Antagonistic Usage of the Commons Concept

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Article: A Tale of Two Conferences: Globalization, the Crisis of Neoliberalism and Question of the Commons. By George Caffentzis



"Like any concept in a class society, it can have many and often antagonistic uses. Our paper will show that there is a use of the concept of the commons that can be functional to capitalist accumulation and it offers an explanation as to why this capitalist use developed, especially since the early 1990s. The conclusion of this paper will assess the political problem that this capitalist use of "the commons" (both strategically and ideologically) poses for the anticapitalist movement.

The antiglobalization movement's critique of neoliberal globalization (with its apotheosis and totalization of the commodity form and private property) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (with its generalization of state property), has set the historical stage for a political relaunching of the commons and common property. But is a politics which calls for the extension of common property to many areas of social life that have been either state or private property inevitably anticapitalist? " (

Part One: Introduction

All excerpts from :

International Association for the Study of Common Property

"The immediate problem of this paper is simple. On the same day that this paper is to be presented at our gathering in San Miguel de Allende on "AlterGlobalisation, another conference will begin in Oaxaca. That conference is being organized by the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP) and co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation and UNAM. The conference title is "The Commons in an age of Global Transition: Challenges, Risks and Opportunities" and it will address the following issues: communities and the resources they manage continue to adapt to, and are being changed by, the globalisation process. This includes the creation of new institutional and organizational relations that are strengthening the links between local and global institutions and networks. For developing countries, the often asymmetric power dimensions of these relations are of particular significance (IASCP 2004)

The language of this passage is a bureaucratically opaque (e.g., what global institutions are being referred to?) So to further clarify their intent, the organizers elaborated ten subthemes should be of particular relevance to the conference participants:

-Indigenous Peoples and Common Resources -Environmental Services and Common Resources -Governance, Conflict and Institutional Reform -Conservation Policy and Common Management -Contemporary Analytical Tools and Theoretical Questions -The Impacts of Geographical Information Technologies and Environmental Information on the Commons -Markets and Common Resources -The New Global Commons -Globalization, Culture, Identity and the Commons -Demographic Change and Commons Management

Hundreds of papers will be presented by scholars, NGO activists and others on these themes which, aside from a somewhat stilted international agency vocabulary (cf. the telltale trace of "governance" and "environmental services"), would undoubtedly be of interest to the participants of our conference. When we perused the names of the announced participants we found people with a wide range of political histories, including a number who we would consider comrades. Indeed, there might be people in this gathering who will even be presenting papers or panels at the IASCP conference!

Given that our "AlterGlobalisation" conference is devoted to exploring how concepts like the commons, the cooperative and public goods are useful in defining a non-capitalist society, the problems this paper addresses is: What is the political relationship between this conference here in San Miguel de Allende and the one in Oaxaca? Is it conflictual? Is it cooperative? Is it ambivalent? Or, perhaps, more accurately, what should the relationship be, given the fact that at the time of this writing neither conference has taken place. There is also a historical question that we wish (indeed, need) to address: Why should there be two conferences with such similar themes taking place in Mexico in August 2004?"

Neoliberal Globalization as a struggle against surviving Commons

" At first, much of this "other" struggle was dismissed as a "dead ender" defense of state property; but as the neoliberal period unfolded, it became clear that the aim of SAPs (designed by the planners of the World Bank and IMF) was not only to undermine state property, their overt aim. They were also devised both to destroy the basis of common property that has been struggled for and defended in the Third World and the so-called First for centuries and to prevent future common property regimes from forming anywhere. Just as neoliberal bankers and government officials were demanding the totalitarian transformation of everything into a commodity, many throughout the planet recognized the life-and-death importance of various forms of common property that were rapidly being "enclosed."

The most obvious type of common property was of land (in the forms of arable, pasture, and forest land) in many parts of Africa and South America, but soon the types of recognized resources that could or should be communalized included access to water, "rights" not to have your body polluted by industrial waste, indigenous knowledge, cultural artifacts, the oceans, the electro-magnetic frequency spectrum and even the human genome. These, and other examples of near common property including traditional ones like the provision of "public goods"--e.g., intergenerational support systems, education, and health care--were abominated by the new political economy and their doctrinal fate was to be sold to the highest bidder."

