New Books | Free, Fair and Alive

The concept of the commons has been misunderstood since the 1960s. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich have a new, refined definition to offer – and planet-saving plan.

This is a lightly edited excerpt of Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (New Society Publishers, 2019) by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

Commons and commoning 

Can human beings really learn to cooperate with each other in routine, large-scale ways? A great deal of evidence suggests we can. There is no innate, genetic impediment to cooperation. It’s quite the opposite. In one memorable experiment conducted by developmental and comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello, a bright-eyed toddler watches a man carrying an armful of books as he repeatedly bumps into a closet door. The adult can’t seem to open the closet, and the toddler is concerned. The child spontaneously walks over to the door and opens it, inviting the inept adult to put the books into the closet. In another experiment, an adult repeatedly fails to place a blue tablet on top of an existing stack of tablets. A toddler seated across from the clumsy man grabs the fallen tablets and carefully places each one neatly on the top of the stack. In yet another test, an adult who had been stapling papers in a room leaves, and upon returning with a new set of papers, finds that someone has moved his stapler. A one-year-old infant in the room immediately understands the adult’s problem, and points helpfully at the missing stapler, now on a shelf. 

For Tomasello, a core insight came into focus from these and other experiments: human beings instinctively want to help others. In his painstaking attempts to understand the origins of human cooperation, Tomasello and his team have sought to isolate the workings of this human impulse and to differentiate it from the behaviours of other species, especially primates. From years of research, he has concluded that “from around their first birthdays – when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings – human children are already cooperative and helpful in many, though obviously not all, situations. And they do not learn this from adults; it comes naturally.” Even infants from 14 to 18 months of age show the capacity to fetch out-of-reach objects, remove obstacles facing others, correct an adult’s mistake and choose the correct behaviours for a given task. 

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Of course, complications arise and multiply as young children grow up. They learn that some people are not trustworthy and that others don’t reciprocate acts of kindness. Children learn to internalise social norms and ethical expectations, especially from societal institutions. As they mature, children associate schooling with economic success, learn to package personal reputation into a marketable brand and find satisfaction in buying and selling. 

While the drama of acculturation plays out in many different ways, the larger story of the human species is its versatile capacity for cooperation. We have the unique potential to express and act upon shared intentionality. “What makes us [human beings] really different is our ability to put our heads together and to do things that none of us could do alone, to create new resources that we couldn’t create alone,” says Tomasello. “It’s really all about communicating and collaborating and working together.” We are able to do this because we can grasp that other human beings have inner lives with emotions and intentions. We become aware of a shared condition that goes beyond a narrow, self-referential identity. Any individual identity is always, also, part of collective identities that guide how a person thinks, behaves and solves problems. All of us have been indelibly shaped by our relations with peers and society, and by the language, rituals and traditions that constitute our cultures. 

In other words, the conceit that we are “self-made” individuals is a delusion. There is no such thing as an isolated “I”. As we will explore later, each of us is really a Nested-I. We are not only embedded in relationships; our very identities are created through relationships. The Nested-I concept helps us deal more honestly with the encompassing reality of human identity and development. We humans truly are the “cooperative species”, as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have put it. The question is whether or not this deep human instinct will be encouraged to unfold. And if cooperation is encouraged, will it aim to serve all or instead be channelled to serve individualistic, parochial ends? 

Commoning is everywhere, but widely misunderstood 

In our previous books The Wealth of the Commons (2012) and Patterns of Commoning (2015), we documented dozens of notable commons, suggesting that the actual scope and impact of commoning in today’s world is quite large. Our capacity to self-organise to address needs, independent of the state or market, can be seen in community forests, cooperatively run farms and fisheries, open-source design and manufacturing communities with global reach, local and regional currencies, and myriad other examples in all realms of life. The elemental human impulse that we are born with – to help others, to improve existing practices – ripens into a stable social form with countless variations: a commons.

The impulse to common plays out in the most varied circumstances – impoverished urban neighbourhoods, landscapes hit by natural disasters, subsistence farms in the heart of Africa, social networks that come together in cyberspace. And yet, strangely, the commons paradigm is rarely seen as a pervasive social form, perhaps because it so often lives in the shadows of state and market power. It is not recognised as a powerful social force and institutional form in its own right. For us, to talk about the commons is to talk about freedom-in-connectedness – a social space in which we can rediscover and remake ourselves as whole human beings and enjoy some serious measure of self-determination. The discourse around commons and commoning helps us see that individuals working together can bring forth more humane, ethical and ecologically responsible societies. It is plausible to imagine a stable, supportive post-capitalist order. The very act of commoning, as it expands and registers on the larger culture, catalyses new political and economic possibilities.

Let us be clear: the commons is not a utopian fantasy. It is something that is happening right now. It can be seen in countless villages and cities, in the Global South and the industrial North, in open-source software communities and global cyber-networks. Our first challenge is to name the many acts of commoning in our midst and make them culturally legible. They must be perceived and understood if they are going to be nourished, protected and expanded. That is the burden of the following chapters and the reason why we propose a new, general framework for understanding commons and commoning.

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The commons is not simply about “sharing,” as it happens in countless areas of life. It is about sharing and bringing into being durable social systems for producing shareable things and activities. Nor is the commons about the misleading idea of the “tragedy of the commons”. This term was popularised by a famous essay by biologist Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which appeared in the influential journal Science in 1968. Paul Ehrlich had just published The Population Bomb, a Malthusian account of a world overwhelmed by sheer numbers of people. In this context, Hardin told a fictional parable of a shared pasture on which no herdsman has a rational incentive to limit the grazing of his cattle. The inevitable result, said Hardin, is that each herdsman will selfishly use as much of the common resource as possible, which will inevitably result in its overuse and ruin – the so-called tragedy of the commons. Possible solutions, Hardin argued, are to grant private property rights to the resource in question, or have the government administer it as public property or on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hardin’s article went on to become the most-cited article in the history of the journal Science, and the phrase “tragedy of the commons” became a cultural buzzword. His fanciful story, endlessly repeated by economists, social scientists and politicians, has persuaded most people that the commons is a failed management regime. And yet Hardin’s analysis has some remarkable flaws. Most importantly, he was not describing a commons! He was describing a free-for-all in which nothing is owned and everything is free for the taking – an “unmanaged common pool resource”, as some would say. As commons scholar Lewis Hyde has puckishly suggested, Hardin’s “tragedy” thesis ought to be renamed, “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Commons-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Non-Communicating, Self-Interested Individuals”.

In an actual commons, things are different. A distinct community governs a shared resource and its usage. Users negotiate their own rules, assign responsibilities and entitlements, and set up monitoring systems to identify and penalise free riders. To be sure, finite resources can be overexploited, but that outcome is more associated with free markets than with commons. It is no coincidence that our current period of history, in which capitalist markets and private property rights prevail in most places, has produced the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, an unprecedented loss of fertile soil, disruptions in the hydrologic cycle and a dangerously warming atmosphere.

As we will see in this book, the commons has so many rich facets that it cannot be easily contained within a single definition. But it helps to clarify how certain terms often associated with the commons are not, in fact, the same as a commons.

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