Summary highlights from Think Like a Commoner, A Short Introduction by David Bollier to the Life of the Commons
Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons by David Bollier (2014), https://www.newsociety.com/Books/T/Think-Like-a-Commoner. References below are from the kindle edition.
This summary was produced in memory of and is dedicated to Goldman prize winner Isidro Baldenegro López and others working against illegal logging and land enclosure. Isidro was a leader of the Tarahumara community in the country’s northern Sierra Madre mountain region. The western Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Mexico hosts one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, which includes four colossal canyons each bigger than the Grand Canyon, and is the ancestral land of the Tarahumara people. The forests have long been targeted by illegal loggers abetted by corrupt officials and landowners, forcing the Tarahumara into progressively smaller and more isolated areas. As a young boy, Baldenegro witnessed the assassination of his father after he took a stand against logging. But despite the serious risks, Baldenegro dedicated his life to defending the forest and the lands inhabited by his community for hundreds of years. In 1993 he founded a grassroots NGO to fight deforestation which attracted national attention. In 2002, he organised a series of blockades and marches which forced the government to temporarily suspend logging. The following year a protest headed by the wives of murdered community leaders led to a court ruling banning logging. But his efforts angered the powerful network of state officials, landowners and criminal bosses involved in logging, and in 2003 he was imprisoned for 15 months on false charges of arms and drugs possession. His illegal detention triggered widespread international condemnation from groups like Amnesty International, which eventually helped secure his release in 2004. His relatives, who reported the murder, said the killers were responsible for a spate of murders and attacks against local indigenous people opposing logging
- A commons may arise whenever a group of people decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and long-term stewardship.
- The commons, properly understood, is about the practice and ethic of sufficiency
- Capital breaks commons into their constituent parts — labor, land, capital, money
- The real tragedy precipitated by “rational” individualism is not the tragedy of the commons, but the tragedy of the market
- One of the lesser-noticed aspects of enclosures was the separation of production, (labor)and governance. In a commons, both were part of the same process, and all commoners could participate in both. After enclosures, markets took charge of production and the state took charge of governance. The terrible cost was dissolution of communities, deep economic inequality, an erosion of self-governance and a loss of social solidarity and identity
- The Market and State, once very separate realms of morality and politics, are now joined at the hip: a tight alliance with a shared vision of technological progress, corporate dominance and ever-expanding economic growth and consumption
Serious wealth can also be a community asset and the rich set of social relationships that make community possible. The Linux story is a stunning proof that the commons can be highly generative and contemporary as well as being entirely practical and effective. 283
Commoners are intent on addressing difficult practical questions such as, What’s the best way to irrigate these forty acres when water is scarce? and What’s a fair way to allocate access to a dwindling fishery in this coastal bay? Commoners are also not afraid to tackle the problem of shirkers, vandals and free riders: individuals who want benefits without corresponding responsibilities. The point is that the commons is a practical paradigm for self-governance, resource management and “living well.” Commoners can often negotiate satisfactory resolutions to meet their common purposes without getting markets or government bureaucracies involved. They struggle to figure out the best structures for managing a collective resource, the procedures for making rules and operational norms that work. They understand the need to establish effective practices to prevent over-exploitation of their forest or lake or farmland. They can negotiate fair allocations of duties and entitlements. They like to ritualize and internalize their collective habits and stewardship ethic, which over time ripen into a beautiful culture. 288
Commons certainly include physical and intangible resources of all sorts, but they are more accurately defined as paradigms that combine a distinct community with a set of social practices, values and norms that are used to manage a resource. Put another way, a commons is a resource + a community + a set of social protocols. The three are an integrated, interdependent whole. 304
The lesson from the Wolfpak and the parking commons is that local commons can provide types of management and order that government bureaucracies and formal law cannot. Boston snowplows may not reliably clear the streets of snow, and the city government’s enforcement of parking rules may be unreliable or expensive. Hawaiian authorities may not wish to hire a police officer or lifeguard to patrol Banzai Pipeline Beach (leaving a void of governance?), or such tasks may be seen as too impractical or “small” for a large bureaucracy to address. But the commoners? They often have their own deep stores of knowledge, imagination, resourcefulness and commitment. Their informal governance may in fact outperform official forms of government. In fact, as explicit negotiations among commoners become so engrained that they settle into habit, custom becomes a kind of invisible “vernacular law.” Vernacular law originates in the informal social zones of society — coffeehouses, schools, the beach, “the street” — and becomes a source of effective order and moral legitimacy in its own right. Social norms such as queuing up in a line (and punishing those who cut in line) and meal etiquette (never take the last helping) are a kind of passive commoning that most of us have internalized as “the way things are done.” They constitute an implicit mode of commoning for managing access to limited resources. 340
EACH OF THE COMMONS described above arose spontaneously, without the direction or oversight of centralized institutions or government. Each is committed to a larger collective purpose while also providing personal benefits for individuals. None is driven by a quest for money or personal fortune, at least not directly. In most commons, in fact, the market is a rather peripheral presence. Yet even without the direct involvement of markets or the state, serious production and governance occur. The beauty of the commons as a “rediscovered” paradigm is both its generality and its particularity. It embodies certain broad principles — such as democratic participation, transparency, fairness and access for personal use — but it also manifests itself in highly idiosyncratic ways. For these reasons, I like to compare the commons to DNA. Scientists will tell you that DNA is ingeniously under-specified precisely so that the code of life can adapt to local circumstances. DNA is not fixed and deterministic. It is partial and adaptable. It grows and changes. A commons is like a living organism in that it co-evolves with its environment and context. It adapts to local contingencies. A forest commons in Vermont is likely to be quite different from one in Nepal or Germany, because the local ecosystems, tree types, economies, cultural histories and much else vary. And yet commons in each of these places are nonetheless commons: stable regimes for managing shared resources in fair ways for the benefit of participating commoners. The “diversity within unity” principle that commons embody is what makes the commons paradigm so versatile and powerful — and so confusing to conventional economists and policymakers. What’s critical in creating any commons, as mentioned earlier, is that a community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone’s benefit. This is sometimes known as commoning. The great historian of the commons Peter Linebaugh has noted that “there is no commons without commoning.” It’s an important point to remember because it underscores that the commons is not only about shared resources; it’s mostly about the social practices and values that we devise to manage them. Commoning acts as a kind of moral, social and political gyroscope. It provides stability and focus. When people come together, share the same experiences and practices and accumulate a body of practical knowledge and traditions, a set of productive social circuits emerges. 351
Economists hammer home the dismal tragedy of a commons; individual freedom to own and trade private property in open markets is the only way to produce enduring personal satisfaction and social prosperity. Hardin explains the logic this way: we can overcome the tragedy of the commons through a system of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” For him, the best approach is “the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance.” He concedes that this is not a perfectly just alternative, but he asserts that Darwinian natural selection is ultimately the best available option, saying, “those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” We put up with this imperfect legal order, he adds, “because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.” 393
There is just one significant flaw in the tragedy parable. It does not accurately describe a commons. Hardin’s fictional scenario sets forth a system that has no boundaries around the pasture, no rules for managing it, no punishments for over-use and no distinct community of users. But that is not a commons. It is an open-access regime, or a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, rules, social norms and sanctions against free riders. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a conscientious steward of a resource. Hardin was confusing a commons with “no-man’s-land” — and in the process, he smeared the commons as a failed paradigm for managing resources. To be fair, Hardin was following a long line of polemicists who projected their unexamined commitments to market individualism onto the world. As we will see later, the theories of philosopher John Locke have been widely used to justify treating the New World as terra nullius — open, unowned land — even though it was populated by millions of Native Americans who managed their natural resources as beloved commons with unwritten but highly sophisticated rules. 413
Commons scholar Lewis Hyde dryly notes, “Just as Hardin proposes a herdsman whose reason is unable to encompass the common good, so Lloyd supposes persons who have no way to speak with each other or make joint decisions. Both writers inject laissez-faire individualism into an old agrarian village and then gravely announce that the commons is dead. 427 This is also the basis for a large literature of “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments that purport to show how “rational individuals” behave when confronted with “social dilemmas,” such as how to allocate a limited resource. Should the “prisoner” cooperate with other potential claimants and share the limited rewards? Or should he or she defect by grabbing as much for himself as possible? Needless to say, the complications are endless. But the basic premise of such social science experiments is rigged at the outset. Certain assumptions about the selfishness, rational calculation of individuals and lack of context (test subjects have no shared social history or culture) are embedded into the very design of the “game.” Test subjects are not allowed to communicate with each other, or develop bonds of trust and shared knowledge. They are given only limited time and opportunity to learn to cooperate. They are isolated in a lab setting for a single experiment, and have no shared history or future together. Aghast at the pretzel logic of economic researchers, Lewis Hyde puckishly suggested that the “tragedy” thesis be called, instead, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals.” The dirty little secret of many prisoner’s dilemma experiments is that they subtly presuppose a market culture of “rational” individuals. Most give little consideration to the real-life ways in which people come to cooperate and share in managing resources. That is changing now that more game theory experiments are incorporating the ideas of behavioral economics, complexity theory and evolutionary sciences into their design. 432
Paradoxically enough, the heedless quest for selfish gain — “rationally” pursued, of course, yet indifferent toward the collective good — is a better description of the conventional market economy than a commons. In the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, such a mindset propelled the wizards of Wall Street to maximize private gains without regard for the systemic risks or local impacts. The real tragedy precipitated by “rational” individualism is not the tragedy of the commons, but the tragedy of the market.
