Challenges of Modernity and Commons

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(from Vocabulary of Commons, article 81)

by Anita Cheria and Edwin

Challenges of modernity

An appropriate vocabulary and language of the commons are essential for the the health of the surviving commons. At present the dominant paradigm is so pervasive, that the language of property is used to describe and regulate the commons. In many cases, there is no vocabulary to describe and therefore the language of property is imported and deployed. Even those with legitimate constitutional backing term restoration of commons as encroachment or, in the case of MST Brazil, as ‘invasions’. These should instead be seen and named as land restoration and liberation. It is only then that the legitimacy of restoring the commons for commoners is affirmed with the empowering knowledge of legitimacy. This is the required ‘vocabulary of commoning’, needed for the active process of returning the resources to the commons and the commons to the community of commoners.

The process and vocabulary of commoning needs to be distinguished from the adjustments that the private property dependent state does to ensure its survival. Sometimes it is erroneously termed land ‘reform’. Land reform is only a redistribution of property and is well within the property and privatisation framework. Only land restoration comes within the framework of commons and the vocabulary of commoning. Newer frameworks such as the models developed for carbon trading under the clean development mechanism too fall under the property and financial capital framework.

The law and policy has only the vocabulary of property. This needs to be changed into a language of commons. The mindset that seeks to smoothen the road, sometimes literally, for the rich while laying obstacles for the poor, the mindset that sees the poor and the marginalised as an embarrassment needs to give way to a more democratic framework which seeks and makes access for all, and ‘a level playing field’ a reality. These are equally important in the traditional commons, built environment and in the new and emerging commons. Laws, institutions and infrastructure that make it possible must be created. Those excludedfrom the commons by terming them pagans or demons (‘asura’) need to be brought in with dignity through a concerted attempt of commoning. Terms such as freecycle may need to be popularised so that popular consciousness, and the formal systems, can catch up with common practice. Millennia long wait should not be necessary, as was the case for the nomads and timeshare.

Precision and ambiguity

Modern life needs precision, yet life itself needs to be fluid. This duality needs to be addressed. On the one hand, the fluidity enables others to stuff themselves into the commons. In others precision keeps the commoners out. In each of this, the response is diametrically opposite depending on power relations, and needs to be so, to ensure that the commons will always be accessible to, benefit and be in the control of the community.

The fluid ‘fishing community’ or even ‘farmer’ will need to be defined more precisely. The language of labour has enabled ‘landlords’ (a term related to property) to term themselves as ‘farmers’ (a term related to occupation) and the actual farmers being termed ‘agricultural labourers’. The use of sexist language has also meant that ‘farmers’—of the landowning or labourer variety—are imagined as men, and policies written and programmes designed for them. In reality, most farmers are women,5 especially the ones now called agricultural labourers.

The fishing community raises several different levels of difficulty in definition and usage.

  1. Initially it was very clearly patriarchal and labour related—a ‘fisherman’s’ village and community. It was only the sea–going fishermen who were allowed into administrative structures (the caste panchayat). There was a long and sustained effort to include the women and the needs of women, at least in the vocabulary and the benefits of campaigns. Slowly the terminology of fish–workers, fishing community, fisher folk and fisher began to be used. Yet these words do not even now describe the relationship of the community with the environment.
  2. In the usage ‘fishing community’ by the people, it would mean the traditional fishing community, using traditional fishing methods, in their traditional fishing grounds for livelihood. Those who use mechanised tools would be excluded from this ‘community’.
  3. The traditional fishercastes themselves would only define the dominant castes among them as ‘fishing’ communities. Due to the influence of money, those who engage in trawling and mechanised fishing would also be included. Not included would be those from other castes and communities who also fish and are sea–dependent.
  4. In marine fishing communities, the ‘citizens’ of the community would only be the adult seagoing males. It is from these ‘citizens’ that the governing councils, the ‘panchayats’, are chosen. Those in backwater fishing or allied trades are not considered part of the ‘community’ and, in the case of the December 2004 Tsunami, not eligible for relief, though families without seagoing males from the ‘community’ were considered eligible.

