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30 Jun 2012
What do you mean by 'the commons'?
You have written much about how the concept of “the commons” provides the basis for an alternative, ecological economy that is democratic, resource-efficient, decentralised and sustainable. What do you mean by “the commons” and how could it be applied across whole economies?
The commons is collectively-owned property, as opposed to state or privately-owned. To me it is the essence of ecosocialism, involving the democratic ownership of the means of production. Communities, including indigenous and peasant farmers, have collectively regulated resources including land, forests and fisheries for thousands of years.
Access is free, but those with access must conserve the resource. Commons is key to Marx’s ideas, as we can see from the quote from Das Kapital above. In 2009, [US political economist] Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for economics, incidentally the first woman to do so. Her research shows that, with care, commons can create sustainable and prosperous economies.
There are numerous examples of norms within commons that tend to encourage sustainable use.
Chris Hannibal-Paci’s examination of conservation of sturgeon by the Cree and Ojibwe at Lake Winnipeg, Canada, is a good example of a successful commons. The lake fisheries were a commons used by indigenous people until commons rights were eroded during the colonial era. In recent years, overfishing has been a problem. Thus, as private property rights and the commodification of fisheries have increased, sturgeon catches have fallen.
Before colonial times, fish catches were fairly and carefully regulated. There are thousands more examples.
Commons is simply about collective and ecological regulation. Private ownership of resources encourages short-term waste and destruction. Commons is an appropriate alternative.
The commons is always under threat of enclosure. To me, ecosocialism is about defending, extending and deepening commons.
Cyberspace is to a large extent commons. The wiki principle is commons. Collective, creative solutions are possible.
While commons work at a community level, with the web we can nest commons and use wiki principles to democratically plan regional, national and international economies.
The notion of workers’ plans for green production is also an important manifestation of the commons principle. Markets and states are not going to disappear. but 21st century socialism and especially ecosocialism is about democratic, creative, common pool property rights, not top down Stalinist perversions of a democratic vision.
Land, cyberspace, factories — you name it, it can, with care, be made commons. Ostrom is fascinating: coming from a background in neo-liberal Hayekian economics she was convinced by research into existing commons that sustainable collective property rights can work well.
She has been a great friend of the indigenous and the green movement. While there are weaknesses in her work — for example, she lacks a class analysis — she is a tremendous inspiration.
This is a nice quote of hers:
“Our problem is how to craft rules at multiple levels that enable humans to adapt, learn, and change over time so that we are sustaining the very valuable natural resources that we inherited so that we may be able to pass them on.
“I am deeply indebted to the indigenous peoples in the US who had an image of seven generations being the appropriate time to think about the future.
“I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule. When we make really major decisions, we should ask not only what will it do for me today, but what will it do for my children, my children’s children, and their children’s children into the future.”