to its agricultural form as a “resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence.”

    Perhaps we need to clarify the term commons then, or need to break it into distinct sub-terms altogether, as people’s plastic use of the word probably stems from the fact that there are simply different types of commons. In your blog’s very pragmatic desire to maintain a place for the small producer, I think we lose sight of the value, for example, of less ‘defined’, less rule-based, or gift-based commons.

    For example, as a counter-example to your “Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity” section and the assertion that ‘digital commons’ are commercially unviable, depending on “livelihoods which are already secured”, I think, for example, about the immense commercial success of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’, or the rise of things like Patreon. I also think of all the anthropological work on sharing in pre-/non-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies (a tricky and loaded area, but not to be neglected IMO). To me, given your attempt to clarify the definition of ‘commons’ along peasant/agricultural lines, these seem to fall outside your four categories of “households, private markets, governments and commons”, and that’s a bit of a problem.

  6. Thanks for that very interesting set of comments. To respond briefly, I’d say that Eric’s account of inter-household cooperation in a small farm society establishes very nicely what strikes me as the kind of agrarian baseline that’s needed for a fair, sustainable and resource-smart society. It requires a relatively large proportion of the population involved in agriculture on a relatively egalitarian basis – two requirements that are going to be difficult to achieve from where we are. But does it require a different kind of economic theory? I’m not sure – I don’t think ‘household production’ logically precludes ‘inter-household production’, but the latter will probably only occur in significant ways with an economy strongly based in the former. I’m with Clem on the matter of cooperatives – a more formalised way of building on inter-household production which can be beneficial, but essentially then a private market arrangement. I think what Eric is describing is quite common in an essentially peasant society, but it’s clearly different from a commons – your household production includes non-household members on an ad hoc, mutually beneficial basis built on affective ties.

    I find Jahi’s thoughts helpful and convincing in providing an intellectual context for the over-use of the ‘commons’ concept in contemporary alternative economics. But I still think we need to restrict use of the term to situations where economic relations bear some kind of resemblance to an actual commons of the kind described by Ostrom. In my opinion, there’s a lot of good stuff in Raworth’s book, but she tries a little too hard to wrest some kind of structural post-capitalist economic story from people doing various vaguely positive things within the existing economic order, and it doesn’t quite work because she doesn’t sufficiently engage with the underlying politics.

    The main problem as I see it is not the fact that we have enterprises organised on a private, for-profit basis but the fact that our politics has become geared more or less entirely to the interests of those enterprises rather than to the interests of citizens. So focusing on more collective ways of doing business seems to me less to the point than focusing on more collective ways of doing politics. This is a particular point of tension in agrarian populism – how do you get the state to support localised, relatively egalitarian, fundamentally household-level production, and what sort of world would that look like?

    So it may be that I’m asking the word ‘household’ to do too much ideological work in the essay above, but I haven’t – yet – been convinced of the need for some higher level collective concept, and I certainly find ‘the commons’ ill-suited to the purpose. Tom is right that anthropological studies reveal numerous forms of collective or inter-household collaboration – though households still loom large as units of production globally (of course, what’s meant by a ‘household’ also varies culturally). But in countries like the US and the UK the notion of privately-owned family farms is rooted deep, and I don’t see a need to make the possibility of a sustainable agrarian society any less achievable than it already is by meddling with that. Get that right, and various ‘commons’ and other inter-household arrangements will naturally follow. I do see a need, however, for major and ongoing state intervention in land tenure in order to secure such a possibility.

