Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Economic justice: The commons movement

Nepal well public domain pixabay

The commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, such as air, water, and a habitable earth. Members of a growing social and political movement known as the commons movement believe such resources, when held in common, best serve the people whose lives they affected. The following article was published in the January-February 2017 issue of NewsNotes.

For many decades, even centuries, the debate over how best to manage our resources has centered on two basic options – the market or the state. Either the market should determine who owns and manages resources or the state should be primarily responsible. Societies have chosen the combination of state and market power that best fits their needs and wants within a spectrum ranging from full state control to a free market. 

Yet both of these options are in crisis with increasing numbers of people questioning their legitimacy. The economic crisis of 2008 and its slow recovery have convinced many that an unfettered market can create serious societal problems and the state has long been considered by many to be incapable of managing resources well due to incompetence and/or corruption.  

A host of initiatives, especially at the local and regional levels, are springing up that employ more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable ways to manage resources. The Commons movement is expanding in most parts of the world, with communities reclaiming control over land, water, fisheries, businesses and much more. 

Commons management involves people whose lives are affected by the use of a resource. For example, people that live along a river may join together in a cooperative to determine rules for the use of the river. They may go on to develop institutions to enforce those rules. 

Utrecht University history professor Tine De Moor describes such institutions as different in their design and functioning from the market and the state as governance models. Commons management prioritizes self-governance, which includes self-regulation, self-sanctioning, and self-management.

De Moor says we may be in a “third wave” or “upsurge” in institutionalized forms of cooperation. The first wave took place from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century with a notable increase in the number of rural commons and urban guilds. 

The rise of the Enlightenment reversed this trend with its focus on individualism and “it was at this time that judicial and legal foundations rooted in individualism were laid, while legal foundations for collectivities were removed.”

The second wave from 1880 to 1920 witnessed “a steep rise in the number of cooperatives, as well as other types of collective action like cultural and sports associations, but also trade unions.” 

While it is difficult to recognize while it is happening, De Moor believes we are in a third wave in response to the privatization of so many public goods in recent years. Communities around the world are organizing to reclaim control of their resources and services, creating businesses where the workers are owners and managers, community-owned energy cooperatives, community gardens and much more.

Tomislav Tomašević, program director of the Institute for Political Ecology in Zagreb, Croatia, says, “I think the commons are important as a new narrative that goes beyond the dualism between state and market as the only institutions for collective action and shared prosperity. Both are in crisis and see their legitimacy increasingly eroded today. Commons come in as a new narrative, showing us that it is possible to have collective action which is not based on market exchange, nor on a disciplinary, hierarchical, paternalistic approach implemented by the state.”

Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives in Amsterdam, believes that the movement is a response to a systemic crisis in which the extractive nature of the current economic system is endangering the planet. “It is a new value regime and it is not the first time this has happened.” he said.

Perhaps the most important role that the commons movement can provide is helping people see alternatives beyond the market and the state.

“One of the great things about the commons movement,” De Moor said, “is that it forces people to think differently about governance and how things can be organized. The biggest challenge right now is to involve more people in a different way of thinking.”