Dutch Commons

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Tine de Moor et al.:

"The Dutch commons included were all known as marken, a type of common that could be found in particular in the eastern and northern part of the Northern Netherlands (Beekman and Commissie voor den Geschiedkundigen atlas van Nederland 1913; Van Zanden 1999), which was highly self-governed. Although uncultivated, this land was owned by either private landowners (free farmers, but also local noblemen) or by institutions (e.g., the nearby town or village, or by the church) (Slicher van Bath 1957). Entitlement to use the common was predominantly linked to being a legal inhabitant of the area the common belonged to and/or the possession of land or real estate in the area concerned. Decisions about the daily use and governance of these commons were taken by the commoners power at the general assembly (markevergadering or holtink), in general held annually, but also held ad-hoc in urgent matters. Voting rights in this assembly were mostly directly linked to the ownership of specific farms and estates within the area, the so-called ‘gewaarde erven’ (Van Zanden 1999); when an owner sold this estate, his voting rights were transferred to the new owner. The rules established at these meetings were laid down in writing in specific registers (markeboeken), of which the oldest examples date back to the fifteenth century; some of these markeboeken included copied texts from even considerably older documents, like the markeboek of the marke Berkum from 1648, which started off with a 1648 copy of a (lost) set of rules dating from c. 1300 (Marke Berkum 1648). Formulation, adaptation, and repetition of these rules was performed by the assembly of commoners without interference by regional formal authorities. The task of surveying the implementation of these rules and the sanctioning of trespasses was also primarily up to the commoners themselves; to this purpose, specific commoners were appointed as guardsmen (schutters, literally ‘enclosers’, referring to the main task of enclosing animals found wandering astray or animals confiscated from trespassers) that brought trespassers to justice, in cooperation with the chairman of the assembly of commoners (markerichter; this position was either obtained via election (gekozen or gekoren markerichter) or related to the possession of the estate the chairmanship was linked to (erfmarkerichter)).

The first archival sources of the majority of the marken in the Northern Nederlands date back to the late Middle Ages or early modern times, as was the case in the selected Dutch marken included in our research (De Moor et al. 2016). It is suspected however that the first rules laid down for such a common often already existed among the commoners, but that an increasing population and hence increasing pressure on resources were incentives for laying down these rules in writing. Examples from other types of commons elsewhere in Europe, such as the gemene weiden in Flanders (northern part of Belgium), seem to support this idea: the oldest written rules of the commoners of the Gemene and Loweiden in Assebroek (near Bruges), for example, state explicitly that the rules laid down back then were based on rules agreed upon ‘from immemorial times’ (De Moor 2003).

The first marken emerged in the current province of Overijssel, close to small rivers that provided both good pasture land and a relatively small risk of flooding, in the 8th and 9th centuries (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970). Throughout the following centuries, the spread of marken extended all over the current provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel; although marken in the current province of Drenthe also already existed in the thirteenth century (Van Zanden 1999), an increase of markegenootschappen in that area coincided with the start of extensive commercial exploitation of the extensive peat bogs present there. Although the marken were located in the less populated areas of the Northern Netherlands (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970; Van Zanden 1999), the soil conditions and availability of resources could vary per common. For example, in most of our cases peat was available in a limited amount and hence a scarce resource of which harvesting should be regulated strictly, whereas in the Drenthe marken peat was available in abundance, but good pasture land was a scarce good.

Nine out of our ten Dutch commons were located in or just outside the current province of Overijssel. The geographical outlier in our dataset is the marke Het Gooi, which was located near Hilversum, in the far southeast corner of the current province of North-Holland. All were located on sandy, sometimes silted soil in a predominant rural area; only the marken Berkum and Coevorden were located within the vicinity of larger towns, i.c. Zwolle and Coevorden. Only a small part of the land was suitable for growing crops and pasture land. The major part of the areas the Dutch commons concerned uncultivated land, mostly grown with heath, sods, or covered by extensive sand drifts. Until fertilizers were introduced in agriculture emerged in the course of the nineteenth century, the sandy soil was mixed with sods harvested from the uncultivated land, that were fertilized with the manure from the grazing cattle. As fertilizing one area of land required the use of sods of twenty equivalent plots of uncultivated land, the area of land used for agriculture increased at a very slow pace, leaving most of the land uncultivated and used as common land (Slicher van Bath et al. 1970).

Although the lifespan of marken varied per case, most commons survived for at least several centuries. For our study we selected cases that all had a lifespan of over two hundred years, in order to make sure we were focussing on examples of successful commons. We defined the beginning and the end of a commons’ ‘life’ by the first and the last regulatory activity, being the first or the last rule that was noted in the archival documents. The start of a common is often hard to identify exactly as the archival records do not always go back to the very beginning, forcing us to rely on references to the first mentioning of a rule. The year of dissolution, to the contrary is usually much clearer, as this was often the consequence of an official enclosure procedure which could also be found in other official records kept by local and national governments. Towards the nineteenth century, increasing industrialization, agricultural use of artificial fertilizer, and increasing population pressure were incentives for the national government to attempt to dissolve the commons. Legislative measures issued before 1810, exempting newly cultivated land from land tax and assigning ownership to individual commoners, initially did not have much effect. Legislation issued in 1837 and 1848 made it possible for single commoners to start the process of formal dissolution of the common (Demoed 1982). Combined with the strongly increased possibilities for extensive cultivation of formerly uncultivated land by the use of artificial fertilizer, these led to a ‘wave of dissolutions’ among the markegenootschappen: between 1830 and 1880 all but a handful of them were dissolved (with just a handful of them surviving until the twentieth century, among which one of the selected cases, i.c. the common Het Gooi)." (https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.5334/ijc.959/)


