The Commons: Caught Between Sovereignty and Property

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

One of the main purposes of this blog is to pluralize fields of thought which on the surface present themselves as stable and indisputable dichotomies. We maintain that theories presenting themselves in such a fashion are potentially dangerous, intrinsically exclusionary and often serve narrow ideological ends. One of such discourses is the dichotomy between the categories of the “public”, understood as the domain of the state, and the “private”, the domain of free markets. The quintessential contrasts between government and private enterprise, between centralized planning and free markets, or between bureaucracies and corporations are ones which have conquered the way we conceptualize the world and the institutions governing it.

The point that this essay attempts to make however, is that there might be something lost by conceptualizing the world in such a narrow fashion. Are the domains of “public” and “private” adequate and efficient paradigms through which to categorize our world and our institutional arrangements?

A growing field of thought thinks otherwise. The movement in defense of  “the commons” claims that both the state and the private sector are inadequate stewards when it comes to managing the long term sustainable use of common resources. Common resources may consist of water basins, forests, fisheries, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity as well as ancestral knowledge or cultural memories. They are things which not do not belong to anyone in particular, but which are fundamental to environmental sustainability and the fulfillment of human and civil rights (the right to water, food, education, etc.).

This movement believes that such resources belong to mankind in common, and that the private sector as well as governments have no right to exclude stakeholders from their management through instances of privatization or bureaucratization. As corporations and governments are unable to overcome their short-term visions, due to quarterly profit targets or election cycles, common resources –when possible- should be governed by local institutions through participatory and democratic practices.

And yet, the idea of local stakeholders governing the resources on which they depend (think of fishermen governing the sustainable use of coastline fisheries) appears outlandish and unfeasible. Surely, across-the board regulation or the privatization of such resources would lead to their more efficient use. Alas, as we well know, this is not so. Callous exploitation of natural resources, environmental disasters, privatization of education and healthcare, and the embarrassing incompetence of governments to produce anything resembling an agreement on climate change are proof of this.

So why does the idea of local self-government of common resources appear to most as naïve? As suggested by this essay’s introduction, one possible reasons is because the categories of “public” and “private” have successfully saturated socio-political discourse to the point where “alternatives” are hastily dismissed as the utopian fantasies of un-pragmatic idealists. It is therefore worth exploring this apparent dichotomy further, as what we find at its heart are not two mutually excluding and fundamentally opposed concepts, but rather two categories functioning along the same logic.

Let us turn to one of the greatest theorists of the modern nation, Max Weber, in order to understand some fundamental characteristics of modern governments. For Weber, modern states exercise a type of domination over their territory called “rational-legal” domination, based on the strict following of  legal rules carried out by stiff bureaucratic administrations. In fact, bureaucracies are a defining feature of modern governments, they are hierarchical structures of authority concerned primarily with efficiency. Bureaucratic administration is characterized by “precision, speed, un-ambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination” (Weber, 1948). They are thus “blind” to cultural norms, religious beliefs or traditional values:

“the more bureaucracy is dehumanized the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from all official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.” (Weber, 1948)

For Weber, modern politics is about domination through the bureaucratic apparatus: communal institutions and traditional modes of collective organization are thereby excluded from government through legislative means (or coercion) in the name of state sovereignty.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the proponents of the private sector. For neo-classical economists such as Milton Friedman the centralized bureaucracies of modern nations are inadequate regulators and inefficient distributors of goods. Free markets and private enterprise, on the other hand, are able to cater to individual and very specific needs of both consumers and providers. Moreover, competition between rational individuals motivated by their self-interest will lead to overall beneficial outcomes. Private property is the cornerstone of this theory, based on the assumption that private possession of a good, as opposed to public, leads to its most efficient use and management. Privatization of all kinds of goods, resources and services -at the expense of other types of possession- is thus to be actively pursued. (Steger & Roy 2010)

The public and private domains appear to be diametrically opposed, but a closer look will actually reveal a few fundamental similarities. Private property functions on a principle of exclusion: it excludes others from what is properly one’s own. The modern state is based on the same exact principle: excluding others from the government of what it has sovereignty on. The exploitation of natural resources, for example, is pursued by all governments in absolutist and exclusionary fashions no different from corporations. Both Weber’s bureaucratic state and Friedman’s free market therefore govern their respective property by excluding stakeholders from the government of common resources. Furthermore, a corporation and a state bureaucracy share the same hierarchical structure, with decision-making powers concentrated in the hands of senior administrators and a lack of stakeholder inclusion or participation.

As such, the “public-private” dichotomy effectively rules out possibilities such as joint or mixed forms of government of common resources. It exhausts the field of possibilities and displaces viable alternatives: only a private company or a government agency may legitimately govern a common resource. Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist and long-time advocate of the defense of the commons, calls this a zero sum game, in which less government leads to more privatization and more government yields less private enterprise. This zero-sum game excludes a priori ideas of participatory governance of common resources (Mattei, 2011)

The dichotomy between public and private, therefore, serves a specific ideological purpose: that to confute and exclude any theory advocating an inclusive, collaborative and diffused government of resources belonging to all in common. It is high time to refute the indisputable status of this dichotomy and open up the managing of the commons to other forms of joint government. Both the future and the universal access to common resources depends on it, as neither state sovereignty nor private property are capable of ensuring their sustainable use for generations to come.

For more information regarding the movement in defence of the commons, please consult the following links:


  • Mattei, Ugo, 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Steger, M. B. & Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Weber, Max, 1948. “Class, Status, Party” in From Max Weber: essays in sociology. Ed. Gerth, H. & Mills, C.W. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London





Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, neoliberalism, Participatory Democracy, political economy

2 responses to “The Commons: Caught Between Sovereignty and Property

  1. I didn’t realize you were back, Giulio. Both of your recent posts are excellent!

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