Global Commons or Billionaire Netocracy?

By Roy Morrison* – EcoCivilization 
Our current path is that of a netocracy and triumph of the billionaires. Jeff Bezos and his billionaire cohort will successfully follow their plans for customer service, fast delivery, cost cutting, labor saving and eventually own almost everything until, under staggering consumer debt loads and shrinking customer income, the system collapses, and yet another bailout is no longer possible.

Broadly, the sustainable alternative to netocracy and hyper privatization is the growth, health, and strengthening of commons regimes. The rights to use the global commons must be balanced by the responsibility to maintain and protect the commons. The consequences of economic activity must mean ecological improvement in the context of the pursuit of sustainability, social and ecological justice. This is principle governing not just commons and commoners, but public and private, government, corporations and non-profits. There can be no privileged domain for pollution and self-destruction. The commons, its health, maintenance and protection, is the core for building an ecological civilization and for the health of the ecosphere and of freedom and community
The commons and commons regimes emerges as an entity different from the nation, the public, or the private. The commons exists in practice and is afforded recognition and protection under social practice, local, national, and international law. The commons is the ground for community action, whether that is the local community, or the global participants in a self-defined group of artists in cyberspace.The commons is the venue within which we move from being disgruntled world slayers to river keepers, soil protectors from employees and wage slaves to responsible commoners, to free women and men.
The Commons 
A commons does not mean an equal right to despoil and destroy. A commons means stewardship. Stewardship means an intergenerational perspective, to care, as Native American cultures said, for the 7th generation yet to come. The commons then is rooted in a sense of ethics, rules, custom, limits and their enforcement; spatial and intergenerational consciousness, reciprocity, justice, fairness. The commons is a social creation, a bio-social and bio-physical entity manifest as a partnership between social groups and biological, physical and cyberspace entities. The Commons is a realm quite different than that of private property or state. It is a social property that manifests the right to use and the responsibility to protect and maintain.
Conceive of the commons as a cybernetic information system that carefully monitors the consequences of using the commons and takes healing action in response. Commons regimes embracing the air, water, soil, ocean, outer space and cyberspace on a local and global level as crucial for the the survival and prosperity of the ecosphere and human civilization. The commons and its health and wellbeing is the locus for the conduct of ecological economic growth.
Ecological economic growth (EEG) is predicated on economic growth leading to ecological improvement and regeneration within the context of the pursuit of sustainability and ecological and social justice. This is made possible by comprehensive ecological market rules, laws, regulation, a redefinition of fiduciary responsibility toward the ecological in building a zero pollution-zero waste civilization. For example, globally renewable energy replaces all fossil fuel and nuclear power as fast as possible; industrial production is governed by an industrial ecology where all outputs become useful inputs for other processes in a zero pollution- zero waste regime; global ocean aquaculture of kelp and azolla becomes a major source of food, bio-energy, and enormous amounts of carbon sequestration. The health of the commons is dependent upon ecological economic growth. The success of ecological economic growth is dependent upon the well being of the commons. The rights and responsibilities of commoners,not just the EPA, protects and monitors the commons as expression of primal self-interest.
A commons is therefore conceived as:

  • Bio-social and bio-physical entity
  • Cybernetic informational system and a network
  • Self-managing system balancing rights to use and responsibilities to sustain
  • Existing in time and space as a system with intergenerational consciousness and action
  • Manifestation of social and community property with global impact and reach
  • Ethical, cultural, legal expression of justice and fairness, of rights and self-protection
  • Expression of social property as opposed to private or public private property
  • Basis for community economy and enterprise
  • The generator of sustainable wealth, of food, products, services, art , serenity
  • Manifest in physical space, social space, cyberspace as vital social entity
  • Venue for redefinition of economic growth in quality and intensity
  • Basis for the building of an ecological civilization in response to industrial folly

