The commons: an antidote to globalisation

The corporate market has become the institutional equivalent of a compulsive eater. It has a built-in hunger that cannot be filled, and it is hard to stop the damage within the framework of its own game.

Total ownership by the state exchanges one kind of appetite for another. Regulation is a necessary but precarious peace. Taxes and fees – on emissions, for example – can use the price system to turn the reptilian calculus of the corporation in a less destructive direction, but ultimately it’s like asking the crocodile to fly.

There is a need for a different kind of economic institution, one encoded for social stability and the husbandry of resources the way the corporation is encoded for their opposites. Such an institution exists, and has for centuries. It is the commons, and it is making a resurgence today because it produces in ways the market can’t.

The term ‘commons’ can strike the modern ear as a relic from Ye olde England. Yet villages and main streets are old concepts too, and they have taken on a new importance in this globalised age. The commons is a resource to which groups of people have rights even though they do not own it individually. In the past it was mainly land, air and water, but today it encompasses such things as knowledge, culture and social space generally.

Corporations and sometimes governments have a bottomless craving to turn them into markets. The commons is a kind of antimatter that can resist this ‘enclosure’. Economists dismiss it as ‘tragic’ because – they say – it is inherently prone to over-use (i.e. what is owned by all is cared for by none), but that is a canard, born of hermetic economic logic rather than study of how commons actually have worked.

For centuries the English commons provided sustenance and social supports for otherwise landless peasants. commoners farmed their own plots in common fields, and enjoyed rights of hunting and forage on lands – often lands of nobles – they did not own. they shared implements and labour, and combined their herds to fertilise in fallow seasons.

Historian EP thompson observed that the actual commoners of history were not, as economists assume, ‘so lacking in common sense’ as to destroy the source of their sustenance. When Parliament abolished their traditional rights of use – that is, when it ‘enclosed’ the commons and turned it into fungible real estate – it was not because the commons didn’t work but because the commons wasn’t suited for the industrial agriculture that Parliament wanted to promote.

Locality, place and social cohesion, all were seen as clogs in the divine physics of the market. Two centuries later they have become scarce because of that physics, and the result has been an instinctive recourse to the commons in old ways and new.

One example is the revival of common spaces. The first American settlements started with these – the Boston common, for example. Now cities across the US are going back to them, from Bryant Park in New York City and Copley Square in Boston to Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon and Union Square in San Francisco.

Some years ago Detroit tried to revive its decayed downtown in the usual way, with a mammoth corporate office complex. It flopped. More recently, the city took the opposite approach and created an attractive commons called Campus Martius. Now people are coming in from the suburbs for concerts, skating and just to hang out. New investment has followed.

Another example is community gardens, which have become wildly popular in the US. these are direct descendants of the old common fields: people work individual plots in a context of community ownership and governance. the gardeners grow not only vegetables, but also community. 

A kindred instinct is at work in the movement to protect traditional main streets against the socially degenerative effects of WalMart and its ilk. Main streets function as commons, combining the commercial with the social and civic in a way that promotes human interaction. for that matter, the revival of the coffee shop – which is a kind of private commons – is part of this trend. Even Starbucks defines itself as a third place between work and home.

The commons provide a template for the management of scarce natural resources too. today, throughout the world – from alpine meadows to third World irrigation systems – people manage shared resources in this traditional way. When it doesn’t work and ‘tragedy’ takes over, a corporation or government has usually invaded a local setting with its own rules.

This is not a nostalgia trip. the commons really does tap generative energies the corporate market doesn’t – in particular, those associated with ‘we-thinking’ as opposed to ‘me-thinking’. Look at what is happening in the digital realm. Open software such as Linux and the fecund culture of sharing on the World Wide Web go against accepted economic logic. So does the emergence of the creative commons and ‘copyleft’, through which artists and performers release work on
the condition it will never be enclosed in a property regime for private gain.

These make no sense in market terms, but they are natural in commons terms. They bespeak a yearning to get off the treadmill of market calculus and into freer and more open air. The commons can’t be anachronistic if it is taking root at the cutting-edge of technological change. An ancient future really is emerging. When the same meme takes hold in regard to both the ecosystem and the social system, and in the high-tech realm as well, we might just be on the cusp of something big.

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Jonathon Rowe is a contributing editor  at Washington Monthly and YES! magazins, and is a Fellow at te Tomales Bay Institute. He is also co-director of West Marin Commons in Point Reyes Station, California, US

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2008