The Marginalization of the Commons and What To Do About It

I delivered the following remarks -- "The Marginalization of the Commons and What To Do About It" -- at the 13th Biennial conferece of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, in Hyderabad, India, on January 12, 2011.

The commons is of keen interest to me because of its great potential to transform how we talk about economics, politics, governance and culture.  Or more to the point, it can be an active, creative force for positive change in people’s lives.    

The focus of the conference today is the structural forces that are marginalizing the commons and disempowering commoners.  Why is it that the commons is so often excluded from official policy discussions about how to manage resources and improve people’s lives?  Why are the State and the Market seen as the only two serious realms of action – while the commons is often patronized or dismissed as inconsequential, if it is considered at all?  

Another question, perhaps the most important:  What are we going to do about this state of affairs?  How can we be more effective in bringing the commons paradigm to the attention of politicians and the media, and advocacy groups and commoners themselves?

I think it’s useful to address these questions from two perspectives.  First, we must consider the factors external to commons that either ignore them or seek to eliminate or marginalize them.  I’m talking about the whole cultural narrative of capital-driven markets, mainstream economics and consumerism.  None has any great interest in the commons.  In fact, most have trouble comprehending the very idea of the commons because its logic and categories of thought are just too alien.   On the other hand, sometimes political elites in these fields comprehend the commons all too well and believe it must be fought.  

The second perspective we must consider is the factors internal to commons themselves that may cause them to fail.  Are the legal structures, management practices,  alignment with local circumstances, and so forth, appropriate?  This, of course, is the chief focus of this conference, and it is a very complicated question.  But clearly our imperative is to learn how to “build a better commons.”  We must find ways to make public policy become more attentive to this challenge.

Let me begin by considering the external forces that work to marginalize or dismiss the commons. 

We must first recognize that the commons inhabits a political environment that is often quite hostile to it.  In fact, the State and Market often have their own very good reasons for disliking the commons.  For one thing, both are hungry for the revenues that come from exploiting the commons -- and both State and Market often find it useful to support each other’s political objectives. 

The market/state duopoly, as I sometimes call it, has another reason for disliking the commons:  The commons often requires significant transfers of power to the commoners and new forms of social equity.  So there is often a shared political interest for doing the wrong thing – that is, to enclose the commons. 

Now that’s a word that I don’t encounter very much in the academic literature – perhaps because the term is seen as prejudicial and provocative, and therefore suspect.  But we can’t avoid talking about enclosure.  Many common pool resources are being privatized and commodified because corporations see them as cheap or free fodder for the voracious market machine.  At the same time, common pool resources represent a cheap and convenient waste dump – a place to get rid of all the nasty externalities that businesses don’t want to internalize into their cost structures. 

If we are going to raise awareness of the commons and make it a serious element in policy discussions, then we are going to have to talk more aggressively about enclosure.  I know that some people prefer to talk about “privatization” or “commercialization” or even “development pressures.”  But for me, none of these terms truly captures the disenfranchisement of people or the destruction of community that “enclosure” conveys.

Having said this, we commoners need to do a better job of articulating and advancing what I call the value proposition of the commons.  Here’s what I mean by that.  The market has its own well-developed, aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created and human progress is advanced.  It’s a story about how private property rights, money and market exchange generate wealth.  It’s a process that considers Gross Domestic Product a proxy for happiness.  The market story is a story of bigger, better and faster, and it is the dominant norm of our time, a global religious catechism that is only now starting to come unraveled, thanks to the economic crisis of 2008. 

The commons is a very different narrative – one that fills out that picture that this mainstream economic narrative omits.  The value proposition of the commons cannot be expressed as a “bottom line” because it’s all about community  empowerment and social equity and ecological security.  Unfortunately, this is a fuzzy and complex storyline in the public mind, at least right now. 

Let me add, I don’t consider the commons narrative to be anti-market or anti-business.  It is, however, about re-embedding business activity within new systems of accountability and it’s about setting new limits on commercial activity.  Markets serve many important functions – but the wealth they generate is frequently offset by the huge costs and risks that they displace onto the commons, and onto future generations.

Some other reasons that the commons narrative has trouble going mainstream have everything to do with the intrinsic nature of the commons.  So let me talk about those reasons for a moment. 

Unlike the market narrative, which presumes to be standard and universal, the commons consists of countless distinctive and locally rooted examples, each different.  The market celebrates quantitative measures of its performance, and so comparisons about who’s best, who’s richest, and so forth, are easy.  By contrast, the value of the commons tends to be qualitative, social, spiritual, ecologically complex and long term.  Needless to say, these values cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the “Commons 500.”  As a result, the commons is harder to see and name as a distinct sector – and therefore, it can be harder to reclaim a commons or build one from scratch.

In addition, the commons storyline is relational, not transactional.  While markets are focused on individual initiative, conflicts and competition and winners and losers, the commons is focused on stewardship, community benefit and sustainability.  Guess which narrative is more dramatic and gripping to the media?   

