The Wealth of the Commons: Review

Jan 04, 2013 1 Comment by

The Wealth of the Commons – a world beyond market & state
David Bollier and Silke Helfrich Eds
Levellers

This book is a remarkable collection of some 72 articles written by academics and activists on a variety of topics related directly or indirectly to the theory of ‘the Commons’ and the practice of ‘commoning’. The book explores the possibility that the concept of the Commons provides us with the model we need to build just and sustainable human societies in place of the currently dominant unjust and unsustainable economic/political system. It has left me convinced that the Commons is indeed an important model, or paradigm, which is probably more apt. The book is certainly a ‘must read’, indeed, if you can afford it, a ‘must have’, so you can take in the wealth of information and ideas at your own pace, going back to re-study at your leisure. Most of the articles are a ‘good read’ too.

It may not even occur to many people that the subject of commons is worth studying. Are not commons of little more than historical importance? Were they not nearly all wiped out by centuries of forcible enclosures, surviving only in distant places like tropical forests and coastal fisheries? And are they not somewhat problematical due to Garrett Hardin’s famous ‘tragedy of the commons’? The concept is surely too weak to be of much practical use today, faced as we are with governments in thrall to corporate big business, not least the fossil fuel and the arms industries. What possible relevance can an ancient concept such as the commons have to dealing with global scale problems such as climate change? Well, read this book and you will discover that today another story is emerging. This book rescues the concept of the Commons from obscurity and places it at the fore-front of creative thinking about the future of human societies, establishing it, in my view, as a crucial paradigm for thinking about humanity’s future and for the work of building the institutional frameworks necessary for survival, including those needed at the global level.

Part I, entitled ‘The Commons as a New Paradigm’, contains some seriously interesting and original thinking about the natural world and the implications, in terms of governance, of the fact that humans are part of the natural world. Nature is a commons. It operates as a commons. We are part of that commons. There are scholarly essays here, by authors not afraid to challenge conventional assumptions. The title of Part II, Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance, speaks for itself. It is not that commons regimes have failed due to any inherent failings; they have been destroyed by government-backed forces of enclosure, commodification and privatisation, as seventeen experts describe here. The natural human ability for cooperative governance has not however been entirely extinguished. In fact it’s alive and kicking. Part III describes a wide range of cooperative systems as examples of commons flourishing today. The digital world has seen some of the most exciting commons-based innovations, described in Part IV, obvious examples being GNU/Linux (90% of the world’s 500 fastest computers use Linux) and Wikipedia (English edition has three million articles and there are Wikipedias in over 200 other languages). Part V concerns various institutional issues, relevant, but not all related directly, to commons regimes.

So what is a Commons? One perhaps thought of a common as an area of land, like the common across the road from my home as a child, which was presumably called that because it was, in days gone by, managed as a Common. But no, a Commons is not the land or other natural resource, it is a system, a regime defining the relationship between people and a natural resource on which they depend, it is the rules which users agree between themselves. David Bollier and Burns H Weston define a Commons as “a regime for managing common-pool resources that eschews individual property rights and State control”. The commons paradigm thus has these key features:

  • It refers to a regime regulating people’s use of a natural resource
  • The purposes are fairness between the users and preservation of the resource
  • The regime is created by the users, not states or governments
  • The process of making the rules is cooperative and participatory
  • The regime excludes ownership, property rights, commodification and privatisation.
  • ‘Commoning’ refers to the practice of creating or participating in commons.
  • As the editors point out, the Commons paradigm “embodies its own logic and patterns of behaviour, functioning as a different kind of operating system for society”. Just as today the currently dominant paradigm requires everyone to take it for granted, for example, that governance is the prerogative of nation-state governments, that governments must be elected, that ministers are in charge, that of course we need economic growth and that property rights must be protected; so the Commons paradigm makes certain assumptions, for example, recognising people as essentially social beings, members of communities rather than isolated individuals, all being dependent on the preservation of the natural systems they are using, Where the current economic paradigm sees people only as workers, consumers and voters, the Commons paradigm sees them as participating directly in the creation and operation of the commons regimes that affect them. Whilst corporations including vast multinationals are key players in the dominant global economic system, their non-human DNA excludes them from participation in the Commons because the Commons is based on who we are as human beings. Where the current system is blind to natural limits, a crucial purpose of the Commons is to preserve the rest of the natural world for future generations and other species. And it recognises that, for that, clear rules are needed and must be complied with.

