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Paths into Our Lives

The emerging commons movement rises to challenge of market economy's Berlin Wall of enclosure.

My wife’s village in the Philippines consists mostly of bamboo houses perched on hills that rise gently from the rice fields. The hills are lush, the fields neat and well-tended; one almost forgets how poor these people are, in Western terms at least. My wife’s father gets about $750 a year for his crop, which is a lot compared to the sharecroppers who have little besides the rice they eat and clothes they wear.

Life is not easy. Until recently there was no electricity; and even now people lug water into their homes and carry fifty-kilo sacks of rice on their backs. Yet there is a sense of sufficiency and contentment that is not much found in the United States. For one thing, there is time — to visit, or rest, or help a neighbor. Daily life is not a grim march to the metronome of clocks. There is also the abundance of nature — the coconut, banana, and mango trees, the sweet potatoes and swamp cabbage, the chickens and goats that fill the yards. None of these appear in the stern accountings of Western economists who pronounce upon the poverty of such people. Most of all, there is the rice, which is both livelihood and sustenance, the center of everything. “If you have rice under the house,” my father-in-law says, “you do not have worries.”

Rice is serious business. Farmers play the market if they can, holding their crop until the price goes up. Virtually every grain is accounted for. Yet the rice fields are productive in another way, too. By unspoken agreement, from time beyond memory, people in the village can walk across the narrow dikes that define each farmer’s land, to get where they need to go. Private property becomes to this extent a commons; boundaries that divide tend also to tie people together.

The fields help produce community as well as rice, and this is both a reflection and reinforcement of a social cohesion that pervades daily life there. No, it’s not idyllic. People being people, feuds and animosities are not unknown. But bonds of mutual support are strong, especially within extended families (which by Filipino reckonings can include half a province it seems). An international study found that Filipinos are among the happiest people in Asia, despite their statistical poverty. I cannot help thinking that those paths through the rice fields point to one reason why.

Those paths, and what they produce, might help explain something that has been happening here in the United States — namely, the growing effort to reclaim the commons in all its many forms. The commons is the part of life that is not the market or the state, but rather is the shared heritage of us all. It includes creations of both nature and society — the atmosphere and oceans, the languages we speak, the public spaces we inhabit, the culture and knowledge that comprise the vast public domain, and much more.

Over the past century the market has been destroying the commons at an accelerating pace. The belief was that happiness and the good life lay always in the direction of more property and more stuff. The result has been environmental degradation, social breakdown, and so much unhappiness that people resort to drugs in increasing numbers just to feel okay. Life is telling us something. To this extent at least, our well-being — now and in the future — just might lie in reclaiming and reinventing this realm that has been lost.

THE COMMONS WAS PART OF AMERICA from the very beginning. The concept of property the early settlers brought with them was not the walled fortress ideologues today assert. Rather it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. The first New Englanders built their towns around a commons, which was a shared pasture for livestock. In Maine and other states, private woodlands were open to others for hunting or cutting wood, unless the owner fenced them. The Massachusetts Colonial Ordinance of 1641-47 declared that “any man may pass and repass on foot through any man’s property” to fish or fowl at common ponds.

Water law, so important in the new land, reflected this sense of the whole. You could use the water that ran through your land, but not in a way that diminished your neighbor’s use. The water belongs to all of us, the law said, and ownership has responsibilities as well as rights.

This concept of property is not a quaint relic of a simpler time. It is grounded in an economic truth that economists today generally ignore — namely, the symbiosis between the private and the common, the parts and the whole. Private property could not exist without a society that honors and protects it. The value of any given property, moreover, derives largely from the efforts of others, or from the gifts of nature. Take a Park Avenue apartment, or a cottage on Cape Cod, and put it in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and you’d better reduce the asking price. The structure is the same; the difference is what’s around it.

The real estate mantra “location, location, location” really means “gifts, gifts, gifts” — of society and nature. This is true of financial assets as well as real estate. In fact, it’s true to a degree of all human production and creation. Every invention, every business technique, every story and song, owes a debt to what has come before. I could not be writing this, nor could you be reading it, without the English language, which was a gift to both of us. We all stand on many shoulders, and earlier concepts of property acknowledged this.

