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[ox-en] Commons in a taxonomy of goods

*Commons in a taxonomy of goods*

_by Stefan Meretz_

Commons are common pool resources. Commons are common goods. Commons
are social relationships. You can find all of these descriptions for the 
term. Which is the correct one? All three versions are valid—at the same 

The word „common“ is the best starting point for the analysis. The 
common thing within a commons are the resources, which are used and 
cared for, are the goods resulting from joint activities, and are the 
social relationships emerging from acting together. These three aspects 
are so different for all commons, that no one could describe them in a 
reasonably complete manner.

Commons are at odds with commodities, although a commodity is a good 
which is produced in a specific social form using resources. But it is 
usual that traditional economics only consider resources as social forms 
of production in a marginal way or even not in any way. I will try to 
overcome this limitation by using the following taxonomy of goods 
[Illustration 1]. I decide to put the concept of „good“ into the center, 
while describing from the triple definition explained above: as a common 
good, as a resource and as a social form.

Illustration 1: Proposed taxonomy of „goods“

In the adjoining illustration a good is designated by five _dimensions_. 
Beside the already mentioned dimensions _resource_ and _social form_ , 
there are _constitution_ , _usage_ and _legal form_ . They will be 
presented in the following paragraphs of this document. After that I 
will emphasize the characteristics of commons once again.


The constitution describes the type materiality of a good. We can found 
two types: *material* and *non-material* goods.

_Material_ goods have a physical shape, they can be used up or crushed 
out. Purpose and physical constitution are linked with each other, 
material goods perform their purpose only by their physical 
constitution. If the physical constitution gets dismantled the purpose 
also gets lost.

On the other hand _non-material_ goods are completely decoupled from a 
specific physical shape. This contains services defined by a coincidence 
of production and consumption as well as preservable non-material goods. 
In fact, a service often leads to a material result (haircut, draft text 
etc.), but the service itself finishes by establishing the product, i.e. 
it has been consumed. Now the result is falling into a material good 

Preservable non-material goods need a physical carrier. Having non-
digital („analog“) goods the bonding of the good to a specific material 
constitution of the carrier can yet be tight (e.g. the analog piece of 
music on the audiotape or disk record), while digital goods are largely 
independent from the carrier medium (e.g. the digital piece of music on 
an arbitrary digital medium).


The usage has got two sub-dimensions: *excludability* and *rivalry* . 
They grasp aspects of access and concurrent utilization.

A good can only be used _exclusively_ , if the access to the good is 
generally prevented and selectively allowed (e.g. if a „bagel“ is 
bought). It can be used _inclusively_ , thus non-exclusively, if the 
access is possible for all people (e.g. Wikipedia). The usage of a good 
is _rival_ or rivalrous, if using the good by one person restricts or 
prevents use options for other people (e.g. listening to music by 
earphones). A usage is _non-rival_ , if this does not result in 
limitations for others (e.g. a physical formula).

The usage scheme is used by classical economists as the authoritative 
charateristic for goods. But it is far too narrow-minded. It combines 
two aspects which in fact occur together with usage while the causes are 
completely different. The exclusion is a result of an _explicit_ 
_activity of excluding people_ , thus closely linked with the social 
form. On the other hand, the rivalry is closely linked with the 
_constitution of the good_ —indeed, an apple can only be eaten once,
for the next consumption a new apple is needed.


The production of goods requires resources. Though sometimes nothing is 
produced, already existing resources are used and maintained. In this 
case the resource itself is the good, which is considered to be 
preserved—for instance a lake. We can usually find some mixed case , 
because no produced good can go without the resource of knowledge which 
has been created and disposed by others. By resources, we generally 
understand non humans sources .

In the illustration, *natural* and *produced* resources are 
distinguished. Natural resources are already _existing and raw_ 
resources which, however, are seldom found in uninfluenced environments. 
Produced resources are material or non-material _created_ preconditions 
for further use in the production of goods or resources in the broadest 

Social form

The social form describes the way of (re-)production and the relations 
that humans commit to each other when doing so. Three social forms of 
(re-)production have to be distinguished: *commodity* , *subsistence* , 
and *commons* .

A good becomes a _commodity_ , if it is produced in a general way for 
the exchange (selling) on markets. Exchanging has to occur because, in 
capitalism, production is a private activity and each producer produce 
separated from the others and all are ruled by competition and profit 
searching. The measure of exchange is the value, which is the average 
socially necessary abstract labor being required to produce the 
commodity in certain historical moment. The medium of exchange is money. 
The measure of usage is the use value being the „other side“ of the 
(exchange) value. Thus, a commodity is a social form, it is the indirect 
exchange-mediated way of how goods obtain general societal validity. 
Preconditions are scarcity and exclusion from the access of the 
commodity, because otherwise exchange will not happen.

A good maintains the form of _subsistence_ , if it is not produced in a 
general way for others, but only for personal use or benefit of 
personally known others (family, friends etc.). Here, exchange does not 
occur or only for exceptional cases, but the good is relayed, taken, and 
given—following any immediately agreed social rule. A transition form to 
commodity is barter, the direct non-money mediated exchange of goods.

