The Case for the Commons

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James Yang /

This article is part of a series of articles on the commons. For more, readThe Science of Cooperation andA New Political Dawn. For more writing on the commons from the alternative press,

The first three times I heard the wordcommons, I had no idea what it meant. Hearing the phrase House of Commons in a media report from the British Parliament, I guessed that being a part of the commons meant being rich, white, and aggressively drunk. The next time, it appeared in a British children’s television series in the 1970s–The Wombles, about a group of furry creatures who practiced the dark arts of recycling on Wimbledon Common. I imagined a common to be a place littered with exciting things that were removed by the Wombles to be reused in their burrow. The third time was on a holiday in New York, where my family was told that if we wanted to have the full American experience, we needed to head to Woodbury Common, a large shopping complex outside New York City. (I got a sweater with an American flag on it.) Common, I thought, was American English for “shopping center.” What I never quite understood was that common could be not only a place, but also a verb to describe how to value and share the world around us.

Although it is often associated with Britain and its colonies, the commons as place and process can be found in societies from Central America to South Asia and, most recently, cyberspace. A commons is a resource, most often land, and refers both to the territory and to the ways people allocate the goods that come from that land. The commons has traditionally provided food, fuel, water, and medicinal plants for those who used it–it was the poorest people’s life-support system.

The term “tragedy of the commons” was coined by microbiologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 Science article, in which he asked what happens when individuals compete for a scarce resource. Hardin argued that when people are faced with a shared resource, they will be overrun by their own selfish desires to consume it, even if they know that they’re destroying it in the process. So, propelled by animal urges of self-satisfaction, in a world of scarcity, people will end up destroying the thing that they depend on for survival. Hobbes couldn’t have said it better. Hardin’s views weren’t, however, based on any experimental or observed evidence, and they ignored history. Despite this disconnection from the past, his essay became one of the most widely cited think pieces of the 20th century.

In many ways, Hardin’s world looks a lot like our own, as we destroy it at a pace made more frantic by the recession. If you’re looking for a tragedy, you can find it everywhere, from the scrambling coltan-mining communities in the Congo to the increasingly desperate actions of farmers applying inorganic fertilizer to the soil to replace the fertility that their mono­culture has destroyed. Hardin’s is also a perspective that resonates with a particular breed of environmentalist.

Scratch the surface, though, and Hardin’s arguments blame the victim. Looking at the 20th century’s great environmental disasters, one doesn’t see people run amok. The environmental tragedies from the Dust Bowl to the mass extinctions of rainforest and ocean are the result of the behavior of corporations, of capitalist agriculture and forestry and fishing. The Dust Bowl happened because while individuals knew full well the value of the topsoil, their induction into capitalist agriculture turned them into exploiters of the very land on which their survival depended, transforming their connection to the world around them into one solely of short-term profit.

To understand the commons today, it’s worth starting in feudal England–the birthplace of modern capitalism–by looking at the Magna Carta’s twin charter, the Charter of the Forest. Now largely forgotten, the Charter of the Forest guaranteed the right of commoners to access pasture for their animals, to till land, to collect wood, harvest honey, use medicinal plants, forage, and so on. Historian Peter Linebaugh observes in The Magna Carta Manifesto that a commons right guaranteed freedoms in perpetuity over local resources for everyone. This did not mean that everyone could take as much as he or she wanted. To have a commons isn’t to license a free-for-all, as Hardin suggests, and it is not what happened historically. The precise shape of commoning was negotiated in a particular place and time, dependent on the ecology and the community. Common rights evolved over time, shaped by the relative power of those around the table as well as the changing geography of the physical commons itself. The commons was, in other words, both a place and a process of freedom in which people fought for the right to shape the terms on which they could share the commons.