Within daily social interaction in normal times, there is little discrimination though the roles are distinct. So the lines are rather blurred. But with description and then formal codification even the more egalitarian societies become stratified, and the dynamic flux gets written in stone. The earlier ‘community’ becomes the ‘citizen’ and all others become tenants.

The striving for precision is with a blunt instrument. Language itself is rarely precise, and is almost always contextual. That the same word means different things in different languages is known. What is less known is that even the written language is very different from the oral. Even within a language, the same word can mean very many different things. The many commonly used words have very different meanings,1 sometimes diametrically opposite.2 The twin principles of subsidiarity and residual powers vesting with the individual and community become key in such a situation. The challenge is to revert to this formulation, since the reverse is presently the norm.

Romanticising the commons

There is a need to be alert to the tendency of romanticising the commons, and somehow casting it as some form of Utopia that existed and needs to be restored. The reality is that that the traditional commons were very exclusivist, if only for the reason that ‘the community’ was narrowly defined. They were for the able bodied male in most cases. Women and children were excluded from decision making. Other castes and communities were barred from both the physical and the knowledge commons. With the fast integrating global village, it becomes imperative to ensure that the commons are egalitarian, equitable and have equal opportunity for all those dependent on it for livelihood.

The vocabulary of community and the idiom of the commons is handy for, and used most effectively by, the revivalists, religious fundamentalists, racists, supremacists of various hues and assorted feudal forces—the very same people who were (and still are) against equality in terms of gender, race or caste—to further their agendas of unremembered history and utopianism. In their hands, the vocabulary of commons and community becomes indistinguishable from the vocabulary of communalism.

To restore the commons is not to restore the inequity that we know were part of the commons. It is not to romanticise the past or build Arcadian illusions. It is not to go back but to move forward by retaining the best of the past and reconstructing based on the insights of history. There is no reason why commons cannot make use of knowledge learnt elsewhere.

Citizenship and the state

A different hue of revivalists use the ‘nationality’ vocabulary. They use the vocabulary of progress and inclusion to ensure that the iniquitous status quo of society with its permanently privileged will be perpetuated. Their appeal is for ‘national development’ and some sacrifice from the same sections of society who, coincidentally, never get any benefit in any of this ‘development’. Here the use of inclusive language camouflages the exclusive nature of the endeavour. They deny that the ‘nation’ is made of many communities.

Though all are called ‘citizens’ those analogous to the Roman class of patricians become the citizens and the plebes become the ‘tenants’ of the nation. It is very clear in the flow of benefits that the older privileged community (the patricians) have now become the citizens to whom the benefits flow, and the previously excluded (the plebes) remain excluded tenants and inhabitants who pay the price. The Dalits and Adivasis are the ‘tenants’ who pay the cost in ecological destruction, unviable livelihoods and displacement for the ‘citizens’ to get electricity from the dams built across the ‘national resource’ rivers. Yet they are the last to get electricity, though the high tension wires pass over their villages. In this model too, the ‘national property’ is used for private profit.

In Tamil (Tamizh for the purist), virtually all the terms of citizenship arise from caste.3 The village (kudi) consists of those who ‘have caste’. Old villages (some now no more villages) retain the name kudi such as Karaikudi and Kunnakkudi. The outcasts don’t ‘have’ caste and live in a cheri or colony (in this sense, colony has now become a Tamil word). Those families who live in the village are called kudiyavunga. Those in the cheri don’t have caste, family or marriage. By extension, they are considered without morals. Kudi is also the root word for citizen (kudimagan) and democratic (kudiarasu). In a reflection of the English phrase ‘drunk as a lord’ in Tamil a drunkard is a kudikaran (though, to be fair, kudi in this context comes from the verb ‘to drink’).

Kudimagan is masculine, an accurate reflection of citizenship in a patriarchal society where women are considered tenants. In patrilocal societies, women are literally considered tenants in their paternal homes, and go to their ‘real’ homes after marriage where too they face discrimination. The use of the language of citizenship blurs the contradictions that were more visible when the terms of lord and serfs or were used, and makes the challenges of mobilisation for liberation that much more difficult.

