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Battles over Autonomy: The Commons Alternative

by Brigitte Kratzwald Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2012 at 4:21 AM

"The Commons is a way of reproducing society that opposes the market logic, puts in question private property, profit and competition and points to a future form of society beyond capitalism.. The Commons is not the solution but the change of perspectives that makes possible new solutions."

The Commons is not a cure-all that saves capitalism from itself

By Brigitte Kratzwald

[This commentary published 5/30/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.taz.de/Debaztte-Commons/942901. Brigitte Kratzwald is a sociologist engaged in several Commons projects in her hometown of Graz. Her “Solidarity Economy and the Commons” (with Andreas Exner) was recently published.]

The term Commons has different meanings and is used for different goals by different people. The Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom describes the Commons as an institution for the shared use of limited natural resources and doesn’t rely on the arguments of the liberal economy.

In times of climate change and “peak everything,” Elinor Ostrom’s work is important because it opens up a multitude of possibilities through new perspectives “beyond the market and the state” on how resources can be used sustainably and how human needs can be better satisfied. The system itself is not put in question.

In the meantime the World Bank relies on the Commons. British Prime Minister David Cameron appeals to the power of community to legitimate cuts of the social budget. The concept “sustainable regions” also emphasizes the engagement of local communities because states can no longer compensate for the social dislocations arising through the constant competitive pressure of globalized capitalism. Is the Commons the cure-all or panacea that saves capitalism from itself?

Understanding the Commons as institutions fades out social hierarchies of power and the strategies of hegemonial power to monopolize ideas and concepts that come from the social movements for attaining their own goals. The Commons play an important role for social battlers around shifting the balance of power and are not only institutions for managing resources. Therefore exploring the complexity of the term is rewarding.


The Commons is a way of reproducing society that opposes the market logic, puts in question private property, profit and competition and points to a future form of society beyond capitalism. Since the capitalist system cannot maintain itself, it necessarily needs Commons areas particularly in crisis situations. However if these are extended too much, they become a threat since they give participants the power of rejecting the unreasonable exactions of paid labor and market competition.

Thus the Commons are spaces of collective self-empowerment. This was true for the shared pasture land in feudalism and for the Internet today. For this reason, the Commons are always ambivalent. They can return control over their living conditions to participants but they can also be instrumentalized by capital or pushed back with repressive means.

Battles around the Commons are struggles around autonomy and human dignity and are directed against all kinds of power structures. These struggles are themselves a form of communing – a climate camp, a G8-protest, resistance against castor-transport and the tent cities of the Occupy movement. They all represent practices of communing in which alternative resistant ways of conduct and subjectivization can be developed and tested and values and social relations can be formed that are fundamentally different from those of capitalist societies.


In the search for alternatives as an answer to the concrete crisis situation, many initiatives are now arising that organize certain areas of life according to this logic in manageable areas of personal relations – except for Internet communities. To see these practices as a blueprint for reorganizing society would certainly be naïve. However the change of the balance of power that occurs through these practices, the experiences that are made and the values and relations that arise are the prerequisites for new institutions and new forms of organization that can develop on social and global planes based on the logic of the Commons.

“Beyond market and state” does not mean the market and the state cannot play any role any more and everything must be self-organized. What is special about the Commons idea is a change of perspectives. Instead of focusing on growth chances and profit possibilities, the Commons perspective starts from human needs and existing natural resources and asks how these needs can be best satisfied with these resources and asks how as many participants as possible can join in decisions.


The state can take different roles in the institutions that develop. It can be custodian, administrator or mediator. However the decisions about this and about the modalities of production and distribution must be made by all citizens. What is the best form of organization depends on the situation and the resources.

For example, a regional energy cooperative can be a good solution in a rural area while it can be more sensible in a large city when the energy supply remains in the ownership of the city, as the Berlin Energy Table proposes. Who ultimately has the say and whether everyone has access to affordable energy is decisive, not the legal form.

How these institutions appear and whether they return control over their living conditions to people. Whether they help satisfy needs or only pacify resistance can only be decided in every particular case by the participants themselves. Demanding a kind of instruction for use misunderstands the idea of the Commons. The Commons is not the solution but the change of perspectives that makes possible new solutions.

Brigitte Kratzwald: Towards a constructive approach to commoning
January 14, 2011
Michel Bauwens
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 organize 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 realize 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 labor 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 fulfill 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. “

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