Chapter 19: Commoning

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This chapter explores the features of sustainable commons and the extent of commons today. It describes the practice of commoning as a possible response to the ecological crisis.

By definition colonial settlers were non-indigenous people. They were displaced and dislocated people already because of enclosure and warfare in Europe in the centuries leading up to the European invasion of the rest of the world.

In 1649, at the time of the English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley wrote: “England is not a free people until the poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons”. But by the times Winstanley wrote he was advocating an attempt to reclaim land that for many of his contemporaries had already been lost for several generations.

17th century drawing of forcible land enclosure and expulsion

“Improvement” – the justifying mantra

The history of enclosure took place over many centuries and, at some points in this process, it slowed down and was even put into reverse. For example, during the Tudor era, there was great fear of the destabilising consequences for society as people lost their jobs and homes and became vagabonds so that Acts of Parliament were passed against enclosure. In this period, large landowners took arable land for their sheep for the developing wool trade. This was very lucrative for the noble thieves but it is scarcely possible to argue that the transformation of arable land to sheep pasture was an “improvement”.

In later centuries “improvement” became the justifying mantra in England. The rise of the towns created a demand for arable food products while the introduction of cotton reduced the demand for wool and hence for sheep grazing. Other drivers were the trend of aristocratic landowners to take over forests and wooded areas for their parklands.

The enclosure process accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries with the landowning class using their control of the state to push through enclosure by act of parliament and by force.
As always, the argument was that enclosure would enable the improvement of the land. It is exactly the same today when corporations in so called “developing countries” grab land with the claim that they can use it better.

But claims of improvement as a justification for land theft have always been questionable. For example, we should ask whether “improvement” might have subsequently taken place anyway, under common ownership regimes, or whether improvement under common ownership might have evolved in another direction, or whether the benefits of the improvement justified the costs in human misery.
According to Simon Fairlie:

… a number of historians have shown that innovation was occurring throughout the preceding centuries, and that it was by no means impossible, or even unusual, for four course rotations, and new crops to be introduced into the open field system. In Hunmanby in Yorkshire a six year system with a two year ley was introduced. At Barrowby, Lincs, in 1697 the commoners agreed to pool their common pastures and their open fields, both of which had become tired, and manage them on a twelve year cycle of four years arable and eight years ley. Of course it might well take longer for a state-of-the-art farmer to persuade a majority of members of a common field system to switch over to experimental techniques, than it would to strike out on his own. One can understand an individual’s frustration, but from the community’s point of view, why the hurry? Overhasty introduction of technical improvements often leads to social disruption. In any case, if we compare the very minimal agricultural extension services provided for the improvement of open field agriculture to the loud voices in favour of enclosure, it is hard not to conclude that “improvement” served partly as a Trojan horse for those whose main interest was consolidation and engrossment of land (Fairlie, 2009)

What is beyond doubt was that this was “theft” on a grand scale, sanctioned by the state. What is also clear is that the early economists were among the loudest in their applause and among the most vicious when advocating the destruction of the rights of poor people. Thus, many contemporaries were aware that a huge injustice was being perpetrated. In the face of this onslaught, people not only resisted but counter-posed alternative ideas of their own.

In 1775, inspired by a grass roots campaign to stop enclosure of Newcastle Town Moor, a self-taught radical called Thomas Spence published his penny pamphlet Property in Land Every One’s Right. It was re-published as The Real Rights of Man and was being distributed over a hundred years later. In it he proposed the establishment of Parish Land Trusts and a programme that included:

The end of aristocracy and landlords; all land should be publicly owned by “democratic parishes”, which should be largely self-governing; rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners; universal suffrage (including female suffrage) at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate; a “social guarantee” extended to provide income for those unable to work; and the “rights of infants” to be free from abuse and poverty. (Dickinson (Ed), 1982)

It was clear that many people were uneasy about the misery that enclosure was causing, even if they were not always as radical as Spence. One solution proposed was to give the poor their own smallholdings, in other words allotments. Mainstream economists were having none of that. However…

In the face of such a strong case for the provision of smallholdings, it took a political economist to come up with reasons for not providing them. Burke, Bentham and a host of lesser names, all of them fresh from reading Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, advised Pitt and subsequent prime ministers that there was no way in which the government could help the poor, or anybody else, except by increasing the nation’s capital (or as we now say, its GDP). No kind of intervention on behalf of the landless poor should be allowed to disturb the “invisible hand” of economic self- interest — even though the hand that had made them landless in the first place was by no means invisible, and was more like an iron fist. At the turn of the century, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, waded in with his argument that helping the poor was a waste of time since it only served to increase the birth rate — a view which was lapped up by those Christians who had all along secretly believed that the rich should inherit the earth. (Fairlie, 2009)

The same thinking continued right into the second half of the 20th century. On 13th December 1968 Garrett Hardin, an academic working in the Malthusian paradigm, published an article in the journal Science. His article had a very catchy title which might partly explain why it was subsequently cited so much. The theme explored was the unfitness of commoners to manage commons. “The Tragedy of the Commons” expressed the case for private property rights using ideas straight out of neoclassical economic textbooks. Hardin illustrated his ideas with the example of a commons on which herdsmen graze their stock:

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. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of – 1.