In the 80's: Struggles for Common Land

"One of the first reactions to these New Enclosures was a world-wide war for land and in defense of the commons that took place in the 1980s, but it passed largely unnoticed since it appeared under a variety of confusing rubrics. Up the Andes into Central America and Mexico there had been desperate and chronic armed struggle over the control of land (frequently referred to in the US as an aspect of the "drug problem" or the "spread of communism") (Weinberg 1991). In West Africa there was a micro-level of armed struggle against seizures of communal land by the state, oil companies and development banks (frequently discussed as anachronistic "tribal war") (Okonta and Douglas 2003). In southern Africa, the battle over land and its communal control, both in town and country, was referred to as an aspect of "the struggle against apartheid," while in East Africa it was considered a "problem of nationalities." War for common land and resources (including water) was and is, of course, what the "Palestinian issue" is about, while from Afghanistan through India to Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia, proletarians took up arms or put their bodies on the line against the New Enclosures under a wide variety of slogans. For example, the Chipko movement in India was seen as "tree hugging" women's movement for the preservation of the forest categorically distinct from the efforts of the communist New People's Army of the Phillippines which used armed struggle to block the building of a World Bank-supported dam that would destroy the common land of thousands of tribal people (Shiva 1989) (Colchester 1993b: 85-86).

But in the 1980s this War for common lands was not only a rural, "third worldist" struggle. From West Berlin, to Zurich, to Amsterdam, to London, to New York, squatters, street people and the "homeless" have battled against police, arsonists in the pay of real estate developers, and other agents of "spatial deconcentration" not simply for "housing" but for common land and communal space and all that it means (Midnight Notes 1990)."

In the 90's: Recomposistion of a Global Commons movement

" Slowly, however, a commons/enclosures discourse in the 1990s allowed different components of the antiglobalization movement to connect their struggles, from indigenous peoples' demand for a return not just of land, but of common land and the practices that make its use possible, to the software designers who were demanding that their creations become part of a larger human pool of communication and creativity accessible to all, to the environmentalists who concluded that the ecological climax phase of capitalism is not compatible with the survival of millions of species (including the human one) and were demanding the transformation of the atmosphere, the oceans and the remaining large-scale forests into a common, democratically regulated for the survival of species, including (and for some, especially) the human one. The commons/enclosures discourse also allowed militants of the antiglobalization movement to distinguish themselves from the defenders of state property (either in Keynesian, socialist or communist mode) with whom they often were allied in the demonstrations against the introduction of neoliberal policies.

The "commons/enclosures" discourse not only described the multisided nature of this struggle against neoliberal globalization but it was very useful in recomposing the elements of the movement. For example, beginning in 1994 the Zapatista struggle against the repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution--which provided the basis of the ejido system and legitimated common land for families and villages--and the discovery of "cyberspace" as a new common that needed to be defended by "cybercommonists" brought together, politically and strategically, two ends of this terrain into an "electronic fabric of struggle," as Harry Cleaver put it.

This political development showed that the anticapitalist struggle had not "collapsed" with the Soviet Union (Midnight Notes 1990, 1992, 2004). On the contrary, an antiglobalization movement supporting common property and suspicious of private and state property was one of the most widespread and "recomposing" movements in history with a capacity for instantaneous communication and coordination across continents, dramatically expressing itself in "global days of action" that brought millions of people into the streets of the world's cities simultaneously to protest the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and their neoliberal globalization policies."

The Commons and Primitive Accumulation

See our seperate entry on the Commons and Primitive Accumulation

Part Two: Is the Commons a anticapitalist concept?

"Thus the antiglobalization movement's critique of neoliberal globalization (with its apotheosis and totalization of the commodity form and private property) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (with its generalization of state property), has set the historical stage for a political relaunching of the commons and common property. But is a politics which calls for the extension of common property to many areas of social life that have been either state or private property inevitably anticapitalist?

Our answer is negative, i.e., capitalist development is compatible with certain kinds of commons and so there is a middle ground between the antiglobalization politics of the commons and the neoliberal globalizers' violent abhorrence of the commons. As anticapitalists were rediscovering the commons in the 1990s, there was an intellectual and political backlash to the neoliberal hegemony in academe and international agencies. This reaction took a number of forms.

