A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, and now is on the rise.
The commons is still an embryonic vision with no single, unified political program. The definition above is my best attempt to explain the idea based on what I have seen and heard over the last few years at commons gatherings around the world. This vision, along with definition itself, will evolve with time. But it is a vision with great potential, because it is not being advanced by an intellectual elite or a political party but by a hardy band of resourceful irregulars on the periphery of conventional politics. (That’s always where the most interesting new things originate.) These commoners are now starting to find each other, a convergence that promises great things.
The Enclosure of the Commons
“The commons” is a useful term because it helps describe a nearly ubiquitous pathology of modern life, the enclosure of the commons. Governments throughout the world are conspiring with, or acquiescing in, the plunder of our common wealth. This is the net effect of the privatization of public resources and services being carried out as part of economic globalization.
Companies are taking valuable resources from the commons – the airwaves, the electromagnetic spectrum, deep-sea minerals, the human genetic code, public lands, and more – and exploiting them for profits. Once the cash value has been harvested from the commons, corporations tend to dump the wastes and accompanying social disruptions back into the commons, declaring to government and citizens, “It’s your problem.”
The dynamics of enclosure today are not much different from the 18th Century in England, when the landed gentry decided they could profit quite handsomely by seizing huge tracts of meadows, orchards, forests and other land that by long tradition were freely accessible to the commoners. With this enclosure, resources that had historically been managed by communities, through both formal and informal rules, were privatized into commodities to be sold in the marketplace. There were gains in efficiency and innovation from this process, to be sure – as well as the amassing of great private fortunes – but there was also massive economic disenfranchisement, ecological destruction, poverty and human misery.
Enclosure means that people must pay for resources they previously got for free, or cheaply. It means that people need to ask for permission to use something that was previously theirs by right. Imagine a world of franchise bookstores, but no local libraries; of mega-shopping malls but no town squares; of private toll roads but no open highways, and you see how enclosure might come to pass in our own time.
Enclosure shifts ownership and control of a resource from a given community or the public at large, to private interests. This spawns a different set of social relationships in our dealings with each other and with necessary resources. Enclosure turns us into a mass of pay-per-use consumers in search of bargains. It makes it harder for us to stand up for something larger than our individual satisfactions. It makes it very difficult for us to work together cooperatively on important projects, such as reinvigorating our hometown or reversing global warming.
The Commons as a Source of Creating Value
Mainstream economists and politicians have long assumed that there are really only two major avenues for governing things and “adding value” in an economic sense — the state and the market. Markets are seen as the vehicle for economic progress while government is supposed to take care of everything else. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is another sector of society – the commons – that is just as important to our lives, prosperity and security.
A great many commons contribute value to our lives that surpasses that of the market. The gifts of nature – “ecosystem services,” in the eyes of some economists – are fantastically productive. Life itself would be impossible with air, water, soil and diverse biological systems Civic institutions like libraries, roadways, police and fire protection, bring value to our communities in ways that the market cannot.
The commons is not, however, simply another term for socialism or communism. Both of those systems of governance rely upon state ownership and centralized bureaucracies to manage the people’s resources, a system that may or may not work out so well. The commons has no quarrel with government per se. Indeed, the commons would be in much better shape if it enjoyed half the government support that the “free market” enjoys, in the form of subsidies, protective regulations, government services and the legal system.
But the commons is not the same as government because, in its ideal form, it is about the commoners owning and managing resources as directly and locally as possible. This usually involves a significant measure of participation, transparency, decentralized control and accountability – factors not always present when a large-scale state is managing a resource.
It is also important to note that while the commons shares many values with traditional liberalism, particularly on matters of democratic process and social concerns, the commons has a different moral footing. Liberalism is often accused of intervening in the marketplace to re-distribute wealth, a role that conservatives regard as a “confiscatory” taking of their private property.
The very idea of the commons challenges this perspective about “redistribution-as-theft” by pointing out that markets routinely take from, and frequently despoil, the commons. The investor class enjoys many direct and indirect subsidies – cheap use of public lands, airwaves and civic infrastructure; copyright and patent monopolies; research and services to support commerce; public education; etc. In addition, companies are accustomed to making the government and commoners pay to fix their messes– pollution, safety and health risks, illegal behaviors, community disruptions.
Rather than seizing the rightful property of the successful, as right-wingers see it, commoners are actually seeking to control and own something that belongs to them in the first place. They are seeking a predistribution of benefits from assets belonging to them, rather than a redistribution of wealth generated by markets.
This is the starting point upon which we can build a political framework of access, sharing, equality and social well-being. The Internet offers many rich examples of collaborating and sharing, from open source software to Wikipedia. Through the frame of the commons we can begin to assert – with greater impact than liberalism can manage – the need for proper limits on market activity.
Let’s consider a timely example – Who owns the sky? Peter Barnes, in a book whose title asks that question, points out that industrial polluters presume that they own the sky, and that their rights to pollute ought to be “grandfathered” into any future schemes to limit carbon emissions, a key source of global warming.
From the perspective of the commons, this is absurd. We all “own” the sky and ought to receive roughly equal benefits from it. Why should any corporation or industry have the right to use the limited capacity of the atmosphere as their own waste dump? Barnes has conceived a practical approach to curbing global warming (discussed elsewhere in this book) based upon these ideas.
