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Globalization, Late Capitalism and the New Commons By Oscar Howell - Harvard University, may 9th, 2007

Enclosure and Industrialization in the XIX century

In most countries, the process of industrialization did not begin properly until a significant reorganization of traditional agriculture was well underway. The farming units of the pre-industrial system had to become more productive to be able to feed a growing industrial workforce and the new urban dwellers, none of which were involved in the production of their own food. They were the new labor and consumer classes.

To be more productive, the prevailing farming units (the small farm and the Commons) had to give way to bigger properties that could be managed for efficiency and rational use of new technologies. A process known as enclosure accomplished this. The changes meant the disappearance of the Commons as an economic unit, its transformation into private property and its enclosure to prevent nonproprietary use by the community.

The Commons was until then the economic center of the community. Its was comprised of lands for pasture, water resources, forests and cattle. It was for the use of the community. No member had a special claim over its resources. The community as a whole was responsible for its conservation, development and for the rules of use. The Commons was as much a part of the social community as well as of the geographical definition of the town. This arrangement, while central to the social lives of the people, had important disadvantages when it came to the use of new technologies and to maximizing the use of resources. Cameron writes regarding the Commons in pre-industrial Britain : “Under the traditional open field system it was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain agreement among the many participants on the introduction of new crops or rotations; and with livestock grazing in common herds it was equally difficult to manage selective breeding. Notwithstanding strong incentives for enclosure, it had many opponents, predominantly cottagers and squatters who had no open field holdings of their own, but only customary rights to graze a beast or two on the common pasture” (Cameron, pp. 1666-167). This process uprooted many peasants, who in turn fled the farmlands for the urban centers, creating the masses of dispossessed labor.

The enclosure of communally owned land was a process that created social tensions not only in industrializing England, but in many other countries as well. During the regime of Porfirio Díaz in México (1876-1911), the legislature enacted laws that provided for the enclosure of the communal land. The result was the creation of very large Haciendas, with the explicit goal of maximizing agricultural production and helping the industrialization of the country. This process was known as “Desamortización” and it had started earlier with the Reform Laws of Juárez and Lerdo de Tejada. Friedrich Katz relates in his biography of Francisco Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader, that this political decision enabled Luis Terrazas to amass huge land holdings in Chihuahua, a northern Mexican state. Francisco Villa was a butcher in this area, and he relied on the community cattle he was able to find and slaughter in the Commons. The process of enclosure deprived him of his livelihood and forced his decision to take arms against the government. The Mexican revolution was in large part a reaction of the impoverished peasants to the enclosure measures of the Porfiriato.

Mendoza writes, regarding the economic organization of Oaxacan communities before the “Desamortización” in the Mixteca: “During the colonial period the communal goods of the pueblos de indios were the most important part of their economy. It enabled them to complete the amounts for the tribute, finance the political commissions, and pay for the expenditures of the local church and for the religious festivities. The communal goods consisted of lands, orchards, salt mines, mills, market places, magueyes, and big and small cattle. The sale of the communal production went into the communal trust, and was a fund for use in the case of famine or epidemics. Moreover, the communal property of the goods was essential for the internal social cohesion of the pueblo de indios” (Mendoza, p.157)

The role of the Commons in the modern economic system

The Commons as an economic unit, and as a form of economic organization for communities, disappeared almost completely with the advent of the industrial world, and in its place emerged a system of private property, markets and capital. This happened in the countries, developed and developing, that introduced the capitalist market system. In the communist countries, a Commons properly did not exist, since “communist” meant the expropriation of the lands and its transfer to the centrally controlled economy and government.

Within the modern capitalist economic system, the Commons survived as a form of organization tied to government activity and authority or even national interest. Forms of Commons are present in the areas of public use, like parks and recreational green areas, under the administration of the local governments. In addition, a Commons is the public transportation infrastructure (some of the highways and public streets). The role of the government is to insure the equal rights of everybody to the use of the Commons. It also plays a central role in the maintenance of the areas, its construction and development by means of taxes, expropriation and adjudication.

A modern kind of Commons that emerged at the start of the 20th century is the Environmental Commons. Environmental Commons are spaces that are not always free to access or use. Behind their creation is a special national interest of the government, be it military in terms of sovereignty, or economic, for the conservation of nature and resources. The Environmental Commons are the beaches, the national parks and forests, the oceanic area (for fishery and oil resources), alternative energy resources (geothermal areas, for example) and the historical and archeological sites.