Paradoxically, the commons does all sorts of work that markets depend upon -- but this work usually goes unacknowledged.  The “caring economy” and other so-called “women’s work” is part of a vast, off-the-books shadow economy that invisibly props up the formal market economy.  Nature is also part of this shadow economy.  So is the public domain of information and culture.  It tells you something about the vaunted “productivity” of the formal economy that it quietly relies upon so many invisible commons-based subsidies!

Of course, many leaders of the market/state duopoly are not troubled by this.  They prefer to keep the commons in the shadows.  Why call attention to a valuable off-the-books subsidy?  By keeping the commons unnamed, it is easier to neutralize it as a competitive power base.  Without a vocabulary for naming the commons, the commons can be used and abused with impunity.  It becomes harder to organize a community to defend it.  Commons-based alternatives that might disrupt the status quo can be safely ignored.

Going mainstream with the commons discourse is difficult in many countries – most notably, the United States – because it clashes with the basic premises of laissez-faire individualism.  When the U.S. Government tried to vanquish Native Americans in the 1800s, for example, the first thing that it insisted upon, as a legal precondition for U.S. citizenship, was that Native Americans abandon their common ownership regimes and assign individual property rights to everyone.  I can think of no better way of destroying a people.

This enclosure dynamic plays itself out repeatedly today.  The strategy is:  Disassemble the connections that a community has to itself, its resources and its social traditions and rules.  Convert commoners into individual consumers and producers for the market system, and make them more dependent on the money economy.  We must frankly recognize that “free markets” may entail a cultural agenda and identity shift.  

Now, the argument is often made that the commons is simply a vestigial, pre-modern throwback.  They say it’s impractical, it’s inefficient, it’s a “tragedy.”  With the failures of communism and state socialism still hanging in the air, the claim is made that self-organized collective action threatens “freedom.”  We need to fight these myths by asserting the real value-proposition of the commons. 

I will concede, the critics get it partly right:  the commons has pre-modern origins.  I’ll go a step further.  I’m convinced that the commons is as old as the human species.  It predates the modern marketplace and state – and as the great historian of the commons Peter Linebaugh has put it, the commons is “independent of the temporality of the law and state.”  

Evolutionary biologists, geneticists and anthropologists now tell us that cooperation is hard-wired into the human species.  It is, they say, an “evolutionary stable strategy” – one that confers competitive advantages on homo sapiens in its ongoing struggle to survive.  Scientists say that such evolutionary innovations as language, agriculture, altruism and even the whites of our eyes, reflect our natural propensity to cooperate and develop social trust.   

As social order has evolved, so have the institutions that can protect our collective interests.  In Roman times, the Emperor Justinian famously established several categories of law to reflect collective ownership.  Things were considered res communes if they were owned in common by everyone as a whole.  The Code of Justinian states:  “By the law of the nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.”  Another category of property was things that belonged to the State – res publicae.  Things that belonged to no one – such as wild animals and abandoned property – were considered res nullius

Another landmark in the history of the commons was the adoption of the Magna Carta in 1215 A.D. and a few years later, the Charter of the Forests.   A series of conflicts and civil wars between the commoners and barons and the king eventually forced King John to formally recognize commoners’ rights – from due process rights and habeas corpus to the right to use the forest commons to supply their primary subsistence needs -- for food, firewood and building materials. 

I recall this history because it is another reason why the commons has been marginalized.  Much of its history has been forgotten or bastardized.  Consider our skewed remembrance of John Locke, who is responsible for the most celebrated and enduring theories of private property.  Locke considered it a divine right for people to claim private property rights in things that they made with their own labor.  What is usually omitted from Locke’s formulation of this right is his significant qualification – “…so long as there is enough, and good left in common for others.” 

In other words, private property rights can be justified only if the common pool resource is preserved intact.  That often requires a commons.  Let’s just say that the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have forgotten such things.  It reminds me of the novelist Milan Kundera’s famous line, “Man’s struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness.”

Without a coherent, big-picture history of what I call “commons law,” it is hard for commoners to argue in courts and legislatures for what is theirs.  The law frequently ignores or rejects commons-based approaches.  That is why I am currently working with a noted international law and human rights professor, Burns Weston of the University of Iowa College of Law, to try to recover and refurbish this history.  We want to go back to Roman times, the Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest, the public trust doctrine, and points in between, to regenerate a body of “commons law” that can provide new legal justifications for the commons.  We call this the Commons Law Project, a multi-year effort to explore ecological governance in partnership with One Earth Future, a Colorado-based foundation.

I’m convinced that recovering the history of the commons can help us develop a new grand narrative for the commons.  It can help us understand how the dynamics of enclosure in the past are repeating themselves today.  It can help us recognize who are the victims of enclosure:  chiefly women, the poor, the elderly and others who depend on the commons for subsistence. 

