The Commons – Beyond the State, Capitalism, and the Market

It may surprise most individuals that many of our problems and debates in the field of political science, political philosophy and economics boil down to issues of property.  One of the purest forms of capitalism (classical liberalism), is supposed to be based on private property where individuals trade goods freely within a market system.  The system of state socialism – those of the USSR and Maoism – is based on state ownership of land and capital where a centralized body dictates what is best for society.  In today’s mixed economies, there’s a convoluted mixture of state lands and private property.  Many proponents of the Left claim that there needs to be more state ownership and regulations to prevent corporate malfeasance.  Many on Right claim the problems with corporate malfeasance are due to a lack of private property rights; the state oversteps its bounds by infringing on individual sovereignty.

The left-libertarian perspective is a synthesis between state and private property…or at least attempt to eliminate many of the problems associated with both state and private property.  Left-libertarians advocate self-managed commons in place of the state ownership and replace private property with personal possession.  The commons and personal possessions shouldn’t necessarily be seen as antithetical to state and private property but a reworking of the two concepts.  In both cases, we’ll find that the commons and personal possession share many of the positive aspects of private and state ownership while eliminating many of the negative features.

The Commons

Our inquiry begins with a simple question: who owns the world we’ve “inherited”?[i]  Who owns the air?  Who owns the forests?  Who owns the rivers, skies, and minerals that we all rely on?  Since the time of John Locke, most have come to agree that human beings have “inherited” the earth.  The commons are then the things we all share and can access such as water, oceans, minerals, air but this could also be extended to roads, libraries, parks, community gardens, plazas, civic centers, money, knowledge, green spaces, the internet, education, and things handed down such as culture and technologies.  In order to have a commons, you have to have commoners and in order to have commoners, you need a commons: the one implies the other.

However, a distinction needs to be made from the outset.  Most economists describe “goods” as either “private goods” or “public goods.”  Unfortunately, they sometimes neglect common goods.  In this case, I want to make an important distinction especially between public goods and common goods.    But first, private goods are those goods we buy that are specifically for personal use, such as a loaf of bread, a t-shirt, or an automobile.

Public Goods:  Public goods are those goods in which the state has control.  Parks, roads, libraries, national defense are all examples of public goods.  Public goods are supposed to meet local needs but in many cases, public goods are controlled by outside forces.  In this case, they can be mismanaged, fail to accommodate for local needs, and become corrupted by politicians.  Outside policymakers design laws, regulations, and rules not just to limit and disempower local people from employing their own resources, but also to perpetuate externally held power by restricting locals from making meaningful changes to controls.  Private companies exert influence on policy in order to benefit, either by directly affecting the design and use of public goods or by injecting budget cuts that lead to failure for public goods management resulting in the indirect benefits such as privatization.  Almost all public goods are outside of the public control and organized based on top-down planning.  While some public input may be considered, the members affected by the commons do not collaborate on the management.  “It has become clear that the state is not a neutral actor that truly represents the interests of the general public, but rather it reflects societal power relations.”[ii]

The Commons:  Ideally in the left libertarian perspective, the commons are designed and self-managed by the members who set the rules without restriction to meet their own goals based on local needs.   Local customs, ecological needs, ideas, and member profiles define the commons because they are maintained by those who share them.  All planning derives from the bottom-up so as to avoid bureaucracy and mismanagement.  Private companies have no control over the commons.  Therefore, members are free to create goods outside the domain of the market such as green spaces, hiking trails, sustainable technologies, and other essentials for improved quality of life.  The commons are based on horizontal relationships because each member shares power within them.  In other words, all members have a stake in the commons.  Collaboration and cooperation are key inputs because each member has an incentive to see progress and the best possible outcome.  Last, the commons are created and designed with the goal to maximize positive human elements within each individual and to benefit society and the community as a whole.  The commons are not for profit making and there are no incentives to waste local resources.  Rather, the natural incentive is to preserve them for future generations.