Some instances of Information Commons subsisted, mainly as access to information services in the form of public libraries, public education and universities, and government controlled broadcasting systems like the VOA (Voice of America), the Deutsche Welle, the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation). The participation of the individual is mostly in the role of user or consumer, but not as owner and co-creator. There are few rules for co-participation. A public bureaucracy manages these Commons.

One outstanding example of the convergence between a government controlled Commons and the creation of a private business is the eco-tourism industry in Costa Rica. This country in Central America has achieved a special symbiosis between the interests of the business community and the conservation of the Environmental Commons, with a focus on productivity and sustainability. It has been so successful that today the income from the eco-tourism industry surpasses the income from every other export activity in the country, including that of coffee and bananas, the staples of old. In the words or Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica, in his Address to the Chamber of Representatives on the 1st of may 2007: “We shall never forget: a productive and developed Costa Rica in the future will be green, or it will no be” (Arias, Presidential Report Address 1st of may 2007, p.13)

A Definition of “Commons”.

The standard economics dictionary does not delve deep into Commons. The terms to be found there are “Common Market” or “Common Agricultural Policy”, all of them in reference to the prevailing market economy.

A Commons is an institution covering a group of shared endowments or resources, that is owned and managed by a group of individuals with a social capital in the Commons.

Yochai Benkler adds a perspective on freedom and welfare to the Commons: “Commons are another core institutional component of freedom of action in free societies, but they are structured to enable action that is not based on exclusive control over the resources necessary for action. [] Each institutional framework – property and commons – allows for a certain freedom of action and a certain degree of predictability of access to resources” (Benkler, p. 24)

There is definitely a strong social component in how we define and treat a Commons. This has its roots in the ability of social groups to participate in their use, and decide on what kind of organization they are willing to establish for a shared resource. Benkler’s observations are very close to the writings of Amartya Sen regarding the possibility to choose one’s participation in the market as a kind of fundamental freedom of the people.

Sen writes : “While emphasizing the significance of [market] transaction and the right of economic participation [], and the direct importance of market-related liberties, we must not loose sight of the complementarity of these liberties with the freedoms that come from the operation of other (nonmarket) institutions.” (Sen, p.116)

This is an important part of the definition of a Commons. It is not only an economical strategy for the management of a shared resource. It is an economic institution that is non-market, and that coexists with traditional market institutions in the political organization of a state. Furthermore, the Commons is a key element of the economic liberties of a people. The mere possibility of being able to choose to be part of a Commons is a sign of economic freedom. The New Commons happens within a Social Network that chooses to follow a nonmarket strategy for its economic activity. It is enabled and changed by technology, and it is fully connected and extends globally.

Types of Commons

When typifying a Commons, there is an important difference to be made depending on the intrinsic economic characteristics of the goods or resources that form part of it. The goods can be substractable, that is, the use by one individual precludes the use by another, as is the case of water or energy. In this case, it is a Shared Resource System or Common-pool resources. When the goods are non-substractable or non-rival, as information or knowledge, it is a Property-Rights regime or Common Property system. The Common Property system is more of a legal regime, that governs the use of the information or knowledge in the Commons.

As Elinor Ostrom writes, the degree to which a Commons can be formed around a resource is dependent on the characteristics of the goods themselves: first is the degree of subtractability, mentioned above, and second, the degree of exclusion or prevention from use by an interested party. That is, the possibility of appropriation.

For example, at the one end of the classification are the resources that have low subtractability and high difficulty of exclusion. These are the General Public Goods, like Knowledge, Language or the Ocean. At the opposite end are the Private Goods (i.e. Property), that have a high degree of subtractability and an easy method of exclusion.

Common Pool Resources, like energy, have a high degree of subtractability but a difficulty of exclusion. Another important Commons, Information, has a low subtractability and an easy exclusion. Legal regimes, like copyrights and patents, attempt to move Information towards the high subtractability side of the spectrum, and convert it into a private property, a form of exclusionary resource, that can be artificially depleted. In fact, this is the driver behind the business model of modern media companies.

