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Layers upon Layers of Commons

Image by Maud Vantours

Why do some get to be enfranchised and others do not? What does it entail to be enfranchised? Which criteria are one enfranchised by? And where is enfranchisement necessary?

When we think about enfranchisement we typically think of the right to vote in government affairs. Enfranchisement has been a contentious issue for a long time in this sphere, with the French and American revolutions kicking off the issue after the medieval period, at which point enfranchisement into government affairs was opened up to a much broader range of subjects than had been the case previously.

Many of the democracies that arose in the wake of these revolutions first and foremost extended the franchise to the landholding men in their respective countries. Over time it was extended even further, encompassing all men, and later all women, creating the conditions of mass democracy we know today. And yet, it is still not everyone who has the franchise even now; the prime example being those that are underage, and secondarily those that are deemed unfit to be able to participate in the democratic process, like the disabled, prisoners, and foreigners/non-citizens, whom I will refer to as ‘afranchised’.

Involvement in government affairs is not the only place where you will need enfranchisement in order to access and partake in certain activities, however. Anyone part of a home-owners association, gated community, or private neighbourhood will probably recognize that they have a communal say in the communal decisions taking place. The same may be the case if you live in a rented apartment complex, a dormitory (at a college campus), or a co-op.

These examples will often entail more than increased authority over partaking in some decision making process. Enfranchisement will also usually grant access to some communally owned things and facilities. There might be a shared garden, parking, pool, storage, kitchens, bathrooms, fitness rooms, recreational facilities, cleaning facilities, party/convention rooms, workshops, internet access, etc. These are all examples of potential ‘commons’ that one can be enfranchised into, meaning that the franchise is not just limited to government or decision making, but anything that is a ‘common’, i.e. communally owned.

This expands the possibilities of what can be enfranchised into: The workplace being a classic example of a lot of commons utilized and layered on top of one another. While some resources and areas might be delegated to you personally, a lot more are shared; meeting rooms, cantina, coffee machine, databases, sharepoint folders, office utilities, sensitive business information, etc. All commons intersect and layer on each other, where some commons are only accessible to one department, others to another department; and even more importantly, the higher you climb ‘up’ the hierarchy the more commons you get access to, like being able to view and edit more sensitive data, access to areas that employees lower down the hierarchy do not have access to, more fringe benefits, and so on.

With the manifold nature of commons ascertained, let us look into the criteria that through which the franchise is earned. Returning to the example of the work place, the first step towards enfranchisement typically starts with going through an interview process, whereafter a contract is signed that states expectations, responsibilities, and limits/restrictions, of both parties as well as what happens if one party does not uphold them. For an entry level position, the mutual expectations, responsibilities, and limits/restrictions may be rather low compared to a position further up the hierarchy, however your access to commons will similarly reflect that. A vertical movement through the hierarchy increase the commons accessible to you, as mentioned earlier, however it will also in turn increase the magnitude of the expectations, responsibilities, and limits/restrictions of both parties, as well as the magnitude of what happens if either party fail to meet them. A horizontal movement within the hierarchy will change all these elements, though the magnitude will stay roughly the same.

When joining a home-owners association, gated community, or private neighbourhood you might also go through some kind of interview process, but even if you do not, the way to become enfranchised into them is first and foremost through buying a property there. Getting enfranchised here occurs primarily through a monetary transaction, however there might be contractual obligations here as well; these could be paying toward a collective fund that goes to the upkeep or investment in the commons, or as is often the case in these communities: Making the front of your property look a nice as possible in order to keep the property value of the neighbourhood as high as conceivable (the property value of the neighbourhood itself being a common). There could be numerous other obligations like not making noise past a certain time at night, not making fires, not littering, as well as more common behavioural expectations like not stealing from each other, not destroying each others personal or communal property, etc.

It is probable that the same would be the case in a rented apartment or co-op, though a co-op may have a more complex inauguration process to see if you ‘fit in’ well enough to earn the franchise. However for a dormitory at a college campus there is a notable requirement for being eligible for the franchise: Admittance to a college.

The requirements and criteria for gaining franchise into a common can be manifold, however one important characteristic underlying all of them is that they have you demonstrate some sort of commitment in exchange for access to the particular commons. There are two extreme examples that showcase this clearly: Fraternities/Sororities and cartels. In the case of fraternities/sororities, you will often have to go through some crazy inaugatory “hazing” rituals in order to be enfranchised, which in turn ensures that the members are close and tight-knit.

This is even more on display in the case of cartels, as the members often have to do something illegal to be admitted in, often having to murder people or even eat the hearts of rival gang members as an inaugatory ritual, as well as many getting gang tattoos on their body. This is to instill loyalty to the cartel and deter anyone from defecting, as they would themselves be implicated if they went to the police or wanted to join a different gang or cartel, as well as making it difficult to merely return to a normal life and become a lawful citizen.

