Restoring the Commons

Yves here. Even though this article implicitly accepts the idea of growth, which too often turns out to be groaf, relying more on commons-type structure is likely to become more and more important in an era of resource scarcity and relocalization.

By Douglas Rushkoff, host of the Team Human podcast and author of Team Human as well as a dozen other bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. He is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY Queens College. Originally published at Evonomics

The economy needn’t be a war; it can be a commons. To get there, we must retrieve our innate good will.

The commons is a conscious implementation of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruists, whether human or ape, reward those who cooperate with others and punish those who defect. A commons works the same way. A resource such as a lake or a field, or a monetary system, is understood as a shared asset. The pastures of medieval England were treated as a commons. It wasn’t a free-for-all, but a carefully negotiated and enforced system. People brought their flocks to graze in mutually agreed- upon schedules. Violation of the rules was punished, either with penalties or exclusion.

The commons is not a winner-takes-all economy, but an all-take-the-winnings economy. Shared ownership encourages shared responsibility, which in turn engenders a longer-term perspective on business practices. Nothing can be externalized to some “other” player, because everyone is part of the same trust, drinking from the same well.

If one’s business activities hurt any other market participant, they undermine the integrity of the marketplace itself. For those entranced by the myth of capitalism, this can be hard to grasp. They’re still stuck thinking of the economy as a two-column ledger, where every credit is someone’s else’s debit. This zero-sum mentality is an artifact of monopoly central currency. If money has to be borrowed into existence from a single, private treasury and paid back with interest, then this sad, competitive, scarcity model makes sense. I need to pay back more than I borrowed, so I need to get that extra money from someone else. That’s the very premise of zero-sum. But that’s not how an economy has to work.

The destructive power of debt-based finance is older than central currency—so old that even the Bible warns against it. It was Joseph who taught Pharaoh how to store grain in good times so that he would be able to dole it out in lean years. Those indentured to the pharaoh eventually became his slaves, and four hundred years passed before they figured out how to free themselves from captivity as well as this debtor’s mindset. Even after they escaped, it took the Israelites a whole generation in the desert to learn not to hoard the manna that rained on them, but to share what came and trust that they would get more in the future.

If we act like there’s a shortage, there will be a shortage.

Advocates of the commons seek to optimize the economy for human beings, rather than the other way around.

One economic concept that grew out of the commons was called distributism. The idea, born in the 1800s, holds that instead of trying to redistribute the spoils of capitalism after the fact through heavy taxation, we should simply predistribute the means of production to the workers. In other words, workers should collectively own the tools and factories they use to create value. Today, we might call such an arrangement a co-op—and, from the current examples, cooperative businesses are giving even established US corporations a run for their money.

The same sorts of structures are being employed in digital businesses. In these “platform cooperatives,” participants own the platform they’re using, instead of working for a “platform monopoly” taxi app or giving away their life data to a social media app. A taxi app is not a complicated thing; it’s just a dating app combined with a mapping app combined with a credit card app. The app doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the revenue. Besides, if the drivers are going to be replaced by robots someday, anyway, at least they should own the company for which they’ve been doing the research and development. Similarly, a user-owned social media platform would allow participants to sell (or not sell) their own data, instead of having it extracted for free.

Another commons-derived idea, “subsidiarity,” holds that a business should never grow for growth’s sake. It should only grow as big as it needs to in order to accomplish its purpose. Then, instead of expanding to the next town or another industry, it should just let someone else replicate the model. Joe’s pizzeria should sell to Joe’s customers. If they need a pizzeria in the next town, Joe can share his recipe and let Samantha do it.

This is not bad business—especially if Joe likes making pizza. He gets to stay in the kitchen doing what he loves instead of becoming the administrator of a pizza chain. Samantha may develop a new technique that helps Joe; they can even federate and share resources. Besides, it’s fun to have someone else to talk with about the pizza business. They can begin to develop their collaborative abilities instead of their competitive ones.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Things in nature grow to a certain point and then stop. They become full-grown adults, forests, or coral reefs. This doesn’t mean they’re dead. If anything, it’s the stability of adulthood that lets them become participating members of larger, mutually supportive networks.

If Joe has to grow his business bigger just in order to keep up with his rising rent and expenses, it’s only because the underlying economy has been rigged to demand growth and promote scarcity. It is this artificially competitive landscape that convinces us we have no common interests.

We know that nothing in nature can sustain an exponential rate of growth, but this doesn’t stop many of our leading economists and scientists from perpetuating this myth. They cherry-pick evidence that supports the endless acceleration of our markets and our technologies, as if to confirm that growth- based corporate capitalism is keeping us on track for the next stage of human evolution.

