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Commons - Taking Charge of Things

by Brigitte Kratzwald Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 at 7:34 AM

The capitalist market economy develops more and more into a crisis economy. Capitalism is not a totality. Everything we need has never been transacted over the market, for example the whole informal economy in developing countries and the unpaid work in families.


Alternatives to the Capitalist Market Economy

Interview with Brigitte Kratzwald

[Unemployment, financial bubbles, climate- and energy-crises etc. – the capitalist market economy develops more and more into a crisis economy. What could alternatives look like? This interview with sociologist Brigitte Kratzwald published in: Kleinen Zeitung Graz 11/16/2011 creates new visions and is translated from the German on the Internet,]

KLZ: The capitalist market economy develops more and more into a crisis economy. It produces financial bubbles, unemployment-, climate- and energy-crises etc. Are there alternative economic forms that could outwit these developments?

Kratzwald: I come from the globalization-critical movement Attac and tried for many years to demand changes from politicians on national and international planes. In the course of this crisis-mastery strategy, it was clear that politicians not only did not do what we demanded but quite the contrary made things even worse through this crisis-mastery. Some time or other, I had the feeling I did not want to tell politicians what they should do since they must take another course. Then in 2008 I hit upon the theme “Commons” [1].

KLZ: What is central with the Commons?

Kratzwald: Taking charge of things is central. People at their writing desks did not devise the commons. The commons grows from below and forms very powerfully in developing countries. That is one strand. The other strand is free software production. The commons is nothing new. There have always been many areas outside of capitalism. Capitalism is not a totality. Everything we need has never been transacted over the market, for example the whole informal economy in developing countries and the unpaid work in families that helps the present system function. These areas outside the market system are gaining more and more in self-confidence through the crisis of capitalism.

KLZ: How can this new confidence be described?

Kratzwald: The feeling spreads that we do things better than the capitalist market. It is important that all the different traditions come together, those from developing countries where people still use their land together (common waste water treatment plants, forests, fields), the very traditional old commons and then the whole realm of public services, the care activities and ultimately the new commons, the free software, free radio networks and free knowledge (Wikipedia). All this now comes together. We can do this without the market. We can handle this so we do not overuse the resources and everyone has enough. Let us reflect whether this would not be an alternative to the current system.

KLZ: Is the commons an old idea that was driven back by the economic upswing after the Second World War?

Kranzwald: Many commons are lost because people simply have not followed them any more. Some time or other, they said we don’t want a common washing machine in the basement any more. We prefer each having his or her own because that is more practical. After the Second World War with the great economic upswing, many had the feeling that it was more practical when everyone owned one. In that way we could create prosperity. I myself grew up with this attitude. Related to this, one seeks paid labor so one later receives a state pension and becomes generally independent. That was a fallacy to which societies generally fall. We thought we would receive a secure pension through paid labor. However that increasingly proved to be an error because growth and full employment are not possible in the long run and thus the basis for the pension falls away.

KLZ: The commons, solidarity economy [2] and commons-based peer production [3] are many terms for the same idea. What should this alternative form of economics and life be called?

Kratzwald: The term is not that important. Do we have to agree on one term? That is really a waste of energy. Observing principles is crucial. How do we make things so everyone has enough and no one is excluded? How can we support one another and not be in competition? How can we ensure that resources will not be overused? These principles are vital. Movements that follow these principles exist all over the world in very different cultures and are not tied to one term.

KLZ: Many commons now exist parallel to the capitalist market. Could the commons replace capitalism in the long-term?

Kratzwald: I don’t believe we can answer that at the moment. Even those of us occupied with such ideas can not imagine how such a society would function. What institutions would it need, what laws and what groups so something like this could function globally? Why? Because we have learned nothing else. These are things we can first develop in praxis. This only happens gradually. We must begin from this society in which we find ourselves. What is crucial for us is getting going here and today.

KLZ: Isn’t there the danger of an instrumentalization of the commons?

Kratzwald: That danger obviously exists. Maintaining power has always functioned in history. When criticism and alternatives arise, those in power try to fit criticism into the system and thus bring critics back into the system. But the commons never only uses the system. The commons also makes critics more independent and gives them more self-confidence and more autonomy. We must look: which is benefited more, the “old” or the “new” system?

