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

Bbliography

  • 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

1 Comment

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

One response to “Defining the Commons

  1. Pingback: Walking on shifting grounds | nomadic architecture

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