The Living Commons A Historical Understanding

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A history of the commons--a commoner\’s perspective. Traces the development of knowledge and technology and its impact on the commons through history.

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The Living Commons A Historical Understanding

  1. 1. The living commons: A historical understanding Anita Cheria and Edwin11 Introduction A prerequisite to understanding the commons, its use, and governance is an understanding of the powerrelations with respect to commons. Power is accentuated by knowledge in action (technology). The restrictedsocialisation of knowledge and the control of technology have vastly enhanced the ability to enclose, andtherefore actual enclosure of, the commons. The history of commons can be traced as a continuing effort of retaining or reclaiming the commons by thecommoners on the one side, and efforts at enclosure and encroachment by the dominant on the other. The role ofknowledge and technology is critical, since they accentuate the nature of society that underlies it. Knowledge isorganised so that it produces such technology that makes an equitable society more equitable, and an oppressiveone more oppressive. While knowledge systems such as language and ideology provide the inspiration, moral andintellectual superstructure, technology provides the actual means and tools, empowering humans far beyond theirfragile bodies, almost to the extent of their dreams. Understanding the history of enclosures of the physical commons, the fencing of knowledge, and the keenattempts to re–common them is to take the journey through the centuries, deeply aware of the nature of power andproduction relations. It has been a constant seesaw, with the commoners opening up new spaces, reclaiming thecommons while the enclosers, who control the state, find newer ways of enclosure and rent. This note looks at the historical developments and the emerging opportunities.2 What do we mean by commons The traditional commons were the spaces of the powerless, of the people who do not have ‘private spaces’whether for livelihood or leisure. Intimately entwined with their life, these spaces abounded with life, culture, andtradition. A sacred grove was not empty, but a place where their ancestral spirits still walked, had medicinal plants,and was inextricably intertwined with their knowledge, their identity, and their very being. Each bit of the ‘empty’space had a special resonance, each being sentient with the spirits of the trees, plants, and the inanimate. The commons can be classified as two, the natural commons and the built commons. The natural commons arethe land, water, air, and their combinations such as the forest, seas, and rivers inclusive of the life in them. Itincludes on (land, sea, forests, rivers), above (air, space) and under (minerals, oil, and natural gas) the ground.With the progress of science, newer commons are being identified such as electromagnetic spectrum and spaceitself. Silence is a recognised common now, in 2012, with noise regulation and pollution rules in place, though itseemed an outlandish idea when Ivan Ilich suggested it in 1982. The built commons are two—the hardcoms and the softcoms. The ‘hard’ commons, ‘hardcoms’, are thephysical livelihood systems such as infrastructure built with public resources. Examples of built commons are thecrèches, schools, roads, government buildings such as village offices, post offices, public toilets, and primaryhealth centres. The hardcoms have a knowledge superstructure. Knowledge spans culture, religion, tradition andlaw on the one hand, and information, science, and technology on the other. These are the ‘soft’ part of the builtcommons, or the ‘softcoms’. This superstructure is the ‘software’ or the ‘softcoms’ govern the use of hardcoms.The softcoms determine inclusion, exclusion, access, benefit, and control. Commons are managed and shared by a community that is willing and able to defend it. In the mapping andsubsequent fencing of natural resources, the powerful took over the best part and enclosed it for their exclusiveuse. The rest shared the commons and were the commoners who formed the community. The powerful (the rich)have always had their ‘private’ resource base. It is only the powerless (variously called the ‘commons’, the‘commoners’ or the ‘poor’)2 who were excluded from property, who use spaces ‘in common’ to ensure theminimum critical mass of space for viability to ensure their own survival. Commons are an attempt to have aviable resource base by collective usage and stewardship where the laws of property (the ‘formal legal system’)breakdown. In the modern world too, the phenomenon called ‘secession of the successful’ is seen where the1 Anita and Edwin are directors of OpenSpace, a human rights and development think tank. The authors thank the Commons Initiative, Foundation for Ecological Security, for the many discussions on the commons that helped sharpen concepts and deepen understanding. This paper was presented at the National Consultation on Commons, New Delhi, 20-21 April 20122 Poverty is a factor of power, not production. For an analysis of the intimate links between poverty and power see M K Bhat, et al Life Goes On… 1999, and Anita Cheria et al A Human Rights Approach to Development 2004. The living commons: A historical understanding; page [1] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  2. 