KLZ: What role do money and property play in a commons-based economy?

Kratzwald: Property and possessions must first be distinguished… One obviously has a right to the things one needs. However these rights of property must naturally be limited by different rights of use of other persons. This means, for example, no houses should be vacant for purposes of speculation or second cars lying unused in the garage. One would have no right to hoard things one could use. Then one could be sure of actually receiving something when it was needed. Here the money question comes into play again. Either we need something like an unconditional basic income or there will be no money any more. One produces for a pool of those things that are needed and everyone can use them.

KLZ: What brings people to do something without monetary incentive?

Kratzwald: People have always worked without monetary incentives (voluntary work). There are several reasons why people do something. For example, because they need something themselves or because something is fun.

Here the question rises: who makes the things that no one wants made? Who cleans the lavatory? Who cares for seniors? The answer is social reputation. Social reputation can be a very strong incentive to do something. If something is left, this work would be divided up and everyone would do a half hour per week…

KLZ: What roles will rules play in this commons-based society? Who will establish them? Who will control them?

Kratzwald: Rules play a very essential role. Different things that can be organized as commons need different rules. Elinor Ostrom [4] discovered certain conditions must be fulfilled so a commons functions well. One needs clear limits on resources and user groups. This can be the whole humanity when the resources atmosphere and water are involved. Commons is not something where everyone can take what he wants. As a second important point, the rules must be made and controlled by those people who use the commons.

KLZ: What is the role of the state in a commons society?

Kratzwald: Some people say we don’t need a state. I say – and I have the same position as with capitalism – we must start from where we are and we have a state. City- and regional governments and communities are much more important. They could take up vital challenges by making available the necessary infrastructure like workplaces or know-how. Citizens should join in the organization from the start. That the state says “I am your good papa now and will tell you the future” is obsolete. Rather the state needs trust that people can do things themselves.

KLZ: Trust seems to be an essential part of the commons-based society. Does trust exist in a world where performance and competitive thinking are at the top for most?

Kratzwald: Trust is very important. Although it may sound very strange or disconcerting, can trust function? We all could not become come-of-age without this basic trust. We have lost some trust through this extreme competitive situation in the capitalist market economy to which we all are constantly exposed. Only one generation ago, this was a foregone conclusion or a matter of course. One only needs to reflect about this.


Video: “The End of Poverty?” Narrated by Martin Sheen, 1hr 44 min

Brigitte Kratzwald: Towards a constructive approach to commoning

January 14, 2011

From a debate in the Commoning mailing list, and how commoners should deal with political and philosophical differences.

Brigitte Kratzwald:

“As a starting point I’d claim that all of us think that the current way to organise our societies produces serious problems and something has to be changed. But, nevertheless, we have different motivations for our activities and different assumptions of how society works, how man „is“ or how society should look like. Some are concerned about climate change and environmental damages and focus on the use of natural resources, some have spiritual or religious arguments relying on the connectedness of all living beings, some are concerned about the loss of social cohesion and the growing social inequality, some are striving for individual freedom to realise ones potential, some for more social justice or food sovereignty, some have aesthetic notions of a life in harmony, some want to overcome capitalism. This is the place where the discussion about ideology is located. But as soon as it comes to concrete action, very similar modes of social practice might occur even from very different ideological background. This is why all of us ended up in the commons movement and on this mailing list. Producing commons seems to be a good solution from many different points of view.

So, if some people start to run, let’s say, an open source network or a community garden they may do it from all the motivations mentioned above, or from mere existential needs (which holds more for the community garden) of simply for fun (which holds more for the open source network). What they are doing, however, shows effects – on them and on their social and natural environment. And these effects might be rather independent from their motivation and their intentions. These activities can empower those who participate, they might turn out to be beneficial to the environment, they in any case will change social relations and challenge property relations, they might make some people more independent from the market system by satisfying their existential needs, they might contribute to the development of strong social networks, but some commons may be only accessible for elites and thus excluding others, some might be harmful to other commons and some might also turn out as just supporting the market system by reproducing labour power for free, or by providing resources for free. Hence it seems important, to have a theoretical framework, categories and instruments to evaluate the implications of our commons.

