The Promise of the Commons


Fall, 2002
Earth Island Journal


Browse in Commons

Words are a form of magic. They conjure thought out of the confusion of experience, and they form the lens through which we see the world. Politics is largely a contest over words – over a version of reality. Those whose words prevail, rule; and those who rule choose the words.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economics. Though couched in the trappings of science, economics is basically a word game. Define anything produced as a “good,” and the debate is over before it starts. Who wouldn’t want more “goods?” Define “growth” to mean simply an increase in monetary expenditure, and you can claim economic “progress” even if much of that expenditure results from “goods” that are not so good – the obesity and medical bills arising from junk food, for example.

Such words are tools of power. They drive thought towards predetermined ends. Where would the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal be without the term “market” to cast a devotional glow upon the most mundane commercial transaction? It would be left with just a welter of little issues to complain about – a tax matter over here, a trade or regulatory matter over there. These would be separate things, joined only by the fact of economic interest, which would be on the table for all to see.

The word “market,” by contrast, invests these little money issues with a cosmic significance. It turns the mundane acts of selling and getting into a cosmology, and greed into the engine of a divine plan. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course. The agenda is embedded in the word, which turns one facet of human experience into a summation of all existence. Within the cosmology of the market there is little room or justification for anything that is not the market. As in language, so in life. In the beginning was the word, indeed.

It was a great achievement of the environmental movement to open a crack in the cosmology. The concerns that came together in the movement existed long before the movement itself: “Resource conservation, wilderness preservation, public health reform, population control, ecology, energy conservation, anti-pollution regulation, and occupational health campaigns,” as Mark Dowie recounts them in his book, Losing Ground. But these were enclaves within the old gestalt; and most public health workers, say, did not see themselves as part of a movement that included hunters and fishing people as well.

Then Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, and the many became one. They were now aspects of the environment, a realm of reality and value that lies outside the market and that the market is not automatically entitled to claim or degrade. The word invested the smallest parts with the significance of the whole, much as the term “market” had done for business. Smog no longer was just smog; snail darters no longer were just little fish. They now were parts of larger system, in which the health of the whole was bound up with the health of the smallest parts.

For millions, the term “environment” provided a link between their intuitive concerns about the world and a larger and potentially political whole. It gave the concerns a name, and therefore a reality; and this galvanized a movement that changed the nation’s political map. Now however, the movement is stalled and on the defensive. The signal triumph of the year – the defeat of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – was a defensive victory, and rested on a slim majority in the US Senate. (See page 20.)

Given the forces arrayed against the environment, this is not surprising. It hasn’t helped that the movement has become so institutionalized and centered in Washington. But there’s a problem also with the word. The “environment” suggests something at the edges of daily experience rather than central to it. In reality, of course; nothing is more central than air, water, and the rest. But the impression lingers. It plays into the polemic that casts environmentalists as the enemies of jobs – of central life concerns. It plays also into the economist’s view that the environment is a mere “externality” to the core reality of the market.

The environmental movement emerged by addressing immediate threats to health and safety. It grew by starting to extend such concerns to voiceless populations under the rubric of “environmental justice.” Now it needs to claim more of that center – not of the political spectrum but of daily experience. It needs to align consciously with a host of issues there that do not involve the natural environment per se but which are akin to environmental issues and involve the same underlying play of forces.

The natural environment itself is part of something larger – the commons, the shared heritage of us all, for which we all serve as trustees. The commons is not the market and it is not the state. It is the space around and between, the source and context of both. It has a natural dimension, such as the oceans and atmosphere, rivers and wild places, the diversity of species, the quiet of the night. The commons has also a social dimension: language and culture, the stories and games of childhood, the street life of cities, the vast stores of human know-how and knowledge, the new informational crossroads of the World Wide Web.

The commons unites the social and the environmental, much as Carson’s Silent Spring united wilderness preservation and toxic pollution. It is a generic term for all that is subject to corporate (and governmental) trespass, expropriation, despoliation, and abuse. The concept provides the missing link between the ecosystem and the social system; between the assault on earth’s atmosphere and the assaults on the cognitive atmosphere of urban spaces; between the depletion of the ozone layer and the depletion of our peace and serenity; between the destruction of species and the destruction of languages and cultures; between the loss of rain forests and the loss of traditional games and stories of childhood. And on and on.

The commons occupies the place in the economy that women once did, and to some extent still do. It is a realm of productivity that gets little recognition or respect. It does much of society’s work and often the most important work. Which would be of greater use to most Americans: a new DVD drive for their computer, or a new neighbor who could look after their kids if they had to stay late at work? Which could they do without more readily: Coca-Cola or clean air?

