The Commons

By Christophe Aguiton[1]

In academic and activist circles today, there is a lot of discussion on the “common goods” or the “commons.” What are the commons? Is it right to talk about common “goods” as physical or natural resources or knowledge? Or, on the contrary, are the commons a kind of social relation or a way of collectively managing the different elements and processes that are essential to the life of a human community? What defines a common: the object or the social relation that is involved?

In this chapter, we will talk more about the “commons” than “common goods” to highlight that they are essentially processes of socially managing the different elements and aspects that are necessary for a human community. These collaborative social relations evolve around some type of material, natural or digital element or knowledge, but what makes them the “commons” is the practice of managing them as a community, which allows community members to “care” for the element and, at the same time, reproduce and enrich their forms of social organisation.

The origin

The term “commons” dates back to Medieval England when farmers had access to their lord’s pasture lands and forests. The “Magna Carta” imposed on King John by English barons in 1215 defined the freedoms that were to be enjoyed by the members of the kingdom. It was modified in 1225 and incorporated a second text called the “Charter of the Forests” (Bollier, 2015). This document stipulated commoners’ rights to access pasture lands and forests. These British commons were questioned in the 16th and 18th centuries by landowners who wanted to put up fences for sheep-grazing in order to supply the boom in the textile industry. Even though the reality of the British commoners was specific to the forms of social and economic organisation of the Middle Ages, similar situations can be found in several pre-capitalist societies on different continents and, in very diverse and complex ways, in the management forms of indigenous peoples who had the custom of managing the “common goods”.

The nature of the commons

The commons are a particular kind of social relation with material and immaterial goods. Elements of nature such as water and air exist on their own and only become commons when a human community manages its relations with these elements in a collective way – for example, the distribution of water for irrigation in a community.

In 1954, economist and Nobel prize winner Paul Samuelson indicated that one of the characteristics of public goods is that they are non-excludable and non-rivalrous (Samuelson, 1954). A good is excludable when one can stop another person from using it. A rival good is one that the use by one person reduces the amount available for another person to use. For example, public lighting is neither excludible nor rival because it is impossible to deprive one person of its use and its use by one individual does not stop nor limit another person from using it. Samuelson’s description created problems, as some economists used these criteria as if they were specific to the commons, which led public goods to be confused with the commons.

This confusion became even more problematic when some highlighted that even though common goods are non-excludable, they can be rivalrous. This is, for example, the case of high seas fishery resources: while it is difficult to exclude one fisherman, the use of these resources by a group of fisherfolk can reduce the use or the enjoyment of others.

Discussions on the relationship with the goods of nature and both social and environmental sustainability began to grow in importance in the 1960s when a strong wave of activists and scientists started to reflect on the limits of the so-called “natural resources” and population growth. In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he affirms that “when acting only out of personal interest and independently, yet rationally, individuals end up destroying a limited shared resource (the common) even though it is in the interest of no one – individuals or a group – that this destruction occurs” (Hardin, 1968).

Hardin attempted to demonstrate that common goods are condemned by the fact that users, fisherfolk or farmers will eat what comes from a common good before they use their own resources. According to him, resources such as water, land, seeds, parks and nature are subjected to predatory use by a population that grows uncontrollably on the planet and uses them inefficiently. The message of the “tragedy of the commons” is that the community is incapable of reaching rational agreements on the use of communal property and therefore, one must prioritise private property or introduce an external agent such as the State via public property to ensure that these resources are managed efficiently.

In opposition to Hardin’s theory and other approaches to the commons, Elinor Ostrom, political scientist from the United States who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, demonstrated that common goods can be controlled efficiently when managed and maintained by a community. In her book “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action” published in 1990, she discusses this issue after having carried out a thorough study of experiences in the management of the commons in various parts of the world. She concludes that “polycentric governance” based on complex designs of complex systems for managing complex realities must underline the management of the commons (Ostrom, 2010). Ostrom affirms that communities and people can develop sustainable management systems by creating social consensuses on the management of “resources”. The notion of abundance – as opposed to scarcity – prevails in this approach and is at the basis of the paradigm of the commons.

In her work, Ostrom identified eight principles that characterise the management structures of the commons:

Organisations with clearly defined membership: members know how and why they belong to the group.

