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The commons has been my passion for the past fifteen years. This shift in my energies came about as I became disillusioned in the mid-1990s with the liberal imaginary as a credible vehicle for change and as I recognized the powerful surge of commons-based alternatives on the periphery of mainstream politics and culture. I’d like to introduce the commons paradigm as a very old—and yet very new, recently rediscovered—paradigm of governance and resource-management. I will attempt to explain the great appeal of the commons on many levels—political, public policy, culture, social, personal, even spiritual—and to describe the scope of the worldwide ‘movement,’ if that’s the right term, for expanding the social practices and discourse of the commons.
Let me just say upfront that the commons is neither a totalizing political ideology nor a PR re-branding of ‘the public interest.’ It is a general template of governance that has deep roots in human history as a system of self-provisioning, responsible resource management and mutual support. But this states the issue too coldly, too analytically. The commons is at heart an ethic—a way of being human that goes beyond homo economicus, the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing ideal of a human being that economists and politicians say we are. The commons presumes that humans are more complex and that a richer set of human behaviors can be designed into our institutions. The commons asserts that there is an important role for self-organized governance that both challenges and complements formal government.
In its more general sense, the commons is about stewardship of the things that we own in common as human beings. It’s about ensuring that we protect them and pass them on, undiminished, to future generations. That includes everything from inherited knowledge and culture; the integrity of natural ecosystems, public spaces and community traditions; subsistence commons of forests, fisheries and farming; and countless other shared resources that we morally or legally own. The strangest thing is that these forms of provisioning are essentially invisible because they exist outside of both the State and the Market. In general, they are not seen as valuable—when they are recognized at all—because most commons have little to do with private property rights, markets or geo-political power. Even though subsistence commons meet the everyday needs of an estimated two billion people in the world, two of the most popular economics textbooks in the US (by Samuelson and Nordhaus and by Stiglitz and Walsh) entirely ignore the commons as a viable, attractive provisioning model. (Subsistence, I should add, is not about mere survival, but about meeting household needs as opposed to maximizing market exchange.) Given its invisibility, commons worldwide are being overwhelmed and destroyed by market forces today, with often-disastrous results. The challenge for us, I believe, is to see the commons—and to find new ways to support and protect it.
For most people, any mention of the word ‘commons’ immediately brings to mind the word ‘tragedy.’ End of discussion. If you listen to most economists, the commons is always said to result in a tragedy. The classic example is a shared pasture upon which many herders can graze their cattle. No single herder will have a rational incentive to hold back, and so he will put as many cattle on the commons as possible, taking as much as he can for himself. The pasture will inevitably be over-exploited and ruined: a ‘tragedy.’ This dogma has held sway in the popular mind and among economists since 1968 when biologist Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It was a politically convenient parable because it implied that a regime of private property rights and markets is needed to solve the tendency of people to over-exploit resources. If people had private ownership rights, so the thinking went, they would be motivated to protect their grazing lands. But Hardin was not, in fact, describing a commons. He was describing a scenario in which there are no boundaries to the grazing land, no rules for managing it and no community of users. But that’s not a commons. That’s an open-access regime, a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, rules, monitoring of usage, punishment of free riders and social norms.
A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a steward of a resource. Hardin’s misrepresentation of the commons stuck in the public mind, however, and became an article of conventional wisdom. For the past two generations, the commons has been widely regarded as a failed paradigm of governance. Hovering in the background also was Thomas Hobbes’ conviction that only the Leviathan, the powerful state, can prevent us from degenerating into a law of the jungle that is nasty, brutish and short.
Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University, who passed away several months ago, was the most prominent academic to rescue the commons and rebut Hardin. It took years of painstaking field research and innovative theorizing, but in her path-breaking 1990 book Governing the Commons, Ostrom identified some basic design principles of successful commons. Over the past several decades, she and many colleagues have shown in hundreds of empirical studies that people can and do successfully manage their land and water and forests and fisheries as commons. Some commons have flourished for hundreds of years, such as the Swiss villagers who manage high mountain meadows and the huerta irrigation institutions in Spain. Ostrom’s great achievement was to explain how cooperation can actually manage resources sustainably— and often more effectively than the State or Market. Her ideas have forced mainstream economics to reexamine its premises while working within its master narrative by brilliantly blending political science, sociology, anthropology, economics and other social sciences. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for this work, making her the first woman to win the Prize. The commons scholarship developed by Ostrom and a worldwide group of academics has historically shown little interest in applying its ideas to the political economy. But a global movement of commons activists has shown no such reluctance to take on this very big challenge. Over the past ten years or so, a fledgling commons movement—working alongside commons scholars, but entirely independently of them—has developed a discourse of the commons as a new/old political philosophy and policy agenda.
Whether they realize it or not, commoners are part of a different way of knowing and acting in the world. Commoning, the social practices of commoners, embodies a very different worldview, a different way of being and of knowing than those presumed by the modern liberal polity. This is a source of great promise and tension, as I hope to show.