2. powerful acquire as much territory as possible and fence themselves in ‘gated communities’. We have not evolvedas much as we would like to believe. Commons does not always mean open, unrestricted access for all. Visualising ‘the commons’ is often aromantic imaging of natural resources, most often meadows, rivers, mountains, and forests in their pristine state.There is a utopian image of them being open access, used without destruction, and always uncontaminated, not‘despoiled’ by human interference. Human presence, if at all present, is that of the ‘noble savage’. The reality is alittle more complex. These ‘commons’ have been regulated, access restricted and even prohibited, based ongender, age, faith/belief, caste, or ethnic origin. The ‘commons’ were, and are, rigorously defined in access,benefits, and control. Significant sections of society are kept out on the basis of caste, gender, or age. The processof reclaiming the ‘commons’ needs to move beyond utopian imaging to an inclusive framework. At the same time,the rights to the commons translate into the right to use, the right of security to tenure, and the right to stewardship—very different from the concept of ‘ownership’ of ‘property’ that the law understands, and tries to foist uponcommunities in the name of joint and community title deeds (patta, khata). Increasingly the terminology of ‘commons’ is used by the dominant to claim the right to what are essentiallythe ‘commons of the poor’ for resource extraction and waste disposal. This forcible commoning is nothing butresource capture after the dominant have destroyed their ‘property’. It is no coincidence that biodiversity is richestin ‘underdeveloped’ areas, and that ‘developed’ areas are monoculture deserts. It is no coincidence either, that theindigenous people resist this invasion of their commons, or that there are literally thousands of struggles when thestate tries to invade and occupy the commons of the poor by terming them ‘national’ commons. The west,unsurprisingly, calls these as ‘global’ commons and plans to use them as carbon sinks and other forms of wasteabsorbers or the indigenous knowledge—very much a part of knowledge and creative commons—as ‘rawmaterial’ for their intellectual ‘property’. The health of the commons is intrinsically linked to the health of the community and the health of everycommoner in such a tight correlation that one cannot exist without the other. Commons play a strategic role inmaintaining ecological health, reducing poverty, and improving collective action. Those who want to destroy acommunity destroy their commons and those who want to destroy the commons destroy their community. One is aprerequisite for the other. As long as a community willing and able to defend its commons exists, that commonswill survive.3 The importance of vocabulary3.1 Commons and vocabulary There is a world of difference between the commons and common property. Though abbreviated as CPR,common pool resources are very different from common property regimes. The blurring of this distinction,sometimes inadvertent but oftentimes deliberate, has led to many avoidable conflicts, the displacement andalienation of the commoner from the commons, and the loss of the commons itself. ‘Commons’ is outside the property framework, while ‘public property’ is within the property framework—islands within private property. In legal terms, commons would be res communes, property that is public due to itsvery nature, while public property would be res publicae belonging and open to the public by virtue of law. Inparts of India (Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana), Samlat/Samlati from ‘shamlat’ is still used widely in villagecommon law. The term had its origins in the Mughal era Urdu/Farsi term ‘shamil’ meaning to include (in Arabic‘comprehensive’, ‘inclusive’, ‘universal’ and even ‘perfect’). ‘Shamilat’ approximates to ‘inclusive’ or ‘shared’,both of which are core values of the commons. The ‘Sambhar Shamlat’ is a revenue arrangement for the salt lakeof Sambhar instituted jointly by the kingdoms of Jaipur and Jodhpur in pre–British India. In Tamilnadu, the termPoramboke is used. There is an intimate linkage between the language used to describe the commons and the perception and use ofcommons—how ‘the commons’ have been translated from practice to restrictive usage. The reduction of thoughtto ideas, ideas to concepts to language and then to words, speech, and writing results in transmission loss at everystage. Though languages by themselves are not deterministic, they do have a certain bias in that direction. Thewords used to describe become words used to determine. This determinism becomes even more pronounced whentranslated into the written form of the language and then to law. When translated into law which determinesaction, it results in linguistic deficiencies restricting action—a serious lacuna which impedes progress onprotection, use and benefits of the commons. What is written becomes the legal limit. Just as language has beenused to bind, it can just as usefully be employed to liberate the commons and return it to the commoners and the The living commons: A historical understanding; page [2] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  3. 