What is Commons Transition?

A special introduction by Michel Bauwens and John Restakis

When the administration of Rafael Correa was swept into power in 2006, it appeared as though a new political page had been turned in Ecuador. A Citizen’s Revolution that had mobilized broad swathes of the Ecuadorian public, in particular the country’s indigenous peoples, had galvanized the country around a radical set of political, social, economic, and environmental values that set the stage for an overhaul of the nation’s inherited political past.

In short order, the Ecuadorian government re-wrote the national constitution, rejected the odious national debt contracted by previous corrupt regimes, joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, and developed a comprehensive vision of national economic and social life based on the concept of Buen Vivir (Good Living) that linked economic and social life to the values of personal well being and protection of the environment.

This vision formed the basis of the country’s National Plan and the move to fundamentally alter the nation’s productive matrix from one of dependency on foreign capital and oil extraction to the construction of an economic model based on the values of commons, co-operation, and free and open access to knowledge.

At the end of 2013, the FLOK Project (Free/Libre Open Knowledge) was launched to articulate what such an economy would look like and what policy recommendations would be required to realize it. Under the joint sponsorship of The Ministry for National Planning (SENPLADES), The Ministry for Innovation and Human Resources (SENESYCT), and the National Institute for Advanced Studies (IAEN) the governmental asked an international team of researchers to draw up a participatory process to craft a transition strategy for a society based on the idea of a “social knowledge economy” – an economy based on free an open access to knowledge conceived as a commons. And while the project was rooted in the particular context and concerns of Ecuador, the issues, sectors, and policy proposals that were addressed also transcended this local situation.

The local context was that Ecuador is still essentially in a dependent situation vis-a-vis the western-dominated global economy, which means that it needs to export raw material at low added value, and import consumer goods at high added value. It’s a scenario for permanent dependency that the progressive government wanted to change. The FLOK Project was a key strategy to aid in this effort. Following the lead of Minister Rene Ramirez of SENESCYT, FLOK aimed to envisage an economy that would no longer be dependent on limited material resources, but on infinite immaterial resources – such as knowledge.

The proposals of the research team consisted of a generic Commons Transition Plan, and 18+ legislative proposals including a dozen pilot projects, which were further developed and validated in the Buen Conocer Summit at the end of May 2014. The synthetic proposals were then presented by the research team at the end of June 2014, while still being finessed for scientific publication. The proposals are now being processed in the Ecuadorian administration, and being submitted to political review and assessment.

Several aspects of the Ecuadorian process where highly progressive, such as the intense participatory process and the openness to both local and foreign input, which is both innovative and unusual. So too was the willingness to link technological and economic questions with the social and cultural conditions in which they must be realized.

The FLOK Project, the Commons Transition Plan, and the Policy Papers, significantly transcend the local context and have a global significance.

The first characteristic of the FLOK process is of course its very existence. This is the first time that a transition plan to a commons-based society and economy has been crafted. There are ‘new economy’, green, social economy, and other transition plans, but none of them have focused on re-organizing society and the economy around the central concept of the Commons as the core value creation and distribution system.

The Commons Transition Plan is based on an analysis and observation of the already existing commons processes and economies, and the value crisis that they provoke within the current political economy. The rise of the digital commons is a case in point.

There is a growing contradiction between new relations of production emerging around the digital commons and the economies they are creating, and how this emerging prototype of a new mode of production is embedded within capitalism. In short, while more and more use value is created in and through the commons, only a fraction of this is being monetized. When this commons-produced use value (such as free and open software (FOSS)) is monetized into exchange value, it is done so through proprietary platforms that very seldom share any of this exchange value with the creators.

Hence we see an evolution from a type of capitalism that was based on the extraction of rent through the privatization of knowledge and the control of intellectual property and supply networks (cognitive capitalism), to a new form of ‘netarchical capitalism’ in which proprietary platforms both enable human co-operation but also exploit it for the benefit of private capital. In other words, netarchical capitalism directly extracts value from human co-operation itself. Moreover, in our current information age, the whole of society is being transformed into a “social factory” producing commons-generated goods and services. The cases of uncompensated user-generated value for Facebook and Google are obvious examples.

