Commons, a Model for Managing Natural Resources

Questions about the ”Commons”

, by LIPIETZ Alain

This article is based on an oral intervention at the 2009 World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil. It was published in an abridged version in the January 2010 issue of the French journal Esprit and is reproduced here with authorisation.

Commenting on a Latin American collection of articles on the commons, Alain Lipietz emphasises that commons should be conceived as a specific form of social relations, based on mutualisation and reciprocity - and that the key issue is how it is combined with other, market - or state-based forms of social relations.

The collection put together by Silke Helfrich [1] is absolutely outstanding. Not only in its theoretical scope but also in the range of its examples and case studies on “the Commons”: genetic heritage, lakes, forests, the electromagnetic spectrum, indigenous knowledge, the atmosphere, information technologies, among others. We can really see that this is the work of an entire network, coordinated by Silke as part of her work with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Latin America. Even though, strictly speaking, this network did not originate out of the World Social Forum, it is a good example of what the WSF is capable of achieving.

I myself have organised a seminar at the European Parliament on the same subject, based on the question: “Why are we fighting for algorithms in software to be free and non-patentable while we are seeking to protect indigenous people from biopiracy, the unpaid pillage of their knowledge about local biodiversity?” This book is highly enlightening in regards to this debate.

I will begin with my positive comments about the book and then make a few remarks of constructive criticism.

The Commons: things or social relations?

There are two main lessons we can extract from the book’s different contributions. The commons are not things but social relations. Or, more precisely, the things which they relate to (material or immaterial, pasture or field of knowledge) are only very rarely res nullius, commons belonging to no one and thus at risk of being overexploited and destroyed. Those that we know (that is, precisely, those which have not been destroyed), have always been managed, in regards to their access and use, by social relations: forms of ownership, forms of authority and customary rules. The famous article, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, by the ecologist, Garret Hardin, which appeared in Science in 1968 is thus, by and large on the wrong track. What he describes (the overgrazing of communal fields) may have happened, but certainly not because rules were not respected. There are of course common-pool resources that are exhausted because they are not regulated, such as schools of fish and the atmosphere’s capacity for recycling greenhouse gasses. But growing awareness of this kind of dilapidation generally results in the establishment of regulations by society.

The methods for regulating the commons are extremely varied, primarily because they pertain to resources of such a varied nature (from the most materiel to the most immaterial) and because each resource may be managed differently. The commons are a kingdom of diversity. The case studies and presentations included in the book give a good picture of this diversity.

It should be added that the authors, whose sympathy for the commons is obvious, don’t try to hide that this model of resource management is not always, under any circumstances, the best or the most efficient solution, including in comparison to private property. They are, at any rate, aware that the way the commons are regulated may be in need of serious reforms.

A detailed etymology of “common”

But I’m not here to promote this book, although I do consider it to be a remarkable “textbook” for activists and students alike, but to offer some criticism; that is, highlight its weak points in order to make progress.

My first comment relates to my irritation that most of the articles maintain that the word “commons” is of English origin, if not even of Anglo-Saxon origin! Actually, it’s not English, but French, and more precisely, Norman. This is important in two respects.

When the Normans of William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, he imposed an already well-established form of feudalism. He obviously spoke French – that is, a mix of words of Latin and German origin. Under feudalism, common goods or those intended for public use have two names depending on the owner: “commun” or “communal” for property owned by peasants, and “banal” for property owned by lords (primarily the mill, the bread oven and the forests). “Commun” is thus a legal term of feudalism, of Latin origin.

Derbyshire, United Kingdom. Source : Si B (CC BY 2.0)

First of all, a word about its feudal nature. If peasants (serfs or free peasants) own common land, excluding the land to which they were attached (glèbe) and the land of the lord where they has to carry out corvée (chores), this ownership doesn’t prevent them from having to share the fruit of the land with their lord as a form of tax (the “tallage”). The social relation of “commun” (between peasants) is expressed, predetermined and subjugated to the feudal relation (between peasant and lord). A social organisation such as Feudalism, can never be reduced to a single social relation – Just as with capitalism, it is a nexus of social relations some of which may seem more “progressive” than others, although they are all joined together to sustain a form of domination.

