Commons in a taxonomy of goods

[Deutschsprachige Version]

Commons are common pool resources. Commons are common goods. Commons are social relationships. You can find all of these descriptions for the term. Which is the correct one? All three versions are valid—at the same time!

The word „common“ is the best starting point for the analysis. The common thing within a commons are the resources, which are used and cared for, are the goods resulting from joint activities, and are the social relationships emerging from acting together. These three aspects are so different for all commons, that no one could describe them in a reasonably complete manner.

Commons are at odds with commodities, although a commodity is a good which is produced in a specific social form using resources. But it is usual that traditional economics only consider resources as social forms of production in a marginal way or even not in any way. I will try to overcome this limitation by using the following taxonomy of goods [Illustration 1]. I decide to put the concept of „good“ into the center, while describing from the triple definition explained above: as a common good, as a resource and as a social form.

Taxonomy of Goods

Illustration 1: Proposed taxonomy of „goods“

In the adjoining illustration a good is designated by five dimensions. Beside the already mentioned dimensions resource and social form, there are constitution, usage and legal form. They will be presented in the following paragraphs of this document. After that I will emphasize the characteristics of commons once again.


The constitution describes the type materiality of a good. We can found two types: material and non-material goods.

Material goods have a physical shape, they can be used up or crushed out. Purpose and physical constitution are linked with each other, material goods perform their purpose only by their physical constitution. If the physical constitution gets dismantled the purpose also gets lost.

On the other hand non-material goods are completely decoupled from a specific physical shape. This contains services defined by a coincidence of production and consumption as well as preservable non-material goods. In fact, a service often leads to a material result (haircut, draft text etc.), but the service itself finishes by establishing the product, i.e. it has been consumed. Now the result is falling into a material good category.

Preservable non-material goods need a physical carrier. Having non-digital („analog“) goods the bonding of the good to a specific material constitution of the carrier can yet be tight (e.g. the analog piece of music on the audiotape or disk record), while digital goods are largely independent from the carrier medium (e.g. the digital piece of music on an arbitrary digital medium).


The usage has got two sub-dimensions: excludability and rivalry. They grasp aspects of access and concurrent utilization.

A good can only be used exclusively, if the access to the good is generally prevented and selectively allowed (e.g. if a „bagel“ is bought). It can be used inclusively, thus non-exclusively, if the access is possible for all people (e.g. Wikipedia). The usage of a good is rival or rivalrous, if using the good by one person restricts or prevents use options for other people (e.g. listening to music by earphones). A usage is non-rival, if this does not result in limitations for others (e.g. a physical formula).

The usage scheme is used by classical economists as the authoritative charateristic for goods. But it is far too narrow-minded. It combines two aspects which in fact occur together with usage while the causes are completely different. The exclusion is a result of an explicit activity of excluding people, thus closely linked with the social form. On the other hand, the rivalry is closely linked with the constitution of the good—indeed, an apple can only be eaten once, for the next consumption a new apple is needed.


The production of goods requires resources. Though sometimes nothing is produced, already existing resources are used and maintained. In this case the resource itself is the good, which is considered to be preserved—for instance a lake. We can usually find some mixed case , because no produced good can go without the resource of knowledge which has been created and disposed by others. By resources, we generally understand non humans sources .

In the illustration, natural and produced resources are distinguished. Natural resources are already existing and raw resources which, however, are seldom found in uninfluenced environments. Produced resources are material or non-material created preconditions for further use in the production of goods or resources in the broadest sense.

Social form

The social form describes the way of (re-)production and the relations that humans commit to each other when doing so. Three social forms of (re-)production have to be distinguished: commodity, subsistence, and commons.

A good becomes a commodity, if it is produced in a general way for the exchange (selling) on markets. Exchanging has to occur because, in capitalism, production is a private activity and each producer produce separated from the others and all are ruled by competition and profit searching. The measure of exchange is the value, which is the average socially necessary abstract labor being required to produce the commodity in certain historical moment. The medium of exchange is money. The measure of usage is the use value being the „other side“ of the (exchange) value. Thus, a commodity is a social form, it is the indirect exchange-mediated way of how goods obtain general societal validity. Preconditions are scarcity and exclusion from the access of the commodity, because otherwise exchange will not happen.

A good maintains the form of subsistence, if it is not produced in a general way for others, but only for personal use or benefit of personally known others (family, friends etc.). Here, exchange does not occur or only for exceptional cases, but the good is relayed, taken, and given—following any immediately agreed social rule. A transition form to commodity is barter, the direct non-money mediated exchange of goods.