Coherent rules for managing the commons: on who, when and how much of the common good can be used or managed.

Democratic systems for electing representatives collectively.

Monitoring systems: managers must be accountable to the organisation.

A system of sanctions for those who violate the rules.

Conflict resolution mechanisms.

Minimal recognition by State or municipal authorities of the right to organise autonomously.

The activities involving the common resource are carried out by interested organisations.

Ostrom’s contribution has been criticised for treating nature as “resources” that can be managed by a human community while forgetting that they are part of ecosystems and the Earth system that have their own life cycles and cannot be “managed” anthropocentrically if the goal is to ensure the ecosystems’ sustainability. This reality becomes more visible when one analyses the commons of several indigenous peoples. According to their vision, nature is their home, their mother and their basis for life, which they do not propose to “govern”, but rather to coexist with and take care of.

Common goods and public goods

The commons have drawn a certain amount of attention, as they are a response to the widespread privatisation promoted by the current neoliberal globalisation process. However, they are not the only response. Other concepts such as “global public goods” or the “common good of humanity” have emerged. These proposals highlight the responsibility of the international community to address climate change or resolve the financial crisis, and argue that these crises must not be left up to the free will of the market or financial speculation. However, the disadvantage of these approaches is that they bring the notions of common goods and public goods together in the same concept.

Riccardo Petrella proposed as “vital goods [that are] essential for life – air, water, bioethical capital, forest, the sun, energy and knowledge – which must be recognised as a common good of humanity” (Petrella, 1996). Similarly, in 2009, François Houtart proposed the adoption of a “Universal Declaration on the Common Good of Humanity” at the United Nations, which identifies democracy, multiculturalism, the fight against climate change and services such as healthcare, education, public transportation and electricity, among others, as common goods (Houtart, 2009).

Contrary to the proposals above, we feel it is important to distinguish between public goods and common goods to highlight the differences between the visions defended by the left a century ago and the debate today. Back then, the vision of the left mainly revolved around the capitalism versus socialism debate  – or in other words, private ownership of the means of production and the laws of the market, on one hand, versus the nationalisation of the means of production and economic planning, on the other. The contribution of the current vision of the commons is that it shows there are alternatives to capitalism and to a public sphere dominated by the State. This opinion is shared by many activists and intellectuals who work on the commons, including Michel Bauwens, Silke Elfrich and David Bollier, who founded the “Commons Strategies Group”[2], and other authors such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. This approach to the commons is important at a time when the limits of the centralised State management of the economy come to light. Under the centralised economic planning of the Soviet Union, many public enterprises were managed in a way that is very similar to how private corporations are run; the same occurred in market economies where industries were nationalised at the end of World War II.

The public sphere is one in which society delegates the task of managing activities that are not private – such as public services at schools, hospitals, research centres and other public administration bodies (government, local authorities), etc. – to specialised State institutions. In general, the public sphere includes everything related to the State in the broadest sense. The commons, on the other hand, are the space where interested people or groups get directly involved. The kinds of involvement vary significantly, from cooperative members who work for their businesses everyday to villagers who cut firewood a few days a year and readers and collaborators who contribute occasionally to Wikipedia.

The relationship between the public and the private, the market and State planning is not strictly binary. In fact, it is ternary: between the public, the private and the commons. For example, in the field of cartography, one finds: a private transnational corporation that has a virtual private monopoly with its “Google Maps” and “Google Street View”; public mapping agencies, the majority of which are military; and finally, “internet activists” that have created other options such as “OpenStreetMap”. The latter is a collaborative project to create a free editable map and its success is growing. In the case of France, the French National Geographic Institute (IGN) lost out in the competition because it could no longer sell the digital maps that Google makes available to the public for free. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, became known when its collaborators succeeded in only a few days in putting together the map of Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the city was destroyed by an earthquake on January 12th, 2010.

There is also the opinion of those who affirm that there is, in fact, a four-way relationship among the public, the private, the commons and nature. They affirm that the latter has its own processes of self-regulation and dynamics that must be taken into account by all “management” processes.

A typology of the commons

Originally, the concept of “common goods” referred to natural goods, forests and pastures to which English peasants had access in the Middle Ages to guarantee their livelihood. By extension, the concept of the commons applied to all natural resources managed collectively in pre-capitalist societies: pastures, community irrigation systems, fishing, forestry, etc.