Perhaps I should start by emphasizing that a commons is not a resource in itself. It’s a resource plus a social community and the social values, rules and norms that they use to manage the resource. They’re all an integrated package. You could call it a socioeconomic- biophysical package—sort of like a fish and a pond and aquatic vegetation. They all go together and don’t make sense as isolated elements. They arguably can’t survive as isolated elements because they are organically interdependent. That may be why conventional economics has so much trouble understanding the commons. It doesn’t understand how the community, rather than the individual, can be the framing term of reference. The commons looks at the whole and regards the individual and the collective as nested within each other and interpenetrating each other. This is a very different metaphysics than that of the modern liberal state, which sees the individual as sovereign.
The commons also asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life—public vs. private, individual vs. collective, objective vs. subjective—and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form. ‘Cooperative individualism’ is one shorthand that I like to use. But that term doesn’t really convey the emotional, psychic dimensions of the commons, which at bottom are a personal experience and identity.
Commoners love and need their resources, or at least depend upon them—and so they have keen motivations to act as conscientious stewards and defenders of them. Commoners have emotional, subjective relationships with the resources they manage and use and with their fellow commoners. They develop rituals and customs that are part of their culture of stewardship. This may be why the commons is such a subversive metaphysics: It asks us to entertain a richer definition of value than that of the market. It asks us to entertain a larger conception of the economy than Gross Domestic Product. It asks that we commit to certain forms of value that go beyond the market and prices. Economics, as traditionally understood, is focused on creating wealth and eliminating scarcity. But it is really concerned only with a certain type of wealth—wealth that has a price attached to it and that can be traded in the marketplace. This kind of wealth is usually encased in private property rights and exchanged through market transactions. The more market transactions there are, the greater the ‘wealth’ that is supposedly created and the happier we supposedly are. The only problem with this standard economic narrative is that it doesn’t have much to say about the great stores of value that don’t have price tags. How much is the Earth’s atmosphere worth? What about the human genome? Fresh water supplies? Our inheritance of scientific knowledge and culture? Parks and open spaces? The Internet? Our relationships with nature and with each other?
“The great unacknowledged scandal of our time is the large-scale privatization and abuse of dozens of resources that we collectively own.”
A lot of this traces back to philosopher John Locke, who argued that the things that lie outside of a system of private property rights and commerce are best known as res nullius. Nullities. These things are free for the taking because no one has any recognized property rights in them and there is no price for them. All you have to do is ‘add your own labor’ and you’re entitled to own them. That’s basically the philosophical justification that conquerors and colonizers used in Locke’s time to claim ownership of native lands. The lands were unowned, after all, and the natives didn’t have any formal private property rights in them. Therefore, they were free for the taking!
In our time, this same justification is used to claim ownership of ethno-botanical knowledge in the global South, and to assert patents on genes and life forms and synthetic nano-matter. The same logic is used to develop wilderness areas and claim property rights in words, colors and smells via trademark law. One need only arrest property rights in something that is ‘un-owned.’ John Locke’s property theories are of a piece with Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. They both assume that value can only be present if there are private property rights and markets. This provides ample justification for outright plunder. My colleague Silke Helfrich pointed me to a wonderful poem by Goethe called “Catechism.”
Teacher: Bethink, thee, child!
Where do those gifts come from?
Something from yourself alone cannot come.
Child: Oh! Everything is from Papa.
Teacher: And he, where does he have them from?
Child: From Grandpapa.
Teacher: Not so! How to your Grandpapa did they befall?
Child: He took them all.
This brings me to what I call the tragedy of the market, often known as market enclosure. Over the course of several centuries, but especially in the 19th century, the English aristocracy colluded with Parliament to privatize the village commons of England. The commons was essentially dismantled. Enclosure was a way for the landed gentry to make a lot of money and consolidate their political and economic power. The great unacknowledged scandal of our time is the large-scale privatization and abuse of dozens of resources that we collectively own. Today’s enclosure movement is an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. A prime example: International investors and national governments are now buying up farmlands and forests in Africa, Asia and Latin America on a massive scale, at discount prices, in collusion with host governments. Commoners who have grown and harvested their own food for generations as a matter of custom are being thrown off their lands so that large multinational corporations and investors can take them. The basic goal is to secure a geo-political advantage, sell food to global markets or simply make a speculative killing. Can you guess what happens to the millions of people who suddenly can’t survive because their commons have been enclosed? They become the characters of a Charles Dickens novel. They are forced into cities to search for a livelihood and end up becoming beggars, shanty-dwellers and exploited wage-slaves. The news accounts of raids by Somali pirates rarely mention that many of them used to be fishermen before foreign industrial trawlers destroyed their fishing commons.
Markets have long treated nature either as a nullity or as a brute object—something that has no life in it, no dignity, no connection to the sacred. But it’s reaching some alarming points. Biotech companies and universities now own one-fifth of the human genome. The biotech company Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City claims a patent on a breast cancer susceptibility gene that guarantees it monopoly control over certain types of research. This means that the patent is actually preventing other scientists from researching genetic sources of breast cancer, lest they violate the patent.
