Why is the Commons steadily gathering attention as a concept and practice?

Commons include not only the gifts of nature, like water and land, but also shared assets or creative work, such as cultural and knowledge artifacts. Commons are a shared resource, co-governed by its user community, according to the norms of that community. Considering the historical depths of the Commons, it’s difficult to agree on one definition that encompasses its full potential for social, economic, cultural and political change. The Commons is not the resource, the community that gathers around it, or the rules of how is is managed, it’s the evolving interaction between all these things. Why is the Commons steadily gathering attention as a concept and practice? And what happens next?

The hollowing out of the welfare state has resulted in an increased mistrust in political parties and representative democracy in many parts of the world. On one extreme, the void is being filled by far-right narratives that satisfy the disillusioned by offering over-simplified analyses and demonisation of the “other”, the most vulnerable and least privileged among us, often refugees and marginalized peoples. In contrast, a barely reinvigorated left has seen many of its potential solutions proven unworkable, whether through bureaucratic excess, institutional blockages, or a simple lack of popular commitment.

Meanwhile, the institutional crises of our time persist. Our current world system also suffers from a deeply counterproductive logic. This system, based on infinite growth within the confines of finite resources, was enabled by the false concept of abundance in the limited material world. A second false concept of scarcity in the infinite immaterial world gave rise to legal and technical restrictions on social innovation through the use of copyrights, patents, etc. Overturning these false principles will be key priorities for a sustainable civilization. To this end, we must recognize that our natural resources are indeed limited, and base our physical economy in this recognition to achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy, and at the same time facilitate free, creative cooperation by reforming copyright and other restrictive regimes.

The livelihoods of roughly two billion people worldwide depend on some form of commons, yet many of these commons remain unprotected and vulnerable, in danger of privatization or sale. Similarly, it is not unconceivable to expect that an analogous number of individuals are co-creating shared resources online. These potentially massive affinity networks lack a common identifier or unifying vision, yet we recognise the logic of commoning as a shared thread.

We use the phrase “Commons transition” to describe a process of facilitating open, participatory input across society, prioritizing the needs of those people and environments affected by policy decisions over market or bureaucratic needs. The protection and empowering of existing commons, along with the creation of new ones, are keystones. A Commons transition will also require the creation of a commons-centric economy within the existing capitalist system, but seeking to transcend it with commoners at the helm. This implies uniting the forces which support the commons, generative and ethical markets, and the development of an enabling and empowering state which enables the social production of value, ie: “commoning”. It also means discovering synergies among the prefigurative forces that create the new economy, finding political expressions for them, and enabling them to act at the political level along with other emancipatory social and political forces.

A broad societal transition, different from the classic left narratives of previous centuries, is possible through the integrative strategy of a Commons transition. Why would this strategy be effective?

History shows that political revolutions do not precede deep reconfigurations of power, but rather complete them. New movements or classes and their practices precede the social revolutions that make their power and modalities dominant. How does that relate the idea of a Commons transition? There is ample data to support the kind of prefigurative existence of a growing number of commoners who could form the basis of a historical subject at the forefront of this phase transition — a very strong start.

Factor in the changing cultural expectations of millennial and post-millennial generations, and their requirements for meaningful engagements and work, which are hardly met by the current regime. The increasing vulnerability of work under neoliberalism drives the search for alternatives, and the cultural force of P2P self-organizing and corresponding mentalities fuels the growth of commons-oriented networks and communities.

Also, commons-based peer production is a model that could create a context of truly sustainable production. It is almost impossible to imagine a shift to sustainable circular economy practices under the current intellectual property driven, privatizing regime. The thermodynamic efficiencies needed for sustainable production may be found in the systematic applications of the principles inherent in the commons-centric economy. The watchwords are free, fair and sustainable, the three interrelated elements needed for a shift to more reasonable economy, polity and, ultimately, culture.

Finally, the crisis of the left itself, now relegated to the management of the crisis of neoliberalism, points to the vital need of renewing the strategic thinking of the forces that aim for human emancipation and a sustainable life-world. All of the above form a strategy for a multi-modal commons-centric transition, offering a positive way out of the current crisis and a way to respond to the new demands of the commons-influenced generations. The Commons and the prefigurative forms of a new value regime already exist. The commoners are already here, and they’re already commoning; in other words, the Commons transition has begun.

This article is based on A Commons Transition and P2P Primera short publication from the P2P Foundation and the Transnational Institute examining the potential of commons-based peer production to radically re-imagine our economies, politics and relationship with nature.