Fuzziness about the commons paradigm
A first step in the process towards interdisciplinary research on the commons is cleaning up the terminological fuzziness about them. For historians like Susan Jane Buck Cox and Tine De Moor, and for political economists like Elinor Oström, the commons are well defined as a historical phenomenon or as “Common Pool Resources” and “Institutions of Collective Action”. In many other disciplines the term is used for the air, the seas etc. that are in principle collective property to all creatures living on earth.
Large-scale open access resources such as oceans, the air we are breathing, are, also referred to as “global commons”. This is confusing of course, because what is lacking to the “global commons” is institutionalisation and self-governance, qualities the initial historical commons clearly had and that were analysed in the common pool resources by Elinor Oström.
In the historical sense commons refer to land that ‘was used by several people or households during a certain period, in distinction to land that was used by only one person or household throughout the whole year’. A particular confusion arises because of the fact that some of the (land) commons were not necessarily managed by a limited group of people but that quite a lot were managed by the local village. (Tine De Moor, 2011, p. 4)
Some commons were only accessible to and governed by a distinct and limited group of people, while others were accessible to all the inhabitants of a given village. After the French Revolution, the New Regime established laws in order to abolish the commons. In Belgium for instance the law of 1847, turned all common land, that had not been sold, into land of the local governments (Op. Cit., p. 4).
That way the common land became public property accessible to the general public. So the first confusion rises when ignoring the original rights of the commoners and considering the historical commons as public property. Our contemporary view on property further obscures our view: private versus public property, and nothing in between. No witnesses were left in the 19th century:
“The common use of land was put under severe stress from governments and political circles from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. By the middle of the nineteenth century the larger part of the commons in Western Europe had already been privatised.” (Op. Cit., p. 5)
At the time, after the abolishment of the commons, in England generally known as the enclosure of the commons, writers like Malthus and Loyd George warned for the over-exploitation of the remaining public lands. Karl Marx on the other hand denounced the pillage of the common lands because it drove the free farmers, whose livelihood depended on the common soils, into poverty. As to Marx the abolishment of the commons served next to the deprivation of the colonies as initial capital of industrial capitalism. Marx wrote:
“The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people.”
“ As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing” made by the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan.
She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore — 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung on the sea-shore tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.
But the brave Gaels must expiate yet more bitterly their idolatry, romantic and of the mountains, for the “great men” of the clan. The smell of their fish rose to the noses of the great men. They scented some profit in it, and let the sea-shore to the great fishmongers of London. For the second time the Gaels were hunted out.” (Karl Marx, 1999, first published 1867).
Additionally the robbing of the free farmers created as to Marx a vast army of cheap labour, since the farmers slavishly had to accept the paid work that was offered in the new factories.
The confusion about the term commons was made complete in 1968 by the biologist Garret Hardin, who had read Loyd George but not Karl Marx. Tine De Moor states:
“The “common” Hardin described was land whereupon no property rights rested, thus making it very easy for everyone to overuse it. In using the term ‘commons’ Hardin hence made a connection between the ‘old’, historical concept of commons and the contemporary discussion on common goods, in particular in relationship with population pressure. However, he went a bridge too far with his metaphor, as he presents the historical example of a common as an open access good. He asks the reader to picture ‘a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons’ (Hardin 1968, 1244)” (Op. Cit., p. 5)
However the historical common was not open at all, the right of common was a right granted to specific persons for well defined use (Susan Jane Buck Cox,1985, p.53-55). De Moor complaints:
“Hardin used the land as a metaphor for natural resources in general and later on this metaphor was extended by others to other natural resources, in particular those with clear open access characteristics. The term “common” hereafter became linked to resources without any form of governance, that were essentially open access.” (Op. cit., p. 6)
Collective Choice versus Rational Choice Theory
Gerrit Hardin was clearly inspired by the rational choice theory of Hobbes claiming that people always act in their self-interest maximising personal advantage, making collaboration impossible. Since every farmer would try to maximise his own profit this would as to Hardin lead to over-use of the common fields and so end in a tragedy.
