Introduction to the Commons

Summary

The commons is:

“a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. [It’s] A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or 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.“ 

Source & further summary: David Bollier (2011): The Commons, Short and Sweet [emphasis and text in brackets added]

 The original meaning of the term ‘commons’ comes from the way communities managed land that was held ‘in common’ in medieval Europe. Today, the term includes not only natural resources (land, water, air), but also created assets (knowledge, computer code, manufactured goods, etc.).

 

Short introductory videos:

Thenextsystem.org (2016 ): How Does the Commons Work? [2,5 min.]

 Utrecht University, the Netherlands (2017): What Are Commons? [3 min.]

Agence française de développement (2016): The Commons : Interview with David Bollier  [3 min.]

 

Much of the undersigned’s website deals with ways of radically changing mainstream policy and economics. Going beyond this approach, the Commons may be seen as a paradigm in itself,- somewhat outside both the state and the market. ‘Somewhat’ because, while it often needs to interact with both, it seek to retain a substantial degree of control and independence.

Notwithstanding, several concepts and tools can be -and is- shared by both approaches. Suffice to mention here the stress put on collective action and tools for system change (see my webpage Addressing problems of Democracy, Inequality & Climate: A Systems Approach).

While the Commons is discussed at length in my draft for a course on Cooperative Social Entrepreneurship -with a number of case studies across economic and social sectors- (see links to  course outline here), one strongly voiced opinion needs to be mentioned. According to by David Bollier:

“ The first priority is not to bang at the door of governments and political parties to seek change. That may be necessary in some measure. But that path is doomed to disappoint so long as the norms of the current market/state system are intact. As recent history shows, even in places like Greece and Bolivia where left-wing parties took over the state, the results have been problematic – chiefly because international capital can continue to bully, co-opt, and constrain the state and social movements. 

By contrast, even a small but functional parallel polis of working commons – if properly insulated from these forces – can exert great leverage. We saw this in the early days of Linux and open source software…”

                                 David Bollier (11. January 2024) Commons and Commoning: A Progressive Vision of a Good Society

The Commons can nevertheless influence political debate, as shown by the below excerpts from

Broca, in an article first published in Le Monde diplomatique in 2016:

Excerpts from the Sébastien Broca, University of Paris (desember 2016): Verken stat eller kapital

(‘Neither state nor capital’ ). Sourced and re-translated to English from Le Monde diplomatique Norge AS [own translation, emphasize and text in brackets added]. Original article: Les communs, un projet ambigu

“ 

Common goods and commons have become popular terms in Europe. Studies of joint management debunk the myth that privatization provides the most efficient use of resources. At the same time, the concepts also cast doubt on the state’s role, for better or for worse.

(..)

EFFECTIVE COMMONS

April 1985, Annapolis, USA. Academics from all over the world are gathered at a conference funded by the National Research Foundation to present their research on the commons. At this time, the term usually refers only to an old story of how communally managed pastures were transformed into fenced private properties at the beginning of the industrial era [‘the first enclosure’ -in the UK, through acts of Parliament over several centuries].

(..) The researchers in Annapolis pick up the thread from this story and show that there are still places in the world where land, fishing and forests are managed as commons, that is, common resources that communities manage together. The researchers believe that these public sector systems often are effective, and that they prevent overtaxation of resources. It completely turns upside down the theory Garrett Hardin put forward in his famous article “The tragedy of the commons” (1968). And behind these, the entire liberal economic orthodoxy is being challenged, which claims that exclusive private ownership is always the best way to distribute scarce resources.

In 1990, the economist Elinor Ostrom summarized the main findings of the research that was presented in Annapolis. She particularly emphasizes the institutional conditions that make it possible to establish permanent Commons systems. She shows that a commons cannot exist over time without rules for its use, and emphasizes that these rules can be made and enforced by the communities without state power [and without private property- ‘neither state nor capital’].

Among many examples, she mentions a fishing village in Turkey “where the fishermen were able to establish their own rules for coastal fishing”. For this work, Ostrom was awarded the Swedish Riksbank’s prize in economic science in memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009 (the “Nobel prize in economics”).

 

THE SECOND ENCLOSURE

In Italy, a new political interest in common goods arose after a commission appointed by Romano Prodi’s government delivered its report in 2008. The commission was led by the jurist Stefano Rodotà and proposed to define common goods as:

“what is necessary for the exercise of fundamental rights and for free personal development”.

The report emphasized that the status of those entitled to these goods – whether “the owners” are “public or private legal entities” – has no significance. The Commission insisted that the resources must be managed on the basis that they must facilitate the exercise of a right.

Defining water as a “common good” thus means that regardless of who organizes the water supply, they must ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water in sufficient quantities.

In the wake of the Rodotà Commission, several social and political movements in Italy have used the concept of the common good to criticize a private sector and a neoliberal state that fails to satisfy basic collective needs.

In a referendum in June 2011, 25 million Italians (95.3 percent of the vote) voted against the privatization of local public water supplies.

The rediscovery of the commons is not limited to natural resources. In 1983, the young computer scientist Richard Stallman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) posted a call on a discussion group on Usenet where he proposed to develop an operating system for free use. This is how the free software movement arose as a reaction against a software industry where computer programs were made as goods subject to copyright and restrictive terms of use.

The movement does not want computer code to be seen as the exclusive property of a private actor, but rather as a freely available resource that everyone can contribute to developing. Many digital commons have picked up these principles of openness and sharing, and use them to create encyclopedias (Wikipedia) and databases (Open Food Facts) or collective works of art with licenses such as Free Art and Creative Commons. The various defenders of the commons all level the same criticism at exclusive private property.

The Italian beni comuni movement is a reaction against the privatization of public services, while the interest in “physical” commons came after massive expropriations of land. Digital commons must counteract the privatization of information and knowledge, a privatization that has become so extensive that several lawyers speak of a “second enclosure“.

 

NEITHER PUBLIC NOR PRIVATE

The commons are, as such, a spearhead at the heart of neoliberalism’s central institutions. They attack the belief that more private ownership will lead to greater economic efficiency. The work of Ostrom has disproved this hypothesis, at the same time that more and more jointly managed resources contradict it in practice. When it comes to physical resources, the commons often build on different types of collective ownership, for example cooperatives.

Digital commons are protected by specific licenses that prevent the classic forms of copyright and allow for the free use of collective creations: General Public Database License (GPL), Creative Commons, Open Database License (ODbL).

The advocates for the commons challenge private ownership, but they also criticize the state’s sale of public property and liberalisations. Does public ownership really provide greater guarantees than private ownership, when the state can freely sell off resources to balance the accounts?

(..) Allmenningene inviterer til å revurdere forbindelsen mellom markedssfæren, statens oppgaver og det som kan overlates til fellesskapets frie selvorganisering.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Finally, a thorough review by one of the main advocates of the Commons, David Bollier, can be seen in this video:

Geographisches Institut Universität Bonn (2023): The renaissance of the commons discourse – An Interview with David Bollier 

28 minutes, but well worth watching.