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Manifesto for Eternal Commons

EternityThe public domain, that collection of books and other media for which no claim of intellectual property is being asserted, might represent an early example of an Eternal Commons. We might add to this that wonderfully successful experiment known as open source software, and its fellow travellers with the apt epithet of 'creative commons'. However, a mythic image like 'Eternal Commons' evokes a project beyond being free to share, one that aims to secure as permanent everything within these intellectual commons and also to expand our thinking about what might become (or return) to being a commons.

Exploring this topic requires what Mary Midgley liked to call pulling up the conceptual floorboards to discover where that wretched stench is coming from. One such concerning whiff emanates from 'private' versus 'public'. Consider that 'private' describes my ownership of a teaspoon I inherited from my late father with which I proudly maintain the British tradition of brewing tea and also the holdings of land barons who claim ownership over vast tracts of our planet. Likewise, 'public' denotes those aforementioned intellectual commons and also state-ownership of everything from schools, to armies, to regulators-slash-enablers. Likewise, how does this public-private distinction apply to chatter on social media platforms owned by giant corporations and censored by supra-national entities like the European Union...? The public-private distinction is beyond strained at this point, it is inadequate.

Yet so much of our political discourse is caught up in this public-private mythos. In the United States, for instance, where I currently live, the blue team waves the 'public' flag while taking much of its funding from corporations. This camp tries to convince voters that an enlarged state will benefit everyone, and not just the shareholders for those companies investing in blue team politicians. Meanwhile, the equally corporate-funded red team waves the 'private' flag and is absolutely convinced of the hopelessness of relying upon governments to solve problems. While I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea of a smaller state bureaucracy, nobody seems to have an answer to my question about what can place limits on commercial power if it is not the state...

As the renegade Catholic priest Ivan Illich understood all too clearly, part of our problem is that these carefully curated political divisions merely offer different flavours of economics. In my modest career as an author I've been repeatedly struck by the ways the Marxists I've worked with mirror the capitalists they purportedly oppose. Witness the strange case of John Hunt Publishing: wealthy Marxists bought out a publisher they previously worked for, then ejected the also-Marxist editors who had been working in good faith on the brands this publisher established. Everything about this takeover scenario is indistinguishable from capitalism - and with good reason, because communism and capitalism are merely different forms of economics, with both embedding the same core assumptions. Marx's great achievement was bringing capitalism into clear focus so that economists could pick which kind of giant economic entity gets to gobble up everything of value - the corporations or the nation states.

Against this, one of our few lines of defence is maintaining commons. The term comes to us through English history, but I will refrain from a digression on this theme since I think it quite likely that anyone who has made it halfway through this essay has a fair idea what the commons were, and how wealthy landowners were able to destroy them through 'enclosure', which is a charming euphemism for 'theft'. Sadly, the tremendous merit of our shared spaces was rather obscured by Garrett Hardin's infamous essay "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal Science in 1968, despite a notable lack of anything scientific within its rhetoric. Hardin's claim that the commons were doomed to mismanagement was mistaken, as he was eventually forced to concede, since historically most common lands were well-managed. But his mistake was one which everyone makes: interpreting everything within the rigid assumptions of economics. Once you've made this commitment, it scarcely matters which flavour of economics you prefer.

Eternal Commons could be texts, images, music, sculpture, video, games, shared land, nature reserves, funds of money, technological processes, or anything else beside. They consist of the two elements their name implies: a commons, being something that nobody owns but that everyone might benefit from, and a state of being eternal, such that their exclusion from owned property cannot be terminated. If the public domain currently seems to be an Eternal Commons, I would caution that the growing lust for censorship must eventually threaten even this. The necessity of defending against that flexible bugbear 'misinformation' may yet require cordoning off sections from this library of the past 'for our own protection'...

It is the librarian and not the economist whose practices carry with them the hope for a future worth imagining. The public domain, open source software, and the creative commons already provide us with Eternal Commons to defend, and from this bastion of intellectual thought and digital pragmatism we might sally forth and ponder what else might be transformed into an Eternal Commons, what other kinds of collective agreements we might forge in this image.

It is noteworthy that in 1620, when Sir Francis Bacon set out his battle plan for the future of the sciences, he was convinced that inventions necessarily benefit all mankind, and not just some privileged subset thereof. In retrospect, it seems clear this was a manifesto less for scientific practice than for technological research - the bastard child of economics and the sciences. From our vantage point it should be becoming abundantly clear that, in the context of pharmaceuticals at the very least, patent law does not so much encourage innovation as invite fraud and bankroll corruption. A great deal of harm could be prevented by placing all methods of pharmaceutical manufacture into an Eternal Commons, from which it will become far, far easier to establish what is an effective medicine and what is toxic snake oil dressed up in scientistic branding.

The practically minded will no doubt at this point be bursting with objections, including the pragmatic concern that such a wistful ideal as Eternal Commons is inconceivable given the ambitions of the disproportionately influential. But here the economists might have a helpful lesson for us! For did not the more scurrilous lovers of money realise that smaller nations, lacking the resources to sell out to the plutocrats, were in a wonderful position to invent laws making them home to 'offshore banks' that could ride roughshod over attempts by the larger nations to derive taxation from the wealthiest individuals...? Likewise, those countries outside the reach of economic empire might well be places where the seeds of new Eternal Commons might be grown.

In this regard, Bruce Sterling's 1988 novel Islands in the Net - whose narrative commences last year in 2023 - is prescient in imagining 'data havens' in Singapore, Luxembourg, and Grenada that refuse to comply with global attempts at online censorship. Might the illegal filesharing network I call the 'black library' (since it is certainly not a black market) have potential to become a worthwhile Eternal Commons...? Perhaps. For now, however, I'll restrict my remarks on online piracy to the more modest idea that the outrageous punishments corporate intellectual property owners inflict for violations of copyright are entirely unreasonable consequences for the crime of operating an unlicensed library.

In time, we might even find ways to put land ownership within reach of an Eternal Commons... This is absurdly ambitious, and far beyond the scope of what we can hope to achieve now. Yet we are already appreciating the dangers entailed in the ludicrous concentration of wealth that gave us 'effective altruism', which might be better called 'imperial philanthropy'. This dreadful project of the ultrarich to remake the planet in their own delusional image comes from a hopeless vision of charity that obscures the profiteering entailed in the majority of 'humanitarian' projects. Perhaps the only legitimate ideal for high-society charity we ought to endorse is the transfer of wealth into the Eternal Commons - any kind of commons would suffice. If we can ever achieve the normative conditions for this, we really would be getting somewhere!

It is not enough to oppose the New Normal, we must have ideals that can circumvent it. This cannot come from fully-fledged utopian templates, which fortunately we seem to have lost faith in. What we require are flexible templates that are resistant to economics, and the only concept I've encountered with anything like the necessary collective power is that of the commons. Nobody owns the commons, and everybody must co-operate in maintaining these libraries and shared spaces. In an age of censorship and fragmentation, it feels inconceivable that a manifesto such as this could take root and from it flourish a forest of Eternal Commons. Yet when thought itself is threatened, perhaps it is only the unthinkable that can rescue humanity from itself.

The opening image is Eternity by Michael Lang, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.