What Will Replace Outdated Left and Right Economic Thinking? The Commons Paradigm.

The commons is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth.

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By David Bollier

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?

Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.

Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.

The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

Cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has said, “I’ve given up on fixing the economy.  The economy is not broken.  It’s simply unjust.” In other words, the economy is working more or less as its capitalist overseers intend it to work. Citizens often despair because struggle for change within conventional democratic politics is often futile—and not just because democratic processes are corrupted.  State bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems. The limits of what The System can deliver—on climate change, inequality, infrastructure, democratic accountability—are on vivid display every day. As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future.

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The fundamental problem in developing a new vision, however, is that old ideological debates continue to dominate public discourse. Politics is endlessly rehashing many of the same disagreements, failing to recognize that deep structural change is needed. There is precious little room for new ideas and projects to incubate and grow. New visions must have space to breathe and evolve their own sovereign logic and ethics if they are to escape the dead end of meliorist reformism.

As I explained in a recent piece for The Nation magazine, insurgent narratives and projects are actually quite plentiful. Movements focused on climate justice, co-operatives, tradition towns, local food systems, alternative finance, digital currencies, peer production, open design and manufacturing, among others, are pioneering new post-capitalist models of peer governance and provisioning. While fragmented and diverse, these movements tend to emphasize common themes: production and consumption to meet household needs, not profit; bottom-up decisionmaking; and stewardship of shared wealth for the long term. These values all lie at the heart of the commons.

For now, these movements tend to work on the cultural fringe, more or less ignored by the mainstream media and political parties. But that is precisely what has allowed them to evolve with integrity and substance. Only here, on the periphery, have these movements been able to escape the stodgy prejudices and self-serving institutional priorities of political parties, government agencies, the commercial media, philanthropy, academia, and the entrenched nonprofit-industrial complex.

Why is the public imagination for transformation change so stunted? In part because most established institutions are more focused on managing their brand reputations and organizational franchises. Taking risks and developing bold new initiatives and ideas are not what they generally do. Meanwhile, system-change movements are generally dismissed as too small-scale, trivial or apolitical to matter. They also fade into the shadows because they tend to rely on Internet-based networks to build new sorts of power, affordances (structural capacities for individual agency), and moral authority that mainstream players don’t understand or respect. Examples include the rise of the peasant farmers’ group La Via Campesina, transnational collaboration among indigenous peoples, platform co-operatives that foster sharing alternatives to Uber and Airbnb, and the System for Rice Intensification (a kind of open source agriculture developed by farmers themselves).

Rather than try to manage themselves as hierarchical organizations with proprietary franchises, reputations, and overhead to sustain, activists see themselves as part of social movements working as flexible players in open, fluid environments. Their network-driven activism enables them to more efficiently self-organize and coordinate activities, attract self-selected participants with talent, and implement fast cycles of creative iteration.

System-change movements tend to eschew the conventional policy and political process, and instead seek change through self-organized emergence. In ecological terms, they are using open digital networks to try to create “catchment areas,” a landscape in which numerous flows converge (water, vegetation, soil, organisms, etc.) to give rise to an interdependent, self-replenishing zone of lively energy. As two students of complexity theory and social movements, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, write:

When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

The old guard of electoral politics and standard economics has trouble comprehending the principle of emergence, let alone recognizing the need for innovative policy structures that could leverage and focus that dynamic power. It has consistently underestimated the bottom-up innovation enabled by open source software; the speed and reliability of Wikipedia-style coordination and knowledge-aggregation, and the power of social media in catalyzing viral self-organization such as the Occupy movement, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Syriza in Greece. Conventional schools of economics, politics and power do not comprehend the generative capacities of decentralized, self-organized networks. They apply obsolete categories of institutional control and political analysis, as if trying to understand the ramifications of automobiles through the language of “horseless carriages.”

Instead of clinging to the old left/right spectrum of political ideology—which reflects the centrality of “the market” and “the state” in organizing society—we need to entertain new narratives that allow us to imagine new drivers of governance, production and culture. In my personal work, I see the enormous potential of the commons as farmers and fisherpeople, urban citizens and Internet users, try to reclaim shared resources that have been seized to feed the capitalist machine—and to devise their own governance alternatives. In this, the commons is at once a paradigm, a discourse, a set of social practices, and an ethic.

Over the past five years or more, the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy. The commons has also provided a language and ethic for thinking and acting like a commoner—collaborative, socially minded, embedded in nature, concerned with stewardship and long-term, respectful of the pluriverse that makes up our planet.

If we are serious about effecting system change, we need to start by emancipating ourselves from some backward-looking concepts and vocabularies. We need to instigate new post-capitalist ways of talking about the provisioning models and peer governance now emerging. Influencing unfolding realities may be less about electing different leaders and policies than about learning how to change ourselves, orchestrate a new shared intentionality, and hoist up new narratives about the commons.

