Commons as an Active Producer

Commons as an Active Producer

TODAY, the new digital age is recreating a number of much older ideas. Producing software collaboratively and with various free software licenses is building a new digital commons. This is not all. We also have the Wikipedia, which at least in less politically contended areas, has produced a new encyclopaedia, again built collaboratively. Music, films and various other forms, earlier regarded distinct from software, are also in the process of discovering the new world where copyright rules only in the courts and cannot be maintained in the real one. It is this new age of knowledge, creativity and software commons that is confronting the old world of “intellectual property”.

The idea that private property is integral to economic production assumes that without property, production will come to a grinding halt. It is this deifying the current form of capitalist property that we need to demolish. Eben Moglen, in his talk in Delhi on September 2 did just that, when he traced the rise of property to the destruction of the older commons – the state of nature. More importantly, he also talked of the commons as an active producer in the new digital economy, ending with the hope that as knowledge penetrates all spheres of production, the most important commons of all – our collective brain power – will create a future for the human race very different from the property-bound, hierarchically organised current mode of production.

There are significant similarities between the earlier enclosure of the commons and the current enclosure; as well as dissimilarities. The earlier commons enclosed were passive and limited. The forests, common lands, water bodies, all provided humanity with food and other resources. With the development of private property, these commons were gradually enclosed, for example, the colonial enclosure of  forests in India and the enclosure of common lands in England by the powerful land-owners. Such enclosures still continue. Capitalist production is dumping industrial wastes – CO2 – in the atmosphere and creating global warming. The refusal of the rich countries to address global warming by cutting CO2 emissions is an attempt to “enclose” the global atmospheric commons.


The attempt to create “intellectual property” in software and life sciences is another attempt to fence in what was earlier regarded as belonging to commons. Earlier, mathematics and algorithms were thought to be non-patentable as was all life forms. Today, software is sought to be patented as is genetic code. The current patent regime in the US — also being pushed elsewhere including India — is attempting to put patent fences around such “commons.” Science is no longer what you do to understand  nature but is being converted to property of private corporations.

The significant difference between the commons of yore and the current commons is that the earlier commons were finite, even if they appeared as relatively infinite. Land was always a limited resource, but it is clear today so is air and water. While fencing in of the commons to create property helped the rich and the powerful, it could still be argued that this was “more economically efficient”. This is the argument that is advanced by a host of economists who talk about the tragedy of the commons – that commons not being anybody’s private property, gets over-exploited. Therefore the “need” to fence it in and exploit it privately as a more economically efficient form of production.

This has also produced a lot of literature regarding the tragedy of the anti-commons, showing that rules of the commons do work quite well, and fails only under some conditions. But even if we disregard this literature, the key difference between the earlier finite commons and the current knowledge commons – science, software, mathematics – is that they are not finite. A software or a scientific law, used again and again does not wear out – you cannot over-exploit these commons. They are infinite human resource.

This brings us to the next question. If human production is indeed increasingly knowledge based, is there a contradiction in the way it is being produced and the way goods are produced? If we look at production of goods, it is still dominated by economies of scale, particularly the metallurgical and energy industries. Despite all the technical innovation involved, the technology in these areas is still as it existed in the last 100 years.  In other areas, there is a real possibility of de-scaling technology, even if it is in its infancy. For the time being, we can still accept that though economies of scale do not work so well in a range of goods, it is still the dominant form of production of material goods.

The scene is radically different if we take the production of knowledge itself. The 20th century saw the rise of scientific research being corporatised in a big way. Huge research laboratories were what big corporations set up – Bell Laboratories being of course the leading example. But this was not an exception. The 20th century saw the role of individual innovators reduce and the rise of big corporate research centres.


However, by the end of the 20th century, the economies of scale in producing knowledge that led to the setting up these laboratories had disappeared. What we have today are economies of networks. A set of people working independently have written 204 million lines of source code, producing  what is known as Gnu/Linux operating system. For just the kernel alone (the part that  really drives the CPU hardware), 3,200 developers from 200 companies and over a 100 countries have contributed for the current release. This is the power of network that no economies of scale can give within a company, however large it might be. It is this power of the network that is creating the new digital commons.

