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Defend, extend and deepen the commons

An extract from 'Economics after capitalism: a guide to the ruins and a road to the future' by Derek Wall

December 10, 2015
6 min read

commonsWhile state provision can be humanised and markets tamed by the social, the more fundamental task requires that both the state and the market are rolled back. The commons provides an important alternative to both. The anti-capitalist slogan above all others should be ‘defend, extend, and deepen the commons.’

Throughout history, the commons has been the dominant form of regulation, providing an alternative almost universally ignored by economists, who are reluctant to admit that substitutes to the market and the state even exist. Within the commons, scarcity, if it exists, is usually managed and resources conserved through allocation systems arranged by users. The commons works best by consensus and, unlike capitalism, does not depend upon constant growth. It provides shared access to important resources so that human needs can be met with potential equity. Anti-capitalist globalisation could be labelled positively as the movement for the commons.

Where anti-capitalists lose, the neo-liberals will constantly advance. Their demands are unlimited because capitalism, to survive, needs constant commodification. Capitalism seeks to extend commodification; the anti-capitalist movement resists by conserving the commons. For example, in South America and South Africa, grass roots protest seeks to prevent water being privatised. In cyberspace, downloaders, hackers and open source designers seek to maintain free access. Greens and subsistence ecofeminists preserve communal land from private corporations.

Wherever you live, there will, if you dig deep enough, have been a struggle between commoners and the monopolising state or market for control

Some commons demand little or no regulation, merely preservation from such corporate assaults. However, there are numerous well-documented accounts of commons regimes where regulation occurs through local bargaining and shared use. In Canada, the Ojibway Nation of Ontario still harvests wild rice from Wabigoon Lake using commons principles. Commons are surprisingly common, around 90 per cent of inshore fisheries are regulated by commons. Depletion is a product of high-tech hoovering by unregulated Japanese and European fleets keen to increase profit, rather than of more local abuse. In Maine, lobster fisheries have long been preserved by the commons; in Finland, many forests are communally regulated, and in Switzerland, grazing is often controlled by commoners to prevent ‘tragedy’ through overexploitation.

The importance of the commons is noted, as we have seen, by Greens, autonomists, anarchists and many Marxists from Marx onwards, and Elinor Ostrom. There is no space here to examine the encyclopaedic variety and success of commons regimes, but work by scholars such as Ostrom can provide the basis for deepening the commons. The best anarchist experiments, from the Spanish Civil War to contemporary squatting, are based on the re-invention of the commons. However, there has been a long war against the commons. The earliest poems depicting Robin Hood (long before the inclusion of Maid Marion and Friar Tuck), are about a yeoman resisting enclosure.

Where I live in the Windsor Forest, the royal family privatised the land for hunting. E.P. Thompson in Whigs and Hunters recorded how ‘the blacks’ who darkened their faces before ‘poaching’ game and resisting the royals fought gun battles in Winkfield and Wokingham parishes. A few miles away at St George’s Hill, the Diggers briefly established a communal farm in 1649. Wherever you live, there will, if you dig deep enough, have been a struggle between commoners and the monopolising state or market for control. New commons regimes are created with technological and social change. The Internet has heralded the arrival of open source, a new form of commons regime in cyberspace. Software is designed and put on the web free of charge. The open source movement produces programmes, recipes, designs and other forms of information which are developed, passed around, adapted and used freely. There is no lone genius creating in isolation, huge projects can be undertaken and flexibility is key – Wikipedia is a great example.

Open source is an excellent example of how something that does not directly increase GNP can fuel real prosperity: for example, it provides citizens and governments in developing countries with free access to vital computer software. Open source is, of course, contested; it is part of a wider struggle between corporations and the rest of us for power over the Internet, as some wish to institutionalise and commercialise it. From music companies who prosecute free file users to hackers who assault Microsoft, cyberspace provides one front in an open, global struggle, one in which almost all of us can participate. Instruments such as copy left and ‘creative commons’ allow individuals to copy software, recipes, articles and much else for free, thus being released from the prison of individual ownership. Open source encourages users to add their own touches, focusing attention on the quality of the product. It is a stunning example of how both the market and the state can be bypassed by cooperative creativity. The barrier between user and provider is eroded; a direct agreement between society members is maintained.dwallMarx links the open source principle to socialism and use: we should take what we want, but nurture what we use for the benefit of the next generation:

‘From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.’

In similar fashion, Ostrom advocated a ‘seven-generation’ rule, noting that all policies should be considered as to how they would affect people and the environment seven generations into the future.

Derek Wall’s ‘Economics after capitalism: a guide to the ruins and a road to the future’ is available from Pluto Press