#17 sharing
Friederike Habermann

Possession Rather Than Ownership

Alternative economic approaches – based on commons – have emerged around the turn of the century. Are we heading towards the “ecommony”?

The sharing economy will devour capitalism and not capitalism the sharing economy. The reason: the commons. This prediction is from none other than Jeremy Rifkin, the most notable futurist in the world according to Spiegel Online. Rifkin is swimming against the current at a time when sharing models have come under fire after being targeted as attractive marketing opportunities by resourceful start-ups. Uber is driving taxi companies under through unfair competition, while AirBnB is contributing to a trend in which flats in many cities are only affordable to most people if you rent out your private space every now and again.

…the idea of land ownership is a very recent one that was non-existent just a few centuries ago.

In Rifkin's prognosis for the future the commons will ensure capitalism ends in the rubbish bin of history. A brief overview of the historical context of the commons, and its unique qualities and effects, is helpful in understanding why. For a long time the word “commons” only conjured up a meadow at the heart of a medieval village on which farming families, who otherwise kept separate houses, allowed their sheep and cattle to graze communally. In fact, the idea of land ownership is a very recent one that was non-existent just a few centuries ago. It was absent in Europe, where farmer associations made decisions about land distribution, cultivation, crop rotation, forest and water resource use, and community activities, though they were subject to the power claimed by the nobility and/or clergy. Nor was it found in other cultures, which often lacked the unpleasant hierarchical superstructure as well. The indigenous peoples of North America, for example, often practised grassroots democracy, organising into reference groups which in turn joined to form larger 'tribes' based on the principle of consensus, though the individual was ultimately free to decide however he or she chose. In mainstream thought today, the term is primarily associated with two very distinct aspects. First, the 'natural commons', e.g. the climate and the oceans, an area where conventional goods logic cannot be applied. Since the 1990s, the World Bank has also explored ways of safeguarding these as resources. Privatisation is often put forth as a solution – though in the forest it frequently results in the destruction of the surviving indigenous commons structures.

Secondly, the increasing popularity of the term commons is due to the “digital commons” like Linux and Wikipedia, created by volunteer, online communities. Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler coined the term “commons-based peer production” to describe these collaborative efforts that lack hierarchies and the compulsion of wage labour. Economists and their model of homo oeconomicus as a rational agent in pursuit of his own self-interest cannot explain this phenomenon: Why would anyone work for free and relinquish the exclusive rights to the fruits of their labours? Access to the final product is unlimited; anyone can use Linux and other open source software products even if they were not involved in the programming.

I was immediately struck by how alternative economic approaches in their most recent form, (…) honour the principles of commons-based economic activity in practice.

To Benkler's way of thinking: “Free software is but one salient example of a much broader phenomenon.” Today digital networking allows groups of individuals to successfully work together on ambitious projects. Free software can be copied and shared endlessly though; there is no rivalry in the consumption of virtual goods. The consumption of Wikipedia users is not reduced when another user clicks on a page. But what about rivalry, what about material goods? As I described for German-speaking readers in my book 'Halbinseln gegen den Strom' (Peninsulas Against the Current, 2009), I was immediately struck by how alternative economic approaches in their most recent form, which emerged around the turn of the century, honour the principles of commons-based economic activity in practice. The longer I worked with these ideas, the clearer it became that they could be applied to re-conceptualise both life and the economy, a juxtaposition of economics and the commons I call “ecommony”.

These principles are: (1) possession rather than ownership: what counts in the commons is who actually needs and uses something, and not the right to exclude others or sell goods; (2) share what you can; (3) contribute rather than barter: participate based on inner motivation – with secure access to resources; and (4) openness and free cooperation.

Possession rather than ownership

…the person with the right to possession is the person who needs and uses goods.