Gender and commons

The ‘commons’ were traditionally the commons for the men including the seemingly ‘inclusive’ decision making bodies such as ‘all party’ meetings. This has significant impact on the relationship between the women and the commons, and their use of ‘common’ spaces. Where there was traditionally ‘undefined’ use, and therefore some degree of flexibility, ‘formalisation’ and ‘legal definition’ has often restricted the women from spaces they otherwise had access to, especially in the case of women from indigenous and tribal peoples. The sexual minorities have been pushed into ghettos. It is only where the women were consciously part of decision making that they have retained or increased their access to commons.

The women were barred from many functions within the traditional commons. The village ‘chaupal’ the platform that was literally the seat of decision making was, and is, off limits for women. Even in relatively egalitarian communities where there was a division of roles, contact with the outside and mimicking the dominant society has resulted in stratification within these communities too. Moreover, when the emerging spaces are monopolised by the men, then the community undergoes a traumatic restructuring. When these emerging spaces are legislative, and they ‘codify’ traditional practices into law, then the whole codification works to the disadvantage of the women. It leads to the destruction of the commons and the community, with egalitarianism being a victim.

Modernity’s assault on the Ima Keithel in Imphal is a study in the multiple challenges of modernity. The traditional market Ima Keithel is located in the heart of Imphal city, the capital of Manipur in North East India. Ima Keithel means the ‘Market (Keithel) of the Mothers (Ima)’. Run exclusively by women from different parts of Manipur for as long as human memory, it is one of the oldest market places in the whole region. Under cover of the Keithel ‘modernisation’ project, the Government of Manipur systematically attacked the traditional women run business and trade to force the women out of business.

The community of women were not as powerful in their capacity to defend their commons as those who had the desire to invade their high commercial value real estate. Though they were willing to defend, their capacity to defend was severely diminished due to the increase in the capacity of the others. The gender aspect is significant since the proportion of men in the decision making positions in the modern institutions of governance is far higher than their position in traditional arenas. They are made stronger by their links with the dominant Indian state, ironically a subject of social derision. Their mandate now encompasses the traditional decision making sphere of the women, and they have the instruments of enforcement at their sole disposal. The traditional law and traditional instruments are no longer strong enough to come to the rescue of these unfortunate women, let alone prevent an assault on their rights.

Creatively constructed identities provide a space for moving beyond limitations. The conflict over the physical resources has led to violence in most parts of the world. It is the emphasis on a constructed identity such as ‘mother of the victim’ (which does not remain a sole preserve of mothers or even women) that has been able to find common ground for peace and reconciliation beyond boundaries right from Argentina (Mothers of the Disappeared Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo) to Kashmir, (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, APDP) to Palestine and Israel (Voices of Eden). If this common ground is large enough, then accommodation can be found.

The traditional physical commons nor the built commons gave much space for sexual minorities. Their low level of literacy was because they were pushed out of schools at the time of puberty when their sexuality and sexual orientation became obvious. The cultural commons did give some amount of space, with an avatar of Krishna even becoming a transgender in the story of Aravanan in Mahabharatham—a story still commemorated by hijras annually by ritually becoming Krishna and marriage to Aravanan. Similarly, the digital commons and the blogosphere give comparatively more space to the sexual minorities, though that has become compromised with the same privacy being used against them. The Indian state has tried to be inclusive by promising that all laws will be gender neutral by 2014. Many countries have become, or are on the road to becoming, more inclusive. This would partially dismantle the social fence around the commons and allow sexual minorities equitable access.

Convergence of information and technology

The convergence of information, technology and ideology makes even the hinterland accessible and vulnerable. The information technology, especially the electronic mass media, has a reach unparalleled in history and is as yet growing in geometric progression. It helps propagate the dominant notions of individualism and property with subtle messages, completely disintegrating the community and influencing susceptible minds. These messages are often wrapped in idealised notions of protection, while destroying the lived ideal. They deploy the language of development, civilisation and national interest while portraying anyone who opposes them as extremists. Technology amplifies both the ideological machinery of the state (education, propaganda) and the coercive machinery (devastating firepower, surveillance).

