The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The third and final part of the essay will appear next.
Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance
To return to our original question: How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power? There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance. Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.
While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority. The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value. It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold. By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).
Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative. We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software. That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control. For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities, and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).
Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation. The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.