The Commons

 

Reinventing the Commons Program 

The commons paradigm is a versatile social form that is reviving ancient forms of shared stewardship for resources and community, often with modern twists and the use of digital technologies. 

Contemporary commons can be seen in open source software and Wikipedia, community land trusts and local currencies, seed-sharing cooperatives and co-housing, art collaborations and open textbook projects. What unites countless commons is their attempts to de-commodify resources and mutualize benefits through bottom-up governance systems that are fair and inclusive. 

The Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center works with diverse commoners to advance this vision and build a new type of economy. Instead of privatizing gains and externalizing costs onto nature and society, commons seek to reinvent the very meaning of “the economy” by re-integrating it with living systems, local community, and social participation.

As nonmarket systems, commons provide a regenerative, holistic way of meeting everyday needs and empowering people through self-governance.  Because they are appropriately sized and participatory, commons tend to be more democratic, trusted, oriented to the long term, and adaptable to changing circumstances and local knowledge than either markets or the state.

David Bollier, Director of the Program, has been a scholar and activist on the commons for nearly twenty years, working with many international projects, activists and thinkers through the Commons Strategies Group. He is an author or editor of eight books on the commons, including his popular Think Like a Commoner, which has been translated into seven languages. (Here is Bollier’s full biography.)

The Reinventing the Commons Program has extensive dealings with leading commoners in the US involved in commons-based approaches to food and agriculture, land and water, forests, open source software, peer production, open design and manufacturing, platform co-operatives, arts and culture, urban commons, and alternative currencies.

 

 

New to the Commons?

If you know the commons only as a bit of history, here is an introduction to the commons as a contemporary paradigm of economics, politics and culture:

    

 

 

 

The Commons Movement

A diverse movement of commoners around the world is rediscovering and creating a wide range of new commons, mostly independent of markets and the state.  This fledgling Commons Sector includes myriad traditional commons of forests, farmland, fisheries, and water irrigation in rural settings, but it also extends to countless digital commons such as free and open source software, Wikipedia, and platform co-operatives, not to mention urban commons, local food and agriculture systems, alternative currencies and financial co-ops, and many others.  

What unites these highly diverse communities?  They are asserting a different universe of value than that of the market price system. They share a basic commitment to production for use, not market exchange or profit. They assert the right of communities to participate in making the rules that govern themselves, and the importance of fairness and transparency. As commoners, they claim the responsibility to act as long-term stewards of resources they depend upon. 

While many commons are small and local, the Internet and digital technologies have helped make these initiatives open and connected, so that SLOC projects – small and local, open and connected – are a significant force in remaking the global economy.  “The next big thing is a lot of small things,” as designer Thomas Lommée puts it. This trend is reflected in the surge of commons-based networks such as the European Commons Assembly, Francophone commoners, Remix the Commons, and the pan-European network of progressive activists DiEM25

In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher pressed Great Britain adopt the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, budget cuts, and privileges for capital, she insisted, “There is no alternative!” -- a phrase that was later shortened to its acronym, TINA.  The proliferation of contemporary commons and companion movements makes it clear that the more accurate acronym is TAPAS – “There are plenty of alternatives!”  

 

 

Enclosures of the Commons

The commons movement consists of many people who are fighting the privatization and commodification of their shared wealth by the “free market.”  The “enclosure of the commons” is arguably one of the core dynamics of neoliberal capitalism – to collude with the state to appropriate and marketize the people’s shared resources, whether they be elements of nature, culture and information. 

In the US, we have seen timber companies seize great swaths of forests and wilderness that belong to the American people….federal drug research for which we taxpayers have paid billions of dollars, only to see Big Pharma claim monopoly patents….and the corporate privatization of public universities through “partnerships” that essentially annex publicly funded scientific research.  Most recently, we have seen the fierce attempts by telecom and cable companies to seize control over access to the Internet in order to convert that great commons into a closed marketplace.  Enclosures amount to a massive theft and dispossession of common wealth for private gain.

Market enclosures have provoked the rise of a large movement of commoners seeking to reclaim what is theirs. They include indigenous peoples trying to preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge from the biopiracy of big pharmaceutical and ag-biotech companies. Subsistence farmers and fishers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by industrial harvesting.  Latin Americans fighting the neo-extractivist agenda of multinational companies plundering oil, minerals and genetic knowledge. 

 

 

What About the “Tragedy of the Commons”?

For many people, the term “the commons” brings to mind “the tragedy of the commons.”  That idea was launched by biologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science in 1968.  In his now-famous essay, Hardin asked readers to imagine a pasture in which no individual farmer has a rational incentive to hold back his use of it.  He declared that each individual farmer will put as many sheep on the pasture as possible, which will inevitably result in the over-exploitation and destruction of the pasture:  the tragedy of the commons. 

Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues elevated the “tragedy parable” into a cultural cliché because they saw it as a powerful way to promote private property rights and so-called free markets, and to fight government regulation. 

But Hardin was not really describing a commons.  He was describing an open-access regime that has no rules, boundaries or indeed no community.  In fact, the situation he was describing – in which free riders can appropriate or damage resources at will -- is more accurately a description of unfettered markets.  You might say Hardin was describing the tragedy of the market

Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole “tragedy of the commons” fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons:  The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. This book and hundreds of other case studies by Ostrom and her colleagues showed that it is entirely possible for communities to manage forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, wild game and other natural resources as commons, without over-exploiting them.

How?  People talk to each other. They negotiate rules, they build systems to identify and punish free riders, they develop community norms and cultural traditions, among many other techniques.  The commons is so prevalent as a system for meeting needs that an estimated two billion people around the world depend on commons for their everyday survival.  Strangely, most economists simply ignore commons as a provisioning paradigm because their activities take place outside of conventional markets and cash exchange.   

For her pioneering work in studying the role of cooperation in generating value, Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 – the first woman to win the award. A robust international network of scholars continues her research into commons, most notably via the International Association for the Study of Commons.