Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.


Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

In moments of crisis, when the structures of conventional governance are suddenly exposed as weak or ineffectual, it is clear that there is no substitute for ordinary people acting together.  Although individuals may have small spheres of influence, collectively our choices and agency are the ultimate guarantors of any values we may wish to secure.  In any successful scheme of governance, it is not enough for institutions to exercise control; individual initiative and collective commitments must be actively enlisted and nourished as an ethos.  The superstructures of law and governance can achieve only so much without the consent of the governed.

People must be able to actively participate in governance for another reason: their sovereignty will otherwise be usurped by state institutions and moneyed interests.  That is essentially what is happening today as political elites consolidate power and erect barriers to meaningful democratic participation.  Governments are more capable of engaging in extra-legal behaviors and political favoritism, ignoring the long-term common good, and sanctioning rapacious exploitation of the Earth.

A key political challenge of our time is to figure out new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power, otherwise known as neoliberalism.  This is a daunting challenge because today’s nation-state system, in alliance with large corporations and financial institutions, is profoundly hostile to genuine democratic empowerment. Neoliberal economics and policy insist upon debt-driven economic growth, extractivist uses of the Earth, consumerism and nationalism as the central goals of modern societies.  It provides very little space – legally, culturally or politically – for citizens to imagine and develop serious alternatives.


This essay explores a promising path for moving beyond our current impasse.  I argue that the creative use of new digital technologies on open network platforms could inaugurate liberating new forms of “open source governance.”  Tech infrastructures and software are enabling ordinary people to meet basic needs and self-govern important aspects of their lives.  They can create their own cultural spaces to deliberate, collaborate and share resources without market and state structures that are often cumbersome, expensive, anti-social or predatory.  This paradigm shift is not just conjectural; it already well underway, as analysts such as Jeremy Rifkin, Yochai Benkler, Don Tapscott, Michel Bauwens and Paul Mason have documented.[2]

To be clear:  this is not an argument that states and transnational corporations will disappear, or that bioregional social economies will suddenly eclipse capitalism.  My argument is more modest – that new tech platforms offer practical, politically attractive pathways for reinventing the market/state as now constituted and developing a more robust, potentially transformative Commons Sector.

Predicting the future is an inherently risky proposition, especially when there are so many active variables shaping today’s world.  Still, the innovations now unfolding in various tech spaces suggest the outlines of new post-capitalist institutions that, with struggle and luck, could transcend many of the structural and cultural problems we face today.  In the next section, I explore some of the more promising ones.  They include new types of group deliberation and governance software platforms such as Loomio and Co-budget; digital platforms that enable better management of ecological resources; and “blockchain ledger” technology, which is enabling new forms of network-native self-organization, collective action and “smart contracts” that bypass the conventional legal apparatus. 

They also include new types of online guilds that blend market activity, social cooperation, philanthropy and friendship; urban commons that reinvent city bureaucracies and empower citizen initiative; open design and manufacturing communities that are extending open-source principles to the physical production of vehicles, furniture, electronics and other things; and citizen-science that mobilizes massive participation in assessing environmental problems and orchestrating collaborative solutions.

In these collaborative worlds, people are self-consciously engaged in a process of commoning – the bottom-up coordination, disputation, negotiation, social practices and ethics needed to create functioning commons.[3]  As social systems, these commons resemble, but go well beyond, the commons archetypes described by the late political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her pioneering studies of small-scale natural resource commons.  The collaborative communities now emerging on digital platforms do not worry so much about resource-depletion or free riders – problems that affect the management of water, fisheries and land – as how to intelligently curate information from the multitudes and design effective self-governance structures for virtual collaboration.   

The point of the commons paradigm, despite its many different flavors, is this:  It provides “protected” space in which to re-imagine production and governance.  As the motley universe of digital commons replicate and mutate, they have begun to federate and form new sorts of transnational governance superstructures.  It may not be perfectly accessible and democratic - thanks to the persistence of the “digital divide” (unequal access to computers, smartphones and the Internet) and the dominance of people with the discretionary time and energy to participate -- but this emergent realm of production and governance is far more accessible and transparent than conventional state democracy and more solidly grounded through bottom-up participation and ethical accountability. 