The difference between the English terms possession and ownership is more difficult to discern than between the German concepts of Besitz and Eigentum. This distinction is set out in the German Civil Code: While the relationship of ownership is purely abstract and based on the ability to transform goods into wares, the person with the right to possession is the person who needs and uses goods. A rental flat illustrates this idea well: The landlord is the property owner and the renter is actually in possession of the flat. In keeping with this distinction between possession and ownership, real estate can become commons: For example, until 2011 in Cuba people had possession of the houses they lived in but were not allowed to sell them. Similarly, in a range of alternative projects associations or foundations are the official owners under current rules, and the occupants of buildings or the operators of farms cannot sell them. As soon as an occupant moves out or an operator stops working a farm, the real estate passes into the possession of the next occupant.

After all, who would start riding the train all day long or clog up the sewage system just because it was free?

Land is the prototype for the commons, and the fight to conserve it has not been consigned to the annals of history. The 'enclosures' enforced by the English nobility at the beginning of the modern age were certainly not the last time the commons were looted. The same process is underway today as land is devoured by huge renewable energy projects, for example. Many movements from the Global South speak of “climate colonialism” in this context. Non-rival goods like software are predestined for free access. But roads and walkways, the water supply and sewage disposal, any type of public transport and infrastructure in general where rivalry regarding consumption is limited, could also easily be structured based on the “possession rather than ownership” principle. After all, who would start riding the train all day long or clog up the sewage system just because it was free? Need is satisfied here relatively rapidly.

Tools illustrate this principle well, as they are not 'consumed' by use.

'Possession rather than ownership” can also be applied to items. On the one hand, there are objects that are no longer needed by the same person after use – e.g. a criminal novel. The roughly one hundred 'free shops' throughout Germany are just one sign of the growing number of people who feel it is right to give others free access to the objects they no longer need. These free shops work like second-hand shops, except no money changes hands and no swapping occurs. People bring an object they no longer need or want and leave it at the shop, where others can take it and make use of it. These shops should not, however, be understood as spaces in which objects are transferred from one private owner to another. On the contrary, they are spaces in which objects that have 'fallen out of possession' because they are no longer in use are available for re-possession, a space in which objects await reallocation and redistribution.

On the other hand are objects which can go back and forth to be used alternatively by different people. Tools illustrate this principle well, as they are not 'consumed' by use. Germany has seen the formation of user communities, 'borrowing shops' (that function like libraries), open workshops outfitted with tools for wood and metal work, for bike repair, and for sewing, and even FabLabs with 3D printers.

This logic dictates that production means should also belong to anyone who needs and uses them. As a new, immediately unemployed architecture graduated in Britain during the 2008 crisis, Alastair Parvin wanted to share his knowledge not just with people who could pay for the privilege. He now offers free blueprints for plywood houses on the internet. Given the new possibilities generated by decentralised production via 3D printers, and open online software libraries, he sees the answer to the question of who should control production means as an obvious one: “No one. Everyone.”

It seems people are growing increasingly resistant to the idea of throwing food that exceeds their own personal needs away simply because they own it.

The 'possession rather than ownership' principle can even be applied to food – surely the most rivalrous of rival goods. 'Ownership' of food can only be taken by eating it. It seems people are growing increasingly resistant to the idea of throwing food that exceeds their own personal needs away simply because they own it. This attitude is reflected in the food-sharing initiatives popping up in almost all the larger cities in Germany and Austria at the moment.

All of the above examples of relinquishing what has fallen out of possession because it exceeds personal need can also be described using the next principle: Share what you can. This is where the idea of skill sharing comes in, as exemplified in knowledge-sharing spaces like so-called 'free universities'. Instead of waiting for centralised structures to disseminate education, people are multiplying knowledge by teaching each other. Also, skill sharing comes into play when someone in the bicycle workshop or FabLab helps others who simply do not understand how to repair a gear shifter or how the 3D printer prints out a copy of itself. Which brings us to the third principle: Contribute rather than barter.