The people in a society founded upon commons orient themselves toward what is necessary for a good life, and not toward using more and more consumer goods.  They individually feel responsibly for what is common to all.  Consumerism, in contrast, undermines the commons and finally society as well, as it undermines people’s feeling of belonging to one another….. Economic, ecological and social crises are merging to form a single one, a crisis of civilization.”[iii]

Ever since Garrett Hardin’s paper “Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science, the concept of the commons has been ridiculed by economists and political philosophers alike.  The paper had many ideological supporters.  Neoliberals used his paper as a blunt object to anyone who didn’t agree with privatization while some on the left used his paper to turn the commons into public goods.  In Hardin’s article, he asks us to imagine a village and an open pasture (the commons) where herdsmen bring their cattle to graze.  It is in the self-interest of each herdsman to keep as many cattle on the commons as possible.  Hardin states:

“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?’  This utility has one negative and one positive component….  Adding together the component partial utilities, 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 without 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.”

That last sentence should terrify anyone considering the idea of the commons and in fact, it has done just that.  However, there is one major problem: Hardin was wrong on just about every point from his mathematical modeling to history.  On first inspection, Hardin seems to make an important logical point.  One of the major problems with Hardin’s thought experiment is that it only applies to a “free-for-all commons” which have rarely existed in the past.  As with many thought experiments, reality is extracted which is probably why historians have referred to Hardin as “historically uninformed” and why Hardin eventually admitted that “it is clear to me that the title of my original contribution should have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.”[iv]  Historically, villages and communities have never had ungoverned commons but in fact, have used a number of rules for occupancy and use.  As Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom has shown, there are many empirical cases (not thought experiments!) where commons have been used successfully for thousands of years without resource degradation… a complete reversal of Hardin’s claim.  Hardin and his ideological supporters would go on to extrapolate the concepts in his article to covering everything from oceans, parks, water, and even air.  Hardin’s article was popularized due to the fact that it enjoyed widespread attention from those in power.  As Ostrom states:

“Some scholarly articles about the “tragedy of the commons” recommend that “the state” control most natural resources to prevent their destruction; others recommend that privatizing those resources will resolve the problem.  What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems.  Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems….”[v]

The left-libertarian perspective is one such system which does not rely on the market or the state but use successful techniques to avoid degradation and overuse of the commons while producing sustainability and abundance.

Enclosure of the Commons

There have been a number of books written on the history of the Enclosure Movement, which took place during the 18th and 19th century when the English government along with rich aristocrats, took common lands that belonged to villages for raising animals and growing food and transformed that land into private property.  Fences and walls were usually built and peasants were removed, usually by force while aristocrats enjoyed the benefits of enclosure.  In short, the Enclosure Movement was the beginning of industrial farming and the end of village life.  Peasants that were removed eventually became the working poor in the factories of the industrial revolution.  Peter Linebaugh, says, “The “English enclosure movement” has belonged to that series of concrete universals – like the slave trade, the witch burnings, the Irish famine, or the genocide of the Native Americans – that has defined the crime of modernism.”[vi]  Before this time, villages tended to be self-sufficient were many of the local needs where met internally and strong community bonds existed.  One should not romanticize this time period but should realize that many important values were destroyed in the process of modernization and while the rich benefitted, the poor were marginalized to destitution. The above is a case of the Enclosure Movement mainly in England.  But one should realize that enclosure movements happened across the globe with similar results: the Rich became richer, while the Poor suffered.

Feudalism was a system where the serfs would tend to the lands but the owners – the royalty – reaped the benefits.  The word “Enclosure is a term that is technically precise (hedge, fence, wall), and expressive of concepts of unfreedom (incarceration, imprisonment, immurement).”[vii]  The workers were merely tenants.  Private property is the latest form of enclosure and the definition of private property keeps expanding.  When most people think of private property, they think of their home, car, and the clothes on their back.   But also included in the definition of personal property is the type of property that is protected by monopoly on resources and excludes others in order to extract rents and form hierarchical relationships.  To be clear, most agree that home and contents should be exclusively owned.  But what if I said a mountain or entire forest could be private property?  There is a magnitude of difference between your television and a mountain.  Yet they can be considered the same thing within the sphere of private property.

