The question today is how the old commons, above all those based on work, can take advantage of the opportunity provided by the “new” digital commons.
David de Ugarte is a member of Las Indias, an intentional community, worker cooperative, think tank, and collective of writers, thinkers, and creators. He writes prodigiously on the commons and related topics, so I asked him several questions on the importance of the commons to co-ops and vice-versa. His answers were so detailed that I will publish them serially over the next four days. We start with the most basic: what is the commons, and where did it come from?
The commons is the oldest form of property. In fact, it is the origin of all the other forms of private property we know. The survival of the first human groups, who depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering, required all the efforts of the whole community. The tools that made that effort possible were obviously the result of everyone’s work and belonged to the whole community, which, in turn, distributed the results among the members in different ways, generally based on the consideration of the needs of all.
Today, we know that the move to urbanization and early agriculture did not change this for a time. Ownership of land, tools and houses in the first human villages of the “agrarian revolution” was also in a commons. It seems that it was the joining of different communities, each one with its commons, in the same space or contiguous spaces, that started to make it clear that different communities could exist in the same human group, each with its own commons. Starting with the recognition of that division, first, State property appeared, and then, from the State, individual private property.
But the commons did not disappear. It went on, in the margins, as the basis of communities of goods based on sharing everything. The dominant form within the commons was that of organizing shared resource: forests, pasture land, tillage tools, or fishing nets. The community, a real community formed by the neighbors in a town or the fishers in a village, collective and indivisibly shared the ownership of the resource, organizing its use by each one of them. This kind of commons developed a whole branch of law when medieval kingdoms started to homogenize use and customs, the diversity of rules and systems governing them throughout their territories. Today, 50% of the territory of some Spanish regions continues to be under this kind of communal property.
The Spanish case is not in the least unique. It’s true that when the bourgeoisie took political power, its way of taking capitalism into the countryside, and at the same time producing a labor force its for factories, was the division and auction of common lands. But it was not in the least a 100% successful process. In the first place, there was a large diversity of commons, and some, like the use of water and its channels, or the fishing brotherhoods, were hardly touched. In many places, the forest commons was recovered or was never privatized. In others, by the seventeenth century (as Gerald Brenan reminds us in The Spanish Labyrinth), communally shared properties had already started their conversion into what would much later come to be called cooperativism.
All in all, the 19th century would be a key moment in the history of the commons. But, let’s not forget that also, some places like Spain or Portugal—which saw worker co-ops legally recognized in the 1860s precisely because they was a strong and solid historical movement—were lucky enough to have the first “socialists,” some of them direct disciples of Fourier or Fernando Garrido, who were fundamental in the modernization of the commons and their transformation into the first large cooperative movements.
The truth is that, for political reasons, a false narrative on the transformation of commons at the birth of capitalism has become hegemonic. According to this narrative, born originally in the social circles of the British Anglican church, the commons disappeared with the “enclosures”—which only is true in the English case, not even in all the British isles—and early cooperativism came from the “Rochdale Pioneers,” who built a consumer cooperative that was disconnected from the old commons. This narrative is as self-interested as it is false: the Christian socialists didn’t want their social work to awaken distrust of the bourgeois classes, so it underscored that its socialism didn’t affect the ownership of the factories and the means of production. But the fact is, not only do some of the old commons continue on across Europe, but the transformation of agrarian and fishing commons into modern cooperatives can be traced with a multitude of examples (as Brenan himself does), back to the seventeenth century, long before Rochdale. They also had a much more subversive spirit, even though, to be sure, they were often built on an extremely conservative ideological framework that would later serve as the foundation of the “social doctrine of the Catholic Church.”
And so, we reached the end of the twentieth century with a commons fragmented into agrarian commons, fishing brotherhoods, agrarian cooperatives, and worker cooperatives. And in that framework, like a lightning bolt on a cloudless night, a new kind of commons appeared: the digital commons. At first, it was “only” free software, but then it extended into literary creations, music, scientific research, industrial design…
It has some very important differences from the old commons: in the first place, like every digital good, the cost of distributing an extra unit of its goods is, under certain conditions (on distributed networks, rather than decentralized), zero. In other words, we’re talking about the first “abundant” means of production, the first “abundant” work tools in the history of humanity. Secondly, and as a result, this kind of communal property is no longer restricted to the members of a real community, but is, rather, universal. We’re talking about a universal and abundant productive asset.
The impact of the digital commons on the whole economy is impressive. Without it, it would be very difficult to understand the appearance of thousands of small workshops in Asia, where millions of people escaped from poverty. Nor could we understand all these micro-businesses, many created ad hoc, that we see trying to launch new ideas on crowdfunding sites. There’s a whole universe of what we call the “direct economy” underway out there.
The question today is how the old commons, above all those based on work, can take advantage of the opportunity provided by the “new” digital commons to be profoundly renewed and offer a real productive alternative to the millions of people that over-scaled capitalism has thrown out—and will continue throwing out—of the labor market.
If we learn how to take advantage of the new commons, and we renew the forms and objectives of worker cooperativism, we will find ourselves at the dawn of a new, profound social change, a new economic base for our society, born organically of her, understood in terms of abundance and inclusion.