In what ways is the discussion on commons’s transition useful for the left and the question of social emancipation?

Theodora Kotsaka, Dr. Political Sociology, Independent Researcher

Transform Europe (ed.), The Laughter of Medousa: The Left in Europe, Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung e-Dossier, June 2019, Belgium.

The article elaborates on two main arguments. Applied commons policies have been fragmented and operate almost exclusively in small scale. In order to escalate, the appropriate institutional and law framework is presupposed and that need can not be answered without taking seriously the role of the state as a regulator. Left is the crucial political actor in that effort. Up to now the discourse about commons have mainly be defensive, like supporting public services and right to land or water amongst several others. It is time to enrich that narrative by the confidence that commons analysis ‘is the one that goes with the flow’, as it takes seriously the change of the production model into the framework of intense knowledge economy and digitalization.

Structural changes have as a result that today economic value is mainly produced through immaterial goods such as research, knowledge, information etc. An evolution with serious implications for capitalism. Commons theory claims that for those types of goods features such as openness and P2P modes of production, are essential in order for them to flourish. It is that parameter that makes it possible for commons analysis to contribute to answers -from a social emancipator perspective- that deal with technology, IT, big data, biotechnology etc. Those issues are at the core of our time and we need do admit that Left is facing them with a particular puzzlement.

Some definitions are necessary since people often define commons by whatever each one considers as a ‘good thing or idea’ according to personal perceptions. Also a misunderstanding arise very often between operational tools of commons economy like social economy or P2P modes of production, considering them as identical. Especially in the Left a certain confusion between commons and public is also very often.
Definitions 7 :
– Commons are a shared resource which is co-governed by its user community, according to the rules and norms of that community (the protocol of resource stewardship). The category includes gifts of nature (water, land etc), but also shared assets or creative work (language, information, culture artifacts etc).

– P2P – peer to peer, people to people, person to person- a relational dynamic through which peers freely collaborate to create value in the form of shared resources, circulated in the form of commons. P2P expresses an observable pattern of relations between humans.

Inclusive by nature, commons as applied policies can enable grassroots political participation and contribute to society empowerment and emancipation, which is the most important political deliverable in the process of commons transition.

Where are we in terms of commons transition?

Commons transition is not a promised paradise. Is a process based on some values that under the given situation and balance of power, is possible to deliver emancipator results as societies make steps towards it 8 . It is also possible to renew Lefts narrative in a way that is desperately needed. At the current moment in western wold main examples of such a process are to be found in municipal level. Cities and peripheries like Ghent, Bologna, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Naples, Montreal, Lille, Madrid and Bristol are creating spaces/institutions/structures for citizens to manage matters that most directly concern them 9 . They are increasing transparency, enabling participatory budgeting, facilitating the creation of social care co-ops, turning empty lots into community gardens, co-creating skill and tool sharing programs etc. All the above has been known under the term of ‘New Municipalism’ 10 . A movement of citizen-led municipal coalitions that has delivered very good results in electoral and political terms.

As already mentioned, commons have a problem in escalating. They are more comfortably operating in small scale. That is the reason that we can easily find examples in local level but when moving to national one, things become harder 11 . There is an interesting experience from Greece concerning applied commons policies in governmental level. In 2015 a board was created at the Ministry of Coordination with the task to research, define and enforce the most appropriate applied commons policies in different sectors. Soon, it became evident that even when all the administrative obstacles were faced and there was the political will to enforce a policy of that kind, the problems were to be found at the institutional framework that was unable
to adjust. For example there were cases that a free license for hardware was needed, and even though GPL was covering the software, for hardware there were nothing. Seeking for the appropriate lawyers to work on the issue a second realization arose. Lawyers get educated in preserving and
creating new enclosures and not in protecting commons. They are educated to ‘close’ for the interest of private profit, not to ‘open’ for society profit.
The importance of the state as a regulator regarding productive transformation towards commons is at the core of
the whole process. The commons transition plan is mainly referring to the Partner State model and the construction
of the respective Legal and Institutional Framework 12 .


