The Commons

Cooperating and sharing are very old forms of human behavior, and most humans cooperate and share, provided they are not hindered by adverse conditions. It is an old method that arose in situations of need and scarcity. Isolated individuals, for example, could never have survived in the Alps of the Valais.

The fashionable term for cooperation is commons or commoning, a social metabolism that is based on the production, preservation and use of communal goods and services. In fact it comprises almost everything: land, food, housing, medical care, as well as immaterial goods like knowledge, culture and know-how. Traditionally only agricultural or natural commons were included, but today also our “second nature” developed over a period of 250 years of industrialization, belongs to the commons in forms of railroads, factories, hospitals, universities, canals, power stations, public services.

Not every common works in the same way. You can’t download potatoes and feed more people by sharing them. Knowledge on the other hand even expands when shared and generates more knowledge in the process. The number pi for example doesn’t become less true when more people get familiar with it. It’s a cultural common of humanity. That’s why it’s understandable that artists and writers insist on copyrights as long as they can’t live on free common goods. If you can’t get potatoes for free, you must be in a position to buy them. The development of both types of commons (immaterial, material) must be parallel and combined.

The types of commons differ in respect to their accessibility. Their important common feature is that they are motivated by the common welfare to different degrees rather than the individual profit. Among others we distinguish:

  • public goods (sunlight, air, nature, oceans, streets, parks, education), open access, for free;
  • public services (health service, transportation, energy, water), open access under certain conditions, for free or for “politically reduced fees”;
  • institutions of public utility (housing cooperatives, trusts, NGOs), restricted access, cost-based rents or prices, or gifts;
  • club commons (associa- tions, clubs, societies, guilds), only for members, but of public util- ity, no individual profit.

Thus commoning does not mean anything new; it is just an overall shift from private property to collective property/use. Whereas private property is essential for private purposes — from clothes, books, furniture, to jewelry, one’s personal stock of vintage wines and cigars — it is dysfunctional, when it interferes with collective uses, such as land, natural resources, means of collective production, banks etc.

Alone we achieve practically nothing. We couldn’t survive for three days without social institutions or support. This means that we must extend the traditional, restricted concept of the commons (common goods like land, water, forests etc.) to everything we need to live a good life, to the so-called goods of subsistence (see further down).

All experts agree in that there is enough food for everybody on this planet. At the moment we are wasting 50 to 60 per cent of the food before consumption, we’re using 40 per cent of the globally produced food for animal fodder and we are also using a substantial amount of crops for fuel production. We could easily feed the double of the actual world population, which is not to say that population growth must be one of our goals. There is enough energy for a good life for all, there is enough water, there are enough minerals and metals, particularly if we include the big heaps of scrap metal that are still moving and standing around in our streets in the form of cars. The new form of mining will be urban mining, our treasure troves will be our waste deposits.

As recent research suggests, humans cooperate if they are not prevented from it. Even biologists now recognize the role of cooperation in evolution. The struggle of all against all is a myth.

Commoning therefore means:

The term “producing” does not imply the current type of industrial production, but rather creating, cultivating useful goods and services in harmony with nature and society. 35 The circle of production and consumption must be closed by means of social institutions. The solitary consumer must be replaced by what we prefer to call the prosumer who participates in the production of goods, particularly food.

Humans must not be reduced to “trading animals” or to “rational market participants.” David Graeber (2011) finds in his research that traditional societies share food. Even chimpanzees do, although after some fuss. Exchange, commerce, money and debt only arise by force under conditions of oppression. Primordial bartering is a myth. Its only purpose consists in justifying the introduction of money as a “handy” means of exchange. In actual fact money was misused as a means of control by the ruling classes as a form of tax and as salaries for their mercenaries and functionaries. Sharing is only sustainable in stable communities that can establish it on a fair and long-term basis (-> democracy, belonging). What we primarily need are functioning communities of sharing rather than so-called alternative systems of exchange. Sharing without community — as it is proposed in many forms on the internet — will not lead to egalitarian uses of the commons and to mutual support, but will privilege those who have something to share, and ultimately is just a new form of business. (The mayor of San Francisco is already pondering about how to tax the emerging networks.)

This is the original organizing principle of cooperatives. It does not preclude that contributing and receiving can’t be institutionally regulated and monitored. States follow the same principle (progressive taxes, social security).

