One Cheer for the Commons

February 11, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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A recent article on proclaimed that ‘the commons is the future’, so let me state my thesis plainly at the outset: no it isn’t, and in the event that humanity manages to create sustainable societies and/or sustainable resource use in the future, common property regimes will likely only have a fairly minor role to play in them. I’m not going to dwell much on the Resilience article, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but the general position I’m staking seems to put me at odds with a lot of environmental and egalitarian-minded people whose views I otherwise largely share, so maybe it’s worth exploring further – as I do below under a number of headings for ease of argument.

What is a commons?

People often talk rather loosely about the ‘global commons’ or humanity’s ‘common treasury’ of soil, air, water, knowledge, seeds etc. Part of the problem in thinking about commons arises right here at the definitional outset, because these things aren’t actually commons. They’re what economists call public goods – that is, a good where consumption is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, like air – the breaths I take don’t impede the breaths you take, and it’s hard for us to limit anyone’s access to air in such a way that we can charge them for breathing (…don’t mention it to George Osborne though, just in case). A commons, by contrast, is a resource where people’s use of it does affect others’ use, and indeed is often at risk of destruction by overuse. To remedy this, a commons identifies a specific community of users (and thus, by implication, a wider community of non-users) and a set of usage protocols that specify how the resource is to be used. A classic example is the commons of pre-industrial England, where certain local people were entitled to graze a set amount of livestock on land they didn’t own, or glean corn from the fields after harvest, or take gorse as firewood. The tripartite commons definition operates in these cases – a resource, a specific community, a usage protocol.

Private – Public – Common

Commons certainly have their place in the scheme of things, but I’m not entirely sure why they seem to be flavour of the month in alternative economics circles. Most likely it’s because both private and state ownership of economic resources have had a poor track record in recent times, with callously rapacious capitalism and repressive, monolithic communism both standing indicted in the historical dock. Do the commons, neither purely private nor purely public, offer a fresh option?

Maybe. But let’s look closer. Yavor Tarinski, in the aforementioned ‘Commons is the future’ article, refers to the work of leading commons scholar, the late Elinor Ostrom, on the commons in the Swiss Alpine village of Törbel. Tarinski writes, “In the Swiss village in question, local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing.”

Let’s look at what Ostrom says:

“For centuries, Törbel peasants have planted their privately owned plots with bread grains, garden vegetables, fruit trees and hay for winter fodder. Cheese produced by a small group of herdsmen, who tend village cattle pasture on the communally owned alpine meadows during the summer months, has been an important part of the local economy. Written legal documents dating back to 1224 provide information regarding…the rules used by the villagers to regulate the five types of communally owned property: the alpine grazing meadows, the forests, the “waste” lands, the irrigation systems, and the paths and roads connecting privately and communally owned property”1

In other words, the primary subsistence activities undertaken by the villagers, which take up the majority of their time, are private affairs. Only in the case of a few less intensive activities are things arranged communally – important activities, to be sure, but scarcely indicative of a thoroughly communalised mindset. To me, it seems strange to home in on Törbel’s commons as somehow exemplary of a commoning life distinct from private property relations, when so much of the village economy is clearly organised through the latter.

Undoubtedly there’s a need in contemporary politics to transcend some of the more problematic consequences of traditional economic systems, both private and state organised, and commons provide some interesting examples of self-organising collective institutions in this respect. But as Ostrom herself pointed out, institutions are seldom wholly private or public – “the market” or “the state” (indeed, markets require state manipulation to operate, and even the most totalitarian of regimes is incapable of eliminating private economic relations). Ostrom provides many examples of the ways that commons – whether pastures, fisheries, irrigation schemes or water catchment protection – draw strength from what she calls “rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy”2. So perhaps there’s a need to go beyond simplistic notions of markets or states being bad and commons being good, and to specify more richly what kind of private, public or common institutions can be effective in different circumstances. Ostrom’s work stands as an impressive rebuke to those who think that communities can never organise their own resource use effectively without the help of the state or the market, but she’s at pains to show that commons don’t always work and aren’t always an appropriate mode of organisation.

So when do they work? Summarising Ostrom’s intricate analysis very crudely, the answer seems to be when there’s a relatively small number of people of fairly equivalent social standing who have a long-term interest in using a resource, particularly when that resource has a low value per unit area, or is erratically productive, or is hard to intensify, or is hard to exclude people from. I’ll come back to this. But I hope that answer begins to hint at why commons may not always be the optimal strategy for a sustainable agriculture of the future.

Of selfishness and altruism

The fact that commons seem to involve an element of altruism is, I suspect, one reason for the contemporary enthusiasm over them as a reaction to the tired nostrum of orthodox economic theory concerning intrinsic human selfishness. So are people intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic? Both, surely. A close look at successful commons invariably reveals elaborately constructed procedures to detect and disincentivize cheating and free riding, while a close look at historical court proceedings associated with functioning commons reveals numerous actual examples of such behaviour. Not necessarily very frequent examples – the mark of a good commons is strong arrangements to ensure that people stick by the rules – but numerous enough for all that. Most people surely display all manner of altruism in their daily lives, but commons based on the notion that everyone will play ball because of an intrinsic human altruism soon founder.