More recently, work to conceptualise knowledge as a common good began in response to the tightening of the rules on intellectual property. In the early 1980s, “free software” appeared, which was not protected due to the fact that the computer industry did not charge a separate fee for the programmes on the hardware it sold. This changed in 1981 when IBM launched a contingency plan to compete with the new businesses coming out of the Silicon Valley, such as Apple, that were selling the first microcomputers on the market. Microsoft patented its operating system in order to sell it separately from IBM’s “personal computers”. This change in the software industry led to the creation of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985. This organisation supports the licensing of free software, among which the most well-known one is the “General Public License” (GPL10)[3]. For Richard Stallman, founder of FSF and the free software movement, it is “a common good of humanity” that must be accessible to all. This movement has continued to grow to the point where the majority of software today is available for free or based on free software.

In the 2000s, two initiatives expanded the scope of knowledge commons. The first was the introduction of the Creative Commons[4], which are a set of licenses that can free any intellectual work, photograph, text, music, etc. from copyrights and intellectual property rights. Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil’s most famous artists and former minister of culture, during the Lula administration, released his works under a Creative Commons licence. The second was developed in the academic world that suffered the onslaught of intellectual property rules that allowed large publishing houses to establish a de facto monopoly over academic publications. This situation is highly absurd, as the large majority of researchers and higher education professors earn salaries and do not receive any pay for their academic publications. In response to this situation and in support of universities in the countries of the South that often lack the means to pay the expensive subscriptions to academic journals, the “Open Access Initiative”[5] was launched in 2002 in Budapest. This initiative enables researchers from all over the world to publish the results of their work for free.

Growing environmental concerns and awareness of the seriousness of problems such as climate change and air and ocean pollution contributed to the idea that the commons could be the right approach. Among the various initiatives undertaken to halt the privatisation of the commons, the most successful ones have been those linked to water. The most famous examples were the water wars in Bolivia in which the people won the fight against privatisation in Cochabamba and El Alto. Another noteworthy example is the referendum in Italy where the YES to “water as a common good” won. These victories, however, have not resulted in an improvement in the population’s capacity to manage water as a common good. In Bolivia, public water management did not produce the desired results and the transition towards “public-social management” – a demand of the anti-privatisation movements – came up against the resistance of authorities, trade union bureaucracies and the technocracy of public water companies. Thus, these commons involving nature only went half-way – that is, they remained as projects that have yet to be concretised.

The major challenge of the commons linked to nature is that they now involve millions and even billions of people. In pre-capitalist societies, the commons of nature were managed by tens or hundreds of shepherds or peasants, whereas nowadays, some commons such as climate require collective management on a planetary level.

Finally, there are the commons that involve cooperatives, mutual societies, associations or social enterprises immersed in the solidarity economy. These commons are very diverse, ranging from cooperatives reactivated by its workers after social disputes to credit unions with portfolios of billions of euros. These structures can be hybrid and have different dynamics that end up distancing them from the commons. However, it is worth pointing out that the cooperatives were the first solution the labour movement and the socialist movement of the 19th century put forward as an alternative to industrial capitalism, which is based on the exploitation and alienation of workers.

In sum, one can find commons that are very different from one another. The differences and tensions are many and often make it difficult to classify and define them. Their scale, object, management forms and dynamics make the task of analysing them all the more complex. The goal of production and their relationship to the market are other elements to consider, as they affect the commons. A community producing to satisfy its own consumption needs is not the same as one producing for a local, national or global market. The commons do not develop in a vacuum, but rather constantly interact with other forms of public and private management in ecosystems that evolve over time.

There are also different types of “commoners”. On one hand, there are those who want access to knowledge to be universal, such as the producers of free software that are pushing for the broadest possible dissemination of all codes. On the other hand, one finds indigenous communities who only share their ancestors’ knowledge on seeds with the members of their community or “those they trust”.

The diversity, complexity and tensions that exist among the commons do not weaken the commons approach. On the contrary, they enrich it and force us to root ourselves in reality rather than ideas or proposals that often do not take into account the multiple dimensions of the processes of building and managing “the common” that are beyond the public and the private spheres.

