In my last post, I made the case for private property rights in a small farm future. In this one, I’ll make a case for common property rights (‘commons’). There’s no contradiction because private and common rights usually accompany each other. I’ve written quite a bit about commons in the past, usually from a somewhat sceptical viewpoint – not because I dispute their importance, but because I think they’re too often invoked as a rather fluffy feelgood word to mean ‘people doing good things together’. When we look at agricultural societies, we see that there are certain things they achieve with commons and certain things they don’t, and I think this is informative for the small farm societies we need to form in the future. But I don’t want to lose sight of the ‘people doing good things together’ aspect, which I’ll come to at the end.

In this article, I described the scope of commons in agrarian societies under the rubric of what I called the ‘four Es’: commons are usually extensive (applying to low value and/or diffuse resources), elemental (relating to the wider play of the landscape beyond individual private control, such as controlling fire risk, managing water or shaping the earth), extra (a bonus on top of ordinary economic activities, often with a social welfare function) and/or exclusive (applying to a definite and restricted community).

So in the future small farm communities I’m imagining, I’d expect to see commons around things like firewood gathering, irrigation, flood defence and cattle grazing – but probably not around gardening, cereal cropping, haymaking or milking. Robert Netting and Simon Fairlie have both written about the complex interleaving of private and common rights in traditional European dairying systems along these lines. Broadly speaking, cows were privately owned by individual households and the housing, milking and haymaking for them was likewise undertaken privately, but much of the grazing and cheesemaking was organized as commons. As Simon puts it, “This elegant system paid scant allegiance to ideology – it evolved from the dialogue between private interest and common sense”1. I expect much the same will transpire eventually with future agricultural commons.

Drawing on Robert Netting’s work, commons theorist Elinor Ostrom suggests that commons are particularly suited for agricultural situations where2:

  1. The per acre value of the goods being produced is low
  2. The availability of the goods fluctuates
  3. The possibilities for improving or intensifying productivity are low
  4. A large territory is needed for effective use
  5. Large groups of people are needed for effective capital investing activities

From this list, it’s easy to see why things like gardens and arable fields are rarely organized as commons, whereas woodlands and grazing often are.

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with @aliceLBPclub about the production of textiles in a small farm future. My feeling is that generally this probably wouldn’t be organized as a commons overall, but – as with Simon’s dairying example – it might have some commoning aspects. Supposing people widely grow a fibre plant like flax. This wouldn’t fit within the commons criteria mentioned above and would most likely be grown on an individual household basis, unless it required special conditions or skills to grow it, in which case things might get interesting. But, as with a crop like wheat (or the cheeses mentioned above), processing it might be more efficiently done in a single large facility serving the community’s needs. By the lights of the criteria outlined above, I don’t think this facility would likely be a commons as such.

Maybe the best model for it would be a cooperative. People pool some of their surplus resources to create the processing facilities in the expectation that they will get some fair share of the final product. Shoehorning a few issues here, inasmuch as the processing involves specialist skills and training, the cooperative might be a guild, in which craft specialists manage the training, conduct and price-setting of their membership in service of the wider community.

A craft guild is a bit different from an agrarian commons in terms of the underlying ecology, but similar in terms of its social structure, which is basically this3:

A commons or guild = a resource + a community + a set of usage protocols

How this works out in practice depends a lot not only on the nature of the resource but also on how the community and the usage protocols are defined. Who’s excluded, who’s included, and what are the rules of the game for those involved? Part of my scepticism about the way commons and guilds are often invoked is that they are not by virtue of their form of organization intrinsically positive, egalitarian or socially beneficial. That’s been their intention and their achievement often enough, but not always.

The classic criticism of agricultural commons is that they promote inefficient use or, worse, overuse that runs down the resource. This, notoriously, was Garrett Hardin’s argument in his 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It was also Arthur Young’s argument as he enthusiastically pressed the case for the enclosure of agricultural commons in England in the late 18th century. Young came to regret his enclosing ardour, while even Hardin admitted that what he’d called a commons really wasn’t and is better described as an open access regime where, in contrast to the definition above, there’s no defined community or usage protocols to prevent degradation.

