The Structural Communality of the Commons

[Diesen Artikel gibt es auch auf Deutsch. Originally published in The Wealth of the Commons (eds. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich; Levellers Press, Amherst, MA, pp. 28–34). License: CC-by 3.0.]

The commons are as varied as life itself, and yet everyone involved with them shares common convictions. If we wish to understand these convictions, we must realize what commons mean in a practical sense, what their function is and always has been. That in turn includes that we concern ourselves with people. After all, commons or common goods are precisely not merely “goods,” but a social practice that generates, uses and preserves common resources and products. In other words, it is about the practice of commons, or commoning, and therefore also about us. The debate about the commons is also a debate about images of humanity. So let us take a step back and begin with the general question about living conditions.

Living conditions do not simply exist; instead, human beings actively produce them. In so doing, every generation stand on the shoulders of its forebears. Creating something new and handing down to future generations that which had been created before – and if possible, improved – has been part of human activity since time immemorial. The historical forms in which this occurred, however, have been transformed fundamentally, particularly since the transition to capitalism and a market economy. Although markets have existed for millennia, their function was not as central as they have become in contemporary capitalism, where they set the tone. They determine the rules of global trade. They organize interactions between producers and consumers across the world. Some observers believe they can recognize practices of the commons even in markets. After all, they say, markets are also about using resources jointly, and according to rules that enable markets to function in as unrestricted and unmanipulated ways as possible. However, markets are not commons, and it is worth understanding why.

Although markets are products of human action, their production is also controlled by markets, not by human action. It is no coincidence that markets are spoken of as if they were active subjects. We can read about what the markets are “doing” every day in the business pages. Markets decide, prefer and punish. They are nervous, lose trust or react cautiously. Our actions take place under the direction of the markets, not the other way around. Even a brief look at the rules mentioned above makes that clear. Rules issued by governments first recognize the basic principles of markets, but these rules function only as “add-ons” that are supposed to guide the effects of the markets in one direction or the other.

One direction may mean restricting the effects of the market so as to attain specific social goals. Viewed in this light, the supposedly alternative concept of a centrally planned economy turns out to be nothing more than a radical variant of guiding markets. The other direction can mean designing rules so that market mechanisms can flourish, in the hope that everyone is better off in the end if individuals pursue their own material self-interest. The various schools of economic thought reflect the different directions. They all take for granted the assumption that markets work, and that what matters is optimizing how they work. A common feature is that none of these standard schools of thought question markets themselves. That is why markets are at times described as “second nature” (Fisahn 2010) – a manifestation of nature and its laws that cannot be called into question, but only applied.

The habit of treating markets, and therefore also the economy, as quasi-natural beings prompted economist Karl Polanyi to speak of a reversal of the relationship between the social and the economic: “Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.” (Polanyi, 1957: 57) Before the onset of capitalism, only religious ritual acts were seen as having a life of their own in this way. The attitude was: „We cannot regulate god or the market, we can only attempt to secure their goodwill, perhaps plead or at times outwit them, but we can never get them under control.” In the case of markets, it is the economic augurs of all kinds who take on the task of fathoming divine will. They are interpreters of the inevitable.

Markets are not commons – and vice versa. The fundamental principle of the commons is that the people who create the commons also create the rules for themselves. But are people able to do so? Isn’t it better to trust in a mechanism that may be invisible and impersonal, but that is also generally valid, rather than trying to formulate and negotiate rules oneself? Now we are at the core of the differing concepts of humanity: The market position assumes Homo economicus individuals maximizing their utility.1 These are isolated people who at first think only of themselves and their own utility. Only by trading on the market do they become social creatures.

Now, it is not these isolated individuals who determine their social relations. As we saw above, they give themselves up to the workings of the markets, trying to derive benefits from them. To make it abundantly clear: Isolated individuals submit to an anonymous power that is not their own by joining it and internalizing its logic. They then have the opportunity to create and confirm their individuality by means of consumption. Consumption is also the medium in which social life takes place. In other words, markets are not only places of distribution; they are places where people connect and develop identities. As consumption does not create true communality, and as many people feel isolated even in a group, the only way out of this dilemma is more consumption. Thus, consumption creates more and more consumption, which matches the producers’ interests to sell more and more to consumers. It also perfectly serves the necessity of the capitalist economy to keep growing. However, consumers can never “buy our way out” of their social isolation. Markets are based on and continuously create structural isolation.

Structural isolation does not mean that we do not come together or cooperate. Yet in markets, cooperation always has the bitter flavor of competition as well.2 We cooperate so that we can hold our ground better in competitive situations. With the underlying necessity of competition, any cooperation on one side implies exclusion on the other. One company’s success is another company’s failure. One country’s export surplus is another’s trade deficit. One person’s success in applying for a job means rejection of all the other candidates. One person’s green card means another person’s deportation. It is this aspect of markets which I call structural exclusion. Both aspects, structural isolation and exclusion, permeate our actions, thoughts and feelings like a gossamer web. They determine what people consider normal in everyday life. If a fish swims in endless circles in its bowl and has learned not to bump into the glass, seemingly automatically, it might falsely suppose it is enjoying the freedom of the ocean. If we are to withstand structural isolation and exclusion, we need places and forms of compensation. Besides consumption, which we have already mentioned, families and other social relationships play a central role here. Time and again, we can observe that people who lose their social relationships quickly end up in a situation of real isolation and exclusion.

