Commons strategy and politics

Some rough welcome.

Political and strategic approaches to the commons can be found in the work of Karl Marx, philosophers such as Deleuze and Guttari as well as the autonomist Marxist authors Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. Latin American left governments, indigenous organizations and commons orientated think tanks and non-governmental organizations such as On the Commons have, in varied ways, sought to campaign for commons.

Marx, to simplify, argued that capitalism eroded the commons. Yet capitalism via economic accumulation raises the productive forces and the birth of a political agent, the working class, who could restore democratically owned common property as the basis of a new society. His son-in-law Paul Lafargue summarized such a view in his own book on ancient property, arguing, that in the ancient past, property such as land or cattle, was common to all members of a ‘clan’ and thatCommunism was the cradle of humanity.’ He felt that ‘the work of civilisation is twofold: while on the one hand it destroys, on the other hand it reconstructs; while it broke into pieces the communist mould of primitive humanity, it was building up the elements of a higher and more complex form of communism’ (Lafargue 1984: 44)

However there is some evidence that Marx rejected such a linear view of 'history.’ For example, he explored the idea that in Russia the peasant Mir would allow for the recreation of commons without the need to move through and beyond a capitalist economy (Shanin 1984). Marx's broad framework has been at best delayed or at worst destroyed. The international working class have not as yet re-created the commons. Marxists have generally replaced Marx’s belief in the commons with forms of central planning. Marx’s interest in the commons has been forgotten by communists. However workers have tried to create commons. In Britain during the 1970s the workers at Lucas Aerospace constructed an alternative production plan (Wainwright and Elliot 1982). Peer-to-peer production of manufactured goods is possible and workers' control is necessary for the commons.

The often rather impenetrable work of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, dripping in obscure terminology and in debt to the challenging work of the psychologist Jacques Lacan, and European philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Baruch Spinoza,  have described a process of deterritorialization. Deterritorialization, they argue, occurs where a political territory is invaded, its rules and norms destroyed and replaced by new rules and norms in a process of reterritorialization. Property rights can be seen as the codes or DNA of society. Deterritorialization involves removing them and replacing via reterritorialization with new rules, or to be more precise, removing codes from their context and re-articulating them. The process of primitive accumulation, identified by Marx, where commons are enclosed to make way for capitalist expansion, can be linked to these concepts. The destruction of the European commons and the commons of empires like those of the Incas and Aztec by the Spanish can be understood in terms of de- and re-coding. The coding point is illuminating, with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari illustrating this understanding poetically with the suggestion that a club is a deterritorialized branch. What was once a living part of a tree is ripped out of its context and placed in a new context.

When the branch is separated from the tree it becomes something else, it takes on different functions, such that it has been deterritorialized from its original territory (the function of gathering sunlight in the process of photosynthesis) and reterritorialized elsewhere (the function of warfare or violence). (


Jeanette Neeson in her book on the enclosure of the English commons quotes the novelist John Berger, who wrote 'Do you know... what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest? ... When the axe comes into the forest, the trees say: 'Look! The handle is one of us!' (Berger 1983: 69 cited in Neeson 1993). Property rights give power to human beings to access and use resources, as such they are intrinsic to questions of political power. Property rights provide the means to code and recode. The current battles to enclose the World Wide Web by companies, attempts to extend copyright and legislation to establish access to countryside for citizens, are conflicts which involve property right coding.

Toni Negri and Michael Hardt in a re-reading of Marx, strongly influenced by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, as well Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, see information commons as key. Negri and Hardt stress immaterial labor and the actions of 'the multitude rather than the working class or indigenous as creators of potential commons. They argue that intellectual and emotional work increasingly produce value in the 21st century. Commons, especially in cyber space, are increasingly central to the production of such value and social subjectivity. The individuals who create such value are the multitude.

More concretely Latin American left governments have taken elected power and have promoted, via the notion of 21st century socialism, the idea of grassroots ecological collective production. They have been influenced in their wider policy making by notions of socialism as decentralist democratic provision, rather than the central planning of the Soviet Union. Rene Ramariaz the influential Ecuadorian planning minister noted: 'The perspective of Elinor Ostrom goes in hand in hand with the idea of good living. What she says is something fundamental, that collective interaction can handle the [management of] natural resources more efficiently.' 