Nowhere was this thinking more in evidence than in regard to the realm of invention and ideas. America itself is an idea, the first nation so conceived; so the views of the Founders on this point are especially telling. Jefferson and Madison considered the mind to be the mother lode of freedom, and they wanted no restrictions — private or public — on its operations or fruits. The copyright and patent clause of the Constitution restricts these private monopolies to limited times; and this provision is of a piece with the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. Government shouldn’t suppress freedom, and private property shouldn’t either.

Benjamin Franklin was no slouch when it came to a dollar. Yet he never sought patents for his numerous inventions. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he said, “we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours.” Franklin established the first lending library to seed the knowledge commons. The very first words of the Constitution he helped write were “We the people.” Not an aggregation of little me’s, but we.

THE NEXT CENTURY-AND-A-HALF brought material change to a degree never before seen. Cities rose from prairies, machines did the work once done by animals and humans, people were redefined as strange things called “consumers,” whose role was to serve as insatiable maws for the new industrial machine. Yet even as the emerging corporate commercial culture sought to weave its web of self-obsession, residues of the older thinking remained.

There were still Main Streets, for example, that leavened the commercial with the social and civic. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their famous debates at county fairgrounds and town squares throughout the state of Illinois. Democracy was not separate from the settings in which it occurred, and farmers and townspeople, many with little formal schooling, sat in the baking sun for hours to listen. Well into the next century, people visited with neighbors on porches and front stoops. Entertainment was a social experience, at bowling alleys, movie theaters and ballparks.

A sense of we lingered in the pathways of daily life, and this was a resource in times of national need, such as World War II. When FDR declared that sacrifice in the cause of freedom was a “privilege,” and that he stood for “equality of privilege,” his words touched something Americans already believed. The top income tax bracket went up to over 90 percent. Ordinary working people paid income taxes for the first time. Young men were subject to a universal draft. Millions of Americans grew vegetables in Victory Gardens and turned in used cooking oil and old pots and pans to help supply the troops.

There was grumbling and cheating, to be sure. But the residents of one town in Kansas probably echoed the prevailing view when they observed in a newsletter to their sons on the front: “We do not have everything we want. We do have everything we need.” We again.

TODAY, JUST OVER FIFTY YEARS LATER, that sentiment seems to come from another galaxy. When brave young Americans went off to fight in Iraq, there was skittish concern in the White House that the rest of us actually might have to sacrifice something to support them. President Bush cut our taxes and urged us to go shopping. Not only is there no draft (yet), an increasing amount of the burden is being shunted off to paid mercenaries.

The invasion is not the issue here, but rather the way patriotism has been reduced to a market transaction, purchased by most on the cheap. It has become fashionable to blame the sixties, Eastern intellectuals, and the rest for the erosion of values and culture (which by definition is shared). But the true source lies closer to the bone, in the very same corporate marketplace that the fashionable polemicists extol. What fills the country these days with messages of hedonistic self-gratification, envy and lack? It’s not the recorded works of Jane Fonda or Herbert Marcuse, the popular ’60s intellectual.

The corporate economy has altered the pathways of daily life in ways that have made the consumerism of the home front — and the invasion itself, for that matter — totally unsurprising. We live, after all, in suburbs conceived as staging areas for consumption rather than for social interaction. We move about in the hermetic enclosures of cars, shop in malls designed to exclude anything that might interfere with the buying mood. We barricade our attention in electronic cocoons of Walkmans and cell phones. Family car trips once were occasions for storytelling that built a narrative bond between generations. Now kids sit in back and watch videos instead.

Then we wonder why parents have trouble communicating with their kids, and why, despite all the electronic devices, Americans feel isolated, lonely and depressed. Step by step, in these and many other ways, the paths through our rice fields have become walled corridors of one. The result has been social impoverishment amid great piles of money (and also, not incidentally, a bottomless appetite for oil). One reason for the bitter and polarized tone of politics today is that people don’t have to talk anymore with those they don’t agree with. They just retreat into their cocoons of the like-minded, where all they hear are echoes of themselves, and so lose the capacity to tolerate — let alone listen to — anyone who thinks differently.