Rights, “commoning”
and taking care of the commons

Two myths can be found at the heart of Western modernity and capitalism: the one on the unlimited sovereignty of the State, as Hobbes defined it in the Leviathan; and the other is faith in the institution of property that allowed John Locke to link private property to general prosperity. Serge Gutwirth and Isabelle Stengers, and later Fritjof Capra and Ugo Mattei, remind us that the balance between property rights and State power is constantly changing (Gurtwirth & Stengers, 2016) (Capra & Mattei, 2015). We are in a phase of history where the State has renounced a series of its prerogatives to defend private property because in the end, the State is also a property owner. Between State sovereignty and the sovereignty of private property, there is no room for the commons, which are governed by a set of rights and obligations based on other rationales. For Ostrom, the commons can be broken down into a set of rights that can be granted to different users that have different rights: access, management, alienation, exclusion and elimination. The rights of use – which include the right to access, elimination and exclusion – are related to the historical origin of the commons (the right to pasturelands and forests), but do not really apply to the knowledge commons for which the right to access exists, but not the right to exclusion because there is no rivalry among users.

Burns Weston and David Bollier go beyond simply describing the different kinds of rights and stress the importance of “commoning,” which means to “make common” or to act collectively to develop the commons. “Commoning” is the logic underlying the various types of commons. The concept allows us to describe similar practices in the management of the commons and excludes those that involve private property or are assumed by the State and its institutions. The concept of “commoning” is based on a culture of cooperation and reciprocity (Weston & Bollier, 2013). Capra and Mattei developed an innovative approach that distinguishes extractive practices from the right to engage in generative practices. The current legal system is based on an extractivist mentality that fragments society based on individualism – a notion that reduces all human relations to property relations. In contrast, the right to “commoning” is generative because it is based on relations of cooperation, reproduction, access and inclusion. These, in turn, promote new practices that follow an imaginative logic for the development of the commons, which in Latin America is called the “pro común”, or “pro commons”.

Commoning” is a generative right that provides key concepts on the functioning of all commons. One principle that unites all commons is the need to “take care of” them. Ostrom gave different examples to demonstrate what allowed the commons, such as how different local actors used social norms and institutional agreements to manage resources. In the different examples of commons given, one can see that regardless of their differences, it is only the direct management and “care” of the commons by the communities that guarantees their sustainability. If small farmers stop selecting their seeds or crossbreeding their animals, the risk of their practices and knowledge being monopolised by transnational corporations such as Monsanto or parastatal organisations such as the INRA in France increases. That said, the tendency to seize “the common” and knowledge is inherent to monopoly capital. If the millions of contributors to Wikipedia stopped writing and updating their texts, the largest encyclopaedia in the world will disappear or end up being absorbed by a private group or public institution. If the inhabitants of a village do not want to continue managing communal forests, they will lose control over them. What is more, one must consider that pressure from corporations and even states exists in all fields to control these goods and to integrate them into the capitalist, predatory and extractivist dynamics, as that is how the dominant model works.

Common goods and fundamental rights

In the 19th century, during the time when socialist and communist theories were on the rise, the aspiration to build workers cooperatives or productive associations to free them from wages also spread. Mutual aid or benefit societies run by workers served as a complement to the cooperatives and provided solidarity to members in face of illness or old age. These associations were based on a common, inalienable and inseparable capital that attracted the “commons” of feudal peasantry. This was the beginning of a separation between collective property and the ability of one person to use it to engage in productive activities.

In the late 19th century-early 20th century, an alternative vision began to emerge. Collective property was turned into public property under the control of the State or local authorities. Two important elements explain this change:

At the end of the 19th century, an entirely new world emerged thanks to the second industrial revolution, the appearance of the “big company” based on the German model and the development of technical networks such as the railway, electricity and telephone lines. At the same time, the first period of globalisation was drawing to an end and the major powers affirmed their power and proceeded to divide the world up among themselves. In this context, social-democracy and the communist movements developed a vision of socialism that focused on continuing to develop the technical networks and large industries under State control and planning.