Repair Cafés are a good example of this principle. The idea was conceived in the Netherlands in 2009, and detailed practical guidelines are available online to anyone who wants to start their own. Around 50 people volunteer at the Repair Café Saasen; clearly their motivation cannot be attributed to the ecological aspects alone. Kristina Deselears tries to describe what happens in these spaces: “Go there and try to soak up the atmosphere in the room, feel the positive energy, the amazing level of respect and appreciation – something you could never buy. It is a feeling you rarely find anywhere else, which is why so many people are willing to donate their time. No one is there under any kind of duress.”

This stress-free environment comes from not having to transform individual skills into quantities; café participants are responding to a need to take action. This doesn't necessarily mean people simply enjoy what they do though, and participation can also be inspired by a sense of responsibility. Austrian commons specialist Brigitte Kratzwald sums up our motivation for taking action perfectly with her phrase “between desire and necessity”. A resident of Switzerland, Ina Praetorius speaks of “rediscovering a matter of course”, positing that we take action when we deem it necessary and naturally organise with, instead of against, one another. This last idea is often visible in everyday life, emergency situations, and whenever people outside the market choose to get involved. It brings us to the fourth principle of open and free cooperation, or voluntarism. Without equating it with the unregulated access to resources, intrinsically only someone who knows his or her needs will be met can take action. If we break with bartering logic, then no one needs to be limited by the skills he or she can commercialize on the market – limited by either low qualifications, or one narrow qualification that has to be practised unceasingly over an entire lifetime. And no one has to do everything themselves in isolation. This principle could spell the end of 'structural hate' where polishing one's own CV always involves making everyone else look bad, and getting a job means booting someone else out. It would be a system of structural joint participation in which we continue to build on what others have created, but without the narrow limits of community, and without having to become better people. We would simply live in a system with a different understanding of what is taken for granted.

In this same vein, it is surely no accident that so many grassroots movements from the Global South – from the Indian KRRS farmers’ movement and the Adivasis of India, 'The Process of Black Communities' in Colombia, or the Kuna in Panama – that have continually practised dissident politics over the centuries, share a cultural and economic basis. These different areas of coexistence not only allow for economic security; they also open other horizons of thought and action.

Through the shared political action, conscious or otherwise, of people inside and outside of movements, a new meaning of the commons is spreading and rendering new opportunities for human societies visible.

The uprising of the primarily indigenous Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico is considered by many to be the starting point of the most recent movements. Commons land had been fought for and won back during the Revolution of 1910. These 'ejidos' were now under threat of re-privatisation with the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, and this became a decisive factor for the uprising. In those days, this seemed something uniquely Mexican. And while the Zapatista motto “todo para todos, nada para nosotros” – “everything for everyone, nothing for us” – has a good ring to it, it was fairly mystical to most. What was it trying to express? Shouldn't there be something for everyone? Wasn't the issue at hand “everything for everyone”? Yes. But if we apply the distinction between possession and ownership, it can be reformulated as: “Everything as possession, as commons for everyone. Nothing as ownership for us.” In this sense, it is not insignificant that the principles of commons-based peer production have been exemplified as a matter of course in the most recent social movements, such as Occupy, even if few activists are aware of it: No one is denied food, there is no bartering, and activists trust each other that everyone will freely invest more or less according to their skills and priorities. Through the shared political action, conscious or otherwise, of people inside and outside of movements, a new meaning of the commons is spreading and rendering new opportunities for human societies visible.

Jeremy Rifkin is convinced: “A half century from now, our grandchildren are likely to look back at the era of mass employment in the market with the same sense of utter disbelief as we look upon slavery and serfdom in former times. The very idea that a human being’s worth was measured almost exclusively by his or her productive output of goods and services and material wealth will seem primitive, even barbaric, and be regarded as a terrible loss of human value to our progeny living in a highly automated world where much of life is lived on the Collaborative Commons.”

Photo: “Architecture of the Future” by Daniel Foster
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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