Commoners as a whole, not powerful private interests, should reap the value from all the many forms of the commons, which are rightfully theirs. Investors demand a return from their assets. Surely this principle ought to hold for the commoners and their assets, too.
Reinventing the Commons
The commons is something very new and quite ancient at the same time. Its newness can be seen in the huge variety of commons proliferating on the Internet: free software, remix music, mashup videos, peer-to-peer file sharing, open science initiatives, the open access movement in scholarly publishing, social networking software, and on and on. The Internet itself is a commons, developed with public money and constantly expanded through open, shared technical innovations.
Yet as up-to-date these developments are, the commons is as old as the human species. Our lives have always been based upon mutual efforts and social collaboration rooted in custom, history and the local. Evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists are now confirming just how deep the commons is inscribed in our nature. The impulse to cooperate and share is arguably hard-wired into the human species as the basis for our evolutionary success.
The real aberration in human history is the vision of humanity set forth in today’s prevalent view of politics and economics. Homo economicus, the everyman postulated by economic theorists, is an atomized individual who is relentlessly driven to maximize his material advantages through the market not matter what the social costs. The current economic market-based paradigm asserts, astonishingly, that all of society should be organized around this vision.
Competitive market-based economics has many virtues, and can be a potent spur for innovation and enterprise. But only out-of-touch ideologues dare to presume that market individualism has no limits or that “there is no such thing as society,” as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brazenly asserted. To ignore the existence of the commons, without which the market would not exist along other essential social systems, is both short-sighted and dangerous. There is another, more positive way of stating this truth: the commons is hugely generative in its own right. It is a value-creating sector that rivals the marketplace, and therefore deserves the same protection from government and respect from citizens.
“Cooperative individualism” of the sort seen on the Internet can be far more innovative, productive and socially gratifying than the market. Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler has hailed what he calls commons-based peer production, by which he means a system of production that is “radically decentralized, collaborative and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands.”
Even business is coming to realize the “power of us,” according to a Business Week cover story on corporate uses of mass collaboration for research, technology development and marketing. Forbes has profiled the “sharing economy” now arising on the Internet. Tech companies routinely talk about the efficiencies of “decentralized co-creation of value” – i.e., the commons. The U.S. Government’s many intelligence agencies have even created their own wiki – “Intellipedia” – to help its dispersed employees efficiently share and sort their many fragments of knowledge.
The Commons as a New Narrative and Worldview
These challenging times require an expansion of our very sense of “politics.” We need to cultivate a profoundly different worldview that can integrate the personal, the social and the political in new ways. For starters, we must learn how to talk about the excesses and failures of the market more systematically without lapsing into rhetorical anti-corporatism. We must offer some positive alternatives, including ones that harness the market in constructive ways, while safeguarding the valuable capacities of the commons.
Reinventing the commons is still a fledgling vision, but the fact that it is being embraced by so many different constituencies suggests a deep contemporary yearning to explore new modes of social connection and collaboration. It suggests a desire to assert a sense of solidarity and authenticity in the face of a sometimes destructive, often intrusive commercial culture. It suggests a desire to reaffirm the local and defend natural ecosystems in the face of a rampaging market ideology intent on monetizing everything in its path.
It’s quite easy to understand why mainstream politicians don’t recognize the commons, even when it’s all around them. It has been culturally invisible for a long time. Its wealth cannot be easily quantified. It has not been named, classified or extensively studied. So it’s not surprising the commons has not been taken seriously in public policy deliberations.
Yet the crises of the commons are becoming more evident day by day as global warming, economic upheaval, disparities of wealth, depleted stocks of fish in the oceans, criminally unequal access to medicine and vaccines around the world and numerous other symptoms of market excess continue unchecked.
It will not be simple to build a new politics based on the commons, no matter how many people get excited by the prospect. We are all deeply enmeshed in a market-based consciousness, which still holds a tight grip on people’s imaginations and their sense of what’s logical or efficient. And that’s especially true of those with the most wealth or power. Advocates of commons, on the other hand, seem a disorganized ragtag bunch coming out of a dizzying array of social backgrounds and causes with no firm philosophical discipline. But what looks like a grave shortcoming might well be its chief strength. Any quest for ideological purity in this movement will fail, which is why I believe that any prospective commons upswell must exhibit a tolerant, ecumenical humanism. We are all irregular, self-contradictory creatures. Any political success will require patience, improvisation and learning. Fortunately, the very idea of the commons itself points to a new kind of decentralized politics, rather than a rigid ideology or fundamentalism.
In the end, any commons movement will depend upon how badly people really want to reclaim our common wealth, re-connect with each other as human beings, and devise new political and legal structures for achieving this vision. My guess? The energy and desire are there, but diffuse. The vision is gaining currency. An inventory of commons-based solutions to problems ranging from global warming to social alienation is growing. Diverse types of commoners are starting to discover each other. What’s needed is a surge of new leadership and resources to take the commons to its next, more interesting stage of development.
Adapted from an article in Renewal, a British journal of social democracy