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

There is a saying in Silicon Valley: eat your own dog food — meaning people at the company must actually use the software they make, in real-world circumstances. “Dogfooding” is considered the best way to ensure that something truly works well. It is revealing that the software industry has such a term to describe the internal testing of its products. It points to a hidden weakness of the conventional economy — the treatment of production and consumption as separate activities, and the ultra-specialization of production in ways that segregate design, documentation, and manufacturing as separate professional silos. This bureaucratization means that each employee depends on the work product of others without really understanding the complexities involved. It also makes it easier for any department to cut corners on quality and safety, knowing that unwitting consumers may or may not be able to do anything about it.

Some companies realize that integrating the lessons of real-world consumption into the design and production process is indispensable. As the primary creator of TeX Typesetting software, Donald E. Knuth, once confessed: “I came to the conclusion that the designer of a new system must not only be the implementer and the first large-scale user; the designer should also write the first user manual. The separation of any of these four components would have hurt TeX significantly. If I had not participated fully in all these activities, literally hundreds of improvements would never have been made, because I would never have thought of them or perceived why they were important.” Users have firsthand knowledge that is invaluable in design and production, even if economists regard the separation of production and consumption as an inexorable fact of modern life.

Trained to see the dismemberment of complex production processes as efficient and natural, and its segregation from consumption as a core premise of “the economy,” economists tend to overlook a more elegant, practical approach to provisioning — commoning. Commoning is at heart an act of social self-organization and constant learning whose central purpose is to help people meet needs by producing things or services together. (We prefer to use the word “provisioning” as a nonmarket version of “production.”) Meeting needs has long been a standard definition of what an economy is all about, so commoning should properly be seen as part of “the economy,” too, even though economics textbooks generally ignore this fact. Commons let people produce food and clothing, shelter and means of transportation, machinery and microscopes, software and hardware, drugs, healthcare, and even prosthetics. It is breathtaking how much people can provide for themselves by aligning interests, motivations, and agency toward a common goal. Commoning provides a way to leverage social trust within new organizational forms to coordinate people’s actions.

Through commons, people can blend their social and economic needs, providing the basis for re-integrating production and consumption. This practice is especially prevalent in the digital realm, where users and producers tend to be the same people (“prosumers”). In conventional economic terms, a commons helps reduce the need for administration, lawyering, “human resource” management, and marketing by instead relying on a community of trust and individual commitment. Who needs advertising when the goal is to meet needs, not promote consumption?

So why put the interests and needs of producers in one box and those of consumers in another box, and blindly assume that the marketplace will somehow reconcile them? Why not re-imagine the whole process as an enterprise where production and consumption are integrated as one organic process of planning, design, documentation, and provisioning along with use, reuse, and waste management? Production need not consist of a series of complex, interlocking markets for labor, commodity sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, retail, advertising, etc. It can occur through commons that let people decide to co-make and co-use what they need, often with a division of labor but without that strict provision of roles, organized through hierarchies. The most significant difference with corporate bureaucracy is that the output is made available to others and the benefits are retained and shared. Different skills, talents, and knowledge can all be orchestrated to contribute to production. Knowledge can be readily shared, designs can focus on quality, and provisioning methods can be adjusted to improve results — all without catering to the harsh quarterly profit demands of investors. Tasks can be rotated so that people do not need to organize their work according to narrow roles defined by objectified, artificial value (price, wages) and fixed job categories. Freed of market imperatives, greater flexibility and adaptability are possible.

Besides reintegrating production and consumption, as well as fragmented steps of production, commons can re-incorporate care into our conceptualization of the economy (see pp. 169–173). With the rise of capitalism, caring, childrearing, and education have been seen as activities external to the working of the economy. Except for public education, they are something for individuals to take care of on their own time, and at their own expense. A commons does not externalize care, and so is more able to take account of a person’s fuller life, not just their need to earn money.

* * *

In this chapter, we describe the character of “production in common,” or, more precisely, “provisioning through commoning,” by examining ten key patterns. These are the structured regularities that tend to be needed for commons provisioning. These patterns manifest each time in distinctive ways, much as a flower will grow differently in forest shade, direct sun, or moist riverbanks. Whatever the circumstances, provisioning remains a practical enterprise that aims to get things done.

The critical difference between commoning and the capital-centric economy is that the latter regards its work results almost exclusively as marketable products. They are fungible artifacts whose value is mostly defined by their price. Since commons blur (or even eliminate!) the roles of “producers” and “consumers,” so too the very character of the “products” changes. The things produced are not designed to be sold, or sold in high volumes at the highest prices, or to pander to our consumer fantasies and then fall apart through planned obsolescence so that the cycle can be repeated. Provisioning through Commons means producing useful, durable things that will have ongoing social importance to their makers and users, and so the end results are not “goods” or “commodities,” as the classical economist would call them. Commoners instead cultivate affective ties to their care-wealth — forests, farmland, water, urban spaces — which often become part of their culture, social lives, and identities. The goal of Provisioning through Commons is not maximum efficiency, profit, or higher Gross Domestic Product. It aims simply to meet needs and provide a stable, fair, satisfying, and ecologically minded way of life. There is no economic growth imperative built into provisioning except its motive to increasingly displace, and substitute for, exploitative or expensive market practices.

Most of the concerns that the dominant economy obsesses about —
growth, market share, competition, copyright, patents, advertising, branding, opening new markets — play hardly any role in the commons. This is because the commons economy invites people to reorient their perspectives and aspire to a different set of outcomes than those of market capitalism — the satisfaction of real, not contrived, needs. Security. A sense of belonging and connection. A meaningful life. Implicit in many commons, too, is a vision of advancing greater freedom, fairness, and sustainability for all.

The biggest shift that the commons economy brings is a move from the economy as an autonomous, globalized supermachine to an economy that nurtures life on its own terms, at appropriate scales. In the course of Provisioning through Commons a tapestry of relationships is woven, which confirms the wisdom of ecophilosopher Thomas Berry: “The universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” The basic difference between the commons and capital-driven markets could not be stated more succinctly.

The difficult challenge, however, is how to devise structures and encourage social dynamics for commons provisioning. We have identified ten recurrent, hardy patterns that can build out a more robust commons economy:

  • Provisioning Through Commons
  • Make & Use Together
  • Support Care & Decommodified Work
  • Share the Risks of Provisioning
  • – Four Modes of Contribution and Allocation:
  • Contribute & Share
  • Pool, Cap & Divide Up
  • Pool, Cap & Mutualize
  • Trade with Price Sovereignty
  • Use Convivial Tools
  • Rely on Distributed Structures
  • Creatively Adapt & Renew


Read the rest of the chapter here.