To suggest we slow down, think, consider—or content our- selves with steady profits and incremental progress—is to cast oneself as an enemy of our civilization’s necessary acceleration forward. By the market’s logic, human intervention in the machine will only prevent it from growing us out of our current mess. In this read of the situation, corporations may be using extractive, scorched-earth tactics, but they are also our last best hope of solving the world’s biggest problems, such as hunger and disease. Questioning the proliferation of patented, genetically modified seeds or an upgraded arsenal of pesticides just impedes the necessary progress. Adherents of this worldview say that it’s already too late to go back. There are already too many people, too much damage, and too much dependence on energy. The only way out is through. Regulating a market just slows it down, preventing it from reaching the necessary level of turbulence for the “invisible hand” to do its work.

According to their curated history of humanity, whenever things look irredeemably awful, people come up with a new technology, unimaginable until then. They like to tell the story of the great horse manure crisis of 1894, when people in England and the United States were being overwhelmed by the manure produced by the horses they used for transportation. Luckily, according to this narrative, the automobile provided a safe, relatively clean alternative, and the streets were spared hip-deep manure. And just as the automobile saved us from the problems of horse-drawn carriages, a new technological innovation will arise to save us from automobiles.

The problem with the story is that it’s not true. Horses were employed for commercial transport, but people rode in electric streetcars and disliked sharing the roads with the new, intrusive, privately owned vehicles. It took half a century of public relations, lobbying, and urban replanning to get people to drive automobiles. Plus, we now understand that if cars did make the streets cleaner in some respects, it was only by externalizing the costs of environmental damage and the bloody struggle to secure oil reserves.

Too many scientists—often funded by growth-obsessed corporations—exalt an entirely quantified understanding of social progress. They measure improvement as a function of life expectancy or reduction in the number of violent deaths. Those are great improvements on their own, but they give false cover for the crimes of modern capitalism—as if the relative peace and longevity enjoyed by some inhabitants of the West were proof of the superiority of its model and the unquestionable benefit of pursuing growth.

These arguments never acknowledge the outsourced slavery, toxic dumping, or geopolitical strife on which this same model depends. So while one can pluck a reassuring statistic to support the notion that the world has grown less violent— such as the decreasing probability of an American soldier dying on the battle field—we also live with continual military conflict, terrorism, cyber-attacks, covert war, drone strikes, state- sanctioned rape, and millions of refugees. Isn’t starving a people and destroying their topsoil, or imprisoning a nation’s young black men, a form of violence?

Capitalism no more reduced violence than automobiles saved us from manure- filled cities. We may be less likely to be assaulted randomly in the street than we were in medieval times, but that doesn’t mean humanity is less violent, or that the blind pursuit of continued economic growth and technological progress is consonant with the increase of human welfare—no matter how well such proclamations do on the business best- seller lists or speaking circuit. (Businesspeople don’t want to pay to be told that they’re making things worse.)

So with the blessings of much of the science industry and its collaborating futurists, corporations press on, accelerating civilization under the false premise that because things are looking better for the wealthiest beneficiaries, they must be better for everyone. Progress is good, they say. Any potential impediment to the frictionless ascent of technological and economic scale— such as the cost of labor, the limits of a particular market, the constraints of the planet, ethical misgivings, or human frailty— must be eliminated.

The models would all work if only there weren’t people in the way. That’s why capitalism’s true believers are seeking some- one or, better, something to do their bidding with greater intelligence and less empathy than humans.

Excerpted with permission from Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, Copyright © 2019 by W. W. Norton & Company.

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  1. anonymous

    I wish aggregate demand ( how it functions in the economy ) were taught in all schools —- as part of the commons.

    (In tonight’s debate Williamson said that to cancel debt would be the best stimulous. I wonder how well listeners understood that that’s actually how the economy functions and not irresponsible pandering for votes.)

  2. Krystyn Walentka

    The Anarchist FAQ speaks on this and makes two crucial points:

    As Allan Engler points out, “[s]upporters of capitalism cite what they call the tragedy of the commons to explain the wanton plundering of forests, fish and waterways, but common property is not the problem. When property was held in common by tribes, clans and villages, people took no more than their share and respected the rights of others. They cared for common property and when necessary acted together to protect it against those who would damage it. Under capitalism, there is no common property.

    In reality, the “tragedy of the commons” comes about only after wealth and private property, backed by the state, starts to eat into and destroy communal life. This is well indicated by the fact that commons existed for thousands of years and only disappeared after the rise of capitalism — and the powerful central state it requires — had eroded communal values and traditions. Without the influence of wealth concentrations and the state, people get together and come to agreements over how to use communal resources, and have been doing so for millennia.

    The “commons” to a capitalist means something totally different to the commons of a tribe.

    1. PKMKII

      Worth noting that the guy who coined the phrase, Garrett Hardin, was also a race realist who fretted about “Americans” getting displaced in a breeding race and advocated for keeping the rest of the world in abject poverty in order to keep American “civilization and dignity.”