Technology enables less arduous physical labour, is more efficient in meeting the ends but is a lot less discerning. The traditional law regulated usage to ensure sustainability and equity. The new technology not only upsets the regenerative balance, but also comes with the ‘get rich quick’ and ‘development as exploitation’ ideology that is disguised as efficiency: appropriation of the maximum resources, in the minimum time, paying the least amount of money. The costs are ‘externalities’ to be paid for by others. This has a tremendous attraction, especially to the youth, who do not know the costs. They think that the promised prosperity is in addition to their present status which will not be degraded. The glossy images keep the costs off frame. The advances in technology puts tremendous power in the hands of a few so that they can enter, exploit and exit the commons extracting everything of value before counter measures can be deployed.

Larger scale is often possible on the back of technology. But it needs larger commons for the resource use cycle to be complete. This larger scale needs larger administrative mechanisms and institutions. The human knowledge for managing the larger scale develops simultaneously. The knowledge to manage at a larger scale has been codified to support property rather than commons. Yet it is possible to consolidate, codify and socialise knowledge to manage large scale commons. Just because it does not exist in ready form today, does not mean it does not exist at all, nor that it cannot be developed.

The deployment of technology is a double edged sword. Precision in documentation—especially digitising data—is seen as the way forward. However, it is not an unmitigated blessing. In digitising, the richness of diversity—of personal relationships, naming, land records, vocabulary— all get standardised. Digitising land records has made it easier for those with access to appropriate. Ivan Illich4 warns us about the problems of the digital divide and indeed all technology. Technology allows some voices to be amplified, drowning out the others.

Delivering unimaginable amounts of information can be an opiate or the most potent mobilisation tool. Projecting a semblance of control and participation in reality shows and instant polls, it keeps the subjects to the frivolous. While new technology should be adopted, it should be rooted in the values of the commons—sustainability across generations being a non–negotiable in addition to inclusion and equity. For new technologies, even when used by traditional communities in their traditional commons, new laws might need to be developed to ensure that their use does not conflict with the non–negotiable. One solution should not conflict with another—or create greater problems. The model should be internally coherent, informed by the best available contemporary knowledge base and practice, within the capacity to risk of the community, at the sustenance and regenerative levels of the biotic carrying capacity of the environment.

Costs of historical use and misuse

Where there is very little use of a particular resource, there is very little restriction on its use. It is always considered a ‘perennial’ resource and treated as an infinite commodity. Till such time usage does not reach the threshold of unacceptable degradation of quality, increased use is possible. Regulation becomes necessary when there are competing claims beyond this threshold. With mass use these seemingly limitless resources suddenly have to be rationed. The explosion in mobile telephony has resulted in the spectrum having to be rationed. Once broadband reaches the critical threshold, even the electrical spectrum could be keenly contested. Silence as a common is already being protected with the various noise pollution laws. The inability of some to use some commons has led to de facto monopolies. When others attain the capacity to use these commons, there is conflict or at least overt and covert attempts at fencing. This fencing is comparatively easy since the property framework is the norm. The challenge is to common it, so that better efficiency and equity is possible.

For millennia, the air and water has been used as an unlimited resource with virtually all the externalities of industrial development—the pollution and the toxic waste—being dumped into it. The rivers and seas are literally the septic tanks and toxic waste dumps of the globe. This has reached a threshold where the rapid climate changes indicate that the air can no longer absorb the pollution. However, those who have been using the atmosphere as their junkyard now want to fence it in different ways—by restricting the others from using it, by refusing to cut down their own pollution, refusing to pay for the clean up, and refusing to move to clean technology. This has very nearly ended up at the tipping point, with the survival of the human race at stake. The saga of refuse could well lead to the human race itself becoming refuse. The law of ‘might is right’ still holds good in most relationships of any scale, and it is unclear if and how this commons will be returned to the global community at anytime in the future.