It should be stressed that the commoning that takes place on open platforms is not confined to the nether regions of cyberspace; it also manifests itself in the “real world” of physical things, social practice and culture.  Digital networks are becoming deeply entangled with all aspects of life, including our use of natural resources, the ways that we organize ourselves socially and economically, and in our very structures of knowledge, culture and identity.  In this sense, our lives with digital technologies are profoundly affecting how we regard property, political life, and economic life.     

The open-source governance that I will examine below must emphatically be distinguished from the faux-sharing models (i.e., micro-rental markets) that have been served up by Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb and other corporate “gig economy” players.  Unlike these capital-driven enterprises, the collaborations that I am describing are fundamentally non-market and socially mindful in character. They are less defined by technology per se than by the new social forms and political /cultural attitudes that they engender.  The salient innovations of the open design Farm Hack community, for example, or the open-source agronomy commons known as the System for Rice Intensification – both described below – are social in character.  They want to make the world a better place without making return on investment the supreme priority.  They want to move people beyond the producer/consumer dyad and formalistic notions of citizenship, and enable people to enact a more personal, DIY vision of self-provisioning and governance. 

(To be sure, the micro-rental “sharing” models may indirectly foster a cooperative ethic and “social capital,” and reduce the extent to which we build our identities on possessions and consumption, but they are still ultimately predicated on profit-making and competitive success in the market, which tend to erode the sinews of cooperative communities).[4]

The work of digital commons scrambles the familiar categories of life that we normally pigeonhole as “the economy,” “government,” “law” and “civil society.”  Digital commons amount to a new type of social organism that traverses all of these categories.  Indeed, online collaborations virtually demand that we reconsider many of our epistemological and ontological assumptions about such dualisms as individual and collective, public and private, and objective and subjective.  The commons blurs these categories.

The Limits of the Market/State

Before describing the promising potential of digital commons in greater detail, it is important to briefly explain why existing configurations of the market/state are unlikely to deal with today’s challenges.  Several interrelated deficiencies must be noted:  the sheer global scale of market/state governance, its diminishing efficacy in dealing with local and global complexity, its reliance on legal coercion without providing space for citizen consent and participation, and the growing sense of distrust and even illegitimacy associated with state actions. 

One might say that techniques of rational governance, when applied to large-scale jurisdictions and augmented by bureaucracies and computer systems, have reached distinct limits. The command-and-control exercised by big bureaucracies, whether the U.S. Pentagon or Environmental Protection Agency on the one hand, or Microsoft or General Motors on the other, represents tremendous power, but it is also increasingly less effective in managing distributed, local complexity.  Government agencies may enjoy strong statutory authority and plenty of sophisticated administrative tools.  Corporate bureaucracies may have great capital resources and data analytics.  Yet the knowledge gathered by these systems have become highly abstracted and quantitative, and their power profoundly anti-democratic and coercive.  This can be seen, for example, in government use of Big Data to violate citizens’ privacy and other civil liberties, and in corporations and law enforcement using data for racial and demographic profiling.  Large-scale institutions tend to become focused on narrow, rigid metrics (Gross Domestic Product, short-term return on investment[5]) and their bureaucratic rules and credentials easily become tautologically closed and self-justifying. 

In his 2014 book, The Utopia of Rules, anthropologist David Graeber, noted, “The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization over the last two hundred years is that it has made the intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like common sense.”  The “rationality” of bureaucracy can easily become a convenient political and legal cover for state violence, corporate agendas, and “lawful dispossession.”  Graeber describes how the “alliance of government and finance often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worst excesses of bureaucratization in the Soviet Union or former colonial backwaters of the Global South.”

If large bureaucracies are not responsive to local communities or politically disfavored groups, that is largely the (unstated) point:  to provide a rational, systemic justification for the practices favored by the dominant political players.  Bureaucracy is not a neutral, apolitical force.  Once the fiction of bureaucratic rationality and procedure is widely accepted by the public, the system can be gamed to advance narrow, arbitrary ends.  Politicians and bureaucrats can invoke “the law” as neutral, scientifically grounded and fair, but in practice implementation tilts to favor elites, shift costs to marginalized populations and shortchange the common good and future generations.

This is an apt summary of the capture of the regulatory state over the past fifty years.  It is used to set important limits to market activity, but also to codify significant evasions.  Representative democracy purports to address societal problems through the political process, but the “scientific” implementation is corrupted through half-hidden procedural subterfuges.  The state acts as a crypto-partner in legalizing formerly unacceptable market behaviors.