    As this book illustrates again and again, the Commons is a rich concept, far from exhausted by the 438 pages of this book – as the editors point out, several relevant topics are not included. As a paradigm the commons has amply proved its scope and flexibility in relation both to local natural resources and in the digital world. Does it also have the potential to be a paradigm that enables humanity to co-create the just and sustainable societies we need to build? Can it be applied at the global scale? The claim the editors make is that “Once you have learned to see the world through the lens of the Commons you will naturally apply that perspective to your own encounters with topics we could barely address”. I agree. Here is an example.

    As a contributor to the Cap and Share project (http://www.capandshare.org,) and a chapter author of Sharing for Survival, I was well aware of the ‘commons movement ‘. I knew that our work on climate change should be linked to it; but until I read this book I hadn’t realised the huge potential of the Commons paradigm that I have now woken up to. Commons principles have never been applied to global resources such as the atmosphere, but there is no reason why they can’t be. Indeed they must be. The Commons paradigm is directly applicable to the human response to climate change. The atmosphere is a common-pool resource: it has a vital climate regulation role, and is used, currently over-used, by humanity as a dump for disposal of gases from burning fossil fuels, leading to disastrous disruption of the climate regulation role – the ultimate tragedy of the commons. So, applying Commons thinking, we, the global human community, the users of this natural resource, need to cooperatively institute a regime to restrict this use, a regime that’s effective to preserve the atmosphere’s function of climate regulation: a Commons regime. Members of the Feasta Climate Group have taken the first step of designing a system to do that, a global Cap and Share scheme – which we believe would be effective in relation to emissions from fossil fuels and also fair as between the users – to be administered by a global climate commons trust. Now we have to negotiate a collaborative agreement with our fellow humans throughout the world to put that, or something like it, or some other clear rules that are effective and fair, in place, as a Commons project. What I knew before reading this book was that, governments having failed to act, it was left to global civil society to act. What the book has taught me is that Commoning (as opposed to government action) is and always has been the only way the climate, and indeed any other global common-pool resource, could have been managed sustainably. The global Cap and Share proposal is a Commons project par excellence, a Commons project by the global community. The way we work needs to reflect that. That’s a deep lesson.

    This example serves to illustrate the kind of creative thinking this book is full of and
    its potential to inspire. But I must remind myself, this is a book review, not an essay for the next edition of the book! Back in book-review mode, I should mention that whilst much of the writing is informative, some is analytical. It is a good mix and very wide-ranging. Not all of it is about what one might call pure Commoning, some of it is only indirectly relevant, for example there is an essay about multilevel governance and coordination drawing on research into projects within the existing paradigm of governance; as well as a discussion between Feasta member Brian Davey and others about ‘abundance’. Some essays fail in my view to take fully into account the systemic limitations of existing governmental systems, for example, the authors of an essay on the atmosphere as a global commons, whilst recognising the atmosphere as global common-pool resource, advocate working for an inter-nation-state-governmental agreement rather than a new Commons regime of global regulation such as Feasta members propose. But even opinions I don’t entirely agree with are thought-provoking, one example being the rights-based approach of some contributors, another being the view that the Commons movement would benefit from more government support and facilitation as suggested by the editors. I don’t myself think the movement needs any philosophical justification nor assistance from the current system; to my mind the strength of the movement lies entirely within itself; and the more it achieves on its own and of its own validity, the stronger it will become. Michel Bauwens and Franco Iacomella think it has the power to bring together all existing ecological, social justice and emancipatory movements to create a new world order: I agree, my only worry being whether we’ll make it in time. With climate feed-back systems capable of resulting in global average temperature increases of between 4 and (according to David Wasdell) 10 degrees C by the end of this century, there is no time to spare.

    By the way, this book would almost be worth acquiring just as a source of information about the people and organisations you might want to network with. Please also see Leo Burke’s excellent review at http://www.kosmosjournal.org/articles/book-review-the-wealth-of-the-commons-a-world-beyond-market-state.

    Featured image: Satoyama (Japanese commons) with layers of vegetation devoted to different types of agriculture. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Satoyama,_utilize_plant_layer.jpg

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About the author

For 30 years John practiced as a barrister in London advising clients about the law of trusts. Increasing awareness of the deep-seated flaws in mainstream economic and political systems led to using his professional expertise to help establish a number of new institutions, including FIELD the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development and Feasta the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. Publications include two Feasta Reviews, edited jointly with Richard Douthwaite, and the Schumacher Briefing Gaian Democracies, written jointly with Roy Madron. His most recent work is an article on the global governance systems needed to tackle climate change, which appears in the Feasta book Sharing for Survival, published in April 2012.

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