It is important to keep in mind that there are two kind of commons: material like land and water and immaterial like knowledge or digital common goods. Analytically we cannot treat them with the same tools. There are fundamental differences that have to do with their nature. One, very indicative example: for material common goods is clear that when one person uses them, the other cannot. If I drink one glass of water the use is exclusive and another person cannot drink it. On the contrary, for immaterial commons it works on a reverse process. The biggest the number of people that use a language, the more reach and important it becomes. The use of one doesn’t exclude another. On the contrary it is presupposed. The more people use digital commons as Wikipedia or Linux, the most important they become. And the value they produce is responding to the number of people that are using them at one time.

That difference is of extreme importance, not only in order to define a convincing strategy for promoting commons transition, but also in order to understand the changes that are occurring in the production model and consequently to the value production process. There are two ways, two different strategies in order to construct a commons narrative which is necessary for communicating our argument not only to the public in general, but also with opinion leaders, policy makers, politicians, bureaucrats, regulators etc. That networking is presupposed in order to manage to have applied policies and an institutional framework that will enable commons economy.

One line of thought in commons literature is emphasizing the fact that humanity was practicing commoning since its birth. In the matter fact its very existence has to do with the managing of resources as a common good. Fishery, water, forests, land were managed for ages by rules that were taking under consideration environmental protection and preservation for future generations. Those rules were inseparable from traditions, myths and culture of each community. Protection of welfare state, managing of taxation for the public interest and not for the multinationals’ profit, research on the ways that public services and resources can be managed as a common good, all that are part of a discussion of extreme importance in commons theory.

However, the argument here is that this part of the discussion -taken its fundamental importance for grunted- has mainly a defensive character that can be crucially enriched if we add or stress (it depends on which is our goal in each case) a more dynamic parameter, that shows that it is commons analysis that ‘goes with the flow’. Capitalism got born into feudalism 13 . It was a long term process of production model change that took more than hundred years. Technological and social evolution changed also the process of value accumulation. The commons narrative comes today to stress that something similar is happening the last decades into the framework of capitalist economy. Technological and economic evolutions occurring, have as a result a new system of value production mainly related to knowledge and information 14 . During last years we arrived for first time in human history at the point
that sectors of economy that has to do with immaterial goods -mainly technology, big data, information, science, culture even emotions etc- became more productive for the economy, compared to sectors that are dealing with material goods.

This new system under construction is possible to acquire two different forms. That of cognitive capitalism that will renew itself on the base of new enclosures, making profit from collective intelligence and giving nothing back to society, or the one of intense knowledge economy that under the appropriate institutional arrangements will contribute to a society emancipation process.

An important advantage is that whereas commons transition goes with the flow, capitalism is restricted by its structural contradictions. The point is that in order for knowledge and information -under their features as immaterial goods to maximize value production, there are some important presuppositions. Knowledge and information needs to be open and to circulate freely in order to produce maximum results, having the most brains possible involved. On the contrary capitalism by its nature, needs constantly new enclosures in order to maintain itself. Knowledge and information enclosures reduce the amount of value that can be produced and are bad for the economy, even if you are a capitalist. At the same time, commons and P2P economy are a synonym of openness as one of their fundamental presuppositions. P2P modes of production are best adjusted to this type of economy evolving, they maximize the benefits of networks amongst peers and enable openness and circulation at their maximum. Commons economy is
going with the flow and that is an argument that a bureaucrat or a policy maker gets obliged to accept when presented effectively.

Ethics and values are a strong point in commons discussion, but in political terms this cannot be the leading operating tool. People cannot be persuaded to accept commoners values based only on their moral advantage. That reminds early Christians or religious practices in general. Continuing to stress the moral argument is not enough. At the same time we need to stress that at this historical moment capitalism is bad for value production, which means bad for markets. If that argument gets communicated effectively there is the opportunity for starting having applied policies that will resect parts of the market from capitalism. The reason that it is important to convince a broader group, is that commons and P2P economy need a broad consensus and political alliances in order to start escalating, after one decade of discussing ‘What the commons are?’ and practicing in small scales and communities.

Having escalation as a strategic target we need commons oriented applied policies, we need licenses protecting commons like GPL 15 , we need cooperative banks 16, we need Public Commons Partnerships (PCP) 17 , we need a partner state approach. In order to be able to enforce that type of applied policies political alliances and the necessary political hegemony are presupposed. Is that type of argument which takes under consideration the change of production model that proved to be precious in that effort.