The Communal Aspects of Capitalism

One form took shape in opposition to the individualistic "survival of the fittest" self-image of capitalists projected by neoliberalism (that lead to the bubble of the late 1990s and the scams and scandals of the new century). Many theorists pointed to the importance of the communal aspects of capitalism expressed in concepts like "embeddedness" or "social capital" [(Granovetter and Swedberg 1992) (Cohen and Prusak 2001)]. This new interest in the communalism of capitalism and its dependence on "trust" within the capitalist class and the firm was not only expressed in the proliferation of pacifying phrases like "the business community" or "the investment community" and in cozy real estate and architecture jargon like the mall or housing development "commons" (Fukuyama 1995). There was also a corresponding interest in re-imposing self-managing "community rules" on capitalists in the wake of the Enron-like scandals. Ironically, the Marxist tradition has also analyzed many communal aspects of capitalists, especially what Marx called the "freemasonry of capital," i.e., the distribution of the "common pool" of surplus value created throughout the capitalist system to separate firms on the basis of the capital invested in them. As Marx expressed it: "the individual capitalist as well as the capitalists as a whole in each particular sphere of production are participants in the exploitation of the total working class by the total capital, and in the degree of that exploitation, not only out of general class sympathy, but also for direct economic reasons, because assuming all other conditions, among them the value of the advanced constant capital to be given, the average rate of profit depends on the intensity of exploitation of the total labor by the total capital" (Marx 1909: 232) For all the trumpeted virtues of capitalist individualism, the most important measure of capital's effectiveness, the average rate of profit, is a collective creation. In fact, the very competitive process is, according to Marx, the primary way this value is distributed (for more details see the Appendix).

The Example of the World Bank

More important to our argument, however, is that, in response to the movements of indigenous people and peasant farmers throughout the planet to the neoliberalism-inspired agricultural "reforms" of the 1980s and early 1990s mentioned above, there was a cautious and qualified acceptance of the commons on the highest levels of international planning. For one of the first targets of the World Bank's SAPs in the early 1980s was the reform of agriculture, especially in Africa, largely guided by the neoliberal Berg Report that called for a systematic attack on both communal farming and government marketing boards for agricultural commodities. The World Bank took the occasion of the debt crisis to call for governments in Africa to begin to privatize communal land and to eliminate price controls and subsidies in food marketing and production. Berg argued that the serious decline in the productivity of African agriculture could be turned around only if "the prices are right" (both for land and crops) (Caffentzis 1995). The World Bank added the corollary that Africans should increase the percentage of their crops destined for export (presumably the Africans' comparative advantage).

Certainly the neoliberal strategy of creating land markets and thus privatizing land has been and remains the primary impulse of the World Bank's agricultural sector lending. But after a long period when discussion of land tenure fell off the policy map, the World Bank made a doctrinal reversal in 1992 (supposedly after sponsoring a study by its staff of customary tenure in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also, undoubtedly, after accessing the impact of the agrarian revolts its policies were generating) (Colchester 1993: 305). The World Bank in its 1992 World Development Report concluded in an extremely qualified way that common property in land, as far as Sub-Saharan Africa is concerned, is acceptable under certain circumstances:

Landownership in Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally resides with the community, but farmers are assigned rights to use specific parcels. These rights give sufficient security for growing crops and, when bequeathed to children, foster a long-term interest in land management. Farmers may have limited rights to transfer land they use to others without permission from family or village elders, and other people may have supplementary use rights over the same land--to graze the land during the dry season or to collect fruit or wood. Such restrictions, however, do not appear as yet to have had a significant effect on investment in land improvements or on land productivity. Moreover, as population growth and commercialization make land scarce and increasingly valuable, land is increasing privatized. The indigenous systems of communal tenure appear flexible enough to evolve with the increasing scarcity of land and the commensurate need for greater security of land rights. At the same time, the retention of some community control over landownership helps to prevent the emergence of landlessness (World Bank 1992: 144).

In the same report, the World Bank recommended that "a compelling reason for supporting community resource management is its importance for the poor" (World Bank 1992: 142) and that "Governments need to recognize that smaller organizational units, such as villages or pastoral associations, are better equipped to manage their own resources than are large authorities and may be a more effective basis for rural development and rational resource management than institutions imposed from the outside" (World Bank 1992: 143).

This is not the first time that the World Bank invested in "community action programs." Here in Mexico the WB financed and supervised a series of programs and projects between 1975 and 1988 called Integrated Programs for Rural Development (PIDERs). PIDER was the WB's version of Maoistic "participatory democracy." Its methodology aimed at "getting the beneficiaries to participate in the actual planning of state investments for local projects." This required an extensive local knowledge of the people and therefore all PIDER projects began with a field team going to a village to "(a) announce the purpose of the program preparation to the village population at large; (b) talk with small groups or individuals and to the find best informants; (c) identify natural leaders in the different community strata; (d) to ask the authorities for census data..." (Cernea 1992: 25) In other words, PIDER was a spying operation exchanging "development funds" for micropolitical information and, not accidentally, it took off at the time of intense popular agrarian organization while it was centered in states like Guerrero and Oaxaca where armed campesino groups had taken to the field. (Bartra 1986: 130-135) The PIDER "fingering" teams were going into the rural areas slightly ahead of the death squads that the PRI had dispatched to decapitate the movement. Thus it was one of the WB's continuing efforts aimed at disintegrating anti-capitalist energies, "capturing the grassroots" and cynically turning them into forces of accumulation.

