Commons Rights Are Not Legal Rights

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  • Source: The Production of Commons and the “Explosion” of the Middle Class. Massimo De Angelis. Antipode, Volume 42, Issue 4, pages 954–977, September 2010 [1]


Commons Rights are not legal rights, by Massimo De Angelis:

"Commoning, a term encountered by Peter Linebaugh (2008) in one of his frequent travels in the living history of commoners’ struggles, is about the (re)production of/through commons. To turn a noun into a verb is not a little step and requires some daring. Especially if in doing so we do not want to obscure the importance of the noun, but simply ground it on what is, after all, life flow: there are no commons without incessant activities of commoning, of (re)producing in common. But it is through (re)production in common that communities of producers decide for themselves the norms, values and measures of things. Let us put the “tragedy of the commons” to rest then, the basis of the economists’ argument for enclosures: there is no commons without commoning, there is no commons without communities of producers and particular flows and modes of relations.4 Hence, what lies behind the “tragedy of the commons” is really the tragedy of the destruction of commoning through all sorts of structural adjustments, whether militarized or not.5 It is because this organic relation between the activity of the commoners and the commons that “commons” rights differ, in their constitution, from legal rights such as “human”, “political” or “social” rights. In the latter sense, a “right” is a legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. A title deed constitutes evidence of such a right. For the medieval English commoners instead:

common rights are embedded in a particular ecology with its local husbandry … Commoners first think not of title deeds, but human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. One might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, commoning, being independent of the state, is independent also of the temporality of the law and state. It goes deep into human history. (Linebaugh 2008:44–45).

The positing for today of the question of what form of commoning, of (re)producing in common, and the field of common rights as distinct from legal rights, means therefore that we cannot separate the question of autonomy, community, life flow, and ecology, but must assert them all at once while struggling for livelihoods. This implies that we must seek and advance new critical perspectives, which make the problematic of transforming our world, of constituting new social relations of production beyond those imposed by capitalist processes, their central preoccupation. Not perspectives that reduce every single problematic of struggle to the question of new forms of commoning. On the contrary, perspectives that expand every single problematic of struggle as carried by singular subjects within a stratified planetary wage hierarchy so as to pose the political question (and express it in organizational means) of our production in common across stratification, and therefore, beyond it."[2]