It is certainly encouraging that the above mentioned are present to the per-electoral campaign of Mr Korbyn’s New Labour 18 and it is even more encouraging that commons, P2P and cooperative economy applied policies are heard loudly in the public sphere of a country that religiously followed Ms Thatcher’s TINA dogma for decades.

Furthermore, the argument on the efficiency of commons oriented policies 19 into the framework of intense knowledge economy becomes even more obvious when we arrive to labor. Capitalism is facing another serious contradiction on that sector. For example, ‘be creative’ has been one of the slogans in use from big corporations that are involved with knowledge, information, design, research, software and other immaterial goods. However, creativity is not something that a worker or employee can force his or herself to do. It is not a matter of discipline. You cannot force yourself to be creative in order to pay your bills because it simply doesn’t work that way. Commons economy and P2P modes of production on the other hand, answer effectively to that type of contradiction.

Obviously, fordist model with its clear divisions between labor and non labor time doesn’t adjust into the framework of intense knowledge and information economy 20 . An employer simply cannot measure effective and not effective labor time because creativity doesn’t fit to that type of measurement. Personal and professional spheres are interrelated, as identities do, at their most during human history. Effective labor time is not possible to get measured and the most productive idea may cross cognitive workers mind during brushing his/hers teeth. Or the most important networking that will escalate an investment, may happen during a music festival.

Technology of information blurred the need for the type of labor as we know it, in order to produce value 21 . It blurred the dynamics between labor and wages. And the state of things is so blur that the coming wave of robotisation is delayed because current social infrastructures can not stand the consequences.


Trying to describe some of the key features of intense knowledge economy and its relation to the new historical model of value production we arrive to open source, open data, open design, open culture movements. There is to be found this new vision that was decisive for the rebirth of commons discussion during last years, related to digital commons of design, of knowledge, of software, of culture. There are Wikipedia, Linux and myriads free/open source projects, like 3D printing, highlighting the emergence of technological capabilities that reshape economic and consequently social environment, as the principle ‘design global – manufacture local’ 22.

However ‘openness’/P2P/commons cannot protect themselves alone from corporate greed. For example IBM turned to Linux, private giant companies use Android but they don’t give nothing in return to the community. Bottom up innovation is vitally linked to new institutions and new rights. In human history, communities had to defend again and again their rights on land, natural resources, crafts, language, culture etc. Today, we need an equivalent for science and information, a new principle against new enclosures. In the lack of the appropriate legal framework and institutional stewardship the more open data are, the more it works in favor of the big players in the market.

Through the technological changes of last decades we have arrived to a production model that is delivering maximum of profit through research and innovation, mainly in industries such as software, biotechnology or artificial intelligence. What is new is that in the case that production and management of knowledge, research, information etc are controlled by private actors we arrive to a typical market failure due to the enclosures effect. Private sector
makes decisions on investments having a short term horizon, driven from short term profit expectations. Knowledge production and research planning are too crucial for our societies and cannot be left to private speculation. State must intervene mainly by financing and organizing fundamental research. It is a presupposition that research results -in order to escalate and to produce profit- should be free, open and treated as a common good. Following that argument we arrive to a certain division of labor between private and public. Private sector should be linked to applied research in large laboratories of large managerial enterprises, whereas public sector should take care about fundamental research and secure that the basic knowledge of humanity is treated as a common good.

An example of commons oriented applied policy is the Open Educational Resources (OER) 23 . Researchers, teachers, professors, institutions share their knowledge and educational material by putting them under Creative Commons license and being available in an open and functional Public Reserve free for people to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. That kind of policies is possible to reduce the harm of the monopoly derived from intellectual property and patent systems. Information economy erodes markets ability to balance prices since markets are based on insufficiencies whereas information are abundant. The defense mechanism of capitalism is to create monopolies -the giant high tech multinationals- at a scale that has never happened the last 200 years. Which is more, there is the idea of the positive externalities of globalization that brings system balance as a counterpart of negatives, an idea similar to the ‘invisible hand’ that balances market. Open knowledge circulation is considered one of the most important amongst
those. However, if knowledge get captured as it happens through patents and intellectual rights in cognitive capitalism for short-term private profit, then we arrive to a value production reduce and the system is forced to unbalance.

