Urban commons as part of modern urban capitalism? A thought experiment

You may have seen the title and are wondering to yourself if I’ve gone off my rocker. Bear with me, this is going to get interesting.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and define our terms. In this article, I want to speak about urban commons as a form of resource use/co-management in which I, the user, contribute time and effort and therefore pay less for the resource use (and get a social benefit to boot!) and urban capitalism as — not a boogeyman of leftist thought (not today, anyway) — an arrangement in which I sell my time and labor to acquire money which I exchange for goods and services in a relatively time-efficient way.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s get into the weeds. In the age of specialized labor, I ideally spend some part of my day producing the widgets that I am best trained and skilled to produce. Since capitalism is the dominant socioeconomic system in the country in which I live, I receive money for the time and effort I put in (if I’m paid by the hour/day/other time unit) or based on output (i.e. widgets, popsicles, tote bags, ironic mustache trims).

After I subtract the time I spend transforming my human capital into money (i.e. working), eating, and sleeping, I have a certain fixed amount of time left over, time which I could theoretically completely dedicate to the urban commons project of my choice.

Now, as an economically rational being (let’s just assume for the moment), I weigh the costs and benefits of the work, time and effort I put into things every day. Thus, things which are more important to me are “worth my time” and things which are less important to me are “not worth my time.” With me so far?

So, given my limited time budget, I will choose to relegate some aspects of my life to the capitalist market. It could be cooking (“let’s get takeaway!”), grocery shopping (“I’ll just get that delivered”) or even shopping (“I’m sure I can get that on that large online marketplace everyone knows and uses”).

My work with commoners, especially urban commoners, shows that most people get involved with one, at most two commons projects, and that, in so doing, they commit large amounts of their “leftover” time to building this resource together with like-minded people. In this case, instead of trading money for goods and services, they trade time — and usually receive other benefits (social capital, friendships, free childcare, occasional car pools, help with DIY projects, etc.) in return.

So if we think about capitalism and commoning in simplified arithmetic structures, it might look like this:

  • Capitalism (an impersonal transaction): Time + work = money = goods & services
  • Commoning (a social interaction): Time + work + a little money = goods & services + social capital

My thought experiment is that urban commons can and should become a part of modern urban capitalism. For me, this means that not everything is a commons and we don’t abolish capitalism, but rather we work within the existing system to create niches, spaces in which the logic of profit-maximization doesn’t rule and real social connection is possible and encouraged. And those commoners still sometimes order out pizza or buy something from that big website named after a rain-forest in Brazil. (As a rather introverted person myself, I must admit that I occasionally really appreciate being able to buy things without having to talk to a human being.)

Let’s make commons mainstream, not just something the lucky few get to take part in! To do that, we need to create a world in which we have commons, state and market on equal footing, not just the state and market as the dominant paradigm and some nice but dispensable projects on the fringes.

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