The Paradox of the State and the Commons

A conversation with Sébastien Shulz
July 13, 2022

For our last Open Future Session this season, we invited Sébastien Shulz. He is a French sociologist studying the digital commons, co-founder of the Collectif pour une société des Communs, the Collective for a Commons Society, and coordinator of the working group on politics of the digital commons at CNRS

Sébastien has been working on the role that public bodies can play in supporting the digital commons. It is an issue close to our interest in building the Digital Public Space, which depends on the strong engagement of public actors. But Sébastien immediately pointed out that it is also a certain paradox – as many actors in the digital commons movement have been critical of state intervention in the commons. Sébastien devoted his Ph.D. research to this issue and has been tracking how, since around 2008, “bureaucratic entrepreneurs” all over the world – in Ecuador, Spain, France and the United States – have been looking for ways in which the digital commons can transform the state. 

There are two ways in which these bureaucrats within public bodies have been developing policies in support of the digital commons. On the one hand, they aimed to establish laws and policies that support and protect the digital commons. And secondly, they were looking for ways in which commons-based approaches can have a transformative effect on the bureaucracy itself. In the first approach, the state partners with the commons. In the second, the commons transforms the state from the inside. 

Sébastien has also studied how these goals can be hindered and realized that this is largely due to different approaches and perspectives of digital commons advocates, and of the officials working in public institutions. Firstly, activists supporting the digital commons are afraid of “commons washing”: of policies that nominally support the commons but in reality have few positive effects and water down the idea of the commons. Secondly, there is a tradition of thinking about the commons as purely a grassroots, bottom-up effort. This also can create mistrust in public policies. Thirdly, there is a lack of policy proposals that are relevant and precise. Finally, there is a lack of political imagination, visions and ideas that can help mobilize actors around the political project of the digital commons. 

To address these issues, the Collectif pour une société des Communs was founded. The goal of the initiative is to address political actors in a structured and organized way, so that a network of supporters of the digital commons can be built both outside and within public institutions. And to fill, at the same time, the gap in the political imagination and public debate on the commons. Secondly, the collective aims to fill the deficit in public policies that are pro-commons, by supporting existing proposals and formulating new ones. And thirdly, it sees itself as a watchdog that defends the commons against “commons washing”.  

The collective has until now published three policy booklets, with proposals for pro-commons policies. These focus, in turn, on the commons and entrepreneurship, the digital commons and sovereignty, and the commons and the transformation of the public services.

In the booklet on digital commons and sovereignty, the collective proposes a broad range of policies that support the commons in different ways. On the one hand, they propose that an investment program is launched and managed by a self-governed Foundation at the European level, to structure digital industries around open innovation and interoperable ecosystems, and to support the development of open source software and cooperative platforms. (These ideas have recently been adopted by the French government, as it proposes a European Initiative on the Digital Commons). On the other hand, they imagine direct engagement of the public sector in the digital commons – for example by having employees of public bodies directly contribute to the digital commons. Sébastien gave the example of the French Gendarmerie, which uses Open Street Map. New policies could help establish institutional partnerships that would support the development of the commons-based mapping service. But just as relevant would be policies that encourage members of the Gendarmerie to contribute to the development of the maps, as part of their work obligations. Finally, public procurement rules could be adapted so that public bodies become users, and therefore financial supporters of the digital commons. 

For the session, we were also joined by Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, director of Centre Internet et Societe at CNRS and a long-time advocate for the digital commons. Mélanie highlighted the genealogy of the French approach to the digital commons, starting with an attempt, in 2015, to introduce a positive definition of the digital commons into the French law on the digital republic. This effort was a failure, but a small victory was won by introducing Open Access licensing rules for research. Yet this turned out to be a first step and a foothold for more ambitious policies. An important role was also played by Eta Lab, a public institution responsible for managing French Open Data. Henri Verdier, head of the Eta Lab, became France’s first Digital Ambassador and the key advocate behind the current digital commons proposals. 

Mélanie’s telling of this history illustrates how support within the public administration, and cooperation between civic and state actors, can be developed over time. And it is a perspective that shows how some initiatives simply take time to develop – something that we often forget about, focused on our current activism.

Sébastien’s presentation sparked a conversation about digital commons and sovereignty – indeed, this is the key connection that is today being made by policymakers, as they argue for the role of the digital commons within Europe’s vision of digital sovereignty and open strategic autonomy. At the most basic level, digital commons initiatives can lead to the development of autonomous, European infrastructures that provide an alternative to surveillance capitalism. But sovereignty should also mean citizens’ autonomy from the surveillance state. If sovereignty means the right to choose whom we depend on, said Sébastien, then we should be more dependent on communities that are led and governed by citizens. So ultimately, the project of the digital commons leads to an understanding of digital sovereignty that is not focused on the state. Instead, the state and public bodies aim to support citizens and communities in being sovereign. And in this sense, digital commons policies have the capacity to transform the democratic process itself.