Structural isolation and exclusion entail another type of behavior, one I call structural irresponsibility. Hardly anyone wants to marginalize others, hardly anyone wants their own advantage to be paid for by others – yet this still takes place. Isolation and separateness on markets also means that we cannot grasp the consequences of a purchase. Perhaps we have heard about people in the Congo working under extreme and inhumane conditions to extract coltan, from which tantalum for producing cellphones is extracted. But do we do without cellphones for this reason? And we have read about t-shirts being produced with child labor, but do we pay attention every time we buy one? Or environmental pollution caused by aluminum production – Do we even know which products contain aluminum?

These are only a few of countless examples that show that it is virtually impossible to exercise personal responsibility under market conditions. Short of massive boycotts or public organizing, consumer purchases cannot alter the labor conditions and environmental effects of production; in this respect, money is an extremely poor means of communication. All of our after-the-fact attempts to contain the harmful consequences of market activity amount to a never-ending task, one that often fails, sometimes colossally – for instance, in limiting global CO2 emissions.

But that is not the only option, as the commons demonstrate. Here, people are connected to one another. They use common resources, devise rules to sustain or increase them, and find the social forms that fit best. The starting point is always the needs of the people involved, and those needs are never the same. In a commons, the implicit model of humanity is not about individuals’ abstract equality, but rather their concrete uniqueness. People participate actively in the commons process with their rich individuality. Thus, the following is clear: If both the resources and the products are different, and if the people involved remain special individuals, then uniform rules cannot work. But that is not a problem in a commons because, in contrast to the market, the rules of a commons are made by the commoners themselves. It is no simple task to establish workable rules, and they may fail, but there are countless commons that do work, provided that certain conditions for success are taken into account.

Self-organization works if it is in fact self-determined. For this reason, an important aspect during the rule-making process is taking the participants’ different needs into account—be it in form of consensus or compromise. It is decisive that people feel a sense of fairness. Fairness is not the same thing as formal justice: It describes agreements that nobody feels they need intervene against. That, too, is different in the case of markets. Here, there is a system of equivalent trading that is formally just, because in an ideal market, assets of the same economic value change hands. But first, this holds only on average; individual cases can be unjust or even fraudulent.

Let us recall: People who maximize their own benefit do so at other people’s expense, and those other people have to bear the burden. Second, equivalent trading means that different productivities may be expressed in the same prices, but in real terms, in different amounts of effort necessary to achieve the same price. Developing countries have to work much harder than industrialized ones for the same monetary yield. Is that fair? No. The market ignores differences; commons take them into account. What is more: the market pushes differences aside, commons thrive on them. If a few varieties of rice obtain the highest profit, then all other varieties of rice are displaced from the market. Participants in the commons, in contrast, are aware that diversity is not a flaw – an impediment to “maximizing value” – but a positive quality. It means more creativity, more variety, more opportunities for learning, a better quality of life.

Self-organization can fail. It is often unsuccessful if alien logics creep into practices of the commons, and that can occur in very different ways. For example, if equal portions of a finite resource are made available for the people involved to use (formally just), then it may well be that individuals feel this arrangement to be unfair. This may be the case if the resource is of lesser quality, or if the needs of the people involved differ for reasons made transparent. Formally equal distribution must be augmented by additional criteria that are to be taken into account until everyone feels things are fair.

As soon as fairness is neglected, the danger arises that individual strategies for maximizing utility prevail. Then, market thinking enters into the commons. If one person begins to push through his or her individual goals at other people’s expense, fairness is undermined to an ever greater degree. Others respond in kind, a downward spiral sets in, and in the end, self-organization fails. Market ideologues are aware of this effect and occasionally employ them in order to destroy commons. For example, in Peru (and elsewhere) the proposal was made to divide up land that had previously been used jointly and to distribute it to the indigenous population with individual titles of ownership – formally just, of course. Members of communities were to be transformed into isolated, utility-maximizing individuals. The indigenous population rejected this plan because they realized it would endanger their lifestyle.3

Commons work only if everybody is included in the community and nobody is excluded. They are based on cooperation, and they generate cooperation. They enable responsible action, and they require it. In this sense, the social practices of commons represent structural communality. Commons projects represent a practical rebuttal to the Homo economicus paradigm. Nobody has to have certain characteristics in order to participate in commons projects, but many people change when they do. In commons, people can live as what they have actually always been: societal beings who jointly create their living conditions. In contrast to the logic of the market, individuals have nothing to gain from having their way at other people’s expense. A central step in learning about practices of the commons is understanding that one’s own needs are taken into account only if other people’s needs are also part of the common activities. I call this aspect of the commons structural inclusion. The Ubuntu4 philosophy of the Zulu and Xhosa puts it in these words: “I am because you are, and I can be only if you are.”

