Notes | Commons Praxis: Towards a Critical Political Economy of the Digital Commons

Posted on Oct 12, 2021

Source:… | Author: Benjamin J Birkinbine | Date: 2018-03-02


In this work, Benjamin Birkinbine focuses on the ways in which commoning can undermine the capitalist logics of the digital commons – setting out to create “an account of the commons that incorporates structural critique of capitalism”. He examines the ways in which the digital commons expands the possibilities within the market but the commons fails to account for how state and capital can exercise power over these communities. He looks to boundary commoning as a means to organize dispersed commons movements and notes that commons movements will not only need reformist actions but a means to appropriate resources subsumed by capital back to the communities. He terms this “subversive commoning.”

Quotes and Observations

The commons is a means of asserting community control over resources from natural resources such as water and grasslands to human created resources like education and housing (290).

“a commons-based praxis informed by radical politics would seek to actively appropriate resources away from capital and the state into circuits of commons value” (291).

Birkinbine dubs this “subversive commoning”

The author makes a distinction be between FLOSS products as commons-pool resources and the process of commons-based peer production that creates the products (292).

IT infrastructure would be considered a high rivalry low excludability resource under Ostrom’s framework. See table on (294).

Diverse forms of non-market production, like FLOSS, have the ability to influence market production (295).

Firms can adopt some of the methods of peer-production.

“As the companies that adopt this strategic reorientation become more integrated into the peer production process itself, the boundary of the firm becomes more porous. Participation in the discussions and governance of open source development projects creates new ambiguity as to where, in relation to what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the firm boundary, the social process is (2006, 125).” (295)

It is easy for capital to subsume commons-based production (296).

De Angelis makes the argument that commoning has the potential to bring about change in relations over time instead of declaring immediate revolution (297). If we consider the way enclosure changed relations during the feudal era, it seems that an intentional commoning could produce the inverse.

“commoning should be understood as a precoess; not a state of being, but a state of becoming.” (298)

De Angelis looks at the commons circuit and how those who are involved in commons-production may, at times, interact with capital circuits in order to eat. The necessities for living may come from family or a welfare state, but many must intersect with capital in order to live (298).

Boundary Commoning

“the commoning that exists at the boundaries of the commons systems and that creates social forms of any scale, opens up the boundaries, establishes connections, and sustains commons ecologies, or that could reshape existing institutions from the ground up through commonalisation and create new ones . (De Angelis 2017, 24)” (299)

The author references De Angelis here because boundary commoning can provide a model for how different commons-based movements can work together toward a common goal.

Berkinbine highlights two different varieties of scholarship on the commons. The liberal-democratic theories which position the commons adjacent to market growth and critical theories which understand that the commons antagonizes capitalist logics (299).

While enclosure is useful for its impacts on most commons the author points out that the digital commons differs because instead of becoming wholly closed off when subsumed by capital they are “dialectically situated.” He notes that commons based movements will need to position their activities as explicitly antagonistic to capital (301).

Extractive vs generative value models. Capital and commons-production fit these definitions respectively (302).

Follow up

Enspiral | a company that manages to align investor and long term company interests.

femhack | Collectif montréalais de hacking féministe | Montreal feminist hacker collective (

References to Read

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

De Angelis, Massimo. 2017. Omnia Sunt Communia. London: Zed Books.

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