This is part 2 of a weekly series of articles to appear in the journal Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP). In the series I try to describe analytical patterns developed by the Oekonux Project since over ten years of research on Free Software and commons-based peer production. Please visit the introducing part for the background. Already released patterns: 1.
Pattern 2: Beyond Scarcity
It is a common misconception that material things are scarce while immaterial things are not. It seems justified to keep material goods as commodities while immaterial goods are required to be free. However, this assumption turns a social property into a natural one. No produced good is scarce by nature. Scarcity is a result of goods being produced as commodities, thus scarcity is a social aspect of a commodity created for a market. In the digital era this is obvious for immaterial goods, as we can clearly see the measures to artificially make the good scarce. Such measures include laws (based on so-called “intellectual property”) and technical barriers to prevent free access to the good. It seems to be less obvious for material goods, because we are used to the non-accessibility of material goods unless we have paid for them. But the measures are the same: law and technical barriers, accompanied by continuous destruction of goods to keep the commodities rare enough to obtain a suitable price on markets.
Furthermore it seems obvious that we all depend on material goods which may not be available in sufficient amount. Even immaterial goods depend on a material infrastructure, at least our brains (in the case of knowledge), which also need to be fed. This is definitely true, however, it has nothing to do with a “natural scarcity”. Since all goods we need are to be produced, the only question is, how they are to be produced in a societal sense. The commodity form is one option, the commons form another. Commodities must be produced in a scarce manner to realize their price on the market. The commons good can be produced according to the needs of the people using the given productive capacity. There might be current limitations, but limits always have been subject to human creativity to overcome them.
Maybe some limitations may never be overcome, but this again is no reason to make goods artificially scarce. In these rare cases social agreements can be used to organize responsible use of the limited resource or good. The commons movement learned that both rival as well as non-rival goods can be produced as commons, but they require different social treatment. While non-rival goods are agreed to be freely accessible to prevent under-use, it makes sense to avoid over-use for rival goods by finding appropriate rules or measures either to organize sustainable use or to extend collective production and thus availability of the rival good.
Scarcity is a social phenomenon which is unavoidable if goods are produced as commodities. Often scarcity is confused with limitations which can be overcome by human efforts and creativity.