The Digital Commons: Escape From Capital?

So, after a year of reading, study, analysis and writing, my thesis is complete. It’s on the digital commons, of course, this particular piece is an analysis to determine whether or not the digital commons represents an escape from, or a continuation of, capitalism. The full text is behind the link below.

The Digital Commons: Escape From Capital?

In the conclusion I suggested various changes which could be made to avert the encroachment of capitalist modes, as such I will be releasing various pieces of software and other artefacts over the coming months.

For those who are impatient, here’s the abstract, the conclusion is further down:

In this thesis I examine the suggestion that the digital commons represents a form of social organisation that operates outside any capitalist relationships. I do this by carrying out an analysis of the community and methods of three projects, namely Linux, a piece of software; Wikipedia, an encyclopedia; and Open Street Map, a geographic database.

Each of these projects, similarly to the rest of the digital commons, do not require any money or other commodities in return for accessing them, thus denying exchange as the dominant method of distributing resources, instead offering a more social way of conducting relations. They further allow the participation of anyone who desires to take part, in relatively unhindered ways. This is in contrast to the capitalist model of
requiring participants demonstrate their value, and take part in ways demanded by capital.

The digital commons thus appear to resist the capitalist mode of production. My analysis uses concepts from Marx’s Capital Volume 1, and Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, with further support from Hardt and Negri’s Empire trilogy. It analyses five concepts, those of class, commodities, alienation, commodity fetishism and surplus-value.

I conclude by demonstrating that the digital commons mostly operates outside capitalist exchange relations, although there are areas where indicators of this have begun to encroach. I offer a series of suggestions to remedy this situation.

Here’s the conclusion:

This thesis has explored the relationship between the digital commons and aspects of the capitalist mode of production, taking three iconic projects: the Linux operating system kernel, the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Open Street Map geographical database as case studies. As a result of these analyses, it appears digital commons represent a partial escape from the domination of capital.


As the artefacts assembled by our three case studies can be accessed by almost anybody who desires, there appear to be few class barriers in place. At the centre of this is the maxim “information wants to be free” 1 underpinning the digital commons, which results in assistance and education being widely disseminated rather than hoarded. However, there are important resources whose access is determined by a small group in each project, rather than by a wider set of commoners. This prevents all commoners who take part in the projects from attaining their full potential, favouring one group and thus one set of values over others. Despite the highly ideological suggestion that anyone can fork a project at any time and do with it as they wish, which would suggest a lack of class barriers, there is significant inertia which makes this difficult to achieve. It should be stressed however, that the exploitation and domination existing within the three case studies is relatively minor when compared to typical capitalist class relations. Those who contribute are a highly educated elite segment of society, with high levels of self-motivation and confidence, which serves to temper what the project leaders and administrators can do.


The artefacts assembled cannot be exchanged as commodities, due to the license under which they are released, which demands that the underlying information, be it the source code, knowledge or geographical data always be available to anyone who comes into contact with the artefact, that it remain in the commons in perpetuity.


This lack of commoditisation of the artefacts similarly resists the alienation of those who assemble them. The thing made by workers can be freely used by them, they make significant decisions around how it is assembled, and due to the collaborative nature essential to the process of assembly, constructive, positive, valuable relationships are built with collaborators, both within the company and without. This reinforces Stallman’s suggestion that free software, and thus the digital commons is a more social way of being 2.


Further, the method through which the artefacts are assembled reduces the likelihood of fetishisation. The work is necessarily communal, and involves communication and association between those commoners who make and those who use. This assists the collaboration essential for such high quality artefacts, and simultaneously invites a richer relationship between those commoners who take part. However, as has been shown, recent changes have shown there are situations where the social nature of the artefacts is being partially obscured, in favour of speed, convenience and quality, thus demonstrating a possible fetishisation.


The extraction of surplus-value is, however, present. The surplus extracted is not money, but in the form of symbolic capital. This recognition from others can be exchanged for other forms of capital, enabling the leaders of the three projects investigated here to gain high paying, intellectually fulfilling jobs, and to spread their political beliefs. While it appears there is thus exploitation of the commoners who contribute to these projects, it is firstly mild, and secondly does not result in a huge imbalance of wealth and opportunity, although this should not be seen as an apology for the behaviour which goes on. Whether in future this will change, and the wealth extracted will enable the emergence of a super-rich as seen in the likes of Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Larry Ellison remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely.


There are however ways in which these problems could be overcome. At present, the projects are centred upon one website, and an infrastructure and values, all generally controlled by a small group who are often self-selected, or selected by some external group with their own agenda. This reflects a hierarchical set of relationships, which could possibly be addressed through further decentralisation of key resources. For examples of this, we can look at YaCy 3, a search engine released under a free software license. The software can be used in one of a number of ways, the most interesting of these is network mode, in which several computers federate their results together. Each node searches a different set of web sites, which can be customised, the results from each node are then pooled, thus when a commoner carries out a search, the terms are searched for in the databases of several computers, and the results aggregated. This model of decentralisation prevents one entity taking control over what are a large and significant set of resources, and thus decreases the possibility of exploitation, domination and the other attendant problems of minority control or ownership over the means of production.


Addressing the problem of capitalists continuing to extract surplus, requires a technically simple, but ideologically difficult, solution. There is a general belief within the projects discussed that any use of the artefacts is fine, so long as the license is complied with. Eric Raymond, author of the influential book on digital commons governance and other matters, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, and populariser of the term open source, is perhaps most vocal about this, stating that the copyleft tradition of Stallman’s GNU is overly restrictive of what people, by which he means businesses, can do, and that BSD-style, no copyleft licenses are the way forward 4. The majority of commoners taking part do not follow his explicit preference for no copyleft licenses, but nonetheless have no problem with business use of the artefacts, suggesting that wide spread use makes the tools better, and that sharing is inherently good. It appears they either do not have a problem with this, or perhaps more likely do not understand that this permissiveness allows for uses that they might not approve of. Should this change, a license switch to something preventing commercial use is one possibility.

1Roger Clarke, ‘Roger Clarke’s “Information Wants to Be Free …”’, Roger Clarke’s Web-Site, 2013,

2Richard Stallman, Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, ed. Joshua Gay, 2nd ed (Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation, 2010), 8.

3YaCy, ‘Home’, YaCy – The Peer to Peer Search Engine, 2013,

4Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, ed. Tim O’Reilly, 2nd ed. (Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly, 2001), 68–69.

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