A surging nano-technology industry is developing synthetic forms of basic matter that ‘improve upon’ nature—and then claim proprietary control over them. The ambition is to substitute privately owned, engineered forms of proprietary nano-matter that displace naturally occurring matter. This process follows a familiar pattern: Monsanto has used GMOs to displace natural seeds, Microsoft has used Windows to marginalize nearly all other operating systems, and multinational bottling companies have substituted branded, proprietary water for tap water. One of the first attempted privatizations of water supplies came in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2002 when the Bechtel Corporation and the government privatized the municipal water supply and even claimed ownership of rainwater. More recently, the billionaire T. Boone Pickens has spent more than $100 million acquiring groundwater aquifers in the Texas High Plains, which could make it very expensive for many communities there to survive as water becomes privately owned.
Nowadays, it’s not just land and oceans being enclosed. Everything can be privatized and commoditized. Mathematical algorithms can now be owned if they are embedded in software and supposedly serve a novel commercial function. McDonald’s claims a trademark in the prefix ‘Mc,’ so that you can’t name your restaurant McSushi or McVegan or your hotel McSleep. The American music licensing body ASCAP once demanded that hundreds of summer camps for boys and girls pay a blanket ‘performance license’ for singing copyrighted songs around the campfire. These are not exceptional cases, mind you. I wrote a book about them in 2005, Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. One of the biggest commons around is the Internet. It is vulnerable precisely because it is a commons. As we see in authoritarian countries such as China and Egypt and in the Obama administration’s vendetta against WikiLeaks, governments don’t necessarily want the commoners to have the freedom to communicate freely among each other. Many telecom companies would prefer to convert the Internet into a proprietary shopping mall and marginalize digital commons by doing away with net neutrality rules. Hollywood and the record industry would like to make peer production and sharing illegal by expanding the scope of copyright law and the penalties for violations of it.
I’ve barely ventured into the vast range of enclosures that are going on today, but here’s a brief sampling: the atmosphere, the oceans, genes, taxpayer-funded research, public spaces in cities, public highways and airports that are becoming private property, groundwater supplies, and much else. Market enclosure is about dispossession. It is a process by which the powerful convert a shared community resource into a market commodity, so that it can be privately owned and sold in the marketplace. Enclosure preys upon the common wealth by privatizing it, commodifying it and dispossessing the commoners of their autonomy and resources. It aggressively removes resources from their local, rooted context in order to make them fungible, marketable objects. Enclosures sweep aside the social relationships and cultural traditions and the sense of community that had previously existed. They require the imposition of extreme individualism, the conversion of citizens into consumers and greater social inequality. Money becomes the coin of social legitimacy and participation in such societies. This process is generally known as ‘development.’
Enclosures are symptoms of a deep perversity and flaw in contemporary economic theory: the inability to differentiate between growth in the volume of market activity and market activity that is socially beneficial and ecologically sustainable. GDP conflates material through-put in the Market Machine with human progress. This fallacy persists for two reasons. First, GDP doesn’t measure our non-market common wealth—the stuff that is ‘off the books’ and belongs to all of us, which is supposedly ‘free for the taking.’ Second, GDP never takes into account the incredible amounts of illth that the economy creates. ‘Illth’ is a term that John Ruskin coined to describe the opposite of wealth. (Let me salute Peter Barnes for bringing this term to my attention.) Illth is the trash and pollution and disease and injuries and disruptions that the economy inflicts upon the commons. Illth is the over-financialization of the future, which robs people of living in the present by converting them into debt zombies. Economists have a nicer term for illth—they call it a ‘market externality.’
The basic problem is that the economy takes from the commons in the form of free or discounted access to our shared resources. Then, whatever can’t be turned into private profit is dumped back into the commons as illth. Politicians and economists love to crow about how much private wealth is being created, but they systematically ignore how much public illth is being created in the process. They count only market wealth. The accounting system is rigged. So we end up with the perverse situation in which we need to create ever-rising amounts of illth just to create more wealth. And we are told that we can never solve our problems— healthcare, education, social justice, the environment—unless we create more wealth. Call it the Red Queen’s Madness. As the Red Queen told Alice in the book Alice in Wonderland, she had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place. The Red Queen’s Madness is now the very basis for our global economy. We need to keep extracting more and more finite natural resources faster and faster just to maintain the same standard of living, while creating ever-increasing amounts of illth that no one wants to confront. Global warming is the logical result of this mentality.
Of course, national governments always aspire to set limits and corporations are always pledging to ‘go green.’ But let’s be serious: History has shown that neither the Market nor the State has been very successful at setting strong limits on market activity. The simple truth is, both have strong reasons not to. Growth is what fuels the economy and growth is what props up national treasuries. Growth is perceived as a mythological imperative for ‘progress.’ Setting limits on markets is avoided because it is likely to diminish profits and tax revenues, and force a reckoning with issues of distribution and inequality that elites would rather avoid.
Note. From remarks made at the American Academy, Berlin, December 4, 2012.
I am an independent policy strategist, journalist, activist and consultant with an evolving public-interest portfolio. My work tends to focus on a few key concerns: reclaiming the commons, understanding how digital technologies are changing democratic culture, fighting the excesses of intellectual property law, fortifying consumer rights and promoting citizen action.
Fall | Winter 2016