Happily, contemporary scholarship has done much to rescue the commons from the memory hole to which it has been consigned by mainstream economics. The late American political scientist Elinor (“Lin”) Ostrom of Indiana University deserves special credit for her role in expanding the frame of analysis of economic activity. In the 1970s, the economics profession plunged into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It celebrated highly abstract, quantitative models of the economy based on rational individualism, private property rights and free markets. A child of the Depression, Ostrom had always been interested in cooperative institutions working outside of markets. As a young political scientist in the 1960s, she began to question some of the core assumptions of economics, especially the idea that people are unable to cooperate in stable, sustainable ways. Sometimes working with political scientist Vincent Ostrom, her husband, she initiated a new kind of cross-disciplinary study of institutional systems that manage “common-pool resources,” or CPRs. CPRs are collective resources over which no one has private property rights or exclusive control, such as fisheries, grazing lands and groundwater. All of these resources are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation because it is difficult to stop people from using them. We might call it the “tragedy of open access.” (Hardin himself later acknowledged that he should have entitled his essay “The Tragedy of an Unmanaged Commons” — an oxymoron, but never mind.) 451
What distinguished Ostrom’s scholarship from that of so many academic economists was her painstaking empirical field-work. She visited communal landholders in Ethiopia, rubber tappers in the Amazon and fishers in the Philippines. She investigated how they negotiated cooperative schemes, and how they blended their social systems with local ecosystems. As economist Nancy Folbre of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained, “She would go and actually talk to Indonesian fishermen or Maine lobstermen, and ask, ‘How did you come to establish this limit on the fish catch? How did you deal with the fact that people might try to get around it?’” From such empirical findings, Ostrom tried to figure out what makes for a successful commons. How does a community overcome its collective-action problem?
The recurring challenge facing a group of principals in an interdependent situation, she wrote, is figuring out how to “organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically. Parallel questions have to do with the combinations of variables that will (1) increase the initial likelihood of self-organization, (2) enhance the capabilities of individuals to continue self-organized efforts over time, or (3) exceed the capacity of self-organization to solve CPR [common-pool resource] problems without eternal assistance of some form.” Ostrom’s answer was Governing the Commons, a landmark 1990 book that set forth some of the basic “design principles” of effective, durable commons. These principles have been adapted and elaborated by later scholars, but her analysis remains the default framework for evaluating natural resource commons. The focus of Ostrom’s work, and of the legions of academics who now study commons, has been how communities of resource users develop social norms — and sometimes formal legal rules — that enable them to use finite resources sustainably over the long term. Standard economics, after all, declares that we are selfish individuals whose wants are unlimited. The idea that we can depend on people’s altruism and cooperation, economists object, is naive and unrealistic. The idea that commons can set and enforce limits on usage also seems improbable because it rejects the idea of humans having unbounded appetites. Ostrom nonetheless showed how, in hundreds of instances, commoners do in fact meet their needs and interests in collective, cooperative ways. The villagers of Törbel, Switzerland, have managed their high alpine forests, meadows and irrigation waters since 1224. Spaniards have shared irrigation waters through huerta social institutions for centuries while, more recently, diverse water authorities in Los Angeles learned how to coordinate their management of scarce groundwater supplies. Many commons have flourished for hundreds of years, even in periods of drought or crisis. Their success can be traced to a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, oversight of access and usage, and effective punishments for rule-breakers.
Ostrom found that commons must have clearly defined boundaries so that commoners can know who has authorized rights to use a resource. Outsiders who do not contribute to the commons obviously have no rights to access or use the common-pool resource. She discovered that the rules for appropriating a resource must take account of local conditions and must include limits on what can be taken and how. 466
What is fascinating is the parallel development, outside of academia, of an eclectic, transnational corps of activists and project leaders who have embraced the commons as an organizing principle for their campaigns for social change. This, arguably, is what is making the commons a significant force in politics, economics and culture today. New movements of people worldwide are beginning to see how the commons paradigm describes their lives and their relationships to other people and resources. Software programmers, urban gardeners, indigenous peoples, academic researchers, permaculturists, Indian textile makers, Istanbul residents defending Gezi Park, the users of public libraries and parks, Slow Food activists: the affinity of these groups for the commons is not necessarily intellectual or scientific; it’s personal and passionate. For many commoners, the commons is not a “management system” or “governance regime”; it’s a cultural identity, a personal livelihood and a way of life. It’s a way to revive democratic practice. It’s a way to live a more satisfied life. 556
I like to think of this as a vernacular movement more than a political movement or ideological perspective. The term “vernacular” was given a special meaning by iconoclastic social critic Ivan Illich in his 1981 book Shadow Work. As a critic of the dehumanizing tendencies of institutions, Illich saw vernacular spaces as informal cultural zones where people naturally come to their own moral judgments and act out of their own sovereign humanity. The vernacular flourishes in the realm of householding and subsistence, and of family life and child rearing. It lives in the shared spaces of a community in which people assert their collective moral values and political interests, over and above those of the state, the corporation and other institutional powers. As one of Illich’s students, Trent Schroyer, put it, the vernacular realm evokes a “sensibility and rootedness . . . in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence- and communitarian-oriented communities.” The vernacular consists of “places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization.” There is a certain timelessness and mystery associated with the vernacular, and as you have probably guessed, it has a lot to do with the commons. The commons is a fragile social institution and sensibility that naturally arises from vernacular culture, as if driven by a life force. It invariably tries to assert and maintain itself in the face of powerful institutions that have other priorities and interests. Sometimes commoners succeed in negotiating a rapprochement with those institutions, and carve out a protected zone for commoning. Urban gardens in New York City had to struggle to maintain themselves in the face of development pressures, for example. Coastal fishery commons must often struggle against large-scale industrial trawlers who swoop through their waters extracting fish for global markets rather than local consumption. Digital commoners must contend with copyright laws and corporate demagoguery that equate sharing with criminal activity (“piracy”).
History has shown that the forces of market enclosure are cruel and relentless in deconstructing and destroying commons; they don’t like the competition. A successful commons is a “bad example” because it bears witness to better practical alternatives. Sharing is also objectionable because it is an affront to the ideology of private property rights (with the exception of tech companies like Google and Facebook, whose business model relies upon monetizing social sharing). For their part, governments and bureaucracies are often wary of the commons as an independent, potentially threatening power base, preferring the certainties and rewards of market-based allies. Governments generally prefer to manage resources through strict standardized systems of control. To them, commoning appears to be altogether too informal, irregular and unreliable — even if the actual successes of commons refute that prejudice. 575
This process is often called the enclosure of the commons. It’s a process by which corporations pluck valuable resources from their natural contexts, often with government support and sanction, and declare that they be valued through market prices. The point is to convert resources that are shared and used by many to ones that are privately owned and controlled, and treat them as tradeable commodities. To talk about enclosure is to open up a conversation that standard economics rarely entertains — the dispossession of commoners as market forces seize control of common resources, often with the active collusion of government. The familiar debate of “privatization versus government ownership” does not really do justice to this process because government ownership, the supposed antidote to privatization, is not really a solution. In many instances, the state is only too eager to conspire with industries to seize control of common resources for “private” (i.e., corporate) exploitation. Regulation is too often a charade that does more to legalize than eradicate market abuses.