This interest in using micro-political initiatives to thwart and extirpate revolutionary movements on the grassroots level is clearly an aspect of the World Bank's support for "community resource management" into the 21st century (while still firmly holding on to an overall neoliberal model on the macro-level).

For example, in a planning document entitled "Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region: Community Action Programs," the team of authors, including Hans Binswanger, one the World Bank's main students of the commons, write:

- The new approach of Community Action Programs...aims to empower not only local governments but civil society groups too. These could be geographical entities (urban neighborhoods), or groups with common interests (water users associations, parent-teacher association, fisherfolk, herders, members of a microcredit society, women's groups, or youth groups (Binswanger et al. 2000).

In other words, common property management groups for resources like water, fisheries and pasture land have by 2000 been inducted by the World Bank into the world of "civil society" groups that it can capture.

Thus at the moment when the NAFTA and WTO agreements were being finalized in the mid-1990s, with their neoliberal prejudices in favor of private alienable property in land, the "there is no alternative" World Bank was carefully exploring "Plan B," i.e., a political position to fall back on when the antagonistic response to the privatization of land becomes too powerful and aggressive. A key element in this alternative is the acceptance of the land or forest commons at least as a stop-gap, transitional institution when the revolts of the landless or the devastation of the forests become destabilizing to the general exploitation of a territory and population. Of course, the World Bank was not alone in its strategic reassessment of the commons. Both the Food and Agriculture Organization and many national governments also were also forced to recognize common property rights over land in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Colchester and Lohmann 1993)."

The need for an alternative 'capitalism-friendly' theory of the Commons

"A new theory had to be developed that articulated arguments concerning the "appropriateness" of common property regimes in certain circumstances and integrated knowledge of what neoliberal economists had defined out of existence. Adherents of such a theory would thus be perfect advisors to a government in a political and/or military stalemate with an indigenous apposition demanding common lands or forests (e.g., in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, or Nigeria). For they would not simply repeat their economistic version of the imperialist cry--"exterminate the brutes"-but would provide other "possible worlds" and a full "menu" of options that would make a negotiation feasible.

Though the revolt of indigenous people and peasants around the world gave urgency to the development an alternative theory that would incorporate the commons, there were also other forces that were also pushing to the save result.

The problematics posed by the global commons are high on capital's agenda, since we are now at a moment when billions of people either suspect or know that the capitalist system is on the verge (if not already over the edge) of precipitating multiple apocalypses-from human species-annihilating climate change, to the cutting down of the remaining tropical forests, to the total exhaustion of ocean fisheries, to the generation of human nature-destroying genetic pollution. This tampering with the global commons is, perhaps, the mortal danger for capital in the 21st century, since these fears profoundly undermine capitalism's claim to be the "steward" of the world's resources. The neoliberal's response to these problematics - let the markets allocate access to the global commons of the atmosphere, the forests, the fisheries, and the genome - is now a "wisdom" so tarnished and dubious that even many of the most 'hard-nosed" capitalists know an alternative approach, offering more serious options, is or will be necessary. Such an alternative theory that could conceptualize multiple property regimes that offers "a way out" since it can conceive of a capitalism that would be self-regulating, but that still would be in charge of the fate of the planet and the human race (Sachs 1993)."

Solving the Crisis of Value inherent in classic IP

"There was also an assault on the ideological pretensions of the neoliberal intellectual property order from both sides of "development." First, the 'computer revolution" and the internet had generated a huge group of enthusiasts who systematically rejected the notion that the product of individual intellectual effort ending on the net should be considered private property. This maxim has generated a revival of the notion of an intellectual commons, or in Larry Lessig's term, a "creative commons" (and the complementary notion, due to Boyle, of "a second enclosure movement") [(Boyle 2003) (Lessig 2001)].

As Lessig writes:

- It is a commonplace to think about the Internet as a kind of commons. It is less commonplace to actually have an idea what a commons is. By a commons I mean a resource that is free. Not necessarily zero cost, but if there is a cost, it is neutrally imposed, or equally imposed cost....Open source, or free software is a commons: the source code of Linux, for example, lies available for anyone to take, to use, to improve, to advance. No permission is necessary; no authorization is required (Lessig 2002: 1783, 1788).

