The new triarchy: the commons, enterprise, the state

At the P2P Foundation, our central concept is peer to peer, i.e. the ability to freely associate with others around the creation of common value. More specifically, we call this, according to the structural anthropology of Alan Page Fiske, communal shareholding, i.e. the non-reciprocal exchange of an individual with a totality. It is totality that we call the commons.

Commons can be subdivided in different ways, for example, local-regional-global, but also between the polarity of rivalry and non-rivalry. Commons consisting of rival goods can be renewable or not, but in each case, there have to be rules regulating the exchange between the commons and its users/contributors/members. In digital commons, though they are dependent on a rival physical infrastructure in order to exist, non- or anti-rivalry prevails, and non-reciprocal exchange is non-problematic.

It is customary to divide society into three sectors, and what we want to show is how the new peer to peer dynamic unleashed by networked infrastructures, changes the inter-relationship between these three sectors.

In the current ‘cognitive capitalist’ system, it is the private sector consisting of enterprises and businesses which is the primary factor, and it is engaged in competitive capital accumulation. The state is entrusted with the protection of this process. Though civil society, through the citizen, is in theory ‘sovereign’, and chooses the state; in practice, both civil society and the state are under the domination of the private sector.

Of course, this is not to say that the state is a mere tool of private business. In my view, it fulfills three contradictory functions. One is the protect the whole system, under the domination of private business, and this is determined by a balance of power not only between different private business sectors, but also by the social balance of power between business and civil society, capital and labour. It is only when this balance of power is severely disturbed, that the state either becomes a private tool of some dominant business clique, or, can become relatively independent, as in the case of the fascist state.

So, to the first function of being the protector of the total system under domination of capital, we should add two added functions. It is the protector of civil society, depending on the balance of power and achievements of social movements. And finally it is also the protector of its own independent interests.

We have historically seen three scenarios in the 20th century. Under fascism, the state achieves great independence from the private sector , which may become subservient to the state. Under the welfare state, the state becomes a protector of the social balance of power and manages the achievements of the social movement; and finally, under the neoliberal corporate welfare state, or ‘market state’, it serves most directly the interests of the financial sector.

Each sector also had its key institutions and forms of property.

The state managed a public sector, under its own property.

The private sector , under a regime of private ownership, is geared to profit, discounts social and natural externalities, both positive and negative, and uses its dominance in society to use and dominate the state. Civil society has a certain power through the mechanisms of civil society, but the great majority of its members are in a disadvantaged position because it lacks ownership of the means of production.

However, civil society has a relative power as well, through its capability of creating social movements and associations. Amongst those are religious institutions, civil associations, political parties, the labour movement, identity and sectoral movements, and since the 1960’s mostly, issue-oriented non-profits. In the context of industrial and cognitive capitalism, natural resource commons slowly disappeared, and the institution of the commons became a non-player, in the dual struggle between the private and the state sector, influenced by the relative strength or weakness of civil society and its movements.

Capitalism has historically been a pendulum between the private and the public sector, and the commons mostly irrelevant in the struggles for more or less state intervention.

However, this configuration is changing, in my opinion due to two factors. The first is the environmental crisis, i.e. the endangerment of the biosphere through the workings of ‘selfish’ market players; the second is the role of the new digital commons.

The first factor is of course the continuing damage done to the biosphere, through pollution, resource depletion, endangered biodiversity, climate change, and similar issues. It is becoming increasingly clear that capitalist enterprise, whose DNA makes it incapable to care about externalities, and the infinite growth engine of which it is a part, are endangering the planet. At the same time, the idea of state-owned economies and centralized planning has lots its luster as an alternative. This leads to a revival of the idea of natural resource commons, since studies have cited by Ostrom have shown that no working commons has ever degraded its environment.

The second factor is the emergence of the digital commons. It is the experience of creating knowledge, culture, software and design commons, by a combination of voluntary contributions, entrepreneurial coalitions and infrastructure-protecting for-benefit associations, that has most tangibly re-introduced the idea of commons, for all to use without discrimination, and where all can contribute. It has drastically reduced the production, distribution, transaction and coordination costs for the immaterial value that is at the core also of all what we produce physically, since that needs to be made, needs to be designed. It has re-introduced communing as a mainstream experience for at least one billion internet users, and has come with proven benefits and robustness that has outcompeted and outcooperated its private rivals. It also of course offers new ways to re-imagine, create and protect physical commons.