To talk about enclosure, then, is a way to point to the commons and reframe the discussion. The language of enclosure makes visible the antisocial, anti-environmental effects of “free markets” and validates commoning as an appropriate, often-effective alternative. A few years ago, I learned of a contemporary enclosure that eerily replicated the medieval pattern of land enclosure. For more than a century, the village of Camberwell, in the fertile Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, Australia, had used part of an open flood plain around Glennies Creek as a commons. It was a place for residents to keep their horses and dairy cows, and to let their children fish, swim and ride horses. In April 2005, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, “a pair of officers from the Department of Lands arrived, called together members of the [Camberwell] Common Trust, and told them the Crown land would be immediately resumed and turned over to the Ashton mine that looms over the Upper Hunter village in the form of a hollowed-out hill on the other side of the creek.” The action was just another instance of government using its authority to seize common lands for corporate purposes. The secretary of the Camberwell Common Trust told a reporter, “When we go to community meetings with the mines they are always talking about what they will do ‘when’ they get approval. They never say ‘if’ they get approval.” Both mining companies and government make out well from enclosures. The mining companies get cheap access to minerals and lax environmental oversight. The Australian government earned about $1.5 billion in royalties and fees at the time of the Camberwell enclosure. Commoners are generally not so lucky. In Camberwell, blasts from the mining hollowed out the hills around the village. Parts of the commons cracked, according to the Morning Herald. Nearly two-thirds of the village population gave up fighting the mining companies and moved elsewhere. The Camberwell experience is a classic example of state-assisted market enclosure.
In the US, the government allows mining interests to extract mineral wealth on public lands under the Mining Act of 1872. Unchanged for more than 140 years, this law lets mining companies extract gold, silver and iron ore for five dollars an acre, period. It’s been estimated that Americans have lost more than $245 billion worth of revenues over the years from this law — while ruining beautiful mountains and rivers with mine tailings and other wastes. Similar stories from around the world can be told about timber companies raping public forests, oil companies drilling in pristine wilderness areas, industrial trawlers decimating coastal fisheries and transnational water bottlers sucking groundwater dry. In Latin America, transnational corporations are working with neoliberal governments to impose aggressive “neo-extractivist” policies. As Argentinian professor Maristella Svampa explains, the idea is to build… 606
A Brief History of the English Enclosure Movement
The term “enclosure” is generally associated with the English enclosure movement, which occurred at various times in medieval history and through the nineteenth century. To put it plainly, the king, aristocracy and/or landed gentry stole the pastures, forests, wild game and water used by commoners, and declared them private property. Sometimes the enclosers seized lands with the formal sanction of Parliament, and sometimes they just took them by force. To keep commoners out, it was customary to evict them from the land and erect fences or hedges. Sheriffs and gangs of thugs made sure that no commoner would poach game from the king’s land. Enclosure was irresistible to the 1 percent of medieval England because it was an easy way to grab more wealth and power with the full sanction of the law. It could help struggling barons and upwardly mobile gentry consolidate their political power and increase their holdings of land, water and game. An anonymous protest poem from the eighteenth century put it well:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
As enclosures swept the villages of England, commoners suffered serious hardships. They depended upon the forest for their firewood and roof thatches, and on acorns to feed their pigs. They relied on shared fields to grow vegetables, and on open meadows for wild fruits and berries. An entire rural economy was based upon access to the commons. Barred from using their commons, villagers migrated to cities, where the emerging industrial revolution turned them into wage slaves, if they were lucky, and beggars and paupers if they weren’t. Charles Dickens drew upon the social disruptions and injustices of enclosures in writing Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and his other novels about London’s troubled underclass.
One important goal of the English enclosures was to transform commoners with collective interests into individual consumers and employees. Which is to say: creatures of the marketplace. The satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution needed obedient and desperate wage slaves. One of the lesser-noticed aspects of enclosures was the separation of production and governance. In a commons, both were part of the same process, and all commoners could participate in both. After enclosures, markets took charge of production and the state took charge of governance. The modern liberal state was born. And while the new order brought about vast improvements in material production, those gains came at a terrible cost: dissolution of communities, deep economic inequality, an erosion of self-governance and a loss of social solidarity and identity. Governance became a matter of government, the province of professional politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats and monied special interest lobbies. Democratic participation became mostly a matter of voting, a right limited to men (and at first, property owners).
Enclosure also isolated people from direct encounters with the natural world and marginalized social and spiritual life. During the course of a hundred and fifty years, from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s, about one-seventh of all English common land was carved up and privatized. As a result, deep inequalities took root in society and urban poverty soared. The foundations of the modern market order were being laid, and the masters of this new world had no need for the commons. The hallmarks of the new order would be individualism, private property and “free markets.” Karl Polanyi was an economic historian who… 667
David Johnson’s claim that law amounts to a “self-referential, organizational identity” that belongs to the people who make it. “If law has a life of its own,” he writes, “and in some sense causes its own form of order and persistence, we should be studying its biography rather than pretending that we can design and repair its mechanisms from the outside.” In other words, we must understand the subjective, socially internal dynamics of commons and recognize that this is where law originates.
When law is seen in this perspective — not just as a series of formal constitutions and statutes but as a self-organized system that a community creates to manage itself and its resources in orderly fair ways — it is easy to see that the commons itself is a living embodiment of law. It amounts to an evolving social contract. Individuals come together to negotiate the rules and norms that will govern their community. They specify how members may access and use shared resources. They set about making rules for managing land, water, fish and wild game, and for monitoring usage and punishing vandals and free riders. In this broader sense, the law of the commons extends into the mists of time and precedes formal written law by many millennia. 1298
Some of the most astute commentators on these problems are autonomous Marxists such as Massimo De Angelis, editor of The Commoner website; George Caffentzis, founder of the Midnight Notes Collective; Silvia Federici, an historian who concentrates on the feminist implications of the commons; Peter Linebaugh, author of The Magna Carta Manifesto and other histories of English commons; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the political theorists and authors of Multitude, Empire and Commonwealth. Each in different ways has noted that the core problem of unfettered capitalist markets is their tendency to erode the authentic social connections among people (cooperation, custom, tradition) and to liquidate the organic coherence of society and individual commons. Capital breaks commons into their constituent parts — labor, land, capital, money — and treats them as commodities whose value is identical with their price. This has caused a persistent moral and political crisis because market capitalism cannot answer the questions, What can bind people together beyond the minimal social and civic ties needed to participate in market exchanges? Can a market-based society survive without the commons? 1418
How we define property rights matters because they influence the sorts of personal and social entitlements we may enjoy, affect the kind of social relations we will have and have enormous effects on our sense of well-being (or alienation). In a much-quoted definition, the eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone described property rights as “the sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” He implied that property rights belong solely to individuals. But of course property need not be defined this way. As the cruise ship passengers showed, they could choose to exercise temporary individual “use rights” to the same resource instead of exclusive possession. (To be technical, the cruise ship owner is arguably the “owner” of the deck chairs, but the passengers possess them for limited periods of time and in this case are free to set their own rules.) Different property rights schemes have very different implications for how people’s needs are met (or not met). Such choices influence the nature of the social order and the general attitudes among people. This may be the real point of the allegory of the deck chairs — that property rights are more malleable than most people suspect; that their design can be altered; and that such choices have far-reaching effects on how we relate to each other and how we use resources. 1444
People like to think of property as a fairly self-evident category. By default they tend to see it as a private right to exercise exclusive control over physical objects such as land, cars and smartphones. A landowner typically sees his plot of land as a fixed, individual parcel of inert soil over which he may do whatever he wants. But the conceit that “property” has no social or ecological implications is a fantasy of modern life. In reality, a piece of land is a living part of a living ecosystem. Even as a commodity, its value is dependent upon the character of adjacent pieces of land and the larger ecosystem. A country home with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside alive with chirping birds and friendly neighbors is more valuable than an identical house located next to a factory and a belching smokestack. In this sense, land is really a fictional commodity, as we have seen. It may be treated as private property, and we maintain the illusion that it is truly self-contained and fungible. But it is not really a bounded unit whose fullest value can be expressed by a price, in isolation from its context. Property is a kind of social fiction — an agreed-upon system for allocating people’s rights to use a resource or exclude access to it. Individual property rights are by no means the only or best way to manage a resource. Land can be well managed as a trust on behalf of the public and future generations. It can be managed through cultural practices and traditions that treat it as a sacred gift of nature, as indigenous peoples often do. Specific and limited rights can be allocated to people in various ways, as farming collectives and conservation easements often do. 1455
The Inalienable Rights of Commoners Property rights do not arise naturally, as the great Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley noted in 1659. They are the result of conquest: “For the power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword.” 1475
The modern tendency to assert absolute individual property rights is a libertarian fantasy. One person’s property rights invariably end up affecting another person’s property rights; everyone’s freedom cannot be limitless. Indigenous peoples help us see that Western conceptions of property reflect some deep-seated cultural attitudes toward nature and social relationships. We moderns presume that humans can commoditize water, land, genes and other elements of nature as if they are inert objects that can be isolated from their natural context and owned as chattel. 1498
The problem is that dominant market-based forms of law usually privilege individual rights and ignore collective rights and needs. Law does not usually recognize the commons as an institutional form, so it can be difficult to achieve a collective purpose while working within the straitjacket of individual property rights. That’s why protecting commons from enclosures has generally required legal ingenuity, at least within the context of the modern liberal state: the commons exists within a lexical void, rendering it unnamed and inscrutable. It’s important to see 1506 the commons is not simply another variant of property. Its character is quite different.