The notion of 'buen vivir', the indigenous concept of 'good living' i.e. sustainable living has been promoted globally by Bolivia's President Evo Morales and other indigenous thinkers and politicians, as well as grassroots social movements. While these developments are welcome, they are also problematic. Conflicts over environmental issues continue in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, all of which remain strongly dependent on extracting fossil fuels including oil and gas, despite such rhetoric of 'good living.’

Commons movements, outside cyber space, the radical left and indigenous, have grown more slowly but organizations such as On the Commons in the USA and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Germany are increasingly active. On the Commons seeks to educate citizens and policy makers. It is strongly opposed to the privatization of resources and builds on the work of Elinor Ostrom along with ecofeminists, like the Indian writer Vandana Shiva, and indigenous leaders. It also promotes individual action to conserve and create commons. Quoting the green economist and author of Small is Beautiful, Ernest Schumacher, 'Perhaps we cannot raise the wind. But each of us can put up the sail, so that when the wind comes we can catch it," they list 'fifty one 'easy ways to promote a commons revolution. These range from number one, 'Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions', to forty nine and onwards:


Think yourself as a commoner and share your enthusiasm. Raise the subject in conversation, art, professional circles, and organizations with which you are involved.

50. Launch a commons discussion group or bookclub with your neighbors and colleagues, or at your church, synagogue or temple.

51. Spread some hope around. Explain how commons-based solutions can remedy today’s pressing problems.


On the Commons notes political solutions such as opposing the extension of patents.

In Europe and the USA recent economic crises have challenged conventional market based economics and notions of private property; protest movements are increasingly advocates of commons. Political power at a national level is necessary to defend, extend and deepen the commons. Governments guarantee property rights, and property rights are the basis of commons or the destruction of commons. Clearly pro-commons governments have a role to play. However, while we might fault Ostrom's absence of discussion of the conflicted nature of commons under capitalism and imperialism, she provides an important caution to statist notions of a non-state society. A government from the top down cannot proclaim commons, they need be built on the ground by citizens who cooperate and learn, if they are to have a real existence. The new Forest Rights Act in India is a good example. It is an advance that after hundreds of years of attacking commons, both under British rule and after independence, that with the introduction of this law the Indian government now recognizes them. However this new law has not entirely halted the erosion of the commons, as Elinor Ostrom has noted in a recent interview, ‘It is a good and powerful first step but not the solution,’

Nonetheless the introduction of legislation that supports commons is important. In Latin America, and to a lesser extent India, vigorous social movements based on peasant farmers and indigenous have had a positive political impact, which has helped stimulate political change, which has promoted common pool property.

Globally the information commons has led to a culture of hacktivism that has been used to attack concentrations of power. The UK based political scientist and commons activist Aaron Peters has noted that ‘the communicative ecology of the internet 'promotes economic activity through mass collaboration and the rejection of ‘traditional notions of intellectual property rights.’ He notes that this peer-to-peer economic approach is behind diverse projects including Wikipedia, Pirate Bay, hacktivism, Indymedia, the music of TecnoBrega and GirlTalk, as well as Cory Doctorow’s writings’ ( He also argues that protest movements such as Occupy and the Arab spring mobilizations have been infused with this spirit of commons and collective creativity.

            However less radical forces can promote commons. While the fight for commons in software and cyber space has been linked to political activism, the libertarian Eric S. Raymond has taken a different approach arguing that the best way of promoting commons is via an emphasis on its practical benefits (Raymond 1999). His concept of open source as oppose to free software has been grown rapidly in scope. It is also worth noting that one of the most successful contemporary examples of commoning, Wikipedia was launched by another libertarian Jimmy Wales. However Wales acknowledges the need to fight corporate inspired forms of recoding such as the SOPA legislation that seeks to enclose the commons. The politics of commoning remains an essential but essentially contested area of discussion.


Anonymous said…
Pretty good overview. The theory is incomplete, and, although you cite a few examples of where it has been promulgated, you're honest enough to admit it's not perfect. You also suggest that, whilst the movement towards a commons culture must come from the bottom, there has to be a political side to it, and whilst you don't say it outright, the lack of political support for this change of culture is pretty much a killer.
It seems there are still at least two big tasks to complete; the first is to get the theory into a practical shape; the second is to gather political support. In that way, as and when the groundswell of commons culture comes, we'll be ready to nurture it and bring it to fruition.

Peter Garbutt

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