The main point of enclosure is to deny access by monopoly to the sources of life by the use of physical and deadly force.  Consider this!  A monopoly is exclusive control or ownership over goods by means of legal privilege. Once enclosure has taken place, a fee can be charged for access in order to receive the sources needed for life.  Once this monopoly is created, Proudhon observed that private property used a “Right of Increase.”  Proudhon defined the Right of Increase as “a sort of royal prerogative, of tangible and consumable homage – is due to the proprietor [land owner] on account of his nominal and metaphysical occupancy.  His seal is set upon the thing; that is enough to prevent anyone else from occupying it without HIS permission.”[viii]

In other words, a mountain might be the common inheritance of all but one person could have a monopoly on the entire mountain just as a state could have a monopoly on hundreds of miles of unused land.  Just like with feudalism, the Crown is replaced by the capitalist and the serf is replaced by the wage laborer.  Once a monopoly is established, Proudon noticed that the Right of Increase came in different forms, “if by land, FARM-RENT; if by houses and furniture, RENT; if by life-investments, REVENUE; if by money; INTEREST; if by exchange, ADVANTAGE, GAIN, PROFIT….”[ix]  The only way the serf would work for the king and the wage earner for the capitalist, is by a violent monopoly on our own common inheritance.

The New Enclosure Movement & the New Aristocrats

While many believe that the enclosure movement is over, it has only begun.  Over the last 30 years, with the introduction of neoliberal policies, we are starting to see our commons privatized at an extremely fast pace.  The knowledge industry, oceans, space, music, mountains, air, forests, waterways, software, genetics, culture, and even food seeds are held through power.  The privatized commons means we are turning over our most shared resources to private companies (the new aristocrats) to monopolize and benefit from them while commoners and consumers alike can expect to pay a fee for access.  We are seeing the destruction of the commons at an unprecedented pace and scale.  As this destruction is happening globally, we are in parallel destroying the possibility of a new society of abundance by creating a society of increasing scarcity.

Many on the Left would like to think that government can mitigate this process.  In reality, the government is at the source of the problem, symbiotic with private capital.  After all, government is creating new monopolies for private use of the commons and government is backing private monopolies by the use of force.  When government does manage to “protect” the commons, they tend to mismanage them.  In many cases, they don’t understand how the commons are used by the local community, create bureaucratic rules and regulation, and ultimately participate in the destruction of the commons.  There is need for a new alternative.

Abundance to Scarcity

Both private property and state property produce scarcity.  Mainstream (New Classical) economists proclaim that only free market capitalism can provide protection against issues of scarcity by market allocation.  Unfortunately, many economists see the world through an extremely narrow framework which creates a false dichotomy between state socialism and free market capitalism, considering no alternative. While market capitalism may work temporally at reducing scarcity, in the long run, they are the main producers.

This brings up the economic issue of rivalry.  Certain goods can be said to be rivalrous if one person’s use precludes another person’s ability to use it.  If I drink a soda, you can’t.  If I buy a car, you can’t drive that same car.  Not all goods are rivalrous.  For example, just because I watch a television show, that does not mean you cannot.

Ostrom has pointed out a major problem with the definition of rivalry.  In reality, there are degrees (or what she calls subtractablitity) in which “Other individuals’ opportunities for use are not necessarily lost due to one’s own use, but something is “subtracted” from them.”[x]  For example, there is a big difference between drinking water from a spring, which you can’t drink again, and taking all the water just for myself.  I have “subtracted” by taking some water but that doesn’t mean I’ve taken all the water because you can drink after me…although you can’t drink the same water I just drank.

Why is all of this important?  Mainstream (New Keynesian) economists have concluded that rivalrous resources should be managed by the market.  Non-rivalrous resources should be managed by the state.  This false dichotomy has created a real tragedy of the commons because the entire commons is being redefined to be considered rivalrous.  For instance, water is usually considered non-rivalrous.  But if I buy a lake then that transforms it into private property. I can bottle the water and make it a rivalrous good.

Connected with rivalry are excludable and nonexcludable goods.  In the above example of owning a lake, I have excluded others.  With private property, anything and everything could be considered excludable.  To take a current day example, thanks to new technology, music and software can now be copied indefinitely at no additional cost.  In other words, there is no scarcity.  But if you turn music into a form of private property, it becomes rivalrous, excludable, and you create artificial scarcity.  This means that owners of “private property” can now charge a fee.  Without private property, music is non-rivalrous, nonexcludable, and non-scarce.  The focus of neoliberal policies being spread worldwide is to take anything and everything and turn it into private property so that a very small handful of people can benefit from monopolies.  The state is being used to enforce these monopolies.

