The first time I came across the concept of ‘the commons’ was in the late 1970s at university, when I was studying history. A book on economic history rather dryly described a process of taking away and enclosing common lands near farming villages in England, from the late Middle Ages to well into the 18th century by large landowners, for the purpose of sheep farming and wool production. This process was characterised as the beginning of the development that would lead to the birth of capitalism. I remember being unable to suppress a feeling of indignation and anger. So capitalism was based on theft!
The second time the term ‘the commons’ surfaced was in the early 1990s, in the context of the rise of the internet, which at the time was often described as a ‘digital commons,’ a common place in the digital domain that was nobody’s property, and therefore belonged to all of us. Unfortunately, this digital commons suffered the same fate as the original commons: the common lands were once again seized with great (virtual) force and fenced in by powerful landlords, this time in the guise of wealthy corporations, who rapidly ensured the commercialisation of the fledgling internet. History repeated itself, in a sense, and my deception was once again great.
Another decade or so later, the commons came my way for the third time. Now it turned out that some people had more or less taken the opposite route, and had returned to the original meaning and interpretation. One such person was the Belgian Michel Bauwens, who founded the P2P Foundation at the beginning of this century. ‘P2P’ stands for ‘peer to peer’ (although it could also be ‘person to person’ or ‘people to people’). ‘Peer’ is the English word for ‘equal.’ In other words: the internet was initially a network of equals, individuals with shared interests who found each other in the digital domain. That principle, the idea was, could also be applied to the ‘real’ world, i.e. people who set up something in common from a shared motivation, such as a vegetable garden or a food kitchen.
This is also where the idea of the ‘sharing economy’ comes from – sharing tools or cars or houses or whatever, instead of owning them exclusively. All very well and good, but over the past twenty years we have also seen how even these kinds of fine principles can be taken over and corrupted by market thinking. Just think of companies like AirBnB (for ‘sharing’ your home) and – to a lesser extent – SnappCar or MyWheels (for ‘sharing’ your car). It does sound sympathetic, but in practice, the bottom line is that there is simply a business model after all, it’s just a bit different than before.
Which justifies the question of what is actually the value of that ‘commons’ concept, especially in the current era. Is it something that does have the potential to build alternatives to the kind of society most of us live in, or does it ultimately turn out to be a wash? Aren’t the forces that have led to the major problems of our time (climate change, the ruthless exploitation of people and natural resources, the ever-increasing inequality, to name but a few) simply far too strong to be blown away?
Self-interest or altruism
Of course, what answer you give to this question also partly depends on your view of man. Is man essentially a predator, constantly bent on personal gain, who will always choose for himself (and perhaps his neighbours), but never for the community as such? Or is man – as for instance Rutger Bregman claims in his book ‘De meeste mensen deugen’ (‘Humankind’) – inclined towards the good? Or is it simply the case that everything will be fine if you just make sure that circumstances change in such a way that the temptations to be selfish automatically fade into the background?
I don’t know, but in any case, there are plenty of examples, even in our current times, of altruism and social awareness. One such example is, of course, the environmental or climate movement. Unlike some other forms of protest or resistance, those who take to the streets for the climate are not primarily concerned with their own wallets or some other form of self-interest, but with a cause that concerns all of humanity, if not the whole world. We can be somewhat scathing about educated middle-class white people who can afford to sit on the A12 in The Hague, but they are sticking their necks out for the common good anyway.
The theory of ‘commonal’ thinking relies partly on the knowledge that pre-modern human communities were quite capable of looking after themselves and their environment, without all the excesses to which our industrial society has led. But how realistic is it to think that we would be able to somehow return to such forms of society? Without immediately referring to notorious gloom-mongers when it comes to the commons (such as the ecologist Garrett Hardin, who wrote an article in 1968 entitled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’), we can ask how many people are actually willing to give up many of the pleasures of their current lives for the good of their fellow humans and the planet.
In this regard, it is interesting to shed light on projects that attempt to give practical content to the ideal of the commons. One of the most imaginative I can find is the ZAD (Zone à Défendre) in western France, near Nantes, on the border with Brittany. A large new international airport should have been built there early this century, initially also for intercontinental flights with Concorde. After opposition to their expropriation of local farmers, a national protest movement emerged, aiming to stop the airport and to reallocate the land expropriated for its construction to common use (i.e. no longer as private property). This was opposed by the French state. When the protesters and the (new) residents of ZAD had succeeded in getting the plans for the airport off the table, the alternative management structure they had put in place was taken to task. The excuse used by the state was that ZAD residents were not paying taxes. Of course, this is a very interesting point in relation to our story, because the ‘A’ of ZAD could also have stood for ‘autonomous.’ The Zadists indeed refused to pay taxes, but they likewise refused to use all government services paid for with that tax money, such as social benefits. They just wanted to look after themselves in complete freedom, and ‘trade’ and exchange things exclusively on the basis of equality with other groups or initiatives, without a money economy. A utopia? Yes, but a real existing utopia, just like similar initiatives elsewhere in the world. And in Kim Stanley Robinson’s book ‘The Ministry for the Future,’ which will soon also be published in Dutch, there is talk of a kind of ‘commons revolution’ in the Indian state of Karnataka, where, after a horrendous catastrophe, the inhabitants join forces and reform agriculture in such a way that literally everyone benefits (and can eat). Admittedly, this is fiction, but fiction with an extremely high probability level. So it could well be that, along this path, we will return to something akin to the pre-modern agricultural methods (and societies) that enabled humans to live in harmony with nature.