Think Like a Commoner
By David Bollier
The commons are things that no one owns and are shared by everyone.
In the modern industrialized countries of the world, the commons tends to be a baffling, alien idea.
The commons is essentially a parallel economy and social order that quietly but confidently affirms that another world is possible. And more: we can build it ourselves, now.
At a time when our representative democracy has become a gaudy charade driven by big money and remote bureaucracies, the commons offers new forms of on-the-ground participation and responsibility that can make a real difference in people’s lives.
How can we unseat a “free market” theology that cannot deliver on its promises and yet will not allow serious consideration of alternatives? Our archaic system of nation-states and international bodies cannot mobilize itself to deal intelligently with a gravely imperiled planetary ecosystem. It resists serious measures to improve social justice and fair distribution.
Market-obsessed industrialized societies are coming to realize that the Market and the State are not the only ways to organize society or manage resources.
Commons persist and grow because a defined group of people develop their own distinctive social practices and bodies of knowledge for managing a resource.
Put another way, a commons is a resource + a community + a set of social protocols. The three are an integrated, interdependent whole.
A commons is like a living organism in that it co-evolves with its environment and context. It adapts to local contingencies.
The “diversity within unity” principle that commons embody is what makes the commons paradigm so versatile and powerful — and so confusing to conventional economists and policymakers.
What’s critical in creating any commons, as mentioned earlier, is that a community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone’s benefit.
For at least a generation, the very idea of the commons has been marginalized and dismissed as a misguided way to manage resources: the so-called tragedy of the commons.
The idea is considered a basic principle of economics — a cautionary lesson about the impossibility of collective action.
The catechism is hammered home: individual freedom to own and trade private property in open markets is the only way to produce enduring personal satisfaction and social prosperity.
The real tragedy precipitated by “rational” individualism is not the tragedy of the commons, but the tragedy of the market.
In the 1970s, the economics profession plunged into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It celebrated highly abstract, quantitative models of the economy based on rational individualism, private property rights and free markets.
What is fascinating is the parallel development, outside of academia, of an eclectic, transnational corps of activists and project leaders who have embraced the commons as an organizing principle for their campaigns for social change. This, arguably, is what is making the commons a significant force in politics, economics and culture today.
For many of these commoners, the commons is not a “management system” or “governance regime”; it’s a cultural identity, a personal livelihood and a way of life. It’s a way to revive democratic practice. It’s a way to live a more satisfied life.
Still others see the commons as an attractive vehicle for advancing an anti-capitalist economic and social analysis, and challenging the neoliberal state.
The term “enclosure” is generally associated with the English enclosure movement, which occurred at various times in medieval history and through the nineteenth century. To put it plainly, the king, aristocracy and/or landed gentry stole the pastures, forests, wild game and water used by commoners, and declared them private property.
One important goal of the English enclosures was to transform commoners with collective interests into individual consumers and employees. Which is to say: creatures of the marketplace. The satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution needed obedient and desperate wage slaves.
The hallmarks of the new order would be individualism, private property and “free markets.”
Instead of focusing on household use within a stable social context, production became reoriented toward private gain and accumulation.
Polanyi characterized the history of enclosure as “a revolution of the rich against the poor.”
Many people believe that enclosures are a relic of the past — something that happened in medieval times, but not now. Not so. Vast portions of Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently reeling from a fierce international land grab.
Well-connected officials can quietly pocket handsome bribes. In theory, “development” and prosperity will follow.
The scale of enclosure of customary lands is massive — and so is the displacement of commoners. An estimated 90 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, or some five hundred million people, do not have statutory title to their lands and are at risk of eviction.
Evicted commoners find themselves displaced, dispossessed and thrust into a world of flashy modern consumerism and shantytown poverty: an ugly replay of English commoners at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Water is another resource that has been targeted for enclosure by many transnational corporations.
The fierce international land grab now underway is often just another name for “water grabbing.”
Transnational water companies continue to appropriate groundwater supplies throughout the world in order to bottle it — even though public water systems can provide a thousand gallons of tap water for the same price as one bottle of branded water.
As the global reach of US corporations grew in the postwar period, so did the enclosure of countless food traditions around the world.
Everyday diets have become more homogenized — and less nutritious. No surprise that the diseases associated with Western diets — diabetes, obesity, heart disease — have also proliferated.
The range of enclosures of nature is vast.
One of the most audacious new enclosures of nature involves the financialization of natural resources.
By the lights of finance, natural resources that go unexploited are underleveraged assets; the presumption is that everything should produce revenue.
If water were to become a commodity traded in an integrated global marketplace, for example, it could devastate local ecosystems and make this vital resource unaffordable for many people.
Considering how little we understand about the macroeconomic and macrofinancial implications of such enclosures — not to mention the ecological disruptions that would ensue — these plans are a recipe for disaster.