      1. Anon

        Garret Hardin did not “coin” the phrase, but reintroduced “tragedy of the commons” into modern discussion with his 1968 essay in which he is referring to an unregulated commons.

        The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The theory originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a “common”) in Great Britain and Ireland.[1] The concept became widely known as the “tragedy of the commons” over a century later due to an article written by the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968.[2] In this modern economic context, commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, roads and highways, or even an office refrigerator.

        The term is used in environmental science. The “tragedy of the commons” is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming. It has also been used in analyzing behavior in the fields of economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology. (Wikipedia)

        Professor Hardin fretted about a lot of things, especially overpopulation in a world with finite resources. Born in 1915 and experiencing the world of the Nazi’s,he should have known better than to ascribe to “racist” ideas of genetic inferiority. Sometimes scientists can get ahead of themselves; and he did. Staying within his field (Biology/Ecology) he was a progressive thinker. Much of his views on Economics would likely resonate at NC.

      2. JohnM

        killing the messenger? there is a difference between making an observation of a situation and advocating for it, but it’s lost on some people.

  3. Louis Fyne

    The idea of a national/international/humanist commons is dying in the contemporary era of identity politics.

    Whose fault is it? My hunch is Reaganism-Clintonism took the US over the precipice (but today’s identity politics is throwing napalm onto the fire).

    the US sorely needs a trans-identity class based movement that emphasizes restoring old-school ideas like commons.

    not holding my breath for the post-scarcity world to solve all our problems.

  4. jefemt

    In the USA, when I think commons I think Federal lands (OUR lands).

    Have received several of these in the last couple days from various ‘outdoorsy’ advocacy groups

    “The Trump administration just designated William Perry Pendley, a career advocate for the sale of public lands in the West, as acting director for the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley is the former president and founder of the pro-development law firm Mountain States Legal Foundation. He has written several books advocating the privatization of public lands and has ties to a number of notorious anti-public land groups, including the American Lands Council. In 2016 he wrote a National Review column calling on the federal government to sell Western public lands.
    This is an unacceptable decision from an administration that has touted its commitment to prioritizing hunters, anglers and conserving our shared lands and waters. There is no room for someone like Mr. Pendley as the head of a lands management agency tasked with overseeing nearly a quarter billion acres of our public lands.
    We need you to contact your senators and voice your opposition to this appointment. Our public lands and waters are a foundational part of this country — we need to ensure that they rest in good hands.
    Take Action ”

    Makes me heart-sick, when, as a resident of the rocky mountain region, I ponder the number of hours, days, and nights I have used, enjoyed, respected, and spent on federal lands. Magical times in astoundingly beautiful places.

    Dive deeper into this:

    “Elinor Claire “Lin” Ostrom was an American political economist whose work was associated with the New Institutional Economics and the resurgence of political economy. In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”, which she shared with Oliver E. Williamson. To date, she remains the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.”

    Boy, the constant water drip of indicators that we need to collectively grab ahold of everything, from soup to nuts, and turn this ship around, is almost too much…

    1. Synoia

      All Public works are a part of “The Commons”.

      Schools, Sanitation Plants, The Police, Government Buildings, Roads, etc.

      We use the common every moment of Evey day, without the Commons there is no trade, no economy,

      The role of Government is to provide the commons, and make it accessible to all.

      It is so much more than “Public Lands.”

  5. Carolinian

    Things in nature grow to a certain point and then stop. They become full-grown adults, forests, or coral reefs. This doesn’t mean they’re dead. If anything, it’s the stability of adulthood that lets them become participating members of larger, mutually supportive networks.

    Actually things in nature–say a forest–grow until they are overwhelmed by even bigger things and then they die. Their death may be their contribution to Gaia but it’s not necessarily a fate most of us humans would care to embrace.

    Which is to say nature is full of hierarchy and human societies including supposedly idyllic medieval England have always been that way as well. In our ever more threatened and overcrowded world humans are going to have to become more cooperative, but it’s going to take more than just embracing sweet reason and saying “why can’t we all just get along.” There’s a beast within because we are beasts. Accepting this truth may be the first step toward a solution. Pretending it’s not true–often the default left position–is likely to result in more status quo.

  6. Rod

    Great post debate read. Wish someone on stage had brought the topic up.
    This stuck out to me:

    Another commons-derived idea, “subsidiarity,” holds that a business should never grow for growth’s sake. It should only grow as big as it needs to in order to accomplish its purpose. Then, instead of expanding to the next town or another industry, it should just let someone else replicate the model. Joe’s pizzeria should sell to Joe’s customers. If they need I a pizzeria in the next town, Joe can share his recipe and let Samantha do it.

