The Struggle for the Commons
The commons is an old value that’s resurfacing as a fresh approach to twenty-first-century crises such as escalating economic inequality, looming ecological disruption and worsening social alienation.
In essence, the commons means everything that belongs to all of us, and the many ways we work together to use these assets to build a better society. This encompasses fresh air and clean water, public spaces and public services, the Internet and the airwaves, our legal system, scientific knowledge, biodiversity, language, artistic traditions, fashion styles, cuisines and much more. Taken together, it represents a vast inheritance bequeathed equally to every human—and one that, if used wisely, will provide for future generations.
Tragically, this wealth is being stolen in the name of economic efficiency and global competitiveness. As the disparity between the world’s richest individuals and everyone else grows, a massive takeover of the commons is occurring. Through privatization schemes, land grabs, excessive copyright and patenting claims, no-new-taxes policies, neocolonial globalization and the gutting of government services, we are losing what is rightfully ours. These radical policies inflict economic pain but also diminish the natural world, our sense of community and the ability to participate in decisions affecting our future.
Of course, this is nothing new. It has been happening ever since feudal lords in Europe enclosed forests and grazing lands (the original meaning of the word “commons”), which helped set the stage for the brutality of the Industrial Revolution and colonial invasions. The assault on the commons has intensified over the past thirty years, however, because of the rise of market ideology as the overpowering force in international politics.
But all is not lost. We still depend on and take advantage of the commons every minute of the day, from the tap water we use to brush our teeth in the morning to the fairy tales we tell our kids at bedtime. We have no choice but to redouble efforts to save the commons in its many forms, from essential public services in our communities to net neutrality to a spirit of cooperation in our everyday lives. As awareness of what belongs to all of us grows among progressives, the commons is gradually emerging as both a critique and a strategy to challenge the dominance of market-based values at every level of our society.
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The work of the commons points us toward a brighter future where the out-of-control individualism of modern society is balanced with a new appreciation of what we can accomplish together—a welcome shift from “me” to “we.” This can range from community gardens and budget-cut protests at the grassroots level to open-source initiatives in professional fields to economic justice and environmental campaigns in the political world. (Of course, most people doing commons work don’t call it that, and many may not be familiar with the term at all; for them it’s simply the “common good.”)
Although a new concept to us, the commons stands as a central organizing principle of indigenous societies, peasant communities and many advanced industrial nations. Social democracy, as practiced in Europe and other places, embodies a basic commons principle—that no one should be denied basic needs like food, housing, healthcare, daycare, education, transportation, job training, paid vacation, a comfortable old age and a measure of dignity in their lives.
Even American society has been grounded in the commons idea since the beginning. Nature’s gifts are “the common property of the human race,” declared Thomas Paine. The Land Ordinance of 1785, drafted by a committee of the Continental Congress that included Thomas Jefferson, established a cooperative model for settlement of the West (and removal of Indian nations) by setting aside one square-mile section of every township as common property to be used to support a public school.
New Deal legislation, crowned by the Social Security Act and the GI Bill, drew upon a sense of the commons—the belief that we’re all in this together—to elevate millions of families into the middle class. In many cases, however, these benefits were denied to African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians, a situation Ira Katznelson chronicles in his book When Affirmative Action Was White. Repairing longstanding racial and economic injustice remains one of the central themes of commons activism today.
Although rarely articulated as a distinct philosophy, the ideals of the commons provided inspiration for key advancements throughout our history—ranging from public health improvements and civic reforms of the Progressive era to the gains made for working families by labor unions to the accomplishments of social movements since the 1960s. All these success stories refute frequent claims that individualism alone accounts for America’s progress.
For progressives today, a new focus on all that we share will provide a boost in forging strategies and policies that win the hearts of Americans. Until the Great Recession hit in 2008, increasing numbers bought into the market mantra that you cannot depend on anything you don’t own. Although this made little sense to the majority of Americans left behind by the economy, especially those who never shared in the prosperity, many middle-class people came to accept that logic. Who cares that the recreation center at the park is padlocked, when you can buy into a private health club?
Then, suddenly, all that we share—parks, libraries, transit, public schools, a social safety net, a sense of community cooperation—has become increasingly important. Yet, ironically, at a time when demand for public and civic services is rising, sharp reductions in tax revenues and charitable giving (along with politicians’ refusal to raise taxes) mean that these services are being cut back or eliminated.
More Americans understand it’s crazy that library hours are being slashed when increasing numbers of people can’t afford Internet service, magazine subscriptions or new books. It’s ridiculous that transit fares are rising and routes are being cut when it’s harder than ever for some people to afford cars or gas, and when it’s clear that auto emissions are affecting the world’s climate. It’s criminal that programs helping the poor, both in government and in civil society, are struggling to find money when so many more people now depend on them.
In my new book, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, I call this situation “a tragedy of the commons.” In fact, that’s the opposite of how this phrase is generally understood—that the commons itself is the tragedy, not its destruction. This negative view dates to 1968, when wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin published a hugely influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he speculated that collective ownership of resources was a major factor in environmental destruction. Describing a hypothetical common pasture, he argued that because no one owns it outright, no one has an incentive to take care of it. This means that everyone will graze as many cattle as possible there until the land turns barren.
Free-market advocates seized on Hardin’s parable as proof that any system other than rigid private property leads to ruin. It took decades of work by Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom—co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, the first woman so honored—to debunk the belief that the commons inevitably leads to tragedy. Ostrom’s fieldwork in Kenya, Switzerland, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey and Los Angeles shows that people in real communities generally create rules and systems to protect the resources they share. These can be enforced by government regulation, local customs or other means. Other examples include the rules New England lobstermen developed through the years to prevent overfishing and the acequia irrigation systems in arid New Mexico, which have been successfully governed by community groups as long as four centuries.
The tragedy of the commons, in Hardin’s sense of the phrase, does indeed exist, as seen in the collapse of global fish stocks and continuing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. But Ostrom’s research shows that the lack of commons management, not the commons itself, is to blame.
The recognition of Ostrom’s work, along with a culture of online sharing fostered by the Internet, is sparking the emergence of a new movement championing the commons—as a precious inheritance we must save and as a way of looking at the world. It’s actually a movement of movements, as activists concerned about seemingly distinct issues as indigenous rights, fair access to the Internet, economic inequity, the environment or the growing lack of democratic participation realize what they have in common. There’s real potential for “more than the sum of the parts” results here. The surprising rise of Europe’s “pirate” parties (which recently won seats in Berlin’s state legislature), sparked by opposition to restrictive copyrights and patent laws, points to the political possibilities of the commons.
The number of people who identify as “commoners” is still small; yet the commons movement already has a global reach, with citizens from thirty-four nations attending the first International Conference on the Commons, in Berlin last November, including a government minister and a former president of the national assembly from Ecuador. The World Social Forum issued a call for “all citizens of the world to deepen the notion of the commons.” So far the ideals of the commons seem to appeal most to people in developing nations and social democracies, where individualism and the market mentality are not so ingrained as in the United States.
But the financial implosion of 2008 and its still-reverberating side effects could be the catalyst for Americans to rethink some of our assumptions about what matters most in society. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, many sought comfort in the nostrums of the Tea Party. But as it becomes clear that high unemployment, economic uncertainty and escalating wealth disparities are here to stay under current policies, the values of the commons will resonate with more Americans. The emergence of this progressive worldview could help redefine the American Dream and our political priorities.