Peer Governance Through Commoning

February 26, 2020

Ed. note: This is another excerpt from Free, Fair, and Alive, by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier. You can find out more about the book here.

Peer Governance Through Commoning

Commoning may be rooted in a variety of social outlooks and behaviors, as we saw in Chapter Four. But can it govern? Can it do so better than existing governments? Can it coordinate more effectively and better than the market? These are large questions that we will address at greater length in Part III. For now, we wish to examine how peer governance works within a commons. Property rights scholar Robert Ellickson has described how cattle ranchers in the Shasta Valley of California dealt with the problem of cattle escaping from their fields and trespassing on other people’s land. Ranchers on their own came up with informal rules and social norms — what Ellickson calls “order without law.” Neighboring ranchers, for example, often follow the tradition of splitting fifty/fifty the cost of building and maintaining a shared fence. Or they agree that one rancher will provide the materials and the other the labor for building it. Or if one rancher has a greater average density of livestock on one side of the fence, custom holds that there should be a rough norm of proportionality for allocating the costs of fencing. If a careless rancher violates the social norm of promptly retrieving stray cattle, the rancher community often intentionally uses gossip to sanction and shame them.

The dynamics of peer governance at the cellular level of everyday practices matter because they provide regularity and stability to a commons. They also help us learn how to devise larger structures such as federated commons, commons-friendly law and policy, infrastructures, and commons-public partnerships, as we will see in later chapters. Here, we explore ten dynamics of Peer Governance that tend to be present in effective commons. The first seven revolve around interpersonal and social relationships. The final three involve commons-based methods for dealing with property, money, and markets.

  • Peer Governance
  • Bring Diversity into Shared Purpose
  • Create Semi-Permeable Membranes
  • Honor Transparency in a Sphere of Trust
  • Share Knowledge Generously
  • Assure Consent in Decision Making
  • Rely on Heterarchy
  • Peer Monitor & Apply Graduated Sanctions


  • Relationalize Property
  • Keep Commons & Commerce Distinct
  • Finance Commons Provisioning

A Few Words About Governance

In conventional parlance, governance generally means the rule of some over the many through government. Government exercises authority and control over people through laws passed by legislatures, rulings handed down by courts, and policies adopted by various officials and politicians. At the end of the day, most people regard government as something distant and often indifferent to their concerns. It is something that a group of people vested with power does to and for another group of people, perhaps with their participation and consent, perhaps not. But government and governance are different things. One could say, there is governance in the commons, but no government.

As we thought about how coordination works in a commons, we hesitated to use the term “governance” because it is so closely associated with the idea of collective interests overriding individual freedom. This perceived antagonism runs so deep that it is hard to imagine any serious resolution of the tension. But there is a resolution — to realize individual needs by addressing collective needs. The supposed dualism between the collective and individual is largely overcome by sharing authority among everyone directly affected by decisions. Authority, power, and responsibility for implementation are diffused among identifiable people, each of whom has opportunities to deliberate and make decisions with others.

That is why we like to refer to peer governance rather than just governance. It points to an ongoing process of dialogue, coordination, and self-organization. By recognizing individuals as active peers in a collective process rather than positioning them as adversaries competing to control a large, remote third party, government, a more trusted type of governance can emerge. Citizens in a nation-state may nominally be sovereign (“We the People …”), but that sovereignty is delegated with only crude oversight and accountability to representative legislatures and rigid, formalistic bureaucracies. No wonder the state is seen as alien or hostile! In a commons, governance is more likely to take account of on-the-ground needs and realities.

Peer Governance amounts to an artful political dialectic between culture and structure. The shared motivations and visions that commoners wish to enact must have sufficient structure in law, formal organization, and finance to be protected and nurtured. But there must also be sufficient open space for individual creativity, deliberation, and action to flourish, which in turn recursively improves the structures of law, organization, and finance that guide a commons forward. For a commons to be coherent and durable, it needs some clear organizational forms and regularities. For it to be resilient and alive, it requires welcoming space for free play, flexibility, and creative novelty. One might say that the informal and the creative must be stabilized through friendly structural support and constraints, without being controlled by them. Commoners must figure out a Goldilocks zone in which the interplay between structure and culture is “just right.”

Getting the interplay right is the high art of commons governance. To illuminate it, we present in this chapter the generic patterns of Peer Governance that help a commons work well. How does self-organization occur in the first place and ripen into a stable, creative social organism? Is there a general developmental process that needs to occur? We don’t believe there is, but there are patterns we can become aware of that will help us understand how a commons can maintain itself. It would be a mistake to offer prescriptive formulas for Peer Governance because they won’t work in complex systems. You cannot fabricate a commons simply by assembling a certain number of people, adopting certain values, and applying certain operational rules and enforcement strategies. Following the eight design principles famously put forward by Elinor Ostrom is helpful, but ultimately not enough. The principles do not provide sufficient guidance for people to respond flexibly to feedback in dynamic systems. Our analysis of Peer Governance therefore moves beyond Ostrom’s landmark design principles in several ways. First, we look at all sorts of contemporary commons — social, digital, and urban, among others — not just at natural resource-based commons. We also attempt to go beyond resource management and allocation as primarily economic matters, and instead emphasize commoning as a social system. Any assessment of governance in commons must deal squarely with the systemic threats posed by markets and state power, so we look to Peer Governance as a form of moral and political sovereignty that works in counterpoint to the market/state.

Enacting Peer Governance needs to be a living, developmental process in itself. Therefore, instead of offering a full set of prescriptive formulas, our patterns amount to procedural guidelines that enable a stepwise, adaptable path for developing a commons. Enacting a commons through Peer Governance resembles the way in which DNA provides general guidance, but not strict instructions, for the autonomous development and differentiation of an embryo.

