“Every Time a Civilization is in Crisis, There is a Return of the Commons”

October 29, 2019

The commons are nothing new. Historically citizens always came together to pool resources and manage them collectively and autonomously. It is the responsibility of cities and states to identify, connect and support them. Today the commons appear as a choice of society in a world at the end of its lifespan. A society where economic and productive systems will finally be compatible with the major planetary balances.

We increasingly speak of commons. “Common goods”, “creative commons”, “commonalities”…  What exactly are the commons about?

Michel Bauwens: The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them). These are very concrete things, which do not exist naturally but are the result of alliances between several parties. “There is no commons without commoning”. Examples are renewable energy cooperatives,  shared mobility projects, entities of shared knowledge, food cooperatives…

In fact, we all have and create commons without knowing it, and have always done so… following more or less intense cycles of mutualization.

If commoning follows cycles, where are we today?

M. B. : There are long, civilizational cycles and short, economic cycles. Regarding the former, every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons. Because when class societies disintegrate, when resources are overexploited and run out, pooling resources makes more and more sense. Today, we face a global environmental crisis that is giving rise to a resurgence of the commons. Yesterday it was the end of the Roman Empire, the crisis in Japan in the 12th century or in China in the 15th century…

Short cycles are specific to capitalism, they are called Kondratiev cycles. These are cycles of 30 years of high growth and then 30 years of financialization, which generally correspond to periods of demutualization. 2008 marked the end of such a cycle: there has been a resurgence of mutualization projects within capitalism itself.

So we are currently in a high level of mutualization?

M. B.: The situation requires nuanced evaluation. On one hand, in the Third World, the commons are in danger. There is strong pressure for their privatization. This concerns, for example, natural resources and land in Africa. On the other hand, new technologies facilitate the emergence of common knowledge, on both the small and large scale, which was not possible before. Finally, in the West, we see a resurgence of the commons. Since 2008, they have increased tenfold. This is what I observed in Ghent: there were 50 urban community projects in 2006, in 2016 there were 500.

If the number of commons is increasing… do they not always remain a minority in the global economy?

M. B. : Today we certainly see a movement of false mutualization. What is known as the “sharing economy” actually corresponds to very extractive models. Resources are pooled without giving their control to users, an essential criterion for talking about commons. I call this “captalist capitalism”, a predatory capitalism that exploits human cooperation.

On one side Google and Facebook share humanity’s knowledge, facilitate its communication and sharing while utilizing our attention and data for commercial purposes – and without paying us for it. On the other side, Uber and Airbnb pool personal resources (cars, a parking space, apartments…), allow their exchange among peers and charge a commission on each of these interactions.

This refers to an old debate of the 19th century between Marx and Proudhon. According to Marx, exploitation lies in the added value while for Proudhon, it’s rooted in cooperation… It’s the idea that gathering 100 craftsmen together makes them more productive than if they were separated. Today, Proudhon would be right: capitalism is Proudhonian!

However, alternatives exist everywhere. In Ghent, you can find Uber of course, but next to it two shared mobility cooperatives. And at the city level, each human supply system exists on a model oriented towards the commons, in particular the food and energy system.

While the commons are very advanced in some cities they are still in their infancy in others… How can this be explained?

M. B. : The first explanatory element is the historical context. In Ghent, the situation is quite unique. From the Middle Ages, the city was self-governed by guilds, then became a Calvinist republic. It was the cradle of the workers’ movement in Belgium, with the first textile re-industrialisation. For 20 years, progressive coalitions were in power. Historically, people have been able to take initiatives in Ghent, they have always been supported. Similar phenomena can be found in France: in Nantes or Nancy.

Can political interventionism encourage mutualization movements within cities?