The failure of netarchical capitalism to return fair value to its creators has transposed the traditional exploitation of labour in the production of material goods to that of immaterial goods such as knowledge, branding, and ideas that are now the driving force of capital accumulation. This has greatly increased the precariousness of both workers and commoners the world over. Hence, any transition must also solve and restore the feedback loop between value creation and distribution, and create an ethical and civic economy around the commons, moving from extractive forms of exploitative capital, to generative forms of co-operative capital. In other words, capital that returns value to those that contribute to the commons.

This process requires the re-conception and re-alignment both of traditional commons and co-operative thinking, and practice, into new institutional forms that prefigure a new political economy of co-operative commonwealth. This in turn, is based on a simultaneous transition of civil society, the market, and the organization and role of the state and forms a foundation principle of the Commons Transition Plan.

For most of the history of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, the primary political conflict has been one between state and market – whether to use the state power for redistribution of wealth and regulation of the excesses of the market, or to allow market players to privatize the value of public and social goods and services for the benefit of capital. This is the classic conflict between social versus private benefit and has been called by some the lib (for liberal) vs. lab (for labour and its derivative social movements) pendulum. In our current political economy, except for a few researchers who operated outside of the mainstream, such as Elinor Ostrom and her research on the commons, the focus on social value and the common good has been discarded as a historical legacy without future. Indeed, the remaining physical commons that exist globally, mostly in the South, are everywhere under threat while under austerity, what remains of public goods in Europe and North America are also being privatized at breakneck speeds.

But the emergence of digital knowledge, software and design, as new forms of commons not only recreate commons-oriented modes of production and market activities, they also show that value is now increasingly created through contributions, not traditional labor, to create commons, not commodities. Through its contributions and the ubiquity of digital technology, it can be said that civil society has now become productive in its own right, and we can make a leap from contributor communities of software developers to a vision of civil society that consists of civil commons contributed to by citizens.

The entrepreneurial activities that are created around the commons induce the vision of an ethical economy, a non-capitalist marketplace that re-introduces reciprocity and co-operation in the market’s functioning, while co-creating commons and creating livelihoods for the commoners. This type of economy and market in which co-operation, mutuality, and the common good define the characteristics of a new kind of political economy, point the way to a new state form, which we have called the Partner State.

Thus, the commons not only introduces a third term next to the state and the market, i.e. the generative, commons-producing civil society, but also a new market and a new state. A foundation principle of a Commons Transition Plan is that the changes must happen concurrently in all three aspects of our social and economic life.

Through the Partner State concept, the report proposes the radical democratization of the state, the mobilization and expansion of the social/solidarity economy, the creation and use of public-commons partnerships, the co-operitization of public services, and other innovative concepts and practices that could fundamentally renew our political economy. These ideas are developed in the second document.

A third contribution by George Dafermos, shows a policy report on Open Design Commons and Distributed Manufacturing developing on the work around the FLOK transition in Ecuador, to give the reader a taste of what these changes could mean in a concrete sector.

But what now? What comes after the FLOK experience in Ecuador?

This website is part of an ongoing effort to create an open public forum for further commons-driven and commons-oriented policy-making that is distinct from its first iteration in Ecuador (floksociety.org), and is open to all contributions from commoners globally.

The project will be carried by a consortium of commons and co-operative movements, that are discussing their relative support at this time, and the P2P Foundation will of course be one of the partners. With the Commons Transition Plan as a comparative document, we intend to organize workshops and dialogues to see how other commons locales, countries, language-communities but also cities and regions, can translate their experiences, needs and demands into policy proposals. The Plan is not an imposition nor is it a prescription, but something that is intended as a stimulus for discussion and independent crafting of more specific commons-oriented policy proposals that respond to the realities and exigencies of different contexts and locales.

As part of this process, we have already concluded a workshop with the Reseau Francophone des Communs in Paris in September, and workshops with Syriza officials in Greece. The idea is not to support or choose any political or social movement, but to enable all progressive and emancipatory forces to look for commonalities around their approaches, and to renew their political visions with the commons in mind.

This project therefore, is itself a commons, open to all contributions, and intended for the benefit of all who need it.

This text was originally written as an introduction for our Commons Transition Book, which you can download here.

Top Image by Guy James