Risk and reward, dissent and democracy

Innovation, risk, dissent and reward are intimately connected. More than being two sides of a coin, innovation and dissent are actually the same phenomenon called by different names. A successful dissent becomes an innovation.6 Societies on the edge of survival have to conform to the ‘tried and tested’ to survive. It is only when they get some surplus that they can innovate. Innovation carries with it the threat (risk) of failure. The capacity to innovate is determined by the capacity of the surplus (the buffer) to absorb the costs of failure in case the innovation does not succeed. The capacity to risk follows roughly the same trajectory: the individual initiative and innovation needs to be within the capacity of the community to bear the cost of failure and the biotic carrying capacity of the environment.

Technological progress has ensured that humans have the means to banish poverty. As a race, we are no longer under threat of extinction due to the lack of resources. The margin for error was minute when the community was on the edge of survival. Then innovation was a risk and the risk unacceptable. Now with sufficient buffer, the intellectual commons can afford to have innovation—in other words, dissent. Progress needs dissent and innovation, and mature societies encourage them through a system of incentives (for success), disincentives (to protect against recklessness and keep risk taking within the absorption capacity) and limitation of liability (so that the entire cost of failure does not fall on the innovator).

There are two issues concerning commons and dissent. The first is how the shrinking of commons has affected dissent and the second, how dissent would be treated in the commons.

The shrinking of commons has adversely affected dissent and innovation. The fencing of commons is now justified since property is so pervasive and the commons has become ‘property in the making’ rather than the reverse. Innovation needs to be demonstrated and ideas need to be tested in the commons for validation. With the increase in property, the commons has diminished to an extent where the space for dissent has become minuscule and at times non–existent. Dissent itself has become highly ritualised, sanitised, controlled and managed. The spaces for dissent, now seen as disturbance, are kept away from the bustle of life and the dissenters corralled so as not to disturb the rhythm of life. This disconnect from the life of the community enables the dissenters to be labelled different, and in a slippery slope, the different becomes the other and then is demonised. Dissenters are banished either vertically (become saints and ‘mahatmas’) or horizontally (put in prison). Being threats to the present order, they have no place at all in the small commons remaining, though with some imagination state institutions can be called the new commons, and dissenters do have a place in one of them—the prisons. From the diversity of the commons where difference is celebrated, the industrial world needs standardised, sanitised monocultures of the mind. Dissent is an existential threat to the ‘orderly’ industrial world.

How the commons framework deals with dissent is a test of its maturity. Obviously the feudal one that treats every dissent as treason (including from ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’) will not suffice. Yet how would the commons community treat the ‘dissenters’—those who would like to turn the commons into property? All systems allow for some amount of dissent, at least verbal, the stronger ones more than the weak. A challenge for the commons is a system of incentives and rewards for innovation and risk. The modern system of incentive is based on copyright and patent, which has plainly outlived its utility if at all there was one. Yet the notion of lifelong payback from ones intellectual labour is attractive in some quarters. On the one hand is the comparison with physical property and complaints of intellectual property being discriminated against. Physical property such as a house can be bequeathed in perpetuity to ones descendents. Yet this protection is only for a hundred years for intellectual property. On the other hand, property once sold can be resold or shared by the buyer—which is prohibited for intellectual property. This circular argument is a chicken and egg situation precisely because it is based on the untenable property framework. Once the ‘creative commons’ framework is applied, this seemingly intractable problem vanishes. Motivation does not need to be monetary, nor rewards ownership—the race to the moon had different motivators.

Rebuilding inclusive and democratic communities

The commons and community need to be reclaimed to refashion it for a democratic society, retaining the existing democratic components, revitalising the dead or dying components but fearlessly rejecting the undemocratic parts of the old society. The iniquitous structures of the old need to be acknowledged, and more democratic ones fashioned. Equity across gender, age and communities would be a non–negotiable.

