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Commons transition: STWR interviewed by the P2P Foundation

04 February 2015

As part of a series of interviews highlighting the need for a transition to a commons-based society, STWR was asked about the ethic and practice of sharing in relation to commoning and peer-to-peer production.

The interview was originally published on the Commons Transition website. 

Can you define Commons Transition, tell us what it means to you?

Although the commons is now widely recognised as referring to the process of democratically managing a broad array of natural and produced resources that we all have a collective right to share, defining a ‘commons transition’ is not quite as straightforward. In part, this is due to the different approaches to managing shared resources that commons theorists have put forward. For example, whereas the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrum focused predominantly on the management of common-pool resources by local communities, Peter Barnes takes a more systemic and nation-wide approach to managing our common wealth and generating ‘dividends for all’. The ground-breaking knowledge-commons transition outlined by Michel Bauwens is also a systemic approach that could initially be implemented with assistance from the Ecuadorian government, while James Quilligan, David Bollier and others have put forward suggestions for the effective management of trans-boundary and global commons.

At the same time, many activists and civil society organisations working in other fields recognise the commons as an important concept, especially in their opposition to the privatisation of natural resources and the commodification of public services, but they often remain less concerned with the need to establish a dedicated commons sector. For example, many progressives regard remunicipalisation as a commons approach, even though this process is mainly associated with the public sector. But some commons theorists might argue that de-privatisation does not embody the spirit and true meaning of the commons, and rather advocate for the process of ‘commonification’ based on stakeholders governing and managing services in a fully participatory manner.  

Given this rich and still evolving conversation on the role of the commons in society, a definition of what exactly a commons transition would entail is best expressed from a broad and inclusive perspective. For Share The World’s Resources (STWR), a commons transition is about establishing a diverse array of commons-based practices and institutions that can ensure a far more equitable distribution of wealth, power and resources across society. Such systems of commoning are most often realised on a local basis, but in terms of achieving environmental sustainability it is also vitally important to establish them at the national and global levels. This of course is an unprecedented challenge and much more research and discussion is needed on how to manage commons on this scale.

Can you share with us some examples of Commons transitions?

Many examples of commons can be found in traditional processes that occur at the local and community level, such as seed sharing, the management of land and natural resources including lakes, fisheries and forests by stakeholders, or forms of community supported agriculture. It’s worth noting, however, that often those engaged in these traditional forms of commoning would not necessarily consider themselves as ‘commoners’ or even classify what they do as being part of the commons. This is especially true when we consider that the commons can include other aspects of social and civic life such as gift economies, or the production and communication of knowledge and culture. As long as the concept of the commons can be applied to such a broad range of practices, our understanding of what a ‘commons transition’ is will need to include the scaling up of these existing social and cultural processes.

As Michel Bauwens and others have identified, there is one particular sphere of activity in which a commons transition is most clearly evident in the digital age: the knowledge economy. There now exists a well-established and still growing community of collaborators who are contributing to the development of common pools of knowledge, computing code and even design for manufacturing. Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Wikispeed are just a few well-known examples of this new open knowledge, free software and open design economy that is revolutionising our understanding of how value can be created in society. These emerging methods of collaboration are facilitated by the networking power of the internet and form the basis of a new sharing-oriented production paradigm that does not conform to capitalist or socialist economic models. As the writer and analyst Jeremy Rifkin argues in his more recent books, these web-based practices—alongside the localised production of renewable energy, the ‘internet of things’ and new modes of distributed manufacturing—could play a key role in advancing a third industrial revolution.

There can be little doubt that the impact of these new modes of production and consumption could have a significant impact on traditional economic activity, such as manufacturing and international trade. While these new forms of commoning could potentially reduce carbon footprints and increase access to certain resources, it is not yet clear how positively they would affect pressing national and global issues such as ending extreme poverty, reducing inequality or democratising governments.   

How realistic is a Commons Transition at local, national and global levels?

Although a full-scale commons transition might appear unrealistic for the time being, new forms of social and economic organisation are absolutely necessary if humanity is to survive into the 21st century. The transition to commons-based practices and institutions are a key part of this process, but as yet such practices are most likely to establish themselves at the local level in relation to natural resource management and forms of collaborative consumption. As previously mentioned, the main exception to this is the development of the digital commons in terms of information and technology, which inherently transcends local and national boundaries to include producers and consumers across the globe.   