The state, having cast its lot with capital accumulation and growth, is losing its credibility and competence in addressing larger needs.  In her essay, “The Death of Democratic Governance,” June Sekera writes that “marketization and its confederate, privatization, have led, sometimes intentionally, to the evisceration of governmental capacity, the downsizing of democracy and the dismantling of traditions of responsible public administration that are grounded in law and the Constitution…. With the rise of market-centrism and rational choice economics, government was devalued and allowed a role only in cases of ‘market failure.’  The very idea of a valid, valuable public non-market almost disappeared from sign.  So today, we lack a coherent, comprehensive theory of the public economy.”[6]  Indeed, standard economics today largely ignores the fundamental, affirmative role that government plays in facilitating functional, trustworthy markets.

As neoliberal policies have “hollowed out” government over the past generation, literally and conceptually, popular distrust of government has soared.  And why not?  Government has lost its actual capacities to serve many non-market social and ecological needs.  As the Wall Street bailouts demonstrated, the state has been commandeered to serve the political interests of investors and corporations while imposing austerity on social services and protections for ordinary citizens.  The state is further weakened by unrelenting ideological attacks on it as the enemy of freedom. 

With waning public confidence in governance institutions at a low ebb, we have come to inhabit an “institutional void” of politics and policymaking. In the words of Dutch political scientist Maarten Hajer: “There are no clear rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted and policy measures are to be agreed upon.  To be more precise, there are no generally accepted rules and norms according to which policy making and politics are to be conducted.”[7] While the machinery of government continues to function, many of its deliberations amount to empty formalisms and politically staged propaganda.

Given this void and the barriers to democratic action, many citizens who might otherwise engage with legitimate state policymaking have shifted their energies into “transnational, polycentric networks of governance in which power is dispersed,” writes Hajer.  This is seen in the emergence of new citizen-actors and new forms of mobilization” seeking system change – from cultural surges such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and Las Indignadas to long-term movements focused on degrowth, the solidarity economy, Transition Towns, peer production, the commons, and countless niche projects.   In this new climate – the twilight of liberal democracy? – voting and other classical notions of citizenship often seem archaic and futile. Citizenship itself has become a diminished thing, even a vestigial formality. The system is rigged, as populist insurgents on both the right and left assert – yet what is the alternative?

Thus the impasse we face today:  The neoliberal market/state agenda is inflicting grievous harm on the planet, social well-being and democracy – yet the market/state remains largely unresponsive to popular demands for change.  Its power is seemingly secure, but its actual governance capacities are limited.  Many NGOs and movements persist in “working within the system,” gamely believing that it might deliver meaningful change.  Massive crowds of protestors at the same time argue persuasively that “the system is the problem,” yet few offer serious alternatives for remaking the bureaucratic market/state.  Is there a way out of this conundrum?                                     

The (Still-Emerging) Promise of Open Source Governance

To say that commons based on open tech platforms will play a central role in transforming our politics and polity is not merely an optimistic assertion.  It is already happening.  The Internet and mobile telephony are becoming ubiquitous, and not just in the global North.  Smartphones, e-tablets, laptops and countless other portable computing devices are proliferating, with most of them connected to the Internet via pervasive wifi and telephony.  Businesses and markets are reconfiguring themselves to take advantage of electronic networks, which are increasingly global in scope.  Electronic networks are now a defining infrastructure shaping the conduct of political life, governance, commerce and culture.

To be sure, many legacy institutions and social practices continue to exist.  But they have no choice but to evolve.  Familiar hierarchical, centralized systems of control such as the corporation, bureaucracy, institutional philanthropy and the nonprofit are under siege.  Open networks are undercutting the enormous overhead costs that conventional institutions and markets tend to require – physical buildings, talent recruitment and retention, legal contracts, liability costs, marketing and branding, debt payments, and so on.  By contrast, online commons are lightweight social systems that, with the right software and norms, can run quite efficiently on trust, reciprocity and modest governance structures. 