Reconstruction of the commons within an egalitarian framework is attempted by MST (Landless Workers’ Movement. In Portuguese: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra. While the landless farmers live on the shoulders of highways, they are encouraged to unlearn the coping methods and violent habits of their past where they were serfs. Serfdom does take a terrible toll on individuals and communities—the oppressed communities across the world have human development rankings a full 20 to 50% less than their peers in other communities. India’s indigenous communities have a deprivation rate of over 80% compared to 33% for the general population and 55% overall (multidimensional poverty index, MPI, MST does not want these debilitating habits— which include alcoholism, domestic violence, illiteracy—to be carried over to the new communities that they build after land restoration. Every camp and settlement has a library. While in the camps itself behavioural changes are effected through peer support. The individualism of their serfdom is replaced with a democratic egalitarianism in action that includes a global consciousness and solidarity.

The MST model of making a community and the commons is worthy of emulation. Though many are part of the land restoration movement, not all get to live on the land restored. The restored land is assessed for its carrying capacity. It is then divided among that number of households. Each household gets to support the continuing restoration programme with one member of the household being a cadre or by materially supporting one cadre. The community is built before the restoration and once the physical restoration is done, they continue to be active in the restoration process. They see their role as building up an international community having set up the international farmers’ movement Via Campesina.

A sign of hope is that the governed people are becoming more aware of their democratic rights, understanding the potency of the rights, and are negotiating with the government, the politicians, bureaucracy and the executive. The Forest Rights Act, rehabilitation efforts and land acquisition processes are now being questioned and certain standards and procedures are demanded. The one significant development in these negotiations is the voices of women and their aspirations. While men usually demand individual compensation of cash and land, the women are negotiating for collective rights of the community, compensation in cultivable land or access to forests.

The state and the commons

The greatest threat to the commons is the state, since it is the institution created for property. The state sees the commons as empty spaces awaiting privatisation to property. The interaction of these commons with the dominant state structure has been one of the state trying to appropriate the commons and dump its waste into the commons as ‘landfills’ and ‘carbon sinks’. The contestation becomes acute when the resource footprint of the dominant becomes larger and it encroaches on the space of other communities. Since the commons fall outside the formal legal system, the dominant state considers the commons as terra nullius. This is bitterly contested by the community, leading to the very many conflicts across the globe. Even when the state tries to have a human face, and gives compensation to the people, it does so by stripping the resource base to its base minimum market value—valuing the trees at Re 1, not valuing access to natural resources such as water and air at all, measuring the lifespace as only the hut and totally discounting their geo–specific knowledge base.

In the post appropriation stage, the state has institutions and mechanisms for tax collection, enforcement and punishment—but none for direct people’s participation. Being an institution of the dominant, it takes from the weak (the ‘tenants’) and gives to the dominant (the citizens). The language of property provides comparative benefits for those who agree to fall within its framework, in exchange for a loss of sovereignty. For those who do not accept this framework, it means a heavy opportunity cost. They are excluded from institutional support in myriad ways.

The indigenous people of Nicobar islands had firsthand experience of this after the tsunami of December 2004. The Government of India had a lot of money for the rehabilitation of orphans. But the indigenous people there do not have a concept of orphans. Despite explaining it to them they could not understand it and, those who could, found the very idea repugnant. In a degree of maturity perhaps unique to indigenous communities, they consider all children belong to the whole community, though their biological parents are known since the community is monogamous. So despite the government dangling the carrot of vast sums of money available, they opted to keep their cultural commons intact, and their culture survived another attack to live another day.

The inability of communities to be within the letter of the property law excludes them in many other ways too. Loans are virtually impossible since the law—based on the property framework—demands proof of ownership of land for a housing loan, which the commons communities seldom have. The sexual minorities are ‘collateral damage’, being unintended victims of ‘marriage’ being defined within the property framework. Though the position of the sexual minorities had been for sexual liberation (with the explicit ideological position of being against property and commoditisation of women) they were forced to campaign for same– sex marriage since institutional funding for livelihood support (such as housing) was available only to married couples. This is a climb down from the initial position of sexual liberation, but one necessary for survival. Their exclusion from the commons was being accelerated without the institutional support afforded by such recognition.