Most people have who have focussed on copyright and patents miss one central point in this. Copyright and patents give rights over copies or rights over reproduction. What is fundamentally changing is the mode of production of knowledge, and this is qualitatively different from what we have seen earlier.

This is what Eben in his talk called the active commons. Commons by virtue of producing new “goods” is forcing even large corporations to adopt free and open source software – not because they want to but because they can no longer compete with this form of production. IBM did not set out to promote open source software, that it does is because it sees in this a superior model of producing software and would like to piggy-back on it for its business.

This is no longer restricted to software. The phenomenon of copyrighted music distributed by music labels is giving way to free distribution through peer to peer sharing. But this is only the first step. The music world is moving from distribution monopolies to concerts being the major money maker. In India, major labels promote events as the record sales are falling. The crucial element is once the distribution monopoly of music labels is broken, the individual producers who in any case were the primary producers, can directly reach the market. The labels no longer control music production.

Film making is also undergoing a major change. Both in distribution and in film making, the role of the studios are dwindling. Yes, there is still the block-buster movies with huge budgets. But it is also possible to produce films with much less costs and distribute directly. Economies of scale are breaking down here as well, though not as obviously as in music.

Eben raised the issue what happens if we get a production system that is based on nano technologies at the atomic level shaping goods. Will such techniques of micro production make economies of scale obsolete? He passionately believes it will, as knowledge and the economies of networks will drive this form of production. In such a world, economies of scale will give away to collaborative networks creating new goods the same way we develop software. And if economies of scale disappear, so will the dinosaurs of today – large, centrally controlled, hierarchically structured corporations that are central to the capitalist mode of production.

A part of this phenomenon is  already visible. In the developed economies, particularly the US, the large manufacturing companies have given way to companies that live off copyright and patents – big pharma, software and media companies. Or deal with re-distribution of the surplus – the financial companies that produce nothing and just skim off the top. Already, the producers are quite often the small producer – either an ancillary or sometimes producing the product itself under a big corporation brand. The breakdown of the economies of scale is already under way in a number of different ways. Even without Eben’s vision of atomic scale production of goods using nano technologies. Whether it will extend to all spheres of production still remains to be seen, but the demise of large, vertically integrated monopolies are visible over a range of industries.

One can argue that Eben does not address the politics of capital – that even if a property form is dying – its physical reach and control can be enormous. Capital is quite capable of taking the notion of Madam Pompadour, “After me, the deluge” much further. After all, French Revolution confronted an aristocracy with rather limited fire power. Today’s defender of capital come armed with nuclear weapons and drones for remote kills.

But that is missing the point. If a system of production is becoming obsolete, no amount of fire-power can stop this change. The real question is whether the movement from commons to property is really being reversed today? Even if this phenomenon is small, is it growing and does it therefore pose a threat to private property? After all, when Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto and described the enormous expansion of production that capitalism was bringing in, capitalism was actually in its infancy. What was prophetic in Marx’s vision is that he saw capitalist production, not as it existed then, but as it was becoming. And this is what we have to see today. Not the existing form of production as it is today but what it is becoming. The active commons creating new knowledge and as an agent of breaking down the older forms of production.

The key to the control of capital over production has been its ability to create continuously new knowledge and technology. Its ability create new knowledge that has given big capital its edge over other forms of production. It is here at the heart of capital that creation of new knowledge and technology —  the active commons — is emerging. This is the active commons driven by the collective brain power of humanity. If capital can no longer control the production of new knowledge, it loses control over technology. Its use of WTO and TRIPS – creating a larger domain of “intellectual property” — shows not its strength but its weakness. It is its inability to control the physical process of knowledge creation that it now seeks to control it through legal means. That is why this new form of collaborative knowledge creation spells the doom of capital, even if its death throes are going to be long and painful.