A commons, like cyberspace, may be open to all, but. as in all commons, the rights to use the commons is balanced by responsibility for good conduct and acts to maintain the commons. For example, a cyber-commons may forbid spam, phishing, limit bandwidth. What is now more controversial and contested and deeply relevant, is the treatment of internet portals and social networks as publicly owned networks as opposed to their proprietary use to extract billions upon billions from internet users to create an global netocracy.
As Yochai Benkler points out in The Wealth of Networks, the increasing imposition of private property rights on networks both increases costs and reduces productivity and interferes with the strength of networks and peer to peer production and creativity. “Ubiquitous low-cost processors, storage media, and networked conductivity have made it practically feasible for individuals, alone and in cooperation with others, to create and exchange information, knowledge and culture in patterns of social reciprocity, redistribution and sharing, rather than proprietary, market-based production.”i
The commons traditionally, of course, was about local agricultural commons to graze animals,like the Boston Commons, or also to cut wood or plant crops, or to fish. The Commons could be used but not abused by all local farmers or fishers. Nor could the commons be enclosed, that is fenced and privatized and used for the creation of wealth and property for the few instead of the many. In England and Wales there was, and still is in some parishes, the annual tradition of “the beating the bounds” where the commons land was inspected and all rock walls and fences town down.ii In Germany, communally owner municipal forests continue to be successfully maintained as commons.
Wikipedia is an outstanding example of a global informational commons, as are open source software programs and operating systems like Ubuntu originally released in 2004 is now up to version 18.04 in 2019 in three editions—desktop, server, core with new versions every six months with long term support releases every two years. Ubuntu is produced and maintained by users who use programming languages Python, Java, C, C++, and C# and operates in ten desktop environments.iii
Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term that means “humanity” and implies the universal bond between us all.
Similarly, there are an ever increasing number of on line commons scientific journals used and maintained by contributors. Commons copyright offers the opportunity to use and freely distribute, but not to sell. As a writer, it’s an interesting experience to find articles I’ve written sold without permission by private data bases and without any payment to me. This is the modern version of enclosure where both the informational material is seized and access to information or the ability to communicate and to search is in the hands of a handful of corporate entities for their continuous enrichment from the use of the informational commons by billions. This is tantamount to making everyone pay tolls to a private entity for walking on public streets and or traveling on the public roads.
It’s important to recognize that the creation of the world wide web by physicist Tim Berners-Lee working at CERN, the European physics lab, in 1989 was not a commercial venture, but an effort to create a global informational commons. The development of internet protocols TCP/IP was by DARPA of the U.S. government, and the GPS system was invented by Roger Easton, an engineer working on the Explorer satellite program for the U.S. Navy. Tim-Berners Lee is not a billionaire even though Jeff Bezos has become the world’s richest person based on the using the freely shared work of Tim-Berners Lee. Roger Easton received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, not billions in royalties from the use of the GPS.
The world of the billionaire netocracy is strikingly played out in exploding homelessness in Seattle and San Francisco as housing and rental prices soar in response to the influx of the well paid executives and technical workers of Silicon Valley linked companies and other information age high tech companies. In Seattle, depression style tent cities have sprung up under highway overpasses as high tech bosses oppose both taxation for public housing and unionization.
It is clear that both economic efficiency, equity, justice and democracy are in conflict with ongoing privatization of commons property. The health of our future ecological economy and society lies in a convergence of commons rights and responsibilities with the market rules, laws and regulation guiding the private and public sector. There are competing visions of the future. One is of fully privatized world run by now trillionaires, of labor free self-driving cars, robot factories, robot and drone warehouses and enormous server farms with skeletal high tech staff , of global offshoring for all work, of a competitive gig economy for whatever jobs cannot be performed by ever more capable artificial intelligence apps. Of course, this is also a recipe for destruction of economic demand and the ability to sustain the economic viability of the profit machine and for the impoverishment of much of the population. As Keynes noted, you cannot push on a string to move an economy.
Paradoxically, on the technological level, there may be similarities between a world of zero polluting robot factories, driverless cars and increasing use of artificial intelligence in an alternative future of broad prosperity, creativity and happiness based on peer to peer relationship and dynamic commons regimes and trade in information and local production and much self-provisioning through customized three-D production using organic and renewable inputs. The difference is based on mechanisms for fair distribution of the social product that provides every person with a fair and just share and a the right to a living stipend in exchange for meeting defined responsibilities. This means the much work will mean creative and self-defined and self-managed action within the commons.
There is always a tension between private, commons, and open access regimes. Open access means a right to use with no responsibility to protect and maintain. This is the kind of abusive “freedom” that leads to abuse and the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” More properly, this should be called the “tragedy of subjecting a commons to open access.” The 21st century is very much concerned not only with land tenure and ocean tenure property issues, but also with issues around cyberspace and informational tenure and ownership questions.
Is global cyberspace to be ruled by a private property regime for the endless profit of two classes of holders of private property:

  1. Owners of platform gateways that facilitate interconnection and communication and commerce in the form of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, TenCent and others to come
  2. Owners of intellectual property rights that will encompass not merely code for software, but informational content in all its diverse forms including genetic code and its applications in applications in bio-medicine, production code for manufacture using 3-D printing, all digitized music, film, entertainment, literature, insurance.