3. community. The vocabulary of the law is the vocabulary of property. The conflict between the law and those whobreak it is often the conflict between the deterministic nature of the written word and the descriptive intent.3.2 Socio–linguistics: The vocabulary of property and industrial society Words reveal the nature of society, social relations, and even offer clues to their physical environment. Forinstance, languages of tropical lands have few words for snow, while the Eskimo have more than a dozen. If thelanguage of a society embeds space with life, with animals, plants, and the inanimate, then ‘development’ in thelanguage of that society would not cut through the migration paths of animals or fence their waterholes.Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm privileges industry and capital. The industrial revolution gave rise tocapitalism and democracy. The jurisprudence that developed at the time gave rise to its own vocabulary withindustrial relations as the normative. The vocabulary of individual private property and individual rightsdeveloped co–terminus with science, industrialisation, capitalism and democracy. In a rather frank statement of itsobjectives, industry tells us that ‘development’ is to ‘exploit’ natural resources. Efficiency is to do it in the fastesttime possible. Anything that does not directly affect their bottom line, or what they can get away with—forinstance dumping pollution into the air and water—was not counted as a ‘cost’ but as an ‘externality’ by whichthey could maximise book profits. The language of commons is to protect natural resources. Efficiency is tominimise the resource use footprint. Greenfield is very different from green field—spaces make a lot of differencein language too! The present vocabulary developed as a vocabulary of private property since commons was the norm andimplicit. Property was a subset of the commons. The king owned all else. (It is from the ‘royal’ or ‘regal’ estatesthat we have the term ‘real’ estate.) At the time ‘wastes’ meant any uninhabited land, and what are private fieldstoday were called ‘closes’. There needed to be terms to distinguish property from the commons, since propertywas a subset of the commons. Unfortunately, the language of property has become so dominant that there is a rolereversal, and in extreme cases there is even denial of commons due to absence of explicit definition or description. Wastes were places where there were no people. This land did not produce tax. Though there is a lot ofdifference between wastes and waste, there was an erroneous association between ‘wasteland’ and ‘waste’. For theking, wastes were land that was wasted or useless, since it was not a source of revenue. Though it was not landthat was wasted for the people, who did a lot of hunting there and used it for a variety of purposes, in thedominant discourse (which includes the law), the perspective of the commoner has seldom found space orresonance. This wasteland is then alienated to the private industry—i.e. made into property—so that it can betaxed and made ‘productive’. However, production for the manor is very different from production for thecommunity. The dominant usage in modern languages is steeped in property. It is property—whether industrial or capital—that is taken as the normative. In law, defence of property is normative. The word ‘development’ in modern usageimplicitly refers to industrial development. In more traditional languages, development always means humandevelopment—of the individual and the community. In English however, human development must be specified.Similar usage is seen in terms such as ‘growth’, ‘profit’, ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘reforms’. While TheReformation was to de–institutionalise the church and knowledge, the present day ‘reforms’ are to make polityand society itself more market centric. Therefore these would more accurately be termed deform and deformationfrom a social and human centric perspective. The consequence of the industrial framework is that industrial intervention is a prerequisite for a life pattern tobe recognised, value to be assigned and to disregard the active commons. Language is so influenced by theindustrial paradigm that nature is considered empty until mechanical procedures are applied to it. Value comesonly from such addition, and soon value is mistaken for price. Since the tools are to measure industrial production,all else is termed empty. However, the tools developed by industrial society measured only the health of theenclosures, the corporations, to the detriment of the larger good. Growth was seen to be good, divorced from itseffects on society at large, to the verge of being growth for growth sake. Terms such as ‘jobless growth’ wereinvented and used, not even recognising the irony, that the purposeless growth described therein closest resemblescancer in the real world. Where there is no industrial intervention, it was considered terra nullius. Earlier, ‘wastes’, though ananthropocentric definition, were not considered empty and certainly not a vacuum. The ‘informal economy’,though the largest in ‘less developed economies’, has no place in the GDP just because it is not measured. Air isconsidered empty and lifeless, so smoke and other pollutants can be let into it, no matter the bees and pollination The living commons: A historical understanding; page [3] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  4. 