Monthly Archives: October 2012

Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi


  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, Human Rights, liberalism, political theory, social movements

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