The same economic arrangements that are enclosing us are destroying the common spaces that we used to share. The giant Coke bottles that now stand atop the left-field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park are more than an advertisement. They are a symbol of dominance that extends to virtually every corner of our society. From patent claims on body parts, to proposals to rename public spaces for corporations and to auction off the sea, there is a pervasive grabbiness that is causing the private to devolve into its linguistic root privare, which is Latin for to deprive.

MOST OF LIFE IS HABIT. As these changes have crept into daily life, inch by inch rather than with a trumpet blast, they have become a new normal. We generally cease to notice, especially younger generations that do not remember anything different.

Yet something still stirs. It is as though the aggressive enclosures of recent decades have aroused something latent in the human psyche — something that does not want to be controlled, structured or manipulated for commercial ends; that wants to connect with fellow humans in a way unmediated by corporate market structures; and that cares about nature and about generations to come. Perhaps it is the West’s version of the yearning for freedom that broke through the concrete of the former Soviet state.

The environmental movement is probably the most obvious expression of this, but there are many others. There is, for example, the growing movement to stop the intrusions of advertising into every nook and cranny of conscious experience. People are fighting ads in schools, the renaming of stadiums and public places for corporations, the blare of TV ads in airport terminals and on buses.

The issue isn’t just nuisance. Something more is at stake. People are saying, in effect, “Wait a minute. The market can’t have everything. This space is ours.”

In cities, people are reclaiming public spaces from the tyranny of cars. A group in Portland, Oregon, called The City Repair Project is turning local intersections into commons. Neighbors have installed street furniture and art and war working with the city to create shared spaces and a better balance between drivers and pedestrians.

The growing opposition to Wal-Marts is not just a matter of paltry wages and aesthetics. It’s about reclaiming the social cohesion of traditional Main Streets, which have a social multiplier that cheap microwaves cannot begin to match.

So, too, with the opposition to genetically modified seeds. This is not just a matter of environmental and health concerns, important as those are. Even greater is the concern over corporations having patents on the genetic substrate of material life, with the Orwellian — or more precisely, Huxleyan — implications that involves. No one should own what is a gift to all, and if life itself does not fit that description, nothing does.

Another example is the effort to reclaim the free open spaces of the mind. Scientists are resisting the conversion of university research into patent factories for corporations. They want to share knowledge openly, as Jefferson intended, not cloister it for private gain. The spread of Linux, the computer operating system developed entirely through a commons on the World Wide Web, bespeaks the desire to create without either governmental restriction or private claim. (It also demonstrates the fecundity of this model of innovation.)

Still Water, a project of the New Media Program at the University of Maine, has embraced the Linux model for the creation of music, videos, writing and the like on the Web. MIT is publishing most of its course materials on an online commons, free to anyone in the world. There is a multitude of such projects; the list is growing every day.

There is a movement brewing here — a new commons movement — and it represents a big turn of the wheel in the quest for human freedom. Centuries ago, when our current economic thinking took shape, property emerged as the banner of freedom against arrogant royal rule. That view since has hardened into ideological concrete — property as the bulwark against an overweening state.

To a degree it still is, of course. But yesterday is not forever. Banners become burdens; yesterday’s answers become today’s problems. So today, it is property that has become overreaching, especially in its aggressive and conscienceless corporate form. The answer is not an all-powerful state — a coercive and authoritarian we. That cure proved worse than the disease. The answer rather is a different kind of property — common property — that exists alongside the market and provides an antidote to its excesses.

The new commons movement is challenging the Berlin Wall of market enclosure. It seeks outlet for the we side of human nature, and space simply to be left alone. A society that defines all and everything as private is one that ultimately collapses into a black hole of me. If the task of recent centuries was to establish what belongs to each, then the task of the current one is to restore and reinvent what is common to all.

Jonathan Rowe is director of the Tomales Bay Institute in Point Reyes Station, California, and a blogger at OntheCommons.org. A version of this article appeared previously in the Christian Science Monitor and in the November/December 2004 issue of Hope magazine (the Hope version is entitled “Honor Our Common Needs”).