    Regarding Tom’s points about digital and creative commons, I have little knowledge about this and I’m certainly not trying to argue that nobody should experiment or go beyond the familiar outlines of an agricultural commons. At the same time, I think free rider problems are ubiquitous – actual, functioning commons pay close attention to them, whereas vague talk of ‘collaborative commons’ doesn’t and to me becomes essentially meaningless as a result. In my experience, quite a lot of apparently altruistic collective behaviour does ultimately rest on social or individual wealth accrued from private appropriation, or on scalable work that excludes most people – Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want ‘In Rainbows’ project may have been a commercial success, but I regret to say that Small Farm Future’s pay-what-you-want approach has so far netted me considerably less than £0.01/hour. I don’t see this as an exception to my comment. Non-agricultural ‘gift economies’ certainly shouldn’t be neglected, but then again they tend to involve very careful weighings of individual and collective interest that don’t negate my general point, and I think are of limited relevance for figuring out a more sustainable agrarian economy in contemporary ‘western’ societies. But none of that is intended to suggest that there can’t be worthwhile models of shared production.

    I’m with Ruben on increasingly finding the mention of 3D printing a trigger for impending bullshit. And on universal basic income: a worthwhile idea, but not a panacea. However, to create a fair and sustainable society I think we need universal basic wealth distribution…which, to be fair, Raworth does discuss. And perhaps so should I at some point.

  7. This post and a little follow-up googling have opened my eyes to a future world of networked 3D printing and ‘collaborative commoning’ that I never knew existed, and it’s terrifying!

    Chris, I think your distinction between ‘production’ and ‘circulation’ is crucial, although I might rate the latter an aspect of ‘consumption’. I think you’re right that there is no real production in the ‘collaborative commons’ vision; you highlight the productive efforts of those that might have reason to use the 3D printers (or software or whatever), and to this needs to be added the production and maintenance of this high-tech network, especially its hardware and its energy-producing elements – the kind of consideration that has been highlighted many times before in previous posts and comments here.

    What these people really seem to want, or at least emphasise, is universal access to decentralised consumption capabilities. Production only features in the assumption that people will find uses for this network, uses that other people will want access to. The ‘collaborative’ part is a little mystifying as well. The ideal user seems to be an individual, free to collaborate with someone or not when they use the network, but under no compulsion to do so. Indeed, the most important element seems to be that they are not compelled to do anything; ‘adhocracy’ is my favourite new word of the day, and Wikipedia’s article on ‘commons-based peer production’ insists that oversight or centralized guidance is anathema to all this. I’d love to see an adhocratic farming regime – the flocks would only come off the fells when all the farmers and their sheep dogs happened to turn up on the same day!

    The irony is that this is the antithesis of commons management, which involves the collective organisation of labour. On which note, I’m curious about the terminology of ‘provisioning’ and ‘appropriation’, which appears to assume that the important thing about a commons is that you take stuff from it for your own use (again, a focus on consumption); this completely overlooks the labour involved in maintaining the common (often part and parcel of harvesting it) – for example in maintaining a particular ecology to provide good grazing, food and fuel resources.

    I’m really perplexed by the idea of digital commons. Tom’s point about Patreon is interesting, because there the beneficiaries are those who put money in to encourage the productive output of the person being Patreonized – a collaborative productive effort (even if the ‘labour’ is only putting in the money) in which the beneficiaries are the collaborators – so yes, a commons, although really some of the money ought to go to maintaining the network as well, and not Bill Gates’ seventh home.

    Equally, I think I’d disagree with Eric when he says his arrangement ‘is not a commons, because our terms are not formal, change according to the situation, and apply only to us.’ I don’t think commons need to be too formal – by-laws can be changed, and the fact that they apply only to the ‘users’ of the commons is precisely the point. It might seem overly formal labelling it a ‘commons’, but that’s what it looks like to me, and perhaps it would be useful to envisage a spectrum of formality in commoning behaviour.

    Finally, the idealized notion of ‘sharing’ which appears in some of the above is I think close to what David Graeber has called ‘baseline communism’ – ‘each according to ability to each according to need’ – which specifically rules out notions of repayment or debt. A laudable ideal, but not something found in regular extensive operation in any actually existing (or previously existing) societies, anthropological literature included. Commons-like arrangements are far more common (sorry), as they admit to the notion that you have to put something in to get something out, even if the inputs and outputs are not explicitly quantified (as in more informal arrangements).

