The value(s) of sharing: Networking the Commons

Mutual aid, caring, and sharing with others is something that we learn from a very young age.  We share living space with our family, we may share toys or a snack with other children, and we share stories and ideas with others in conversation. These are all important parts of building community. When we engage in these activities, we have a reasonable expectation that someone will not financially benefit from our activities. But this assumption is no longer true when we share with others online.

Now there are all sorts of companies who want to profit from the sharing of ideas, information, and knowledge. It seems like the market is pervading more and more aspects of our everyday life. Social networks gather and sell data about you, publishers charge fees for accessing all sorts of content, and software companies restrict what you can and cannot do with their products.

One way to challenge this scenario is to develop the digital commons. Elinor Ostrom pioneered a conceptual framework for understanding the commons in 1990. Her work focused on how communities establish institutions for governing complex systems outside of market relations or state provision. Her ideas marked a radical departure from the prevailing ideas at the time, and she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Common-Pool Resources

Ostrom demonstrated how local communities can communicate and cooperate to sustain resources over time. Put another way, community members were not purely interested in maximizing individual profit by exploiting a resource (like forests, grasslands, water, lobster fisheries, or other shared resources). Rather, they could cooperate within the community to ensure the long-term survival of these common-pool resources.

Common-pool resources can come in many different forms, whether natural resources like those mentioned above, or human-created resources like ideas, knowledge, education, or housing. And, as more people began to connect via the Internet and digital technologies, creating and sharing new ideas, stories, photos, videos, music, etc. became much easier. In part, this is because digital information is ‘non-rivalrous,’ meaning that one person’s consumption of the resource does not detract from another’s ability to do the same.

Digital information is also easy to reproduce, and it can spread widely. As such, preventing someone from using digital information is difficult. The most common mechanism for preventing unwanted use of information is through intellectual property laws, like copyright. The extent to which someone can prevent others from using a resource is known as ‘excludability.’ The digital commons are characterized by low excludability. That is, others are invited to use the resource freely and to share their work with others. Through many iterations of this process, communities are created around repositories of information.

Digital Enclosures and the Potential of the Commons

Nonetheless, much of our sharing online takes place on private platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. These services provide a platform for sharing, but they extract data from users, which can be monetized by selling the data to advertisers. In effect, these services profit from our social activity. Some critics have even argued that we are performing unpaid work for these companies because we provide the primary product that is bought and sold by these companies, but we are unpaid for this work.

In effect, our social activity becomes enclosed in privately owned online spaces. Our social lives are transformed into private profit through the process of capital accumulation.

How, then, can we build alternatives to the increasing privatization of our public lives? How can we build systems based on the values of community rather than capital? The digital commons offer a potential way of moving forward.

Commons Value

In his recent book, “Omnia Sunt Communia”, Massimo De Angelis describes a circuit of value for the commons. Whereas capital circuits are based on endless growth and the realization of profit, commons circuits are characterized by sustaining the source of commonwealth for a community. In commons circuits, an association of individuals claims ownership over a resource, which comprises commonwealth. Through the ongoing relationship of the association to the sources of commonwealth, the commons are produced and reproduced over time. This activity is known as ‘commoning.’

The activity of commoning not only sustains and reproduces the resource over time, but it also sustains and reproduces the commoners’ subjectivities over time. This subjectivity is based on mutual aid, care, trust, and conviviality. In this sense, commoning and the commons represent an alternative value system to capitalism.

But De Angelis recognizes that communities of commoners may be forced to interact with capital circuits to sustain their commonwealth. For example, a community may need to earn money (a form of capital) to purchase food, water, electricity, etc., which are required for reproducing the commons and the commoners. The extent to which commoners engage with capital circuits, however, is left up to the community of commoners and may vary depending on the specific needs of the community.

Moving forward

Research and interest in the commons has been growing for at least the last 30 years. The first step was to develop conceptual frameworks for understanding the commons and how communities manage complex relationships to commons-based resources. Ostrom provided a major launching point for such a task. More recently, De Angelis has provided an analytical framework for understanding the commons value circuit as a system. But, as Marx reminds us, we need to move beyond interpretation toward actively changing the world.

Commons-based social movements have been growing all over the world, particularly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis that devastated the global economy. However, these movements have remained diffuse and diverse even if they drew on the concept of the commons to inform their movement. To be sure, their diversity and flexible organizational structures were one source of strength.

But we now need to find a way to link these movements and encourage the growth of the commons and commoners. This project may similarly take diverse forms and will be informed by the specific contours of the communities that stake a claim to sources of commonwealth.

Digital networks connect multiple nodes by linking separate nodes together. The nodes may retain specificities that are unique to local users, but they must speak the same language to belong to a network. In this sense, networks can supply a technical architecture for a federated politics wherein independent and autonomous communities are linked together under the common cause of building the commons.

As such, we not only need to continue building commons-based resources (whether they are novel creations, reclaimed from previous state or capital enclosures, or appropriated into commons circuits from capital circuits), but we also need to build commons-based subjectivities based on mutual aid, caring, and sharing. By doing so, we can show others that another world is possible.

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