During the 80’s -also an effect of new liberal era- the distinction between basic research (discovery) and applied research (invention) stopped being applied. That meant that algorithms, human genome, plants seeds, GMO’s etc became subjects of patentability. The road was open for the market to privatise not only knowledge but also something living (biopiracy). In order to defend our societies from private sector, commons movement should be reinforced by certain institutional arrangements. The social outcome of research and innovation, depends on the intellectual property rights system and the legal framework of research. Developments -especially in areas as biotechnology, big data or IT – can lead to an emancipatory path for society or to a
collective nightmare. Both paths are there, waiting in the future. As data shows there is a strong argument on the extreme importance of EU’s policies on that area since Europe generates more scientific output than any other region in the world. Europe is the leading economy in terms of public investment in science, research and innovation and even though its population is only 7% of the world’s population, 20% of global R&D and 1/3 of all high-quality
scientific publications comes from Europe 24 .

If we want to avoid the future that cognitive capitalism is leading as to, we need to focus at the respective institutional framework. At this point policies towards commoning can be proved very useful 25 . Like general public licenses 26 as GPL or Creative Commons. Public – Commons Partnerships instead of the overused Public – Private Partnerships that has been applied even for public goods like water or health, causing indefensible damage to societies. A general Partner State approach and strategy and appropriate legal forms of common ownership and stewardship are new emancipatory tools that Left can have in its tool-kit.


At the same time there is a spontaneous augmentation of cooperative economy and P2P production. A dynamic grass rooted activity is taking place that comes as a reaction from society to austerity, especially in southern Europe. It is not a product of policy enforcement by some political power or party and it certainly seems as an opportunity for the Left that already is supporting some of those efforts at grass root level.

Almost unnoticed from capitalist economy’s logistics, several fragments of economic life starting moving under a different structure creating a net: parallel currencies, time banks, carpools, local exchange systems, food cooperatives, cooperatives and self-organised spaces with a variety of uses as selforganised kindergartens, are multiplied every day without being noticed by the economists and accountants. In most cases -as happened in Greece- they are the result of the collapse of the previous structure that crisis cause. In most cases people, are practicing commoning, solidarity economy or P2P without even knowing it. For official economics all the above mentioned hardly fit in the category of ‘economic activity’. And that is a crucial point. Those practices exist because they manage to answer specific social problems in times of need. They are functional because they operate according to contemporary structures and values that in commons and P2P economy are fundamental such as, openness, free time, sustainability, networked activity or sharing of resources (stuff and services) etc. Which is more, the idea of shifting the focus of the struggle from ownership -the corner stone of capitalism and the legislature environment on which it is based- to management. Commons movements put the emphasis on the right to use and the right to access to a resource, not to its ownership.

New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new types of legal contracts: a new entrepreneurial subculture has been created during the last 10 years, but we are still at the point of trying to describe it by terms such as ‘commons’ or ‘P2P production’. The important question is ‘in what ways is capitalism going to be affected by these evolutions’. In a system that needs constant expansion in order to maintain itself the removal of economy sectors signifies an ominous perspective. Wikipedia for example, deprived 3 billions out of advertising industry. It can be an alternative, but only if those small scale structures are going to be nourished, fostered and protected as a part of a political plan and official applied policies. And that presuppose a radical change in our mind set about technology, ownership and labour.

Early examples of the partner state approach can be found in some urban practices such as the ‘Bologna Regulation 27 for care and regeneration of the Urban Commons’ or the Barcelona en Comu citizen platform 28 . The Bolognia Regulation is based on a change in the Italian Constitution allowing engaged citizens to claim urban resources as commons and to declare an interest in their care and management. After an evaluation procedure, an ‘accord’ is signed with the municipality specifying how the city will support the initiative with an appropriate mix of resources and specifying a joint ‘public-commons’ management. In Bolognia itself dozens of projects have been carried out and more than 140 other Italian cities have followed. The key is the reversal of logic: the citizenry initiates and proposes, the city enables and supports.