So, the bad news is that there is no blueprint, no panacea. Peer Governance is not a prescriptive, rule-driven program for fabricating commons or managing resources. But the good news is that Peer Governance is a generative process. It is a reliable means by which commoners can build authentic, living relationships among themselves, and in so doing, develop a coherent, stable commons.

This idea is consistent with Christopher Alexander’s ideas about how to create enlivening environments that last. Alexander has written that a process that generates life must itself be a living process. It is “the ONLY way, I believe — that it is possible to generate buildings or communities that have life. Living structure … cannot be created by brute force from designs. It can only come from a generative program — hence from a generative process existing in the production process of society — so that … its conception, plan, design, detailed layout, structural design, and material detail are all unfolded, step by step in TIME.” (emphasis in original)

Formal structures are obviously needed, but living processes, which have their own regularities, lie at the heart of a commons. Commoning is the exploratory process by which people identify their needs and devise situation-specific systems for provisioning and governance. People are empowered to draw upon their own knowledge in assessing their problems. They must live with ambiguities and uncertainties, and show the creative agency to develop solutions that seem fair and effective to them.

Peer Governance is open ended. Its properties and implementation cannot be fully known or specified in advance. This idea obviously flies in the face of modern sensibilities, which generally try to design comprehensive, advance blueprints for implementation. The primary goals in modern systems are uniformity and simplicity, for the sake of controllability and political credibility. James Scott, in his book Seeing Like a State, provides a brilliant analysis of how this plays out in the exercise of state power. As a precondition for efficient control, modern systems look to previously defined indices, development metrics, and expert knowledge. Formal categories of thought and official policies tend to take on a life of their own, becoming more real than on-the-ground realities.

An example is the European Union’s requirement that its member states keep their budget deficits below three percent of gross domestic product, ostensibly to assure that governments are prudently managing their economies. It turns out that this magical budget number had been invented by two French civil servants in 1981. French President François Mitterrand, looking for ways to keep his government’s budget deficits under control, had asked his budget department to come up with a simple but economically credible rule to help rein in government spending. Mitterand reportedly had asked the staffers to propose “a kind of rule, something simple [that exudes] competence in economics.” Two staffers came up with the idea of budget deficits at or below three percent of GDP as a rough metric of fiscal responsibility. One of the two explained, “At the time, we were headed to a 100-billion-franc deficit. That corresponded to about 2.6 percent of GDP. So we said to ourselves: 1 percent deficit would be too tough and would be unattainable. Two percent would have put too much pressure on the government. So we said three percent.”

In other words, the budget deficit criterion was purely circumstantial, with no basis in theory or substance. Indeed, former Bundesbank president Hans Tietmeyer has confirmed that the three percent benchmark is “not easy to justify … in economic terms.” However, after its success in reining in French deficits over a few years, the EU decided to adopt it as well. Despite having no theoretical basis, the three percent benchmark has ripened into a hard-and-fast symbol of fiscal rectitude over the past thirty years. The number was enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht that formed the European Union in 1992, and is routinely cited by conservative politicians and economists in countless pronouncements. But only three member states have actually met this standard between 1999 and 2015, suggesting how easily official (and, in this case, fabricated) indicators can override people’s situated knowledge and capacity to respond.

Commons and Peer Governance must be grown over time and deal with countless uncertainties that cannot be fully predicted in advance. This requires time for a culture of trust and transparency to emerge and yield a network of relationships. Rituals must be invented, and habits must ripen into traditions. It is therefore critical for commoners to consciously decide how to craft their governance systems.

This process is neither random nor precise. And yet, it has certain regularities. It is more akin to the method for making an outdoor fire: there is no single, universally correct way of doing it, but certain developmental steps must be followed, and in a certain order. One must first collect flammable materials of various sizes — logs, kindling, tinder — and arrange them so that the easily ignited tinder is on the bottom, which in turn will help ignite the larger pieces. A spark must be produced through a match, flame, or other means. There must be a bounded container for the fire (a fireplace, a ring of rocks, a hibachi), and sufficient oxygen flow and venting. The specifics of building a fire vary in a northern forest, where wood is plentiful, compared to a desert, where flammable fuel is scarce. And of course, the results — a roaring bonfire, a fire suitable for cooking, slow-burning embers — will vary, too. The point is that despite the many ways in which fires can be made, and the different outcomes, the basic patterns remain the same.

So, too, with the process of establishing Peer Governance: there are some reliable general patterns, but many idiosyncratic ways of doing it. Commons usually start with motivations or aspirations shared by participants — the need of farmers to irrigate their crops, the desire of software programmers to have an easy-to-use, shareable mapping program, the need of fishers to ensure fair access to a fishery.

Whatever the specific problem, a would-be commons must offer a credible vision for addressing it among people who often have different perspectives. Even though there may be no actual strategies or solutions in hand, a commons in its early stage must provide a spark and updraft that feeds interest and motivation. If people feel that the process resonates with their needs and context, they will be eager to engage. However, there must be an attractor that pulls them to self-organize and align their intentions and actions. This could be the need to survive, the desire to reconnect with local ecosystems, an attractive alternative to extractive markets, the appeal of fair-minded cooperation, or any other number of factors.


Teaser photo credit: By Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 3.0

Silke Helfrich

Silke Helfrich completed her studies in adult education and Romance languages as well as sociology with a focus on economics. She works as a freelance author, researcher and widely sought-after speaker. Silke is also cofounder of the Commons-Institut e.V. and the Commons Strategies Group as well as co-initiator of the Netzwerk Ökonomischer Wandel (NOW). Her most recent publication, co-written with David Bollier, is the book Free, Fair and Alive. The Insurgent Power of the Commons, transcript, 2019.

Tags: commoning, new economy, peer-to-peer relationships