It’s important not to romanticize the idea. Commoning did not take place in some protodemocratic Eden where everyone got a fair and equal say. The commons were an ongoing battlefield between lords and their serfs, but it was one in which the poor had won some victories, and had managed to stake a claim to public space in defiance of those who oppressed them. The Magna Carta itself represented a line in the sand, a negotiated end to the rapacity of King John of England, who, in order to bankroll both a crusade and a war in France, had committed all manner of crimes. He taxed barons, stole forests, took children hostage, and even sold his first wife to the Earl of Essex.

The barons rebelled. In 1215 they marched into London, confronted the king, and negotiated hard. The Magna Carta included demands made by the barons, the merchants, and the well-to-do in London, but it also strongly protected common rights, providing common access to the food, fuel, freedom, and fruits of the forest for common people, returning to the public the natural resources that King John had taken for himself. This is the commons that historians have pointed to in rejecting Hardin’s arguments. Contrary to the theory, people figured out how to manage and maintain access to a scarce resource, despite the desire of kings and nobles to privatize it. If one is looking to affix the word tragedy to the commons, the nightmare began not with the creation of the commons, but with the process of its destruction.

Sometimes piecemeal, sometimes sweeping, enclosure was the process by which land was once again taken out of public hands. Surveyors used chains to rope off areas of common land and formally assign title to a single individual. Not only fields but also forest and water were similarly enclosed–with lords preventing access to ponds and streams well stocked with fish, and to forests teeming with game that had provided the poor with meat. By 1500, 45 percent of cultivable land in England had been enclosed and took on a new logic–not only to provide private land for individual landlords, but also to drive up the price of rent for those landlords.

This theft was deeply unpopular and provided the backdrop for rebellions ranging from small-scale acts of insubordination to the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt to the Diggers in the mid-1600s and beyond. The protests and resistance were always crushed, and because enclosure had seized the peasants’ only means of survival, they had only two choices: work for their new landlords or try their luck in the cities. Adam Smith lamented the violence being done to the commons by the spread of private property, though the process was already over: “The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the laborer only the trouble of gathering them. . . . [He must now] pay for the license to gather them; and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labor either collects or produces.” Within a generation, these displaced peasants were to become the proletarian backbone of the Industrial Revolution.

One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to see how property is social. To take one example, consider how governments deal with the broadcast spectrum. The airwaves are owned by the government, and the right to broadcast on a particular frequency is sold to media companies subject to their fulfilling certain social purposes. If broadcasters transmit material that’s considered lewd or inappropriate, they will be fined, and if they continue to violate sanctions, their right to use that bit of spectrum can be taken back. The laws that govern how animals can be treated provide another example. Most countries have laws that permit animals to be owned as property, but there are nonetheless restrictions–cruelty to cats and dogs is prohibited in most countries. Under the “social function” doctrine in a number of Latin American countries’ constitutions, there are similar provisions when it comes to other private property. Land, for example, can be privately owned as long as it’s being put to use, but the moment it is left derelict, or if the land is owned purely for speculative purposes, ownership rights to the land are forfeited and it becomes available to anyone who will put it to greater use. Property rights, in other words, can be far more flexible and elastic than we currently imagine them to be.

When the social role of the land was decided by the standards of the colonial British, however, things didn’t work out well for native North Americans. Although their hunting techniques were in harmony with the environment, and often improved it, they couldn’t prove this to the people who took their land. When white people came along, they saw rich and fertile land that appeared to be occupied by Native Americans only for a short period of time every year–they didn’t see how the land was part of a wider system of sustainable nomadic grazing. Some tribes, though, practiced permanent agriculture using sophisticated agroecological methods of maintaining soil fertility and ecological integrity. Within these tribes, as in much of the global South today, it was women’s work to grow food for domestic consumption while the men went out hunting. The English couldn’t comprehend that agriculture was exclusively managed by women, whose English counterparts had been confined to domestic, noncommercial duties. So the colonists described the women’s activity not as agriculture, but as gardening; and then they expropriated their land.