The market itself cannot function without a commons. Consider the shops on a traditional Main Street. They need sidewalks to bring customers, a common language with which to transact business, a system of accounting that is similarly shared, an ambient civility and respect for law, and on and on. Functionally, the social commons is the air that commerce breathes. (And speaking of air, commerce cannot function without that either.) Even in the rarefied realms of high tech, the commons serves a central role. Innovation depends upon an intellectual commons of research and knowledge embodied in the university and public library – and more recently the World Wide Web as originally conceived.

The issue here is not the government, the commoditized services of the state. Those are important too, but they are different from the commons, which is the realm of society and nature that is distinct from both the market and the state. The commons serves also by not doing. It is the quiet in the midst of noise and din, the open and unspoiled places that provide peace and rest, the streetscape that is uncluttered by advertising, the children’s game that is uncontaminated by some media corporation’s wiles.

In a nation glutted with stuff but suffering an increasing scarcity of quiet and peace, this role as refuge from production – the capacity to produce nonproduction – is increasingly important. Yet it is something the official policy mind cannot grasp. Where the commons is producing abundance, this mind sees only a void – an absence of stuff.

Recasting history
Every movement needs a story. To claim the future we need to explain the past. The story of the commons does this. It helps explain how the nation lost the capacity to see the sources of its own wealth, and how it came to regard the destruction of its commons as the growth of its economy. It explains how the market became both center and circumference of our sense of freedom and prosperity. So doing, it challenges the dominant narrative today, which is the triumph of the market over ignorance and repression – of stuff over the supposed void.

The conventional account goes something like this. Long ago, in the Dark Ages of history, much land in England and Europe was a commons. Ordinary people had the right to farm and forage, hunt and fish, on property they did not technically own. People did eke out a living. But the system was essentially static. No one had an “incentive” to innovate or improve. Finally the British Parliament saw the light. It passed a series of “enclosure” acts – over 7,000 in all – which stripped commoners of their legal rights and banished them from the land. Land became real estate and the commoners became an urban “labor force” for the factories and mills that were sprouting up.

It was the beginning of the modern market economy, and of “progress” as conventionally conceived. It was also social engineering on a massive scale, and a massive “taking” of property rights as well. But because it was done on behalf of the rich, it has gone down in the history books as “progress” instead. To a degree it was. The dislocations were brutal, the plight of the new urban factory workers as grim as Dickens and others portrayed. (Karl Marx didn’t come from nowhere.) But there is no denying that the enclosures, combined with new technologies like the steam engine, bestirred energies of enterprise and invention that eventually improved the lot of most people.

The trouble is, the conventional economic mind froze into place around these early enclosures. Henceforth, whenever the market enclosed a commons – whenever a corporation turned something that belongs to all of us into a commodity, or else used it as a dump – the result was deemed progress by definition. Displace storytelling with a corporate entertainment industry? That’s progress. Displace Main Streets with shopping malls? More progress still. No further inquiry was required or even permitted.

It’s a case of arrested conceptual development, and it has become the master script for virtually every news story on the economy and every political debate. It is built into the reigning index of progress, the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. Every enclosure is by definition good, even if the actual results are bad – and even if the commons enclosed was more productive, and created more value, as a commons. Is McDonalds’ cooking better than the kind parents used to do for kids? Are Terminator seeds really an improvement over traditional varieties?

Don’t bother asking. Enclosure means money, and money is the only thing the economic mind knows how to see. So it can’t see that growth increasingly has become a process of cannibalization. The market literally devours the natural and social basis of its own existence. Every aspect of human experience and every inch of space – physical, social, psycho-emotional – must be enclosed and turned into something for sale. Like the beast in Dante’s Inferno, the market gets hungrier the more it is fed.

Most of us are aware of this at some level. But usually it is a vague gnawing, a nemesis without a name. The commons provides a name and thereby an understanding. It identifies not just the aggressor but also the thing aggressed upon – namely our common property, a source of wellbeing that we all share. This is a new master script, and it opens the way to a new politics that is outside the hoary Left/Right mold.

Since the commons is not the market and not the state, advocates for it are not part of either camp. They seek to enlist the state exactly the way the partisans of the market do – to establish ground rules and boundaries, and to protect property, which in this case is common property. They seek ground rules to protect the quiet, for example – not so that government can occupy that space but so that our own thoughts can. They seek to restrain the spread of WalMarts and mega-malls, not so that government can provide the alternative, but so that the social ecology of traditional Main Streets can.