Let’s take another simple case: at this moment, most people don’t own the means of production i.e. the tools, factories, or workplaces which we need in order to produce necessities.  Every worker could have access – or be part owner- to the factory or workplace.  However, the monopoly of private property means that only a very select few have access.  Instead of having abundance, private property means scarcity; it means that the vast majority of people must rent themselves to another human being in order to survive.  There is also the example of knowledge.  Knowledge can be considered private property (in the form of intellectual property) meaning that only those with access can be informed about the hidden secrets of nature.  Sometimes at the expense of human life and suffering as it pertains to medical and pharmaceutical industries.  Instead of having degrees of rivalrous resources, excludability implies monopoly and monopoly implies scarcity and the redistribution of resources and wealth to the New Aristocrats.  Instead of market capitalism being the solution to scarcity, it turns out to be the source of additional scarcity!

Rules of the Commons

In her book, “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Intuitions for Collective Action,” Ostrom has documented how different communities around the world have sustainably managed their own commons (many for over a thousand years) without resource mismanagement or resource depletion.  These commons include things such as fisheries, water ways, grazing land, forests and so on.  What she found was a number of highly successful rules that promote self-management, sustainability, equity, and mutual respect among commoners.

She has detailed eight principles for the commons:

Define clear boundaries for sharing.

This is perhaps the most important guideline for successfully managing and maintaining the commons because without boundaries, disputes can arise.  There is a need to set boundaries defining the use of neighborhood, local, regional, and global open access resources.  Community gardens, parks, roads, and resources required but not available locally are examples of open access resources.  The types of boundaries defined include such things as who uses what, how resources are planned and how sharing with other communities occurs.

Rules governing use are matched to local needs and conditions.

Clear rules for use must exist and should pair with the local needs and conditions.  If members live in a desert, they must abide by an agreed use of water resources that balances the need for drinking with planting crops.

Collective participation in rule-making.

Individuals affected by rules have choice and opportunity to participation in modifying and maintaining the rules.  This implies two things: self-managed direct democracy and localism.

Each level of community association must retain sovereignty.

Communities must be autonomous to allow for members to make their own decisions and design the commons in a way that benefits them.  However, reaching outside the community may also be beneficial.  However, if external groups try to govern the community, the commons break down as members lose control over their own resources.

Members must develop and participate in a system of accountability.

Members who are affected by the commons must be accountable to one another to make sure that behaviors are in line with other members.  This implies audit or monitoring of appropriation and provision levels of the users of the commons.

Graduated sanctions for rule violators.

People who violate rules must receive sanctions that vary depending on the offense and the frequency of the offenders violations.  Punishments range from the minimal to more extreme forms of punishments.  However, Ostrom notes that because “In these robust institutions, monitoring and sanctioning are undertaken not by external authorities but by the participants themselves.  The initial sanctions used in these systems are also surprisingly low.”[xi]  Therefore, the “costs of monitoring are low in many long-enduring CPRs [common pool resources] as a result of the rules in use.[xii]  Sanctions rarely come into play as commoners rarely break rules.  The incentives that drive people to follow the rule system are trust, character, and relationships.

Dispute resolution must be accessible and low-cost.

Disputes today, especially environmental issues, can take years where large corporation can carry out long-term delays and mounting millions of dollars while those affected have little chance of real justice.  Resolution needs to occur in a low-cost structure that provides everyone who shares the commons the opportunity to bring to light and solve disputes.

Nested and interconnected layers of responsibility allow for scalable and complex governance of the commons.

Large collections of interconnected social groups act as large scale societies that govern the commons in scalable, layered relationships.  As Ostrom says, “All of the more complex, enduring CPRs meet this last design principle…. Establishing rules at one level, without rules at the other levels, will produce an incomplete system that may not endure over the long run.”[xiii]  Nesting means that those affected can participate in decision making that affect them.  For instance, a large river that travels through a number of communities needs representation from all the communities affected.  This is a very large subject for which volumes could be written.  But in short, communities shouldn’t be viewed as tribal groups but “the integration of producers and consumers, many civil society organizations could evolve into local/regional councils and commons trusts, or perhaps form partnerships with them.  The increased participation and political choices offered to citizens through these new accountability structures would transform economic, social and political decision-making at all levels of commons (local, state, interstate, regional, and global).”[xiv]

When Ostrom looked at commons that were mismanaged, depleted, or communities that failed, what she found was a lack of many of the above guidelines.  Ostrom and her guidelines of successful commons are completely in line with the left-libertarian perspective.