(From the Greek: demos=community + ergos=work). This means that we’ll be communal workers, mutual employees, rather than competing private entrepreneurs. It won’t be the producers that determine what they want to produce and to throw unto a (failing) market, but the producers and consumers (the same persons in different roles) deciding together what to produce for the benefit of the community. To bring about this change, intensive communication (-> resilience) and participatory planning (crops, industrial production) are essential.

No commons-based community can exist entirely on its own; the whole planet is a common.

Greater Individual Benefit
Through Common Usage.

There is no fundamental difference between these principles and those of buen vivir or vivir bien. The idea of the commons helps to revive and transform certain traditions, for example alpine corporations in Switzerland or ejidos in Mexico or other Latin-American countries.

Commons can’t be run like self-service supermarkets without cashiers. In small groups they may function spontaneously, for example in our households, or in traditional farmer villages, or in clubs. The price of informal structures can be very high: dominion by patriarchs, factions, mafias, and other extreme forms of social control. The “power to do” can easily be perverted into “power over” if institutions and social processes/relationships are not carefully monitored. Nowadays we need cool, formally defined institutions, good rules, and transparency.

After extended research Nobel-Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom found the following eight rules for institutions that should guarantee the success of commoning:

Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles For Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making ts of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These rules are not exactly what you’d call friendly. They are rather tough but fair. People can’t have access to everything. There is no way around monitoring and sanctions. (Sanction not being synonymous with punishment, can also mean help in fulfilling a function or in recommending a better-suited group.) Nothing works spontaneously.

Rules 4 and 8 are particularly important. They imply the embedding (see above) of smaller modules into larger ones. They make sure that local microcosms do not become isolated and rather compete or rival with each other. Cooperatives are at risk to define themselves as single companies, as it has happened in many cases. Company egoism may arise in self-managed firms, too, since inner democracy is not equivalent to outer democracy. The rules also give each individual member access to arbitration outside their own community, thus relativizing the implicit or explicit social control within. “Small” is not always beautiful.

It is obvious that these rules by themselves do not guarantee access to a good life for everybody. A definition of boundaries may imply the exclusion of women, members of other castes or ethnic groups and religions, or be based on legal status (e.g. immi- grants). Only when they are combined with the right to general subsistence (see below), or human rights in general, do they govern the real commons. If this isn’t the case what we get is just a form of collective enclosures.

Institutions of the commons fall and stand with clear and permanently enforced management principles. Proper bookkeeping, regular auditing, regular elections, publicly accessible minutes, fair facilitation of meetings — the whole institutional orchestration — are essential. The unsung hero of the cooperative is the bookkeeper or archivist. Striving to upkeep these rules usually means making sure the timid and the rhetorically less resourceful are included. A possible recourse to outside instances (larger institutions of the commons, public institutions like courts, police etc.) may also prove helpful. Rules are there to neutralize the three big poisons of cooperatives (also rampant in some of the Swiss alpine corporations):

  • corruption
  • favoritism
  • intimidation

The objective social relationships (differences of class, wealth, education, age, sex) within a group can’t just be managed away. Rules do help, but as long as these differences matter, managing an institution (of the commons, or other) means permanent engagement and watchfulness. And what’s more: keeping book is not much fun when there’s no money.

Monitoring is not only accounting of monetary movements, but also of goods and services. Transparent information on stocks, flows of energy, work and other “things” is essential for collective decision-making, planning and ecology. It prevents waste and inefficiency. In the course of the development of a community and of commoning a form of “collective attention” will develop, the community will become a self-regulating organism and the flow of goods and the information on it will become one. Monitoring can eventually be reduced to a few strategic fields; everyday life communities can become largely demonetarized, more relaxed, self-regulating organisms. And a lot of not very attractive work (controlling, counting, accounting, monitoring) can be saved.

Rules shouldn’t be seen as an expression of distrust. Of course, every community is based on trust, but if it’s only based on trust, it is bound to fail. (Don’t trust anybody, who says: “Trust me!”) Humans are (besides being rational agents) explosive bundles of emotions, resentments, fears and ambitions.