Originally published at global-e journal of 21st Century Global Dynamics, at UC Santa Barbara.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 International license.

2017 September 30

The Digger Archives:
Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science (Vol. 162, Issue 3859, 1968), pp. 1243-1248. For one critique of Hardin’s model, see Ian Angus, “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”:…

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  • Paco Smith.

    Thank you very much for sharing this rather thought-provoking article, which speaks directly to the fundamental truths concerning this issue of global concern.

  • johnmerryman

    There are some deep conceptual issues that need to come into play.

    For one thing, as sentient organisms, we need to consider a bottom up spirituality. Logically a spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgment from which we fell. More the new born babe, than the wise old man. Yet building a social consensus around the energy of the child, versus the order of the old, doesn’t quite work, so we have top down religious models, in a bottom up world.

    Reality is profoundly dualistic, but we try fitting it into monastic models and fighting over which side is better. In everything from the wave/particle duality of the quantum and positive/negative charge of the electromagnetic spectrum, to the binary of the sexes and liberal versus conservative politics, reality is about polarities as the basis of the larger reality, but we, as individual beings, find ourselves on one side or the other and drawn to the poles.

    The problem of economics is that money and finance are the communal circulation mechanism and we are going through growing pains in evolving an effective system.

    Much as government functions as the central nervous system of a community, finance and money are its arteries and blood, circulating value. In the public versus private dichotomy, finance is somewhere in the middle. As governments succeed by giving people hope and money acts as quantified hope, there is a strong inclination to inflate publicly controlled monetary systems.

    Yet privately managed systems circulate value primarily to produce more notational wealth that can be siphoned off by those owning the system. There was a time when government was privately managed, aka. monarchy and it fell when the costs outweighed the benefits.

    What we have today is a system akin to the head and heart telling the hands and feet they don’t need as much blood and should work harder for what they do get. Naturally rot sets in, not only in the hands and feet, but the head and heart as well.

    Money can circulate, but it cannot be stored. As in the body, blood is the medium, while fat is the store. For cars, roads are the medium, while parking lots are the store.

    Currently this illusion of stored wealth is maintained by the government borrowing enormous amounts out of the system and spending it is ways that don’t directly compete with private sector investment, such as on a large military as a jobs and industrial program.

    While this system seems intractable, it is actually increasingly unstable, given ultimately finite levels of debt that can be sustained. So other models will eventually be necessary.

    For instance, in the government were to threaten to tax excess money out of the system and not just borrow it, people would quickly find other ways to store wealth.

    As individuals, we mostly save for the same general reasons, from housing and healthcare, to raising children and retirement. So if we were forced to invest directly into these needs as a community, rather than trying to save for them individually, if would reduce the atomization of the culture, as well as reduce the power of the banking system, which otherwise provides us with the individual economic umbilical cord, that reduces our reliance on those around us.

    Leaving it at that, but there is a lot that can be said about how to restructure our relationships with nature and each other.

  • Bob Walker

    Excellent!! Totally Agree .. and here’s more fuel to consider …

    I’m an Engineer, and spent most of my career in software development. Business systems, B2B, numerous process control Apps for publishing industry, inventory, order processing etc.

    And today we are witnessing many amazing Trends aligning… Tech+Social = Mass change. Uber, AirBnB are only the beginning. This is the decade of the “Sharing Revolution”.

    This is also the “Industry” where the new Jobs will come from. Corporations hate employees. They are an “expense” in old school businesses. But in this new sharing Economy, self employment aligns perfectly. Betting against the Millenials, keeping them economically disadvantaged helps no one.

    This is not a Tech revolution, its a “Process” revolution.

    Thats why I can state with confidence, by adding collaborating “software” to enable new networks of people, Millenials can seriously upset many big companies today. 

    … and I’m writing the next “Thriving App” !

  • Philip Sommer

    Unless and until the money supply comes into existence as sovereign democratic budgetary spending based on the requirements of a society and its institutions and unless and until the debt based money supply (ie bond market) is eliminated there will never be an equitable economy.
    It is thedebt based money supply system which is causing inequality.

    • mervynhyde

      This is the only real argument in town.

      We are told by Neo-Liberal governments that we simply do not have enough money to do all the things we would like done. That a Sovereign Fiat money system has to raise taxes before it can spend. All of which is not just nonsense but these politicians are actually lying to us.

      Once we realise that it is not a lack of money but corrupt politicians that are the problem, then we can start looking at how government can solve very simple problems to create the kind of world that most of us would want to live in.

      The truth is the state is all important, and even the financial sector understood how important the state was, when it bailed out the Banks.

