Alternatives to Political SystemsConsumerismEconomicsPeople SystemsSocietyVillage Development

Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life

by Silke Helfrich

The market has always been with us. What’s new about life in the last three hundred years — and especially the last thirty — is that the buying and selling of goods is the overriding goal of human civilization. The market is seen not just as an efficient way to do some things — it’s increasingly heralded as the only way to organize our society. The market has become the ruling paradigm of the world, a way of life that is wiping out efficient, equitable and sustainable commons-based practices.

Silke Helfrich — a commons activist based in Jena, Germany — explores what we lose when the market is deployed as the solution to all our problems and answer to all our dreams. In this chart, she illustrates how radically different a market-based society operates compared to a commons-based society. This is excerpted from the book The Wealth of the Commons, which she edited with David Bollier. — Jay Walljasper

Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life


Market Way of Life

Commons Way of Life
Core Question What can be bought and sold? What do we need to live?
Idea of the Individual Humans maximize benefits for themselves Humans are primarily cooperative social beings
Social Practice Competition predominates; we prevail at the expense of others Cooperation predominates; commoning connects us with others
Power Relations Centralization & monopoly Decentralization & collaboration
Change Agents Powerful political lobbies focus on institutionalized politics and government Diverse communities working as distributed networks, with solutions coming from the margins
Decisionmaking Hierarchical, top-down; command & control Horizontial, bottom-up, decentralized, self-organized
Decision Principle Majority rule(s) Consensus
Property Relations Exclusive private property: “I can do anything I want with what I own” Collectively used possession: “I am co-responsible for what I co-use“
Core Focus Market exchange and economic growth (GDP) is achieved through individual initiative, innovation and “efficiency” Common weath and sustainable livelihoods is achieved through cooperation
Resources Scarcity is maintained or created through social barriers and exclusions There is enough for all through sharing (of finite resources) and a sense of abundance (of limitless resources)
Results for Resources Depletion, exploitation, enclosure Conservation, maintenance, reproduction, expansion
Knowledge Knowledge regarded as scarce asset to be bought and sold Knowledge regarded as a plentiful asset for the common good of society
Relationships to Nature & Other Humans Separation Interrelational
Society Individual vs. collective interest >exclusion My personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others, and vice-versa. >Emancipation through convivial connections

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