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What are the Commons and P2P, how do they interrelate, and what is their influence in labor, politics, production, carework? How do the Commons and P2P practices affect our present social and cultural value systems? An elementary definition of the commons would include three essential elements: a shared resource, co-governed by its user community, and the community’s rules for governance. Things that can be treated as “a commons” include natural resources (water, air), and created assets (culture, knowledge), and can be either inherited or human-made, but “The Commons” refers to process as a whole, the synergy between the elements of a community, a resource and its co-governance.


Commons can be understood from different perspectives, but several principles are mainstays. Author David Bollier describes Commons as a shared resource, co-governed by its user community according to the community's rules and norms. Commons include gifts of nature such as water or land, and shared assets or creative work such as culture and knowledge. Commons can also include goods and resources which are either inherited or human-made.

Whether goods and resources within a Commons can be shared or not is described as "rivalrous" goods, which two people cannot both have at the same time, and "non-rivalrous" which are not depleted by use. 

The following four perspectives, according to commons scholar and activist Silke Helfrich, offer ways to both perceive and interact with Commons:

  1. Collectively managed resources, both material and immaterial, which need protection and require a lot of knowledge and know-how.
  1. Social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships. These form part of complex socio-ecological systems which must be consistently stewarded, reproduced, protected and expanded through commoning.
  1. A new mode of production focused on new productive logics and processes.
  1. A paradigm shift, that sees commons and the act of commoning as a worldview.

It is said, “There is no commons without commoning”. The Commons is neither the resource, the community that gathers around it, nor the protocols for its stewardship, but the dynamic interaction between all these elements.

An example is Wikipedia: there is a resource (universal knowledge), a community (the authors and editors) and a set of community-harvested rules and protocols (Wikipedia’s content and editing guidelines). The Wikimedia Commons emerges from of all three. Another example, but in a radically different context, is the Siuslaw National Forest, in Oregon, USA. Managed as a commons, we also find a resource (the forest), a community (the loggers, ecological scientists and forest rangers comprising its ‘watershed council’) and a set of rules and bylaws (the charter for sustainably co-managing the forest).

No master inventory of commons exists, as they arise when a community decides to manage a resource collectively. The Commons as a whole thrives on the vast diversity of individual commons worldwide, ranging from fisheries to urban spaces, and many other forms of shared wealth.

If “commons” is the “what”, “P2P” could be considered the “how”.

P2P —“peer to peer”, “people to people”, or “person to person”— is a relational dynamic through which peers freely collaborate with one another to create value in the form of shared resources, circulated in the form of commons.

Computers in a network can interact with each other; these consensual connections between “peers” in computing systems is perhaps the first well known description of P2P. For example, audio and video file sharing came to be popularly known as P2P file sharing. Similarly, some parts of the Internet’s infrastructure, like data transmission, has also been called P2P. 

Let’s assume there are human users behind those computers. These users have a technological tool allowing them to interact with each other easily, even globally, person to person.

So, there are at least two types of relationships described as P2P, potentially causing confusion of definitions and terms, which we would like to clarify. There is an interdependence of the technological infrastructure (computers communicating) and the human relational dynamic (people communicating). But a technological infrastructure does not necessarily need to be fully P2P in order to facilitate P2P human relationships. Let’s explore some examples.

Compare Facebook or Bitcoin with Wikipedia, or other free/open source software projects. They all use P2P dynamics but in different ways, and with different political orientations.

P2P systems are generally open to all contributors and contributions, and permissionless, meaning one need not obtain permission from someone else to contribute. The quality and inclusion of work is usually determined “post-hoc” by a layer of editors and maintainers (e.g. Wikipedia).

P2P can also enable resource allocation with no specific reciprocity between individuals, only between those individuals and the collective resource. For example, you may develop your own software based on existing software licensed under the widely used GNU General Public License, but only if you release your own final product under the same license type. 

In summary, P2P networks of interconnected computers used by people collaborating can provide vital, shared functionalities for the Commons. But P2P has far broader reach and application than the limits of the high tech, digital realm. P2P is about non-coercive, non-hierarchic social relations. Its qualities have the potential to profoundly change human society.

