This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.
Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.
The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.
A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.
This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.
More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.
Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.
What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.
Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.
Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.
Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?
One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.
For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.