Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!


May 28, 2014

Commons Way of Life vs. Market Way of Life

A logging camp in British Columbia. (Photo by Dru! under a Creative Commons license.)

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

Core Question:

Market: What can be bought and sold?

Commons: What do we need to live?

Idea of the Individual:

Market: Humans maximize benefits for themselves

Commons: Humans are primarily cooperative social beings

Social Practice:

Market: Competition predominates; we prevail at the expense of others

Commons: Cooperation predominates; commoning connects us with others

Power Relations:

Market: Centralization & monopoly

Commons: Decentralization & collaboration

Change Agents:

Market: Powerful political lobbies focus on institutionalized politics and government

Commons: Diverse communities working as distributed networks, with solutions coming from the margins


Market: Hierarchical, top-down; command & control

Commons: Horizontial, bottom-up, decentralized, self-organized

Decision Principle:

Market: Majority rule(s)

Commons: Consensus

Property Relations:

Market: Exclusive private property: "I can do anything I want with what I own"

Commons: Collectively used possession: "I am co-responsible for what I co-use"

Core Focus:

Market: Market exchange and economic growth (GDP) is achieved through individual initiative, innovation and "efficiency"

Commons: Common weath and sustainable livelihoods is achieved through cooperation


Market: Scarcity is maintained or created through social barriers and exclusions

Commons: There is enough for all through sharing (of finite resources) and a sense of abundance (of limitless resources)

Results for Resources:

Market: Depletion, exploitation, enclosure

Commons: Conservation, maintenance, reproduction, expansion


Market: Knowledge regarded as scarce asset to be bought and sold

Commons: Knowledge regarded as a plentiful asset for the common good of society

Relationships to Nature & Other Humans:

Market: Separation

Commons: Interrelational


Market: Individual vs. collective interest >exclusion

Commons: My personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others, and vice-versa. >Emancipation through convival connections