First, the commons is less about ownership as we usually understand it than about stewardship. Ask indigenous peoples if they “own” the land and they will reply that the land owns them. To talk about ownership brings to mind the “sole and despotic dominion” over a resource that Blackstone described. A commons implies a more personal engagement with a resource and a longer-term perspective. It also implies a richer ongoing set of ethical and cultural relationships than private property normally entails. A commons is about the shared management of a resource by many — something that may or may not require formal property law to achieve. 1513
The commons asks us to consider a different paradigm of social and moral order. It asks us to embrace social rules that are compatible with a more cooperative, civic-minded and inclusive set of values, norms and practices. The commons bids us to reject Homo economicus as the default ideal of human behavior. It asks us to entertain the idea that certain rights should be inalienable — that is, not for sale — and to elevate certain social values over private property rights. This is the challenge faced by so much of the human rights movement — to recognize human dignity, respect, social reciprocity and social justice as elemental human needs that law must protect. Traditionally, human rights have been seen as an abstract, universal norm selectively enforced by the nation-state (depending upon political circumstances). The commons proposes a more local, “on the ground” reconceptualization of human rights: a way for communities to meet basic needs more directly and, quite possibly, more reliably. 1533
Locke’s theory of property merits our attention because it still sets the framework for how we see and justify property rights. If the labor that we expend in discovering or improving a piece of land entitles us to own it, then land that is “undeveloped” belongs to no one and is therefore free for the taking. This was a convenient idea for eighteenth-century European explorers eager to seize the riches of the New World. By the logic of Locke’s philosophy, such lands should be considered terra nullius, or empty land (sometimes referred to as res nullius, or a nullity), because land becomes valuable only as individuals apply their labor and ingenuity to it (by improving it, making it marketable, etc.). It is Locke’s conceit that nature is an inert object that can be privately owned without regard for its connections to its existing inhabitants or larger natural ecosystems. Thus even though indigenous peoples and peasants have managed land, water, fisheries, forests and other natural resources as commons from time immemorial — without formal legal titles — Western imperialists have taken comfort in the legal fiction that the land doesn’t belong to anyone — so we can march right in and take it! In this way, Locke’s theory of private property deliberately ignores the prior use rights and customs of indigenous peoples, the rights of future generations and the inherent needs of nature itself. Using Lockean logic, it has become customary to talk about oceans, outer space, biodiversity and the Internet as if they too are resources that belong to no one. The logic of res nullius justifies unchecked private plunder. Tellingly, Locke added a brief qualification to his theory stating that any private appropriation is limited to “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” He raises an awkward issue that is too obvious to ignore: the exercise of private property rights may encroach on and even destroy resources that belong to everyone.
In other words, there is an unresolved tension between private property and the commons. This “Lockean proviso,” as it is often called, is mostly treated as a symbolic, throwaway gesture, however. Philosophers and legal scholars may invoke it to show their intellectual rigor, but in practice politicians and the investor class don’t care a whit about honoring it. Transnational bottling companies are still sucking groundwater supplies dry without leaving enough, and as good, in common. Agriculture–biotechnology (ag-biotech) companies are still marketing proprietary genetically modified crops that destroy sustainable seed-sharing. Industrial trawlers are still overexploiting ocean fisheries to the point of exhaustion, dispossessing small coastal fishing communities. Whatever one makes of his proviso, Locke’s singular intent was to justify private property, not assure the longevity of the commons. In this tradition, private property laws today continue to ignore or criminalize commoners who use resources in a collective fashion. Nonmarket subsistence commoning is not seen as “adding value” in a Lockean sense; by this logic no one is entitled to property rights protection. This is how the “freedom” of private property is used to dispossess and violate commoners, as seen in the international land grab of customary lands in Africa.
It is important to understand the Lockean analysis because it has become the central moral justification of modern capitalism and its enclosures. As a number of commons scholars, such as Wolfgang Hoeschele and Roberto Verzola, have noted, capitalism is about the engineering of scarcity. To maximize profits and market share, businesses deliberately create scarcity by finding novel ways to limit supplies or access to resources. Copyright and patent law, for example, take resources that are cheap and easy to reproduce — information and knowledge — and deliberately give limited-term monopolies to authors and inventors whose creativity is presumed to be wholly novel and original. The ag–biotech industry likes… 1550
The price system typically fails to take account of all sorts of value that are external to the marketplace. For example, price cannot easily represent types of value that are subtle, qualitative, long-term and complicated — precisely the attributes of nature. What’s the market value of the atmosphere? Of a clean river? Of babies born without pollution-induced birth defects? Markets have trouble answering such questions because there is no meaningful market price for such things. Price only measures exchange value, after all; it doesn’t really measure use value. And so the grand narrative of conventional economics celebrates Gross Domestic Product as the height of human progress by totaling the value of all market activity. It doesn’t really care if that activity is beneficial to society or not — in fact, it doesn’t even ask that question! Instead it just measures if money has changed hands, which is its moronic definition of wealth creation. By this reckoning, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster should be considered good, because they ended up stimulating economic activity. Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and a team of other economists vividly demonstrated the shortcomings of GDP in a 2013 study of the net social benefits of economic activity in 17 countries, representing 53 percent of the world’s population. Using a new index, the Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI, they explicitly took into account dozens of factors that GDP ignores, such as negative activities like crime, pollution and social problems as well as positive nonmarket activities such as volunteering and household work. Their conclusion? The economists found that the costs of economic growth globally have outweighed the benefits since 1978! This year was also the point at which the global ecological footprint of human activity exceeded global biocapacity. And despite a three-fold global increase in GDP since 1950, life satisfaction in nearly all 17 countries surveyed had not improved significantly since 1975.