    Now an anectdote:
    In Leadville Colorado there exists an independent fleece clothing manufacturer called Melanzania. They only use Polartech fleece manufactured in Massachusetts by the inventor of that product who rebuilt his factory after a disastrous fire instead of moving his production overseas. Melanzania employ cutters, stitchers, sales and etc–over 20 people making more than a living wage with benefits. In Leadville on Main Street. I had heard about the operation and went in to shop and talk.
    When I asked about their plans on expansion to gain larger market for their concept and goods, they agreed with the idea BUT–they were happy in their market with their central Colorado location and if their concept were to expand why didn’t I go off and replicate it to my market. And they would give me advice and moral support to do so. Explained that expanding the concept was more important to them than expanding their physical business.
    It was such a refreshing dialogue that I keep it as a handy reference for how businessses can evolve to do more than generate profits for the few.

    1. akaPaul LaFargue

      The Cheeseboard in Berkeley (cheese, pastries and pizza) – the famous worker cooperative that has become a tourist attraction (especially at noon when a different live band plays daily!) – actually did this over 25 years ago. Now five or six similar bakeries exists in neighboring cities around SF Bay. All successful. Over 150 worker-members of these autonomist, but collaborative (one back office) enterprises. btw, early theorists of cooperatives likened them to commons.

    2. deplorado

      Thank you!
      This is the kind of economy and businesses I want.

      What a fantastic discussion – also Tom Pfotzer’s comment below – thank you! – very important practical points.

  7. Susan the other`

    Capitalism relies on profits. Profits rely on growth. Growth on monopoly. Monopoly on exploitation. Exploitation on hardship. Some new capitalism could cut through the nonsense and do predistributism. It is still capitalism on a local scale. A manageable scale. Maybe it’s not capitalism that is the culprit at all. But how we have forced it beyond its capacity. Makes sense.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, profits do not rely on growth. The ideal company to own as a private investor was one in a niche that was small enough for bigger fish not to bother to go after that had nice high cash flow.

  8. Oh

    America’s growth can be in large part attributed to corporations taking from the commons and making huge private gains. Examples are logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, power transmission and now air rights including TV transmissions, wireless. These corps. pay a pittance for these “rights” and the USG gives them free rein to destroy nature.

  9. Christopher Herbert

    “This zero-sum mentality is an artifact of monopoly central currency,” is not a true statement. Monopoly central currency is agnostic taken by itself. Over 4,000 years ago, city states regularly issued money and collected taxes to provision themselves. During these years of antiquity, debts were regularly absolved in order to establish a ‘clean slate’ by allowing debtors to regain their land lost to debt. Sounds more like a ‘commons’ friendly idea than a zero-sum mentality. Money is not the culprit, values are.

  10. Tom Pfotzer

    A while back I did some work in this commons-building space. The concept was to enable/facilitate business-concept genesis and refinement…which would tend to lead toward team-building, and that would evolve into new-business formation.

    We ran into some tough problems:

    a. People don’t really know how to build teams, and how to function in a team that doesn’t have an official coach/manager

    b. Most people, in most situations, don’t like to “give away” ideas that may have commercial value. The examples cited above are (currently) very extraordinary

    c. New business development is arduous, slow, grinding. Not for the cell-phone “app” crowd, at all. Needs white-board type thinkers and people that can stand project management discipline and actually build stuff

    I agree that the means of production needs to be redistributed, as the wealth generated by those factors of production might also be re-distributed, and no increase in aggregate demand will occur unless buying power is redistributed (even more that it already is)

    The prob with factor-of-production redistribution is that the recipients generally can’t operate it anywhere near as well as that productive capacity was operated when it was centralized. Scale and competency and specialization are a few reasons why.

    “Commons” operators are going to have a lot of game, right at the outset, in order to compete against the entrenched big guys. The feel-good customer (for ex: the cust that buys local even if it costs more) is not as prevalent/lenient as is portrayed in the sentimentalist press.

    I’m saying this to encourage thinking / stir the pot, not to road-block.

  11. Henry Moon Pie

    My hope for a resurgence of the commons is a very limited idea in and of itself but I think it can possibly help us re-learn about a commons and how to manage it. Here in my poor, urban slice of Rust Belt America, we have acres of vacant lots where there were once residences and businesses. I’d like to see much of this vacant land repurposed as food forests managed by the neighborhoods where they’re located. One commendable fellow and a band of helpers is doing just that a few blocks from me. They’re planting fruit trees, berries and herbs in a native grass setting using permaculture techniques. A local composter is supplying them with large quantities of compost.

    Once a food forest has been established in one neighborhood, the veterans of the project could help adjacent neighborhoods with their planning and execution.

  12. Tyronius

    LOL When capitalism finds something better than humans to grease the wheels of progress, it won’t need capitalists anymore! How’s that for irony?

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