One lazy afternoon in the week between Christmas and the New Year’s day – one of those days that time doesn’t really exist – I caught myself reading an essay about the role of the state in politics as it follows from Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’ skepticism on human nature. In short, both thinkers seem to agree that humans are by nature selfish, greedy, deceptive and untrustworthy, so any form of political order, if it aspires to consolidate itself, has to deal with these issues in a rather sovereign way. The same old story however, wasn’t enough to change the mood of the day. Suddenly, as I was scrolling through the text, I came across a reference; Garret Hardin and his Tragedy of the Commons– alas, time still exists!
This is a Tragedy
What is this Tragedy, and what are the Commons? Before we go deeper in this discussion, it is important to give a generic definition of the Commons. Broadly, when we discuss about the commons our mind mainly goes to resources that are used in common, from public lands, pastures and forests to seas, oceans and rivers; and these are exactly the Commons that Hardin has also in his mind. The American human ecologist, in 1968, wrote the Tragedy of the Commons endeavouring to understand why, so often in the course of history, human beings destroy their own resources (Hardin, 1968). Since then, the title of his influential essay has been transformed into a slogan, which is used to illustrate the massive degradation or overexploitation of resources held in common. In other words, Hardin sought to problematize common rights, commoning practices and the sharing of common lands. The metaphor he used in order to describe, after all, a general problem of overpopulation alleged that rational individuals, who have free access in a common resource, will seek to maximize their own personal profit until the depletion of that resource. In his classical parable Hardin argues that all herdsmen who are sharing a common livestock, sooner or later, will be driven to increase constantly the number of their herds. As a result, this would lead inescapably to the destruction of their common grassland. Accordingly, the only solution in avoiding such tragedy, is either the institution of individual property rights or a form of public management on common resources.
Undeniably then, we are in front of a tragedy! However, slightly different tragedy from the one Hardin describes. I want to claim that Hardin’s case is not one of a commons or commoning; rather, it is a case of free or open access to a scarce resource wherein the relations, practices, codes and values of a community, which make and share a commons, are completely absent. To put it in nutshell, Hardin’s model is rather the tragedy of an ad hoc community, one that lacks all the elements that institute a community; and likewise, the solutions, or the catharsis, proposed here render the social process of commoning impossible, as the dispossession of the commons by market or other state agents radically denies any sense of community.
The Commons’ tale
But now, as I have implied that the commons is not only about resources, it’s time to delve deeper to the specificities – historical and sociopolitical – that can help us to elaborate a fully fledged account of what I wish to describe as the social force of commoning. In his seminal book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, Peter Linebaugh locates the historical, legal, cultural and constitutional roots of the principles of common and subsistence rights within the two texts of the Magnae Chartae Libertatum Angliae , the Magna Carta of 1215 and its companion, the Charter of the Forest (Linebaugh, 2008). As Linebaugh demonstrates along with the ratification of individual civil liberties against the state (habeas corpus, prohibition against torture, due process and trial by jury) the two charters were also enacting a set of common rights necessary for people’s subsistence. More specifically, all ‘free men’ of the kingdom were granted with a set of common rights: access within the royal forest and the right to appropriate its recourses, pastures and arable lands. What is important here to understand is, that for the English commoners of the 13th century these rights and practices were already embedded in a particular ecology with its husbandry rights, as well as in a collective labor process and even more strikingly they were considered to be independent of the law and the state (Linebaugh, 2008: pp. 44-5). In this context, we can now grasp better what I named earlier the social force of commoning: a collectivity of urban or rural dwellers, which is essentially constituted on the basis of the commoning practices and relations that are substantive for their social and physical well-being.
Echoing this social character of the commons in 1990, Elinor Ostrom demonstrated that the commons are intrinsically linked with collective forms of governance, whereby on the one hand, the commoners set up communal principles and rules to maintain the sustainability of the shared resources, while on the other, they frame their commoning practices (Ostrom, 1990: pp. 89-90). The Nobel Prize awarded scholar counterposed to both the ‘Leviathan’ (public management) and the exclusionary solutions (private property rights) for the appropriation of the commons, what we can call the cooperative solution for the governance of the commons (Ostrom, 1990: pp. 8-28). This triple distinction, quite explicitly, brings to the fore a central issue for the commons; that is, of course, the forms and the means through which both the state and the capital attempt to seize, commodify or restrict the use of common wealth (labour and resources).
The commoners, the commons and the commoning
In the long history of the commons, one could address a wide variety of approaches that seek to grasp with different instances of this particular force field as Linebaugh and Ostrom have also described it. At this level, though, I shall briefly discuss my underlying understanding of the commons. As it becomes apparent from the above, the commons are not just resources. Thus, this article endeavours to think of the commons as a form of collective action that contains multiple political, cultural or symbolic networks of everyday dwellers. Such networks constitute the fundamental pattern of commoning structures. Hence, in some distance with the influential work of Elinor Ostrom on the commons, I argue that the practices of commoning do not simply represent a third sector beyond the state and market. In effect, the contemporary forms of grassroots commons are situated within the vast transformation of social relations of labour and capital instrumented in the context of modern neoliberalism. To put it more ponderously, but also schematically, the commons consists of material or immaterial resources, human labour, social sites and intersubjective relations within which organized human action occurs, channeled by practices of being and doing in common. Unpacked, these commoning ventures may take some of the following forms (but also many others):
• self-managed working projects
• social and alternative economy cooperatives
• social centers for migrants and refugees
• educational and cultural self-organized ventures
• solidarity healthcare clinics
• solidarity initiatives around housing and private debt issues
• digital, network and creative commons
To this extent, the institutions of the commons shape and create knowledge, culture, social relations, social practices and subjectivities which are grounded on principles of cooperation, openness, responsibility and solidarity. The processes of commoning, the commoners and the commons are substantial components of a reorganizational social force for the reappropriation of the ‘wealth’ that has been collectively produced. Through their everyday practices and struggles commoners reproduce commonwealth whereby, equally, reproduce themselves (De Angelis, 2017: p. 229). By imagining and prefiguring alternative frameworks of being and doing in common, they neither only stage the preconditions for the existence of the common nor simply the significance of the collective use of the environmental resources, the construction of solidarity networks and alternative economy; rather, they foreground an active experimentation with images of an alternative sociopolitical structure, which is based on and continuously constituted by common relationships, meanings and values (Federici, 2011).
As we have seen the commons are based on relationally and culturally created transactions. They emerge in the heart of our social life, in smaller or bigger cities, villages and neighborhoods where the needs of local dwellers meet. They rediscover and invent different repertoires of shared labour, production and common based economies. They develop new methods and technologies that open up new horizons in the use of digital networks and applications. Through common labour, solidarity and respect of freedom and difference, they prefigure an alternative sociopolitical horizon in the ‘here’ and ‘now’. This short reflection on the commons, sets out to provide an initial problematization of the commons. Thus, it provides some ideas that can facilitate a more focused investigation of such sociopolitical practices. In the following articles we will have the opportunity to navigate through more concrete examples of commoning practices in order to designate their deeper sociopolitical implications for a radical democratic strategy.
DE ANGELIS, M. 2017. Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism, Zed Books.
FEDERICI, S. 2011. Feminism and the politics of the commons. 14. Available: http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=113.
HARDIN, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
LINEBAUGH, P. 2008. The Magna Carta manifesto : liberties and commons for all, Berkeley, University of California Press.
OSTROM, E. 1990. Governing the commons : the evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.