The concept of the Commons is an old one. We could state that it has been present since the beginning of civil society. Public and private spheres are, after all, historically recent categories. Under a Eurocentric perspective, the Commons refers to farmlands in the Middle Ages, where members of a given community produced collectively and made the goods accessible to all. From a Southern perspective, it refers to the way Amerindian populations related to nature, considering it as every men and women’s rightful good. In spite of that, the concept fell into oblivion and so remained for a long time. In 1968, however, it came back to the spotlight when Ecologist Garrett Hardin released on Science magazine an article called The Tragedy of the Commons.
Hardin’s main idea was that human beings are self-centered and always tend to compete against each other to maximize their gains, under any circumstances. He takes as an example a flock of sheeps. In it, he says “every man is bound in a system that compels him to increase his flock without limits – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the final destination of all humans, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in free common goods.” Hardin’s dystopian vision served as a subsidy for private property advocates. In addition, it also served centralizing National States which wanted to put an end to any self-organized communities and to justify all sorts of processes of enclosure.
Nevertheless, there were those who disagreed with this point of view. Political scientist Elinor Ostrom was from the 1970s on, a leader on voicing opposition to that. Her work on the systematization of common goods management models earned her the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. Ostrom carried out for many years an active research group and created the International Association for the Study of Commons – IASC Commons. The central thesis of the so-called neoinstitutionalist view of common goods is that, in many cases, communities, through a system of self-organization and cooperation, have over the years made more efficient management of resources than when they follow the tax rules of some foreign agent. This view establishes that the common is, above all, a system of rights and obligations.
In the turn of the 2000’s, the Commons subject became the center of political debates, mainly, for two reasons:
(1) the adoption of the term by activists of free culture, especially USA lawyers who advocated in support of free culture. They were the ones who, upon analyzing the transformations in cultural production because if the Internet, began to actively defend the new digital ecology, based on the concept of knowledge sharing, transparency and extreme openness, and on the idea of collective rights when it comes to intellectual goods;
(2) the adoption of the term by the “altermundist” – activists who oppose the neoliberal globalization. In particular, during protests against the privatization of natural assets, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000. At the time, the population rallied and prevented a major sale of water supply services to a company; also contributed to the debate the release of the trilogy written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri entitled Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth.
In 2009, during the World Social Forum held in Belem do Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon, organizations presented the “Reclaim the Commons” document, which stated that “alternative initiatives are being developed in many areas to defend water and rivers, land , seeds, biodiversity, ancestral sciences and knowledge, the forests, the seas, the wind, the currency, communication and networking, culture, music and other arts, open and free software, public services for education, health, sanitary system and social security.”
There are currently several political processes fully aligned with the idea of the commons. The protests of dissatisfied Spanish citizens that resulted in the organization of new political forces in that country, some of which today are in charge of the administrations of cities such as Barcelona and Saragossa; the new Constitutions established in Bolivia and Ecuador, which defend the concept of Common Wealth; the many social movements that fight against the privatization of natural assets, such as water, land and rivers; the feminist movements, including the black women’s march; movements in support of citizen science, of free culture, knowledge sharing, open educational resources, for real democracy, among many others.
In a world where the financial market has subdued governments, forging corrupt and violent National States, and facing a socio-environmental collapse of unimaginable proportions, we need to build a communal translocal citizenship.