From this perspective then, the huge income Microsoft and other software companies have been accruing over the last two decades is as illegitimate as the gold the conquistadors looted from the palaces of the Aztecs and Incas. Could a theory be developed that would both give a legitimacy to the common and still create a flow of profits?

Second, indigenous peoples and others in the Third World claimed that their knowledge of plants, medicines, and agricultural techniques was being stolen from them by "gene hunters," "ethno-botanists," and "global musicians" who then had the temerity to demand that the victims of theft should pay them to use the products they stole! (Caffentzis 2000). Where was the place for indigenous and local knowledge which was collectively produced in a world that recognized only private property claims? As Vandana Shiva writes:

Patents in the context of agriculture and food productio involve ownership over life forms and life processes. Monopoly ownership of life creates an unprecedented crisis for agricultural and food security, by transforming biological resources from commons into commodities. It also generates a crisis of values and ends which guide social organistion, techological change and development priorities (Shiva 1993: 121)

This crisis of values is now engulfing the whole neoliberal intellectual property project. For throughout the last decade it become clear that a purely neoliberal approach to "intellectual property rights" (which largely comes down to private property rights) will lead to a planetary police state where surveillance and exclusion costs will be untenable economically, politically and ideologically. This crisis calls for a theory that can offer property rights "solutions" to the field of technological, artistic and software production that just might preserve profitability and put the bulk of surveillance and exclusion costs on the creators and consumers of these commodities and not on the corporations marketing them." (

Part Three: Two Antagonistic Concepts

The Commons of the Scholars

"The theoretical production of the antiglobalization movement has naturally been seen as the antagonistic response to this doctrine. But over the last decade an a half there has also been a parallel development: an academic and "establishment" literature which rejects the anti-capitalism of much of the antiglobalization movement, supports the commons, and is a theoretical alternative to doctrinaire neoliberalism. Much of this literature, rich in detail and in the experiences of farmers, fishers, and forest dwellers around the planet, can be found in the "Digital Library of the Commons" ( which has been put together at Indiana University under the auspices of the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP), the group organizing our 'other' conference. The IASCP is an interdisciplinary and international association of scholars formed in 1989 and which has grown dramatically in the 1990s, especially after the crisis of neoliberalism began to become apparent. The bibliography it has established has almost 40,000 titles of articles and books, most of them published in a wide variety of academic or foundation-backed journals, publishing houses or conference web sites and deal in one way or another with the commons, so it would be impossible to survey or characterize this literature in a brief way. What I want to do in this section is to analyze a significant tendency in this literature that recognizes the compatibility of capitalism with common property systems of resource management and is committed to "improving institutions for the management of environmental resources that are (or could be) held or used collectively by communities" (as the IASCP's mission statement puts it).

It is, at first, pleasant to discover that within academe there is a "respectable" discourse that inevitably has much overlap with the antiglobalization movement's tenets and indeed some of its personnel. One is even tempted to take a "the enemy of my enemy (i.e., neoliberalism) is my friend" stance to it. But this temptation should be resisted. For this is a moment of intellectual, political, and economic crisis when many theoretical tendencies are jostling for position to replace or at least share with neoliberalism the post of being a "ruling idea of the ruling class." Inevitably, many of the concepts produced by the resistance to capitalism (including those articulated by the antiglobalization movement) will be integrated into the next phase of its theoretical development in the way, for example, that Keynesianism echoed much of the post-WWI criticisms of capitalism and shaped them into a doctrine which would help save it. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the never-at-rest World Bank has sponsored some of the research in this pro-commons literature that is definitely critical of the neoliberal assumptions dominant in the shaping of the Bank's own SAPs. Indeed, many respectable foundations like the Ford and Rockefeller (and even the US government through USAID) have supported research in the commons as well as the IASCP and its conferences.

In the next section I will uncover what differentiates this tendency's support for the commons from anti-capitalist support of the commons."

The Neo-Hardinian School of Eleanor Ostrom

"we have decided to concentrate on the work of Elinor Ostrom and her co-workers as an expression of the "compatibility of capitalism with the commons" tendency we are studying. This choice is justified since Prof. Ostrom has been extremely influential in the field of common property resource studies for more than two decades and her publications (written alone or jointly) have been paradigmatic for the field. Moreover, she has been an important organizing figure in the formation of the IASCP and a prominent spokesperson for the reassessment of the commons.