Digital commons are materializing in part because it is easier and more socially satisfying to participate in a commons (especially when the marginal cost of information is virtually nil) than to pay for goods and services in the marketplace.  This is posing something of a crisis for capitalism, argues Jeremy Rifkin in his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society.  Rifkin notes that the extreme productivity of digital technologies is lowering the marginal costs of production for many goods and services to near zero.  This is undercutting the premises of conventional markets, which are based on private owners using proprietary means to extract profits from nature, communities and consumers.  But if those profits are increasingly squeezed by open, shared knowledge and technologies, then the foundations of capitalism as we know it today are imperiled.  Rifkin declares: 

We are glimpsing at the outlines of a new economic system based on sharing and the collaborative commons. It is the first new paradigm-shifting system since the introduction of capitalism and communism.  Granted, it is still muddy and hazy but it is already flourishing alongside the exchange economy of the capitalist market.  The dividing lines are not always clear because capitalist companies like Google or Facebook are actually creating commons.  They make money out of it but these commons are then used by the people to drive out other companies or industries.  And for every Google there is a Wikipedia, which is a non-profit commons. These two systems are still largely intertwined. But by mid-century, the new system will be the predominant one.[8]

The “collaborative commons” that Rifkin describes is a hybrid capitalist/commons economy that is able to exploit the efficiencies and higher quality produced on open networks.  This in turn is giving rise to new infrastructures such as the “Internet of Things” (physical objects whose identity and functions are linked to networks) and to new types of markets and commons.  The producer/consumer dichotomy is giving way to “prosumers” (or commoners) who are able to create their own goods and services, without businesses as intermediaries.  Hence the colossal “disintermediation” of the old economy.  The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica succumbs to the power of Wikipedia, newspaper classified ads are supplanted by Craigslist, Netflix becomes the largest distributor of films without owning any theaters, Airbnb becomes the largest lodging business without owning any hotels, and Uber becomes the largest taxi service without owning any cars.

The dominant newcomers are capitalist enterprises, of course.  Their use of open platforms amounts to “communism for capital,” as Michel Bauwens has pointed out.[9] They freely privatize and monetize the fruits of social sharing, and in this sense, open platforms are “free” only within the boundaries allowed by business models and at the cost of digital commoners.  Open platforms provide many valuable services at no (monetary) cost to users.  But when some good or service is offered for at no cost, it really means that the user is the product:  our personal data, attention, social attitudes lifestyle behavior, and even our digital identities, are the commodity that platform owners are seeking to “own.”  

From Open Platforms to Digital Commons

To combat corporate exploitation of open platforms, many efforts are now afoot to establish digital commons as viable alternatives.  The new models are sometimes called “platform co-operativism.”[10]  The point is to devise technical, organizational and financial forms that enable users to mutualize the benefits of their own online sharing, rather than allowing companies to siphon away collectively created value.  In digital commons, the community asserts its sovereignty over markets and capital, and resists the surrender of personal information and digital identity to third parties. 

The quest to convert open platforms into digital commons may seem marginal or quixotic, but in fact there are powerful economic dynamics driving this shift.  Network analyst David P. Reed showed in a seminal 1999 paper[11] that the value generated by networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model based on “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of viewers), to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).  But by far the most valuable networks are those that facilitate group affiliations to pursue shared goals – or what I would call commons. 

Reed calculated that the value of “group forming networks,” in which people have the tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” to be 2n – a fantastically large number.  His analysis suggests that the value generated by Facebook, Twitter, and other proprietary network platforms remain highly rudimentary because participants have only limited tools for developing trust and confidence in each other.  Open source tools and principles could unleash this value – but it would subvert the business model.  Social media companies must therefore deliberately stifle the actual value potential of the commons.[12]

Beyond network economics, there are powerful social forces propelling digital commons forward.  A great many activists and social movements realize that existing governance structures and political parties are fundamentally unwilling to seek systemic change.  Incumbent organizations and processes are too dominated by entrenched interests.  Even legislative or regulatory victories are often Pyrrhic when followed by protracted litigation or weak bureaucratic implementation. 