However, there are promising signs that commons practices and institutions are being considered more seriously as nationwide and even international solutions to some of the key challenges humanity faces. The FLOK Society Project that Michel Bauwens has been advancing in Ecuador is a prominent example of this, which reflects the need for governments to support the development of a dedicated commons sector. Similarly, Peter Barnes’ proposals around sharing the common wealth derived from renting a nation’s shared resources to the private sector (which builds upon the Alaska Permanent Fund model) are being ever more widely discussed, as are various cap and share/dividend models for curbing atmospheric emissions. Scaling up commons practices and institutions to the international level remains an urgent challenge, especially at a time when the global commons (such as the atmosphere, oceans or natural resources in the polar regions) are being rapidly depleted or polluted. But even here, there are a number of ideas that could be adopted if the political will was sufficient, such as introducing cap and share systems within a global contraction and convergence framework.

The key to scaling up the commons is the transformation of the state apparatus so that it can operate as a partner to the commons sector. Only if such a transformation is achieved can it ever be possible for governments to facilitate the development of commons-based institutions for the sustainable and equitable stewardship of the global commons. The establishment of grassroots commons models and even commons federations that can mobilise politically (as David Bollier suggests in his book Think Like a Commoner) can play a key role in challenging the status quo by demonstrating sustainable economic alternatives.

However, it will not be possible to transition to a world with thriving commons-based practices and institutions without also working towards reforming both the state and private sectors. It is unlikely that commons-based systems can be provided with the regulatory and political support they need without first limiting the excessive power and influence of corporations and democratising our economic systems—issues that remain a central focus for people’s movements, campaigners and civil society organisations across the world.

What practical steps can we take to enable a Commons Transition?

As just mentioned, an essential part of achieving a commons transition is the establishment of truly democratic models of governance at all levels of society, which must go hand-in-hand with a radical overhaul of the private sector. For some within the commons movement, reforming what Philip Bobbitt has described as the ‘market-state’ is seen as a lost cause, and the emphasis is placed instead on scaling up diverse forms of commoning as the route to creating systemic change. One downside of this alternative approach is that it could alienate committed commoners from the vast majority of progressive organisations, activists and engaged citizens who would potentially support a commons transition, but are also working towards reforming the market-state through a vast array of ongoing campaigns and direct actions.

It makes sense to work towards these related goals simultaneously, especially since the commons sector is ultimately dependent upon state support for it to function effectively on a national, regional and global scale. Therefore, in STWR’s view, a commons transition necessitates a diverse and inclusive approach to reforming the market-state, as truly democratic governance at all levels of society is a fundamental prerequisite for instituting a functioning commons sector. This approach is arguably also the most effective way of generating widespread public support for the commons, without which it is hard to envisage the transition ever taking place.

As STWR argued in a recent report entitled Sharing as our common cause, the key to achieving broad-based support for transformative change is through raising awareness and support for the principle of sharing in political and economic terms. In our analysis, the demand for sharing wealth, power and resources more equitably and sustainably has the potential to unite commons advocates and those campaigning to reform the state and private sectors. The report highlights how the principle of sharing is already central to diverse calls for social justice, environmental stewardship, global peace and true democracy.

Our ‘global call for sharing’ campaign aims to build upon this recognition among civil society organisations and the wider public, and promote the role that a call for sharing can play in uniting progressive movements across the world. Given the many barriers to progress that commons advocates face, this process of building support among a much wider group of campaigners and concerned citizens is perhaps the most urgent and pragmatic part of any commons transition initiative.

If we were to achieve a Commons-based society, what could be the risks and pitfalls?

A commons-based society would ideally be one in which various forms of commoning take place at all levels of society—and not just on a local basis. Achieving this is particularly challenging in light of pressing global issues such as climate change or potential conflicts over control of the planet’s natural resources. One of the risks of achieving a commons-based society is therefore the potential failure to incorporate commons thinking at the national and global level of social and political organisation. Establishing sustainable local commons, for example, will make relatively little impact on the governmental policy decisions that ultimately determine a country’s carbon emissions. In the end, preventing runaway climate change requires governments to establish a cooperative global framework for sharing the global commons (such as the atmosphere), and this will require the engagement of commoners in a range of new and existing campaign activities with a definite global emphasis.

