The Commons Transition: a discussion with David Bollier

The following interview with David Bollier is the second in a series taken from our recently launched report: [email protected] on Earth!?

The Commons Transition is a bold proposal, but not an easy one to sum up in one line. Essentially, it is the concept of transitioning from a neoliberal capitalist society to a peer-to- peer economy based on social knowledge sharing.

David Bollier began working on the Commons Transition as a political activist and policy expert around 20 years ago. He seems aware of the potential confusion that might arise from the theory, and explains that it is “not simply an ideological or philosophical statement, but something that is grounded in lots of diverse projects from indigenous peoples to digital spaces such as open source data and websites like Wikipedia.”
The Commons Transition’s greatest step forward to date was a massive project commissioned by the Ecuadorian government. In August 2013 Rafael Correa’s administration launched a global initiative known as the Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK) Society. FLOK was dedicated to lead Ecuador in its transition from an extractive, oil-based economic model to one based on the commons, collaboration and free, open knowledge. Michel Bauwens, who led FLOK’s research team, believed that this type of society was possible because of a global trend that has actually brought us to a new stage in the capitalist evolution: ‘netarchichal capitalism’, as Bauwens dubbed it, wherein “proprietary platforms both enable human co-operation but also exploit it for the bene t of private capital”.

Platforms like Facebook and Google, as Bollier explains, “are corporate owned and therefore top-down administered with protocols and data harvesting that suits the needs of capital and their corporate interests.” Because of advances in technology, netarchical capitalism exploits the knowledge and ideas created by vast numbers of people as the foundation of capital accumulation. The idea of the commons seeks to enable the people who create that value to capture it and act as peer-stewards in managing it. It takes the premise of the Gift Economy into the digital age.

The FLOK project was sadly tainted by President Correa’s increasingly despotic behaviour – criminalising protest, for starters – and his clashes with the social movements that gave his administration a mandate in the rst place.145 But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and amid concerns over privacy, the Commons Transition Plan is more important than ever. David Bollier offers up digital commons as a solution:
“digital commons such as an open source software community… are bottom up, self-governed, and have nonmarket objectives… [They are] municipally owned or cooperatively run, so that the bene ts accrue to the users, participants and workers rather than to capital.”

The commons are obviously not a panacea for all of society’s ills, but they do offer some promising answers for a future in which technology will become ever more pervasive:
“I don’t think we have a choice in deciding whether technology should not be a part of the equation. Retreating and simply shunning it, the way the Amish would, is not feasible because of the sheer power, economically and geopolitically, of technological forces… We need to work within the context we are in, which happens to be tech-saturated.”

The recognition of a tech-saturated world invariably invokes visions of a dystopian future run by robots. Bollier thinks that fear is overblown. “I don’t think that the aspiration is to develop a better-than-human human. It is to develop ef cient machines that can make money. The designers and manufacturers frankly don’t care about all of the social and economical rami cations.” He is of course talking about the potential for AI to displace huge swathes of conventional work.

“The tip of the wedge on that discussion is basic income,” says Bollier. In theory, a universal basic income would provide every citizen with an income in a future where more and more jobs disappear to automation. However, he warns that some versions of the basic income idea “are simply a way to liquidate government responsibility by taking care of the problem through money”.

The issues that surround the steady march towards automation inherit the legacies of capitalist societal dysfunction, especially around inequality. The robots are already here, and apart from eating jobs like a Kafkaesque Pac Man, AI could lead to “barriers to entry from owning and generating data” that would leave only a few of dominant rms for every industry.146 It is for these reasons that Bollier promotes more creative and collaborative solutions that allow for distributed control, not oligopoly.

With regards to the commons, there’s a big challenge to breaking through at suf cient scale. But it was nearly achieved in Ecuador, and the legacy of the FLOK programme lives on: in 2016 Ecuador’s Social Knowledge bill replaced the previous intellectual property legislation and brought in more commons-based legislation (e.g., recognising the collective right to traditional knowledge and making some products unpatentable).

Moreover, a book of FLOK’s policy proposals has been used in Colombia, Chile, Italy, and the Catalan Integral Cooperative. Ultimately, adopting a completely new societal structure may sound outlandish to most people. David Bollier would argue that a radical overhaul of our current system is absolutely crucial: “Part of the structural exhaustion of modern life is that we are stuck in dysfunctional structural systems. To aid the development of personal sensibility when reconnecting with earth and each other in more meaningful ways, we need to change the structure of institutions to facilitate and expand that.”

David Bollier is a North American activist, writer, and policy strategist who has focused on the commons for the past twenty years. He is Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics (USA), co-founder of the Commons Strategies Group, and founding editor of On the Commons., Bollier is also author of ‘Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons’ (2014); co-editor of Patterns of Commoning [link: www.patternsofcommoning. org], and co-author with Silke Helfrich of the forthcoming “Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons” (spring 2019). He blogs at Bollier.org.