The Rise of the Neo-Hardinians

Ostrom's and her co-workers' historical self-description of their tendency begins with Garrett Hardin's 1968 "Tragedy of the Commons" article. For Hardin concluded that a commons is inevitably tragic since those who restrain their use of a common-pool resource will lose out to the unrestrained users. Indeed, the "greedy" will be naturally selected to survive, the "fair" will die out, and the common resource will be exhausted, unless, Hardin argued, the users apply "mutually agreed upon coercion" to enforce rules that would result in the sustainable use of the common resource. This coercion could only be guaranteed by state sanctions on violators. As a corollary to Hardin's conclusion, neoliberal economists argued that the only efficient rules that limit access to the common pool resource are private property rights that are alienable through a market (Aguilera-Klink 1994). Thus Hardin's conclusions joined with neoliberalism to not only reject both common property and state property as reasonable ways to organize the use of the great elemental commons of land, water, air, fire and nous.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, this account continues, challenges to Hardin's and the neoliberal's abolition of common property began to accumulate both empirically and theoretically:

A key challenge to the Hardin model came from researchers familiar with diverse common property institutions in the field. They argued that Hardin had seriously confused the concept of common property with open access conditions where no rules existed to limit entry and use. As Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop express it, "common property is not everyone's property." They and other researchers stress that where common property existed, users had developed rich webs of use rights that identified who had a long-term interest in the resource and thus an incentive to try to avoid overuse (Dietz et al. 2002: 12).

The theoretical justification of Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" reasoning was also challenged in this period. That justification modeled the tragedy as a prisoners' dilemma game, where the rational strategy is to be "greedy" even though the long-term benefits of being "fair," though "irrational," are much greater. This model was challenged because in a prisoners' dilemma game, the players are limited to a one-shot trial and are not allowed to communicate with each other. But if the players of the commons game can communicate and can have many trials it is easily shown that Hardin's conclusions do not hold. Indeed, the comparison between the prisoners' dilemma game and the typical common situation is far-fetched. C. Ford Runge pointed out this absurdity in a series of papers in the 1980s according to this account:

…most users of a common-pool resource-at least in developing countries-live in the same village where their families had lived for generations and intend to live in the same villages for generations to come. Given the level of poverty facing many villagers, their dependence on natural resources, and the randomness they all face in the availability of natural resources, Runge argued that it is implausible to assume that individuals have a dominant strategy of free riding. He suggested that users of common-pool resources in developing countries faced a repeated coordination game rather than a one-shot prisoners' dilemma game. In such situations, all users would prefer to find ways of limiting their own use so long as others also committed themselves to stinting (Dietz et al. 2002: 12).

Thus by 1989, at the time of the formation of the IASCP, a new tendency was formulated that I call "neo-Hardinianism." Just as the neo-Malthusians pointed out, on the basis of demographic trends in Western Europe in the 20th century, an increase in wages does not necessarily imply an increase in working class population, so too neo-Hardinians like Ostrom and her co-workers argued that commons situations do not necessarily lead to "tragedy," they can also lead to "'comedy'-a drama for certain, but one with a happy ending" (Dietz et al. 2002: 4). In fact, they called one of their books The Drama of the Commons-"because the commons entails history, comedy, and tragedy" (Dietz 2002: 4).

Scholars in the neo-Hardinian tendency have carried on many important empirical studies of common property systems across the planet as well as have made a number of important distinctions in the study of common property. This is not the place to assess their empirical studies (cf. the extensive bibliography on Private and Common Property Rights in (Ostrom 2000: 352-379) and the Digital Library on the Commons mentioned above), but their most important theoretical distinctions are worth reviewing, since some can be useful to the anti-capitalist commonist movement.

Of course, the primary one is between common property and open access regimes, since the confusion between them is the basis of Hardin's deduction of the tragedy of the common. Common property regimes are "where the members of a clearly demarcated group have a legal right to exclude nonmembers of that group from using a resource. Open access regimes (res nullius)-including the classic cases of the open seas and the atmosphere-have long been considered in legal doctrine as involving no limits on who is authorized to use a resource" (Ostrom 2000: 335-336). On the basis of this distinction, common property and open access regimes are mutually exclusive and anyone who had as their political ideal the creation of an open access regime would not be a supporter of the commons.