During the same period, popular aspirations and the needs of a modern industry converged to develop free and mandatory public education services and social protection systems that were to cover risks, illnesses, work-related accidents and retirement. That is when the idea of universal rights appeared, which are not limited to the democratic rights listed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of the 1789 French Revolution. Instead, they include “positive rights” such as the social and economic rights (right to education, to housing, etc.) enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

In this context, the commons of the 19th century – the heirs of the feudal societies and workers’ cooperatives – went into decline for two reasons: for one, they did not meet the criteria of progress and efficiency that made large corporations and State planning possible; secondly, they did not allow for the conception of social rights as universal rights.

Nearly a century had passed before the issue of the commons returned to the centre of the debate, thanks to the anti-globalisation movement and academic circles. Several reasons explain the commons’ return: the overall negative outcomes of the experiences with State and private sector management of the economy; opposition to privatisation; the crisis of the idea of progress as it was conceived at the beginning of the 20th century (including by socialist states that developed industrialist visions); and finally, the appearance of new categories of commons such as knowledge and the new commons of nature. The latter includes the climate, oceans, the atmosphere and other components of the Earth system that are being threatened by human activities in the current period of history, which is now known as the Anthropocene.

These new categories of commons are characterised by the fact that they go hand in hand with the emergence of new universal rights: “the right to access to information” for the commons of the digital era, and third or fourth generation “fundamental rights” for the commons of nature.

After the recognition of civil, political, economic and social rights, more general rights began to be defined, such as the “right to live in a healthy and ecologically-balanced environment”, which was incorporated into the French constitution in 2005. There are also even broader rights, such as “the rights of nature” that encompass non-human elements of the Earth system and are defended in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that Bolivia has proposed to the United Nations[6]. The development of new fundamental rights will give new momentum to the concept of the “commons” and prompt a broader reflection on the relation between the commons and nature, and the commons and their relation to the private and the public spheres.

Common goods and democracy

In light of history, the primary interest in defending and expanding the scope of the commons is that they constitute one of the best approaches to taking care of the commons, which involves adopting truly collective property relations and forms of direct democracy that cannot be reduced to a moment of struggle or a revolutionary experience. Also, considering the contributions of recent reflections on the climate crisis, food or water, they are goods for which there is no ownership, but rather a vital relation of interdependencies and ecodependencies, as ecofeminists suggest.

The delegation of power to political institutions can be corrected through participatory democracy by introducing mechanisms to revoke the mandates of elected representatives or by extending the right to a referendum. However, experience has shown us a series of difficulties in implementing these measures, and even more of them in getting these political innovations to endure over time, as in the case of the participatory budgets born in 1988 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example. The commons require participation and involvement, and not merely changes to the structures of political power. The commons serve, then, as a mechanism to begin to put alternatives into practice.

The commons allow us to re-establish a tradition of socialism from the 19th century – that goes from Owen to Fourier – which puts social practices related to education, cooperatives, community living, relationships between men and women, etc. in the centre of the liberation process.

The knowledge commons and the common goods of nature allow us to identify new fundamental rights and, in some cases, offer us the possibility of exercising them without having to go through the public sphere. The internet serves as an interesting example here. In the 1990s, private corporations such as AOL and public services such as Minitel in France made the first attempts to offer new bases of knowledge and means of communication to the general public. Today, the internet has gone beyond these early initiatives and has been established all over the entire world, which is one reason why many defend the idea that access to internet should be considered a fundamental right. Since the 1980s, thanks to a community of engineers and university students that built the network by using free software programmes, the internet developed with an identity that is collaborative and open to everyone. Certain characteristics allow the internet to be defined as a common good of humanity run by a technical community capable of self-management. As it is not run by states, conflicts and debates are constantly emerging, mainly in response to two positions: 1) one that intends to control the internet by using national mechanisms created in the name of the defence of intellectual property, the fight against terrorism and paedophilia; and 2) the proposal to establish an inter-state system responsible for managing the internet. These issues are key in the mobilisations being held around the world against the ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). They also explain the appearance of new political groups, such as the pirate parties, or new social movements such as “Students for a Free Culture”, which had a major impact in the United States between 2007 and 2010.

