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George Dafermos

Towards a peer society based on the commons

By George Dafermos

If the previous decade brought the business embrace of Linux, free software and the knowledge commons of science and technology to the fore, the present one marks their entry into the field of politics as discourses with broad social acceptance. From the FLOK Society project in remote Ecuador to Cooperativa Integral Catalana(CIC) in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece, the epicentre of discussion is a model for the organization of social, political, economic and cultural life, based on the principles of peer production and governance, of social and solidarity economy, and of the social-collective goods which we refer to as “the Commons”.

In consideration of the hitherto destructive results of neo-liberal austerity policies (wherever they have been applied) and given the moral bankruptcy of the economic and political system, it becomes easily understood why increasingly more people around the world, in order to meet their basic needs, are turning to the creation of collaborative, cooperative and collectivist enterprises and economic institutions that embody the principles of peer production and peer governance.

« One should not be surprised by the attraction that the discourse of the Commons and peer collaboration holds for so many people »

For the same reason, the strongest fermentations around the Commons and the most dynamic social solidarity projects have emerged precisely where public infrastructures have been left to wither or have been destroyed by violent privatizations and “enclosures” of social goods like health and education or water and energy1.

In short, one should not be surprised by the attraction that the discourse of the Commons and peer collaboration holds for so many people. If the idea of the Commons and peer production evinces the dynamism of an idea whose time has come, it is precisely because it offers people a moral basis and, most crucially, a practical alternative for the “reconstruction” of their lives and of the societies in which they live. That is why the Commons and peer production intrude on the scene of world history as unstoppable agents of social change.

With SYRIZA’s electoral victory in Greece, the Commons and peer production are without doubt crossing the chasm into the mainstream in Europe’s politics, turning into factors of massive importance for the Greek government’s plan of productive reconstruction. This raises an important question about the role of commons-oriented, civil society projects and initiatives: Will they cease to exist, given the rise to power of a “commons-friendly” government?

« A true peer society cannot be created from the top down; it can only emerge from the bottom up »

Surely, a government can do many things in support of the Commons. It can halt the enclosures of social goods like water and the dismantling of public infrastructures like hospitals. But a true peer society cannot be created from the top down; it can only emerge from the bottom up. A self-managed society cannot possibly be the result of a top-down intervention, even if that is well-intentioned; instead, it must be the work of all members of society.

For equally pragmatic reasons, the Commons are more effectively utilized and developed as community-managed resources and infrastructures than as state-managed property. That is so because of the collaboration that is required to keep them healthy: not all organizational structures are equally good at fostering collaboration; for that purpose, collectivist and community organizations are usually far more effective than the State.

From this vantage point, therefore, the answer to the main question of this blog — How many peers does it take to change a light bulb — can only be as follows: All of them! For changing the light bulb of society is a task that requires more than a government or a vanguard class of intellectuals and enlightened leaders can do. Whether we like it or not, the (en)lightenment of society can only be achieved by the conscious work of all its members.


1. For example, social solidarity projects, such as the self-managed Social Hospitals in Greece, have performed the role of the ultimate stronghold of resistance and social self-defence.


Lead image by Robert Nunnally

Originally Published in the Open Thoughts/Peer Production Blog

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