The present system of representative politics has proved to be woefully inadequate. Though the commons needs a community and systems for governance, despite lip service to the sovereignty of the people, in reality the institutions of local governance are systematically stripped of their power. They are the only institutions of state and governance that commoners have a realistic chance of entering. They are called ‘urban local bodies’ (ULBs) and treated as sub–contractors of state governments, though they are elected and are as sovereign in their own sphere as any other including the parliament and therefore should be called the City Parliament. Instead we have a hierarchy that goes from national parliament, to state assemblies, district councils, municipalities, gram panchayats7 and gram sabha.8 The term ‘sabha’ (assembly) is used by the parliament too, as the Lok Sabha (council of people, same as House of Commons in Britain) and Rajya Sabha (council of states)— appropriated to mask its character and gain some legitimacy.

Commons are required for the exercise of most rights. Though more and more rights are getting recognised in law and formal language, faster is the pace of enclosing the commons. Urban spaces see rapid fencing of space, making dissent virtually impossible. Though the ‘right to food’ is recognised, the gutting of land ceiling laws, the proliferation of special economic zones and appropriation of land using colonial laws such as the Land Acquisition Act leads to the enclosure of farms ensuring that food becomes charity, a gift of the state rather than a right of the people. Food sovereignty is very different from food security. Lack of understanding this basic principle has led to India being a food exporting nation with one in two of its children being malnourished and over half its population living in poverty. This model is replicated from health to education, knowledge, technology to water, land, air and forests.

Property is not the natural state and despite the attempts to normalise it as the ‘natural order’ (just as race and gender were not too long ago), the commons remains an extremely vibrant contributor to global health. The state is for the defence of property, and all its instruments are developed for the purpose. The state has positioned itself as the only legitimate instrument for the use of force and therefore has a monopoly on legitimate violence. This violence is most often used against disarmed9 peoples and communities. Disarming is both physical and ideological. Changing the nature of the state is of critical importance, and the only ‘right way’ to do it is through state sanctioned methods. This places tremendous limitations on the scope of action, but is an incentive for innovation for a task that must be done.

Defending the commons

At the height of the enclosure movement in seventeenth century England, there was a popular ditty (quoted earlier by Purkayasthsa):

They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

But for the sophistication of indoctrination, subtlety of language and finesse in execution, not much has changed. The continued popularity of the verse in the twenty first century is testimony to its contemporary relevance. The socialisation process of the state is institutionalised in schools and children are brought up to believe in property as the ‘natural order’ and normative. While schooling is an essential component for the transfer of knowledge, the present school system teaches the rich to command and consume, the middle class to manage and save, and the poor to obey and sacrifice. It glorifies exploit—of natural resources and sentient beings—and is to prepare the impressionable children for a property framework. A more egalitarian system in content and methodology in harmony with the management of commons would be required to protect the commons. A language that includes nutrition (food, water), exercise (games) and pure air—all of which require unfenced commons—in health would liberate the present health system from industry and private property. Apart from teaching the poor to sacrifice and serve and the rich to consume and command, the schools also teach individualism and competition rather than community and cooperation. It’s only at school that collaboration is called cheating.10 There is subtle disdain for the tradition and practices that ensure the protection and regulation in the use of the environment, or treat the environment as ‘a gift from the past, to be used according to present needs and preserved for posterity’ ensuring inter–generational equity.

The resistance of the commoners to privatising the commons has led to unprecedented militarisation and internal wars by states. The channels of communication and the means of production are privatised. The present systems and structures cannot be wished away. In such a scenario, for engagement with the state, even if for deconstruction and resistance, the language of property needs to be used. Using the language and instruments of property to defend the commons is a challenge. Though necessary in the short term, developing and using the language of commons is important in the long term. Continuous usage of the language of property will sap the vitality from the movement for restoration of the commons. The prolonged use of the present state institutions will result in permanent damage to the commons. The institutions and infrastructure to be developed for defending and nurturing the commons will be very different from institutional arrangements for protecting property.