The radicalisation of democracy, together with practices of collective appropriation such as the commons and the emergence of fundamental rights that are not managed by the State, could constitute a key line of intervention for a left that is seeking social change in ways that would enable society to take steps towards a kind of socialism that does not get confused with the strengthening of State structures. The left could promote laws and policies that expand freedoms and rights and favour the development of different types of commons. It could also encourage the involvement of all in the different forms of collective property by promoting value systems based on sharing and caring for others. The specific forms may vary significantly and be linked to maintaining or improving the production of agricultural commons and cooperatives and generalising individual and social practices based on shared values and caring for common goods.

Hybridisation and common paths

The social relations at the centre of the commons run counter to the logic of capitalism and public-state management. However, in reality, a series of hybrid interrelations and realities exist because the commons are not immune to the influence of their surroundings.

Everything indicates that capitalism would not have been able to develop without the modern State. This interdependency means that capital and the State mutually influence one another’s management methods, organisation of labour, institution-building in various fields, research, education, innovation, social protection, market management strategies, etc.

In relation to existing commons, one of the first changes was cooperatives and mutual societies’ adoption of structures that are very similar to those of large capitalist groups. Today, agricultural cooperatives and credit unions are at the forefront of this process of change. In developed countries, farming cooperatives are in the race to become giants in the sector. In the United States, this sector’s annual revenues are around 140 billion dollars. In France, they represent 40% of the food sector and generate 60 billion euros in revenue. At the same time, these farm coops are increasingly adopting agro-industrial practices and management forms that are very similar to those of transnational corporations. The banking sector is going through a similar process: there are less and less differences between credit unions and private banks. These changes can be explained by three elements: i) neoliberal globalisation that pushes cooperatives to adopt management methods in order to compete internationally; ii) the fact that the involvement of cooperative members “at the base” in the management of their cooperatives is declining; and finally, iii) the excessive autonomy of the cooperatives’ directors who encourage members to distance themselves and accelerate the integration of their cooperatives into the world market and the dynamics of transnational capital.

The second process of change to be highlighted is how the collaborative economy is beginning to be controlled by certain digital businesses. The concepts of circular economy and the collaborative economy are different from the commons. However, they are part of a general trend that favours sharing, recycling and shorter circuits between producers and consumers. A key element of the knowledge commons – the digital – has facilitated the implementation of these practices by offering devices and platforms that facilitate sharing. At the same time, however, the digital field allows large and powerful players to take advantage of the benefits created by the network and move towards forming a monopoly. This is the case of social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, Google’s work tools and collaborative platforms such as Uber, Airbnb or Blablacar.

In view of these forms of “privatisation”, two types of reaction are emerging. The first is that of identifying those who are working with these platforms so that they have the same rights as all other workers. This is the case in the United States where initiatives have been launched to grant Uber drivers employee status so they can have access to social benefits available to salaried workers. The other reaction coming from the world of the commons and the search for “free” alternatives are the large consortiums of the digital economy: free programmes, truly collaborative platforms based on a culture of exchange and that are not-for-profit, etc.

Finally, in relation to the complexity of the processes surrounding the common goods and hybridisation, it is important to take into account the logic of the commons emerging and developing in the public services sector and in efforts to control institutions and large corporations. While the presence of parents in the functioning of school establishments is considered “outdated”, the intervention of patients in health services appeared during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. These interventions are now being facilitated by digital tools that allow patients to connect with one another, have a say on their treatment and access medicines. Digital tools are also facilitating initiatives to control institutions and corporations, such as actions by citizens groups that filter or systematise information, and by offering the possibility to publish information on blogs or websites.

Debates for further discussion

An issue that merits further reflection is the one linked to the modes of managing the commons. The practice of “caring” that is inherent to the commons means getting involved, engaging in and, as a result, being tightly linked to the management of the commons. The forms of doing so can vary significantly. The cases of the large commons such as Wikipedia or the internet itself are particularly interesting, as they function in ways that are similar to some more recent movements such as the “Indignados” or “Occupy,” which are based on three principles: whoever wants to participate can; decisions are adopted by consensus; and they are socialised at the broadest local level possible. There are, however, certain problems with this way of functioning, as it tends to put the political debate aside and it is not transparent about decision-making processes that take place outside of the large assemblies. This raises key questions on the increasingly broad commons: what do we really mean by “real democracy”? What are the elements that constitute it? How do we strengthen real democracy so that it does not end up being co-opted or distorted by political parties or State actors?

