inc Explanatory Note 16

(16)The Commons

That it is necessary to explain the Commons, perhaps the oldest-known model of social organisation, testifies to their neglect. In these times, when conceptions of the world tend to be prescribed by notions of individualism and private property, it’s no surprise that the Commons are often misunderstood.  A Commons is neither state nor market nor any thing. It is a material, institutional or cultural resource  –  such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware and software or a facility for democratic deliberation  –  plus the community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource and who organize themselves to manage it, plus the rules, protocols, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate its benefits.  The activity of such communities to achieve such ends is known as commoning.

A true Commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady creation of prosperity and wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it cannot be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its exploitation.

Over the centuries, the Commons have been attacked by the forces of rent-seeking capitalism, frequently abetted by the state  –  a process that has accelerated since the early 1980s.  Thus, resources that no one invented or created, or the value that a large number of people through commoning have co-created, are stolen by those who sniff another opportunity for generating unearned income.  This theft of value by people or companies who did not create it is called enclosure. Originally, it meant the seizure – supported by violence – of common land. This practice of land-grab started in England, spread to Scotland, then to Ireland and the other colonies, and from there to the rest of the world. It continues to this day as a global phenomenon.  Behind all forms of enclosure lies the continuing and enabling unequal prior distribution of wealth that characterises capital-controlled economies the world over.

Now enclosure, which can be seen as the polar opposite of resource use and maintenance through commoning, is in fact the commodification or privatization of shared wealth. It means that things that were previously freely available, or collectively managed, pass into the hands of individuals or, in collusion with governments, are privatized and made available for market exchange. This process is cast as ‘progress’ by Neo-liberal market economics and put forward as the way that human development happens  –  i.e. the way that wealth is generated. But in fact, it is often just a radical way of dispossessing people of resources that are rightfully theirs and whose value they help to co-create and maintain. Moreover, and perhaps most important of all, it creates a damaging and dangerous disconnect (*): it removes things from their organic context, be that a community or an ecosystem, so that they can be sold.  In so doing, it disrupts the relationship between a community and its resources, destroys the shared rules and protocols that govern their use, and reduces said “resource community” to a collection of isolated individuals vying unequally to maximize an individual share of what was commonly theirs in the first place.  Indeed, the Commons Enclosure story helps us talk about and understand what continues to be the great unacknowledged scandal of our times:  the removal into minority ownership and rent-seeking exploitation of the wealth that belongs to all of us.

(*) A disconnect that in our day has achieved astonishing proportions: where all previous social organising principles saw markets, land and money as embedded within social relationships, today’s rent-seeking mismanagement of the economy has destroyed such relationships.  It has removed from the operation of market any social, religious or moral constraints, and disconnected finance from the productive economy altogether, whittling shareholder commitment and concern down to a single narrow goal: the short-term maximization of return on investment.

For Constitutionalists, more than a system for managing individual resources, the commons presents a model for a new (old) way of organising society, a new politics, neither capitalist nor socialist, and a radical path towards the co-creation of a truly ecological political-economy. Constitutionalists are fully aware that restoring Commons thinking to the public mindset and its widespread practice constitutes a colossal challenge.  They are calling for a national debate about an alternative to the current system that permits a rent-seeking minority to capture increasing quantities of public wealth and in so doing to destroy, with virtual impunity, widening areas of public value.  The Commons, Constitutionalists are convinced, will be a crucial part of that alternative. Some of the issues that debate will need to address might be:

  1. Commons relations: Recognition of the trust-based existential nature of relations within a co-created Commons economy.  This contrasts with the competitive, strictly contractual nature of relations within a commodifying market-economy.  The members of a Commons develop deeper connections with each other and their assets (see the stewardship and caring mentioned in connection with the Circular Economy in Note 10) than we do as passive consumers of corporate products.  This must mean reshaping governance to meet the needs of communities and not just corporations, and reviving the Commons to act as a counterweight to the fragmenting, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic populist reaction;
  2. Amenities User Fees & Location Value:  This is the idea that land and its resources belong to us all (but only by reason of our shared stewardship and management of them), together with the notion that the value of land is a function of its location, i.e. its proximity to community-created amenities.  Since land and its resources are inalienable, it is suggested that they can only be temporarily removed from the public domain for private use in return for a user fee or Amenities User Fee.  The value of any existing property on land, or of its subsequent development at the user’s expense, would accrue to the user and be subject to market exchange when its use is passed on or the land returned to the public domain.  The proceeds from land-use rents could constitute a community reserve, part of which could be used to fund a social-rent dividend (or Universal Basic Income)to citizens as a return on the location value they help to create.  The payment of such dividend or income would constitute the single most effective protection of the Commons against free-riding land-bankers and rent-seekers.  It could be part of a root-and-branch reform of the current fiscal system whose taxing of earned income places a punitive and unfair burden on productive effort;
  3. The notion of local user expertise as an essential pillar of sound Commons design and management.  Outside expertise should be on tap but not on top.  This will require a massive ramping-up of local participative democracy whereby Commons Communities belong to their members by reason of the membership’s involvement in their design and ongoing management;
  4. Restoration and promotion over time of a Commons mindset leading to the co-creation of a systemically reformed and curative Political-Economy for People and Planet which integrates Commons, Markets, Households and the State (genuinely reformed and representative Regional and Central Governance), thus providing a viable alternative to the prevailing mismanagement which continues to produce so much inequality, social injustice and ecological degradation.
  5. Constitutionally entrenched acknowledgement of Commons Regimes and their accompanying Rules and Protocols, and protection against external commodifying encroachment.  Should not a major new chapter of any future constitutional settlement, alongside the existing separation of the three functions of government, be entrenchment of protection of the Commons and of the participative/deliberative processes (fair, facilitated, respectful and informed) that make both the Commons and Democracy possible? One of the basic principles of Commons governance is subsidiarity – the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest level practical. While there will always be some benefits to centralisation to reduce duplication and to deal with large-scale or global issues such as climate change (hence the reference above to Regional and Central Governance), many decisions can and should be made by local communities for themselves within democratically determined limits.  The Constitution will need to identify such limits and to show how Commons Communities can be fitted into an overall, readable structure of political organisation and governance that citizens can understand and value (see Section IV of the Declaration of Purpose).
  6. Minimum individual entitlements: Finally and more generally, in parallel with the widespread promotion of Commons regimes, everyone, as well as a minimum livelihood, should be guaranteed a safe, private space in which to found a home.


Examples of largely unacknowledged but functioning commons: 

Subsistence economies the world over  • community-owned forests in Nepal and Romania  •  lobster fisheries in Maine  •  pastures in East Africa and Switzerland  •  FOSS: free open-source software that has underpinned the creation of Wikipedia, Internet, Linux, digital libraries and a whole range of other Commons : intellectual, literature, music, arts, design, film, video, radio and heritage preservation (**)  •  journals published by the Public library of Science  • time-banks  • local currencies and open-source microscopy  •  lollipop ladies  •  households   •  the British NHS (at least until recently)  • pubs, meeting places and other ACVs (assets of community value)   •  and probably the greatest of them all: democratic deliberation!  Or as the song might put it:  “ those best things in life that are free!”  Free, of course, at the point of delivery, but created by painstaking commoning.

(**) The main principle in Knowledge Commons is the issue of copyright-free licenses which grant licensees all necessary rights such as the right to study, use, change and redistribute on condition that all future works building on the license are kept in the Commons.

Examples (again largely unacknowledged) of fragmenting Enclosure: the recent PPI fire-sale of franchises over sections of the health, social welfare, security and transport services and other public utilities to rent-seeking private firms and companies  • the conversion of fines for anti-social behaviour into fees for dispensations  • the use of the social good or Commons that is Money as a speculative asset  •  the temporary renting-out of public park-space as Event Venues to offset shortfalls in funding from public revenue  •  attempts by the recent US administration to destroy internet neutrality and to prohibit community broadband  •  the extension of commodification of intellectual property through trade agreements  •  academic publishers’ capture and commodification of the research freely provided by scientific communities  •  the increasing use of business bottom-line models for the management of social services  •  and a double-whammy this one: the weakening through commodification of our already ailing system of elective democracy by those who use our wealth to purchase and leverage their political influence.  Alas, the list is virtually endless!

Editors Note IC-UK gratefully records its indebtedness to the ideas and in some instances the language used in articles and books by the following authors: David Bollier, Fred Harrison, Tim Hollo (and The Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now), George Monbiot, Richard Murphy, Kate Raworth and Guy Standing.