Introduction to commons

Card's author : Gatien Bataille
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description :

Common Goods ?

Traditionally called « common resources » (things which belong to the community), commons have been a little left out.
They have been supplanted by:
  • private goods organized by the market
  • State provided public goods provided
Therefore commons have become « the goods of the person... » of which no one takes care.
Yet commons are not ownerless goods.
Each of us can legally claim rights over them.
They feed us, allow us to communicate and travel, they inspire us... even enable us to reject our wastes (in the air or the water).

Commons are characterized by the fact that:

  • a ressource, for example water or knowledge, is durably used in common, rather than consummate individually or excluding other people.
  • a specific group is in charge and takes care of the ressource rather than letting it to the mercy of profiteers.
  • this group agrees on appropriate and clear rules of property rather than accepting the absence of regulation.
  • the access to resources is highly self-organized rather than determined from the outside.
  • all users have citizenship and voice rather than being systematically representated by others.
  • advantages are shared rather than concentrated.
This conception strongly questions the notion of private property over goods which could be qualified of commons... Yet, it is not currently discussed.

What would be the consequences of a redefining of lands as commons ?
Commons have to be strengthened, beyond and in complement with market and State. Each one is called to take his responsabilities as a co-owner of things which are « commons », in order to get more freedom and community from them.. Commons need men and women, not only markets, government's subsidies or state regulation. Wealth which expands through commons must be shared in a new and fair way in all spheres of our lives.
Because commons are the well-kept secret of our prosperity.
Each one meets them daily, in all places. Each one uses them in his economical activities, in his family, in politics or during his spare time. They belong to the obvious presuppositions of economic and social life but still remain widely invisible.
Things used as commons make up the inside skeleton of a prosperous society.
Within nature, men and women are all depending on water, forests, soil, fisheries, biodiversity, lansccape, air, atmosphere as well as on vital processes linked to them. Each individual has a right to share natural resources, regardless of private ownership of these resources.
In the social field and among all the conditions requested to enable the blossoming of social relationships are squares, gardens and parks, parties, sundays and bank holidays, together with public transportation, digital networks, moments of sport and leisure. These commons can be directly taken care of and cultivated in various ways, by the concerned communities and on the initiative of citizens. They can also be a matter of the public domain where public services play an important part.
This goes without saying, about culture, that language, memory, practices and knowledge are essential to any material or immaterial production. In the same way, todays gains must contribute to serve freely future generations.
In the digital sphere, productions and exchanges work even better when access to objects and data is easier. It is essential that software's source codes, as well as all the richness of texts, sounds, images and films online should not be closed off by restrictive rights on intellectual property.

Useful to know

Commons do not mean public
A fundamental difference with classical typology of public goods is that commons are inherited: or they represent gifts from nature and are taken care as such, or they are produced by people or groups (not always clearly identified), and then transmitted. This transmission can be long lasting process (cultural landscapes, langauges) or short ones ((Wikipédia, free software). Commons can also appear when they have been produced by a person and aimed by this person to have a common use (for example html language).
No politician or state has ever thought like that.
Naturally, commons or human rights linked to othem often depend on the protection of a State. Thus, preservation and claiming of global commons could be difficult to achieve without the different state's agreement.
Commons are fairly and durably managed when things whose availabilty is limited for all are shared, and when everybody has an access to abundant things.

Commons do not mean common property
Common property is a kind of collective property. It can occur with co-ops, heir's community or else anonymous stock corporation. As private property, common property involves the exlusion of some people (the non-owners) from access and use of the good. In this, it is different from commons.

Everything is not commons, but many things can become so.

Commons Architecture

Commons are made of three essential bricks: resources, people, and then rules and standards which allow to link all these components.
Fisrt brick is material. It refers to actual resources: water, earth, genetic code, software codes, knowledges, algorithms and cutural technics ; it refers also to the time we display, and naturally to the atmosphere. All this constitutes « common pool resources ». Each of us has an equal right to use them.
The second brick is social. It refers to human beings using those resources. The concept of commons is unthinkable unless reported to real individuals acting in a defined social space. Knowledges, i.e. all those using resources collectively , turning them into commons.
The third brick is regulatory. It encompass rules and standards which govern the relation with commons. Clearly, it is not the same to regulate bytes and information and to regulate natural resources such as water or forests. The relation with those things have different forms. But what these relations share is that they have to be defined by wide communties of users. And this can only occur when a human group develops a common understanding of his relationship with resources.

Resources + Communities + Rules and standards = Commons

Commons define the quality of life

Commons are a source of value, out or in complement of the market. For everyone, the ability to resort in commons, besides services provided by the market and the state, has various advantages.
The fact is obvious everywhere shared natural resources such as pastures, water, seas, forests, fields and seeds are the base for survival. Community rights insure free access to those vital resources, payed in cooperative and solidarity money. As soon as the services insured by those resources – human and animal feeding, building materials, medicine, heating and raw materials – have to be bought with money, men are reduced to a state of poverty because they are deprived of purchasing power.
The real tragedy of commons is that people are unaware of their value (not monetary) until the moment they are about to disappear.
Thus, urban population density is a kind of wealth that becomes visible only when lost. Short distances:
  • enable to save up the time required to go shopping on foot,
or for the children to go to school without taking public transportation,
encourage socialization's networks and shared work, and therefore the opening of autonomous day-nurseries.
Common resources + Communities + Cooperation = Creation of not monetary values

