The Commons as the Missing Piece?

There’s some really fascinating reading out there about what’s going to happen next.

The financial crisis and American imperial overreach has prompted some interesting discussion of the Zakarian post-American world, and whether the US will continue to be the clear hegemon in a multipolar world or just a bruised hegemon that needs to collect itself for a bit after some costly imperial wars within a larger, endless, fruitless global war.  Like mortgages and loans, risk has been so divided up and re-distributed that no one was responsible for it all…until now.  Americans, so consumption-crazy and divorced from their own government that they seek people outside the beltway and a life free of obligation from serving in the armed forces, have also parceled away their civic duties so much that no one is responsible for the still-to-come falling out in government budgeting and social services, and in consumer credit.

Bolder claims by a couple Russian authors discuss whether the US will break into several parts, or whether it’s less prepared for a crisis than the Soviet Union was when it collapsed.

At any rate, Francis Fukuyama’s call for an end of history, where democratic capitalism would become the only model, has seemed to fall dully on its face as democracies have struggled and authoritarian governments have consolidated their power while allowing for economic growth, creating a hybrid model that post-Cold War idealists did not anticipate.  As Robert Kagan wrote, history has returned and dreams have ended.

Others place a lot of the blame for upheaval on the finally delivered effects of the internet age.  One term, which I like very much, is “The Great Disruption”.  Scott Anthony at the Harvard blog writes,

“The Great Disruption didn’t start in 2008. Over the past decade, technological improvements have made starting and scaling businesses easier than ever. The rise of China, India, Brazil, and Russia mean market leaders have to deal with more sharp-elbowed competitors than ever before. And industries are frantically converging and colliding.

“Certainly the pace of change has accelerated over the past few months, but leaders in media, retail, defense, health care, automotive, and high-tech can attest that they have been grappling with the Great Disruption for some time.”

Funnily enough, I googled “great disruption” and found an article by none other than Francis Fukuyama, entitled “The Great Disruption” as well, written in 1999.  Much of the article is pretty boring, and Fukuyama was clearly wrong about the end of history, but he correctly identified massive social upheaval far before the current blame game that’s been put squarely upon internet disruptiveness:

“People associate the information age with the advent of the Internet, in the 1990s but the shift from the industrial era started more than a generation earlier, with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the United States and comparable movements away from manufacturing in other industrialized countries.

“But there is a bright side, too: social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade, and there are many indications that this is happening today. We can expect a new social order for a simple reason: human beings are by nature social creatures, whose most basic drives and instincts lead them to create moral rules that bind them together into communities. They are also by nature rational, and their rationality allows them to spontaneously create ways of cooperating with one another. Religion, though often helpful to this process, is not the sine qua non of social order, as many conservatives believe. Neither is a strong and expansive state, as many on the left argue. Man’s natural condition is not the war of “every man against every man” envisioned by Thomas Hobbes but rather a civil society made orderly by the presence of a host of moral rules. These assertions, moreover, are empirically supported by a tremendous amount of research coming out of the life sciences in recent years, in fields as diverse as neurophysiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, ethology, and biologically informed approaches to psychology and anthropology. The study of how order arises – not as the result of a top-down mandate by hierarchical authority, whether political or religious, but as the result of self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals – is one of the most interesting and important intellectual developments of our time.”

Perhaps Obama’s campaign and the grassroots/netroots movements are early signs of a re-ordering.

All these factors seem quite fair to me to discuss and they all probably play key roles.  But, as I’ve been writing about for a while, there is also talk about the end of radical free market ideology that became codified after Reagan and Greenspan were anointed gods among us.  Greenspan has since admitted that there were errors in his analysis.  A whole generation of Americans who grew up fearing Communism reacted against it by turning to corporatism in its extreme forms, in the process removing the key aspects behind successful democratic capitalism (accountability, sustainability, competition).

What we have now in the US is hardly a democratic, capitalist system, what with protected trade, voter suppression, weakened individual rights, rampant oligopolies, and little oversight to nurture markets.

I just started reading Michael Heller‘s “The Gridlock Economy”, in which Heller coins the term, “the tragedy of the anti-commons”.  This was a Christmas gift from my parents.  My fellow Georgetown colleague Kevin has read it and recommended it to me.  What’s struck me so far is this diagram:


[This diagram is not representative of Heller’s whole argument.  He later adds the “anti-commons”, an off-shoot of “private” property.]

Heller argues that the yearning for private property rights has led to dividing things up so much that they become underutilized.  We know this to be true from egregious examples like the war for spectrum and intellectual property rights controversies and the duplication of music and movies for piracy.

What I see above is where the future is going.  The late 19th century and early 20th century gave rise to stateism, socialism, and communism.  State command of the economy, top-down solutions.  What came next was a move towards private control of resources, within the popularized desire for capitalism in the west.  That may have reached its zenith now that such carved-up property rights have been found to be unsustainable for future growth, forming an “anti-commons”.

Now authors like Heller and Lawrence Lessig are talking about the commons, allowing for what is essentially a way to democratize, incentivize, and innovate for individuals.

Of course, you could shred this argument to threads but I think that what’s left for us to actively explore legally and socially is the move towards promoting more commons.  That much seems fair to say.  We’ve tried to prevent overuse of the commons, and we went too far.  Now we will try to prevent underuse of the anti-commons.

Some questions:  where were we before all this?  Monarchies, despots, highly top-down efforts?  And before that?  Small tribes exhibiting shared, collective, cooperative behavior, competing for resources against other tribes?  How far have we actually come?

Will we go too far in promoting a commons before finding a happy medium between state, private, and commons?  Will the commons finally allow for many of the best hopes for democracy such as individual empowerment and self-actualization?  What of Marx’s claims that capitalism gives way to socialism because capitalism is inherently unsustainable?  Have we finally discovered all the core components towards a sustainable way of life, and now we just need to fine tune the balance?


  1. Have you read Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks”? If not, I’ll bring it back for you – it’s the high-end discussion of the economic and political implications of this all.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Gridlock Economy | Blurring Borders

Comments are closed.