John Ruskin called the unmeasured, unintended harms caused by markets “illth.” The problem with the price system, as yoked to private property, is that it generates as much illth as wealth — but hardly any of this illth gets counted. It’s off the books. A company’s bottom line and a nation’s GDP reflect only the monetized wealth generated by markets; they deliberately omit the nonmarket illth. This damage is borne mostly by commons as markets take what they can from nature, for free, without acknowledging its actual value (because nature is seen as res nullius). Once profits have been taken and privatized, the market then dumps its wastes and disruptions back onto the commons, leaving commoners and governments to mop up the mess. As mentioned earlier, this might be called the “tragedy of the market” — the unmetered, hidden subsidies and costly “externalities” that markets, in the service of private property, impose upon the commons. This should not be surprising in a society that looks to price as the highest, most reliable metric of value. If a resource does not have a price or property rights, it naturally will be regarded as “not valuable” or “free for the taking.” No wonder normal market activity frequently rides roughshod over ecological values; nature’s wealth does not come with price tags. 1597
Market externalities are easy to ignore, too, because they tend to be diffused among many people and across large geographic areas. No individual or locality can take effective action against air pollution, say, or against pesticide residues in food. Externalities also tend to lurk on the frontiers of scientific knowledge (Does this vaccine cause autism? Do cell phones cause brain cancer?), which means that identifying and confirming negative externalities can be scientifically difficult. And industries actively resist the scientific verification of harmful externalities, lest unwelcome news triggers angry political responses and costly reparations. For all these reasons, a system of stewardship, not ownership, is more likely to take conscientious precautions to prevent harms. In a commons, the structural pressures to earn money are reduced and the incentives to take into account subtle, long-term factors are greater. As a social institution, a commons is also more likely to care about the long-term sustainability of a resource than a market, because the very identities and cultures of commoners are wrapped up in the management of the resource. Markets tend to care primarily about financial returns, and see everything else (working conditions, product safety, ecological concerns, etc.) as secondary. The basic problem is that the signals communicated by prices are too crude and impersonal to alter management practices. 1623
…adequate systems to protect the commons from market encroachments. What steps can commoners take to protect the things they love? This is an urgent issue so long as private property and price are the default definitions of value in public policy, because as we have seen, the price system, however valuable in certain contexts, overrides most ecological, social and moral values. How can commoners assure protection for human dignity and respect, over and above that enabled by private property rights? How can they secure the right to engage in nonmarket social exchange — gift economies, informal collaborations, new forms of collective action — whose value is barely recognized by the modern liberal polity? How can commoners uphold social justice and human rights as inalienable values that may have to trump corporate property rights? 1635
The open educational resources (OER) movement has pioneered the cooperative development of open textbooks, curricula and course materials. 1666
Law professor Yochai Benkler in his landmark 2006 book The Wealth of Networks, “is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s preferred term is “commons-based peer production,” by which he means systems that are collaborative, nonproprietary and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.” 1683
In 2009 and after, a wide array of open educational resources, or OER, emerged as the next turn of the viral spiral. All levels of education and learning communities — not just scholarly publishing — got wise to the fact that proprietary control of knowledge is antithetical to their core values: to learn and grow through participation and sharing. Academia is a commons. Community colleges were dismayed to learn that many students were dropping out or delaying their educations because they could not afford their textbooks. It is not unusual for textbook publishers to bring out new editions every two or three years simply to make the existing used books “obsolete” and promote new textbook purchases. Some farsighted OA educators have responded by forming the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, which helps identify and publicize open textbooks. Such books are CC-licensed and available for the cost of a print-on-demand copy. This has reduced students’ expenses by hundreds of dollars apiece.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) pioneered open educational resources in 2001 when it produced the first major body of curricular materials — syllabi, readings, videos, datasets — for free online use. MIT’s innovation has profoundly influenced the teaching of physics and other scientific fields in China as well as many small countries with isolated rural populations. It has also spawned the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which now has more than 120 member universities and educational institutions worldwide. The viral spiral that started with free software and the CC licenses continues to expand. The very term “open source” has become a widely used cultural meme to celebrate production that is open, participatory, transparent and accountable. Open source principles now animate a robust “open design” movement that invites anyone to help design clothing, furniture, computer components, even automobiles. A group called Arduino now designs and produces scores of printed-circuit boards and computer components, which enable cheap and easy customization by techies. An Open Prosthetics Project invites anyone to contribute to the design of prosthetic limbs — or to the specifications for limbs that ought to be designed even if the designer doesn’t know how to do it herself. Among the designs: prosthetic limbs for rock climbers and a prosthetic arm for fishing. One of the more fascinating open-network projects is Wikispeed, a Seattle-based automotive prototyping and manufacturing start-up project that has collaborators in fifteen countries. Its goal is to use open source principles to design and build a modular, lightweight race car that can travel a hundred miles on a gallon of gasoline. Community networks like Open Source Ecology are now building shareable, low-cost equipment for off-the-grid “resilient communities.” One of its prime projects is the LifeTrac, a low-cost, multipurpose open source tractor whose components are modular, inexpensive and easy to build and maintain. In other words, not complex, expensive or proprietary. Open source design and manufacturing of physical things has reached a large enough scale that the community of innovators have formed their own association, the Open Hardware and Design Alliance. Digital commons now pop up in the most unlikely places. A self-organized group called Crisis Commons is a network of tech volunteers who provide humanitarian aid in response to natural disasters. Following the Haiti earthquake of 2009, thousands of volunteers associated with Crisis Commons swiftly built Web-based translation tools, people finders and maps showing routes to empty hospital beds. There is also a range of what I call “eco-digital commons,” in which Internet technologies are being used to help monitor and manage the environment. Some websites now invite individuals to use mobile phones, motion sensors, GPS tracking and other electronic systems to monitor local sightings of birds, butterflies and invasive species, or to monitor pollution levels in… 1785
Corporations only support “sharing” if they can make money from it. That’s not commoning. 1832
Subsistence commons, operating outside of market system without private property rights or money, are vitally important to an estimated two billion people worldwide, according to the International Association for the Study of the Commons. 1887
It’s worth emphasizing that subsistence commons vary a great deal and are not without their problems. Many need better management; others are poorly managed and could be improved; still others struggle in unsupportive political environments. Yet they remain an important means of everyday sustenance and dignity that strive to respect ecological limits. That’s an impressive accomplishment that markets and states have trouble emulating. 1889
A South African lawyers’ group called Natural Justice has developed a legal instrument known as “biocultural community protocols” (BCP) that is a novel attempt to protect cultural traditions and practices from appropriation by outsiders. BCPs set forth the specific values and customary procedures that a community has chosen to manage its natural resources. The protocols also spell out the procedural and substantive rights of commoners to participate in decisionmaking, and to demand free, prior and informed consent to specific public policies that might be imposed on them. The BCPs also ensure that people can monitor and evaluate the impact of projects in their community. It is difficult to overgeneralize about indigenous peoples’ commons because they embody so many different types of landscapes, tribal cosmologies and cultural practices. Still, legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie has noted striking similarities among indigenous systems of knowing and interacting with the natural world. Indigenous peoples’ commons tend to reflect “a perception of the earth as an animate being; a belief that humans are in a kinship system with other living things; a perception of the land as essential to the identity of the people; and a concept of reciprocity and balance that extends to relationships among humans, including future generations, and between humans and the natural world.” Indigenous peoples have developed remarkably stable socio-ecological models precisely because they focus on long-term social relationships, not irregular market transactions. Westerners often dismiss indigenous peoples’ commons out of hand because they are not based on strict individualism, private property rights and market notions of “value” (i.e., a price for everything).