Another problem with focusing only on local commons-based solutions is that, in many cases, local commons could feasibly exist within the current neoliberal framework without posing a significant challenge to the extremely unequal distribution of power and resources that underpins the many crises we face. This is especially the case when governments support commons-based initiatives while also advancing neoliberal policy measures that ultimately undermine the creation of sharing societies. One example of this cynical approach is the widely-criticised Big Society project, which was introduced in the UK by the Conservative Party alongside debilitating austerity measures that significantly reduced public sector spending. In light of the dominance of neoliberal orthodoxy, it is clearly important that commoners also continue to engage with perennial issues around curbing corporate power and influence, democratising governance, ending poverty and reducing inequality within and between countries. Many commons advocates are very familiar with these issues, but much more emphasis within the commons movement could be placed on supporting progressive campaigners working on these longstanding concerns. 

What are the potential roadblocks on the way to a Commons-based society?

Government policy remains heavily invested in maintaining an economic model that prioritises short-term business interests ahead of the common good. This presents a major roadblock for all progressives—those campaigning for a commons-based society as well as those focussing exclusively on justice, sustainability, peace and democracy issues. Ending the illegitimate and excessive influence that corporations are able to wield over governments and society will therefore be a major battleground in the years to come for commoners as well as for other more conventional progressive campaigners.

In the first instance, overcoming the illegitimate power of corporations will require citizens of all nations to reclaim their democratic right to a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. This process may not be perceptible in many countries as yet, but citizens are rising up across the world on an unprecedented scale to voice their opinion on the future direction of public policy. From the anti-war protests in 2003 to the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the recent protests in Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Thailand, Hong Kong and elsewhere, ordinary people are demanding that political power is shared more equitably throughout society—which is arguably an indispensable part of any transition to a commons-based society.

It is clear that we cannot wait for governments to rethink the management of an economic system built upon endless consumption and competition over resources. A shift towards a new economic model in which the commons can thrive can only be brought about through the active engagement of civil society, with concerted efforts to overcome the corporate and political forces that stand in the way of creating a truly cooperative and sharing world. As an initial contribution towards shifting the public debate in the necessary direction and generating momentum for change, STWR recently launched a statement that can be signed by individuals and organisations to demonstrate their support for the principle of sharing in relation to their work and campaigning activities. You can read and sign this statement here: www.sharing.org/global-call

Give a concrete example where a Commons-based societal dynamic would solve a present-day problem (and tell us how it would achieve this)

One example that warrants serious consideration by policymakers is the Sky Trust proposal put forward by Peter Barns in 2001, which calls for the establishment of a transparent and accountable commons institution that operates at the national level to help manage carbon emissions. The Sky Trust is one of a number of examples of ‘cap and share’ mechanisms that are widely discussed among environmentalists as pragmatic and equitable solutions that can enable governments to limit and manage carbon emissions. Simply put, once an annual carbon limit has been agreed by the State, the Trust would auction carbon burning permits upstream to producers. The income generated by the Trust would be distributed equally to citizens once the Trust’s administrative costs and other essential deductions have been subtracted. Producers would inevitably include the cost of these permits into the price of their products—i.e. the oil and gas they sell. Since everyone would receive an equal dividend from the Trust, those who buy fewer carbon intensive products would benefit most, and this would tend to be families on lower incomes as they generally have lower carbon footprints. 

For this system to work effectively as a commons, it would have to function independently of the State and the private sector, and it would need to be governed by elected trustees on behalf of citizens and future generations. However, for such a Trust to contribute meaningfully to reducing global carbon emissions, the agreed carbon limit would need to be progressively reduced every year until a nation’s CO2 emissions reach an environmentally sustainable level. There would also need to be international agreement on the acceptable level of emission caps for different countries, and this would have to be part of a broader strategy to manage global emissions fairly. As mentioned before, the contraction and convergence model provides a useful framework for such a program. Although the approach highlighted here presents a rational solution for addressing global warming, the level of international cooperation needed for such an agreement to hold is likely to remain elusive within the context of today’s highly competitive global economy.

How do the Commons Transition policy proposals fit in with STWR’s proposals, and how do they compare in their approaches?

The P2P foundation’s commons transition policies are certainly in line with STWR’s vision of a world in which wealth, power and resources are shared more equitably and sustainably both within and between nations. In particular, ensuring open access to knowledge can help society to shift towards more participative economic systems and environmentally sustainable (as well as easily accessible) methods of production and consumption. These are important components of the democratic and ecologically sound economic paradigm that STWR advocates for. Other components include a radically reformed private sector that is no longer able to exert undue influence over public policy, as well as a more effective public sector that can ensure universal access to essential goods and services such as healthcare and social security within every country. The commons sector would be an essential counterpart to these reformed aspects of more traditional economic systems, and all three sectors (public, private and commons) would ideally be managed through governance systems that are truly democratic and prioritise equity and environmental sustainability.   