And “commons” are certainly one of the most enduring parts and potentially one of the most progressive of any form of social organisation. That is why the Latin origin of the word needs to be emphasized. “Common” comes from the word munus, which means both “gift” and “responsibility”. In other words, receiving a munus as a gift goes hand in hand with the “obligation” to give back a gift. Munus is thus a nodal expression of what the great anthropologist, Karl Polanyi calls “reciprocity.”

For Polanyi, there are three ways of socialising the work of individuals: exchange (I give you something so that you give me something), redistribution (the state takes from everyone to give back to everyone), and reciprocity: I give, because I trust that when I am in need, society will give to me. “Commun” is obviously derived from the word munus (from “co” which means together): it’s the system of gifts and responsibilities that govern what the “community” shares. This community has, generally-speaking, its own particular system of political management: the muni-cipality. “Cipal” comes from the word “caput” which means “leader” or “head”. This leader has a duty to act with “munificence”: to give the community assistance, festivals and monuments.

Karl Marx called communism a mode of production superior to socialism (“each according to his work”), governed by the rule, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Socialism becomes communism when, instead of just redistribution, we move towards reciprocity. Marx, who was very aware that reciprocity came historically before market exchange and before the State (these didn’t truly appear until thousands of years after the Neolithic Revolution began, in Sumer and on the Nile), spoke of a primitive communism, and dreamed of a communism as a society of abundance. We, on the contrary, are mostly dealing with commons that in most cases, as mentioned above, are often connected with, and subjugated to, various forms of political domination (i.e.: feudal) or to the market.

There’s no doubt that there has indeed been a “tragedy of the Commons” but it wasn’t the one Hardin wrote about. Communal land expanded along with the clearing of European forests until the beginning of the 14th century. When Black Death came along, Europe didn’t have any forests left to clear away, and there were latent food shortages everywhere. The plague, spread by feudal wars, wiped out two thirds of the European population. It took two centuries for it to recover, but the way land was managed had changed in-between: the agrarian revolution, three-yearly crop rotation and manuring of land could not develop under customary rules which effectively prevented a farmer from enriching his land for future crops. They required very different rules of management, including private ownership, or at least private possession of the land. The wealthiest peasants enforced “enclosures” of the commons to their own benefit.

Political power and the commons

Another problem with this book is that it implicitly opposes, and even tries to isolate the commons, and their reciprocity-based regulation, from the state and the market. It is unfortunately impossible to do this given the complexity of any society. We have seen how a commons like the communal fields of the Middle Ages was subordinated to an external political power – that of the lord. It’s exactly the same for a Saharan oasis regulating the distribution of its water: it is embedded in a larger political structure, such as a state, potentially controlled by a caste of warriors or caravan merchants.

More importantly, the management of a commons is often assigned to a political entity, a “local state”, whether it be a shaman, a cacique, a council of Elders or a city council. These political entities governing the commons can themselves be extremely hierarchical. For instance, the family, the oldest and most basic community, has always been structured around patriarchal social relations: the domination of the pater familias over the women and children, the elder women over the young daughters-in-law, etc.

When a commons is part of a larger society, under the authority of larger political power, the obvious question is that of who the commons belongs to. In this book, it’s implicitly considered, for instance, that the Amazon belongs to the indigenous people who use its biodiversity resources in a sustainable way on the one hand, and to all of humanity on the other, insofar as the Amazon is a powerful stabiliser of the climate and a global freshwater reserve. And what about Brazil?