      The corporate takeover of government is the problem we now face, and that people need to recognise that they do have the power to take the state back and to tell them who is really in charge. Corporate welfare has been the order of the day for over forty years now, that needs changing back to control by the people, it is people that make up the real economy not those that profit from it.

      Corporate power is in fact holding back development because of short term profit seeking instead of ongoing investment. It should be obvious to any thinking person, that companies main interest is in the bottom line, that means spending as little as possible to maximise profits, which limits research. Only the government can spend into certain kinds of research, which is why Aircraft development is heavily subsidised by the state along with Nuclear power, just for examples.

      We have the money to achieve anything we desire, it is the working people that are the creators of wealth, not those people who sit in boardrooms deciding what our futures will be.

    • oldngrumpy1

      “unless and until the debt based money supply (ie bond market and fractional reserve banking/”lending”) is eliminated, there will never be an equitable economy.”

      We, (US) do “NOT” have a debt based money supply. Our currency is sovereign and fiat, which means we can never run out of it or fail to pay any obligation denominated in unwillingly. Since we left the gold standard and fixed exchange rates of Bretton Woods we have no national debt that has to be repaid. Congress is the sole issuer of currency and it creates the currency as it spends into the private sector to provision itself. The lie that taxes fund the government is the single most destructive force to our sovereignty in the last century. Taxation is a tool to remove currency from the economy, not a revenue source.

      Congress adheres to a self imposed requirement to fund “deficit” spending via Treasury bonds in order to enable the Federal Reserve to set bond pricing and interest rates. This means that some accounting method for collected taxes be utilized to determine the point where spending goes into deficit. The old gold standard category of “debt” establishes this number, just as it advised congress of the currency/gold reserve ratio prior to ’71. This does not imply that any collected dollars are transferred to the government’s reserve accounts to be recycled into spending. All spending is via new dollars and any currency accounted for as collected taxes is “canceled”, not spent. Even under gold standard mechanics at the Treasury there was no such connection between tax collections and Congressional appropriations.

      All of this simply means that there are monetary limitations to what Congress can spend and the debt is nothing more than an accounting of all currency created into the private sector that has not been canceled by taxation. We don’t “owe” $20 Trillion. We “OWN” $20 Trillion. The only limitation to spending without incurring inflation is the ability of the economy to produce goods and services to spend the currency on. Managing our economy by attempting to pay down a meaningless number mislabeled as “debt” does nothing except continually draw down the currency supply with taxation while limiting the creation of new currency with austerity. This path eventually will remove all currency from circulation and cause the default of all private debt as wealth accumulation and trade deficits also take their toll.

    • Wendell_Fitzgerald

      I’m sorry Mr. Sommer but the debt based money supply is not the root cause of the inequality. It is not that it isn’t part of the problem; it’s just that it isn’t fundamental. What is fundamental It is the system that allows individuals and their corporations to pocket unearned income estimated at 40+% of GNP highly concentrated in ownership over the centuries starting with the private “ownership” of the Earth, Her land and natural resources. This mechanism of exploitation by the few existed long before modern monetary systems. In the modern era monopolies of all kinds give rise to other sources of unearned income. One of them is the privilege banks have of creating money out of thin air and then charging interest when it is loaned. The interest is wholly unearned income. The ownership of the earth of unearned incomes is still the largest portion of all unearned incomes. This is why it is a real paradox to me when people like Bollier talk about the commons and then mention nothing about our current land tenure systems and the unearned income that comes from them.

    • Wendell_Fitzgerald

      I’m sorry Mr. Sommer but the debt based money supply is not the root cause of the inequality. It is not that it isn’t part of the problem; it’s just that it isn’t fundamental. What is fundamental It is the system that allows individuals and their corporations to pocket unearned income estimated at 40+% of GNP highly concentrated in ownership over the centuries starting with the private “ownership” of the Earth, Her land and natural resources. This mechanism of exploitation by the few existed long before modern monetary systems. In the modern era monopolies of all kinds give rise to other sources of unearned income. One of them is the privilege banks have of creating money out of thin air and then charging interest when it is loaned. The interest is wholly unearned income. The ownership of the earth of unearned incomes is still the largest portion of all unearned incomes. This is why it is a real paradox to me when people like Bollier talk about the commons and then mention nothing about our current land tenure systems and the unearned income that comes from them.

  • Terrence Oleary (Kevin)

    I don’t see a cohesive narrative here or a clear roadmap. If we’re talking about realizing a commons I see much more promise in legislating a true recognition for citizens of the ‘commonwealth’ nations like ours (US) are already founded on. If each citizens’ share of the commonwealth is a real sum with dividends that flow from the use (or fines for abuse) of our common resources then we’d be getting somewhere.