While the principle of sharing underpins both STWR’s and the P2P Foundation’s proposals, much of our work focuses on the urgent need to end hunger and avoidable poverty-related deaths, as well as the imperative need to reduce global consumption levels to within ‘one planet’ boundaries. Given the global dimension of these issues, our research and advocacy work is particularly concerned with the necessary reforms and new institutions that should be established at the international level. With some 40,000 people dying needlessly every day for lack of access to essentials such as nutritious food, clean water and basic healthcare, our primary reason for promoting various forms of economic sharing is to see an end to this ongoing atrocity.

Commons-based approaches to managing community resources have a significant role to play in furthering more sustainable methods of economic development, but these can only be part of humanity’s response to what we often describe as a global emergency. As outlined in our website and publications, some of the most pressing problems that humanity faces require an immediate and unprecedented response from the international community. This includes increasing levels of hunger and extreme poverty, the human impacts of climate change, and even the harsh consequences of austerity measures that are increasingly affecting people in developed countries as well as within the so-called developing world. If humanity is ever to address these urgent issues, governments will need to adopt new forms of resource sharing on a scale that has never before been attempted. Since we cannot rely on policymakers to initiate such measures, implementing a process of economic sharing and cooperation on a global scale will necessitate far greater solidarity and collaboration among progressive organisations, activists and the wider public.

How would you foresee a possible collaboration?

Since the establishment of commons-based peer-to-peer systems clearly embodies the principle of sharing and is likely to play an important role in the advancement of a new economic model, STWR will naturally continue supporting the efforts of the P2P Foundation. At present, we can best cooperate with and support your work through our ongoing research activities and the writing of reports, articles and blogs, by which means we are able to highlight relevant sharing-related and commons-based initiatives. We can also use our newsletters and social networks to promote Michel Bauwens ongoing research and activities, and we hope to engage more actively with the various Wiki pages that the P2P Foundation has established. We are sure that additional opportunities to highlight your work will arise in the future, such as interviews with your staff or invitations to events that we might organise.

The P2P Foundation and its staff have already provided STWR with a great deal of support by highlighting our work on their various webpages and endorsing our ‘global call for sharing’ as individuals and as an organisation, for which we are very grateful. I am sure that the Foundation will continue in its support for STWR as we further develop the global call campaign over the course of the next five years alongside our expanded research, writing and campaigning activities. We look forward to the time when those advocating for sharing in its many different forms—as yet a disparate group of progressives working across a broad spectrum of urgent social, environmental and political causes—are framing their activities more explicitly in terms of sharing, and actively reaching out across single issue silos to build a united movement for transformative change. I have no doubt that the P2P foundation will continue to play an important role in this regard.

What are the next steps for STWR?

There are currently two main strands to STWR’s work. Through our research and writing, we will continue to make a case for integrating the principle of sharing into public policy as a pragmatic solution to a broad range of interconnected crises that governments are currently failing to address—including hunger, poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, and conflict over the world’s natural resources. We have set out an ambitious research agenda that will enable us to examine a host of pressing issues through the lens of sharing in the months and years ahead.

At the same time, through our ‘global call for sharing’ campaign we aim to promote the role that a call for sharing can play in uniting citizens and progressive organisations across the world in a  common cause. To help achieve the campaign’s broad goals, we will continue to promote our sign-on statement to encourage individuals and organisations to explicitly acknowledge the importance of sharing in political and economic terms, and commit to engage in this emerging debate through their work and campaigning activities. The overall campaign forms a key part of STWR’s organisational strategy in the period ahead, and will be supported by our broader research, writing and outreach work.

Through these various activities, we hope to strengthen our ties with progressive organisations and activists that are (either implicitly or explicitly) calling for a fairer sharing of wealth, power or resources. As we add more sharing-related ideas and content to our website and collect additional endorsements for our global call campaign, we aim to help shift the discourse among our target audience and influence them to frame their work more directly in terms of sharing. Over the long term, STWR’s objective is for policymakers and the general public to recognise the centrality of sharing as a key organising principle in the creation of a sustainable and equitable global economy that is fit for the 21st century.  

Image credit: Commons Transition - Peer production licence