The Left-Libertarian Alternative

Left-libertarians replace private property with personal possession and state lands with the commons.  Personal possessions are the things you own such as your home, car, television, clothes, and the stuff purchased for personal use from a store.  A possession is considered “private property” of the user because they hold a monopoly on that possession.  There tends to be an automatic assumption that when left-libertarians reject private property they reject personal possessions (homes, car, clothes, books, computers, etc.) and must advocate something akin to Stalinism or collective farming in China.  Perhaps it is better to say left-libertarians aren’t against “private property” but rework the subject.

Beyond personal possessions, everything is part of the commons including the air, oceans, water ways, forests, factories, workplaces, parks, libraries, roads, knowledge, music, education, culture, civic centers, etc.  The commons are not owned by any one member and in fact, shouldn’t be considered owned at all.  The commons are simply managed and when our society eventually dies, it is left to the next generation to manage.  In other words, nature (and its resources) has its own intrinsic value beyond what utility it can provide for human beings.  This is the opposite mentality of many private property advocates such as William Blackstone who defines private property as “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”

What the above implies is that left-libertarianism is decentralized and both anti-capitalist (anti-private property) and anti-state.  However, the above should not be confused as a society without boundaries.  There are a number of use rights, usufruct rules, sanctions, and self-organization which evolves organically within a framework based on local responsibility.  Simply put, the community self-manages the resources they share in common because they have the incentives and they do so in collaboration with others.

Let’s unpack the above a little to clarify some issues.  “Use rights” means individuals have the right to use resources in order to benefit from them.  For instance, a worker run firm is part of the commons, owned by no one, but it is the worker in that particular shop who has the use rights.  A person from another region can’t simply walk into the factory and start using tools because they don’t have use rights.  Left-libertarianism is a system of use rights and possession.  Communities only manage what they can manage.  If they can’t manage an entire forest, they may do so jointly with other communities. There may also be areas that remain unclaimed.  Those lands remain untouched until someone else can come along to use the land.  Some have concluded that left-libertarianism is system of “tribal communities” which misunderstands the commons.  Many commons are jointly used which is why left-libertarians advocate local commons, regional commons, and national commons.

Secondly, without state or private property, there is no monopoly of resources.  Decentralization frees organization to occur based on horizontal relationships.  When a user has an exclusive right to resources, they can deprive others.  This deprivation means organizations based on centralized hierarchies; in the case of the state, it means bureaucratic government and in the case of private property, it means capitalists, CEOs, and board-of-directors.  In the absence of private property, organizations have no centralized head(s), relationships have equal footing, and members share power.  The fact that all relevant decisions are made at local levels also means decentralization away from an overarching government that either lacks knowledge of local conditions or may mismanage them for political ends.

One of the main objectives of left-libertarianism is to integrate producers and consumers within the framework of self-management which implies a society based on localism, sustainability, and resilience.  Localism, sustainability, and resilience shouldn’t be viewed as separate entities but as an interwoven concept.  Like the village of older times, localism means that most of the needs can be met within the community including food resources, access to green spaces, clean water, entertainment, culture, civic centers, places to shop and work.  Localism means walkability, the capacity to walk (or bike) to any of these places without getting into a car and driving through suburban sprawl.  Localism also means that we aren’t shipping things from around the world to the local community.  More importantly, localism means that we take a closer look at our actions whether socioeconomic or political rather than ignore them or rely on outside help.[xv]

Sustainability is the capacity to endure through time by being aware and adapting to our ecological surroundings.  In fact, sustainable communities are those that work much like an ecosystem by recycling and reusing its own waste.  Just like nature, there is a web of connections that sustain themselves.  Energy, water, agriculture, and transportation should also be used in sustainable ways which means they are maintained with abundance in mind and preserved for future generations.

Resilience is the ability for a community to adapt or bounce back quickly from changes in the environment.  This requires a high degree of social capital with good communication and the ability to plan for future events while also having local autonomy.  Collaboration plays a key role in making sure the community promotes well-being and quality of life with an emphasis on future generations.