You can tell that enclosure has reached troubling extremes when businesses claim ownership of words, colors and smells! *
One of the easiest ways to make serious money is to somehow engineer a private takeover of infrastructure resources. Highways, bridges, airports, telecommunications systems and the Internet are coveted prizes.
The Internet may be the most significant piece of infrastructure now endangered.
Rather than allow the Internet to remain a commons that is open and nondiscriminatory in how it transmits data, cable and telephone companies want to be able to censor or slow down types of network traffic that might compete with their own business interests.
Historically, regulatory policies known as “common carriage” have assured open, nondiscriminatory access and pricing to telephone lines.
Without such rules, Internet users could lose their most basic online freedoms.
The corporate takeover of the airwaves infrastructure has meant that market values dictate the type and quality of programming being aired. This accounts for the endless stream of reality shows, sexual titillation, vulgarity and violence on American TV — not to mention as many as twenty minutes of commercials per hour and “product placement” during shows.
The novelist William Faukner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So it is with enclosures. They are not distant and forgotten episodes of history; they and their social and ecological harms continue. They remain a deep imperative of our modern capitalist economy. An incestuous Market/State alliance — not “free markets” — is the order of the day.
If you have ever sung “Happy Birthday” at a restaurant or park, you are — in the entertainment industry’s sense of the word — a “pirate.” That’s because the Warner Music Group owns the copyright to “Happy Birthday.”
Warner Music Group rakes in about $5,000 a day in royalties from “Happy Birthday,” or nearly $2 million a year.
The “Happy Birthday” story is no aberration, alas. It is just one of countless contemporary enclosures of the cultural commons.
Culture cannot thrive without a commons of shared creativity.
The natural human impulses to imitate and share — the essence of culture — have been criminalized.
Copyright scholar James Boyle wrote a famous essay declaring that we are in the midst of a “Second Enclosure Movement.” The first was, of course, the English enclosure movement. The second one, now underway, is the over-privatization (i.e., corporatization) of creative works, information and knowledge.
Trademark law is another tool that is being abused to shut down the cultural commons and protect markets.
Historically, the State has treated academic research as a commons by building public universities, funding important research and respecting academic independence.
But over the past generation, this ethic has eroded dramatically as the State and Market have enclosed the academic commons so that its resources can be used to spur short-term economic growth.
A system that values inclusiveness and the meeting of basic needs is turned into a system of exclusion regulated by one’s ability to pay — a system that privileges large corporations over all others.
Left unchecked, such enclosures will destroy the generative powers of academic commons.
One of the most insidious things about enclosures is how they eradicate the culture of commons and our memory of them. The old ways of doing things; the social practices that once bound a people together; the cultural traditions that anchored people to a landscape; the ethical norms that provided a stable identity — all are swept aside to make room for a totalizing market culture.
The complex, overlooked history of the commons tells a different story. It is an account of how human beings have learned new and ingenious ways to cooperate.
The centralization and formalization of law made it easier for regulated industries to capture and corrupt the process — no surprise given the power of the Market/State and the depth of its overlapping interests. It remains something of an open question how governance might be restructured to rein in the chronic social and environmental abuses generated by markets.
Safety regulations and public-service requirements, for example, tend to stabilize society, prevent serious harm and assure a rough social equity. But in our neoliberal times, even these goals are seen by most governments as an unacceptable burden on capital and corporations, and as a drag on economic growth.
The core problem of unfettered capitalist markets is their tendency to erode the authentic social connections among people (cooperation, custom, tradition) and to liquidate the organic coherence of society and individual commons.
Capital breaks commons into their constituent parts — labor, land, capital, money — and treats them as commodities whose value is identical with their price.
Property rights do not arise naturally, as the great Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley noted in 1659. They are the result of conquest: “For the power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword.”
The simple appropriation of things — perhaps with sophisticated legal doctrines to serve as justifications — is arguably the real origin of many property rights.
We moderns presume that humans can commoditize water, land, genes and other elements of nature as if they are inert objects that can be isolated from their natural context and owned as chattel.
Western imperialists have taken comfort in the legal fiction that the land doesn’t belong to anyone — so we can march right in and take it!
In this tradition, private property laws today continue to ignore or criminalize commoners who use resources in a collective fashion.
This is how the “freedom” of private property is used to dispossess and violate commoners, as seen in the international land grab of customary lands in Africa.
Rousseau famously wrote, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. . . . Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
Once a resource is legally recognized as property, the door swings open for markets to set its price.
People are said to maximize their individual, rational self-interests through the price system and market exchange; the collective good then naturally manifests itself through the Invisible Hand.
The truth is that this system of market-based governance is a disaster in the real world.
