Meaning of the Commons in Institutional Perspective

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* Master's Thesis: UNDERSTANDING THE COMMONS: INSTITUTIONAL ANALYSIS AND ETHICAL ARGUMENTS. Rafael Augusto Ferreira Zanatta. International University College of Turin Master of Laws Program, 2015.


"This dissertation investigates the meaning of “the commons” in institutional perspective and critically analyzes the ethical values that constitute different theories in the contemporary debate, especially the work of Elinor Ostrom, Ugo Mattei and Yochai Benkler – herein called the Indiana School, the Turin School and the Harvard School.

The theoretical research aims to answer two problems. The first is if there is a variation of normative basis for institutional analysis of the commons in these different schools. The second is if it is possible to identify different degrees of ethical argument about the commons in these theories. I claim that the variations are visible and they matter for a consistent interpretation of these theories."


(i) if there is a normative basis for institutional analysis (in other words, what is the value behind the existence of institutions of the commons?);

(ii) and if it is possible to identify different degrees of ethical argument about the commons in these theories (in other words, is there a hidden concept of what is a good life in each theory?).

My main claim is that contemporary institutional analysis of the commons admits three different ethical arguments, meaning that they have “different accounts of our judgment about conduct, is so far as these estimates it from the standpoint of right or wrong, good or bad” (Dewey, 1909: 1). In other words, theories on the commons have underlying principles of what is a good life and what we should promote collectively. By reviewing the contemporary debate on the commons, I will show that it is better to separate these theories in three different schools of thought: the “Indiana School”, led by Elinor Ostrom; the “Turin School”, led by Ugo Mattei; and the “Harvard School”, led by Yochai Benkler – for clarity of exposition.

I use these “schools of thought” just to highlight the main differences concerning the normative and ethical arguments behind the institutional analysis provided by these thinkers. I do not aim to provide a definitive taxonomy on the literature of the commons and I do not cover all the literature in this field. However, I believe that it is better to understand the differences in this debate and to pay close attention on the hidden values that are not easily perceived in their texts and theories. I think that this dissertation might contribute to this intellectual goal.

I develop my argument in two chapters. In the first one, I explain the importance of the work of Elinor Ostrom and detail how she created the framework of “Institutional Analysis of Development” (AID) as a comparative method of institutional analysis. I claim that Ostrom has a strong normative argument for effectiveness of institutions and sustainability of resources. Sustainability is main ethical argument of the “Indiana School”. Later on, I explain why many Italian critical thinkers – many of them from law schools – opposed to these principles and forged a new theory on the commons. As I show in this chapter, the Italian literature is much more concerned with social justice, enclosures and the commodification of natural and human-created resources. They rely on Karl Polanyi to push an anti-commodification agenda which is itself an ethical argument for the “Turin School”.

In the second chapter, I shift the focus off the Italian debate and claim that there is a third important school of thought in the field of commons and institutional analysis, which is the work of social theorist Yochai Benkler. I focus on Benkler’s theory of commons-based production to highlight his ideas on cooperation in a networked society and the value of autonomy for individuals. My claim is that Benkler is a representative of a mode of thinking that recognizes social learning (as a result of productive cooperation) and autonomy as conditions for good life. This is the main feature of the “Harvard School” on the commons.

I am aware that sustainability, anti-commodification and autonomy are all ethical arguments that are somehow present in each of the schools that I present in this dissertation. However, this does not block us to understand the salience of one specific ethical argument in the commons debate. In fact, this might even help us, considering that they are strictly connected to practical reason and serve as guidance for unsolved problems in life, as John Dewey observed more than a century ago.

In other words, to see clearly the ethical values of these schools is also an opportunity for to ask ourselves deep questions about human nature and social life and how we should frame our discussion about the commons."