As N. Bruce Duthu, a leading scholar of Native American law, has written, “The idea of ‘property’ in the Western tradition. . .implies an orientation toward the Market use of resources without special regard for the long-term ecological consequences or the social meanings of nature to people; the price system presumes a basic equivalence among like-priced elements of nature. Societies that have a more direct, subsistence relationship to nature may therefore find property- and market-based sensibilities alien and even offensive.” Not surprisingly, the industrialized nations of the world scoff at Bolivia’s proposal that the United Nations recognize “nature’s rights,” an idea that lies at the heart of so many indigenous peoples’ commons. Honoring “Mother Earth” — as the Pachamama movement in Latin America advocates — is seen by the industrialized world as ridiculous, impractical nonsense, but this prejudice simply illustrates the West’s alarming cultural myopia. 1913
In gift economies, however, as Lewis Hyde noted in his classic book The Gift, social boundaries are blurred or even eradicated through gift exchange. There is no self-serving calculation of whether the value given and received is strictly equal; the point is to establish ongoing social relationships and sympathies. The subtitle of Hyde’s book — Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property — captures this idea nicely: gifts bring people closer together, especially when the exchange is indirect and staggered over time. So long as gifts continue to circulate among people, without a clear reckoning of what one is “owed,” the social commons thrives. 1956
It is often cheaper, easier and more reliable to coordinate an activity through a trusted community. This is surely one reason that “collaborative consumption” is growing as a new hybrid sector of the market economy; artfully designed Web systems let people coordinate the (cash-based) “sharing” of cars, commuting rides, bikes and tools. One of the more remarkable Internet-based gift economies is CouchSurfing, a free, informal system of overnight hospitality used by travelers (and the people who host them) in more than ninety-seven thousand cities and towns around the world. Cash exchange between host and visitor is explicitly prohibited. CouchSurfing is a vast Wed-mediated gift economy that helps more than five million strangers a year give and receive hospitality in each other’s homes, often forging new friendships in the process. 1963
Cities are an especially fertile environment for social commons because of the great diversity and density of people there. San Francisco has been something of a leader. After a local organization, Shareable magazine, issued a policy paper, “Policies for a Shareable City,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee appointed a Sharing Economy Working Group to explore ways to encourage a “shareable city.” Among the ideas: resource-sharing among citizens (e.g., ride sharing), coproduction assisted by the city government (urban agriculture) and mutual aid among citizens (eldercare). In Naples, Italy, Mayor Luigi de Magistris has appointed an Assessor of the Commons to take account of local commons systems and has rallied municipal officials throughout Italy to improve city government support for local commons. 1971
In Rome, Italy, the former employees of a grand public theater and former opera house, Teatro Valle, took over the premises in 2011 after the city government had failed to support it, and managed it as a self-organized commons. The protest was part of a larger complaint about the government’s failure to maintain civic and recreational spaces even as it privatizes cherished public properties, leading to higher rents and evictions. The occupation of Teatro Valle, still underway, has inspired other citizen groups to mount direct action protests that have reclaimed other buildings and spaces. Instead of simply fighting privatization, aggrieved Romans have come to realize that they need active, ongoing self-governance beyond representative government. 1977
There are other more ambitious initiatives to try to promote social commons in urban areas. Urban designers Nikos A. Salingaros, Federico Mena-Quintero and others are seeking to apply the principles of peer-to-peer production to urban environments. “P2P Urbanism,” as it is called, seeks to make city design and daily life more hospitable to ordinary people. Instead of the dehumanizing monumentalism that “starchitects” have inflicted on many cities, P2P Urbanism proposes collaborative design and user participation in urban planning, drawing upon the wisdom of pattern theory guru and architect Christopher Alexander. The initiative also seeks to make urban design more adaptable to local conditions and individual needs in the style of open source software and peer production. 1983
However, in contemporary life, commerce is so often integrated with vast national or global markets and driven by the “divine right of capital,” as Marjorie Kelly puts it. Capital-driven markets tend to produce enormous structural disparities of power that disenfranchise consumers, workers and communities. They plunder nature with little concern for the long-term consequences. The good news is that it is becoming easier for many communities to assert greater control over the structure and behavior of markets. For example, community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and local farmers’ markets have a deep stake in their communities. These social relationships and the local accountability of markets mean that a community can meet many needs while avoiding the rapacious ethic of global capitalism. Markets need not be predatory and socially corrosive; they can become socially integrated into a community and made locally responsive. Other examples include cooperatives, the Slow Food movement and mutual businesses (owned by their member-consumers), all of which try, in different ways, to incorporate larger social values with market activity.
One of the most successful commons-based business enterprises I have encountered is Cecosesola, the Central Cooperative for Social Services of Lara, in Venezuela. For more than forty years, this self-organized, self-financed project has run over eighty cooperatives — banks, farms, factories — as well as civic associations and organizations. Cecosesola deliberately avoids hierarchical relationships and bosses by moving tasks and production among its 1,200 associate workers. Deliberations take place in assemblies that strive for consensus — a process that requires a great deal of mutual education, communication and dialogue. Prices at Cecosesola’s five local food markets are not based on demand but on “fairness.” All vegetables are sold at the same price per kilo, for example. Cultivating trust, commitment to the common good and the courage to take risks — all within a flexible, evolving organizational structure — lie at the heart of Cecosesola’s improbable success. 1998
The trick in melding commons and markets, to my mind, consists in nourishing a distinct culture of commoning while devising “defensible boundaries” around the commons so that it can maintain its basic autonomy. In medieval times, commoners would often “beat the bounds” — walk the perimeter of their forest or piece of communal land — as part of an annual community celebration that doubled as an occasion to patrol the boundaries of their commons. If they came upon a private fence or hedge that had enclosed the commons, the commoners would knock it down, re-establishing the integrity of their land. Community enforcement of the “perimeters” of commons is essential. Our task today is to devise modern-day equivalents of beating the bounds. Two successful examples in cyberspace are the General Public License for software and the Creative Commons licenses. Both ensure that commoners can retain control over the fruits of their shared labors by prohibiting private appropriations of code and digital content, respectively. The biocultural protocols developed by the South African advocacy group Natural Justice have a similar purpose — to prevent transnational corporations from appropriating the specialized ethnobotanical knowledge and agro-ecological practices of indigenous peoples. Commoners today “beat the bounds” when they devise formal rules and ethical norms as ways to preserve their commons. The elaborate governance rules of Wikipedia editing, the customs that Maine lobster fishers have negotiated among themselves, the rules for New Mexican acequias — all have the goal of preserving the resource and the community while excluding outsiders who have not invested their energies in cultivating the commons or who may act as vandals or free riders. Equipped with self-devised rules and governance systems, commoners achieve something else as well: they can pressure markets to be more responsive to the consumers who must rely upon them. One might call these “commons-based markets” — coherent communities with enough power to influence and tame markets. Such markets are more prevalent on the Internet, where social communities (or loose networks) can self-organize as passionate affinity groups before turning to markets to meet certain needs. 2014
Commons from capitalist exploitation. How can the commons be structured so that its logic is decoupled from that of capitalist markets — and yet still be able to interact with markets as needed? For my colleague Silke Helfrich, the key is to ensure that a commons has the capacity to protect and reproduce itself. The commons must have within its very structure the capacity to assure its own longevity and self-protection. It must be able to protect its resources and community norms. This could be achieved through legal rules that prevent outsider appropriation or interventions. It could be achieved through social practices and norms that constitute commons governance. It could be achieved through geographic isolation from markets or through technological barriers (fences around a resource; digital “gates” for authorized commoners). Without such protections, commons are vulnerable to capitalist appropriations, a problem that can be seen in the Google Books Library Project, Facebook and other open platforms. In such situations, commoning becomes another type of “market input” that can be alienated from commoners and privatized. It is therefore important that commons develop the means to protect the fruits of their labor and reproduce themselves and other commons. What we need, says Helfrich, is “a shift from commons-based peer production to commons-creating peer production.” Ultimately, she insists, “the commons is not about organizational form or property rights. It’s about the purpose. If commoning ends with a sale on the market, then what happens to all the other people who have a stake in the process of commons-based production?” “Open” systems give no guarantee that the long-term social or ecological interests of contributors will be respected or protected. 2038