Hence the burgeoning interest among post-political, network-native activists (let us call them) in inventing new types of tech platforms that can challenge, bypass or disrupt “the system.”  I chronicled the rise of these “digital commoners” in my 2008 book Viral Spiral, which traced the evolution of free and open source software, Creative Commons-licensed content, the remix and mashup worlds, open access scholarly publishing, the open educational resources movement, open data and open science projects, and other efforts to use open platforms and protocols for the common good.[13]  This “viral spiral” of commoning has only intensified in the past decade, with the robust development of open design and manufacturing communities on a global scale, alternative digital currencies, open source mapping projects, crowdfunding to finance commons-based projects, and much else.[14]  

I must stress:  These are not just Silicon Valley startups with a dollop of social marketing.  They are part of a worldwide cohort of “hacktivists,” makers, software programmers and social media innovators who are consciously attempting to build tech platforms that can meet needs in post-capitalist ways, often via commons.  That is to say, the goal is to enable communities to reap the value that they generate.  Participants contribute their talents and resources to the commons, and share in self-governance and entitlements. 

Such open, participatory forms represent a serious advance over both market and state bureaucracy. Because transparency is the default norm in decision-making, merit and innovation tend to prevail over political connections and patronage.  Unlike bureaucratic programs, whose deficiencies are often masked by their complexity or political sponsors, open source governance invites wide-open scrutiny, testing and improvement.  Property rights and wealth are not prerequisites to participation. 

This means that solutions can draw upon a greater diversity of ideas and iterate more efficiently than hierarchical systems.  The technological, economic and cultural possibilities are highly plastic.  Preferred solutions are low-cost, modular and adaptable, not proprietary models designed to maximize private business revenues.  Anyone can step up and contribute, and even self-organize one’s own consequential community of amateurs.  And yet this world is not necessarily hostile to market activity; it simply privileges long-term community interests and mutualism over the moneymaking imperatives of capital. 

Of course, these are the normative principles driving open source models.  Actual implementation varies based on any number of factors – the importance of the project, the quality of its core maintainers, the direct or in-kind support of interested commercial interests, and so on.  Not everyone can afford to volunteer or participate for minimal pay.  Gender and racial diversity remains a serious problem, at least in the commercial tech world.  Still, the vision of open source governance continues to animate many venturesome, idealistic minds because it offers genuine opportunities to make a difference.[xvi] Individual initiative and collective interests can be aligned without the expense or exploitation of markets.  While there may be a libertarian bent in many open source communities, those digital commons that succeed realize that active governance is very much needed to protect collective interests.[16]


Next in Part II:  Digital commons as a new species of production and governance.

Notes and References

[1] David Remnick, “Many Voices”, The New Yorker, October 15, 2001, pp. 53-54.

[2] Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Yochai Benkler, The Penguin and the Leviathan. The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (New York: Crown Business, 2011), Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. (London: Atlantic Books, 2010), Michel Bauwens and Jean Lievens,Sauver le monde, Vers une société post-capitaliste avec le peer-to-peer (Paris, LLL, 2015), Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future (London, Allen Lane, 2015)

[3] The idea of patterns of commoning – the commons as a verb, not just a noun – are explored in David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning (Commons Strategies Group, 2015).

[4]  For a discussion of the potential and limits of the “sharing economy” in cities, see Julian Agyeman et al; and on the importance of reducing our reliance on consumption for identity see Armstrong and Jackson

[5]  For a longer discussion of the shortcomings of current economic and business models for the Big Ideas project see

[6]  June Sekera, “Economics and the Near-Death Experience of Democratic Governance,” Global Development and Environment Institute Working Paper No. 15-02, Tufts University, May 2015.

[7] Maarten Hajer, “Policy without Polity?  Policy Analysis and the Institutional Void,” 36 Policy Science 175 (2003) – emphasis in the original.

[8] Jeremy Rifkin, Interview with Lars Mensel and Max Tholl, The World Post, March 2, 2015.

[10] A major conference, Platform Co-operativism,” was held at the New School in New York City on November 13-14, 2015. More at

[12] See David Bollier and John H. Clippinger, “The Next Great Internet Disruption:  Authority and Governance,” in Clippinger and Bollier, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond:  The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society (ID3 and Off the Commons Books, 2014), pp. 21-28.

[13] David Bollier, Viral Spiral:  How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New Press, 2008).

[14] For essays on these topics, see David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning (Commons Strategies Group, 2015).

[15] See, e.g., Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits:  The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008).

[16] A noteworthy example is how the Burning Man festival, a “pop-up city” of 60,000 people, transformed itself from an ethos of libertarian license to a cooperative, self-governing community of individualists.  See Peter Hirshberg, “Burning Man:  The Pop-Up City of Self-Governing Individualists,” in Clippinger and Bollier, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond (ID3 and Off the Common Books, 2014).