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. (Hardin, 1993, pp. 131-132)

According to historian Peter Linebaugh, the reference to a rational herdsman is a fantasy because in history the commons is always governed. Thus, “the pinder, the Hayward, or some other officer elected by the commoners will impound the cow, or will fine this greedy shepherd who puts more than his share onto the commons.” (Linebaugh, 2013, p. 117)

As a matter of fact, as he explained in his essay, Hardin borrowed his argument from an Oxford Professor of Political Economy who was a Malthusian, William Forster Lloyd, in one of his Two Lectures on the Checks to Population from 1832.

Like Malthus, Lloyd was opposed to “having all things in common”. Linebaugh quotes Lloyd:

“(a) state of perfect equality by its effect in lowering the standard of desire and almost reducing it to the satisfaction of the natural necessities would bring back society to ignorance and barbarism.” (Linebaugh, 2013, p.118)

Hardin later admitted that he had been mistaken and had been describing unmanaged ‘open access regimes’. However, challenging errors can lead to some useful work. Another academic, Elinor Ostrom, conducted her own research on the commons, together with her husband, Victor. Over many years, she helped develop a network of academics to create a “knowledge commons” about the commons. (Wikipedia is an example of a “knowledge commons” defined as, people voluntarily donating their time and effort to develop a free knowledge resource).

Research by Ostrom and her network of collaborators showed that commons were widespread. Many had survived as successful management regimes for centuries. They were far from being tragic – they were actually a model for sustainability, for protecting the interests of future generations and not degrading natural environments.

Features of sustainable commons

The particular focus of the research of Ostrom and her collaborators was to find out what made for a long lasting commons. What was it that enabled them to survive? She came up with this list:

1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external unentitled parties);
2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources are adapted to local
3. Collective-choice arrangements allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-
making process;
4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
5. There is a scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution are cheap and of easy access;
7. The self-determination of the community is recognized by higher-level authorities;
8. In the case of larger common-pool resources: organization in the form of multiple layers of
nested enterprises, with small local Common Pool Resources at the base level. (Ostrom, 1990, pp. 90-91)

Using these principles many commons have survived for centuries. For instance, drawing on the research of Robert McC. Netting, Ostrom cited the case of Swiss mountain farmers in the village of Toerbel. They farm private plots for vegetables and other crops in the valleys but choose to hold upper Alpine pasture as a commons resource. The costs of maintenance and management arrangements for upper pastures are shared for summer grazing. “Cow rights” are assigned and no more cows than a farmer can provide hay for overwintering in the valley are allowed during summer grazing on the common pasture. This is to prevent overgrazing. The regulations to this effect dated back to 1517. Cheese from the whole herd is then divided up according to the number of each farmer’s cows in the herd. (Ostrom, 1990, p.61-62)

Not all commons are land based. There are examples of centuries old community managed irrigation systems that exist in Valencia in Spain that go back even further than the Toerbel arrangements.
For at least 550 years, and probably close to 1,000 years, farmers have continued to meet with others sharing the same canals for the purpose of specifying and revising the rules that they use, selecting officials, and determining fines and assessments. (Ostrom, 1990, p. 69)

What are the potential tensions within irrigation commons that might break them up? Irrigation system maintenance costs labour and/or money so where several farmers are taking water there might be a temptation to cheat by taking more water, or water at the wrong times, as well as not contributing to the upkeep of the system. Those downstream (“tailenders”) would be the losers. Their failure to get water at the time they need it could disincentivise helping upstream farmers (“headenders”) maintain a whole system.

Inherent tensions of these sorts raise the question whether “government” and its agencies could do
a better job by taking over the provision and management of common pool resources. It has proved possible to research this because information can be found for comparable government managed schemes. A study by Ostrom and Gardner looked into the record with 86 farmer managed irrigation systems (FMIS) and 26 agency managed irrigation systems (AMIS) in Nepal. The agency managed schemes were run by agencies on behalf of the government. What the figures showed is that when farmers organised a commons irrigation system themselves they did a better job.

