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Democratic theory and the commons : conceptualizing the relationship between deliberation, publics, and the internet McKay, Spencer


I aim to achieve two complementary goals in this paper. The first is to provide a corrective to the unfortunate tendency to insist that the internet’s natural form is a public that underwrites democracy. Rather, the structure of the internet is contingent and any publicness should be understood as enabled by its structural features as a commons. The second goal is a step towards addressing the relative dearth of explicit theorizing about the commons in political science. I adopt a critical approach to understanding technology to make clear that the internet may transform persons and institutions in ways that support democratic properties, but there is a need to challenge common assumptions that any democratic effects of the internet are inherent or directly caused. Many theories of online politics miss the fact that the internet’s structural features suggest that it is better understood as a commons — that is, vulnerable to enclosure and spoilage — than as a public or a democracy. The technological developments of the internet upset the traditional allocative roles of states and markets in reference to physical goods, intangible goods, and the means of production. The internet enables an increase in the scope and scale of the commons paradigm such that the problem of democracy online seems not to be one of too much participation, but too little. I argue that a commons only exists as such as a result of self-management practices and that these practices are only self-management inasmuch as they are democratic. Self-management requires that participants reflect and deliberate, consider others, and enhances the capacities of actors to exercise their autonomy. Furthermore, I clarify that commons and associations are necessary preconditions for the emergence of publics and thus the potential for deliberative democracy. So, democracy requires publics, which require common goods, which require commons self-management; that is, democracy and commons self-management are together always intertwined and democracy itself is an intangible commons.

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