Think Like a Commoner

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* Book: Think Like a Commoner. A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. by David Bollier. New Society, 2014



From the publisher:

"The biggest "tragedy of the commons" is the misconception that commons are failures - relics from another era rendered unnecessary by the Market and State. Think Like a Commoner dispels such prejudices by explaining the rich history and promising future of the commons - an ageless paradigm of cooperation and fairness that is re-making our world.

With graceful prose and dozens of fascinating stories, Bollier describes the quiet revolution that is pioneering practical forms of self-governance and production controlled by people themselves.

Think Like a Commoner explains how the commons:

  • Is an exploding field of DIY innovation ranging from Wikipedia and seed-sharing to community forests and collaborative consumption, and beyond
  • Challenges the standard narrative of market economics by explaining how cooperation generates significant value and human fulfillment
  • Provides a framework of law and social action that can help us move beyond the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism.

We have a choice: Ignore the commons and suffer the ongoing private plunder of our common wealth. Or Think Like a Commoner and learn how to rebuild our society and reclaim our shared inheritance. This accessible, comprehensive introduction to the commons will surprise and enlighten you, and provoke you to action." (


Interview of the author conducted by Jessica Conrad:

"Jessica Conrad: What inspired you to write Thinking Like a Commoner?

David Bollier: I was inspired to write the book because I kept encountering people who wanted to learn about the commons and its significance, yet the only literature I could point them to was either Elinor Ostrom’s academic writing—which is insightful but also dense and not necessarily accessible to the layperson—or issue-specific, theoretical political writing, such as Marxist analysis. There wasn’t a book I could give to my mother or to a college freshman or to my friends that offered an easy introduction to the commons. I’ve been studying and thinking about the commons for about fifteen years, and I decided it was time for me to try to give a succinct overview of the commons in layperson’s language.

Jessica Conrad: You describe the commons as an “exploding field of DIY innovation ranging from Wikipedia and seed-sharing to community forests and collaborative consumption.” Can you elaborate on your definition?

David Bollier: The question “What is the commons?” implies that the commons is a unitary thing, but it’s a cultural abstraction just like the market or GDP, neither of which really exist. They are social constructions. We simply agree to talk about certain social activities in a certain way. The market, for example, includes everything from Wall Street to a hardware store to a lemonade stand.

Similarly, the commons is an umbrella term for a paradigm of social behavior and activity that involves self-organized governance and a self-provisioning of resources that tend to be local and specific. There isn’t a universal inventory of commons; instead there are countless commons. When a group of people identifies a resource and says “We want to manage and steward this resource collectively for the benefit of all,” that’s how a commons gets created.

So the commons is not just a resource. It’s a resource plus the social community that manages it and the rules, values, and practices that are used. All of this means that commons vary immensely across the world. But of course that’s what makes them so durable and hardy. They adapt to their locality, ecosystem, resource, and culture.

Circling back to the market, it’s controversial whether the commons can coexist with the market. I personally think they can, but the people who are involved in the commons must take great pains to ensure that the market doesn’t prey upon and destroy the commons. In other words, the temptation to monetize our relationships and resources tends to destroy the social solidarity and collective stewardship of a resource. So there needs to be certain social understandings or technological systems or legal protections to ensure that a commons remains a commons.

There are a lot of models—new and old—in the so-called sharing economy where people meet their needs through the market: local food systems, community-supported agriculture, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and so on. Some people think the latter three examples belong instead to a micro-rental economy, while others believe those services still require social cooperation. Either way, I think the more important question is whether or not the commons can continue to be a commons. Can it protect itself as a social organism and reproduce itself? When Airbnb, Lyft, or Uber users start to behave as consumers and producers rather than collective managers of the resource, that is the beginning of the end of the commons.

Jessica Conrad: Was there a time when the commons were more visibly central to human life?

David Bollier: I think the commons has been central to life for most of human existence. Only in the last two hundred years or so has the market essentially emancipated itself from social community, kinship, morality, and religion—and more recently, from political accountability. The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, is a landmark book on this topic. It talks about how the market became the universal ordering principle for society after the industrial revolution.

In some ways the contemporary commons movement is trying to recover a way of life that existed before industrialization, which, not coincidentally, emphasizes provisioning for basic needs (as opposed to profit), a rough social equity, and limits on the exploitation of nature.

Jessica Conrad: What caused us to lose sight of the commons?