4. are vital for forests and agriculture, apart from the insignificant detail of humans needing fresh air to breathe. Theindiscriminate use of air and electromagnetic resources have literally pushed out bees and birds, in some casesleading to large scale deaths. The rivers and seas are considered empty so the sewage and toxic waste is pouredinto them. It extended even to considering ‘the natives’ minds as empty and bereft of culture—terra nullius of themindscape—if there was no industrial production. As Eric Fromm put it in ‘To Be or To Have,’ Industrial societyhas contempt for nature—as well as for all things that are not machine made and for all people who are notmachine makers. What is not, or cannot, be measured is considered absent.3.3 Vocabulary of transition: Commons to property The change of usage from commons to common property signals a significant shift in production relations, andthe actual relationship between the community and the commons. The commons has always been outside theproperty framework. When ‘commons’ becomes ‘common property’ it brings the commons firmly within theproperty framework, enabling the government to enforce the concept of ‘terra nullius’ and ‘eminent domain’. Law,the language of the state, is in the vocabulary of property. The introduction of property introduces ‘trespasser’ andthe related term ‘criminal’. Where there is no property, there cannot be trespass. The slip is then rapid: fromcommons to common property to public property, government property, public private partnership (PPP), andfinally private property. PPP itself has different levels: Build Own Transfer (BOT), Build Own Operate Transfer(BOOT) and joint ventures (JV). The state would like to blur the distinction between them and use these terms interchangeably. Their distincthistories, and therefore the legal distinction, must always be kept in mind, because the key difference is in theirtreatment of ‘property’. This alertness is required due to the central role played by the state in alienating thecommons from the commoner. The state would see this creeping acquisition as a right of the state. In a curiousreversal, the encroacher state claims that the commoners are encroachers in the commons, and seeks to ‘clear theencroachments’ by evicting the commoners. The commoners, who are indigenous to the commons, cannot beencroachers on the commons. In a curious reversal, encroaching governments around the world routinely label thecommoners as encroachers—akin to calling Indians illegal aliens in India—and evicts them from the commons.3.4 Vocabulary in the urban commons In the urban or ‘built commons’ this gradual transformation is seen in the slow transition from being humancentric to machine centric in the progression: path—street—road—highway—expressway. In a path humans aresupreme. There is no mechanised transport. Human powered transport such as cycles and carts are rare. In a streettoo, humans are supreme. Mechanised transport is rare and of the smaller variety. In roads, the primary users—thehuman beings—are relegated to the sidewalks, and are decidedly second class. This marginalisation turns toexclusion in highways and expressways, where ‘slow moving transport’ is excluded and actively discouraged.They are often fenced off. Community spaces—for hawkers or pleasantries—are possible only on streets,pavements, and footpaths. The notion of roads being for the public—a ‘commons’—has taken a beating in recent years. Footpaths are anessential part of roads, since that is the part of the road that is used by the vendors, pedestrians and those who usepublic transport. This space is being severely restricted, and sometimes even absent, in cities—both in city centresand in residential neighbourhoods. Instead the roads are being broadened to make space for private vehicles.Though most people travel by public transport, very little space is earmarked for bus lanes, bus stops/bus bays,and passenger shelters at bus stops or footpaths. Cycle tracks are not only absent, use of ‘slow moving’transportation is prohibited on most flyovers and arterial roads. Footpaths shrink and disappear. This invasion ofthe street and conquest of the footpath is to have wider roads so that high–rises can be built with larger FloorSpace Index (FSI). The vendors have to be removed so that the malls can survive. Non–rivalrous commonssuddenly become rivalrous. Language has undergone significant change from the urban commons (‘public’) to urban enclosure: fromgardens to parks (off limits to animals including pets), with manicured lawns (off limits to humans too), frommarkets to malls, from streets to flyovers, and playgrounds to stadiums. Increased crime and aggression, as restand recreation spaces were commandeered for private use, is a result of this enclosure. New usage such as ‘gatedcommunities’ invading the vocabulary mark the success of enclosure movements and the disconnect of the elitefrom economic production, cultural vibrancy, and democracy of the city. The living commons: A historical understanding; page [4] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  5. 