Quilligan's “Failed Metaphysics Behind Private Property”

Many people don't recognise that the commons is not just a thing – a physical element of nature or a resource like the Internet – but a distinct metaphysics and epistemology that challenges some deeply rooted premises of contemporary politics and policy.  James Quilligan probes this territory with a thoughtful piece in the latest issue of Kosmos magazine. In particular, he explores the “social nature of property”and how its individual, atomistic nature in liberal political philosophy is responsible for “its catastrophic impact on the commons.”

The essay is not a quick read, but it is a provocative and penetrating piece about some of the deeply rooted assumptions that shape our understandings of property, individual identity and how government and public policy should behave.  All such discussions must start with John Locke, the great 17th Century philosopher who created the enduring justifications for property rights.

One of Locke's central ideas is that property is inherently about individual rights of ownership and control, which means the right to exclude others and to ignore the larger social and ecological context of those rights, not to mention future generations. This understanding, in turn, entails an understanding of a human being as a dualistic creature, one who has a sovereign mind and a separate and independent material body.  The mind/body dualism is actually the basis for a larger political theory that assigns property rights to individuals (and not larger collectives) and charges governments with recognizing and enforcing those individual rights.

Quilligan traces the consequences of the mind/body dichotomy and how it in turn has led to a corresponding separation of humans from nature itself. Under liberal political theory, humankind is meant to assert its mastery over inert, objectified nature; it has no need or obligation to enter into a subject-to-subject relationship with it, as most traditional and indigenous cultures do.  That's why the very idea of "nature's rights" is nonsensical to western, modern societies -- and why Bolivia, for example, regards modern development schemes and market exploitation as an egregious, irreverent crime against the cosmos. 

The epistemological foundation pioneered by Locke and others has enabled modern societies to develop science and technology, and a market economy that is capable of unprecedented material output.  But it is also responsible for human societies that are quite alienated from nature as a sovereign force in its own right.  That issue lies at the heart of so many of our environmental problems.  We presume that we are separate from nature, and that nature itself is a passive object with no agency of its own.

Another, usually overlooked result of this metaphysic, notes Quilligan, is that “nearly all autonomous rights to the commons are unconstitutional since state legitimacy is given almost exclusively to private and public property. Hence, common property has little foundation in civil law. Claims for the commons are largely dismissed as pre-modern ideas, superstitions, or excuses for anarchy and piracy. Both natural and social commons are viewed merely as a passive field waiting to be acted upon – a res nullius in legal terms – something to be claimed, contractualized and developed as private property.”

An equally profound and overlooked result of the liberal property framework, writes Quilligan, is that “it veils the state's monopoly over the legitimate use of coercive power to suppress the self-organization of common property and to punish those who violate the rules of private property.” One need only consider how Native Americans were forced to become individual property holders as a precondition for American citizenship; or how the collective interests of subsistence and traditional societies in Africa and Asia are regarded as legally nonexistent; or how the collective interests of communities on the Internet has no legal standing but for the private-law hacks like Creative Commons licenses and the General Public License for free software.

I won't recount the entire essay, but suffice it to say Quilligan traces these philosophical principles up to our contemporary neoliberal regime, noting how the market and state have joined forces to become a collaborative “Market State,” blurring the lines between the two realms and marginalizing the role of representative government. This has been crucial premise for globalizing commerce and elevating market interets over state interests.

All of this history and philosophy matters because it helps us understand the deeper challenges we face in “claiming our commonhood,” in Quilligan's phrase, and in establishing new sorts of trustee systems for managing our common property.

“Commonhood,” he writes, “is the self-organizing and rule-guided practice of a community to preserve, make, manage or use a resource through collaboration.” One reason that such a system can succeed is because it asserts a more accurate, humanistic model of human nature than that of private property, which is severely limited to the point of caricature. While it is true that we all exhibit material and rational self-interests (as economists never tire of declaring), it is also true that we are intrinsically social creatures who care about what others think, and are prepared to cooperate in order to establish stable, robust and enduring societies. The Hobbesean vision of a nasty and brutish humanity is certainly not the whole story.

Quilligan's essay is well-worth reading. It is the beginning of a larger series of essays that he plans for Kosmos starting this fall, entitled, “Toward a Common Theory of Value.” While many people regard philosophy as too far afield from the hurly-burly of practical, contemporary politics, it is highly useful to situate the commons in the larger context of history and philosophy.  How else are we to develop astute strategic approaches toward reclaiming our commons?  Quilligan's piece is a great point of departure for this much-needed conversation and activism.