A good becomes a _commons_ , if it is generally produced or maintained 
for others. The good is not exchanged and the usage is generally bound 
to fixed socially agreed rules. It is produced or maintained for general 
others insofar as it neither has be personal-determined others (like 
with subsistence) nor exclusively abstract others with no further 
relationship to them (like with commodity), but concrete communities 
agreeing on rules of usage and maintenance of the commons.

Legal form

The legal form shows the possible juridical codes which a good can be 
subjected to: *private property* , *collective property* , and *free* 
*good* . Legal arrangements are necessary under the conditions of 
societal mediation of partial interests, they form a regulating 
framework of social interaction. As soon as general interests are part 
of the way of (re-)production itself, legal forms can step back in favor 
of concrete socially agreed rules as it is the case within the commons.

_Private property_ is a legal form, which defines the act of disposal of 
an owner over a thing with exclusive control over the property. The 
property abstracts from the constitution of the thing as well as from 
the concrete possession. Private property can be merchandise, can be 
sold or commercialized.

_Collective property_ is collectively owned private property or private 
property for collective purposes. Among them, there are common property 
and public (state) property. All designations of private property are 
basically valid here. There are various forms of collective property, 
for instance stock corporation, house owner community, nationally-owned 

_Free goods_ (also: Res nullius, Terra nullius or no man’s land) are 
legally or socially unregulated goods under free access. The often cited 
„Tragedy of Commons“ is a tragedy of no man’s land, which is overly used 
or destroyed due to missing rules of usage. Such no man’s lands do exist 
yet today, e.g. in high-sea or deep-sea.

Commons—jointly creating the life

Peter Linebaugh puts the inseparable connection of good and social 
activity into one sentence: „There is no commons without commoning“—
commons can not exist without a respective social practice of a 
community. The size of the community is therefore not fixed. It 
considerably depends on the re-/produced resource. The re-/production of 
a local wood will presumably be taken over by a local community, while 
the preservation of the world climate certainly needs the constitution 
of a global community. In that case the state can supersede the 
community role by fiduciary taking over the re-/production of the 
resource. But this is not the sole possible option.

The size of the community as well as the rules depend on the character 
of the resource. For a threatened wooded area it is reasonable to agree 
upon more restrictive rules of use than for a resource which can easily 
be copied. Free software, for instance, can be unhesitatingly determined 
to be available under a free access regime, thus a social rule of use 
which explicitly does not exclude anybody.

The „freedom“ of plundering and exploitation, which commonly occurs 
under the regime of separated private production of goods as 
commodities, does find its limitation at the freedom of others to use 
the resource. Especially by preventing random plundering of a used-up 
resource, the needs of general others who currently do not use the 
resource, are included. The community being connected very closely to 
the resource is only appointed to produce and reproduce the resource in 
a way that is generally useful. It is their „task“ to pass over the 
resource to further generations in an improved manner. However, there is 
no guarantee that the destruction of the resource will happen anyway. 
The history of capitalism is also a history of violent destruction and 
privatization of the commons.

Within the commons, production and reproduction can hardly be separated. 
The production serves their reproduction at the same time. In case of 
used-up resources, rules of usage make sure that the resource can 
regenerate itself, or in case of copyable digital goods, that the social 
network producing the resource is maintained. However, it has to be 
distinguished between a common pool resource as such and goods which are 
produced on the basis of a resource. Produced goods can become 
commodities if they are sold on markets. It is the goal of socially 
agreed rules of use within the community to limit the use of the 
resource and to prevent that it is overly used and gets finally 

There have always been commons in human history. However, its historical 
role and function has changed dramatically. In former times commons had 
been a general fundament of human livelihood, while with the uprising of 
class societies they have been integrated into different regimes of 
exploitation. Capitalism is a climax of exploiting general human living 
conditions, which—carried by an abstract notion of freedom—is not able 
to guarantee survival of the human species. This is due to the fact, 
that common interests are not part of the way of production but have to 
be additionally coined onto the blind acting of partial interests via 
law and state. Therefore, it is necessary to aim at a new socially 
regulated way of production, where common interests are part of the way 
of production itself.

Moreover, capitalism has cut off essential moments of production from 
societal life and banned it into a sphere of reproduction. Production as 
„economy“ and reproduction as „private life“ have been separated. 
Private production is structurally blind and only mediated afterward. 
Therefore it could only expand at the expense of subsistence and commons 
production which in turn are needed to compensate the (physical and 
psychic) consequences of „economy“. Private production has always 
pointed to a complementing subsistence and commons production, it 
permanently takes from the sphere of commons without giving anything 

The Commons has the potential to replace the commodity as the 
determining form of re-/producing societal living conditions. Such a 
replacement can only occur, if communities constitute themselves for 
every aspect of life, in order to take „their“ commons back and to 
reintegrate them into a new need-focused logic of re-/production.

(Many thanks to Pauline Schwarze and Franco Iacomella for translation 

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