It is not only a matter of building democracy within the commons but also in relation to the State. What stance should the commons adopt vis-à-vis the State? From the commons’ perspective, what type of changes must be made to the State? Is it possible to “commonise” the State? Or, on the contrary, is the greatest contribution the commons can make to generate counterpower to the State by always preserving a certain level of autonomy from State power? How can one combine strategies to radically change the State and ones that aim to increase the commons’ counterpower vis-à-vis the State? In fact, the situation in many countries, especially those in the South, reveal dynamics where the State tends to regulate and impose legal and fiscal control over all activities, especially those related to territorial management, despite the numerous instruments that have been created in local and multilateral legal systems, which affects the structures of the existing commons.

Therefore, it is fundamental to reflect on what the commons’ vision on prosperity, modernity or future is. Currently, all forms of private, State and community management respond to certain dynamics that involve a present and a future. Where and how far do we want to go with the commons? Within the commons movement, does a shared critical vision exist on development, progress, productivism and modernity? Is this issue not essential for the strengthening of the commons of the 21st century?

Finally, it is fundamental that we reflect on the relation of the commons with nature. In other words, how do we build and encourage the promotion and need for non-anthropocentric commons in the 21st century? The oldest commons practiced by indigenous peoples were not anthropocentric. In the midst of a planetary crisis, eco-social relations are more necessary now than ever, but they have to be established at an unprecedented scale. What are the most appropriate ways of managing the commons of the climate, oceans and glaciers? Until now, inter-state initiatives have been tested but have not been very effective. How do we construct forms of management for these commons that are planetary in nature? How do we generate global consciousness so that we truly assume the challenge of our time, which is to “take care” of the Earth?


Azam, G. (2010). Le temps du monde fini. Paris, France: Les liens qui libèrent.

Bollier, D. & Helfrich, S. (2012). Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Amherst, Massachusets, USA: Levellers Press.

Bollier, D. (2014). Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society.

Bollier, D. & Helfrich S. (2015). Patterns of Commoning. Amityville, NY, USA: Commons Strategy Group.

Bollier, D. (2015) Who May Use the King’s Forest? The Meaning of Magna Carta, Commons and Law in Our Time.

Bowers, C. (2006). Revitalizing the Commons: Cultural and Educational Sites of Resistance and Affirmation. Lanham, MD, USA: Lexington Books.

Bowers, C. (2012). The Way Forward: Educational Reforms that Focus on the Cultural Commons and the Linguistic Roots of the Ecological Crisis. USA: Eco-Justice Press, LLC.

Capra, Fr. & Mattei, U. (2015). The Ecology of Law. Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community, San Francisco, CA, USA: BerrettKohler Publishers.

Coriat, B. et al. (2015). Le retour des communs, la crise de l’idéologie propriétaire. France: Les Liens qui Libèrent Editions.

Dardot, P. & Laval, C. (2014). Commun, essai sur la révolution du 21ème siècle. Paris, France: La Découverte.

Fourier, C. (1996). The Theory of the Four Movements. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Gurtwirth, S. & Stengers, I. (2016). Le droit à l’épreuve de la résurgence des commons, Revue juridique de l’environnement, 2016/2, p. 306 – 343.

Houtart, Fr. (2009) Pour une déclaration universelle du bien commun de l’humanité.

Le Crosnier, H. et al.  (2015). En Commun, introduction aux communs de la connaissance. France: C&F Éditions.

Linebaugh, P. (2014) Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance. Oakland, CA, USA: PM Press.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons, Science Dec Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243-1248

Menzies, H. (2014). Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society.

Ostrom, et al. (2012). The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulations. London, England: Institute of Economic Affairs.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Ostrom, E. (2010). La Gouvernance des biens communs, Pour une nouvelle approche des ressources naturelles, Bruxelles, Bélgique: De Boeck. Versión original 1990.

Petrella, R. (1996). Le bien commun: Éloge de la solidarité. France: Éditions Labor

Samuelson, P. (1954). The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure, The Review of Economics ans Statistics, Vol 36, N°4.

Weston, B. & Bollier, D. (2013). Green Governance, Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán (Bolivia) collaborated in the writing of this chapter.












One thought on “The Commons

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s