The second important distinction is between a common-pool resource (which is a thing or stuff) and a common property regime (which is a set of social relations). A common-pool resource is such that (a) "it is costly to exclude individuals from using the good either through physical barriers or legal instruments and (b) the benefits consumed by one individual subtract from the benefits available to others" (Ostrom 2000: 337). Because of its two defining characteristics, a common-pool resource is subject to problems of congestion, overuse and potential destruction. Access to, withdrawal from, management and ownership of such a resource can be in the form of a common property regime, but it need not be. "Examples exist of both successful and unsuccessful efforts to govern and manage common-pool resources by governments, communal groups, cooperatives, voluntary associations, and private individuals or firms" (Ostrom 2000: 338). Much of the work of the neo-Hardinians has been to study what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to the use of communal proprietorship or ownership" and what attributes of common-pool resources that "are conducive to individual rights to withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation" (Ostrom 2000: 332).

The neo-Hardinians, however, seem to be less interested in the fact that not all common property regimes involve common-pool resources. On the contrary, when we examine the history of common property regimes, we must conclude that many have been based on non-common-pool resources. For example, money income, personal belongings, literary texts, and even children have been communalized. Thus the 15th century Taborites' first act of forming their community was to dump all their personal belongings in large open chests and begin their communal relations on an even footing (Federici 2004: 54). On the basis of the history of common property regimes it is difficult to decide what types of goods are "conducive" to private property and what kinds of goods are "conducive" to common property.

The third important distinction is between common-pool resources (e.g., a fishery, a river) and public goods (e.g., knowledge of a physical law, living in a just and peaceful society). They share one characteristic, i.e., it is difficult to exclude people living within the scope of these resources or goods from their enjoyment. But they also differ in another characteristic, for a common-pool resource like a fishery is reduced when something of value like a particular fish is withdrawn from it while a public good like knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not diminished when still another person uses it to construct a new engine.

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues developed still other distinctions of interest, e.g., between renewable and non-renewable common pool resources as well as between local and global common-pool resources. But there is a distinction between common property regimes that they do not deal with: those regimes antagonistic to and subversive of capitalist accumulation and those regimes that are compatible with and potentiating of capitalist accumulation. In fact, the discourse they employ seems to assume that the discussion of common property regimes is conducted in the context of a capitalist system. Neo-Hardinians like Ostrom recognize that certain common property regimes are perfectly compatible with capitalism or, since they seem to shy away from such a term, with "markets." Indeed, much of their discussion of particular "successful" commons center on these commodity-producing commons. From Maine lobster fisheries to Alpine pastures, commodities have been profitably produced over long periods of time through the self-regulating behavior of fishers and pastoralists operating in common property regimes (Acheson 2003) (Netting 1981).

But shouldn't these commodity-producing commons be contrasted with subsistence-producing commons (cf. for more on this concept see (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999: 141-164)? Aren't some of these subsistence-producing commons also capable of undermining capitalist development by hindering the emergence of an exploitable proletariat? What of those common-property regimes that provide subsistence goods to the commoners which make wage work unnecessary? What of a common property regime that is providing the food and energy for an anti-imperialist revolutionary army?"

The Crucial Difference in Approach

"The neo-Hardinites look to changes in the characteristics of the resource (e.g., whether its value on the Market or the cost of excluding non-commoners has increased) or in the characteristics of the commoners (e.g., the number of commoners has increased) for an explanation of the breakdown.

The anti-capitalist supporters of the commons, of course, look to the larger class context to determine the dynamics of "the drama of the commons." For it is only by determining the class relations and forces within a particular region and stage in capitalist development that will ultimately determine the existence or annihilation of a common-property regime (to use the neo-Hardinite term). For the particular regime that manages a common-pool resource will be determined, e.g., by the labor needs of the dominant capitalist class in the region and by the commoners' solidarity and political-military power to resist the inevitable force that the desirous capitalists deploy.

Of course, reading the class context is often not simple. For example, many anti-capitalists interpret the survival of subsistence-producing commons in much of Africa, Asia and the Americas as a function of international capitalism's need to cheapen the cost of the reproduction of the work-force and/or to "liberate" male workers for the cultivation of cash crops and other types of waged work. Claude Meillassoux has been a major proponent of this position. As his argument goes, thanks to the work of the "village" (mostly composed of women) the male laborers who migrated to Paris of Johannesburg provided a "free" commodity for the capitalist who hired them; since the capitalist neither had to pay for their upbringing nor had to continue to support them with unemployment benefits s/he no longer needed their work (Meillassoux 1981: 110-111). But even Meillassoux recognized the ambiguous character of the contemporary village commons, for he argued that if the subsistence-producing commons is too unproductive, the "free gift" of labor power is lost, but if it becomes too productive, the worker will either not emigrate from the village at all or will only emigrate at a very high wage.