Actually, this expresses something obvious. It seems so special to us because we have been trained from an early age to struggle as individuals against others. Selection determines our experiences at school; opportunities in life are allocated along with grades. We experience selection in markets when we need to sell our labor or our products. We experience selection when we are sick or old, when we worry about receiving appropriate care. Selection is the means of structural exclusion employed in the logic of the market. Whatever “doesn’t make money” falls between the cracks.

To be sure, the commons have boundaries, and it must be decided who belongs and who does not. We have learned from Elinor Ostrom that drawing such boundaries is important – at least in the case of rival common resources5. In a commons, there is a very different social logic at play than in market settings; the criteria for access and use may include one’s local affiliations, contributions of labor and particular uses of the commons. For example, rules of open-access usage make sense for goods that are non-rival and not consumed or “used up” (such as collaborative websites like Wikipedia or free software programs); such rules help avoid underuse of the resource and the danger that they might be abandoned. In contrast, goods that are rival and consumptive (such as land, water or fisheries) require other sorts of rules because in such cases the problem is overuse, not underuse.

What is decisive in the success of a commons is which rules are recognized by the community as reasonable or necessary. Here, the primary question is not whether something pays off, but what sustains the commons and their resources so that everyone involved can benefit in the long term. The social form is valuable in and of itself, as social relationships are the decisive means for settling disputes. And conflicts are to be resolved in such a way that everyone feels that the process and its results are fair, as discussed above.

Thus, commons structurally generate responsibility on the part of their participants for preserving the resource and the collective relationships, while markets generally do not. Commoners are in charge of shaping the social relationships involved; therefore, they can take responsibility for their actions. However, this also entails their responsibility to do so. In the commons, it is possible to deal with conflicted goals and varying needs before taking action. In the market, however, action comes first, and then the consequences are dealt with later. The market is seldom capable of mediating between different needs and identifying responsible solutions because maximum profits is the touchstone for choice.

We are all aware of such paradoxes: We want to drive on a good road network without congestion, but object to having major roads pass by our front doors. We want environmentally friendly energy to replace nuclear power, but we object to windmills marring the landscape. We object to fish stocks being depleted, but want to purchase fresh and cheap fish. Different needs and goals conflict with one another, and the one that can mobilize the most (market and political) power will prevail. First, we create a fait accompli, then we have to suffer the consequences.

In the commons, people are capable of mediating between different needs and desires from the outset. Farmers can come to an understanding about joint usage of pastures in advance, and can do so time and again to avoid overexploitation of the common resource; fisherfolk can arrange for sustainable fishing quotas, in contrast to nation-states, each of which wants maximum usage for itself; free software projects can agree on programming priorities. Filmmaker Kevin Hansen speaks about commons cultivating a sense of overarching responsibility: “A commons approach innately presumes responsibility and rights for all. No one is left out. It is the responsibility of all commons trustees (effectively, this means everyone) to be responsible – even for those who do not speak. (…) … [T]his includes not only the young, elderly or disabled people who cannot speak for themselves. It also means the disenfranchised, the poor, the indigenous and other humans who have traditionally not had a significant voice in politics and economics.”6

While including everyone is part of the logic of the commons in terms of principle and structure, such inclusion does not occur automatically, but must be implemented intentionally. The freedom to shape arrangements that exist in principle also entails a necessity to do so. That is different from market relationships, where rules are set externally and uniformly: Whichever option earns money prevails. In a commons, communities must themselves determine the rules appropriate for individual situations and for the people involved in them. In the process, the temptation to achieve gain at the expense of others after all is ubiquitous, coming from the logic of the market. Yet to the other, I am the other as well. If I prevail at the expense of others, they will do the same (or exclude me). That would be the beginning of a downward spiral, a development we know well. The company that lowers wages faster than others generates more jobs. The one that cuts benefits most can obtain credit in order to survive. That is the logic of the markets, where most people end up losing, and even the winners cannot be sure whether they themselves might be among the losers tomorrow. We can establish commons and their structural communality, inclusion and generation of responsibility on the part of their participants only in opposition to the logic of exclusion. That is never easy, but it is worth the effort.


Fisahn, Andreas (2010): Die Demokratie entfesseln, nicht die Märkte, PapyRossa.

Polanyi, Karl (1957): The Great Transformation, Boston, Beacon.


1 See essay by Friederike Habermann on pp. 13–18.

2 See essay by Michel Bauwens on pp. 375–378.

3 See as well as the contribution by Dirk Löhr on the question of land in this volume, on pp. 410–415.

4 The word “ubuntu” roughly means humanity, loving one’s neighbor and community spirit.

5 The concept of rivalry is explained by Silke Helfrich on pp. 61–66.


Stefan Meretz (Germany) is an engineer, computer scientist, and author who lives in Berlin. His publications focus on commons-based peer production and development of a free society beyond market and state. He blogs at

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