Economically, this is a recipe consolidation of rent seeking, of oligopoly, monopoly and monopsony (where there is only one buyer) that concentrates wealth, increase prices, and creates barriers to entry and competition in the interest of private profit. It is also as the Gilded Age demonstrated a recipe for eventually Trust busting reform and economic collapse.
The central issue is that the continued consolidation of a billionaire netocracy will reflect a failure to constrain and transform the ecological and social abuses of informational and industrial business as usual. This will mean the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and a much greater likelihood that there will not be effective efforts to reverse climate change and escape onrushing global ecological catastrophe. A netocracy of course will also undermine the strength, productivity and productivity of networks that will continue to exist is semi-renegade internet “free zones”.
In the proprietary world, there is no free information or free lunch. Every bit and byte is charged and is for sale at the price the market will bear. Researching the commons, I found numerous academic journal articles on the strength of the commons and of networks hidden behind pay walls. Shutting the door also closes minds, short circuits that flash of inspiration, insight and creativity that can lead in new and potentially world changing directions.
There are many possible alternatives to provide fair access to information, such as payment by all of small fees for blanket access to intellectual property, to limited scope of patent rights, for example, never for genes, as opposed to gene therapies resulting from genes. An Israeli company is working on an effective multi-modal treatment and cure for almost all cancers customized to an individuals particular cancer cells that appears to be effective in early trials. Shall this remain proprietary information for sale only for those who can afford what the traffic will bear, or a universal benefit for humanity that will swiftly lead to other startling applications? Their work did not arise from thin air, as invention deserving a patent lasting a generation or more, but from the contributions of thousands and thousands of others often gifted to the public domain as well as financed from public and non-profit sources.
Strengthening of Commons Regimes 
The strengthening of commons regimes, establishing the right to use the commons balanced by duty to maintain and protect the commons must become the common rules of the road not just for commons, but for private and public entities and their conduct. Yes, by fits and starts a global renewable energy transformation is underway amidst the conduct of industrial business as usual and increasing global carbon dioxide emissions as the rich get richer.
A different kind of global convergence is well underway in world that is glorious for a tiny billionaire class, comfortable indeed for the 1%, and fine for the professional and well educated 10%. It is not simply that the consequences of continuation of business as unusual will be sub-optimal and lead to familiar denouements of economic collapse, but that global consequences will be broadly fatal for much of the planet’s species and for the continuation of a global industrial civilization.
The ecological future we will outline arises most broadly from a global convergence on:

  • Ecological economic growth
  • Social and ecological justice
  • Ecological improvement locally and globally
  • Transforming a war system to a peace system