And these we may find without referring to the attitudes or ideologies that motivated us to produce commons.

So we do not need a common denominator in WHY we are producing commons (that means, we are not open only for anti-capitalists), we do not need to argue about world views and assumptions of what or how men, society or nature „is“, or whether all of these things „are“ not, but are permanently (re)produced by social interaction. One could discuss this for years without finding consensus. Instead we should try to find out what we want to achieve by the commons and to agree on criteria and instruments to assess the effects of the commons we make.

What we had to agree on are principles like the following (these of course are only tentative, just take them as examples):

As all of us are, I suppose, convinced that for some things commons are more adequate to fulfil people’s needs or to sustainable use of resources than markets are, we could agree on

* that a space for commons to develop and to persist should be provided and guaranteed

* that there have to be enough resources to create and maintain commons

* that all people should have access to commons, maybe even a right to commons

* that one commons must not exploit other commons

* that the commons must not be exploited by capital

If we agree on principles like that, we also need to find a theoretical concept, instruments and criteria for the evaluation of our commons, to see whether they confirm to these principles and how to develop mechanisms, rules, social practices or laws to achieve this. To this purpose theoretical concepts for evaluation have to be taken seriously and not to be refused as standing against the commons or as offending the people producing commons. We must allow that these instruments are applied to our commons, we must allow critique and, finally, argumentation must refer to the evaluation process and draw on the experiences of commoners and not on our intentions.

There are some of us who highlight the potential of the commons to spread and survive from their own, while there are some who stress the threat of enclosures and questions of power. Thus there will be a lot of discussions about the desirable outcomes and how to evaluate them and how to achieve and secure them. One can of course question the theoretical framework for the evaluation and propose another one in addition or instead, one can question the criteria and whether the instruments were applied properly.

But this is a discussion different from that about assumptions, motivations and intentions WHY we want to make commons. Instead it’s about HOW to make commons and to WHICH END. And I think it might be possible to agree on many – though not on all – principles on that level, where questions of ideology simply aren’t relevant. As Michel already mentioned, the property-issue is broadly agreed on, for example. Or, people who don’t find the question of power as crucial as others do, could still agree on that to be a criterion for evaluation and the same holds for other criteria not all of us are convinced of. If we managed to do so, there would be a large space for common practice, for sharing experience, for developing viable commons, without referring to ideological differences on the motivation side. “

Pattern 1: Beyond Exchange

Von StefanMz

This is part 1 of a weekly series of articles to appear in the journal Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP). In the series I try to describe analytical patterns developed by the Oekonux Project since over ten years of research on Free Software and commons-based peer production. Please visit the introducing part for the background.

Pattern 1: Beyond Exchange

Free Software, or more generally, commons-based peer production is not about exchange. Giving and taking are not coupled with each other. From today’s perspective this might not be surprising, but at the beginning of the Oekonux project it was. Still today traditional Leftist approaches are based on the assumption that someone is only allowed to get something, if s/he is willing and able to give something back, because if everybody is only taking then society would perish. This position could reference to a painful Socialist (and Christian) tradition saying that the one who does not want to work, should not eat. However, Free Software clearly showed that developers do not need to be forced to do what they love to do (cf. pattern 5).

One important approach which tried to grasp the new developments of Free Software, although sticking with old thinking, was the “gift economy” approach. However it is not coincidental that the correct term should be “gift exchange economy”: The giver can expect to get something back, because it is a moral duty in societies based on the exchange of gifts. This kind of personal reciprocal duty does not exist in Free Software. Even if a developer says that s/he wants to “give something back”, then this giving is not a precondition to receive something. In general, commons-based peer production is based on unconditional voluntary contributions.

From a Leftist perspective, uncoupled giving and taking could only be possible in a mythical land in a distant future called Communism – if at all. But never today, because before communism is possible, an unfriendly interphase called Socialism sticking with the exchange dogma is necessary (cf. pattern 8). Historically, “real existing Socialism” trying to implement this necessity failed, which will happen with all Socialist approaches accepting the exchange dogma.

If one does not want to give up exchange, then capitalism is the only option.

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