Commons as Community

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A citation from anthropologist Stephen Gudeman’s book, The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture:

"The commons is a shared interest or value. It is the patrimony or legacy of a community and refers to anything that contributes to the material and social sustenance of a people with a shared identity: land, buildings, seed stock, knowledge of practices, a transportation network, an educational system, or rituals. As the lasting core, though changeable over time, the base represents temporality and continuity. Without a commons, there is no community; without a community, there is no commons

Most modern economists — after Galileo, Descartes, and Locke interpret the material commons of a people as an independent, objective entity that can be properly managed only by having! expressly stated rights of access (Ostrom 1990) . They re-read the commons as something separate from a human community, perhaps as a symbol of community but not the community itself. This market and modernist reading separates objects from subjects.

My use of the term “ commons” is different from that of most contemporary economists political scientists in another way. For them a commons is real property used by market agents and contained within a market; a commons is either an open-access resource, freely available to all, or a common-pool resource, regulated by rules of use (Ostrom 1990). These theorists would show how control of certain scarce resources through social rules rather than competitive exchange supports market ends and the achievement of efficiency; thus, they argue, market actors sometimes agree for reasons of self-interest to form limited economic communities with a commons. I think this formulation represents a misunderstanding of the social sphere of value, reduces the social to self-interest, and conflates community and market through the misapplication of the language of trade. Communities of the form I examine are not devised to serve market life; irreducibly social, they operate for themselves as they relate to self-interests and the world of trade.

On my view, the commons is the material thing or knowledge a people have in common, what they share, so that what happens to a commons is not a physical incident but a social event. Taking away the commons destroys community, and destroying a complex of relationships demolishes a commons. Likewise, denying others access to the commons denies community with them, which is exactly what the assertion of private property rights does. The so-called “tragedy of the commons “ (Hardin 1968), which refers to destruction of a resource through unlimited use by individuals, is a tragedy not of a physical commons but of a human community, because of the failure of its members to treat one another as communicants and its transformation to a competitive situation. Often a community economy does not despoil the environment as rapidly as a market economy does, because in doing so it despoils itself. (Gudeman, S.F., 2001, pp. 27. [1])


Kevin Flanagan:

"his description informed not only by Gudeman’s own research but by decades of cross cultural anthropological research into the nature of economy and exchange is the understanding of the Commons I subscribe to. Commons initiatives are diverse and any effort towards definition must be broad enough to reflect this. I would emphasize that the ‘failure’ of any Commons must be considered in broader social, economic, political and environmental contexts in which they are embedded that can be more or less antagonistic toward their welfare. Where the powers of Market and State have interests even the most well organised Communities will struggle. The real tragedy of the Commons is that where a Commons is not recognised as serving the instrumental logics of Market and State they will be treated as externalities when in truth the Commons are the ground on which they stand.

There are various efforts to establish legal status for Commons initiatives but this is complex and caution must be exercised. Legislation is a processes of translation where by a State will seek to understand and make sense of Commons in it’s own legal terms, in the logics of rights and property, this must be carefully negotiated so as not to compromise the autonomy of Commons. Additionally to define what is a Commons is also to define what is not and so policies and legal definitions inadequate to the task of recognising a plurality of organisational forms and practices risk being instruments of exclusivity.

Today Commons are the dark matter of our political and economic universe. Their presence are felt but little understood if at all by mainstream politicians and economists. What is needed is a kind of Copernican revolution, a paradigm shift away from what Gibson Graham(2006) call a Capitalocentric and instrumental relationship with the world and to a way of life oriented towards celebrating and nurturing our interdependence and the common good as the base and basis for good living, Buen Vivir.

Utopian promises of ideals to be realised come the revolution have little appeal today. A future characterised by a shift away from Capitalocentric forms of social organisation would be Post-Capitalist. While P2P technologies offer many possibilities, Post-Capitalism as a general condition for society will not be achieved through technical wizardry alone, it requires a revolution of every day life, that is cultural change, a change in how people see, experience and act in the world, what is called prefigurative practice.

The Commons is not a means to some Post-Capitalist end, but an end in itself. Commons are sites, physical or digital for the realisation and celebration of human values, collaboration, cooperation, giving, sharing, friendship that are all too often marginalised or instrumentalised by the utilitarian thinking that dominates so much of our world today. In this sense Commons seek to resist capitalist instrumentality. Markets should serve society and not the other way around. Through recognition, shared learning and solidarity with the many initiatives that embody these values in practice a network of networks becomes visible." (