Does the Commons Have a Metaphysics?

One reason that the commons is so alien to some people, I have concluded, is because it cuts so deeply. It is not just about economics and social policy (although there’s plenty of disagreement there); the commons also represents a different worldview and even a different metaphysics. I come to this hypothesis after reading an excellent essay on the future of the Internet by Doc Searls, and a side-discussion that it prompted with Eric Raymond, a leading commentator on open source software.

First, the Searls essay. Doc Searls, a senior editor for Linux Journal, recently wrote a piece, “ Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes.” He warns of the serious risk that cable and telephone companies will convert the open Internet commons into a wholly enclosed communication system that they own and control.

Searls begins:

Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are you ready to see the Net’s free and open marketplace sucked into a pit of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?

Along the way, Searls astutely notes that a big part of the problem in fighting the impending telco/cable takeover of the Internet is the words and metaphors that we use. Should we regard the Internet as a system of “pipes,” a place, or a publishing system?

Searls briefly entertains the value of “the commons” as a metaphor, but ultimately is dubious: “’The Commons’ and ‘the public domain’ might be legitimate concepts with deep and relevant histories, but they’re too arcane to most of us. Eric Raymond has told me more than once that the Commons Thing kinda rubs him the wrong way. Communist and Commonist are just a little too close for comfort. Too social. Not private enough. He didn’t say he was against it, but he did say it was a stretch.”

Raymond, the author of the classic “cathedral and the bazaar” essay, about open-source software development, used the Searls comment to launch a discussion on his own blog, Armed and Dangerous. His post, “ Why ‘Commons’ Language Gives Me the Hives,” gives some useful insight into why conservatives and libertarians are so squeamish about the idea of the commons. (It’s worth noting that Raymond is an ardent libertarian advocate for gun owners’ rights. Perhaps that says it all.)

I obviously disagree with much of Raymond’s critique of the commons, but his comments and the string of reader responses constitute illustrate where many people’s heads are at. Raymond writes:

My problem with the language of “the commons” is that to me it sounds, at best, like idealistic blather. At worst, and far more usually, it sounds like an attempt to conceal all kinds of individual decisions about cooperation under a vague collectivist metaphor so the individuals who made those decisions can be propagandized and jerked around.

I found it ironic that Raymond, an advocate of open source software, has such trouble recognizing the organic social reality of groups of people making decisions for themselves. I regard this as the essence of the commons; he senses a dark conspiracy or power grab (“a form of ventriloquism used by some individual to seek power over others”).

In any case, one respondent to Raymond, “Shenpen,” raises the idea that the commons expresses a very deep-seated human need:

If we stopped talking about society, “the commons” or communities in any sense then we would deny a very basic human instinct: to alleviate our ego-based fears and anxieties by wishing to become part of something bigger. It is quite normal I think: as Buddhism is about dissolving the ego into space itself, as Christianity is about dissolving the ego in God, it is a quite normal non-spiritual way of overcoming the ego to dissolve ourselves into a nation, tribe, community or society.

To which Eric Raymond responded:

No, Shenpen, that feeling is a dangerous lie. The second I am (say) hit by a bus, I will discover that I damn well do exist as a separate, vulnerable me, no matter how ego-dissolved into a warm ’n’ fuzzy community I feel.

 Shenpen:

Why optimize our minds for the worst case?…. Actually, if we look at how happiness or unhappiness works, unhappiness is always a kind of tension arising from the separation of “I” and the “world,” which appears as a kind of anxious feeling of missing something that would make us happy. The most typical human reaction for this feeling is wanting to “internalize” things: to “consume” the world in the form of wealth, fame or sexual conquest. The second most typical reaction is wanting to “externalize” the ego — this is what I am talking about.

I’ve always sensed that the commons really does have some serious metaphysical implications. Raymond is quite adamant in his belief about our irreducible isolation and disconnection from each other. Shenpen argues that the spiritual and social realities of human life suggest otherwise. In fact, this is a key reason — I would argue — why a discourse of the commons is experiencing such a surge in popularity these days. It enables people to assert an intersubjective connection with each other, and with nature, in the face of a market metaphysics that treats others and nature as meaningless, insensate objects.

If there is a commons holiday, I think it would be Thanksgiving: a time for some “intersubjective connection” with both loved ones and strangers. If inclusiveness is idealistic blather, I say let’s make the most of it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.