Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers.

Each individual who participates in this cultural process undergoes a subjective transformation. The subjective transformation is called: commoning. Commoning is the subjective process involved in ‘making common’. It is the collective psychological shift implicit in establishing a commons.

The idea of the commons is undergoing a resurgence today. In environmental politics, the commons is a hot topic. The Earth’s biosphere is a commons, one that we are destroying at an extraordinary rate. The biospheric commons has been privatized through bills and treaties that give corporations the right to carve it up and exploit it, and to externalize their costs and pollute it. The tragedy of the commons is a tragedy for us all.

The good news is that the commons idea is establishing itself at the heart of contemporary political and economic debates. Building on its achievements last Fall, the Occupy movement is exploring how to best integrate the values and ideals of the commons and commoning into its activities. There are clear synergies between Occupy and the commons movement. Occupy reclaims public space and makes it common. By establishing temporary autonomous zones for sharing, learning, and democratic participation, Occupy ‘commons’ public space and transforms it. The rise of the commercial commons in the ‘collaborative consumption’ movement is another axis of development with important political implications, especially in the US, where for a good part of the 20th century, ‘the commons’ was seen to imply communism. The emerging commons-based peer-to-peer economy is rapidly transforming perceptions on the left and right of sharing as an economic good. This is good news for politics, economics, and the planet.

The commons and commoning are vital to innovations in the online world. Wikipedia is a commons, protected under a Creative Commons licence. The internet itself is a vast, sprawling commons – a commons under threat from governments and corporations who would regulate and enclose it. Facebook and Twitter set up privatized, enclosed, commons (we self-select the inhabitants of our private commons by friending, liking, following). The future of the internet will be decided through the battle between Facebook and Google to establish two different models of the digital commons: the walled garden of Facebook versus the open arboretum mapped by Google.

With all this interest in the commons, it is time that we considered the ‘ethos’, or way of being, that underpins the practice of commoning. I offer the following principles as contributions to this debate. If nothing else, they have helped me consolidate my own intuitions about commoning.

Commoning is based in four broad principles. These principles shape the psycho-symbolic space that is sustained by people who participate in commoning.

1. Plenitude: Commoning proceeds from a place of wealth. We do not need to accumulate more than we possess. Together we have all that we require.

2. Mutual benefit: Commoning hinges on a spirit of reciprocity and justice. My gain does not need to mean your loss. Genuine success produces mutual benefit.

3. Spiritual abundance: Commoning challenges us to discover our inner abundance and to add it to a shared stock of potential. The term abundance comes from the Latin ab-unda, meaning the wave, which overflows. Commoning requires us to cultivate the overflowing generosity that represents true spiritual health.

4. Transition: Commoning is a threshold activity. To make common is to participate in an unfolding movement for social change, with positive implications for politics, economics, and the planet. Each act of commoning – be it a matter of collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer production, open space technology, or democratic assembly – is an experimental contribution towards a new social and economic paradigm.

We are the commoners. We will create this space together.


  1. You’re not describing rights; you’re describing privilege. Everything you posted is predicated upon the “commons” being maintained, exploited, and used by those people who’ve been granted use of them. That’s privilege, since use is earned by participation and effort.

    You even describe a “overflowing generosity of spirit” when, again, shows privilege as opposed to rights are involved since generosity can only exist when the recipient doesn’t deserve or have a right to what is being shared.

  2. Jo Faulkner says:

    Thanks for this post Tim, really interesting. I guess you had this in mind:–_but_will_there_be_legal_challenges/?
    The Facebook/Google thing is interesting: should we be inherently wary of attempts to commercialise the commons? My gut reaction is: HELL YES!

    • Thanks Jo. I hadn’t read this AlterNet article – thanks for passing it on.

      I have mixed feelings about the commercialisation of the commons. Roman law distinguished the legal spheres of public, private, and common. To be purist about it, then, one would have to say that any privatization of the commons destroys it. At the same time, the collaborative consumption movement is producing so many wonderful economic innovations at the moment that blend private and common (car sharing services like GoGet for example). These kinds of developments are fascinating and necessary! So, my gut says be wary while my head says: something interesting happening here… We’ll see how it develops.

  3. “battle between Facebook and Google…” and many small players, united to a degree by a belief in the commons, use of Creative Commons, participation in and support of open source projects of various kinds…

    And probably some other very important players who we haven’t heard of yet, but who will change how we think about the internet – as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and others have done.

    • Point taken about the known unknowns. No doubt the evolving internet has many surprises in store for us. But Google and Facebook are in a uniquely powerful position to affect things on account of the success they’ve had in commercializing commons-based activity though targeted advertising. Facebook’s Open Graph is a potential game changer: now Facebook is a platform that could potentially rival the web as such for commons-based services. It is becoming harder, if not impossible, for new players to compete.

      I don’t agree with everything that Jaron Lanier has to say, but on this point, I think, he is correct:

      ‘Once networks are established, it is hard to reduce their power. Google’s advertisers, for instance, know what will happen if they move away. The next-highest bidder for each position in Google’s auction-based model for selling ads will inherit that position if the top bidder goes elsewhere. So Google’s advertisers tend to stay put because the consequences of leaving are obvious to them, whereas the opportunities they might gain by leaving are not.

      The obvious strategy in the fight for a piece of the advertising pie is to close off substantial parts of the Internet so Google doesn’t see it all anymore. That’s how Facebook hopes to make money, by sealing off a huge amount of user-generated information into a separate, non-Google world. Networks lock in their users, whether it is Facebook’s members or Google’s advertisers’.

      This is shaping up to be an all-out graph war, with the future of the web at stake. What will the web look like in a decade? Will it be an enclosed commons, effectively owned by Facebook? Or will it be an open commons, dominated by Google?

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