The essay on “Property, Commoning and the Politics of Free Software” was originally a PhD thesis, which required it to have an abstract of no more han 300 words. That is rather few, especially if you have just spent seven to ten years thinking about, researching and formulating your ideas and thoughts about a very wide set of topics, debates and questions.
This is the result, which satisfied academic criteria, but with which the author himself was not very happy. Especially the “linguistic anthropomorphism” in the statement that “This thesis argues” rubs me up the wrong way, but it made things easier and kept the word count down, so that was how it came into being despite very strong reservations, both linguistically, stylistically and aesthetically:
The enclosure of cyberspace constitutes a new frontier of capitalism. Yet the Internet continues to facilitate new forms of collaboration and co-creative social relations. Whether this tension will result in a consolidation of capital and its underpinning logic, or lay the foundation for a world of voluntary cooperation, will depend on how these novel phenomena are conceptualised and organised.
This thesis argues that leading commentators on Free Software make two theoretical mistakes which threaten to have grave practical implications. First, they conflate private property (a particular form of property) with the concept of property in general. Second, they misconceive cyberspace – the intangible realm – as distinct from the material world – the tangible realm. Consequently, prevailing property relations in the tangible realm are left unquestioned, while the material underpinning of cyberspace is obscured. By contrast, the thesis aims to show the critical importance of recognising the materiality of the novel phenomena made possible by the Internet. In addition, an examination of concepts of private property in liberal jurisprudence reveals a number of distinct components and potential configurations thereof. It is argued that all relations between people with regard to things can in fact be understood in terms of configurations of these same components. This allows for an understanding of commoning – collective action based on shared values and self-organisation – in terms of property. Free Software, on this model, can be understood as an autonomous commons that has constituted itself through the reconfiguration of a private property right, namely copyright.
Conceptualising the relational modalities of Free Software and commoning in terms of property thus feeds back into the concept of property. This understanding can in turn be mapped back onto the tangible realm, reanimating debate about the range of possible property relations more generally.