Reclaiming The Commons

I have felt for a while the creeping sensation there has been something crucial missing from contemporary political discourse and dialogue.  Until recently was not quite sure what it was. I was always vaguely aware of the idea of the commons but it previously seemed a distant and historical concept with little relevance today. However, recent developments such as the creative commons and open source movements and the occupy movement have led to a dawning realisation that this concept may in fact be the invisible link connecting these events. The idea of the commons is what so many of us in the developed and developing worlds have been fighting for. It is a new paradigm which has the power to unite disparate causes and peoples and to allow us to move beyond traditional discourses and divisions of left wing politics. I am now convinced that the concept of the commons is our best hope for achieving a world of freedom, justice, community self determination and environmental sustainability.

Commons academic David Bollier defines the concept as:

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.

History
The common resources of Earth were abundant and reasonably well managed at the time of the industrial revolution. Most indigenous communities had learned through trial and error to view land and resources less as a commodity than as a basis for identity for a particular community to be equally shared among living, dead and those yet to be born. The Native Americans as well as Maori and aboriginal Australians all saw themselves as connected to the land and as having a role as guardians of the land. Under this indigenous system, acquiring legal title to land was done through proof of occupation, historical connection and active use of the resources. Stewardship or guardianship was the key cultural concept which governed and prevented the over exploitation of these resources.

In pre-industrial England, rural communities also governed their common resources in a similar manner with complex systems of overlapping traditional rights governing activities such as mowing meadows for hay, gathering food and fuel from the forests and grazing livestock on land held in common by the local community. Enclosure of these once prevalent common lands into private land began in the 16th century This process of enclosure (often by violent bloodshed) ended many traditional rights of the peasants or non landowning people.

The 1215 twin charters known as the Magna Carta are recognised in the English speaking world as the source of the protections of rights such as trial by jury, due process of law, the prohibition of torture.  What is less recognised is that the second and lesser known Charter of the Forest in fact confirmed the right of the people or ‘commoners’ to subsistence from the common resources of the forests. Peter Linebaugh in his history, ‘The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All’ demonstrates how these ancient legal rights of the people have been repeatedly laid aside when the ‘greed of privatization, the lust for power, and the ambition of empire seize a state.’

Attention was also focused on the abundant common resources of the rest of the world by colonial powers. In the colonies, the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ was employed to justify the departure from the Magna Carta in order to facilitate the enclosure of indigenous lands and enslavement of peoples in the settler-colonial societies. As Chomsky states on the settlement of North America “According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness. And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use.”

The ecologist Garrett Hardin’s influential 1968 theory of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ has been used by Neoliberal economists to justify further privatisation and commodification of common resources such as forests, waters and land. This theory has led to massive land grabs and ultimately justified the privatisation of common assets, resources and infrastructure on an unprecedented worldwide scale. The dangers inherent in this dominant ideology of the ‘State/Market duopoly’ has been cautioned against by academics such as Bollier:
“Today, the commons – a vehicle for meeting everyone’s basic needs in a roughly equitable way – is being annexed and disassembled to serve a global market machine. Nature becomes commodified. Commoners become isolated individuals. Communities of commoners are splintered and reconstituted as armies of consumers and employees. The “unowned” resources of the commons are converted into the raw fodder for market production and sale – and after every last drop of it has been monetized, the inevitable wastes of the market are dumped back into the commons. Government is dispatched to “mop up” the “externalities,” a task that is only irregularly fulfilled because it is so ancillary to neoliberal priorities.”

This extreme economic ideology has heavily influenced today’s political elites who on the whole assume that common resources must be managed either through privatization or government management (or more recently a partnership of the two). The results of this approach are evident now all around us in what could be termed ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’ in which communities across the planet are waking up to discover that there are very few common resources left with which to sustain themselves and develop their local economies.

Elinor Ostram of Indiana University won a nobel prize in economics in 2009 for her amazing body of work effectively debunking ‘the tragedy of the commons’ theory by showing that communities all around the world actually had been co-managing commons successfully and efficiently for hundreds of years. Ostrom’s meticulous field work explored how people collaborate and organise themselves to manage common resources such as forests through a complex set of governance principles.

The Key to such effective management according to Ostram were eight ‘design’ principles of stable local common pool resource management:
1 Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
2 Local rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources
3 Collective-choice arrangements with inclusive decision making;
4 Effective monitoring the users;
5 A scale of graduated sanctions for violations of community rules;
6 Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
7 Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
8 Organization of larger common-pool resources, on a local scale

Ostram put into words what many of us instinctively felt all along – that a more community centred approach is the most efficient way to achieve a sustainable future. Essentially Ostram’s work confirms what many indigenous and pre-industrial communities had already known – that a culture of community based guardianship, self determination and a clearly defined set of cultural rules can lead to effective management of common resources.

Many examples of successful commons do exist in the post 2008 financial crisis world.
Maine, New England’s co-operatively managed lobster fishery is one example of a common resource which is managed sustainably and has positive impacts both environmentally and for the local fishing community financially. Where Industrial fishing enterprises have no connection to the fish stocks other than profit-making for shareholders, the Maine lobstering community has a legalised role and an economic interest in protecting and maintaining this resource as stewards. As a result, the fishery is thriving and can provide adequate income for both current and future generations.

The Via Campesina is a coalition of small-farmer and peasants rights movements from around the Global South and is based on a commons philosophy that people should have access to common lands with which to sustain themselves. The Zapatista movement is a movement of Mexican peasants who have gradually and under much repression and resistance from the Mexican Central Government been forming autonomous and independent municipalities complete with schools, common agriculture systems and courts of deliberative justice.

Another example of the commons resurgence is the recent proliferation of co-operative businesses worldwide. 2012 has been the UN International year of the Co-operative and has seen a huge rise in the number of this type of business being formed across the USA, Europe and other developed nations. The fact that Cuba is also looking seriously at allowing privately run co-operative businesses to take over from Government in many areas until now the preserve of government shows that the co-operative business movement may in fact be a middle ground between socialism and capitalism. If managed correctly this could decrease tensions between the two philosophies by allowing greater decentralisation of power and more self determination of communities,

Despite these inspiring examples, it will be a long and hard fought battle to wrestle back power over the commons from the hands of Governments and the private sector. This new approach to governance will require forms of land and resource management rooted in community and locality rather than one governed by profit margins, absentee shareholder owners and industrial farming. There are many legal and economic tools by which this can be done, land trusts, co-operative business models and open source software are just some of the commons based mechanisms which are currently driving a ‘commons renaissance’ in the post 2008 era. However, alongside these innovative work around solutions, more supportive Law and policy regimes from sympathetic Governments will greatly increase the viability of commons. As Bollier puts it:
“For this, the state must play a more active role in sanctioning and facilitating the functioning of commons, much as it currently sanctions and facilitates the functioning of corporations. And commoners must assert their interests in politics and public policy to make the commons the focus of innovations in law.”

This new discourse of the commons provides us with a way to get beyond the left v right and private v public debates by adding a third player of the commons sector. My hope is that the successes of commons and co-operatively managed enterprises both economically and in terms of creating happy and productive people will influence governments and private sector entities to support such initiatives and possibly to adapt their own methods to reflect a more commons friendly approach. There is real potential in the idea of the commons for a more collaborative future in which local communities and business are actively involved in and responsible for guardianship of our shared land and resources. Through the adoption of a commons based dialogue we can more effectively co-create a new vision for our future society. This vision is one of decentralised and democratically controlled industry and economy and a vision of a future in which we can all share in the benefits of and live in harmony with the planet.