    Anyway, my mind is still boggling from this strange new world, but I’m pretty sure of one thing: ‘collaborative commoning’ is not necessarily either collaborative or commons-based; it would more truthfully be called ‘universal decentralized consumption’, or something like that. The workless post-capitalist future puts me in mind of the Eloi, and its frightening that nobody mentions the Morlocks…

  8. I am perhaps guilty to some overuse of the C-word, for instance here:
    “The food system as commons, a shared interest and shared responsibility, emerge as a competing narrative to food as commodity. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies and their distribution. It also rejects the view that market forces and private ownership are the best ways for allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.”
    (http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2017/04/towards-new-narrative-of-food.html)

    Interestingly the “tragedy of the commons” is perhaps as overused as the virtue of the commons, and also expanding far beyond the meaning given by the person who coined it, Garret Hardin. Many, in particular neo-liberals have used his article, or at least the catchy phrase to argue that common resources should be privatised because that would mean that they will be taken care of; sustainability would be guaranteed through the profit interest of the individual. It has also been used against common management or public management of resources. Hardin himself clarified in a later article 2003 that what is needed is that the commons are managed: “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise. Either one may work; either one may fail: ‘The devil is in the details.’ But with an unmanaged commons, you can forget about the devil: As overuse of resources reduces carrying capacity, ruin is inevitable.”
    (he was a rather pessimistic and misantropic guy)

    The distinction between the four categories (household, markets, government and commons) you mention may not always be so clear cut. I see municipalities managing commons, such as parks and town squares. They are managed according to some democratic political principle and financed by taxes.

    In Sweden a form of cooperative housing is the most common way of organising some place to live. Each household has an apartment, but the whole housing complex, the playgrounds etc. is common property. In such a case I believe “a cooperative” is the formal institution for managing that common property – or commons. Even a “market” can be managed as a commons. So all these institutions complement each other.

    For sure, at this point in time, private property and markets are far too dominating on the expense of most other forms.

  9. I am the secretary and treasures by our settlement’s road association by the way.And we have a lake association to manage the lake. And a hunting team that manage the hunting. All these associations play important roles, and all of the involve some tedious meetings and the potential for conflict. The most active is the road association as a functioning road is absolutely essential for all of us.

  10. Thanks for those further comments – sorry I don’t have much time to reply.

    I guess I’m missing something about Patreon, having only looked at it briefly, but I don’t really get why it’s described as a commons.

    Agreed, the language of ‘appropriation’ conceals some aspects of a commons, but at least it points to the fact that individual commoners are consuming or using something up – and therefore implicitly points to the fact that something has to be put back. One of the problems I have with the way that Raworth and others construe the ‘collaborative commons’ is the sense it creates of costless consumption, which Andrew rightly criticises.

    The four forms of production I mentioned certainly aren’t absolutely clear cut or exhaustive, but in relation to Eric’s example of collaboration between households, I’d say that it’s not a commons because there’s excludability. In household production you can choose individually who you work with, whereas in a commons you can’t.

    It’s doubtless easy to get caught up in definitional pernicketiness in this area. I certainly think there’s a case for developing more commons type solutions, including modern, non-traditional forms. However, I think there’s little to be gained – and quite a lot to lose – from over-extending the concept. And I suspect the commons that will last in the future will – like the ones that have lasted in the past – pay careful attention to free rider problems and community boundary definition, rather than espousing some vague notion of the ‘common good’. Gunnar’s examples are good ones.

    • I just wanted to bring up Patreon. As was said elsewhere “Tom’s point about Patreon is interesting, because there the beneficiaries are those who put money in to encourage the productive output of the person being Patreonized – a collaborative productive effort (even if the ‘labour’ is only putting in the money) in which the beneficiaries are the collaborators – so yes, a commons, although really some of the money ought to go to maintaining the network as well, and not Bill Gates’ seventh home.”

