The illusion of the digital commons: ‘False consciousness’ in online alternative economies

Marinus Ossewaarde, Wessel Reijers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

44 Citations (Scopus)
128 Downloads (Pure)


Digital commons such as Wikipedia, open-source software, and hospitality exchanges are frequently seen as forms of resistance to capitalist modes of production and consumption, as elements of alternative economies. In this article, however, we argue that the digital commons cannot by themselves constitute genuine forms of resistance for they are vulnerable to what we call ‘the illusion of the digital commons’, which leads to a form of ‘false consciousness’ that Sloterdijk designates as deep-rooted cynicism. This cynicism, we argue, ties in with the contemporary discontent with practices in the ‘sharing economy’, in which we pay particular attention to the practice of hospitality exchange on platforms such as BeWelcome, Couchsurfing, and Airbnb. We utilize Georg Simmel’s theory of money to explicate how exchange relations are mediated by technologically enabled explicit and implicit price mechanisms. Accordingly, we argue that the technologically mediated practice of digital commoning can constitute the ‘illusion of the commons’, an apparent form of commoning through digital exchanges that is inherently vulnerable to foster non-emancipatory practices. We argue that this results in a form of cynicism: of commoners that are disillusioned by ‘the power of things’. Only a ‘politics of the digital commons’, a democratic governance that keeps a check on the vulnerability of digital exchanges, and a free relation to technologies can help in avoiding the illusion of the digital commons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)609-628
Number of pages20
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


  • Alternative economies
  • Capitalism
  • Cynicism
  • Digital commons
  • False consciousness
  • Post-capitalism
  • 2023 OA procedure


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