The way to generate commitment in the members of the common is by making them invested in it, where investment is achieved from having them sacrifice something in order to earn the franchise. In the case of home owners association, gated community, and private neighbourhood, (loaned) money is primarily what is sacrificed to gain entrance, as well as the specific limitations on behaviour arranged. In the case of the job, you sacrifice a third of your life in order to earn that franchise, and in the case of the cartel gang you sacrifice your criminal record, normal life and opportunities, your skin, and plausibly your friends and family. It is important to note that this commitment through sacrifice also has the effect of aligning incentives, where the cartel gang is a strong example of aligning incentives in such a way that members uphold the expectations, responsibilities, and limits/restrictions, without shirking, social loafing, or defecting.

So what does it entail to be enfranchised? It entails that you have some form of obligations and responsibilities that either maintains or improves upon the common, in return for gaining the output, productivity, or positive externalities the common has to offer, which I will altogether call ‘privilege’. For example, the productivity you gain from a communal bicycle workshop is that you do not have to invest in one yourself, but to uphold the productivity of this common, it also obligates you respect it by not stealing from it, take care not to break or destroy anything, or repurchase if something does break, and additionally to enforce these social norms when other members are breaking them.

What commons ultimately ‘do’ is reduce the costs of engaging in a specific activity, i.e. its transaction costs. Which is similar to how network theoretician Walter W. Powell (1990) in his article Neither Market nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization formulates why companies are created over market relations: Companies are themselves commons that engages in certain activities, which reduce the costs of operation compared to a market based approach to the same activities. The above example of a communal bicycle workshop reduces the cost of repairing bicycles; a fitness center reduces the cost of engaging in fitness as you do not need to buy the equipment yourself; public parks reduce the costs even further for those who only wish to jog or practice yoga; property norms reduce the costs of holding property as you do not have to territorially defend it. The reduction of some form of transaction costs is ultimately the privilege you enjoy from enfranchisement into a common.

Therefore I would say suggest that distilled down, enfranchisement entails responsibility and privilege, which is similar to the Roman notion of ‘Libertas’. This simultaneously answers the ‘why’ of some people getting the franchise and others not: You earn the franchise if you have demonstrated ability and commitment to uphold the responsibilities that are needed for the continued existence of the common.

With the manifold commons of our every day life, there is a great deal of differential selection as to who is eligible to earn the franchise and those who remain afranchised. In the case of participation within government affairs under mass democracy; minors, the disabled, and prisoners are deemed to be incapable of upholding these responsibilities and enjoy the privilege that come from them (having directly demonstrated non-commitment to upholding the responsibilities required). As for foreigners/non-citizens, they have not grown up or lived in the societal context enough that they are deemed to even know what responsibilities they have to uphold to earn the franchise. They must demonstrate that they both know their responsibilities, and that they are able and willing to uphold them in order to earn the franchise, in theory.

Here I would like to put a spotlight on two groups in particular: minors and foreigners. In the case of minors, they generally earn the franchise just by turning 18, whereby it is assumed that they are committed to take on the responsibilities and enjoy the privileges of partaking in the common that is the government. There is typically no sacrifice that has to be made, which is particularly true if your parents had already earned the franchise, but that often might not even be necessary as long as you were born on the land. So the question is, why do we assume that it is sufficient to merely turn 18? Because at that age we assume mental maturity? What about those who are equally as mentally mature as the average 18 year old at a younger age? Or those who are less mature than the average 18 year old at age 22? These rule-of-thumb or heuristic based approaches are just one dimension of the problem I am trying to get at.

But let us first take a look at the other example; the foreigner, being an especially contentious category in recent years. While not being eligible for participation within government, foreigners are still allowed to enter most countries and are allowed to enjoy most of the commons that enfranchised citizens are; barring few limits and obstructions such as tourist or work visas. The problems I outlined earlier with this category (why a foreigner is not enfranchised into the government), can also apply to the other commons of society people are enfranchised into by their mere presence: Public utilities, public areas, public monuments and buildings, the internal market, etc.. Foreigners first of all may not know what the responsibilities and social norms are, and secondly might have little to no investment in them, which means that there is a lot less incentive to not create negative externalities upon, or ‘privatize’, the commons.