Most importantly, Meillassoux and his supporters have not seen the strategic importance to proletarians (especially women) of having a territorial base in the communal village that can provide for subsistence to carry on a struggle to reclaim that wealth the state and capital has expropriated from them. To what extent the village and the common property regimes it has fostered have been a source of power for workers across the former colonial world can be measured by the radical attack that, since the early 1980s, the World Bank, especially, has waged against it under the guise of Structural Adjustment Programs and "globalization" [(Federici 2004b: 52), (Federici 2001)]. Indeed, we read, along with Subcommendante Marcos, much of the military destruction of communal village life throughout Africa (including the Ogonis in the Niger Delta) and the Americas (including the Zapatistas in Chiapas) as part of a Fourth World War against the indigenous peoples of the planet who can still resistingly subsist (Midnight Notes 2001)."

Summary of Political Differences

"The methodological and political differences that separate the neo-Hardinite supporters of the commons and the anti-capitalist commonists should be apparent from the above discussion:

(1) The neo-Hardinites see the problem of the commons as an issue of management requiring good institutional designs "to help human groups avoid tragedies of the commons." They see the property regimes regulating common-pool resources as offering different combinations of outcomes that can be measured by efficiency, sustainability and equity criteria. The solution to the problems posed by the potential for a "tragedy of the commons" can be achieved by greater research on common-property regimes throughout the world and greater theoretical comprehension of the variables involved. It programatically rejects doctrinaire neoliberalism that assumes the superiority of private-property regimes throughout the society including the management of common-pool resources.

(2) The anti-capitalist supporters of the commons see the struggle for a commons as an important part of a larger rejection of neoliberal globalizing capitalism since it is the commons in the indigenous areas, in the global sense, and in the area of collective intellectual production that is now threatened with enclosure by a capitalism bent on commodifying the planet, its elements, its past and future. Their key issues are how to bring together various aspects of the struggle against commodification and create "another world" satisfying the needs of global justice." (


"A tell-tale sign of a difference in approaches of the two conferences, however, is in the self-description of the Oaxaca conference. For it claims to study "how communities and the resources they manage continue to adapt to, and are being changed by, the globalisation process." This programmatic statement uses a language where the monolithic "globalisation process" is active and the "communities" are passive. There seems to be no recognition on the part of the organizers of the "other" conference of the possibility that the globalization process might be changed, twarted, stopped, or even reversed by the said communities. In other words, they apparently do not recognize a class struggle that could have a revolutionary result, for they seem to assume that the "asymmetry of power relations" between the opaquely referred to "local and global institutions and networks" is so overwhelming that at best the local ones can "adapt to" and "be changed by" the global ones. Our AlterGlobalisation conference is based on the opposite assumption, i.e., the globalization process itself is a response to the struggles of workers, peasants, indigenous peoples throughout the planet in the 1960s and 1970s and it is itself now in crisis because of the accumulation of struggles against it in the 1980s and 1990s.

Second, the existence of a rival conference organized in the main by Neo-Hardinites must force us in our conference to become more precise as to what kind of commons will increase the power of workers against capital and what kind of commons would either be compatible with or even expand the power of capital over cooperating workers. Our questions concerning the commons is not of the "efficiency, sustainability, and equity" of a property regime, but of whether a particular commons increases the power of workers to resist capital and to define a non-capitalist future. This precision will require our development of traditions and methods of counter-research that would increase knowledge of alternative commons solutions, but would not lead to the subversion or repression of the commons and commoners in question. Some of these tools of counter-research exist already, but many studies of commons use techniques that are more appropriate to Neo-Hardinian purposes. Thus an institutional design of a common property regime that exploits a resource in a sustainable manner is not in itself positive, if, for example, the workers in the regime are locked into a larger labor or commodity market which exploits them. It is time, as Fanon urged us, to invent, in this case, a methodology that can measure the compatibility of a commons with capital.

Finally, we should recognize that the development of Neo-Hardinism and the calling of large international conferences on the commons like the one in Oaxaca are tributes to the increasing power of the antiglobalization movement's challenge to neoliberal globalization which risks to be decisively derailed in the near future if, among other things, the anti-privatization resistance in Iraq succeeds in nullifying the US/UK plan to neoliberalize the Iraqi economy. Such radical developments inevitably create opportunities for alliances with powerful reformist forces within capitalism that are at least superficially supporting the same demand. These alliances pose many political problems and require an even deeper understanding of the differences between a capitalist and an anti-capitalist theory and practice of the commons. This is not the first time such a political problematic has been posed, of course, and this is not the first time that Brecht's famous advice in such situations will have to be practiced: it might be necessary to mix wine with water, but you should know what is the wine and what is the water! " (