5. 3.5 The exclusive sacred: Constructing knowledge and the architecture of language The definition of commons and its legal defence rests on the knowledge base. The knowledge base rests on thelanguage employed. The construction of knowledge and the architecture of language is therefore fundamental tothe defence of the commons. The physical commons needs the support of knowledge commons such as culture,religion, tradition, law, science, and technology. A fundamental and critical challenge of the knowledge commonsis that only some knowledge is acknowledged as knowledge itself, the modern day version of ‘my superstition isscripture but your scriptures are myths’. This enables those of the ‘true knowledge’ to define what is the commons and what is private, who owns whatand what is legitimate. The keepers of ‘true knowledge’ can then determine access, control, privilege, andexclusion from the commons. Religion and culture are ways of organising knowledge. They are for enclosing thecommons and used as such by the powerful. Though claiming to be ‘universal’—and therefore the ‘commons’ ofat least humanity—major religions of the world still are exclusivist not only towards others (calling them pagan,infidel, kafir, Asura, Daeva) but also to those within its fold. The duality enables forced inclusion for resourcegrab and exclusion for benefits. Though knowledge was shared within the community, the ‘community’ was narrowly defined. It often meantonly the male of a sub–sect of a sub–clan. Priesthood is a virtual male monopoly, with different levels of initiationover long periods of trial being a prerequisite for greater access. Knowledge was privatised and jealously guardedby making them ‘sacred’ and only for the ‘chosen’. In extreme cases, even the knowledge of the ‘sacred language’was prohibited. The poor were not even allowed to learn the language of power—whether Sanskrit, Latin orEnglish. ‘Scriptures’ were kept hidden from the commons, who could not know what they said. Ideological systems such as religion, caste (Varna), race, and patriarchy worked in tandem to reinforce eachother and regulate the use of the resources, slowly but inexorably with grinding finality, fencing off the commons.Most often, this ‘regulation’ is to restrict or even prohibit certain sections from using the commons. Slowly, themajority was kept away from ‘the commons’ for various reasons. With ‘might as right’ being the norm, only whatcould not be enclosed by the dominant remained commons—and the ‘could not’ diminished with every advance ofscience and technology.3.6 From property to commons Despite all the talk of ‘commons’ the government sees and can comprehend only ‘grazing land’ or ‘pasture’,and the commoners as ‘encroachers’. The market and the corporate world see the commons as property–in–the–waiting, to be taken over when they have the capacity. Retaking the commons needs a vocabulary of commons—in thought (attitude), speech, policy (intent), law(norms) and programmes (practice). The vocabulary of the commons cannot be a vocabulary of property. Todefine the commons as common property is to fall into the trap of property relations. Just as a gender just societyneeds gender inclusive and gender just vocabulary (human, spokesman, spokesperson, spokeswoman), defendingthe commons needs a vocabulary of commons.4 Enclosure and re–commoning4.1 Commons and the state There are many views on the emergence and growth of state. One is that as the family grew the father (ordominant male) became the head of the clan, tribe and finally the king. The other is that the king was the chief of agroup of marauders who was paid protection money by the sedentary population to be left alone. The ‘king as father’ kingdoms gave rise to the welfare state, while the ‘king as robber’ gave rise to the colonial,rent–seeking state. This has coloured most discussions on the role of the state, since those coming from differentkinds of states would want a larger or smaller role for the state depending on their experience. In India, the state aswe know it now, arose from the colonial state, and therefore is extractive. However, history has proved that the state, no matter what its origin, has always turned against its people in thelong run, and is a protector of class interests. Though the state can, and does, temporarily align with the interestsof the citizens and mouth pro–citizen slogans even longer, the true long–term nature of the state is againstcommunities and commons.4.2 The feudal era Some collective functions were done by the king for the welfare of the entire kingdom. Good kings used thetax, or protection money, for common services. Depending on your view, these common services were providedby the state because the king was the father and had to take care of his children or because the infrastructure The living commons: A historical understanding; page [5] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  6. 