The history of the commons is also a source of inspiration.  It can validate the creativity of commoners of the past who struggled to protect their shared wealth and self-determination.   I only recently learned about the medieval tradition of “beating the bounds” – an annual community perambulation around the perimeter of the commons – compete with good food and drink.  The event celebrated the community’s identity as commoners while providing a way to tear down any fences, hedges or other enclosures.  I was astonished by this revelation – commoners once had the affirmative legal right to knock down enclosures of their shared resources!  We need to recover and remember the history of the commons as a way to help understand some challenges facing us today.   

I see great potential in the commons because it goes beyond political ideology to propose a paradigm shift, a different worldview.  It knits together the economic, political, cultural and humanistic into one coherent discourse.  It empowers individuals to help themselves.  It helps reconnect people with each other, and with the earth.  It helps regenerate personal meaning and social tradition.   It helps foster sustainable management of ecological resources.

For me, it is the ethic of the commons that may be most valuable.  Alain Lipietz, a French political figure and student of the commons, traces the word “commons” to William the Conqueror and the Normans.  I love the etymology of the word.  It comes from the Norman word commun, which comes from the word munus, which means both “gift” and “counter-gift,” as a duty.  Munus is related to what the economist Karl Polanyi called “reciprocity.” 

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties.  This is a very important way of being human.  Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties.  We rely on money or the state for everything.  And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” – the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be:  the commons.

The basic problem is that we need to rediscover “commoning” – the commons as a verb, the commons as a set of social practices.  “The allure of commoning,” Peter Linebaugh has written, “arises from the mutualism of shared resources.  Everything is used, nothing is wasted.  Reciprocity, sense of self, willingness to argue, long memory, collective celebration and mutual aid are traits of the commoner.”

Now, the really great thing about commoning is that it is not just a figment of history.  It’s alive and growing!  In fact, today we see the rise of countless self-styled commoners – people who see the commons as a way of dramatically reframing how they might conduct politics, conceptualize economics and revitalize democracy. 

In November 2010, in Berlin, I helped co-organize a major international commons conference with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Commons Strategy Group.  The conference brought together 200 activists from 34 countries – ranging from agricultural activists from the Philippines to computer hackers from Amsterdam to free culture advocates from Brazil.   

There are some amazingly large and robust trans-national communities of commoners who are making serious progress in taking charge of the common wealth.   These include a vast network of free software programmers who created GNU Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs; the Wikipedians in dozens of countries who edit the largest encyclopedia in history; the millions of digital artists and authors in more than fifty countries who use Creative Commons licenses; the growing world of open access scholarly publishing, which has bypassed expensive commercial journals to make their work freely available in perpetuity; the Open Educational Resources movement, which creates and shares open textbooks and curricula and learning materials.   

Beyond this exploding universe of digital commoners, there are self-identified commoners who are recovering urban spaces and community gardens; commoners who are fighting to keep genetic knowledge free and open; commoners who are building solar energy panels on public rights-of-way; commoners who are building open-source hardware and agricultural equipment; commoners who are ingeniously using Internet technologies to improve ecosystem protection.  The list goes on and on.  The emergence of this activism is already pushing the commons into the mainstream.  And I haven’t even mentioned the scores of commons represented here.

Let me strike a “be careful what you wish for” note, however.  Some other people are discovering the commons as well, and I’m not too sure they have the same ideas as we might.  NATO held a conference last year on “the Global Commons,” by which NATO apparently meant NATO dominance over the oceans, space and the Internet.  Companies that used to “greenwash” their regressive environmental policies will surely start to “commons-wash” their activities if the term gains broader currency. 

My point is that “the commons” as a concept is in play, and there is a great risk that its meaning could be watered down, co-opted or used as a cheap moral posture.  I advise that we get there first and escape any marginalization by advancing the commons on our terms.  We should step away from the fringe, and toward each other, to reach the center. 

This is a long-term proposition, obviously.  It means we need to open some new conversations and build some new alliances.  We ourselves need to entertain new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking.  I won’t presume to say how this might happen, but let me immodestly make a few provisional suggestions. 

  • Let us recover and remember the history of the commons so that we can appreciate its role in different historical and political contexts.
  • Let us develop a grand narrative about the commons that can be popularly understood, so that we can communicate the value proposition of the commons better.
  • We should try to bridge the cultural divide between digital commoners and natural resource commoners, because there truly are important synergies between the two.
  • We should try to formulate how the commons can work with existing state institutions and policy structures, while inventing new forms that are more appropriate to the commons.
  • We must try to reframe mainstream political and economic discourse with a commons perspective, so that some bright, alternative futures can be seen.
  • And finally, we must strengthen the linkages between commons scholars, practitioners and activists, so that we can learn from each other and support each other’s work.

I realize this is a ridiculously big wish list, but on the other hand, we have every reason to dream big.  Our problems are daunting and our energies are growing.  It’s time to take the commons to the next level.

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