    • Wendell_Fitzgerald

      Completely agree. Perhaps the idea of taxing land value to capture community created value and untaxing improvements the value of which is not created by the community is an idea that would the source of the kind of dividends based on our common resources you speak of. I do not see a cohesive narrative here either and without the idea of claiming and taxing the value of our commons to benefit everyone I think the idea of the commons never gets fully articulated.

      • Terrence Oleary (Kevin)

        And/or taxing *rent* on land to an even greater degree than simply the land itself to discourage rentiers. But I was actually referring to sequestering revenue streams that *already exist* like federal mining, drilling, grazing, forestry fees that now simply flow into the general coffers (AFAIK, please provide detail if I’m mistaken), and then adding to the (also already existing) punitive proceeds of fines paid to the EPA, once cleanup is paid for. This could have the added benefit of bolstering the value of the EPS to ordinary people.

        • Wendell_Fitzgerald

          Just so it is clear. What I said and how it is referred to by those of us who promote the idea we mean taxing land value. We do not mean taxing land itself. Land value differs by location and it is the value of land that is created by the community of all people and that is what should be taxed. if you really intended to tax land itself the only just way to do so would be to determine its value and tax that. We do tax land value directly through the property tax everywhere in effect in the U.S. This is not to say that the implementation of the property tax is everywhere done properly by proper and utp to date assessments but the principle is clear and the mechanism is in place. Land itself is a free gift of nature and as such belongs to everyone in common. There is no workable way to share land and natural resources by sharing the land itself except in purely rural situation enad even then that kind of “land reform” does not work well in the long run because ownership of land tends even then t become monopolized in the hands of a few. The land is best shared by sharing its value. You can own all the land you want as long as you pay us, the community, its rental value. So it is appropriate to talk about taxing the rental value of land because that is what in fact one is doing in the final analysis.

  • oldngrumpy1

    Modern economies that create their own fiat currencies have the tools necessary to enable a transition away from the rule of oligarchs and toward managing their economies for the common good as long as their “debt” is denominated in the currency they create. Fiat currencies are created by decree and are not dependent upon revenue sources. The issuer of currency can never “run out of” the currency and doesn’t need to collect or borrow currency from anyone to spend. Such economies do not accumulate “debt”, as it is no harder to create currency to pay interest, if necessary, than for any other purpose. In such economies, paying off the debt by taxation would actually mean removing all currency from the economy and defaulting on all private sector debt, as well as eliminating any savings vehicles offered by the sovereign as secure places to park wealth.

    The politicizing of the debt as an encumbrance that has to be repaid via taxation is the most destructive lie told to the people since our nation was founded. The government creates currency and spends it into the private sector to provision itself and fund programs approved by Congress. The private sector accepts the currency as payment for the goods and services it provides to the government and that is a completed contract in any legal system. No further debt is attached to the contract. For the government to “bill” the private sector for the total paid to it via such contracts is not logical, or legal. The national debt is a lie, but it resonates so well with people because of the way they are conditioned to think about their own budget process, but the people do not have the constitutional authority to create the currency with keystrokes on their computers.

    The truth is that the issuer of the currency neither needs, nor uses, anyone else’s currency to spend and is not restrained by revenue. Spending must come before tax collections, so taxes don’t fund spending. Taxes are a tool to remove currency from the private sector, not a revenue source, with a fiat currency. The issuer of the currency can “afford” to purchase anything that is for sale in the currency it issues without restriction, including our labor, as it can never “run out of” currency any more than a sports stadium can run out of points to award to teams playing there. When a politician, left or right, tells you that we can’t afford anything, or that we are in danger of insolvency because of a mislabeled accounting category of currency in the private sector not yet “canceled” by taxation it would be wise to consider them too incompetent, or corrupt, to manage our economy. Sadly, that seems now to include all of them, as well as most mainstream “economists”.

    The only limitation we face in funding services to the private sector is inflation, but that isn’t even that easy to create. Inflation in an economy with a sovereign fiat currency only happens when the capacity to create goods and services to spend the currency on is overwhelmed by currency creation. Japan has been trying to weaken its currency for decades with little success, and its debt is approaching 250% of its GDP. We should immediately double, or triple, deficit spending to revitalize our economy, promote renewable energy, and upgrade our embarrassingly decrepit infrastructure. We don’t need to raise anyone’s taxes to spend, so the right shouldn’t have issues with ending the misery in America caused by austerity politics. The left can realize many of its platform issues, so it shouldn’t have an issue with not taxing wealth more to fund them. The simple truth is that we are simply doing this America-ing wrong, and have been for decades. There is no reason for the people to have to leverage their own private debt, which “does” have to be repaid with interest, just to survive in the wealthiest country in the world.