Imagining a New Politics of the Commons

Darren Hill mail at
Fri Dec 3 11:39:11 GMT 2010

David Bollier on a fresh way of thinking about life beyond the market

/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.

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