To describe a resilient community permaculturist Rob Hopkins states a community:

“…might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp); the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets.  By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the strategies and approaches that will enable community to thrive beyond today’s economic turmoil, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.”[xvi]

There is also a strong desire to create a credit or money commons.  “It is possible to organize an entirely new structure of money, banking, and finance, one that is interest-free, decentralized, and controlled, not by banks or central governments….”[xvii]  A credit commons could provide a self-sufficient community where credit is given “to those individuals and businesses that merit it and withhold it from those that do not, and for us to apply our talents and energies to those enterprises that enhance community resilience, sustainability, self-reliance and the common good.”[xviii]

Within this framework, progression toward abundance is possible. We can consider three types of abundance.  Information abundance which includes knowledge such as open source education, research and development including medicine and technology, software, research in academics, etc.  In a left-libertarian society, there is no need to keep nature’s secrets but an incentive to share with all.  When information is enclosed, many cannot benefit which chokes growth and progress.  Biological abundance “creates as much potential for abundance as information multiplication, and promises us a perpetual stream of ecological benefits as well as raw materials for industrial production.”[xix]  This means not only protecting the environment but also sustaining it using new techniques in farming and so on.  But most of all, it requires viewing the world through a lens that is more organic, holistic, and thinks in terms of future generations.

Last and most important is organized abundance.  The best way to think of organized abundance is analogous to the Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona.  The biosphere is enclosed natural ecosystem sealed off from the rest of the world and meant to sustain life for long periods of time.  Inside the biosphere the size of two and one-half football fields is a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural system, and a human habitat.  Organized abundance is similar by the fact that we have a totally sustainable system because it is designed that way.  As abundance economist Roberto Verzola states:

“The life cycle of every product must be reviewed to move towards true zero-waste production.  We have to increase throughput and flow rather than accumulate and then use up stock.  This is organized abundance, by design, when, through the right combination of production components, functions and processes, every byproduct is used in another production process and the whole thing is fueled by renewables.”[xx]

So within the framework of a designed community, there is a real chance of developing a society based on abundance.  However, many mainstream economists scoff at the idea and consider it absolutely impossible.  Humans have unlimited wants which might be true.  The real revelation is that abundance is impossible… within the framework of market capitalism.  Capitalism is a system that must continually grow or suffer the consequences of collapse.  Secondly, market actors can’t buy their way into consciously designed environments.  However, within the frame work of the planned commons, abundance is a real possibility.

One criticism of the commons comes from neoliberals and other proponents of free market capitalism.  From their perspective, the commons is a collectivized dystopia where mob democracy rules.  They claim that individual sovereignty is violated because an individual can’t own a mountain or lake… or any commons.  They believe that we should leave it to individual consumers to decide if a company like Walmart should survive.  After all, consumers know best.  These criticisms can be dismissed easily.  First off, the idea that democracy is mob rule (in freely associated organizations) is really a sales pitch for minority or elite rule.  Free market capitalists reject the idea that workers should have control and believe private owners should decide for everyone.  The same applies to our commons.  They don’t want the people who are affected by the commons to have a say.  They would rather hand the commons over to private companies (a small elite in society) so they can have a monopoly on resources to gain profits.

One common description of free market capitalism is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  This is the belief that the market is a holistic system which raises all the individuals in society.  If the market is a holistic system, then the institution of the market will shape everything within it.  In other words, the market will shape everything!  The market is perhaps the most thorough penetrating institution ever devised by human beings.  It reaches worldwide and determines everything from the way products are manufactured to the way communities are organized.  Markets will also dictate if communities are sustainable, resilient, or local while also determining the relationships of all members and how they interact with each other.  This is as true globally as it is locally.  What we are seeing with the global market is that we are shipping goods from all around the world resulting in a real tragedy of the commons: depleting resources, increasing pollution, and non-existent communities and cultural homogeneity.