Commons ; tools of creativity and cooperation

The truth is accepted for a long time that cooperation is a powerful factor of productivity. The digital world has allowed the developping of completely innovative ways of cooperating.
In the world of sciences, collaborative ways of working which are globally shared and auto-organized, have become an obvious fact.
At the digital age, creativity takes on a new meaning, beyond individual.
It often turns out that amateurs' enthusiasm and competency joined together have nothing to envy to the professionals, on the contrary. Thanks to Web 2 .0 apps always more numerous, like Twitter, wikis or blogs, new ways of working in common and of sharing of knowledges are experienced. The Internet has the potential for developping platforms of collaborative intelligence and of decentralized ingenuity, and to make them available to all.
Thanks to a large participation, « Online communities » can propose high quality products and services that can have a monetary value.
Nearly all human societies are based on a mix of competition, planning and solidarity. However, their relationships grow different as the time goes on. The exchange of goods on the market – as obvious as it can be for us today - is only a way among others to procure goods.
Ways to get goods are:
  • a market ruled production (principle of competition)
  • a state ruled market (principle of planning)
  • a community ruled production and retailing (principle dof reciprocity).
The feeling of community and free sharing seems to be acquiring a new meaning and a new importance by combining with the will of independance. The strenghtening of commons meets this need.

The solution to todays problems is not in a withdrawal of the State in order to make place to markets, but rather in the State making efforts to secure communities' rights on their commons.

Les atouts des biens communs

What appears today as a one of the commons' weakness might be a force very soon: money plays there a supporting role. What makes commons different is that cooperation is seen as a way of shared property rather than competition aiming to a personal enrichment. Generally, monetary incentives play there a very marginal part.
The purposes that matters really are rather:
  • the common use,
  • the development of skills,
  • sociability or reputation.
In this meaning, the sphere of commons is a demerchandized space. It's an economy of sharing and participation, and not of accumulation and exclusion.
Without a such economy of sharing, an economy freed of the growth's pressure is inconceivable. Indeed, all that is done for general interest, by passion for the topic or by solidarity enable to satisfy needs with a lesser monetary investment. So, doing Wikipedia would have been too costly if each contributor had had to be reributed
In other words, what took place in the sphere of commons – often referrred to as share capital – could be qualified even more relevantly of « monetarily efficient ». A lesser investment is required for an equal level of performance.
This is precisely the central challenge of an economic system which would have to do without economic growth, but still would have to keep on going. Because monetary efficiency understood that way can be the pilar of a post-growth economy, the rediscovery of commons is the condition for the emergence of an economic order with a future for the XXIst century.
A new model to create: peer production based on commons
Unlike market production, production by peers based on commons is not aimed for sale, but for direct use. Peers projects have a common goal – creating software, doing music, gardening – and all contributors are acting for the purpose. Most do it because they share the goal or wish for its achievement, or simply because they like what they do. They don't do it for money. A production such as this one produces new commons, or else maintains and improves those already existing. Hierarchical structures are widely unknown. That doesn'tsomeone else what has to be done. Relationships built around these commons are not deprived of rules. Rules are the result of the peers' consensus. In the egalitarian economy of commons, there are no constraints nor orders. This results in a free cooperation between contributors of equal rights.
A peer production based on commons always takes place within communities, where people sharing common interests or being just neighbors gather. Virtual worlds also enables the emergence of new forms of community, with no territorial attachment.
It's true that peer production developped mostly in knowledge and software production, but its principles can be transposed to material goods' production. This means that:
  • Knowledge and natural resources are commons which fundamentaly belong to everybody. Rules are there to garanty equity. For their use, there are rules that ensure equity.
  • Physical goods' production is based on free patterns (for construction), that everyone can develop and adopt to his own needs.
  • The management of physical production is decentralized. For the main part, it takes place locally.
  • Production is directed towards the use and the user: La production est orientée vers l'utilisation et l'utilisateur: we produce for life !
  • The involvment of each contributor ensue of his « free choice »: each one chooses by himself where and how he wishes to contribute. It requires an important effort of harmonization, but it also brings more satisfaction.
  • Peer production is based on integration and not on exclusion. There are rules, for sure, that communities equip themselves with and that every member respects, but the barriers to enter are low. Contribution is facilitated.
While commons in market economy are almost invisible - eventhough of vital importance – relations should be reversed in a share economy: markets, as organized in today's market economy, will play in future a minimal rôle, when commons and communities will be teh centre of life.

Tracks to act

We may devote straight away our energy, our institutions and talents to commons and to what their essence is: diversity of life.
We may systematically ask ourselves about every project, any idea or any economic activity if it brings more to communities, corporations and to environment than it takes back.
We may reverse the actual trend: by setting limits and by using durably natural resources, but also by being lavish in the circulation of ideas. So we will have the best of both.
We may find clever ways of promoting progress for all, instead of concentrating exclusively on individual promotion.
We may recognize and support first and foremost materially activities which generate, maintain or multiply goods available for all.
We may ensure that the collective and equitable participation in donations of our land and in collective achievements of the past and present is institutionalized and becomes the norm.
We may resort to decision-making process, communication means and transparent, participative and free technologies, as well as improve them.