What are commons exactly? Beyond the popular imagery of gleaners, and facing the capitalist predation of contributive and cooperative models, the defense of informational common goods presupposes the acknowledgement of this collective economic form.
For people who grew up in the country, it was on the commons that one was allowed to pick up branches left behind by lumberjacks to heat oneself in winter, thus doing valuable work by cleaning up the forest. The word “common” also reminds us of the painting from Millet The Gleaners or the film of Agnes Varda, The Gleaners and I, that, although dated, retain all their relevance..
Beyond these “resurgences” of the old days, where the country bore the traces of a social, legal, and economic organization mode, the question of “commons” is taking on a new significance with the emergence of claims over water, air, seeds, the human genome, today the climate and even food.
The prime example of this claim is naturally the re-municipalization of water boards such as the one in Naples, which is now not only managed by the public, but most importantly where the public takes part in the governance of management as well as the control of use. Closer to us we can mention the strong and proactive political gesture of more and more towns, such as Besançon, that decided to make the first cubic meters of water free.
In parallel with property commons or natural resources considered as common goods, the notion of “informational common goods” is developing. This is no longer about “leftovers” that are unexploitable or too costly to exploit (branches, seeds, badly exposed plots or too steep), nor about resources, the exclusive property of which is difficult to define. Informational common goods, intellectual works and particularly computer code are “goods” that produce wealth today. You don’t pick up leftovers of a bit of code fallen out of a computer that you wouldn’t know what to do with.
When I started getting interested in common goods with a few friends in Libres enfants du savoir numérique (Free children of digital knowledge) some fifteen years ago, under the influence of Garrett Hardin and his famous Tragedy of the Commons (1968), we defined commons as a resource of non exclusive nature to be protected by a legal regime: the GNU-GPL for computer code or Creative Commons permits for cultural goods for instance.
Creative Commons Remix (2016):
At the time, forgetting about the numerous warnings from Marx, we could not imagine to what extent capitalism would be able to renew itself to incorporate, almost digest, these new forms of organization, cooperative production and these new non exclusive legal regimes. The surprise came less from a Free that allows itself to privatize free software than from much subtler forms, almost fascinating, that have been developing for several years around hackathons organized by large companies.
The governance of commons
In our reflection, a link was missing, that of governance and regulation. Not just the protection that could offer on a case-by-case basis a foundation, the Free Software Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other Quadrature du Net (Internet quadrature, a defense association of the rights and freedoms of citizens on the Internet founded in 2008) that, with all due respect I have for them and their tenacity, are not able to resist on their own against these predation systemic forms.
There are moments in History, notes the economist Benjamin Coriat, when militias were instructed to protect the commons to enforce their collection rules so they would not be predatory and not be carried out to benefit a single person to the detriment of all the others. There is no question of coming back to these agonistic forms—even though sometimes the temptation is high J, but using the idea that governance of the common is a decisive element of their existence.
This is the fundamental input of the works of the Benjamin Coriat, who in the wake of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Economics Prize in 2009, introduces in Le retour des communs, la crise de l’idéologie propriétaire (Return of the commons, the crisis of proprietary ideology) (2015) this dimension of “governance structure ensuring a distribution of rights between the participating partners in the common (commoners) and aiming for an organized exploitation of the resource, allowing its reproduction in the long term”.
A column is not really suitable for an economic theory… You just need to take into consideration that the main input from Benjamin Coriat is to insist on this third element of a trilogy for the transition to commons, designed as a collective economic form, to occur, defining clearly the conditions of their longevity and their reproduction. We will see very soon and very concretely how to illustrate this theory other than with Wikipedia, and possibly in a more relevant manner.
See the previous columns for Makery from Olivier Blondeau, co-author of “Libres enfants du savoir numérique (Free children of digital knowledge)” (éd. de l’Eclat, 2000)