Along the Pacific coast in North America, indigenous economies came under different forms of attack. An institution central to many cultures was potlatch, a ceremony in celebration of a guest or event. Each society had its own rules and customs. The common denominator, and the one that most exercised the white government, was that a potlatch involved mass redistribution of wealth in which the giving away of things was a sign of rank. In the eyes of the U.S. and Canadian governments, Native Americans, without the morally improving virtues of frugality and prudence, would be condemned to perpetual backwardness. Potlatch was described as “[the] parent of numerous vices which eat out the heart of the people. . . . [It] is not possible that Indians can acquire property or can become industrious with any good result, while under the influence of this mania.” So, from 1885 to 1951, the Canadian government declared it illegal, levying a punishment of two to six months in jail.

These nasty little stories have contemporary variants: Governments and corporations are still enclosing forests, fisheries, and agricultural land because, allegedly, the indigenous people on the land are incapable of managing it for the common good, or because the indigenous people simply don’t count. This can be seen in the international legal standard of terra nullius (land belonging to no one), which was used to vacate the rights of indigenous people from the United States to Australia. It remains a live issue: The same legal doctrine is being haggled over from the West Bank to the South China Sea, and wherever “marginal land” is licensed over the objections of marginal people.

Preserving knowledge about how to value natural resources can mean the difference between sustainability and extinction. Consider the quintessential tragedy of the commons, the fisheries. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially when it comes to near-shore, artisanal fisheries. But a case study of traditional fisheries in Chile suggests that giving communities the rights to the commons can be highly successful. Chile banned industrial trawlers in the 1960s so that its artisanal fishing sector would be sheltered from competition with destructive trans­national operations. After a quota system failed, the government began to work with fishing organizations up and down the coast. Together, they came up with a system of territorial use rights in fisheries, or TURFs. Fishing villages and organizations were awarded collective rights over traditional fishing grounds that they’d known and fished for generations. Enforcement was left to local unions. It worked: The fisheries recovered.

The Chilean experience is, however, an exception to the rule. Generally, commons systems aren’t being supported in the 21st century–they’re being dismantled. As they disappear, we lose millennia of accumulated knowledge about how to manage scarce resources sustainably, in terms of both the harvesting technology to keep the resources abundant and also the social systems necessary to ensure that no one takes more than his or her fair share. These systems of knowledge are displaced by the guiding motives of profit-driven markets. This isn’t to say that the existing systems are perfect–they’re not–but they do seem to have offered ways in which societies have survived, and thrived, with a mechanism for setting the value of resources different from that exercised by the profit-driven market. As British activist and writer George Monbiot has noted, the European Union’s “transferable quota” system of fishing rights has resulted in millions of tons of fish being thrown away, 88 percent of fisheries being overexploited, and a cost to the public far greater than the value of the catches.

The enclosure of the commons has destroyed the rich networks of knowledge that once helped guide the way people valued the world. The transformation is, however, never total and never complete–there are always practices, ideas, and experiences that persist and offer tools with which we might begin to think of new ways of valuing beyond profit-driven markets. Now that our ecological and economic crises have become so acute, it seems reasonable to ask why society hasn’t started to heal itself from the violence of profit-driven markets. The answer heard all too often on the left is that things aren’t quite bad enough, and that it will take immense tragedy to mobilize enough sentiment to spur political change.

The trouble with this argument is that things are fairly bad already; the number of people going hungry in 2009, for instance, was projected to be in excess of a billion, a planetary record. But perhaps the most satisfying answer is that, in fact, there is a countermovement–indeed, there are many countermovements, progressive and reactionary, inclusive and exclusive. They are just not widely reported, as, especially in the case of progressive examples, the people leading them are the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the people on whose shoulders the excesses of the rich often fall, the world’s least free people who are discovering that they are themselves the change they’ve been waiting for. They’ve tried to rebalance market society and are trying to transform the way value is set, not by returning to the commons, but by reinventing it.

Raj Patel was named an Utne Reader visionary in 2009. Excerpted from the book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.

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