On the eve of the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), when I was giving several conferences in Porto Alegre, I saw on the walls the words “Amazona e nossa. Yankee fora !” (The Amazon is ours, Yankees go home!). This slogan was aimed at the Hollywood stars who had come to support the indigenous people and the idea of the Amazon as a commons belonging to all humanity. I was indeed shocked that residents of Rio Grande do Sul, most of whom have mostly Italian or German roots, were claiming ownership of the Amazon, several thousand kilometres to the north! However neither do I agree with the colonists of the “Half-Moon” (the Amazon piedmont in Bolivia) who are intent on keeping their abundant hydrocarbon resources for themselves, without sharing the benefits with the rest of Bolivia, whereas they came down from the mountains just a few decades ago after having exploited its minerals.

Moreover, it could be said that what is beneath the Half-Moon lands belong to the Guarani in accordance with Convention 169 of the ILO, but neither this Convention, nor articles 15 and 8 of the Convention on Biological Diversity gives them exclusive use and access to underground resources. The state is their custodian, and has to obtain the local communities’ informed consent before granting access to the resources, and to share the benefits with these communities – the so-called “ABS regime” (Access & Benefit Sharing). As one of the key functions of the state is redistribution, it’s normal that the profits derived from the exploitation of natural resources are redistributed nationwide. Similarly, it is also normal that the state and the international community take on part of the load involved in the “responsibility” of maintaining a local commons of global importance.

The commons and market relations

We have seen how the rules for accessing and sharing the benefits and responsibilities of a common-pool resource may involve a number of different community interests at different scales. The conflicts that may arise from such situations will no doubt become more and more serious the deeper we get into the 21st century. We have briefly mentioned sharing of revenues as one of the ways in which benefits and responsibilities can be shared. Which implicitly conveys the idea that the regulation of the commons can be entrenched in monetary relations, and therefore potentially in market relations. But things are more complex.

First of all, monetary relations are not necessarily market relations. A fine given for parking illegally in a common urban space is not a market relation! No more than a dowry given for marrying a daughter or son (depending on the local matrimonial traditions) represents the sale of a son or daughter, or the purchase of a husband or wife (even if Jacob had to work for Laban for a long time before being able to marry his daughter Rachel, this is an expression of patriarchal relations rather than market relations.)

When talking about reciprocity, there is a word that designates a monetary donation given as a reward for taking responsibility (munus): re-mun-eration. Remuneration is not a salary or a price, even if it may look like one.

Take, for instance, the most direct political (if not bureaucratic) current form of managing the commons of the atmosphere and its capacity to recycle greenhouse gases: the allocation of greenhouse gas emission quotas. In the European Union, different industries are allocated their quotas by the member states. Quotas are allocated for a charge (auctions or ecotaxes) or for free. The quotas can be exchanged, and those that have made a deliberate effort to reduce their emissions can sell their quotas at a higher price to those that haven’t made the effort. Could it be said that allocating quotas according to the past amount of emissions of an industry (the so-called grand-fathering method) is more “commons-friendly” than selling them in auctions, which is essentially “commodifying” the atmosphere? The Green MEPs think the opposite: that the former method is a way of rigidifying the vested interests of the most polluting industries and thus represents an “enclosure of the commons.” So they are fighting right-wing and productivist governments for a greater proportion of the quotas to be sold in auctions. In this case, the purchase of quotas should be considered a fine for polluting, and selling quotas, owing to an effort to make production processes greener, should be considered a form of remuneration.

Forum social mondial à Dakar, Sénégal, en 2011. Crédit photo : Buen Viajero (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Those who love the commons and reciprocity will highlight, with good reason, the dangers involved in the commons’ being embedded in politics, in the state, and in monetary and market relations. This caution should not result in the commons being isolated from the rest of the world, the state and the market. The state and the market are not corpses that can be shut in a coffin and thrown into the sea. They will continue for a long, long time to contaminate, and to threaten, with their cold logic, the relations of reciprocity that should govern the commons, and the most we can hope for is to minimise their influence and increase the importance of reciprocal relations over those relations governed by exchange and authority.

The slogan of the Word Social Forum is “Another world is possible.” Again, it is a phrase by a French poet, surrealist and communist, Paul Éluard. Let’s not forget the lines that follow: “Another world is possible / But it’s in this one.”