      I was also making the simple point that creativity can be viable outside of ‘markets, government and households’, without clear exchange (on Patreon, many people give for the sake of supporting creativity, without any expectation or guarantee of return).

      In fact, given the consistent quality (and resulting high engagement in the comments) of this blog – why not give it a go? Might serve as a means of farm diversification!

  11. Thanks for the reply Chris. I’m a little worried that the following will seem pernickety, but can’t seem to help myself!

    I think I differ from you here on the idea of a distinction between what you’ve called ‘household collaboration’ or ‘inter-household production’ and management of a commons. The background to my views on commons lies in English agricultural history, and I must admit to not having read Ostrom. From what I can glean from brief googling, she has reified the idea of the commons to apply to ‘common pool resources’ which are just too extensive to be effectively managed privately, and I guess this is where your ‘non-excludability’ requirement comes in. In contrast, many historic commons were created by self-selecting groups of people to manage much smaller elements of the local ecology – these groups could and did exclude people, and management of the commons was partially about maintaining this exclusion.

    I agree that there’s no one right or more virtuous definition, and that arguments in pursuit of one will spiral into pointlessness, but I do wonder whether emphasis on the household as a productive unit occludes the collective nature of ‘inter-household collaboration’, whether or not you call it a commons. Households remain important organising nodes in such collaborations, but the labour is collective, and produces results that simply would not be possible at individual household level – that’s the point. The productive unit is in fact the collective group (for that particular product or range of products at least), and this remains true however precarious or ‘affective’ the ties that bind it. Affective ties were actually important elements in the management of many historic commons, hence the emphasis on things like ‘good neighbourhood’.

    I think I see commons as more of a possible collective strategy that might be applied to a range of different productive contexts. Am I right in thinking that you would limit the idea to contexts in which its use is practically a necessity, dependent on the size of the resource at stake and the the near-universal nature of claims on its use?

  12. Gunnar said:
    Even a “market” can be managed as a commons

    Agree wholeheartedly. And for that matter one can extend this notion to imagine the whole planet can be managed as a commons. Perhaps “managing” the planet sounds too much like Homo hubris, but sliding back the other direction on scale… even managing a lake or a road could be hubristic compared to the efforts of other species sharing our space (NB the attitude reflected in merely asserting “our space”).

    But so much for the philosophy on the human/planet interaction right now. I want to turn my quibbling pen toward Chris’ July 26 comment. Much there to like, but here’s the part that got me:
    the language of ‘appropriation’ conceals some aspects of a commons, but at least it points to the fact that individual commoners are consuming or using something up – and therefore implicitly points to the fact that something has to be put back.

    Putting something back. Not always possible by my reckoning. Once Tuesday has passed, you’d be hard pressed to put it back. Putting the helium and hydrogen back in the sun so it can continue to burn… a tough assignment. So some resources are going to be used and not replaced. But fortunately most of these same are not ‘limiting’ resources. Scale should not be overlooked or ignored when we think about resource use. To the first paragraph above comparing the commons of a lake to the whole planet… it rains and the lake is refilled – it puts water back without our intervention. But on the whole planet level this is part of a larger hydrologic cycle – the rain has come from somewhere (to which it will likely return at some point without our intervention). The gasoline or diesel fuel has to come from somewhere; the exhaust has to go somewhere. So “putting things back” is frequently necessary, sometimes very difficult, and every now and then… impossible. Part of the managing… and then part of the hubris. A common problem.