David Bollier: As the market culture became more and more dominant, especially during the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1980s, we started to lose the language of the commons. The business world has made a concerted effort to assert market-friendly interpretations of the world, versus ones that help us remember the importance of the commons. This ranges from aggressive propagandizing for free markets to the privatization of government and civil infrastructure to the corporate naming of beloved stadia and public spaces. Businesses often perceive the commons as posing a very serious threat to business investment interests. That’s why we’re seeing an attack on sharing. But business almost always resists changes that might disrupt existing markets and revenue flows, even if the eventual result is more socially benign or economically constructive.

The two major political parties in the US also have little interest in talking about the commons because it might jeopardize their cozy relationships with business interests. And there is a lot of money to be made by enclosing our shared wealth, whether it is the Internet, public lands, federal drug research, or the human genome.

Jessica Conrad: Why is it essential that we begin to see the commons and think like commoners today?

David Bollier: It’s partly about recovering our humanity. Simply put, the market culture—in which we assume the role of selfish, utility-maximizing individuals—is incredibly alienating and makes us unhappy. It also has some profoundly harmful consequences for the planet and our social lives and democracy.

We need to relearn and reeducate ourselves about what it means to be in relationship to one another and to the world. The commons helps us do that—while providing a framework for new policy and technology that will enable those essential social relationships to flourish again.

Jessica Conrad: What do you see as the greatest challenge to helping people see the commons and think like commoners?

David Bollier: That’s a good question because you can’t just write a book and expect a social revolution. Helping people understand the commons will involve a process of engagement and exposure to commons in different types of contexts. During the civil rights movement, people gathered in church basements. In the early days of the women’s movement, “consciousness raising sessions” were an important vehicle for personal engagement. I’m not quite sure what the vehicles will be for the commons movement, but we need to start engaging people in a respectful, collaborative process so that we can better protect the shared wealth that we love. My immodest hope, of course, is that my book will contribute to the process.

Jessica Conrad: What is the greatest opportunity for helping people see the commons and think like commoners?

David Bollier: The most accessible example to my mind is the Internet because digital culture is so hospitable to commoning. This is made evident by the wide diversity of Internet-based commons, including open-source software, Wikipedia, open-access publishing, various social media platforms. The list goes on. The Internet is one promising place where I think commons culture can start to crystallize itself.

However, I also think there are lots of opportunities for learning internationally. The people of Greece and Madrid, for example, or those from the Arab Spring and Occupy, all had or have similar grievances with their governments. They all believe that genuine democracy is missing—that supposedly democratic, representative government is a sham.

The commons is a source of hope because provides a different mode of real, participatory governance as opposed to centralized, hierarchical, corporate-controlled government. The commons also has huge potential for meeting people’s needs more effectively. People around the world are starting to discover this fact, or to associate “the commons” with existing forms of commoning, such as that done by indigenous peoples.

Jessica Conrad: If you could suggest one strategy or tactic for helping people begin to shift to a commons-based worldview, what would it be?

David Bollier: It has to start with your passions and talents. No commons functions well without a certain level of care and engagement. If you happen to love the natural world, perhaps you should put your energy into land trusts or open-space preservation. Or if you’re digitally savvy, there are all sorts of online commons you can participate in. It all starts with the desire to protect a resource that matters to you. The other important piece is to learn the language of the commons, which helps us see that all of our commons projects, no matter how small or seemingly isolated, are related. This can provide the basis for new forms of social solidarity, despite national boundaries and other differences among us." (


David Bollier, on the Elinor Ostrom and the Tragedy of the Commons:

"For at least a generation, the very idea of the commons has been marginalized and dismissed as a misguided way to manage resources: the so-called tragedy of the commons. In a short but influential essay published in Science in 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin gave the story a fresh formulation and a memorable tagline.

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way,” wrote Hardin, proposing to his readers that they envision an open pasture:

It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible in the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd with- out limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

The tragedy of the commons is one of those basic concepts that is drilled into the minds of every undergraduate, at least in economics courses. The idea is considered a basic principle of economics—a cautionary lesson about the impossibility of collective action. Once the class has been escorted through a ritual shudder, the professor whisks them along to the main attraction, the virtues of private property and free markets. Here, finally, economists reveal, we may surmount the dismal tragedy of a commons. The catechism is hammered home: individual freedom to own and trade private property in open markets is the only way to produce enduring personal satisfaction and social prosperity.