Aetzel Griffioen:

"At first face, Ostrom’s understanding of the commons and the autonomous understanding of the common are at odds with each other: scarce resources in need of endogenous management versus abundant social relationships access to which needs to be increased. However, the commons constitute mainly a question of governance whereas the common constitute one of ontology. At a time in which it is clear that capitalism, once having trumped politics, is now being trumped by the planetary ecology, it is also clear that another kind of economy will have to be adopted. Such an ecological economy has to be an economy that is based on social justice and economic democracy. A better understanding of the commons and of the common is necessary. Their differences, their relations, and their aims need to be explored and enacted as widely as possible. It is my own aim to do this, but for the last part of this paper I restrict myself to their strictly theoretical application in Dutch. Because these concepts, used almost exclusively in English in Dutch academic circles, will remain academic if they don’t get translated into Dutch. Also, such a translation might provide new applications and specific pathways for a commonalist governmentality that opposes the market-led destruction of the planet. It provides a direct link between the common and the multitude, and it also joins up Foucault’s concept governmentality.

In a country where the word capitalism is still shunned – because this does not only hold for most academics – all this can be awakened by pushing the right linguistic buttons. Right now, the Dutch version of the commons, ‘meent’, is retained only as a name for certain places. In a country exemplary for its history of cooperation almost no one still knows what the word means, let alone the concept. An excavation of the ‘meent’ can function as a means of awakening ideas of ownership and use that are buried deep in our political history, but have been eclipsed by the market orientated approach that also started along the Rhine on the basis of this strong spirit of cooperation.

Etymologically the word ‘meent’ shares its root with ‘menigte’, which is the Dutch translation of the Latin ‘multitudo’ (Philippa et al. 2005, 179-81 and 2007, 323-24). They share a Middle Dutch adjective, ‘maneg’ meaning ‘many’ (Philippa et al. 2007, 334). Because this was the same in Old English and Old Frisian, the ‘meent’ and the ‘menigte’ even have the same root as the English words ‘mean’ and ‘common’ – through the Latin contraction of ‘cum’ (with) and ‘munus’ (office, tribute, gift) into ‘communis’.

The Middle Dutch ‘meente’ was in turn derived from the adjective ‘gemeen’ which actually has the same sense as the English ‘mean’ – joint, common, public, general, universal, shared by all, possessed jointly, and low-quality, inferior, poor. The prefix ‘ge-’ in this case goes back along the lines of ‘same’ and ‘together’. The affix ‘-te’ in both ‘meent’ and the only word that derives from it that is still in use, ‘gemeente’ (municipality), functions to create nouns out of adjectives (Philippa et al. 2009, 353). In Middle Dutch then, the municipality wasn’t principally an administration, but a community with a certain amount of land. Public property wasn’t an issue. Ownership was a mix of private and common property.

To reinvigorate the autonomous tendency’s use of the common, Sjoerd van Tuinen and me have proposed the term ‘het gemene’ (Griffioen and Van Tuinen 2010). And in my opinion, the ontological and ecological state of abundance that the concept of the common points to always needs to be activated and kept going through any number of use systems.

Because this socio-ontological pole of the concept needs to be actively brought into play – because its political pole is not conceived of in terms of emergence but in terms of organisation that deals with the creation of more social relationships out of a situation of abundance – the common needs to be fed into different new commons that will produce more commons, not captured into markets that decrease it. ‘Het gemene’ needs to be played out in new ‘meentes’. And the object of new meentes should exactly be to use the ontological common to create new ‘meentes’. Therefore, the meaning of the concept ‘meent’ shouldn’t be confined to its old meaning of self-managed systems of scarcity (land, forest and water use), but should be used also for the self-management and self-creation of intellectual, affective and social domains. It points the way to a governmentality of biopolitics instead of biopower.

The common is buried deep in the Dutch language (meent), but when dug up it presents us with an immediate connection to the multitude (menigte), thus creating a discourse that is no longer academic but understandable for everybody. The only word from this root that is still in wide use is ‘gemeente’ or ‘municipality’. Thus in Dutch the concept of the common is directly linked with governance and governmentality, rather than simply with property or even ownership.

However we phrase it, the proposal stays the same. Commonality provides no shortcut to a better politics. It isn’t a guarantee for a happier life: the common can be mean. This is because on a deeper level we can discern another ambivalence in the common. We already know that it is both a socio-ontological and a political concept. But what needs to be emphasized is that as a political concept, it needs to be chosen. If that does not happen, the ontological state of the common is turned against itself. This is true all the more at a time when the State has resigned itself to the corporate management of the public good and corporations have claimed the right to take care of the private good. The political claim to the common as developed by and out of Italian autonomous Marxism seeks to capture capital and turn it over into social production, reversing the way capital gain is made over the social production of the multitude. It means trying to cut off as many possibilities to privately gain from common efforts and is a way of fighting the ‘immaterial civil war’ that stems from the ‘dark side of the multitude’. Looking for the common is fighting against economic and social deprivation. The radical calls for going ‘beyond the state’ that are also a post-autonomous heritage need not be avoided, but need to be valued for what they are: a rally against Big Government that first decided that there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families, and now calls upon Big Society to alleviate its debt. No such thing must come to pass. Neo-liberal government needs to be recaptured and turned into common government. “We are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians”.


  • Article: No such thing as Big Society. The commons, commonplaces, commonalism. Paper presented at the Post/Autonomia Conference, Amsterdam, 19-21 May 2011. By Aetzel Griffioen.