The Logic of the Commons & the Market: A Shorthand Comparsion of Their Core Beliefs

Silke Helfrich
  The For-Profit Paradigm The Commons Paradigm
Resources Scarcity is given or created (through barriers and exclusions). For rivalrous resources, there is enough for all through sharing.
For non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance.
  Strategy: “Efficient” resource allocation. Strategy: Strengthening social relations is decisive for assuring fair shares and sustainable use of resources.
Idea of the individual Individuals maximize benefits for themselves (Homo economicus). Humans are primarily cooperative social beings.
Human relationships to nature and other humans


  • Either/or
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Human society vs. Nature


  • Individuals and the collective are nested within each other and mutually reinforcing.
Change agents Powerful political lobbies, interest groups and institutionalized politics focused on government. Diverse communities working as distributed networks, with solutions coming from the margins.
Focus Market exchange and growth (GDP) achieved through individual initiative, innovation and “efficiency.” Use-value, common wealth, sustainable livelihoods and complementarity of enterprise.
Core question What can be sold and bought? What do I / we need to live?
Decision making Hierarchical, top-down; command & control Horizontal, decentralized, bottom-up. Self-organization, monitoring and adjustment of resource use.
Decision principle Majority rules. Consensus.
Power relation tendency Centralization & monopoly. Decentralization & collaboration.

Property relations 

Exclusive private property.
“I can do what I want with what is mine.” 

Collectively used possession.
“I am co-responsible for what I co-use.” 

Access to rival resources (land, water, forest) 

Limited access; rules defined by owner. 

Limited access; rules defined by users. 

Access to non- rival resources (ideas, code...) 

Limited access; scarcity is artificially created through law and technology. 

Unlimited access; open access is the default norm. 

Use rights 

Granted by owner (or not). Focus on: individual rights. 

Co-decided by co-producing users. Focus on: fairness, access for all. 

Social practice 

Prevail at the expense of others; competition dominates. 

Commoning; cooperation dominates 



Corporate ideology and values integrated into education and knowledge production. 

Peer-to-peer, networking and collaboration allows diversity of viewpoints. 


Knowledge regarded as scarce asset to be bought and sold. 

Knowledge regarded as plentiful resource for the common good of society. 


Proprietary technologies. 

Free and open source technologies. 


Highly specialized knowledge and expertise are privileged. 

Knowledge is subject to social and democratic control. 



Depletion/exploitation. Enclosure. 

Conservation / maintenance. Reproduction & expansion. 


Individual appropriation vs. collective interests.


“My personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others, and vice- versa.”

Emancipation through convivial connections.