Commons in South East Europe

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* Report: COMMONS IN SOUTH EAST EUROPE. Case of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia. By Tomislav Tomašević, Vedran Horvat, Alma Midžić, Ivana Dragšić, Miodrag Dakić. Institute for Political Ecology, 2018



  • Comprehensive introduction – 9
  • Compact history of the commons – 15
  • Classical theory of the commons – 29
  • Critical theory of the commons – 44
  • Context of South East Europe – 58
  • Cases of commons governance – 73
  • Cases of commons struggles – 115

Tomislav Tomašević & Vedran Horvat:

"The second chapter presents the origin of the concept and the practice of commons throughout history. This primarily shows how commons were the only instrument of governance in prehistoric societies, as these societies had not developed either state or (private) property. Contrary to dominant beliefs in political philosophy, which served to justify both the origin of the state and the origin of private property, recent evidence presented by Karl Wilderquist and Stephen McCall show that human life in prehistoric societies was neither short nor brutish. As soon as first states appeared, private property rights were introduced, but this is not how philosophers of social contract tell their story. Contractarian philosophers argue that private property preceded the formation of states, which were formed by free individuals who decided to bow to state authority in order to protect their individual freedom and private property, something they could not do in the allegedly nasty and brutal stateless societies. As states slowly became the dominant form of social organisation and private property became the dominant property relation, common property and community governance institutions became more rare. Modern era brought the dominant social form of nation-state coupled with the dominant economic form of market capitalism, while the commons became invisible and, for a large part of modern societies, unimaginable.

The third chapter introduces classical theory of the commons which was popularised by the work of Elinor Ostrom. Her work was largely influenced by the (neo) classical economic, political and legal science. Classical theory used the criteria of rivalry and excludability to divide economic goods into four categories: private, club, public and common goods. Common goods or common-pool resources are both rivalrous, which means that their consumption could decrease the possibility of others to use the same goods, and non-excludable, which means it is difficult to prevent access to these goods to unauthorised users. Garrett Hardin used the concept of common-pool resources to claim that their consumption by the growing population will lead to inevitable tragedy and destruction of the “commons”, so the only solution is state regulation or their division through privatisation of property rights. Ostrom examined hundreds of cases around the world and proved that natural common-pool resources can be self-managed without the state or the market, by a community of users who design, implement and monitor rules to use these resources sustainably.

The fourth chapter introduces critical theory of the commons that aims to transform society through commons towards progressive ends. After Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in 2009, the commons became a new narrative and paradigm that aimed to provide an answer to the tragedy of the states and the tragedy of the markets. Heinrich Böll Foundation, in cooperation with other organisations, facilitated not only theoretical work on the commons by critical scholars, but also the building of a social movement that focused on the commons, in order to create a more socially just, democratic and materially sustainable society. Most critical scholars agree that there are no inherent characteristics that make some goods commons, but that commons are produced and their characteristics given through social dynamic. All commons consist of three elements in mutual relationship: 1) resource to be governed, 2) community of users governing the resource, 3) institutions designed by users in order to govern the resource. However, many social practices could satisfy these criteria, but one would not call them progressive from a critical theory point of view. Silke Helfrich proposed three normative criteria for commons which depend on the context of each social practice. These three normative criteria are: 1) fair access, 2) collective control and 3) sustainable use, while each corresponds to progressive values of social justice, democracy and ecological sustainability. This proves not only that commons are examined according to their context and normative criteria, but also that commons are inherently political. Ugo Mattei takes this one step further in his activist theory of the commons, claiming that the commons are a political act of claiming resources in common against the state elites and economic oligarchy.

The fifth chapter places theory and practice of the commons in the past and present context of the South East Europe (see) region. For the purpose of this study, the countries considered South East Europe are Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. These countries have a common institutional history as they were part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia, later named the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, between 1945 and the beginning of the 1990s. Since the 1950s, Yugoslavia developed a globally distinct socio-economic system called self-governing socialism. As the Communist Party of Yugoslavia broke its connections to Soviet Union led by Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia became politically isolated both from the market-capitalist West and the state-socialist East, so its leaders decided to build a new governing model based on both anti-capitalist and anti-statist ideology. Within this system, there was a series of experiments with workers' self-managed enterprises, but there were also self-management experiments in other non-economic sectors, like housing, health, education and culture. At first Yugoslavia had state property of the means of production and limited private property, but in the 1950s a new type of property was introduced—social property. Although Yugoslav workers' self-management had many problems, leading to the upper class of bureaucrats and technocrats making relevant decisions instead of the workers, important lessons in collective governance and property can still be learned from this period. However, such practices were poorly researched because in the 1990s they were largely vilified by nationalist forces, which declared them a part of the so-called “totalitarianism”. This legacy is a major obstacle for advocating any forms of collective governance in the region today, since words like “cooperative”, frequently used in Western Europe, are still perceived as synonymous with the forced collectivisation experiment of the late 1940s by large segments of the see region population. Nevertheless, as case studies from Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia will demonstrate, different social movements in the region are embracing the commons paradigm. These movements are resisting the privatisation of key natural resources and public services that regional governments are pressured into by austerity measures imposed on South East Europe. However, the majority of these natural resources and public services is still controlled by the state and misused for the benefit of a small corrupt elite that has captured the state. The commons, as part of the global endeavour to redefine common good and democracy, are becoming a powerful paradigm in the see region as well.

The sixth chapter presents some of the cases of commons governance from Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia which were selected based on diversity of the resources governed and communities of users. These countries were chosen for the first phase of the research, while the remaining countries of South East Europe will be researched in the second phase. The classical, mostly Ostrom-based definition of commons is used for identifying and analysing these governance cases. Commons are defined in this regard as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates. Using this definition, authors identified several cases in each of the three countries that show that there are old and new examples of community self-governance of resources within South East Europe region. These resources range from buildings and pastures to water infrastructure and green areas. In researching the cases, authors used semi-structured interviews with the main actors of commons governance, as well as legal documents, minutes of the meetings and news sources. Cases are described in terms of the resource, community and governance institutions, after which they are analysed according to Ostrom”s eight design principles for sustainable commons.

The seventh chapter presents cases of commons struggle in Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia. In identifying and analysing these cases, authors used the critical definition of the commons mostly based on Ugo Mattei, which defines the commons as a political act of claiming resources in common through conflict against commodification, commercialisation, privatisation and state enclosure of resources for the benefit of few. These cases show that the commons paradigm is increasingly appealing to various progressive social movements in South East Europe that struggle against enclosure and privatisation of local resources. These struggles range from movements against the privatisation of public spaces in urban centres or areas reserved for city expansion to movements against enclosure and devastation of rivers or excessive urbanisation and destruction of lakes. Authors again used semi-structured interviews with the main actors and coupled that with other sources of information like news sources and documents. Cases are described in terms of the resource claimed, actors that lead the struggle, relations to the state and market, and then analysed to see how the discourse that the movements used fits the discourse of the commons.

The eighth chapter discusses similarities and differences between the analysed cases and makes some cautious conclusions about the commons theory and practice in Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia. This is followed by some policy recommendations that could support commons governance as a path for radical democratisation of South East Europe countries. Hopefully, these conclusions and the whole study will spark more advanced theoretical texts and more robust empirical studies of the commons in the region in the future."