The relationship of P2P with the Commons is one of enabling capacities for contributive actions. P2P facilitates the act of “commoning,” as it builds capacities to contribute to the creation and maintenance of any shared and co-managed resource (a commons).

In brief, P2P expresses an observable pattern of relations between humans, while the Commons tell us the specific what (as in resources), who (the communities gathered around the resources) and how (the protocols used to steward the resources ethically and sustainably for future generations) of these relational dynamics.

This text and the images used were originally produced for the Commons Transition Primer website.


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Relation to DisCO

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DNA Strands

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DisCO Principles & Values

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More Resources

If you want to dig into the Commons we recommend starting with what we consider its defining text, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich's Free Fair and Alive: the Insurgent Power of the Commons. A large portion of the DisCO team was integral to the design and outreach process surrounding the book and we hold it dear. Free, Fair and Alive has plenty of practical examples and tools. Also by Bollier and Helfrich, see their earlier compilations The Wealth of the Commons and Patterns of Commoning, as well as Bollier’s Think Like a Commoner.

David Bollier and the much missed Silke led the Commons Strategies Group, another organization closely linked to DisCO where we spent our formative years. We created their webpage and helped compile their publications and videos. Standout publications include Re-imagining Value: Insights from the Care Economy, Commons, Cyberspace and Nature, State Power and Commoning: Transcending a Problematic Relationship, and Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons.

One of our favorite authors is Kevin Carson and we consider his texts on the Commons to be foundational. If you want a sweeping introduction to political movements in the last two centuries and a fully DisCO-compatible guide to changing the world, check out Exodus: General Idea of the Revolution in the XXI Century. His earlier books The Desktop Regulatory State: The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto are some of the best articulations of possible P2P futures. His articles and publications for C4SS are also highly recommended.

For more perspectives on the commons, check out Silvia Federicis’s Caliban and the Witch and Commoning with George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, Yochai Benkler’sThe Wealth of Networks, Dmytri Kleiner’s Telekommunist Manifesto, Massimo De Angelis Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism and Hardt and Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, and Commonwealth, McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto and Lewis Hyde's Common as air : Revolution, Art, and Ownership.

When talking about the Commons we must mention Elinor Ostrom. Standout books include Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action and Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. For a short introduction read this article with Ostrom's Eight Design Principles for Successful Commons

The above are basic texts on the Commons, offering different perspectives, at times, contradictions. For essential non-western perspectives on the commons, see the Decoloniality section, where we’ll recommend you the Colonial commons and the decolonisation of the left again.

Although we're no longer affiliated, the DisCO co-founders were part of the P2P Foundation from 2013-19, where we helped produce these publications. We are very proud of our work on the Commons Transition and P2P Primer, which led to the Commons Transition Primer website as a more accessible and inclusive way to understand the Commons and P2P.’s co-founders Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel wrote several articles during that time that pointed toward what would become DisCO. These include From Platform to Open Cooperativism, Commons in the Time of Monsters and Reimagine, Don’t Seize, the Means of Production

The P2P Lab's independent research on Commons Based Peer Production contains many valuable ideas and is highly readable. Closely related is the work of Research and Degrowth who offer a rich understanding of the commons informed by decolonial perspectives. Great books on degrowth offering realistic ways forward for commoning in the 21st century include Jason Hickel's Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World, The Case for Degrowth, by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D'Alisa, Federico Demaria and The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter. Ephemera's issue on Organizing for the Post-Growth Economy is a good complement.

Other recommended sites regularly featuring stories on P2P and the Commons include Shareable, ROAR Magazine, Connected Action for the Commons, Stir to Action, the Sustainable Economies Law Center blog, the Journal of Peer Production, On the Commons, the International Journal of the Commons and Metapolis Magazine (co-edited with our sisters at Guerrilla Media Collective, the OG DisCO).

Commons superhero David Bollier writes regularly on the topic in his long running blog and produces the excellent Frontiers of Commoning Podcast. DisCO Pink Board member Dmytri Kleiner has written extensively on the political economy of network architectures and P2P in his blog. All of these resources have been foundational in DisCO's thinking

We also recommend checking out Remix the Commons’ staggering media collection and the CommonSense online documentary, as well as the Upstream and Extraenvironmentalist Podcasts.


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