Hardin’s metaphor, “the tragedy of the commons” (1968), was a continuation of “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population” by William Forster Lloyd (1833). But Lloyd’s interpretation of the demise of the commons in Europe, blaming the self-interest of the free farmers and their consequent overexploitation of the common grounds, is a historical falsification to whitewash the enclosure of the commons, expropriating the free farmers and steeling their means of subsistence. This pillage of the commons still continues today as to Massismo Di Angelis:
“What the Marxist literature failed to understand is that primitive accumulation is a continuous process of capitalist development that is also necessary for the preservation of advanced forms of capitalism for two reasons. Firstly, because capital seeks boundless expansion, and therefore always needs new spheres and dimensions of life to turn into commodities. Secondly, because social conflict is at the heart of capitalist processes—this means that people do reconstitute commons anew, and they do it all the time. These commons help to re-weave the social fabric threatened by previous phases of deep commodification and at the same time provide potential new ground for the next phase of enclosures.” (quoted in An Architektur, 2010)
In the eighties of the 20th century Gardin’s metaphor was disproved by the research of the economist Carlisle Ford Runge, the historian Susan Jane Buck Cox and by the interdisciplinary study of Elinor Oström and her co-workers (Runge, 1981; Cox, 1985; Ostrom, 1990).
Some quotations from Susan Jane Buck Cox are enlightening:
“The earliest records for communal farming regulations are the manor court rolls of the mid-thirteenth century. The earliest record for a village meeting is the fourteenth century.
Such agreements among the neighbours are recorded in the village by-laws. These by-laws “emphasize the degree to which…agricultural practice was directed and controlled by an assembly of cultivators, the manorial court, who coordinated and regulated the season-by-season activities of the whole community.
There was, however, an extraordinary diversity of by-laws among the various regions of England. In one Lincolnshire fenland village, for example, “strangers coming into the town but having no land could enjoy free common for their cattle for one year. After that they had to abide by the rules governing all other inhabitants. These were generous provisions that reflected the abundance of grazing.” In contrast, in 1440, the village of Launton decreed that “any tenant who has a parcel of meadow in East Brokemede shall not mow there now or ever until his neighbours are agreed under pain of 3s. 4d.,” a clear reflection of the need to conserve and to regulate. What is important to note here is the detail with which the open fields were regulated.
The commons were carefully and painstakingly regulated, and those instances in which the common deteriorated were most often due to lawbreaking and to oppression of the poorer tenant rather than to egoistic abuse of a common resource.“(Susan Buck Cox, 1985, p. 55-56)
The rationality of individual economic decisions, as stated by the Hobessian metaphor “man is a wolf to his fellow man”, is also refuted by behavioural scientists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafirin and by the evolutionary biologist Frans de Waal (Kahneman, 2011; Mullainathan, 2013; de Waal 2008).
The concept of altruistic punishment in microeconomics on the other hand, independently demonstrated by experiments of Ernst Fehr and Robert Boyd points to the possibility of strong reciprocity in human behaviour (Fehr, 2002; Fehr, 2008; Boyd, 2003; Henrich, 2010). Bo Rothstein confirms:
“The results from laboratory-, fieldwork-, and survey-based research that speak against man as a utility-maximizing rational agent are by now overwhelming. Self-interest is for sure an important ingredient when people decide how to act, but it is far from as dominating as has been portrayed in neoclassic economics. Moreover, it would be impossible to solve the problem of corruption if individual utility-maximizing self-interest were the only game in town. The reason is that such individuals would always fall for the temptation to “free-ride”.” (Bo Rothstein, 2009)
Hardin’s distorted view was bound to leave no other solution for so-called “the tragedy of the commons” than their privatisation or management by government authorities, ignoring the possibility of collective action and cooperation by the local stakeholders.