Still, for all the justifiable mud flung at Hardin, the fact is it’s possible for a commons to degrade into an open access regime, or for a situation to default to an open access regime because of the failure to create a commons – a point made forcefully enough by Elinor Ostrom herself. Current examples include the collapse of the world’s pelagic fisheries, and the ever-escalating levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In both cases, the problem seems to be the inability to create a stable community with shared norms around the resource – partly perhaps because when it comes to forming communities, people are creatures of the particular earth, not the fluid skies or waters.

The classic criticism of the craft guild rests at the other boundary of the commons – not an access regime that’s too open, but one that’s too closed. The guild stops operating in service of the community and starts operating in service of itself, creating unreasonable entry barriers, fixing prices and engaging in other such monopolistic forms of anti-social behaviour. In this sense, the rogue guild was one of the forerunners to the modern capitalist corporation – and, ironically, the idea of ‘freeing’ the market was experienced in some quarters as genuinely liberatory.

Now we’ve seen how the story of monopoly capitalism has worked out (summary: not well), a lot of us are looking back to the previous world of commons and guilds as the basis for a better model. And rightly so. But there are a few caveats worth bearing in mind. First, commons and guilds are not in themselves a solution to the problems of transcending capitalism’s world of strange delights. As I suggested above, their organizational form is ethically neutral. The same goes for cooperatives, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – when they operate in a world that’s systematically organized in the interests of capital, too easily just replicate the structural tensions of that world. The real challenge is to reconstruct communities and economies along more just and sustainable lines. Commons and guilds really come into their own after that work of reconstruction.

But even when they do come into their own – especially when they come into their own – the ways that commons and guilds can fail that I detailed above need to be taken seriously. The story we often tell today is how they were broken top down by the forces of economic accumulation against the will of ordinary people, and it’s partly true. But ordinary people also did some of the breaking themselves as they sought to escape from restrictions that were sometimes less than ideal in practice. Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.

The genius of capitalism has been defraying these difficulties of local politics by continually opening up new economic frontiers that sweeten the politics of local community with economic service. That was the achievement of the other main forerunner of modern capitalism, the joint stock company that pooled resources to finance the high-risk, high-return business of overseas maritime adventuring. But that achievement has come at a threefold price. First, the economic service has generally arisen from extracting extra value from people elsewhere – that is, from colonialism of one form or another. Second, it’s often denatured local communities back at the source even as it’s defrayed some of their difficulties. And, third, not only has it started to run out of new frontiers and resources to commodify, it’s also destroyed the ecological integrity of the ones it’s already commodified – hence the interest of people like Elon Musk in opening up places like Mars. So the job of reconstructing local human ecologies becomes especially difficult, because we’ve forgotten how to live without being propped up by other people’s value creation, or because the extraction of value has profoundly damaging effects on the social fabric.

Still, people everywhere are pretty creative at generating new social fabrics and new kinds of mutual aid. So my conclusion is this: grow fibres, pool resources, weave fabrics, build commons, make guilds. But do it carefully and be prepared to unstitch them when they go wrong, which sometimes they certainly will.

As to my opening point about people doing good things together, people will need to develop new agricultural commons of the classic sort in the small farm futures of many places, but in the short-term more malleable and inclusive arrangements will often be in order, as with responses to various emergency situations where defining strict membership criteria and usage protocols isn’t to the point. More fundamentally, I believe the key aspect of commoning as doing good things together won’t lie in the exact boundary definitions of common versus private property, but in the fact that both take their place within a larger collective politics of creating resilient and renewable local societies where people are autonomous and self-possessed actors within larger cooperative networks.

Notes

  1. See Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7, 16-31.
  2. Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, p.63.
  3. Borrowing here from David Bollier. 2014. Think Like A Commoner, p.15.