I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp. In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I I think it gets to the nub of things.
The commons is….
*A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
*A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
*A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.
There is no master inventory of commons because a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.
* The commons is not a resource.* It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources. Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.
There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.
One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is the enclosure of the commons, the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain. Enclosure can be seen in the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace, among many other enclosures.
Enclosure is about dispossession. It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian co-production and co-governance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies). Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life; for any commons, however, these are indispensable.
The classic commons are small-scale and focused on natural resources; an estimated two billion people depend upon commons of forests, fisheries, water, wildlife and other natural resources for their everyday subsistence. But the contemporary struggle of commoners is to find new structures of law, institutional form and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources from market enclosure.
*New commons forms and practices are needed at all levels*– local, regional, national and global – and there is a need for new types of federation among commoners and linkages between different tiers of commons. Trans-national commons are especially needed to help align governance with ecological realities and serve as a force for reconciliation across political boundaries. Thus to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture. All of these will manifest a very different worldview than now prevails in established governance systems, particularly those of the State and Market.
A word about the Caux Forum
It’s a wonderful venue for people from dozens of countries to explore the conscience-based, humanitarian and humanistic aspects of international politics and policy. The Forum attracts diplomats, officials from various UN agencies, humanitarian relief workers, human rights activists, conflict-resolution experts and peacemakers, and many others. The event is held in a beautiful castle from the turn of the (19th) century that overlooks the valley below with sweeping vistas.
The conference persuaded me that the commons has a lot to do with “human security” in its broadest sense – subsistence, safety, cultural traditions and knowledge, personal identity. One need only think of the international land grab that is now displacing so millions of commoners from their customary commons of forests, fisheries, farming and other natural resources. People are being pushed from land they have used for centuries, so that foreign investors and national governments can buy up their land, sometimes for speculative purposes.
And what happens to these commoners? Deprived of access to their means of subsistence, they become landless refugees. Many are forced into nearby cities to try to make their way as beggars, hustlers and wage-slaves, introducing a whole new set of problems not only for themselves but for the swollen cities that have little room for them. Finally, the displaced commoners lose their cultural identity and way of life, which is not only a great personal loss but also a loss to humanity in terms of the knowledge and way-of-being that enabled people to live in harmony with the land in a particular location.