Elinor Oström showed that many local governed common pool resources performed remarkably better then government managed systems or private owned systems (Elinor Oström, 2008; Elinor Oström, 2009). Also when considering the commons we must refine our concept of property. Property rights must be considered as a bundle of different rights. As to Elinor Oström:
“The meta-analysis of existing field cases helped to identify five property rights that individuals using a common-pool resource might cumulatively have: (1) Access – the right to enter a specified property, (2) Withdrawal – the right to harvest specific products from a resource, (3) Management – the right to transform the resource and regulate internal use patterns, (4) Exclusion – the right to decide who will have access, withdrawal, or management rights, and (5) Alienation – the right to lease or sell any of the other four rights. ” (Elinor Oström, 2009, p. 418-419 )
The commoners had access to the first four of this bundle but seldom had full property rights.
The worldwide spread and importance of the commons still today should not be underestimated. Liz Alden Wily gives us some numbers of their presence in the South:
“In area, commons represent an immense resource of up to 8.54 billion hectares, or 65% of the global land area. The largest area of commons falls within sub-Saharan Africa, with 1.78 billion hectares. However, this yields a per rural capita land area of only three hectares, much less than is available to rural people in Oceania and Latin America (respectively 78 hectares and 19.4 hectares per rural capita.” (Liz Alden Wily, 2011)
But not only in the past and in the South, also in contemporary Western societies commons and their collective action institutions persist. What’s more, they are on the rise again, but also the enclosures of the commons has become more ardent and widespread (Hervé Le Crosnier, 2012; Mark Andrejevic, 2007).
Today there are three important environmental differences with the historical commons: one is the huge availability of knowledge making learning easier and creating better conditions to anticipate overexploitation; another difference is the possibility to use modern technology adapted to the resources. The huge possibilities of internet to let information flow is one of these technologies.
And third new forms of commons arose in the industrial age, and still arise in the Western post-industrial society. Production of goods and services, and their distribution has given birth to all new kind of commons where resources are not only shared and sustained but also created: workers cooperatives, agriculture cooperatives, consumers cooperatives, social cooperatives… having specific rules adapted to their specific goals, environment and situations. Summarizing: production and labour plays the largest part in these cooperatives.
From Common Lands to Collective Action Institutions
There is little doubt that common pastures date from the pre-historical age. Traces of seasonal pastures for transhumance of herds are found worldwide (Roger Blench, 2001, p. 16-18). Thus pointing to the tribal origin of “common lands” is tempting. In most dissertations about land laws common lands and common property are then enacted as relics of primitive society, that disappeared once civilisation choose to establish private property of land (Lynda L Butler, 1982, p. 840-841). For example, according to Pollock, in “Te Land Laws” of 1896:
“…the common lands concept originated long before the feudal system. The rights to open and common lands were relics of the rights which belonged to the members of a township or agricultural community in the pre-Norman, i.e. Germanic law era, when the concept of private individual ownership of land hardly existed, and communal ownership, or at least communal right to use land, was the rule.” (quoted by Julian C. Juergensmeyer and James B. Wadley, 1974, p. 362-364)
Though this solely tribal origin is rejected by Tine De Moor when she uncovers not only a revival but a multiplication of commons, not at all based on kinship relations, emerging in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages between 1000 and 1300 (Tine De Moor, 2008, p. 184-191). What is more, she detects the same governance principles, as formalised by Elinor Oström for the governance of common pool resources (Elinor Ostrom, 2009, p. 422) in another exploding phenomenon in the same period, the installation of guilds of craftsmen in the growing cities (Tine De Moor, 2008, p. 191-202).
Both, commons and guilds sought to solve problems with population growth, resource scarcity and market deployment. Essential features of this movement, De Moor calls it ‘a silent revolution’, were collective action, institutionalisation and self-governance. Guilds had nothing to do with exploiting and sustaining common lands but with ensuring a sustainable income, though they were organised along the same lines. Both for guilds as for commons, collective action was beneficial for all participants since it offered risk avoidance and sharing, it had advantages of scale and it reduced transaction costs (Op. Cit, p. 207-210).
