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The Commons

Before the advent of private property, the term “Commons” indicated the natural resources that were freely accessible to society as a collective. Pastures, minerals, forests and so on constituted the wealth of societies and could be exploited by anyone. Today, the notion of Commons has evolved to include not only natural resources but also any wealth that is available to a collective. The term also has largely been understood to refer not only to material or immaterial resources but also to the social systems surrounding their administration, protection and production.

As argued by Garret Hardin in 1968 with his paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,”2’ the Commons suffer from the possibility of unorganized exploitation that inevitably leads toward depletion or ruination of shared resources. Hardin explained his rationale through a thought experiment where many farmers, motivated by selfinterest, would exploit a pasture to its ruin in order to grow their herds. As argued by David Bollier,24 Hardin’s argument was used to defend the rise of private property and legal inheritance as a mechanism for the administration of land.

The Tragedy of the Commons has been analyzed thoroughly by economists. As presented by Nobel Laureate in Economics Elinor Ostrom, the most common analysis of Hardin’s tragedy thesis is an assimilation of it with a prisoner’s dilemma game.2’ Belonging to the field of game theory, a prisoner’s dilemma game is a hypothetical puzzle that attempts to predict the rational behavior of economic actors. As Ostrom explains, a prisoner dilemma is a noncooperative game in which two prisoners with no ability to communicate need to take decisions based on a payoff matrix. The outcome of each prisoner is not only dependent on their own action, but also on the action of the other prisoner. The game has been greatly utilized to demonstrate how rational individuals can generate irrational collective behavior.

For Ostrom, the Tragedy of the Commons is only possible under the assumption that the prisoners are indeed prisoners, unable to change or design the rules of their potential cooperation. She challenges and denounces the use of the tragedy model as a means to validate centralized governments or private property rights. As she describes it:

Both centralization advocates and privatization advocates accept as a central tenet that institutional change must come from outside and be imposed on the individuals affected.26

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize in 2009 comes with critical timing. Her studies of the Commons reemphasize the need of study of the governing structures for “Common-Pool Resources” (CPRs). Her case studies of communities that require self-organizing structures to allow collective access to scarce physical resources are extremely relevant in light of the 2008 recession.

Herein lies the difficulty to fully grasp the Commons as a term and as a frame for action. On the one hand, we have Ostrom’s approach to understand CPRs: these are material resources that historically belong to collectives, such as fish, minerals or forests. While Ostrom performs most of her analysis in material resources and the communities surrounding them, the idea of CPRs can also be applied to immaterial goods, such as knowledge or digital assets. This is what Massimo De Angelis calls “Common Goods,” goods that are of the value and use of a plurality.27

As Bollier points out, when we shift from talking about the resources themselves to the governing social structures that administrate them, we speak of the “Commons.”28 Here we would understand the Commons also as social systems and not only as repositories of wealth. For the Commons to exist, as argued by De Angelis, there needs to be plurality or community of commoners that claim ownership of a common good.29 It is precisely this social system that defeats and falsifies the notion of the Tragedy of the Commons, as the social governing structures that protect common goods also ensure that they do not get overexploited. This is a process of cooperation and coordination. As an example, we can think of Commons as the self-governing rulesets and constraints that fishermen in certain communities use to ensure a sustainable exploitation of the sea, or the self-organizing contributors of public digital infrastructure such as Wikipedia.

Finally, authors such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt utilize the term “the Common” to describe both CPRs and the governing structures that ensure their democratic access. They place emphasis in the philosophical underpinnings of such enterprise as a form of social production. As a response to neoliberal extractivism, Negri and Hardt share an urgent call together with many of the citizens and intellectuals to reformulate “The Common.”The Common, is a term that encapsulates a series of ideas that is important to untangle. As they explain:

The common is defined first, then, in contrast to property, both private and public. It is not a new form of property but rather nonproperty, that is, a fundamentally different means of organizing the use and management of wealth. The common designates an equal and open structure for access to wealth together with democratic mechanisms of decision-making. More colloquially, one might say that the common is what we share or, rather, it is a social structure and a social technology for sharing.

The decision to denominate “the Common” as such emerges as an attempt to differentiate from, and reinvigorate, the legacy challenge of “the Commons.” As they explain:

The common we share, in fact, is not so much discovered as it is produced. (We are reluctant call this the commons because that term refers to pre-capitalist-shared spaces that were destroyed by the advent of private property.

Although more awkward, “the common” highlights the philosophical content of the term and emphasizes that this is not a return to the past but a new development.)31

Negri and Hardts definition understands the Common as a concept ofnon-property that applies to social wealth. De Angelis echoes the notion of non-property establishing a difference between capital and wealth. For De Angelis, economists look at material and immaterial resources as capital. This includes the infrastructure to run a factory or the money in the bank, as well as social networks in the form of social capital and skills in the form of human capital. His move to denominate common resources as wealth accentuates a distinction where accumulation is not pursuing monetary enrichment. The wealth produced mediated by communing structures he defines as “commonwealth.”32

Negri and Hardt identify the Common as a constituency that needs to be identified outside the public/private dialectic. The Common rises as a third sphere of action, one that should be considered autonomous from its public and private counterpart. As Tiziana Terranova presents it:

What is at stake for Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt is the reinvention of the “Common” as a constituent social relation, providing an alternative to both state and capital, public and private. Their notion of the common tries to avoid an identification of the common with the “natural commons” and instead develop a notion of immaterial commons such as education, research, health, and the production of life as such. In a financialized economy, this also means the desire to invent a new type of money, a “currency of the common,” expressing the powers of the multitudes rather than those of capital.33

Under this perspective, framing the project of architecture from the perspective of the Commons establishes clear economic and social imperatives. It discusses who benefits from economic or social progress. It removes the emphasis on vacuous innovation and replaces it with a collective project for social wealth and prosperity. Design and architecture, like every other discipline, will have a role to play in the reconstruction of the Commons, after their decimation by neoliberal practices, and it might require that we assess the boundaries of the discipline and the hierarchical role we have granted to specific value systems that have placed emphasis on unequitable societal values.

For the purpose of this book, we will establish a distinction between CPRs or Common Goods, the Commons and the Common, allowing us to clearly identify the collective resources, their governing social structures, and the philosophical implications of their construction. The call to reassess the Commons is linked to its protection and reconstruction. The problem of market enclosures can therefore be reframed as an attack on the sovereignty of the Commons. In the past, this struggle would have been understood through the protection and regulation of access to natural resources, but today the battle is far more evident in issues of intellectual property or the harvesting of data and value allowed by digital platforms. As argued by Negri and Hardt, this problem needs to be understood from a post-Fordist perspective. This allows for recognizing that today productive activity does not only occur in the factory but throughout all social interactions, blurring the line between leisure and work. Contemporary extractivist technologies are able to quantify and capitalize the totality of a digital footprint that individuals have come to assume they don’t have any ownership or jurisdiction over.34

In architecture the Commons have mainly been addressed by the right for public space with all its political potentialities. In this book, the Commons will be presented and argued from a perspective closer to the labor that designers engage with, as well as the value, knowledge and expertise that live in the networks of education, ideation, collaboration and development, even if buildings do not reach materialization.

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