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Peer to Patent project invites people to submit instances of “prior art” for inventions. This is a way to improve the quality of patents by helping to identify prior innovations that might call into question a patent application claiming ownership of a novel invention. The wiki-style crowdsourcing helps prevent the government from giving out unwarranted patent monopolies that could inhibit future innovation. Given the proper support, citizen-commoners with expertise and interests in given fields could evolve into active constituencies that act as agency watchdogs. They could come up with their own innovations and pressure government agencies to fulfill their missions better. 2084
In our book, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, my colleague Burns H. Weston and I tried to imagine new sorts of minimalist, flexible policy structures that could encourage the work of commons at all levels — local, regional, national, transnational and global. This takes us beyond the state trustee commons to entirely novel modes of state support for commons. The goal is to unleash the great self-reinforcing energies of commons as a valuable form of governance without stifling them through top-down micromanagement or political interference. The design challenge is to find a way to govern CPRs at the lowest levels feasible — a principle often known as “subsidiarity” — and with multiple centers of authority. Levels of commons would be diversified and “nested within” higher levels of governance — the concept of “polycentricity,” an idea that Elinor Ostrom explored in her work. 2094
While skeptics may scoff at such ideas as too speculative and far-fetched for dealing with global environmental problems, it is surely more utopian to think that centralized state institutions of limited competence and declining social trust will be able to force people to adopt changes that the Market/State itself does not really wish to implement in the first place. By contrast, commons have shown their capacity to energize people to take direct responsibility; set limits on market activity; model a new vision of human development; and nurture an ethic of sufficiency. However the new global commons are structured (and this is a longer discussion than we can deal with here), the new state-mediated systems will have to open up new spaces that let commons-based governance flourish. That, at least, is the vision that Burns Weston and I propose. 2101
Government agencies — long accustomed to doling out subsidized assets and infrastructure to voracious corporations — must be structured to act as conscientious and transparent administrative and fiduciary trustees of common assets. Purists may object that government-managed systems for shared resources cannot truly be considered commons. But we should remember that even commons such as open source software or academic research depend upon government and markets in all sorts of indirect ways. Government funding supported the development of the Internet and still funds a vast amount of academic research; most personal computers are still acquired through commercial vendors; and so on. The question is not so much whether markets or governments have some role in commons but rather to what degree and under what terms. The preeminent challenge is to assure the greatest integrity of commons, so that the fruits of commoning are not siphoned away by clever, covetous businesses and governments. For now, the idea of a state-authorized Commons Sector may seem politically quixotic. After all, the state is generally indifferent or hostile to most collective enterprises except corporations. Thus a serious ongoing challenge for commoners is to self-organize themselves into quasi-sovereign collectives — a wiki, a seed-sharing collective, a water commons — committed to building and protecting their various resources and to insisting that the State recognize and respect them. We need new federations within the Commons Sector that can mobilize politically. We must devise legal innovations that can give the commons real standing in law. Until such things are achieved, the empire of capital will continue to impose its suffocating logic as widely as possible. 2119
TO ANDREAS WEBER, a theoretical biologist in Germany, the commons is not simply a matter of public policy or economics. It is an existential condition of life in all its forms, from cellular matter to human beings. “The idea of the commons provides a unifying principle that dissolves the supposed opposition between nature and society/culture,” he writes. “It cancels the separation of the ecological and the social.” According to Weber, the commons provides us with the means to reimagine the universe and our role in it. If we are to truly transform our economic and political systems, Weber argues, then we must also address some unquestioned, deeply embedded premises of those systems. In effect we must reassess the nature of reality itself.
As creatures immersed in the liberal political paradigm and the principles of Darwinian evolution, most of us implicitly see life as a fierce, competitive struggle and the economy as a kind of machine in which countless individuals strive to maximize their personal wealth and advantage. Competitive triumph is all. We also see, implicitly, a Newtonian universe in which large abstract forces buffet the inanimate particles of nature. In this view, human consciousness and meaning are insignificant if not moot in the cosmic scheme of things. Our tacit metaphysical commitments, argues Weber, are the very basis for our “free market” economic and political structures. What’s so intriguing is that many scientists are starting to see the natural world and evolution through a different metaphysical prism, one that sees life as a system of cooperative agents constantly striving to build meaningful relationships and exchange “gifts.” Competition still exists, of course, but it is interwoven with deep, stabilizing forms of cooperation. In this new theoretical scheme, the subjective experiences of an organism matter. That’s because, in the emerging scheme of biological thought, all organisms are “meaning-making” living systems. Life is seen as an evolutionary process in which embodied subjects interact with their environment and other living organisms to create meaningful relationships. Subjectivity is not an illusion or an inconsequential side-story, as our existing metaphysics claims; it is not a mere bubble of ephemeral, trivial feelings in an empty universe. Rather, subjectivity is the centerpiece of a new “existential ecology” whose primary concern is subjects, not objects alone. Human beings are not isolated atoms adrift in a vast indifferent universe. Our human subjectivity is not separate from a nature that exists as an alien, unfathomable “other.” The subjective and the objective, the individual and the collective, blur into each other — just as in a commons! Weber, speaking as a scientist, calls his new evidence-based theory “biopoetics.” It is both a metaphysics and a biological theory that can explain “the deep relationship between felt experience and biological principles.” Weber argues that the “science of life” as traditionally studied is no longer an adequate methodology for understanding living things. 2139
The commons is central to this vision. Only through commoning do we start to reintegrate ourselves with nature and with each other. Our challenge, Weber contends, is to bring about a new “Enlivenment” — a new type of rebirth to succeed the three-hundred-year-old Enlightenment. Our calling is to enact a vision of the universe that honors our subjective identities and need for meaning as biological necessities. We can do this by engaging in “the rituals and idiosyncrasies of mediating, cooperating, sanctioning, negotiating and agreeing, to the burdens and the joy of experienced reality,” says Weber. “It is here where the practice of the commons reveals itself as nothing less than the practice of life.” While Weber’s biological theories, like the commons, remain outside of the mainstream, to me they help explain the deep visceral appeal of the commons paradigm. They confirm that the commons is no PR gambit or “messaging” strategy, but rather a prism for seeing the world anew, and more profoundly: in its totality. In all its diversity. With a realistic understanding of humanity as it works on the ground. Weber’s analysis situates the individual as a conscious, subjective agent in the world. It recognizes the role of actual history, local circumstances, culture and individuals in shaping human evolution and in creating commons. To see the commons — to really see the commons — we need to escape the highly reductionist mindset of market-based economics and culture. We have to learn to see that a cooperative logic can animate human institutions, and that, with the right social structures and norms, this humanistic ethic actually works. Market culture has insidiously narrowed our imaginations. By privileging the interests of private property, capital and markets as governing priorities, our very language marginalizes the idea of working together toward common goals. 2167
Taking the commons seriously, however, means changing some of the ways that we see the world. Our choices are not confined to being employees, consumers, entrepreneurs or investors seeking to maximize our personal economic well-being. We can begin to imagine ourselves as commoners. We can begin to become protagonists in our lives, applying our own considerable talents, aspirations and responsibilities to real-life problems. We can begin to act as if we have inalienable stakes in the world into which we were born. We can assert the human right and capacity to participate in managing resources critical to our lives. 2188
The commons challenges some of the myths that lie at the heart of liberalism, market economics and modernity. It rejects the idea that technological innovation, economic growth and consumerism will inexorably improve our lives if only we try harder and give ourselves more time. As noted earlier, normal economic activity arguably generates as much illth as it does wealth. In this sense, the commons dares to challenge the commodity logic that enshrines price as the supreme arbiter of value and material progress as the linchpin of all progress. Commons scholar James Quilligan helps us understand this when he writes: “The notion of ‘goods and services’ in traditional economics is a reduction of the social relations among individuals — and of the individuals themselves — into commodifiable and fungible things. But a commons-based economics raises the possibility of experiencing value through the practical relationships that arise among individuals, the resources of the world, and that which exists between people and the world” (emphasis in original). 2201
Norms cannot be easily generalized or made universal. This is precisely why it is so difficult to commodify the fruits of the commons without destroying the commons; its value is socially embedded and not readily converted into cash. Monetizing resources in a commons threatens to corrode the social relationships that hold a commons together. As we saw in Chapter 9, indigenous peoples tend to have very different attitudes toward property. When a transnational corporation attempts to patent traditional knowledge or genetic material, they consider such propertization both fatuous and outrageous. No individual can claim to be the sole “author” of collective resources (as copyrights and patents imply) because these resources required generations of stewardship, inherited innovation and culture to develop and refine! No one can appropriate and sell for private gain something entrusted to a commons as a sacred trust. Hence the term “biopiracy.” 2216