Collective action, institutionalisation and self-governance can also be found in the cooperatives that sought protection against capitalistic exploitation in the 19th and 20th century and in actual collaborative initiatives that arise where the welfare state fails. While the motors and conditions for collective action today may differ, the reasons why they emerge and the dynamics of their survival can be translated as the perception of a win-win situation, a sustained choice for collective instead of individual action and sustainable group dynamics.
What factors favour or obstruct the needed human capacities for collective action and sustainable dynamic organisation will be our primary focus when comparing them to the so-called “digital commons”.
The essence as to Tine De Moor is:
“that institutionalisation in combination with self-governance makes all the difference when we’re trying to study different types of commons.”
“…institutionalisation does not mean necessarily privatisation or collectivisation. Historical and present-day examples show that in between these two forms of resource government there is a whole spectrum of institutional arrangements that can lead to efficient resource management.” (Tine De Moor, 2011, p. 14)
When starting to analyse common pool resources Elinor expanded the classical twofold economical division of goods of Samuelson in private goods (excludable and rivalrous) and public goods (nonexcludable and nonrivalrous). She doubled the categories by replacing the term “rivalry of consumption” with “subtractability of use”. She conceptualized subtractability of use and excludability to vary from low to high rather than characterizing them as either present or absent. That way she could add common pool resources that shares the attribute of subtractability with private goods and difficulty of exclusion with public goods (Elinor Ostrom, 1990, p.30-32; Elinor Ostrom, 2009, p. 412).
“The term “common-pool resource” refers to a natural or man-made source system that is suficently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaning benefits from its use.” (Elinor Ostrom, 1990, p.30)
One may not make the mistake to think that qualities like subtractibility and excludability are qualities that are embedded in a good. Property rights and appropriation regimes are not “naturally linked”,they are socially constructed and that construction is not static. The common lands were CPR’s before the “enclosure of the commons”, they became private owned or public land after the enclosure. Tine De Moor notices:
“The classic framework thus insufficiently acknowledges the possibility that first of all goods may change because of e.g. technological input, thus that they might become more or less substractable and/or excludable. Secondly, it ignores the existence of goods “on the edge” between two types of goods.”
“…air pollution has made the public – and the scientists alike – aware that the air itself might be more substractible than was usually thought of. In that sense “air” should be moving from the left-hand side, towards the side of high substractability. On top of that, new techniques – practical and legal – are being found to “enclose” air, for example in the form of tradable emission rights. In this sense air can as a good be moved towards the bottom of the figure where goods with high excludability can be found. Air, or the right to use (read: “pollute”) that air can more easily be captured, at least in theory. This makes it more susceptible to appropriation.The combination of high subtractability and high excludability thus makes of air increasingly a private good. A good like “air” that is in some works described as a common or also a “commons” can thus, with the necessary technical and practical appropriation tools and methods, be turned into a good subject to a private property arrangement. ” (Tine De Moor, 2011, p. 10-11)
A source like “knowledge” is non subractable and non excludable once it is spread, but people can be excluded from it anyway by copyright law for instance. We have always to look at the bigger picture. Elinor Ostrom makes a clear distinction between the resource as system and the goods, she calls resource units, that can be harvested which are not subject to joint use:
“The fish harvested by one boat, are not there for someone else. The water spread on one farmer’s field cannot be spread on someone else’s fields. Thus the resource units are not jointly used, but the resource system is subject to joint use. Once multiple appropriators rely on a given resource system, improvements to the system are simultaneously available to all appropriators” (Elinor Ostrom, 1990, p. 31)
The resource system is subject to an institution of collective action. The bulk of work done by Ostrom was analysing these institutions.