By this reckoning, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster should be considered good, because they ended up stimulating economic activity.
The unresolved question is how to devise adequate systems to protect the commons from market encroachments.
Human societies have produced a glorious cavalcade of commons throughout the ages.
A commons may arise whenever a group of people decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and long-term stewardship.
To commoners, maximizing market value is not the supreme purpose; community needs and ecological stability take precedence.
The conventional economic framework has no way of comprehending the importance of community self-determination, ecological resilience, social equity or cultural connection to a place.
Human beings’ natural propensity to cooperate is a powerful source of innovation that has given rise to a rich variety of social and civic commons. A great example is the international “time banking” movement.
It is clear that the existing nation-state and international treaty organizations are not going to set enforceable limits on global carbon emissions, for example, or prevent the destruction of fisheries, coral reefs and biodiversity loss, all problems that span political jurisdictions. These issues have been festering for decades; the Market/State just can’t bring itself to set meaningful limits on the commercial activity that’s exacerbating them.
Market culture has insidiously narrowed our imaginations. By privileging the interests of private property, capital and markets as governing priorities, our very language marginalizes the idea of working together toward common goals.
Our choices are not confined to being employees, consumers, entrepreneurs or investors seeking to maximize our personal economic well-being. *
We can assert the human right and capacity to participate in managing resources critical to our lives.
The commons challenges some of the myths that lie at the heart of liberalism, market economics and modernity. It rejects the idea that technological innovation, economic growth and consumerism will inexorably improve our lives if only we try harder and give ourselves more time.
“Monetize the resource and split the income. What could be fairer?” The arrival of climate change, Peak Oil and countless other environmental crises suggests the actual limits of this type of thinking and its ontological assumptions about our place in the world.
This is, in fact, a great appeal of the commons — its promise of local self-determination. People are gravitating to the commons because they see it as a way to celebrate and protect their particular local circumstances.
The Transition Town movement, which aims to anticipate possible catastrophes stemming from Peak Oil and global warming, also seeks to mobilize local cooperation and citizen innovation to take steps that neither markets nor states seem capable of doing.
“The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth — that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community — and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.”
We’ve already seen in countless ecological and social crises that the state and market, as constituted, are not up to the job. Let’s begin to acknowledge this simple fact.
The capacity to honor the local through commoning suggests that there are better ways to achieve “development” than through economic growth.
In this sense, the commons constitutes a new vision of human development.
Commons-based models are not just “policy mechanisms” that are inserted into a situation to “solve” a problem; they generally embody a very different vision of life than that of Western industrialization and consumerism.
Commoning provides a credible alternative to the growth- and consumer-based visions of development peddled by the World Bank.
It provides a path for reducing inequality and insecurity in marginalized nations while highlighting the vital role of local ecosystems and commons-based governance.
Historically, the State has had very little to do with commons except to indulge their existence or work with market players (corporations, investors, industries) to enclose them.
This is a criticism made of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” policy gambit, which has celebrated community control while cutting public funding to assist it.
It is no secret that state power is increasingly seen as illegitimate and ineffective.
The idea that politics can be separated from bureaucratic implementation, and that neutral scientific expertise and centralized systems can manage complexity, is no longer credible.
Of course, proponents of neoliberal governance believe that the rules and norms for governance are entirely clear and generally effective.
But the proliferation of political alienation and insurgency movements around the world calls into question the blind faith of neoliberal elites — or more to the point, the deep structural deficiencies of neoliberal institutions.
Yet the pervasive erosion of legitimacy, efficacy and credibility afflicting states around the world (and the neoliberal paradigm more generally) cannot continue indefinitely. At some point, a reckoning is inevitable.
Can the state solve our myriad social and ecological challenges, most notably arresting climate change, without reconfiguring itself? I doubt it.
It seems clear to me that the commons — a highly versatile system of governance, resource-management and sense-making that can meet people’s needs in ways that are experienced as both legitimate and effective — will likely be part of the new order.
The most urgent task is not necessarily to pass new laws or elect the right candidates, especially when the old system of governance is so corrupt and ineffective.
The neoliberal project manifestly cannot deliver on its utopian promises of progress and prosperity for all, yet the traditional critics of neoliberalism and political progressives are not likely to pioneer the new paths we need.Most of them, I fear, are too intellectually fatigued, politically demoralized or compromised by their own yearning to appear relevant to the world of power and respectability.
The commons offers a way to revitalize democratic practice at a time when conventional political institutions are dysfunctional, corrupt, resistant to reform or all three. It demonstrates that societies can actually leverage cooperation and bottom-up energies to solve problems. It points to new modes of governance that go beyond, or can work in constructive partnership with, representative democracy.
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.
At a time when the old structures and narratives simply are not working, the commons gives us many reasons to be hopeful.