What are exactly the commons? Even though there are no definite answers, it seems to convey a certain idea of “sharedness” or “community”. Yet, we should go further than “I know it when I see it”. In this article, I will present the three main conceptions of the commons seen in academic literature: commons as a resource, commons as a resource managed by a community, and commons as a right.
Commons as a resource.
The first conception is linked to economy and economic thought. In 1954, Paul Samuelson published the seminal work “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure” categorising goods in four categories according to their caracteristics of excludability and rivalrousness of their consumption. Common-pool resources would be those resources which are non-excludable, like public goods, but rival in their consumption. This meant that users cannot prevent new users from consuming this resource but they cannot sustain too large a number of users.
Rational-choice theorists have taken from this point of view coining the concept “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Being non-excludable but rival, users will tend to free-ride on the efforts of others, consuming too much and not contributing to their maintenance. Thus, all commons, unless privatised, will tend to disappear. This conception is very much linked to neo-classic economics where all individuals are rational and oriented to their own profit. It also has an implicit assumption, that private property is the best solution for providing resources in a sustainable way.
Commons as a resource managed by a community.
In 1990, Elinor Ostrom challenged the view that commons were doomed to privatisation or disappearance. In her book “Governing the Commons” she investigated several successful cases of communities managing commons. The research showed it was possible without a top-down authority, privatising them, or consuming them to their exhaustion. To do so, they would need social institutions of trust, shared responsibilities, penalties for free-riders… This approach would be linked to sociological thought and introduces ideas of social relations, power, institutions. Thus a commons becomes so because a community of “commoners” manages and consumes it.
There are two main sub-branches within this approach. The first stems from neo-institutionalist theory and focuses on questions such as “who gets to use the commons in a concrete situation and who sets the rules to do so?” On the other hand, the current linked to critical social theory focuses on their potential to disrupt Capitalist institutions. Both traditions see the commons as modes of exchange of goods and services that are neither state nor market. The “critical” tradition, then, sees this as an opportunity to create alternatives to Capitalism, as well as spaces that can turn into higher-scale mobilisations against the system.
However, asking questions about “who gets to use the commons and who decides” brings us to who should do so. In the following paragraphs I will review the line of thought that has tried to answer this question.
Commons as a right
This tradition is possibly the oldest and yet the smallest of the three. The first definition of the commons comes from pre-modern England and referred to shared grazing fields. The tradition continued with juridic decisions establishing that the public as a whole could access some resources (essentially open spaces). This would be true even if the public would be “disorganised”, i.e. not bounded in a formal political institution. Thus, a commons becomes defined by a normative conception of justice and is thus linked to the fields of law and political theory. In the Anglo-saxon tradition (see the article ‘The Commedy of the Commons’ by Carol Rose), this was that commons should be beneficial to the general interest. Commons were spaces that would serve social purposes, particularly commerce, and thus open access would make them more valuable to the community as a whole.
Yet, this is not the only possible definition. The Spanish philosopher of law José Luís Martí Mármol proposes a new conception in the book ‘The republican conception of property‘. There he understands commons as goods publicly owned (through the state or not) which would harm common good if they should be privatised. In any case, most conceptions of commons as a right tend to value general interest as more than the sum of particular benefits and a more or less egalitarian distribution of resources. Thus, they oppose the neoclassic inspired vision that the privatisation of the commons would be the best option for the maximum overall happiness.
While the story of the commons is long, they have only sparked a strong interest in the last three decades. Most of the main social sciences have developed literature on them, inspired by normative ideas from neo-Liberalism to Egalitarianism and Libertarian Communism. While there is no definite answer, the field keeps developing and growing in many different directions.