The term “consumer knows best” is absolute nonsense.  Consumers don’t know what’s best because they lack the necessary information.  Consumers lack knowledge about the condition in which their goods were produced such as whether clothes were made in a sweatshop, if their meat comes from animals treated inhumanely, or if coercion or child-labor was used.  Consumers rarely understand how products got to the market such as the long-term scale or impact of distributions systems, the impact of production on the local environments where they were produced, or the complex relationships between vendors and subcontractors.  Consumers will unknowingly participate with their wallet in supporting despotic states, horrifying working conditions, and menacing environmental practices that they would otherwise be repulsed by.  Market participants can also act in ways that appear rational but on larger scales can be completely irrational.  For instance, one person driving their car is totally rational but when everyone does it, it leads to pollution, congestion, physical and social health problems, and the destruction of the environment.  The “consumer knows best” is a complete myth and only lead to irrational collectivism.

The organization of our collective resources is the largest factor shaping our shared reality, whether it is organized by free markets or by defining a shared Commons.  The difference between the two is compelling.  Free markets are based on irrational actors, none of which have any clue how they are shaping society.  Market capitalism leads to structural isolation where communities become fragmented and individuals become alienated.  In this environment, the commons are turned into valueless utility units but value “cannot simply be collapsed into a single scale of commensurable, tradeable value – i.e., price – and it occurs through processes that are too subtle, qualitative and long-term for the market’s mandarins to measure.”[xxi]  On the other hand, the Commons are deliberate, informed, and decisively designed and managed to flexibly maximize the attainment of the intentional goals of the members.  The result of an intentional Commons is whatever we want it to be.


[i] One common objection with the term “inherited the earth,” is the assumption that to inherit something, implies a previous owner.  There is also Proudhon’s term “property is theft” which is sometimes criticized on the same ground.  However, the term has a deeper insight and should be understood on the grounds that property can be “put aside” or misused.  For further clarification, see Shawn Wilbur’s discussion on the issue:

[ii]   Kratzwalk, B. (2012). Rethinking the social welfare state in light of the commons. In D. Bollier & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 55). Amherst: Levellers Press.

[iii]  Bennholdt-Thomsen, V. (2012). Subsistence: Perspective for a society based on commons. In D. Bollier & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 84). Amherst: Levellers Press.

[iv]  McKay, I. (2012). An anarchist faq: Faq volume 2. (1st ed., p. 966). Oakland: AK Press.

 [v]  Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons, the evolution of institutions for collective action. (p. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Pr.

 [vi]  Linebaugh, P. (2012). Enclosure from the bottom up. In P. Linebaugh & P. Linebaugh (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond: A World Beyond Market & Commons (1st ed., p. 114). Amherst: Levellers Press.

 [vii]  Ibid., pp. 30.

 [viii]  Proudhon, P. (2008). What is property?: An inquiry into the principle of right and of government (forgotten books). (p. 149). Central: Forgotten Books.

 [ix] Ibid., pp. 149.

[x] Helfrich, S. (2012). Common goods don. In S. Helfrich & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 61). Amherst: Levellers Press.

 [xi]  Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons, the evolution of institutions for collective action. (p. 94). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Pr.

 [xii]  Ibid., pp. 95.

[xiii] Ibid., pp. 101 – 102.

 [xiv]  Quilligan, J. B. (2012). Why distinguish common goods from public goods? In J. B. Quilligan & J. B. Quilligan (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 78). Amherst: Levellers Press.

[xv] There are some resources that can only be found or produced in certain regions such as copper, certain crops, and other potentially vital resources.  In this case, there are reasons to move resources from far off places but the goal is to be as local as possible.

[xvi] Hopkins, R. (2012). Resilience thinking. In D. Bollier & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 22). Amherst: Levellers Press.

[xvii] Greco, Jr., T. H. (2112). Reclaiming the credit commons: Towards a butterfly society. In D. Bollier & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. 232). Amherst: Levellers Press.

[xviii] Ibid., pp. 232.

[xix] Verzola, R. (June, 2010). Building an economic theory of scarcity and abundance . Retrieved from Roberto_Economic theory of scarcity and abundance EN.pdf

[xx]  Davey, B., Helfrich, S., Hoeschele, W., & Verzola, R. (2010, November). The abundance of the commons?. , Berlin.

[xxi]  Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (2012). Introduction: The commons as a transformative vision. In D. Bollier & S. Helfrich (Eds.), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State (1st ed., p. xvii). Amherst: Levellers Press.

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