The combined failure of state fundamentalism in 1989 and so-called ‘free market’ ideology in 2008, coupled with the emergence of the peer to peer practices and the commons, has put this alternative back on the agenda.

Peer production gives us an advance picture of how a commons-oriented society would look like. At its core is a commons and a community contributing to it, either voluntarily, or as paid entrepreneurial employees. It does this through collaborative platforms using open standards. Around the commons emerges enterprises that create added value to operate on the marketplace, but also help the maintenance and the expansion of the commons they rely on. A third partner are the for-benefit associations that maintain the infrastructure of cooperation. Public authorities could play a role if they wanted to support existing commons or the creation of new commons, for the value they bring to society.

Non- or anti-rival commons do not need to worry about the depletion of their stocks, so no trusts are necessary, but they use peer property modalities such as special licenses, which insure the common stock cannot be privatized, and that those that use the commons and improve on it, also improve the commons at the same time.
But commons of rival or depletable goods need a trust.

Generally speaking, if a commons is not created as in the case of the digital commons, it is something that is inherited from nature or former generations, given in trust and usufruct, so that it can be transmitted to our descendents. The proper institution for such commons is therefore the trust, which is a corporate form that cannot touch its principal capital, but has to maintain it.

So here we have it, the new triarchy:
  • The state, with its public property and representative mechanisms of governance (in the best scenario)
  • The private sector, with the corporation and private property
  • The commons, with the Trust (or the for-benefit association), and which is the ‘property’ of all its members (not the right word in the context of the commons, since it has a different philosophy of ownership)

The emergence of peer to peer dynamics and the commons does not of course mean that society will change radically from the outset. I believe some different phases can be contemplated.
In a first phase, the commons simply emerges as an added alternative. But as it proves it worth and creates the accompanying social movements that create, defend and expand it, it starts becoming a subsector of society, and starts influencing the whole. Eventually, it reaches a phase where society needs to be reformed (let’s call this the parity level). However, it is not realistic that the state form that was created to protect a given class structure, can also serve for a new structure, and therefore at some point, phase transition and transformation will need to occur.

Let us now imagine how a commons-dominated, i.e. after the phase transition, society would look like.

  • At its core would be a collection of commons, represented by trusts and for-benefit associations, which protect their common assets for the benefit of present and future generations
  • The commons ‘rents out’ the use of its resources to entrepreneurs. In other words, business still exists, though infinite growth-based capitalism does not. However, it is unlikely that traditional corporations, wo do not take into account externalities, will still exist without modification. More likely is that the corporate forms will be influenced by the commons and that profit will be subsumed to other goals, that are congruent with the maintenance of the commons. Also likely, these entities will be owned by the producers, and not by abstract capital (we’re talking after the phase transition here)
  • The state will still exist, but will have a radically different nature. Much of its functions will have been taken over by commons institutions, but since these institutions care primarily about their commons, and not the general common good, we will still need public authorities that are the guarantor of the system as a whole, and can regulate the various commons, and protect the commoners against possible abuses. So in our scenario, the state does not disappear, but is transformed, though it may greatly diminish in scope, and with its remaining functions thoroughly democratized and based on citizen participation.

In our vision, it is civil-society based peer production, through the Commons, which is the guarantor of value creation by the private sector, and the role of the state, as Partner State, is to enable and empower the creation of common value. The new peer to peer state then, though some may see that as a contradictio in terminis, is a state which is subsumed under the Commons, just as it is now under the private sector. Such a peer to peer state, if we are correct, will have a much more modest role than the state under a classic state society, with many of its functions taken over by civil society associations, interlinked in processes of global governance.

The above then, this triarchy, is the institutional core which replaces the dual private-public binary system that is characteristic of the capitalist system that is presently the dominant format.

Michel Bauwens  is a Belgian Peer-to-Peer theorist and an active writer, researcher and conference speaker on the subject of technology, culture and business innovation.




The commons is about reclaiming, sharing and self-governing resources that belong to everyone. As a form of governance it is defending traditional or building new systems for managing our resources, based on the principles of equity and sustainability. The commons is a practical means for re-inventing society in ways that markets and governments are unable or unwilling to entertain. » Dossier