By training Stefan Meretz is a German engineer and computer scientist, but he is also a deep theorist of the commons who has written often about commons-based peer production and the development of a free society beyond market and state.  Over the past several years I have learned a lot from Stefan's application of free software-inspired thinking to the commons.    

Below, I have posted his wonderful essay, “The Structural Communality of the Commons,” which appears in The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press).  Stefan lives in Berlin and blogs at 

This essay, like the rest of The Wealth of the Commons, is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.  In coming weeks, I plan to post additional essays from our anthology.  All of them will all be available at starting in April.


The commons are as varied as life itself, and yet everyone involved with them shares common convictions. If we wish to understand these convictions, we must realize what commons mean in a practical sense, what their function is and always has been. That in turn includes that we concern ourselves with people. After all, commons or common goods are precisely not merely “goods,” but a social practice that generates, uses and preserves common resources and products. In other words, it is about the practice of commons, or commoning, and therefore also about us. The debate about the commons is also a debate about images of humanity. So let us take a step back and begin with the general question about living conditions.

Living conditions do not simply exist; instead, human beings actively produce them. In so doing, every generation stand on the shoulders of its forebears. Creating something new and handing down to future generations that which had been created before – and if possible, improved – has been part of human activity since time immemorial. The historical forms in which this occurred, however, have been transformed fundamentally, particularly since the transition to capitalism and a market economy. Although markets have existed for millennia, their function was not as central as they have become in contemporary capitalism, where they set the tone. They determine the rules of global trade. They organize interactions between producers and consumers across the world. Some observers believe they can recognize practices of the commons even in markets. After all, they say, markets are also about using resources jointly, and according to rules that enable markets to function in as unrestricted and unmanipulated ways as possible. However, markets are not commons, and it is worth understanding why.

Although markets are products of human action, their production is also controlled by markets, not by human action. It is no coincidence that markets are spoken of as if they were active subjects. We can read about what the markets are “doing” every day in the business pages. Markets decide, prefer and punish. They are nervous, lose trust or react cautiously. Our actions take place under the direction of the markets, not the other way around. Even a brief look at the rules mentioned above makes that clear. Rules issued by governments first recognize the basic principles of markets, but these rules function only as “add-ons” that are supposed to guide the effects of the markets in one direction or the other.

One direction may mean restricting the effects of the market so as to attain specific social goals. Viewed in this light, the supposedly alternative concept of a centrally planned economy turns out to be nothing more than a radical variant of guiding markets. The other direction can mean designing rules so that market mechanisms can flourish, in the hope that everyone is better off in the end if individuals pursue their own material self-interest. The various schools of economic thought reflect the different directions. They all take for granted the assumption that markets work, and that what matters is optimizing how they work. A common feature is that none of these standard schools of thought question markets themselves. That is why markets are at times described as “second nature” (Fisahn 2010) – a manifestation of nature and its laws that cannot be called into question, but only applied.

As if recovering from the binge of market triumphalism that crested in 2008, the Zeitgeist is now unleashing a steady stream of new works on cooperation.  The rediscovery of this aspect of our humanity is long overdue and incredibly important, given the deformities of thinking that economics has inflicted on public consciousness.  So I was excited to learn that the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennetthad written a new book about cooperation, Together:  The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press). 

The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience.  Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics.  Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate.  He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life.  This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads.  It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite.  Sennett supplies one. 

Provocative Reading

Every day all sorts of fascinating, commons-relevant stories flow through my computer. I thought I'd showcase a few of the more notable ones.

Silent Protocol Wars

Radical Philosophy, a UK journal, has a fascinating essay, “A Tale of Two Worlds,”  by Nicolás Mendoza, about the “silent protocol wars” that websites like WikiLeaks, 4Chan and the Anonymous hackers are embroiled in with nation-states. The “de-localized collaborative community” is arguably the biggest social innovation of the Internet. It is the source of what Mendoza calls a “rogue episteme” – alternative, sometimes-subversive ways of seeing and engaging with the world. But will these alternative networked communities be made technically impossible if they continue to challenge the authority and control of the nation-state? Recent provocations by WikiLeaks (the US Embassy Cables leak) and Anonymous' retaliatory acts raise the question.  The implications for the civic sovereignty of citizens elsewhere around the world is huge.

Mendoza writes: 

“There is no remote corner of the Internet not dependent on protocols,” Laura DeNardis insists. What DeNardis stresses is the ultimate preponderance of the technical over the social protocol. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated “Code is Law.” But protocol runs deeper than software: if code is law then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted toward anything spectacular (like tactical and superficial DdoS [denial of service] attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables [by WikiLeaks], the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on Internet control to the governments of the world.

Governments, of course, want to assure their own capacity to conduct surveillance, censorship and control. The question is whether the autonomous communities as embodied by WikiLeaks and Anonymous (who act as a vanguard for the larger, less politicized set of Internet users) can survive the protocol wars. “This is where the war stands to be won,” writes Mendoza: “in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.”

Sometimes it just takes a determined set of commoners to get the job done. Impatient with the lethargy of the federal government in making its own films and videos available online, info-activist Carl Malamud has launched the International Amateur Scanning League. Dozens of volunteers are digitizing government-produced DVDs on everything from agricultural advice to presidential addresses, and putting them on the Internet.

Some 200,000 such DVDs are nominally available to the American people, but unless you live in Washington, D.C., and can personally visit the National Archives, your only option is to buy a copy from The Scanning League aims to liberate those videos for everyone — for free.

As the New York Times (March 15) tells the story:

The venerable English pub has long been a place where everyone from the businessman to the housewife to the student, factory worker and vicar could meet as equals — a social commons that reflected the neighborhood and its idiosyncrasies. Over the past twenty years or more, however, large corporations have consolidated the ownership of British pubs so that some companies own thousands of them. The trend has accelerated in recent years, forcing hundreds of independent local pubs to close.

Now, as The Independent (London) reports, local beer-drinkers are fighting back. They are buying their beloved local pubs and converting them into cooperatives — and gaining greater control over how the pub is run, diversifying the beers sold, and preserving the pubs for their communities and children. (Thanks to Ally Marks for the tip to this story!)

Hard-Wired to Cooperate

Do humans have a natural propensity to form commons? That is certainly one way to interpret recent findings by scientists studying the innate behaviors of babies. It turns out that very young children show a natural willingness to help other out and cooperate.

While all of us have healthy dollops of ego and selfishness, experiments have shown that children have an almost reflexive desire to help others even before parents and culture begin to shape those instincts. The cooperative impulse can be seen in children across cultures, and it is a trait that our closest evolutionary ancestor, primates, do not have. In one experiment, for example, when an adult pretends to be searching for lost objects, infants will start, 12 months old, to point at the “lost” objects.

The Tragedy of the Anticommons

Property law is not exactly a riveting subject, and law professors are not usually good storytellers. But in his new book The Gridlock Economy, Michael Heller, a professor at Columbia Law School, has written one of the most intelligent and accessible critiques of how overly broad property rights can be harmful not only to the commons, but to the market.

If you care to learn why cell phone service is so bad in the United States, why breakthrough medical treatments cannot be taken to market, and how holdouts can stymie valuable real estate development, The Gridlock Economy helps locate a core problem: the fragmentation of individual property rights and the paralysis that results. Though economists like to tout property rights as a wonder-cure for virtually everything that ails us, Heller explains how all sorts of innovation and market growth is killed in the cradle simply because there are too many rights-holders with too many divergent concerns.

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