Rules (and laws, at least in principle) protect the weak or impulsive and prevent the development of cliques and favoritisms. Although delegates or board members are elected democratically and are often friends, some of the members soon begin to feel left out and powerless towards them. A formal committee of mediation (rule 7) can often prevent conflicts by its sheer existence, by giving every member the feeling (and right) to be heard and supported.

As mentioned before, such institutions are not utopian; they have existed for a long time and do still exist, in the form of cooperatives. I’m quoting from the statutes of an existing housing cooperative in Zurich:

“The goal of the cooperative consists in providing its members with low-cost space for lodging, working and communal activities by common self-help and shared responsibility. The cooperative establishes sustainable structures, which guarantee self-managed, safe, ecological and collective forms of housing, working and living.”

The year 2012 was the UN-year of cooperatives. 800 million people, one tenth of the world population, are currently members of cooperatives and know how they work, at least in principle. There is nothing exotic about cooperative organization. Shared responsibility and self-help — it’s not hard to see the potential of this principle. It’s equally feasible that it works out. It also works in the field of food-production:

“For us, agriculture is a form of caring for plants and animals, not a business. We produce food, as it grows seasonally, not standardized super-market vegetables. We harvest what we grow, not what is profitable. We detract an important aspect of life from the sphere of speculation and profit, and work against the dominant economical logic of growth. We establish a feasible alternative economic organization that is based on productive cooperation instead of counter-productive competition.” (ortoloco, Zurich, Switzerland)

This sounds convincing. But let us not be too naïve either. Having instituted the legal form of a cooperative does not mean that it will help to create a stable ecological and socially fair society. In Switzerland a number of banks, insurance companies, super-market chains and even the organization for the disposal of the radioactive waste of nuclear power plants are cooperatives. Cooperatives can have evil goals. States are in a way cooperatives waging war against each other.

Still, cooperatives are based on some very attractive general principles: the voting power is not dependent on the value of the shares. Whether you put in 1000 or 100,000 dollars, you only have one vote. (The same goes for modern states.) It is understandable that this feature is not very appealing to very wealthy people as they don’t like to give other people the right to decide how to spend their money. They feel hostile toward the state while at the same time need it to protect their property.

Cooperatives therefore only work in societies or social sectors of relative equality. Cooperatives at least have a mitigating effect on social inequality. However, in times of great insecurity cooperatives can become an interesting option even for the rich: what you lose through renouncing power you gain in security. Sharing wealth to support the commons can become an option when the going gets tough. Warren Buffett may have won the class war, yet it may not have been the final word on the matter. As a respected member of a cooperative he could at least live his advanced age in peace.

Public or collective property (that is the management of such goods) has been known to degenerate into neglect and decay although the public authorities are supposed to take care of them. Neither private ownership (Enron, Lehman Brothers, GM) nor anonymous state ownership (decaying public infrastructure, USSR) has a good record of responsible management.

Cooperatives of diverse sizes, being interconnected (rule 8, “nested tiers,” see also below) offer a good answer to this dilemma: the responsibility is not handed to the state, but still collective and not profit-orientated. It is known who is concerned (rule 1). The goods managed are near by and of immediate usefulness. If public or collective property is managed transparently by the local authorities (municipalities), and if subsidiarity (decentralization) is respected, a careful management of the commons can be successful. Whatever you may say about those Swiss Alpine Corporations that have existed for 700 years: the Alps are still there, the cheeses are delicious.

The Fallback Scenario:
Three Parachutes of The Commons

The collapse of the market-based economic system needn’t scare us. Some people even set hope on it. On the other hand, we should neither wait for nor speculate about such a collapse. Instead we should try to establish more just and enjoyable systems any way. The best time to try out alternatives is always: now. Institutional experience and know-how is already available or is being tested at the moment. As we have already pointed out it would be a fallacy to try to replace the present system by a single different and perfect system. Systemic stability requires several independent metabolisms.

As far as the institutions of the commons are concerned (functional, territorial) the commons are — according to the guide- lines of resilience — intricately interlocked, decentralized, immune to systemic collapses and dysfunctions. The basis of livelihood is subsistence:

“Subsistence is the sum of all that humans need for living: Food, drink, shelter against cold or heat, medical and other care and sociality. When subsistence is secured, life can go on.”

Consequently this means, that we don’t have to be particularly inventive in finding a fallback scenario when markets fail. The most reformist, gradualist, pragmatic approach is the best, boring as it may be.