Pattern 3: Beyond Commodity

This is part 3 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, 2.

Pattern 3: Beyond Commodity

In her studies Elinor Ostrom found, that “neither the state nor the market” is a successful means for commons management (1990). Based on traditional economics she analyzed the practices of natural commons and finally simply proved liberal dogmatics wrong. Markets are not a good way to allocate resources, and the State is not a good way to re-distribute wealth and manage the destructive results of markets. Best results occur if the people organize themselves according to their needs, experiences and creativity and treat resources and goods not as commodities, but as common pool resources.

This is exactly what happens in Free Software. Interestingly it took many years to understand that Free Software is a commons and that it is basically identical to what Elinor Ostrom and others were talking about much earlier. One weak aspect of the traditional commons research and the early phase of Free Software was that a clear notion of a commodity and a non-commodity did not exist. It was the Oekonux Project which clearly said: Free Software is not a commodity. This dictum is closely related to the insight that Free Software is not exchanged (cf. pattern 1).

Critics from the left argued that being a non-commodity is limited to the realm of immaterial goods like software. From their viewpoint Free Software is only an “anomaly” (Nuss, Heinrich 2002), while “normal” goods in capitalism have to be commodities. This assumption, however, is closely linked to the acceptance of the scarcity dogma (cf. pattern 2). Moreover, it treats capitalism as a kind of normal or natural mode of production under conditions of “natural scarcity” (as they think). This view completely turns real relations upside down. Capitalism could only establish itself by enclosing the commons, by depriving the people from their traditional access to resources in order to transform them into workers. This enclosure of the commons is an ongoing process. Capitalism can only exist if it continuously separates people from resources by making them artificially scarce. A commodity – as nice as it may appear in the shopping malls – is a result of an ongoing violent process of enclosure and dispossession.

The same process occurs in software. Proprietary software is a way of dispossessing the scientific and development community from their knowledge, experiences, and creativity. Free Software was first a defensive act of maintaining common goods common. However, since software is at the forefront of the development of productive forces it quickly turned into a creative process of overcoming the limitations and alienations of proprietary software. In a special field Free Software established a new mode of production which is going to spread into other realms (cf. pattern 10).

Goods which are not made artificially scarce and are not subject to exchange are not commodities, but commons.


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