Most resources can change in their ability to be managed in a Commons or not. This is the drive towards the restriction of access of common goods that the market system encourages. Ostrom writes : “New technologies can enable the capture of what were once free and open public goods. This has been the case with the development of most “global commons”, such as the deep seas, the atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, and space, for example. This ability to capture the previously uncapturable creates a fundamental change in the nature of the resource, with the resource being converted from a nonrivalrous, nonexclusionary public good into a common-pool resource that needs to be managed, monitored, and protected to ensure sustainability and preservation” (Ostrom, p. 10).

With the formation of a Commons, there are some forms of governance associated. The guiding principle in the methods of governance of Commons, as in Ethics, is reciprocity, and the possibility to enforce reciprocity.

A Commons needs to be very explicit in defining rules that cover its fair use, contributions by Peers and compensation for use. In the case of Information, the rules need to address the property rights situation of the resources and be very explicit about its violations. Commons are also subject to abuse. Abuse is an issue in the sustainability of a Commons. A Commons seeks to attain sustainability by regulating free-riding, over harvesting, depletion and copyright infringement. The individuals that form part of a Commons, every element of the Social Network, have an amount of social capital invested in the Commons. This social capital and its conservation is part of the governance of the Commons. Commons rely heavily on this social capital, and therefore on collective action and self-governance.

Benkler writes about the forms of nonmarket peer production and sharing: “The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively enforced” (Benkler, p.61)

Globalization and Late Capitalism

Since the late 1970s a series of economic and political developments have taken place, all of which are summarized under the somewhat diffuse term of “Globalization”. These trends have been instrumental in what today is seen as the New Commons, the reemergence of the Commons as viable economic and political option to function and develop along market capitalism.

Frederic Jameson, a professor of Literature and writer of postmodernism, has termed the actual period of development as “Late Capitalism”. He sees the period starting in 1973 with the oil shock, the end of the world economic order based on the Gold Standard, which led to a “strange landscape”, culturally as well as politically. By this term he means not the demise of Capitalism, but the introduction of a period of a mature or “third stage” capitalism, that contains key elements of social democracy, technology and a global presence, and that supports the drive of the postmodern cultural logic of remaking the structures of reality and of integration of diverse social and cultural groups. It also contains an explicit acceptance of American political and economic domination, which is a key component of the Globalization trend. The one important aspect is the pervasiveness of the economic system in the everyday life of most of the people, and its impact on the cultural production.

Jameson: “As widely used today, the term late capitalism has very different overtones from these [the definitions of the Frankfurter Schule and Weber]. No one particularly notices the expansion of the state sector and bureaucratization any longer: it seem a simple, “natural” fact of life. What marks the development of the new concept over the older one (which was still roughly consistent with Lenin’s notion of a “monopoly stage” of capitalism) is not merely an emphasis on the emergence of new forms of business organization (multinationals, transnationals) beyond the monopoly stage but, above all, the vision of a world capitalist system fundamentally distinct from the older imperialism, which was little more than a rivalry between the various colonial powers”.

Somewhat analogous, Francis Fukuyama argues for the “End of History”. By this term, he means another characteristic of a mature or late capitalist system, the idea that we have reached the end stage of the human development towards political and economic liberty. That we are at the point in which, with minor imperfections, a global democratic and liberal economical system prevails. This condition can be improved, but not fundamentally changed without reverting to a much worse human condition.

In their book “Empire” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri take a different perspective on Globalization. They accept fully the reality that the world is integrated along the economic and financial world-systems, that new technologies are here that enable people to participate in this global world and take advantage of the reduction of time and space, and the price you pay for it. But they also remark the diminishing importance of the nation-state, its surrendering of economical and financial sovereignty to the global markets. This creates a new global “Empire”. The ultimate reason and legitimacy of the “Empire” is the maintenance of the global economic system. They regard the wars in the world today as “civil wars” within a unified system. The result is a new global civil society with international concerns. But there is also the issue of exclusion. The global system creates a class of outcasts from the global system that are not able to take part in the advantages of globalization.

Enrique Dussel, a philosophy professor in México, goes further in analyzing the political and ethical problems of exclusion in the globalized economy. He questions the ethical reasons for excluding a group of people from the global system, and sees in it a sign that we are as a whole moving towards a new system of injustice. This system creates a new global village of the poor. And here is where movements like the Theology of Liberation find their support base.

What is striking is that both Hardt/Negri and Dussel speak of a kind of new global, borderless civil movement, in both cases within the classes in disadvantage, the losers of globalization and within the winners of globalization. It seems that the movement towards globalization has not only economical and financial aspects. There are also characteristics that pertain to global Social Networks. There is a new civil movement with global aspirations, interests, and above all, connections.