(Ostrom & Gardner, coping with assymetries in the commons. Self Governing irrigation systems can work, 1993)

For a commons to work it must be based on a participative structure, a culture of interdependence,
a deep knowledge of the state of the “resource” being governed and set of ethical principles based on fairness between participating parties – it requires a practice of “commoning” among those involved. What we might call an “ethics of environmental conservation” is embedded in relationships with a close community and neighbours, people who one would see every day, where families have relationships generation after generation. That’s why two contemporary advocates for the commons, Silke Helferich and David Bollier write that “It is more accurate to talk about ‘commoning’ or ‘making the commons’ than ‘the commons’ as a thing. Commons don’t just fall from the sky. They aren’t simply material or intangible collective resources, but processes of shared stewardship about things that a community (a network or all of humanity) possesses and manages in common, or should do so” (Helfrich and Bollier 2014)

This is a description of sustainability with a proven track record. But economic history over the last few centuries has seen a relentless drive to break up these kind of arrangements through processes of “enclosure” in order to develop capitalist land and labour markets.

The extent of commons today

Because they are still widespread commons are of more than historical interest. Given the positive record of many commons the continuance of the process of enclosure is just as controversial as it always has been. The poorest people of the world still largely make their living on and with common lands – Liz Alden Wiley has attempted to calculate the amount of common land still existing – lands which are now under intense global commercial pressure. Her estimates are that the rural per capita availability of people’s commons per global region are: for the Middle East/north Africa 1.567 hectares; for Sub Saharan Africa 2.695 ha; for Central America/Caribbean 1.549 ha; for South America 13.161 ha; Asia 0.45 ha; North America 11.287 ha; Europe 6.582 ha and Oceania (incl. Australia) 69.75 ha. (Wily, 2011, p. 26).

For example, in sub-Saharan Africa 75% of the land area is held by communities under customary law, almost all as collectively held forest and rangeland, used to hunt, gather or graze animals on. In most of Africa, private title covers only on average between 2 and 10% of the land. However, the colonial legacy led to the rest of the land being considered “without owner”, when in fact these vast areas were and are held by communities under common ownership systems. By describing this land as “without owner”, colonial powers justified expropriating it. A situation that has been maintained by many African states after independence. (Wily, The Law is to blame. Taking a Hard Look at the Vulnerable Status of Customary Land Rights in Africa, 2011)

What happened earlier in England, during the Highland clearances and after Cromwell in Ireland,
was driven by mercantilist and then industrial backed colonialism globally. It continues. As we have already seen in other chapters, the pressure to expropriate the collective owners has come about because of the rise of commercial society with its claim that it can improve these lands. This has been coupled with the economist’s theology for market society with its assumption of moral superiority because of its technological prowess embodied in fossil fuel powered machines and devices. Technical “progress” brings about increased production. As a result, there is less scarcity and it is taken as self-evident that this means was improvement and progress even though it is based on displacement, dislocation, ecological degradation and land theft. The owners and beneficiaries of the technologies are strengthened in their neo-Darwinian assumptions that they have triumphed because they are the strongest and fittest – and are destined to call the shots.
commons, the ecological crisis and the future

As we reach the limits to economic growth, the economic system runs up against the host ecological system. The limits to economic growth are then expressed, in the reducing language of economics,
as shortages of “natural capital” – much of which is still under collective and common ownership. Grabbing common lands is described as a way of developing the “green economy”; as a way of responding to the ecological crisis when, in fact, it is a way of intensifying it. For centuries, communities have preserved fragile ecological systems, forests, landscapes and waterscapes and now multinational corporations claim that these lands cultivated to produce crops for bio-fuels represent an alternative green future. People who have managed landscapes sustainably find that huge damns are to flood their land in the interests of what is claimed as “green energy” (even though the flooding will be likely to produce methane emissions and accelerate the climate crisis).

The people with big money and rapacious appetites adapt to changing times. As their economy degrades the ecological system “natural capital” i.e. productive and still fertile land, forests, sources of minerals, fresh water supplies, becomes scarce. At the same time, profitable places for investment are scarce and, with the banking system in crisis, there is a need for places to put the huge amounts of money that the banking system creates. The place to put this money for maximum returns is in the acquisition of the natural assets that are becoming scarce and on which they will be able to charge a “scarcity rent”. Thus, completing the expropriation of remaining commons by private interests in the name of progress, even while they are completing the destruction of communities and living systems of the planet.

You can see the mentality at work in this quote from William Buiter, the chief economist of the global banking corporation Citigroup in July 2011:

I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the
spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative based financial instruments… will follow… Water as an asset class will, in my view become eventually the single most important physical commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.
William Buiter, chief economist, Citigroup July 2011 (Lubin, 2011)

Yes indeed, Professor Buiter. And as governments frack huge areas for shale gas the demand for water will increase even more, while the amount of fresh water will decline dramatically because of the contamination created. Obviously a good investment.