So “the commons” is not about common goods or products but about the people governing, controlling, enjoying and employing a resource system commonly. It’s about having guarantees for survival and a sustainable living and protection against free-riding and exploitation. In the capitalist system, a capitalist controlling the means of production is a free-rider by excellence, adding nothing but deciding sovereign on the distribution of the output, of course retaining the biggest part for himself. The result of more then 200 years capitalist free-riding finally are worldwide pollution of the environment, a noxious climate change making things worse year by year and a more than ever growing inequality (Branko Milanovic, 2012; OECD, 2011).
Collective action institutions thrive on participation in the construction of community defined rules, monitoring their application and adapting them if necessary. Fairness and trust are the basic principles that bind the commoners together. In the next chapter we will analyse this features in depth.
Dodgy comparison or real resemblance
The persuasiveness of the commons paradigm is partly based on their ancient survival, persistence and constant re-emergence. The recent buzz about ‘digital commons’ on the other hand often leaves crucial aspects of the commons as a social governance system and collective action institution in the dark. “Read the first lines of the definition in the Wikipedia, pick some elements out of this complex phenomenon, transplant them into a random new practice and proclaim that the new commons have arrived.” It’s like a magical trick, turning water into wine.
The qualification of “community-defined rules” is often ephemeral, since these rules are often only embedded in software and no deliberation of the human commoners at all took place in establishing them. So it is rather software-governance instead of self governance we are talking about. Hierarchy is often hidden and the resemblance with the real historical commons is mostly only superficial.
In ‘sustainable’ historical commons, membership and access to the common resource was well defined. It was never open. People met face to face and lived in the same village. Participation in the process of making and modifying rules that governed the resources was guaranteed. Elinor Oström calls them “long-enduring, self-organised and self-governed CPRs” (Elinor Ostrom, 1990, p. 58-102; Elinor Oström, 2009, p. 421-422). How does for instance the ‘open source movement’  fit in this picture? Contrary to the guilds it does not offer a sustainable income for its producers and free-riding is offered on a golden plate.
This circumstances of the historical commons entailed high quality communication, knowing the intentions and contexts of their peers. Monitoring the activities of the commoners by the commoners was easy and direct. Participation was easily claimed and organised. Reasonable and gradual sanctions could be imposed when free-loading and fraud emerged. Conflicts could be resolved with low costs. Activities were adapted to the qualities and context of the resource because their consequences were apparent and discernible (Elinor Ostrom, 1990, p. 90). This way win win situations were easily to perceive and to deduct. Trust was pre-existant or at least had a base in real life situations.
Taken together this is a good base for experiential learning. A process that might have taken years, but that was anyway successful since we find numerous witnesses of “Long-Surviving Resource Institutions” in history. On the other hand, Internet peer to peer projects, though rather benefit-driven than profit-driven are terrible vulnerable for subtle but effective forms of manipulation, hopeless conflicts, free-riding, private exploitation and take-over in the end.
In the following chapter I will give a more detailed picture of the motives and dynamics of the real commons. I have chosen to study the conditions, context and dynamics of the original commons in the second chapter, not their shadows. This study might be helpful to separate the wheat from the chaff when comparing them with those of the so-called “digital commons”.
Those who consider the internet as digital commons, hide the fact that the infra-structure of Internet is for 99% the private property of big for profit telecommunication companies like AT&T, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Vodafone, Telenet etc.
Once paid for access the internet might be one of the purest forms of publicly accessible knowledge there is, but to access valuable scientific knowledge one often needs a password or one has to pay. 15$ to 35$ per article is a very usable.
After the revelations of Edward Snowden about the NSA and other intelligence agencies spying on the internet, the presumed “digital commons” is approaching step by step Bentham’s Panopticon. With the term “Institution disciplinaire” Michel Foucault pointed to a diversity of disciplinary institutions like prisons, asylums, barracks, hospitals, factories, schools and so defining a panoptic and carceral society resembling George Orwell’s 1984. Though there are plenty other institutions that escape to disciplinary control, Foucault’s warning for the ubiquitousness of power is to be taken serious. That is why self-governance is a crucial quality of the commons which is mostly failing in the presumed “digital commons”.
