Stop, Thief!

Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance, by Peter Linebaugh, reviewed by Derek Wall

December 1, 2014 · 5 min read

stop-thiefThe rich rarely get their wealth from their own hard work. If that was the case, cleaners would be Donald Trump. Wealth is accumulated, generally, by processes of enclosure and protected by building ever higher fences. 

Enclosure occurs where access for a community is replaced by private use – for example, people are excluded from walking on a beach that was free. Resources that are common, and open to be used by communities, are often stolen by the powerful. We can see this at present with the dismantling of the NHS. Our public healthcare system, which has been so successful, is being replaced by private medicine. Corporations are being given hospitals and healthcare is being transformed into a system that promotes private gain rather than social benefit. 

This process has been going on for thousands of years, and its history has been catalogued by the radical historian Peter Linebaugh. Taught by E P Thompson, Linebaugh has made a lifetime study of the thieves who steal our common wealth. In this collection of essays, he introduces the commons as a vital concept for the left, and lovingly outlines the work of the most important commons scholars, Karl Marx and Elinor Ostrom.

We have long been told of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, a kind of Aesop’s fable aimed at showing that cooperative ownership is unworkable. In 1968 the biologist Garrett Hardin published an article in Science with this title. He argued that common land would be degraded because commoners would put too many cattle or sheep out to graze. It would be sensible for them to conserve the commons by restricting the number of animals, but this would be impossible because of the ‘free rider’ problem. 

Hardin argued that if one commoner took some of his or her cattle off of the commons, other commoners would ‘free ride’ on this generosity by putting more onto it. He said that forests, commons in land and of course common fisheries would all be destroyed. 

Hardin’s wider concern was the global environment. In the late 1960s ecological politics was becoming visible and the threat of pollution was more of a concern. Hardin argued that the problems could only be solved by removing the commons, selling them off to private owners or putting an authoritarian state in charge. His essay promoted a bleak form of green politics, based on top‑down controls, cuts in population and unremitting self-sacrifice. 

Linebaugh, using the work of Elinor Ostrom, shows that Hardin was wrong. The late Ostrom was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics for her work researching common pool property and common pool resources. In the 1970s she heard Hardin lecture at the Bloomington campus of the University of Indiana, where she worked. She was appalled at his authoritarian ideas. He told his audience that men and women should be sterilised after having one child, to save the planet. 

Ostrom was inspired to study commons in an effort to question Hardin’s ideas.  In Governing the Commons, her best known book, she reviewed case studies of actual commons and found that while some did fail, often commoners were able to look after them. 

Like Linebaugh, she used a historical approach, noting that some commons, such as the Torbel grazing grounds in Switzerland, had been used without degradation for over a thousand years. She noted that the most successful commons were based on good design features, such as clear boundaries and democratic organisation of rationing to prevent free riders wrecking the common good. Linebaugh provides a good introduction to her fascinating work.

Linebaugh, like Ostrom, shows we can go beyond the market and the state, by organising collective democratic political and economic systems. Commoners tend to look to long term sustainability and Linebaugh argues convincingly that commons are a source of ecological good practice rather than the origin of ecocide. 

Ostrom’s work is good on what makes commons work; she was a hard-headed realist who used detailed research to investigate more effective forms of governance. Yet there was a weakness in her work, in that she spent relatively little time looking at how commons were stolen. Marx, in contrast, was the theorist who identified the thieves and helps us think about a world in which the rich and powerful can be disarmed to protect our common wealth from harm. Linebaugh looks at how Marx was radicalised by the law on the theft from the woods, under which German peasants were fined for picking up fallen branches from forests where they had traditionally held commons rights.

Stop Thief! is a splendid read. The various chapters are written with intellectual strength and impressive clarity. There are few academic writers who can bring their subject alive; Linebaugh is one. Increasingly both greens and the wider left are realising that the commons provides an ecologically sustainable, democratic and just alternative to bankrupt neoliberalism. Linebaugh’s book provides an excellent introduction.

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