As new liberalism through last decades had constructed a formalised institutional structure (IMF, World Bank, WTO etc) and a legal framework that supports it, we need to construct our own institutions that will support the commons paradigm in order to escalate and be protected from capitalist enclosures. The creation of local institutions that will protect commons oriented enterprises and make possible for the people working on them to have a decent living can be crucial 29. Institutions like a Chamber of Commons that will manage open licenses -like PPL or copy sol- and support P2P and cooperative economy. It will protect and reinforce openness in the same way that capitalist institutions support private. It will provide the institutional chance for those that are involved in social economy, for public administrators, policy implementors and entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and propose reinforcing policies. Assemblies of Commons bringing together, in local and national level, citizens and commoners that maintain common goods can
also be very useful. A Commons oriented Entrepreneurial Association, an international association that will connect the existing commons-oriented enterprises, in order to share expertise and raise a common voice 30 .

Global and local coalitions between political parties (Left, Greens, Social democrats, Pirate Parties on the paradigm of Progressive Caucus in European Parliament) that have included commons in their agenda can formulate a Commons Discussion Agenda that is necessary for coordination. In any case it seems that in the agenda of issues that are more fertile in terms of political alliances, commons could be classified at the top of the list. Besides political
parties are the eligible agent to fight at the parliaments -the assigned legislative authority- for the necessary legislation adjustments in constitutional level and in private law, like legal forms of commons ownership. All the above mentioned are interrelated to administrative participatory mechanisms that also can –and should be- institutionally enforced, like participatory legislation or participatory budgeting.

7 The P2P Foundation, Commons Transition and P2P: A primer, Transnational Institute, 2017.
8 For farther reading:

9. L. Calafati & N. Mcinroy, Local government and the commons: The time has come, Progressive Economic for People and Place
(PELS), November 2017.
10 V. Rubio-Pueyo, Municipalism in Spain: From Barcelona to Madrid, and Beyond, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office,
December 2017.
11 The FLOK project at Equador as an example at national level:
12 On Partner State:

13 E.J. Hobsbawm, Introduction to Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 20-27.
G.A. Cohen, History, Labour, and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3.
14 Y. Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Tranforms Markets and Freedom, (Yale University Press, 2007).22

16 For example:
17 An applied example of Public Commons Partnership (PCP) is the port of Capri:
of-capri-public-private-commons-partnership/. More on Public Commons Partnerships:
18 For example:
19 P2P modes of production, cooperative economy, openness etc are also subjects of that category.
20 Francesca Bria, Theoretical Framework on future knowledge based economy, D-CENT.
Carlo Vercellone, Francesca Bria, Andrea Fumagalli, Eleonora Gentilucci, Alfonso Giuliani, Giorgio Griziotti, Pierluigi
Vattimo,Managing the commons in the knowledge economy, D-CENT.
21 Inticative for the new dynamics in labour: Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperatives: Challenging the corporate sharing economy, Rosa
Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, January 2016.23

22 Vasilis Kostakis,Vasilis Niaros, George Dafermos, Michel Bauwens, Design global, manufacture local: Exploring the contours of an
emerging productive model, Futures vol. 73, October 2015, p. 126-135. Several examples can be found at: Sustainable models for
shared culture: Case studies and policy issues by CONSERVAS/Xnet, Barchelona Stichting Kennisland, Amsderdam World-Informa-
tion Institute, Vienna National Hellenic Research Foundation/ National Documentation Centre (NHRF/EKT) Athens.

23 In the following map it is possible to find the OER’s in different countries
What is an OER? In 2018 a legislation from the Greek Ministry Education passed in order not only to facilitate OER’s but also to give motivations to researchers and teachers to contribute to it. According to the legislation projects in the fields of education, research, culture and technology should have as a deliverable also OER’s.

25 It is indicative that in Greece is the Industrial Property Organisation that prepared and proposed to the Ministry of Finance a legis-
lation that is going to come soon in the parliament concerning: i. compulsory license, for reasons of public interest (f.e. health), ii.
registry of open patents, iii. technology pools.

29 Labour as a common is a tricky point. The lack of the respective institutional framework can function as a trap for the working
30 The institutions mentioned are described at the:Transnational Institute (TBI) & P2P Foundation, Commons transtion and P2P: A
primer, March 2017, p. 42-43.

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