  13. Well yes, the boundary between an inter-household arrangement and a commons isn’t hard and fast. But in my experience of working with other people in and around my holding I’d say there’s a gradation of hassle involved – I’m most willing to work with a small number of people I know well and trust, somewhat less willing to work with a small number of people I know less well, and less willing still to work with a large number of known or unknown people. In a smallholder society numerous such arrangements will occur – some will work, some won’t, and I’m not minded to lay down any particularly prescriptive a priori framework about what people should do – perhaps other than suggesting that it’s a good idea to attend to free rider issues. Yes, commons always involve restrictions on who can appropriate and how, but in principle at least the closer they are to a household/private ownership situation the easier the commoning arrangement gets. Situations where there’s a consistent net flow of resources going uncoerced from one party to another tend to result in patron-client or caste systems, which personally I think are best avoided…even if they include affective relations. But I think all of this takes us away from my basic point vis-a-vis Raworth’s arguments. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to create sustainable large-scale firms within the existing economy on the basis of some notion of the ‘collaborative commons’ that will overcome the drawbacks of a neoliberal economy.

    Regarding Clem’s point, yes agreed there are drawdowns of resources which can’t always be ‘put back’. But the essence of a commons as compared to an open access regime of the kind described by Hardin is that the commoners have some notion of an overall management or husbanding of the resource.

    • Thanks again for the reply Chris. Fair enough, I’ve been chasing a tangent here, and I’m in total agreement with your main point about Raworth’s ‘collaborative commons’ and farming. I’m not even sure how the former could be applied to the latter – I’ve not read the book – but presumably she’d be more concerned with the result of free food for all available at source than the actual productive process.

      I think perhaps I’m sympathetic to Jahi’s comment about using ‘commons’ as a label for a range of collaborative spaces, but only where these are truly productive spaces. Also the more philosophical point whereby any ‘commons’ implies corresponding units of ‘selfhood’ to collaborate in the communing, be they households or whatever.

      I take your point about inverse gradients of hassle and acquaintance – I guess I’m happier than you to label them as just different kinds of commoning arrangements. I do think that, even among a small group of neighbours in a smallholder society, tackling the potential free-rider problem will involve more than just fluid ad-hoc collaborations in many cases. For example, three or four Wessex peasants might reinvent a sheep-corn system and decide to combine some common grazing on a small bit of Downland and close-fold on some common arable – all of which requires a decent level of commitment. In that vein it might prove useful to explore various templates of cooperative management (not necessarily prescriptive, legal, etc) that make common obligations public or explicit, and subject to checks such as fines. In this sense, I agree with you that it’s the politics of these situations as much as the economics that matters.

      Anyway, I’ll give up my tangent now. As ever thanks for letting me think out loud about all the great stuff that appears on this blog.

      • Thanks Andrew, well likewise I appreciate your thoughtful responses to my posts. I can see where you, Jahi & Tom are coming from in defending a notion of the commons. It’s just that I think the way the term is used often seems to promote a rather sloppy and starry-eyed way of thinking.

  14. Given that my research on ecology and behaviour change comes to some pretty collapsnik conclusions, I don’t spend too much time fretting about the details of Raworth.

    But I do think her doughnut is an elegant addition, and is especially important to economics, which can tend to theories that outpace the wildest science fiction.

    • Agreed on the science fiction of economics, though at the risk of sounding deliberately contrary I look at Raworth the other way around – to me, her doughnut concept seems a bit gimmicky and not hugely illuminating, but I think she’s written a really excellent critique of mainstream economic theory and a thoughtful appraisal of the idea of economic growth. For me it goes a bit off the rails when it comes to the ‘So what do we do now?’ bit, where she seems so determined to be ‘optimistic’ and not to rock the political boat too much that her prescription becomes vacuous.

      • Yes, I have yet to be satisfied with non-peasant-populist conclusions of what we do now.

        But I still think Raworth is illuminating, though obviously not for the readers of this rarified blog. But our cultural narrative is that More Is Always Better, so I think Raworth’s graphic is useful in that is shows there are floors and ceilings to our moreness. Too little of something has consequences. Too much of the same thing has consequences.

        • Other than your description of this blog – rarefied indeed! – I’d readily go along with all that.

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