A good becomes a commons, if it is generally produced or maintained for others. The good is not exchanged and the usage is generally bound to fixed socially agreed rules. It is produced or maintained for general others insofar as it neither has be personal-determined others (like with subsistence) nor exclusively abstract others with no further relationship to them (like with commodity), but concrete communities agreeing on rules of usage and
maintenance of the commons.

Legal form

The legal form shows the possible juridical codes which a good can be subjected to: private property, collective property, and free good. Legal arrangements are necessary under the conditions of societal mediation of partial interests, they form a regulating framework of social interaction. As soon as general interests are part of the way of (re-)production itself, legal forms can step back in favor of concrete socially agreed rules as it is the case within the commons.

Private property is a legal form, which defines the act of disposal of an owner over a thing with exclusive control over the property. The property abstracts from the constitution of the thing as well as from the concrete possession. Private property can be merchandise, can be sold or commercialized.

Collective property is collectively owned private property or private property for collective purposes. Among them, there are common property and public (state) property. All designations of private property are basically valid here. There are various forms of collective property, for instance stock corporation, house owner community, nationally-owned enterprise.

Free goods (also: Res nullius, Terra nullius or no man’s land) are legally or socially unregulated goods under free access. The often cited „Tragedy of Commons“ is a tragedy of no man’s land, which is overly used or destroyed due to missing rules of usage. Such no man’s lands do exist yet today, e.g. in high-sea or deep-sea.

Commons—jointly creating the life

Peter Linebaugh puts the inseparable connection of good and social activity into one sentence: „There is no commons without commoning“—commons can not exist without a respective social practice of a community. The size of the community is therefore not fixed. It considerably depends on the re-/produced resource. The re-/production of a local wood will presumably be taken over by a local community, while the preservation of the world climate certainly needs the constitution of a global community. In that case the state can supersede the community role by fiduciary taking over the re-/production of the resource. But this is not the sole possible option.

The size of the community as well as the rules depend on the character of the resource. For a threatened wooded area it is reasonable to agree upon more restrictive rules of use than for a resource which can easily be copied. Free software, for instance, can be unhesitatingly determined to be available under a free access regime, thus a social rule of use which explicitly does not exclude anybody.

The „freedom“ of plundering and exploitation, which commonly occurs under the regime of separated private production of goods as commodities, does find its limitation at the freedom of others to use the resource. Especially by preventing random plundering of a used-up resource, the needs of general others who currently do not use the resource, are included. The community being connected very closely to the resource is only appointed to produce and reproduce the resource in a way that is generally useful. It is their „task“ to pass over the resource to further generations in an improved manner. However, there is no guarantee that the destruction of the resource will happen anyway. The history of capitalism is also a history of violent destruction and privatization of the commons.

Within the commons, production and reproduction can hardly be separated. The production serves their reproduction at the same time. In case of used-up resources, rules of usage make sure that the resource can regenerate itself, or in case of copyable digital goods, that the social network producing the resource is maintained. However, it has to be distinguished between a common pool resource as such and goods which are produced on the basis of a resource. Produced goods can become commodities if they are sold on markets. It is the goal of socially agreed rules of use within the community to limit the use of the resource and to prevent that it is overly used and gets finally destroyed.

There have always been commons in human history. However, its historical role and function has changed dramatically. In former times commons had been a general fundament of human livelihood, while with the uprising of class societies they have been integrated into different regimes of exploitation. Capitalism is a climax of exploiting general human living conditions, which—carried by an abstract notion of freedom—is not able to guarantee survival of the human species. This is due to the fact, that common interests are not part of the way of production but have to be additionally coined onto the blind acting of partial interests via law and state. Therefore, it is necessary to aim at a new socially regulated way of production, where common interests are part of the way of production itself.

Moreover, capitalism has cut off essential moments of production from societal life and banned it into a sphere of reproduction. Production as „economy“ and reproduction as „private life“ have been separated. Private production is structurally blind and only mediated afterward. Therefore it could only expand at the expense of subsistence and commons production which in turn are needed to compensate the (physical and psychic) consequences of „economy“. Private production has always pointed to a complementing subsistence and commons production, it permanently takes from the sphere of commons without giving anything back.

The Commons has the potential to replace the commodity as the determining form of re-/producing societal living conditions. Such a replacement can only occur, if communities constitute themselves for every aspect of life, in order to take „their“ commons back and to reintegrate them into a new need-focused logic of re-/production.

(Many thanks to Pauline Schwarze and Franco Iacomella for translation support)

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