Indigenous peoples generally see individuals as nested within a larger network of people; the very idea of the “self-made” person is somewhat ridiculous or even delusional. Not surprisingly, the idea of private property tends to be nonsensical for them because property is not so much a description of a thing as it is a description of social relationships with others. The idea of “sole and despotic dominion” over a resource, as Western law has come to think of property, denies our inescapable dependence on nature and our interdependence on each other. Indigenous people tend to see their resources and knowledge as embedded in a community of reciprocal care and group stewardship. Modern industrial societies presume (incorrectly) that such arrangements are archaic and unnecessary, and that markets can provide what we need. “Monetize the resource and split the income. What could be fairer?” 2229
the “monoculture of knowledge of the 20th Century,” as anthropologist Marianne Maeckelburgh has put it. The knowledge generated by large centralized institutions and disciplines is too brittle, monochromatic and remote from the diverse lived realities of real people. The dominant systems of thought in our time, especially those of bureaucracies, conventional economics and scientific inquiry, have delegitimized vernacular culture — the practice-based ways of knowing and being. We need to understand ourselves as corporeal, situated human beings if we are to surmount our many ecological and social challenges. The loss of diverse languages around the world represents a major setback in humanity’s quest to come to terms with the more-than-human world. Most of Australia’s two hundred and fifty aboriginal languages have disappeared, as have one hundred native languages in the area now known as California. As Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine point out, “the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem.” Native languages represent invaluable storehouses of particularized knowledge, especially about specific ecological systems. “Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,” as ethnobotanist Wade Davis memorably puts it. 2238
Maeckelburgh has studied a range of activist and networked communities to identify the “alternative ways of knowing” that self-organized communities are developing. This “knowledge is collectively constructed,” she notes. It is “context-specific, partial and provisional.” And it makes a distinction “between knowing something and knowing better. At the heart of the struggle for self-determination, then, is what anthropologist Arturo Escobar calls “a micro-politics for the production of local knowledge. . . . This micro-politics consists of practices of mixing, re-using, and re-combining of knowledge and information.” Commoners rarely presume that there is a fixed body of canonical knowledge whose authority must be respected. They create their own (situational) types of knowledge through engagement with each other and their common resources. Why should some abstract, self-serving bureaucratic or economic framework automatically prevail when local expertise and experience-rich traditions may be more trustworthy, responsive and practical? 2250
humanity and ecological responsibility. Wendell Berry, the poet and ecologist, has put it this way: “Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.” Or as Berry said on another occasion, quoting Alexander Pope, “Consult the genius of the place in all.” This approach resonates so deeply with commoners because global commerce has diminished so much that was once distinctive and fecund about individual places. 2262
Wendell Berry said it well: “The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth — that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community — and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.” We should not romanticize the local as an easy or automatic solution to the problems caused by global markets, however. The need for responsive “top-down” structures remains. Some collective-action problems can only be solved with appropriate high-level policies or infrastructures. Centralized bodies are often needed to assure a rough equality of opportunity and resources, or to oversee redistributions of wealth. It doesn’t make sense for every community to replicate functions that might be performed effectively (and without harmful externalities) at a state or national level, or even by larger markets. On the other hand, a certain redundancy and inefficiency are essential to a system’s long-term resilience. For the time being, however, we don’t really have a rich typology of larger-scale commons infrastructures. We don’t really know how to design or build them. Such functions are usually considered the province of government. But I think it is time for commoners themselves to imagine how infrastructures and large governing protocols should be engineered. This could be politically difficult. Governments are jealous of their sovereignty and are not generally predisposed to understand and support commons. The idea of letting bottom-up, network-driven decisions emerge and prevail is threatening to traditional institutions of control. Yet that may be the only way that the energy, imagination and social legitimacy of commoners will be available to solve our myriad problems. We’ve already seen in countless ecological and social crises that the state and market, as constituted, are not up to the job. Let’s begin to acknowledge this simple fact. 2277
Commons-based models are not just “policy mechanisms” that are inserted into a situation to “solve” a problem; they generally embody a very different vision of life than that of Western industrialization and consumerism. 2307
In Ecuador and Bolivia, buen vivir — “good living” — is a discourse that attempts to name a different development vision and way of being in the world. Buen vivir honors the ideas of community autonomy, social reciprocity, respect for natural ecosystems and a cosmic morality. In various ways, indigenous peoples, traditional cultures and commoners caught up in market systems are trying to express a worldview beyond the rational instrumentalism and economic mentality of market capitalism. In this sense, the commons is not just about managing resources; it’s an ethic and inner sensibility. This inner conviction ultimately empowers people to take responsibility for the Earth’s resources and to nourish their own sense of stewardship. People discover that it is not only personally enlivening and culturally wholesome to participate in a commons; it is a way to encourage people to set and enforce sustainable limits on markets. Commoning provides a credible alternative to the growth- and consumer-based visions of development peddled by the World Bank. It provides a path for reducing inequality and insecurity in marginalized nations while highlighting the vital role of local ecosystems and commons-based governance. 2308
The basic problem is that the state has strong incentives to ally itself with market forces in order to advance the privatization and commodification of public resources. Enclosures + economic growth = power and tax revenues. To disrupt this logic, we must reconceptualize the role of the State so that it acts to authorize and support commons-based provisioning. As Professor Burns Weston and I explain in our book Green Governance, political pressure must be brought to bear on states to recognize a number of “macro-principles and policies” to support the commons. These include recognition of: commons- and rights-based ecological governance as a practical alternative to the state and market; the principle that the Earth belongs to all; a state duty to prevent enclosures of commons resources; state trustee commons as a way to protect large-scale common-pool resources; state chartering of commons; legal limitations on private property as needed to ensure the long-term viability of ecological systems; and the human right to establish and maintain ecological commons. 2322
The commons, to the extent it is considered at all, is often equated with “the citizenry” or “the public,” and not with distinct communities of commoners. It may take some cultural imagination, therefore, to entertain the idea of the commons as an independent sector separate from the State, with its own moral compass and political identity. There are legitimate policy questions about how national and provincial governments can formally recognize the commons in law. It is not self-evident how the State could assure that local commons, absent intervention, would not abuse their authority or the environment, or discriminate unfairly against some people. These are serious questions, but I do not consider them insuperable. After all, the State has delegated considerable authority to corporations to perform certain functions while retaining ongoing oversight. If the State can charter corporations as a vehicle for serving the public good, in principle it ought to be able to delegate similar authority to commons. Diverse sorts of commons demonstrably serve the public good every bit as much as State-chartered corporations do (and at far less cost to the environment and public resources). And properly structured commons are generally more responsive than legislatures and State bureaucracies, which tend to be geographically remote, inaccessible to the layperson and heavily influenced by monied special interests. 2346
law. The State could and should do more to recognize the authority of commons as vehicles for serving the public interest. But calibrating the level of State involvement is tricky. It is important that the State not become too involved in overseeing the commons lest it overwhelm the will of commoners to manage things themselves, which is the very point. Yet the State should not simply use the existence of commons to shirk its own responsibilities by withdrawing legal, administrative or financial support for them. This is a criticism made of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” policy gambit, which has celebrated community control while cutting public funding to assist it. 2366
As I see it, the proper model for State support of commons should be “State policies in the service of commons formation and stewardship.” The State should openly recognize that self-organized commons can perform certain functions more effectively than the State or Market, and with greater perceived legitimacy, fairness and participation. 2371
it is abundantly clear that commoners using digital networks can now amass, organize and deploy knowledge more rapidly and reliably than large centralized bureaucracies (examples abound in the use of wikis, crisis-relief coordination, reporting via social networks and crowdsourcing of research). The real challenge may be how to find new ways for bureaucratic institutions and digital commons to collaborate. Ecosystem resources, too, are often more effectively and responsively managed by local commoners with the direct authority and responsibility to supervise their own forests, fisheries or water systems without outside interference. 2374