To defend the commons an alliance of communities is necessary. The World Social Forum is one such being constructed at the global level. It is not monolithic and its organising principles are very different from the traditional structures. Several regional and national level bodies exist or are in the process of being created. The freecycle economy and the wiki knowledge systems see rapid growth.

It is important to note that commons is plural. There is a vast diversity within commons, their use and regulation. What we therefore inherit is a multi–verse of commons across generations: a gift from the past, to be used for present needs and preserved for posterity. Alienation is not an option. If the vocabulary—formal or colloquial, written and oral—does not support it, then the vocabulary must be grown to support it rather than restrict human endeavour due to linguistic limitations.

The key challenge of modernity to the commons is of building inclusive, equitable communities with equal access, benefits and control, capable of defending the commons. It means building inclusive and representative institutions of production, governance and distribution in a manner that encourages and embraces diversity, difference and dissent. It is relatively easy in small homogenous communities in a small, exclusive geo–political area over which it exercises sovereignty. It becomes more challenging for complex social systems as we move from the micro level towards a ‘global village’ were ‘the community’ includes the richness of diversity. It is a tall order, but well within human capacity and reach.

Towards a new normal

For at least the past half century, we have seen vast surpluses in some parts of the globe coexisting with abject poverty in others. The vast butter mountains, milk lakes and fruit that were dumped into the oceans is still fresh in memory, as is the continuing practice of paying farmers to leave farmland fallow. The consequences are there for all to see: a third of the world living on the edges of survival, increasing social and political conflicts over resources, a fundamental crisis of environmental sustainability, agrarian production and livelihood. In India alone the era of economic ‘reforms’ and ‘growth’ has seen suicides of farmers at the rate of about one every 30 minutes (National Crime Records Bureau 2010), land ownership concentrated in the hands of the top 5%, and increased crime and aggression, as rest and recreation spaces are commandeered for private use.

The present crisis offers an opportunity for a radical shift, if we can move beyond the paralysis of fear and a mindset firmly stuck in an economy of scarcity and stratification—resulting in the hoarding of everything from food to knowledge, of rats eating grain in government godowns when over half the population goes hungry and denial is based on caste, gender, language or religion. They are incongruous in the present era. These are consequences of fear, privatisation and the fencing of the commons—whether by executive fiat, parliamentary expropriation, ‘development’ imperatives or by the very character of the Indian state which, as an institution of property, only exists to further property interests. These are no longer necessary in an era of abundant resources, where a new normal is eminently possible— of cooperation of collectives engendered by the commons approach of ‘the earth has enough for everyone’s needs’. The solution lies not within the present system of privatisation nor in tinkering and inconsequential ‘reforms’, but in a new paradigm, a language of the commons.


1 ‘Board’ could mean a surface (a plank of wood), group of people (a board of directors), institution (board of education) food (board and lodge), or embark (board a ship); Occupation could mean by an invading army or a job; habit could mean a dress or a repeated behavioural pattern.

2 Appropriate could mean to take away unlawfully and correct, right, suitable. Sanction means both permit (English) and prohibit (American).

3 B S Vanarajan, Manitham Trust, Tamil Nadu, India.

4 Ivan Illich ‘Silence is a commons’. The CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1983, (accessed September 2010)

5 The OXFAM handbook of development and relief, vol 1, p204, OXFAM 1995

6 Summed up wryly by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) in the first century BC: Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason. If treason succeeds, it becomes the law and the traitor becomes king.

7 Gram = village, panchayat=council.

8 Sabha = assembly.

9 We use the word ‘disarmed’ rather than ‘unarmed’ since disarmed more accurately describes the active, deliberate and conscious role of the state in removing the right and ability of the people to defend themselves.

10 Walter Bender, See also Don Norman in In defense of cheating ‘in many ways, the behavior we call cheating in schools is exactly the behavior we desire in the real world.’ ( )