The Global and Local Commons regimes and Networks are the underlying structure and basis for building an ecological future. These fateful four goals above are more than a statement of high minded ideals and dewy eyed dreams. The fateful four is a path for both reversing climate change and building a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful ecological civilization.
The rights and responsibilities governing the commons both local and global must become the basic guides for conduct of all. This must become true if property is common, private, public, open access. We cannot survive in a world separated into ecological commons and open-access or private or public areas for maximum exploitation. Commons and private and public and open access systems will be continually in contact. The grand global convergence is of ecological economic growth, social and ecological justice, ecological improvement, building a peace system.
This grand convergence means an ongoing diversity of forms. The growth of commons self-management and law and regulation based on right to use the commons wth responsibility to maintain and sustain the commons means that public and private property based entities can survive and thrive in commons regimes within this sustainable context.
The rise of an ecological civilization will be characterized, in particular, by the rise of commons regimes as both formal and informal structures that mediate and mitigate the conduct on a local and global scale between the nature of conduct the realm of the commons,the public and private in pursuit of ecological ends.
On a grand scale, this means the evolution in commons and statute law locally,nationally and internationally of commons rights and responsibilities in the same sense that international human rights is an individual and collective right expressed in law and in fact by individuals and by communities. The successful commons regime is an exquisite expression of the relationship between the individuals and the group,between freedom and community.
On a global scale there must be a common law expressed, protected and codified by local, national, international law and a treaty of Rights and Responsibilities of the Commons. This is meant to be expressed and codified not just by the United Nations,but by commons regime and local, state, national and international government recognizing and protecting the rights and responsibilities of the commons in law as well as in fact by actions of the commons.
Manifesting Commons Rights and Responsibilities in Law and Custom 
A charter for commons Right and Responsibilities needs to become explicit both for the Commons and it’s dwellers and users from local space to global space to cyberspace. This should be expressed on all levels and all domains and reflect principle of subsidiarity. Those most directly affected must have the most significant input.
Thus the decision by a group farmers or fishers to use and maintain their farm and wood land, or fishing ground is largely their decision to the extent it harmonizes with broader issues facing the commons. For example, rules by a fishing commons to maintain a sustainable catch might conflict with broader needs, for example, on the global need to limit catch of both very small fish and very large fish that serve to maintain fish stock and ecology and to limit use of certain types of nets that harm turtles and marine mammals that may not be of concern to the local fishers.
The charters, rules and customs local commons should be harmonized and supported by statute law and serve as a mode for statute law and recognized as precedent under common law. For example, the attempt to build tar sands oil pipelines across farmland and across rivers and above crucial aquifers was made possible by state and federal law and powers of eminent domain that over road the expressed interests of local farmers, ranchers, Native American tribes and their oft trampled upon treaty rights and sovereignty. The rights of the commons on both local and global levels need not be trampled on the basis of economic expediency and in principle need to be protected.
Ecological definition of Fiduciary Responsibility 
Ecological rules and standards must be general and cannot be limited to the special protected domains or parks or privileged commons or sanctuaries of the ultra rich. The rules for fiduciaries on for-profit, non-profit, commons and social level for all economic activities must include a mandate that the responsibilities of fiduciaries must mean making the consequences of economic growth, of the sale of all goods and services, mean ecological improvement and restoration of the biosphere, and improvement of social and ecological justice.
A model law, appropriate for all levels of, must be shaped and appropriately addressed to all levels from commons agreement, to local ordinance, to state law, to national law, to constitutional amendment, to UN treaty for ecological fiduciary responsibility.
On a constitutional level, here’s a draft Amendment 28 to the U.S. constitution for ecological conduct.
Amendment Twenty-Eight on Ecological Conduct:
Section 1. The rights and responsibilities to protect, sustain and enjoy ecological well being and health shall be a fundamental principle of these United States.
Section 2. Economic growth in these United States shall be guided by principles under law that leads to the improvement and regeneration of natural capital and the advancement of social and ecological justice.
Section 3. Fiduciary responsibility under law shall be defined as the prudent management of finance capital, the improvement and regeneration of natural capital, and the advancement of social and ecological justice.
A similar structure on all levels as appropriate from the local to the global should guide humanity’s conduct in the building an maintenance an during peaceful and prosperous ecological future for all.
In sum, the movement toward a sustainable, peaceful and productive world centered on the improving health of the global commons in all aspects with be a crucial aspect in the rise of an ecological civilization. This is not a brief for human perfection. It means the strengthening of local powers over all aspects of our lives. It means that neither corporations nor governments have rights or power to despoil the commons, but must conduct themselves in accord with ecological market rules and laws that protect and defend the commons, support ecological and social justice and a global convergence on sustainable norms and a good life for all. The overwhelming power of this ecological transformation is that it does not require imposition from above and permission of the rich, but must and will arise from an insistent transformative global ecological movement from below, expressed and manifest, not just in the decisions of nations, but by he acts and lives in myriad communities and neighborhoods and the commons that constitutes the basis for all our current and future well being.
What must unfold is an intricate dance between commons and commoners and the powers and prerogatives of governments, of personal, private, social property. For example, the Commons need to be protected by much more than the EPA. as made clear by the Trump Administration activities. Ecological rights in the 21th century and beyond must be manifested and protected by rights and responsibilities of the commons and commoners.This means explicit recognition and subsidiary rights to self-management in common law and statute law of local commons and commons regimes. This is supported by increasing level of participation in management and control of all aspects of a community rights through cooperative, associations. My Town plan to reduce overtime carbon dioxide emissions to 3 tons per person per year and to sequester an equal amount or more is done by an empowered local commons granted such authority under statute and common law by the EPA, but it must not be able to be simply withdrawn. Each neighborhood, each Town, each city must define and chart its own course within the context of common ecological norms. It’ s the sharing, common purpose and convergence between ecological means and ecological ends that will represent the shape of an emergent ecological social order.
i Yohai Benkle, 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Market and Freedom.New Haven: Yale University Press.p. 462./
iii Ubuntu: The leading operating system for PCs, IoT devices, servers …
Ubuntu is an open source software operating system that runs from the desktop, to the cloud, to all your internet connected things.
*Roy Morrison is director of the Office for Sustainability at Southern New Hampshire University. He is working on the development of renewable energy hedges and on a new utility revenue model to encourage efficiency and distributed generation. His books on ecological transformation and economic development include We Build the Road as We Travel: Mondragon, A Cooperative Social System (1991), Ecological Democracy (1995), Ecological Investigations (2001), Eco Civilization 2144 (2005), and Markets, Democracy and Survival (2007). –