So what are the problems that this creates exactly? Well, imagine someone brings friends, or “foreigners”, to your communal workshop. They do not live there, so the future productivity they expect to get out of it is low or non-existant, meaning that the only way they can profit from the common would be to ‘privatize’ it, i.e. steal or prey on it by other means. And this is one of the mismatches we see with regards to the commons today under mass democracy, where proper sacrifice are not made and incentives are not sufficiently aligned, slowly dissolving the commons and destroying their productivity (transaction costs increase). This phenomenon is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons‘, and rigorous enforcement of social norms is needed to avoid it.

The real world examples of this are plentiful: Foreigners buying up properties in Australia (which drives up housing prices and makes it difficult for young Australians to find an affordable place to live), tourists defacing temples and creating negative externalities, or foreign companies exploiting natural resources. Moreover, mistreatments of the commons are not just confined to local instances: Climate change, ocean pollution, and space debris are all examples of shared commons on a global level, that there is little incentive to avoid shielding from negative externalities. These commons are shared between so many polities, and the investments one makes into maintaining them are enjoyed equally, even by those who do not invest in them (including those who deprive them).

Foreigners are a topical group, and rightly so given their non-compliance and following deprivation being very apparent. However as I alluded to in the beginning, government enfranchisement of various groups inside a country has historically also been a controversial topic. At first landed men gained the franchise in the fledgling democracies, where the fact that you needed to own land meant that you had some form of investment into the society, creating strong incentives to partake in government for the future well-being of your country. Then the franchise was extended to all men above a certain age, diluting the needed investment to merely having served in the military, and then it was extended to women too, further diluting the investment since they did not even have to go through military service. And now there are talks of extending the right to vote to prisoners as well, further diluting the investment to those who do not even conform to basic social norms.

The question of rights is a topic that is covered at length by authors like Chris Bond or Adam Katz, so I am not going to dive into that. However, the increasing mismatch between sacrifice, investment, and commitment to the responsibilities (which need to be upheld for the common to continue to be productive), and the incentives that follow, I would argue, is what leads to the notion of the ‘uninformed voter’: Someone who votes on something without really understanding what is being voted on. The reason for this phenomenon is not merely of them being ‘dumb’, but rather them being uninvested in what is being voted on, which means that they are likely just voting along party lines, or general propaganda that resonates with them.

The issue here is twofold: There are the people who have been enfranchised without proper commitment who do want to partake in the common (The Unable), and there are people who have been enfranchised without proper commitment despite being uninterested in partaking in the common (The Uninterested). These two mismatches within enfranchisement cause their own unique problems: In the case of the former, the lack of sacrifice and demonstrated ability means that they gain the privilege of the common, but may not be able to uphold the responsibilities needed to maintain the common, or they may have more malicious intent in that they seek to prey on the common and privatize its productivity for themselves. In the case of the latter, they are unwilling to even begin taking on the responsibilities needed to maintain the common. This is usually not such a big problem because they are not using it in the first place. However, if they are forced to, for example, pay for upkeep of something they do not wish to use, they might be more inclined to prey on the common to gain something back.

Importantly in the case of governance, uninterestedness means that people are not informing themselves, looking into the issues relevant to the commons, or even possessing a stake in the issues. In terms of mass democracy, those uninterested may be used as a means to force policies through that are not popular with the informed members (those who have a stake in it, i.e. those it concerns), as they are only exposed to propaganda surrounding the issue and vote based on that. To put it into a larger perspective; increasing the pool of voters, and pooling them all together, allows for the possibility for democratic forcing of ‘unpopular’ policies through merely using propaganda on these enfranchised Uninterested. It is implausible that all voters will have an interest in something, which means that there will always be this block of uninterested voters for the government to draw from if the Interested (and therefore informed) voters present an obstacle to passing the policy.

You can imagine how much someone in Maryland is going to inform himself if he has to vote for something in Arizona, say the erection of a new wind farm, where he is most likely just going to vote for what the propaganda tells him (“save the environment”). This is irrespective of any concerns locals (with a stake in it) to the area have, with regard to the wind farm; like noise pollution, or maybe they have to be moved, or maybe it destroys beautiful natural scenery, and so on.

I have no illusions about these problems being fixed or addressed under mass democracy, so the solution I will present in my next post is meant for a future Postliberal society.

Two real world examples of layered commons

If you are completely comfortable with what I have presented so far you do not need to read this section. However, if you do want to see what some real world examples of what commons and enfranchisement look like, I will provide two cases:

1. Freetown Christiania

Christiania is a small autonomous commune within the Danish capital of Copenhagen. It is generally open to the public, meaning that technically everyone has the franchise to just be there. I went on a field trip and photographed how they manage the various commons there.

At the entrance you are currently greeted by a sign cautioning against the coronavirus:

Corona. Show consideration. Keep distance.