Hardin explains the logic this way: we can overcome the tragedy of the commons through a system of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” For him, the best approach is “the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance.” He concedes that this is not a perfectly just alternative, but he asserts that Darwinian natural selection is ultimately the best available option, saying, “those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” We put up with this imperfect legal order, he adds, “because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

Such musings by a libertarian-minded scientist have been catnip to conservative ideologues and economists (who are so often one and the same). They see Hardin’s essay as a gospel parable that affirms some core principles of neoliberal economic ideology. It affirms the importance of “free markets” and justifies the property rights of the wealthy. It bolsters a commitment to individual rights and private property as the cornerstone of economic thought and policy. People will supposedly have the motivation to take responsibility for resources if they are guaranteed private ownership and access to free markets. Tragic outcomes—“total ruin”—can thereby be avoided. The failure of the commons, in this telling, is conflated with government itself, if only to suggest that one of the few recognized vehicles for advancing collective interests, government, will also succumb to the “tragedy” paradigm. (That is the gist of Public Choice theory, which applies standard economic logic to problems in political science.)

Over the past several decades, the tragedy of the commons has taken root as an economic truism. The Hardin essay has become a staple of undergraduate education in the US, taught not just in economics courses but in political science, sociology and other fields. It is no wonder that so many people consider the commons with such glib condescension. The commons = chaos, ruin and failure.

There is just one significant flaw in the tragedy parable. It does not accurately describe a commons. Hardin’s fictional scenario sets forth a system that has no boundaries around the pasture, no rules for managing it, no punishments for over-use and no distinct community of users. But that is not a commons. It is an open-access regime, or a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, rules, social norms and sanctions against free riders. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a conscientious steward of a resource. Hardin was confusing a commons with “no-man’s-land”—and in the process, he smeared the commons as a failed paradigm for managing resources.

To be fair, Hardin was following a long line of polemicists who projected their unexamined commitments to market individualism onto the world. As we will see later, the theories of philosopher John Locke have been widely used to justify treating the New World as terra nullius—open, unowned land—even though it was populated by millions of Native Americans who managed their natural resources as beloved commons with unwritten but highly sophisticated rules.

Hardin’s essay was inspired by his reading of an 1832 talk by William Forster Lloyd, an English lecturer who, like Hardin, was worried about overpopulation in a period of intense enclosures of land. Lloyd’s talk is notable because it rehearses the same line of argument and makes the same fanciful error—that people are incapable of negotiating a solution to the “tragedy.” Instead of a shared pasture, Lloyd’s metaphor was a joint pool of money that could be accessed by every contributor. Lloyd asserted that each individual would quickly deplete more than his share of the pool while a private purse of money would be frugally managed.

I mention Lloyd’s essay to illustrate how ridiculous yet persistent the misconceptions about the “tragedy” dynamic truly are. Commons scholar Lewis Hyde dryly notes, “Just as Hardin proposes a herdsman whose reason is unable to encompass the common good, so Lloyd supposes persons who have no way to speak with each other or make joint decisions. Both writers inject laissez-faire individualism into an old agrarian village and then gravely announce that the commons is dead. From the point of view of such a village, Lloyd’s assumptions are as crazy as asking us to ‘suppose a man to have a purse to which his left and right hand may freely resort, each unaware of the other’.”

This absurdity, unfortunately, is the basis for a large literature of “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments that purport to show how “rational individuals” behave when confronted with “social dilemmas,” such as how to allocate a limited resource. Should the “prisoner” cooperate with other potential claimants and share the limited rewards? Or should he or she defect by grabbing as much for himself as possible?

Needless to say, the complications are endless. But the basic premise of such social science experiments is rigged at the outset. Certain assumptions about the selfishness, rational calculation of individuals and lack of context (test subjects have no shared social history or culture) are embedded into the very design of the “game.” Test subjects are not allowed to communicate with each other, or develop bonds of trust and shared knowledge. They are given only limited time and opportunity to learn to cooperate. They are isolated in a lab setting for a single experiment, and have no shared history or future together. Aghast at the pretzel logic of economic researchers, Lewis Hyde suggested that the “tragedy” thesis be called, instead, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals.”

The dirty little secret of many prisoner’s dilemma experiments is that they subtly presuppose a market culture of “rational” individuals. Most give little consideration to the real-life ways in which people come to cooperate and share in managing resources. That is changing now that more game theory experiments are incorporating the ideas of behavioral economics, complexity theory and evolutionary sciences into their design.

Yet the fact remains that a great deal of economic theory and policy presume a rather crude, archaic model of human being. Despite its obvious unreality, Homo economicus, the fictional abstract individual who actively maximizes his personal “utility function” through rational calculation, continues to hold sway as the idealized model of human agency in the cultural entity we call the “economy.” Two introductory economics textbooks widely used in the US, by Samuelson and Nordhaus (2004) and Stiglitz and Walsh (2006), consider cooperative behaviors to be so inconsequential that they do not even mention the commons. If economists show any inclination to discuss the commons, you can be sure that the word “tragedy” will be lurking very nearby.

