Last week I attended the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin at the invitation of Mike Linksvayer. Funnily enough almost exactly a year earlier Marcell Mars had me down to Zagreb to speak on the same subject, so it was useful to have a pretext to pick up the thread again.
At the turn of the Millenium the language and historical cargo of the commons excited me as an alternative framework through which to think about copyright and patent issues, but at some point I lost interest. In part this was down to alienation at how I felt the term was misused within Creative Commons, reduced to a meaningless slogan in a licence which usually ‘granted’ users no more than they could have taken for themselves. In short it was legalistic, lacking in ambition, and signally failed to define an idea of user freedom in the realm of cultural goods akin to accomplished by the GPL in software – happily some other people took that challenge on.
Another reason for my estrangement was that there was a steady inflation of commons talk. Suddenly it seemed there were commons everywhere, anything even mildly desirable which the speaker determined everyone should have access to was a ‘commons’; an echo of socialism in a time which scarcely dares to utter its name. And the reason for my unease was that it seemed to me that this was happening in a pretty casual manner which delivered no political gain whilst significantly diluting any contemporary analytical power the idea of commons might have.
In the interim, two somewhat notable intellectual developments occurred, and an important material fact. The first regards Elinor Ostrom: even before she won a Nobel prize in 2009 hew work was widely read but the award of the prize brought a sense of public recognition to people working in some way within her paradigm. On a more minor register, Negri & Hardt’s political trilogy ended up focusing on the ‘common’ as a key terrain of political conflict and potential. From being a sideshow in the first volume, Empire, the commons had moved centre stage by the third volume – tellingly titled Commonwealth. And lastly there is the fact of the political and economic cyclone of 2007/2008, marking the end of neoliberal conceptual hegemony and a renewed interest in alternative frameworks. Due to the the 20th century’s ideological products having been widely discredited, interest in the commons has grown.
Over the next few weeks I want to begin to tease out whether there is something useful to be drawn from all this, or if we are simply witnessing the manufacture of an ideology of the commons.
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