To develop that point further, I’d suggest it’s untrue that private property regimes inevitably instil selfishness or that public authority is inevitably unresponsive and monolithic, just as it’s untrue that commoners are intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic (David Bollier’s interesting book Think Like A Commoner sometimes errs, I believe, in its tendency to assimilate private property to capitalism and thence to beggar-my-neighbour self-interest: private property relations are not necessarily capitalist relations). Again, we need richer descriptions of the ways in which specific forms of economic organisation function or malfunction in specific cultural contexts. Part of the problem, I think, is the ascendancy of a neoliberal fundamentalism in western politics over the last thirty years or so that insists every sphere of life must be marketised. Recoiling from this delusion, and bruised by the defeat of the alternatives offered by traditional leftism, progressive thinkers have cast around for alternatives and lit upon the commons. But, as outlined earlier, commons usually only work well in particular rather specialised situations – and indeed themselves depend on wider private and public institutions. It’s often better, I’d argue, to work at correcting the malfunctioning aspects of private or public sector institutions than to assume that a commons will solve the problem.

Poverty and the commons

Much has been written on the enclosure of the commons – paradigmatically, on the extinction of commoners’ rights in early modern England. The reality of it was more complicated than pro- or anti-enclosure propagandists will usually admit, but I’m broadly sympathetic to the position sketched by historian J. Neeson that the enclosure of the commons represented the destruction of a peasantry and its reconstitution as a proletariat3. Enclosure undoubtedly imposed hardship on the rural poor, and for that reason I mourn it. Most of my writing revolves around making the case for a contemporary peasant agriculture. I do not welcome the destruction of peasantries, historic or contemporary.

But let’s get a grip. The loss of harvest gleaning rights must have been a blow to many a poor rural family, but would you like to go on your hands and knees through a cornfield in search of your supper? Commons can be a good way of intensifying land use, making them more ecologically and economically efficient, and thereby helping redress poverty in situations of great economic inequality. But they don’t in themselves radically challenge that inequality. Indeed, in some ways perhaps they buttress it. In situations where the poor have little access to resources, commons arise which help them make best use of what’s available to them. But there are better ways of creating access to resources. Those ways change over time, too. When the cost of containing livestock was prohibitive, it made sense for people to band together and employ a cowherd to tend their beasts on the common pasture. Nowadays, it would probably cost more to employ a herdsman on the commons than to fence your own fields.

But nowadays few of us have our own beasts or fields. Instead we have ideas and creative output we want to disseminate. The modern commons is about information and information sharing – an ‘open source’, ‘digital commons’. The idea of open source is that the great stock of human knowledge is a commons that shouldn’t be enclosed. But it seems to have turned into the notion that stuff ought to be free, and that people shouldn’t expect recompense for the work they put into uploading more content into the collective human consciousness. In other words, when we talk about the modern digital commons, the community and the protocol part of the commons definition goes missing. We happily fill Microsoft or Apple’s coffers so we can gain access to the content of this ‘digital commons’, but we expect the creators of content to furnish it for free on the grounds that they’re just recyclers of the knowledge commons, forgetting that so too are Microsoft and Apple. As farmers down the ages will tell you, the middleman makes the money and the producer gets little or nothing. This is not a commons.

There’s a donate button top right on my blog, by the way.

Contemporary peasants, contemporary commons

But I digress. Let me conclude by getting back to land use and thence to agriculture. Here’s an example of a contemporary commons that can work very well: residents in an urban area successfully petition their hard-pressed municipal authority to cede a piece of wasteground to them on a preferential long-term lease, organising themselves to tidy it up and improve access so that it becomes a valued recreational haven in the hurly-burly of the city. It works, because the characteristics of a successful commons that I outlined above mostly apply – a community of interest, an extensive resource that’s hard to intensify or exclude people from etc.

But now suppose that the commoners decide to plant a community vegetable garden on the site. At first, the volunteer days are well attended and the garden gets off to a flying start. But growing vegetables is a lot of work, and most people’s interest soon flags. Volunteer attendance starts to drop off, and the hardy few who are now carrying the project begin to resent making produce available to those who aren’t pulling their weight. They try to come up with some protocols about inputs and rewards from the garden at a fractious meeting in which accusations of selfishness fly from all quarters. Some residents really would like to help, but they aren’t sure if they’ll have the time, or even whether they’ll still be living here come next growing season. And now there aren’t enough volunteers even to keep the beds properly weeded. Then a property development company appears on the scene with its eye on the gardens, which it thinks could make a good site for housing. They offer to buy the commoners handsomely out of their lease. Many of them are keen on this idea. The community gardeners are aghast.

I’ve seen this kind of thing play out many times. I could dwell on the ramifications at length, but instead let me offer a brief closing thesis. Before we can have meaningful contemporary agricultural commons we need to create a relatively egalitarian community of small farmers who are in it for the long haul and who are anxious to preserve the productive potential of their local environment for themselves and their descendants. Once such a community has arisen, it will likely find many creative ways of forming commons around the interstices of its activities which will increase the efficiency of local resource use. So in this sense, yes, commons can definitely be a part of the future, and probably a bigger part than they currently are. But – as in Törbel – the most important, most intensive activities are likely to be better served by a private property regime, so long as it’s a private property regime geared primarily to providing homes and productive agricultural land to farmers who have independent agency within publicly-agreed norms of acceptable behaviour, rather than a private property regime geared to the easy monetisation of assets (in other words, that it’s a peasant and not a capitalist private property regime – a compassionate and community-minded one, yes, but a communal one, probably not). Private property certainly isn’t the only possible way of organising a just and sustainable human ecology, but it’s one that’s familiar to us westerners. And it’ll be hard enough wresting a private property regime of petty proprietorship from the fiery hell of capitalist land values without further saddling ourselves with idealistic commoning arrangements as a means to earn our daily bread. Let us not run before we can walk.


  1. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-2.
  1. Ibid. p.14.
  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Photo credit: Los Chicos acequia near Velarde, New Mexico. An example of a traditional communally-managed resource.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: building resilient food systems, private property, public goods, the commons