Paradoxically enough, the heedless quest for selfish gain— “rationally” pursued, of course, yet indifferent toward the collective good—is a better description of the conventional market economy than a commons. In the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, such a mindset propelled the wizards of Wall Street to maximize private gains without regard for the systemic risks or local impacts. The real tragedy precipitated by “rational” individualism is not the tragedy of the commons, but the tragedy of the market.

Happily, contemporary scholarship has done much to rescue the commons from the memory hole to which it has been consigned by mainstream economics. The late American political scientist Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University deserves special credit for her role in expanding the frame of analysis of economic activity. In the 1970s, the economics profession plunged into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It celebrated highly abstract, quantitative models of the economy based on rational individualism, private property rights and free markets. A child of the Depression, Ostrom had always been interested in cooperative institutions working outside of markets. As a young political scientist in the 1960s, she began to question some of the core assumptions of economics, especially the idea that people are unable to cooperate in stable, sustainable ways. Sometimes working with political scientist Vincent Ostrom, her husband, she initiated a new kind of cross-disciplinary study of institutional systems that manage “common-pool resources,” or CPRs.

CPRs are collective resources over which no one has private property rights or exclusive control, such as fisheries, grazing lands and groundwater. All of these resources are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation because it is difficult to stop people from using them. We might call it the “tragedy of open access.”

What distinguished Ostrom’s scholarship from that of so many academic economists was her painstaking empirical fieldwork. She visited communal landholders in Ethiopia, rubber tappers in the Amazon and fishers in the Philippines. She investigated how they negotiated cooperative schemes, and how they blended their social systems with local ecosystems. As economist Nancy Folbre of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained, “She would go and actually talk to Indonesian fishermen or Maine lobstermen, and ask, ‘How did you come to establish this limit on the fish catch? How did you deal with the fact that people might try to get around it?’”

From such empirical findings, Ostrom tried to figure out what makes for a successful commons. How does a community overcome its collective-action problem? The recurring challenge facing a group of principals in an interdependent situation, she wrote, is figuring out how to “organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically. Parallel questions have to do with the combinations of variables that will (1) increase the initial likelihood of self-organization; (2) enhance the capabilities of individuals to continue self-organized efforts over time; or (3) exceed the capacity of self-organization to solve CPR [common-pool resource] problems without eternal assistance of some form.”

Ostrom’s answer was Governing the Commons, a landmark 1990 book that set forth some of the basic “design principles” of effective, durable commons. These principles have been adapted and elaborated by later scholars, but her analysis remains the default framework for evaluating natural resource commons. The focus of Ostrom’s work, and of the legions of academics who now study commons, has been how communities of resource users develop social norms—and sometimes formal legal rules—that enable them to use finite resources sustainably over the long term. Standard economics, after all, declares that we are selfish individuals whose wants are unlimited. The idea that we can depend on people’s altruism and cooperation, economists object, is naive and unrealistic. The idea that commons can set and enforce limits on usage also seems improbable because it rejects the idea of humans having unbounded appetites.

Ostrom nonetheless showed how, in hundreds of instances, commoners do in fact meet their needs and interests in collective, cooperative ways. The villagers of Törbel, Switzerland, have managed their high alpine forests, meadows and irrigation waters since 1224. Spaniards have shared irrigation waters through huerta social institutions for centuries while, more recently, diverse water authorities in Los Angeles learned how to coordinate their management of scarce groundwater supplies. Many commons have flourished for hundreds of years, even in periods of drought or crisis. Their success can be traced to a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, oversight of access and usage, and effective punishments for rule-breakers.

Ostrom found that commons must have clearly defined boundaries so that commoners can know who has authorized rights to use a resource. Outsiders who do not contribute to the commons obviously have no rights to access or use the common-pool resource. She discovered that the rules for appropriating a resource must take account of local conditions and must include limits on what can be taken and how. For example, wild berries can only be harvested during a given period of time, or wood from the forest can only be taken from the ground and must be used for household use only, not sold at markets.

Commoners must be able to create or influence the rules that govern a commons, Ostrom noted. “If external governmental officials presume that only they have the authority to set the rules,” she discovered, “then it will be very difficult for local appropriators to sustain a rule-governed CPR over the long run.” Commoners must be willing to monitor how their resources are used (or abused) and must devise a system of sanctions to punish anyone who violates the rules, preferably through a gradation of increasingly serious sanctions. When disputes arise, commoners must have easy access to conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Finally, Ostrom declared that commons that are part of a larger system of governance must be “organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.” She called this “polycentric governance,” meaning that the authority to appropriate a resource, monitor and enforce its use, resolve conflicts and perform other governance activities must be shared across different levels— from local to regional to national to international." (

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