If the government could re-engineer an entire society to create a market, why can’t it enact modest new ground rules to protect the commons? If it can provide a legal structure for an institution called the corporation to manage and dominate the realm of private assets, why can’t it provide legal structures for institutions to manage common assets? In his book Who Owns the Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism, Peter Barnes proposes just that, in the form of a Sky Trust to manage the atmospheric commons. Many such new structures are possible.

The goal is not to replace the market with a commons; that would be absurd. The goal, rather, is to establish an equilibrium and balance of a kind the economics texts do not recognize: an equilibrium not just between supply and demand within the market, but more importantly between the market and the commons which lies outside it. Yesterday’s answer can become today’s problem. What was once progress can become regress if extended too far.

If one looks closely, one can see the beginning of a new commons movement stirring across the land. One sees it in the anti-WalMart battles, in the fight to get advertising out of the schools, in the persistent concerns about genetic engineering and the corporate ownership of the genetic commons. One sees it too in the opposition to the sale of the names of sports arenas and other public places to corporations. Even Jim O’Brien, coach of the professional Boston Celtics, wished out loud that the city’s sports arena, the Fleet (Bank) Center, could have the name of its predecessor, the Boston Garden. (Some localities are reaping what they sow, as Houston discovered when it found itself with an Enron Field.)

In response to rider pressure, Amtrak has established “quiet cars” where no cellphones are allowed. This illustrates the desire of many Americans to draw a line and say to the forces of enclosure, “Thus far and no farther.” This is not a liberal or left-wing cause. Phyllis Schafley and Ralph Nader work together to get advertising out of school classrooms. Sports fans are not always known for their radical political views. Regarding the destruction of traditional Main Streets, Don Eberly, a prominent conservative, says “I am anti-Walmart. Economic life has to be anchored in the moral and social life of the nation.”

This is a new kind of freedom movement, a fight for freedom not just from the state but from the market as well. It recognizes that the market isn’t everything, and the beachhead of this movement is an unlikely place – high tech. Much of the outrage at Microsoft, for example, stems from the way the company has taken the underlying language of computation – the operating system – and turned it into private property in the form of Windows. It’s as though a corporation claimed ownership of the English language, so that we all had to sign a licensing agreement before speaking, and could speak only the words that the corporate owner had approved.

This has prompted a reaction in the form of an open software movement, the centerpiece of which is Linux, the operating system that was developed through a cyber-commons on the Web. Linux illustrates the fecund productivity of a commons, and its connection to genuine freedom as well. (With Linux, users are free to tinker and improve, just as we English speakers can invent our own words.) A similar drama is playing out in university research labs, where corporate funds and a patenting frenzy have turned the traditional commons of shared knowledge into a petri dish of secrecy and paranoia.

In the past the commons has been easy prey because the people most affected – the commoners – by definition didn’t count for much. In high tech, by contrast, the commoners are articulate and influential. A spate of recent books by Stanford University’s Lawrence Lessig and other prominent law professors has given the concept a respectability it didn’t have before. (See box) There’s a rare opportunity to advance the commons more broadly. When a concept proves its worth at the cutting edge of techno-economic change, it can hardly be called reactionary, or anti-freedom – or anti-market, for that matter.

To the contrary, the cause of freedom is about to take another turn.

Further Reading on the Commons

Probably the best introduction is a new book by David Bollier called Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth. (Routledge, 2002). Bollier develops the connection between social and natural commons. There are excellent footnotes for those who want to dig deeper.

Another good introduction, especially in regards to the natural environment and “developing” countries, is Whose Common Future? by the staff of the Ecologist. (New Society, 1993)

What would happen if we approached environmental problems such as global warming with commons-based policies instead of market-based policies? Peter Barnes, a founder of Working Assets, lays out one possibility in Who Owns the Sky (Island Press, 2001.)

A number of recent books explore the creeping enclosure of cyberspace, innovation and the ultimately the mind. Two good ones are The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, by Lawrence Lessig (Random House, 2001) and Shamans, Software, and Spleens, by James Boyle (Harvard, 1996). Lessig is a Stanford law professor and was a key government witness in the Microsoft case. Boyle teaches at Duke Law School.

In Owning the Future (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), Seth Shulman reports on how corporations are taking control of everything from university research to the genetic code of life itself, with implications that do not bode well.

Jonathan Rowe is Project Director of the Tomales Bay Institute, an Earth Island project, and a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly.