Derek Wall’s “The Commons in History”

For many people, the commons exists as some sort of Platonic ideal -- a fixed, universal archetype.  That’s silly, of course, because commons are so embedded in a given place and moment of history and culture, and therefore highly variable.  Derek Wall takes this as a point of departure in his new book, The Commons in History:  Culture, Conflict and Ecology (MIT Press).  At 136 pages of text, it is a short and highly readable book, but one that conveys much of the texture of commons and enclosures as paradigms -- and the implications for ecosystems.

Wall is an economist at Goldsmith College, University of London, so he knows a few things about the biases of conventional economics.  He is also a member of the Green party of England and Wales, and therefore knows a few things about corporate power and oppositional politics. 

As the author of a recent intellectual biography, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge), Wall has a subtle mastery of Ostrom’s approach to the commons, but he is not afraid to wade into the political aspects of commons.  He notes, for example, “most commons have not been found to succeed or fail on the basis of their own merits.  Instead, they have been enclosed, and access has been restricted and often turned over to purely private ownership or state control.”  He adds that “commons is a concept that is both contests and innately political in nature.  Power and access to resources remain essential areas for debate.”

It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wall goes beyond the familiar Hardin-Ostrom debate on the rationality and economic value of commons, to explore what he calls “the radical case for the commons,” as outlined by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, among others.  While Marxist criticisms of the environmental effects of capitalism so often hit the mark, Wall points out that “the commons is not utopia.  A common-pool property rights do not guarantee a free and equal society.”  

That’s partly because a commons is not a unitary model, but only a template with highly variable outcomes.  People may have common rights to use “usufruct rights” on privately owned land, for example, authorizing them to gather fallen wood.  This can be considered a type of commons, albeit not one as self-sovereign and robust as those with communally owned and controlled land.  Commons may also coexist with hierarchical power relationships – a reality that also militates against a radical equality.

Wall’s book is not comprehensive, but it does give the newcomer to the commons, whether the academic or casual reader, a reliable, helpful overview of the topic.  It provides a variety of historical case studies from the United States, England, India, and Mongolia; reflections on the power of cultural norms to maintain commons; and a discussion of how commons have protected, or failed to protect, ecosystems.

Wall also devotes space to the gender implications of commons:  “Because women in peasant and indigenous societies have gathered and gleaned more often as part of an informal economy than as part of a monetized one, enclosure of the commons therefore reduced women’s access to a vital part of their domestic economy.”  Thus enclosures tend to harm women more than men because “when access to land was lost and communities destroyed, they found it more difficult than men to move away and start again.” 

For me, The Commons in History occupies a happy medium between the academic and the popular.  It provides a rich account of the commons that would satisfy most academics, yet it does not descend into dense jargon or obscure scholastic debates.  It is a pleasure to read.  Professional scholars of the commons might find Wall’s book too discursive or idiosyncratic, but I am glad that there is now a welcoming overview of the history of the commons.  More:  a history that explains why that history is relevant to our times.  Wall’s book is a great way to kick off a new series of books being published by MIT Press, “History for a Sustainable Future.”