M. B. : We never start from scratch, the commons always exist prior to the action of the cities. There are people, projects that work, they are resilient but sometimes isolated. The city’s role is first and foremost to identify these initiatives, listen to them and respond to their needs. On the other hand, the commons can never be built without the city. We need at least an agreement in principle, an informal laissez-faire approach. For example, in Ghent, there was an abbey that the city could no longer maintain. So the residents of the neighbourhood asked for the key to the building. This has been going on for 10 years: they organize cultural events every weekend. Elinor Ostrom said that no common can succeed without the agreement of public entities. The city necessarily has, at the very least, the role of a steward.

In some cities, there is a strong political support around the commons. This is the case in Barcelona, with the multiannual plan “Barcelona in common”, in Bologna where public-commons institutions allow citizens to take care of shared resources, or in Naples, with the recognition and support of Mayor Luigi de Magistris to more than 60 municipalities in the city. Linking the commons to the city’s support is not without risks, however, it can create a dependency relationship. What is needed are public-common structures: structures that bring citizens together and stimulate their power of self-organization.

Would these public-common structures be possible on a national or global scale? Or are the commons limited to the city walls?

The political problem at the national level today – for both the left and the right – is the belief that value is produced by the market. The commons represent a completely different system, in which all citizens create value and contribute to the commons. While some cities have understood this model, there is no political force behind it at the national level. Instead, there are coalitions of pro-common cities, with networked governance. Political movements at the national level need to be convinced of the relevance of the commons.

How can mutualization scale? How can a whole country be transformed according to a logic of commons?

M. B.: Not everyone will follow at the same time, but if we succeed in mobilizing 10% of the population, we will have won, the rest will follow. Today, the actors of sustainable production represent only 2% in Belgium and they feel alone… At this level, the public authorities can play an exemplary role and provide considerable training.   

One way would be to capitalize on the driving forces of society by supporting initiatives that foster the commons. This could take the form of transitional councils for each major supply sector: a food council, a mobility council, a housing council… In these councils, we would give a voice and power to the pioneers of transition: those who work in the margins and show that another way is possible. I sincerely believe in this model of democracy – neither participatory nor deliberative, but contributory. You have a voice because you have demonstrated what you are building.

Another way would be to regulate. For example, a state could impose “100% locally produced, healthy and organic food”. In Ghent, we have more than 100 million meals a year, which already corresponds to hundreds of local jobs. In the same way, we could require cars to be produced locally, cars that are both durable and biodegradable.

Returning to local, distributed production – would this be a way of putting the commons at the service of the environment?

M.B.: This is what I call cosmo-local production. Neither protectionist nor liberal, it means sharing knowledge (the “light” stuff) at the global level but producing (everything heavy) at the local level, on demand. In this way, the thermo-dynamic weight of people on earth is reduced. We already have all the technologies to make this system change, but they are not yet combined.

If it is not a technological problem, what prevents us from returning to local production systems? As long as there is a difference in production costs, delocalization will always be justified from an economic point of view …

M. B.: Today, we spend a lot more on transportation than on production – this is nonsense! To change things, there needs to be a strong political will, thinking both about the social and environmental implications. We need to recognize other forms of value than market value and take into account the capacities and limits of global resources in our productive, economic and financial systems.

For example, our accounting systems should be thermo-dynamic: balancing the material used for production and the global ecological limits. Today, you can know the quantity of rare metals you use, how much gas you waste, how much energy you need – without any information about the world around you and its limits. The world can collapse and it does not show up in accounting.

This must also be reflected in our trading currencies. At the moment, money does not represent anything. It could, however, represent the outside world and the finiteness of its resources. For example, with the “fish coin” project, currency represents the fish stock that can be fished without damaging their reproduction.

To make the right day-to-day decisions and achieve a truly sustainable perma-circular economy, all economic and political actors must be judged on the basis of the good and harm they do – both to the planet and to human beings.


Teaser photo credit: By Edelseider – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is the Founder of the P2P Foundation and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of commons-based peer production, governance, and property.

Tags: new economy, p2p economy, the commons