04/21/2014 08:43 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

An Affluence of Commons


Jeremy Rifkin's new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons and the Eclipse of Capitalism, offers what might be termed a third vision of the future. He offers neither a Panglossian utopia nor a "doom and gloom" dystopia. Rather, he offers a serious extrapolations to a possible future built around several widely observed trends that have not previously been connected by those who are tracking them. Most of the major themes are mentioned in the title and subtitle: Declining marginal costs approaching zero constitute the latest development in the creative destruction of capitalism. The many different evocations of the commons in our time point to a future characterized by a civil society of nonprofit organization and "collaborative commons."

For anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing revival in our time of the commons notion, Part III, "The Rise of the Collaborative Commons" in particular should provide interesting reading. For those already familiar with the commons, Rifkin offers an interesting recitation of the high points. In that part, Rifkin weaves together a selection (but certainly not all) of the best known recent work in that area: Hardin, Ostrom, Hess, Bollier, Benkler, Lessig, Boyle, and others. It isn't altogether clear what Rifkin mean by the idea of a collaborative commons (or for that matter, nonprofits). His use of the former term is merely a slightly redundant adjective tacked on to make clearer what the author (or publisher?) feared might otherwise not be clear to readers: Collaboration and communication are in the essential nature of commons and contemporary commons governance is fundamentally collaborative. It is possible that he also seeks to flesh out Charlotte Hess' suggestion of new commons (mentioned in Part III), but the "old" commons of medieval primary industries (agriculture, forestry and fishing) were probably also collaborative in their own ways.

Questions abound: Does the Collaborative Commons represent some entirely new kind of stable societal arrangement; a successor to capitalism as Rifkin seems to suggest? Or will the collaborative commons merely be a transitional avenue to some other set of arrangements entirely? Rifkin is a good bit more confident than I about the long-term stability of commons. As he notes, the key point of vulnerability is the ability and willingness of commoners to defend their pooled resources against enclosure. The easy and quick 'capitalist' conquest of the original (1995 era) internet of knowledge commons which he reviews is not a very supportive example.
The original ARPAnet and the tremendous excitement of "listservs" together with the academic/research vision of Tim Berners Lee for the world wide web (think HTTP) quickly evolved into the massive commercial internet order of Google, Amazon and online banking. Even more disturbing in this regard have been the seemingly successful oversight of online collaborative commons by the assorted modern-day Henry VIII's in China, Egypt, and the other authoritarian governments of the world. Whether the collaborative commons of social networkers, social producers and other commoners will be enclosed by market forces, governments or both is a key question here. Regardless, however, Rifkin is probably correct that commons will continue to serve at least a transitional role toward a future of some kind.

Rifkin's discussion of the emergence of an Internet of Things may be among the most convincing parts of his presentation, although the omission of banking, investing and finance from that category strike me as curious. The Bitcoin experiment, together with previous ventures like Paypal, and enumerable online banking and trading capabilities have certainly not yet reached full fruition.

His focus on energy, poverty and the eclipse of capitalism puts him in league with contemporary thinking on social enterprise and the "triple bottom line," and also points up what may be of the most serious weaknesses of Rifkin's rhetoric of the commons: I was constantly reminded of the bumper sticker philosophy, Think globally and act locally. There is little doubt that Rifkin has the first part of that injunction down pat, and I have few doubts about his personal commitment to the latter. My concern is that he may leave individual readers too easily with the impression that these and other common problems can only be solved globally.

This relates to thinking I've been doing recently about the capacity of commons to generate not only social capital (a topic covered in a chapter), but also the ability of commons to use the same capacities used in generating their own rules of self-governance to generate "new morals": practices, beliefs, and perhaps most importantly of all, new ethics and values. Only a few philosophers like Kant and John Rawls can successfully get their minds around universality, but all participants in all commons struggle regularly with such questions locally in everything from conduct on Facebook and the distribution of selfies to recycling practices.

This also relates to a concern about Rifkin's rather conventional handling of the general vs. particular qualities of the commons. Because his discussion is so general and global, it is easy to get the impression that there is really only one, global commons, yet as his examples suggest there are many and at all levels from the universal to the ultra local. The commons is actually an ideal type, like markets or language or government; the domain, not only of shared governance but also of pooled resources, shared mission and joint memberships.

Rifkin's universalist attentions are devoted almost exclusively to the public good -- what is good for all of us. He follows the conventional approach of most social and political theory in contrasting this with assorted private goods. In so doing, he slights the important role of common goods; those desirables that are not quite public and yet not quite private. The condition of the planet is without doubt a public good that affects all of us, but a great many environmental questions demonstrate this kind of intermediate quality, and taking on these matters as local common goods rather than as one universal problem that can only be solved planet wide is generally our approach.

But these are relative quibbles for future discussion. This is an outstanding book worthy of much thought and discussion.

Roger A. Lohmann is Emeritus Professor of Social Work at West Virginia University and an interdisciplinary scholar. Much of whose work has focused on applying the concept of the commons to voluntary action in the third sector. His recent work includes a book manuscript tentatively titled "Voluntary Action and the New Commons." He is also the author of the award-winning book "The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organization, Voluntary Action and Philanthropy."