In this context is that the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, México, is regarded as the first global guerrilla movement. Their political reasons are in sync with the perils of globalization, their claims are broadcasted to this new global civil society, and their propaganda methods make extensive use of technology and the Internet. A civil society that makes its political problems global, in a viral form within a Social Network, and at high speed.

The trends of the globalization period of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that have an impact in the development of the New Commons are:

1. The formation of truly global markets, with the dominance of the global corporation 2. A decline in the power of the nation states to conduct independent monetary policy. This creates a greater sense of an integrated world, for better or for worse. 3. A new interconnected and global civil movement, both within the losers and the winners of globalization, that exploits the collaboration possibilities of the new technologies for its social and political agenda

The New Commons

In this context of economical globalization, the emerging global civil society and technological advance, a form of New Commons emerged. The global environmental movement made the first step towards a new concept of the Commons.

The environmental movement created a sense of the earth as a global shared resource that has to be protected and managed. The earth as a whole was the first New Commons, and in its development, it created new forms of collective action. The result was the creation of a series of global organizations and agencies, that represented the interests of the global civil society and strove to measure and manage the welfare of the environment and the people living in it.

The World Watch Institute issues a “State of the World Report”. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) issues the “Global Annual Forest Report”. In it the WWF reports on the extent of the world covered by forests, the rates of annual forest loss, and issues comments about countries with questionable efforts at reforestation. Together with the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) they issue the “Living Planet Index”. “This index uses three measures: the extent of natural forests (without plantations), and two indices of changes in population of selected marine and freshwater vertebrate species” (Lomborg, p.17). Taking this efforts to monitor and report on the state of the environment on a global basis, and regarding the crusades of organizations like Greenpeace, that seek a worldwide appeal, one can only feel part of this emerging global civil society and the world as a Commons. This is one of the important developments of the last half century.

Together with this effort to build a managed New Commons that covered the whole Earth, there also grew a sense of mismanagement, and the imperative to do something about it on a local and a global level. The latest expression of this view is the book “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. Diamond explains how societies that failed to manage their natural Commons properly failed to survive and ultimately collapsed. The book is a powerful message for the new global civil movement.

The governance efforts have also been extended beyond the environment. As Lomborg explains: “But how do we measure human welfare? [] The UN introduced the so-called Human Development Index for this very purpose. The index attempts to elucidate what kind of surroundings people have in which to make a good live for themselves. The intention is to measure how long people can expect to live, how much knowledge they can acquire, and how high a living standard they can achieve” (Lomborg, p.45). Yet another management report on the state of affairs of the Earth Commons.

And then in 1999, Rick Levine started his book “The Cluetrain Manifesto” with following words: “People of the Earth A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter – and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations.” (Levine, p. xi)

This is one of the inception points of one of the New Commons today: the Information Commons. At this time Levine did not term it Commons, he used the more general concept of “Conversations”, denoting information flow more than a static resource type of structure. Note how he opposes what is going on in the conversations to what the traditional business is doing. He refers to it as “smarter markets”, but quickly makes the difference clear, these are no markets in the traditional sense, “these markets are conversations”. Also note the formulation of “to share relevant knowledge” : this implies a sense of common property, of social capital invested and of utility.

Levine goes on to write down the 95 Theses of the Manifesto. The number 9 reads: “9: These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.” (Levine, p. xiii). In general, Levine stresses the need for companies to harness this new development. It was a business book, written for business heads. But its insights into how the New Commons would develop are very interesting. In a somewhat cryptic formulation he states: “7: Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies” (Levine, p.xii). This meaning from the perspective of today: if I can link up information freely, I can subvert the economic system that makes information exclusive and artificially substractable.

These developments and proposals gradually build up to the tools and possibilities available to the emerging global civil society. We see the emergence of Social Networks, New Commons and, logically enough, new forms of association and production. They are not the traditional market system. People find new spaces for work, for information exchange and meeting with peers. They define new rules for the shared use of resources. Also new rules for governance and collaboration are developed, not mandated or imposed, but opt-in and consensual. The results are powerful collaborative actions that rival corporate production models and structures. Benkler calls it “commons-based peer production”, a model were the resources are shared, not owned, and the hierarchies of production are substituted for a networks of equals. This system displays a form of collective intelligence, stemming from self-governance, that enables the production and management of complex assets: a group of “loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands” (Benkler, p.60). The future implications for the traditional production models are going to be significant, not only in the world of interconnected people and avatars, but also in the very real world of rural, indigenous and urban communities, which will have a strong local bond but a global projection.

