Percorso di lettura: the commons / i beni comuni

di Giovanna Ricoveri

In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been an increasing interest in the commons and a growing number of books and articles on the subject, as a response to the generalised privatization/enclosure of resources and public spaces in the North and in the South. The revival of interest for the commons is positive, but it is not without risks: the difference between the commons and the common good of mankind often disappears, as in the books written by most Third World or neo-global movement authors who deal with neoliberal globalisation much more than with the commons: see as an example the recent work of Francois Houtart, the Belgian scholar (B. Daiber and F. Houtart [eds], A Postcapitalist Paradigm: The Common Good of Humanity, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Brussels, 2012).

Another risk derives from the extension of the commons from the natural commons to the digital, cultural and social commons. This extension is legitimate, but it has been pushed extremely far, especially with regard to the digital commons, to the point of undermining the relevance of natural commons as though nature were not the foundation of life on earth. Books on digital commons come mainly from the United States, but the debate is taking place everywhere. On this point I will make just one example: that of the Commons Strategy Group, founded in 2010 by four activists and researchers, Michel Bauwens, Beatriz Busaniche, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

In the literature on cultural commons knowledge is discussed the most, but is often confused and identified with information coming from the internet. The book I want to mention here as an example is Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom (eds), Understanding Knowledge As a Common: From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2007. Many essays included in this book are written by experts of digital commons, such as David Bollier (cited above) and James Boyle (see also J. Boyle’s article ‘The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain’, in Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 66, 2003, pp. 33–74).

On social commons there is much public debate, and articles have been published from all countries in the North and South, on issues such as the privatisation of public services and welfare, water, health and schools, to mention just the most important.

It is also important to underline the contributions made by several authors whose work has opened up the way to the recent revival of interest in the commons. Among others: Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, Zed Books, London, 1993; Joan Martinez Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation, Edward Elgar Publishing, London, 2002; Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, Boston MA, 1944; James O’Connor, ‘The Second Contradiction’ in Ted Benton (ed.), The Greening of Marxism, Guilford Press, London, 1996; Mary Mellor, Feminism and Ecology: An Introduction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997; Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States, Hachette India, Gurgaon, with Black Kite, Delhi, 2006; Edward Thompson Customs in Common, The New Press, New York NY, 1993; Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, Calder and Boyars, London, 1973; Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Harper-Collins, New York NY, 1990; Paolo Grossi, An Alternative to Private Property: Collective Property in the Juridical Consciousness of the Nineteenth Century, University of Chicago, Chicago IL, 1981; Kostas Panayotakis, Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, Pluto Press, London, 2012.

On natural commons the outstanding authors are Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics in 2009, and Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist. Ostrom’s Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, is a milestone not yet fully understood. For over 40 years she has studied the natural commons that still exist all over the world, North and South, coming to the conclusion that under certain conditions self-management of natural resources by local communities grants a more efficient or sustainable use of natural resources as compared with public or private management. Shiva’s contribution has a broader spectrum, as one can see from her many books covering almost all aspects of the commons from the point of view of the North-South divide. Among others, see Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology, Zed Books, London, and Third World Network, Penang, 1993; Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, South End Press, Boston MA, 1977; Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit, South End Press, Boston MA, 2002; Making Peace with the Earth: Beyond Land Wars and Food Wars, South End Press, Boston MA, 2012.

Literature on natural commons is plentiful. Each book highlights one or more topics such as: collective property, commons variety and specificity, diversity of legal systems among countries, historical evolution, social movements, peasant agriculture, food sovereignty, patents on living organisms; or a specific resource such as water or land; or a major issue such as deforestation, climate change, water pollution or dams; or the historical experience of a given country, be it England, Italy or India. In this sense, we can affirm that no book is really competing with any other: they are all different, as they are written from a specific perspective in the commons galaxy. I list a few books below, most of which are also mentioned in the bibliography:

Maud Barlow and Tony Clark, Blue Gold: the Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, Earthscan, London, 2003; Annette Aurélie Desmarais, La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax-Winnipeg, Canada, 2007; Michael Goldman (ed.), Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons, Pluto Press, London, 1998; Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, Viking Press, New York NY, 2007; Michael Halewood, Isabel Lopez Noriega and Selim Louafi (eds), Crop Genetic Resources as a Global Commons: Challenges in Internation Law and Governance, Routledge, New York NY, 2012; Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader, Plunder: When the Rule of the Law is Illegal, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2008; Rai Patel, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System, Portobello Books, London, 2007); Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, Angus J. L. Winchester and Margherita Pieraccini, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present, Earthscan, Oxford 2011; Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-capitalist, Anti-globalist and Radical Green Movements, Pluto Press, London, 2005.

What makes  my book on the commons different is that it engages explicitly with the nature-market relationship under capitalism, trying to explain how the world situation would be totally different as far as ecology, economics and the social order are concerned if nature were considered a ‘living’ organism and not a source of input for the production of commodities. All authors on the left – and here the left must be understood in a very broad sense – agree that the nature-market dynamic is uneven, and therefore gives rise to the plunder of nature and the enclosure/expropriation of local communities. Few authors, however (with some relevant exceptions such as Vandana Shiva), go beyond this to denounce and engage in the study of how nature works, not only from a scientific and abstract point of view but also in the interplay with human needs and life. Under the command of capitalist leaders (politicians, businessmen and intellectuals), nature is a powerful tool with which to dominate the world, its resources and its people. My book is a contribution to clarify how the ‘death’ of nature has allowed capitalism to negate nature and to become hegemonic, gaining widespread consensus to its cause through time, from the English industrial revolution to the present.

This book goes back to the line of James O’Connor’s second contradiction (see on this my short essay with Valentino Parlato in Ted Benton (ed.), The Greening of Marxism, 1996, cited above) but has updated that line in many ways, including the role of social movements as the main subject of ecological, economic and political change. In its conclusions, this book advances the proposal that the experience of the natural commons of the past can be a useful tool to overcome the shortcomings of today’s capitalism. It also suggests that to this end it is necessary to ‘empower’ todays ecological movements seen as ‘local communities’.