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.