Examples of New Commons

1. Information Commons a. The Wikipedia and The Citizens Compendium. Today one of the most visible working examples of a New Commons. In its website Wikipedia explains: “ [] is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world”. There are more than 1,763,000 articles in the Wikipedia today. It is a widely used website and reference. The rules are simple but compelling: you can contribute, review and read freely. The total amount of free content that an individual gets more than offsets the costs of sporadic contribution and revision. One of the problems with Wikipedia is it openness. There is incorrect information and abuse. For that reason the founders of Wikipedia created the new Commons “Citizens Compendium”. Here the rules are stricter. A person can’t contribute anonymously, and every contribution is review by a group of experts. (see www.wikipedia.org and www.citizendium.org ) b. The Project Gutenberg. The project makes electronic books freely available on the web. The books have to be in the public domain. From its website: “The Project Gutenberg was produced by tens of thousands of volunteers”. The people taking part in this effort produce the books, upload them to the website and finally review them for error and quality. The result has been an important collection of literary work, that is freely available for anyone, man or machine, since the books are held in an easily machine-readable plain text format. In Gutenberg individuals do not contribute their own content, but they share their labor effort to build an Information Commons. (see: www.gutenberg.org ) 2. Social Network Production a. Open Source Software Development. The most influential case for Open Source software development is the operating system Linux, although the method has been used in a variety of other projects. The Open Source Community is a network of programmers dedicated to the idea that software should be free, and that it should be developed collaboratively. The developers get no monetary compensation for their efforts. They get the professional satisfaction and the right to use the finished product. The GNU license further allows anybody to use the software under certain conditions. The result has been projects in which thousands of programmers collaborate to create pieces of software that today are able to compete in the open market with versions produced by companies with real employees and copyright and patent enforcement. b. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. This Social Network is an example of a nonmarket ecology dedicated to micro-jobs. It is a new form of human-machine interface. In the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT in September 2006 Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos presented this new “product” that is named after the famous chess playing automaton know as the Mechanical Turk. Bezos described it as “artificial artificial-intelligence”. It is a Social Network formed of real people around the world, that do micro-jobs requested by computers. For the receiving computer it seems as if another computer would do the task. Therefore the term artificial AI. One task could be: “Tell me if in this picture there is a car”. One person would receive the task, respond with “Yes” or “No” and return it to the requesting party. All this delivered as a Webservice. For that micro-job the person gets some sort of micro-payment. The possible implications of that kind of nonmarket system of micro-jobs is not yet fully appreciated. It could impact remote villages and urban centers. 3. Social Organization Commons a. Kiva – loans that change lives. Kiva is a Social Network that enables individuals to bypass the all the market intermediaries and make a “personal” loan to a person in need anywhere in the Third World. The Commons is maintained by the people that are part of the Network an uses a set of rules of self-governance to monitor payments and projects. From their website: “Kiva is using the power of the Internet to facilitate one-to-one connections that were previously prohibitively expensive” The Network created is built by the sponsors, the recipients and associated micro-finance institutions that enable the “last mile transaction”. It is a New Commons in the sense that the shared resource is not only the loans available, but the shared information about micro-develomnet projects and access to funds. (see www.kiva.org ) b. Usos y Costumbres. In the state of Oaxaca in México there has been a new development regarding Commons. In this case is not a Commons globally active and enabled by technology. It is a New Commons of ancient roots, enabled by new legislation. It is about the right of indigenous communities to organize following their Customary Laws. The communalities are built anew, the community has a say in the economic management of the Commons and in their political organization. Communal Goods, like the ones referred to by Mendoza, are possible again, and are in fact enforced. The local power of government is held by people not connected to any political party or to a political institution of the state. They have a local independent government of consensus within the community. They have community specific customary laws and community specific forms of production and exchange. All this nested within the political constitution of Mexico, without loosing any of their citizen’s rights. c. Timebank.co.uk. This website supports a Commons of people that pool resources for the help of communities and other members, on a local and global scope. The resources are normally work hours that are made available to the recipient. The Commons is built around a pool of available labor hours. The management is achieved by strict rules and closed participation. (see www.timeban.co.uk )


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