After going inside we are greeted by a sign on top that implicitly urges us to buy there to preserve the Christiania:

The “preserve Christiania” shop

The familiar sign of a restaurant that urges us not to smoke:

The first sign of differentiation in enfranchisement comes when we pass by some public toilets:

Private area. Only access with permission

We also passed some wood just lying in the bushes with a sign beside it saying that the wood belonged to a particular group:

Hands off! The Gartner Group’s material depot

Just walking around Christiania you will get a sense that all the areas that are not dedicated to something specifically just have a lot of litter lying about:

However it is also evident that there are some strong social norms at play that people can just leave stuff lying outside their property without it being stolen, even as a place where foreigners visit:

Stacks of tiles lying on the street outside a house

Outside a larger building complex we encountered commons which you earn the franchise by being a resident of the building:

Bicycle parking reserved for residents

An area designated just for children:

Apparently people tend to bike too fast here… Or they just want you to slow down from the buzz of city living:

Urging us to close the gate to one of the residential areas properly:

Close the gate

When it comes to actually throwing waste out they are very conscious of proper separation:

Individual containers for food, metal, electronic, plastic, etc. waste

Walking around the residential areas of Christiania you will find a lot of noticeboards with things plastered onto them, but what is especially striking is that you will always find something about residential meetings and an agenda for what needs to be discussed. It is reasonable to infer that you can only attend and have a say in meetings, which concern a specific designated area, if you live there, and is therefore another example of differentiated enfranchisement, where the differentation also confers some form of exclusivity between one common and another:

Communal meeting. Agenda: 1. Found weapons and hard drugs in Kim’s apartment. 2. Consequences for Kim. 3. Common decision. 4. etc.
Violence communal meeting. Agenda: 1. Orientation about three episodes of violence. 2. Decisions about each case. 3. etc.
Communal meeting about good structure
Calling in for extraordinary area meeting. The Opera seeks support for their yearly flee market
Area meeting. Orientation about the vision group concerning the entrances

You will also find signs like these here and there:

One way they have found to preserve the commune from the injunction of the Danish government has been through being recognized by UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

Another way is from visitors buying “people’s shares” to raise funds:

To insure and preserve the general well functioning of the commune (all the commons) they also have a common law. And this is an interesting example, as the common law was only meant to have three laws: No weapons, no hard drugs, no violence. However as the picture below shows, they have had to add six more. Looking at them, some are oddly specific, which clearly illustrates law as the codified moral history of a group:

Christiania’s common law

Saving the best for last, there is one infamous area of Christiania that we cannot overlook: Pusher Street. You cannot take pictures there so I had to get some from the internet, which is the key aspect to it: You are not allowed to take pictures. This is where the sale of drugs (specifically cannabis) take place, and as a common to continue functioning as such it is absolutely vital no one takes pictures, so as to not accidentally (or on purpose) catch anyone selling drugs. Breaking this unwritten rule conjures swift retribution, where you will be beaten up if anyone catches you taking photos, which is how this social norm is enforced. Furthermore, you are not allowed to run as this may induce a panic.

Pusher Street
christiania calderon-3
Entrance to Pusher Street, also called the ‘Green Light District’

It is also important to note that Christiania is a small commune entirely encircled by Denmark, meaning that Christiania also benefits from the general (enforcement of) social norms of Denmark (even though they might not always see it as a benefit).

2. The Postliberal discord server

Internet communities can also have these layered commons with differentiated enfranchisement. Here I will use the Postliberal discord server as a case example.

The first form of enfranchisement comes in the form of just joining the server, where you will be sent to the introductory channel. You cannot see the rest of the server, other than the server rules, and the only thing you can do here is write your introduction, which we guide by posing a set of questions.

The introductory channel
Guiding set of questions for your introduction

If your application is accepted, you gain the ‘initiate’ role in which one will gain access to a much wider range of channels, each with their own purpose and requirements, and here you are to demonstrate that you can at bare minimum maintain the common. However you will still be restricted from the ‘member only’ channels.

Common channels and member channels

To gain access to the member-only channels, you will need to demonstrate effort to engage with the materials, i.e. you are willing to even improve the commons with your participation. The member-only channels are quite serious, so it is the responsibility of the members to keep it that way.

If you become a trusted member, you might be granted moderator status, where you will not only gain access to the staff channels, you also get the power to moderate the voice channels, pin comments, and change the roles of other users, which is a way to further improve upon the commons.

Staff channels

And lastly, if you become a long-time valuable member of the community, you may be rewarded with the ‘executive member’ role, where you have extensive powers like kicking and banning users, as well as creating and changing channel-, role-, and server settings. These have a high responsibility in shaping the community and make sure that the various commons are maintained and improved upon.

Written by SamgyeopsalChonsa, edited by Uberover


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