The origin of this confusion is multiple. One is ,the wrongly mixing of “global commons” with “the commons”. Next to the oceans and the air, the availability of internet is global but it is neither common property neither accessible to everybody. The penetration of Internet in 2014 in Africa was only 26,5%, in Asia 34,7%, In Europe 70,5%, in the Middle East 48,3%, in North America 87,7%, in Latin America 52,3% and in Ociania 72,9%. Worldwide there is only a penetration of 42,3% (Internet Usage Statistics)
The second source of confusion can be found in mixing computer networks with communities. From “virtual communities” to “virtual commons” and “digital commons” is a small step as to the mainstream discourse. The term “virtual communities” was introduced by Howard Rheingold in 1993 when he published a book with the same name. It was further popularised by computer magazines like Wired, C|Net and Slashdot and in the end adopted and vulgarised by the media. This metaphor suggests that computer networks are populated with real communities. Nevertheless there is a strong depersonalising tendency in electronic communication. As soon as in 1984 Sara Kiesler, Jane Siegel, and Timothy W. McGuire warned for depersonalisation using computer mediated communication:
“Sometimes . . . users lose sight of the fact that they are really addressing other people, not the computer.” (Sara Kiesler et al., 1984, p. 1125-1126)
As we will show in the following chapters the Internet rather scatters real communities in stead of building them. Some features like shallow communication and anonymity do not favour community building at all. Next to the poor communication quality on the internet it is clear by now that power-law is omnipresent on the world wide web. Power law is a property of a network characterised of few very dominant nodes and a queue of many “minor” nodes regardless of the network scale (Réka, Hawoong, & Barabási, 1999; Mathew Hindman, 2009). Wikipedia, for example, has around 80,000 active contributors against a monthly user base (based on Wikimedia Report Card January 2015) of around 450 million, meaning that the ratio of highly active to passive is a lot less than 1%.
The presence of power laws in collective action in the networked public sphere is a hindrance for self-governance.
What about the unravelling of the social fabric?
Many authors point to the fraying social fabric in societies all over the world (Castells, 1997; Cars et al., 1998; Forrest, Ray and Ade Kearns, 2001; Deborah Potts, 2009). The problem of building trust and sustainable group cohesion is completely ignored in the mythology of ‘digital commons’. Group cohesion in the historical commons contained several components: social relations based on a geographical togetherness, common task relations based on common interests, a perceived fair deal and emotional relations grown in face to face contacts living in small communities. How does these components arise online between people not knowing each others intentions, not seeing or hearing each other, living in completely different contexts and most of the time even not knowing if the other are real or imaginary?
The so-called share-economy using internet is not about sharing, but about earning money. The new prosumers of Airbnb, Uber, Snappcar… are all turned into entrepreneurs, seeking profit. At the same time they are awful scared for a bad reputation. A small discomfort for an individual client, consumer can be used to blackmail the host, producer. The relation between producer and consumer is built on suspicion and distrust, whatever the peer to peer gurus may claim. These so-called sharing projects are re-introducing Hobbes “homo economicus” through the backdoor (Kasper Thomas, 2014) . They have nothing in common with the commons.
In the slipstream of the buzz about Internet commons, profit-driven corporations hijack the metaphor of the commons promoting any interactive online project as an advancement of community life hiding their noxiousness behind the hocus pocus of virtual commons, digital commons or virtual communities.
It must be clear that the governance of the commons is a non-hierarchical collective action system of a well-defined group treating a well defined and concrete issue. There are enough examples in history to reject all round hierarchical collective action systems. But as non-hierarchical systems commons were en are more then ever surrounded by hierarchical systems. Making abstraction of the concrete conditions and constraints and generalising the way they are governed must be avoided at all cost.
 For clarity’s sake, ‘Open Source Software’ is a different concept than the ‘Free Sofware’ movement and GNU licenced software as defined by Richard Stallman.
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