6. would provide more efficient means of extraction from the subjects. Kings built tanks for water storage and roads—the first built commons. As kings expanded their territory, they were assimilative of other cultures. In religion,all gods were fitted into a pantheon, with their relative positions reflecting the strength of their followers on earth.Slowly these were assimilated into a trinity, and then into one all powerful god—the god of the king—who notonly owned everything in the universe but was the creator of the universe. The Earth and everything in it belongedto this god. Theoretically, the god was the ‘god of all’, though in practice access to the ‘god of all’ was highlyrestricted, reflecting the restrictions on the use of ‘commons’. The ‘god of all’ translated into the concept of‘eminent domain’ which means that the king, or the state, owned everything. The people only had the right to use.The king could extinguish all ‘rights’ at will, including the life of the subjects. The father had similar rights in thefamily. The idea that the Earth ‘belonged’ to someone—and that we are not ‘of the earth’—was necessary to subjugatethe Earth and other beings, including humans. Ownership is always of the ‘lesser’ (woman in patriarchal societies,nature in non–indigenous communities) not of an equal or sacred. First, a god who was outside of creation wascreated and made ‘the creator’. Then came the identification of the king with the god—either as a direct avatar, oras a descendant. Intellectuals, bards, priests, and other sycophants developed theories of the ‘divine right of kings’and the ‘scriptures’ that had laws legitimising ownership of the ‘nobility’ and exclusion of the ‘commoners’ (beingtwo sides of a coin). Unfortunately, kings began to believe in the sycophantic paeans, like many who believe theirown propaganda and advertisements today. ‘Kings’ whose dominion barely covered a few acres declared themselves lords of the universe, the sevenheavens, and the three worlds. The king being a god could, and did, exploit the commons—the people and theresources—since he was ‘outside’ and ‘above’, and therefore ‘greater’, than nature. The commoners were not‘greater’ than nature, and therefore could not ‘exploit’. This ‘externalising’ is the key distinction betweenindigenous peoples and all others. For the indigenous people, nature—life—community is a continuum. For allothers there is an external god who created and controls nature. Externalising would return as the more pernicious‘externalities’ of the industrial economy and tools of measurement, which enabled distorted and fundamentallyflawed tools to pass off dubious ‘cost benefit analysis’ as science. Exploitation of nature had to await the industrial revolution. The Cartesian formulation created an ideologicalframework that made it possible for humans to consider themselves as separate from, and superior to, nature. TheCartesian framework resulted in tremendous increase in knowledge, science, and technology, but also made itpossible for Homo sapiens to dominate nature on a global scale. Technology made it possible to reach across thespatial ‘buffers’ between communities to dominate and enclose.4.3 The need for enclosures Enclosures are not always bad and are sometimes even required, such as for security, risk and innovation. Thefirst ‘fencing’ was probably to keep off marauders, the remnants of the hunter gatherers who preyed on thesedentary agriculturists. Enclosure became more common and permanent as the pressure on the land grew and the‘buffer land’ between communities and individuals diminished, changing non-rivalrous commons into rivalrouscommons. Though there was always a territorial component in human habitation, and territories were marked,they followed natural boundaries of hills and streams. There were markers, first bio-markers such as trees andlater dressed stones, delimiting territories. Delimiting land was seldom for exclusive use, and non-rivalrous usagewas permitted. But markers are very different from privatising land though fencing. Fencing brought in theconcept of exclusive use. As the capacity to fence grew, so did the extent of land fenced and the duration. Recordkeeping and technology enhance fencing infinitely. In agrarian societies, small patches of land could be marked for use by individuals and families but thesereverted to the community or the state. These closes were places where there could be risk/innovation within thecarrying capacity of the community. Once the innovation was successful, the fruits were shared by the community.There was sufficient space so that the risks were isolated, and the footprint of the communities did not overlap. The capacity of a community to risk is dependent on how secure it is—meaning the state of its buffers, surplus,and how far it is from the survival levels. At survival levels, no community can afford to break away from thetried and tested, i.e. take risk or innovate. Innovation even if it be individual initiative, can only be within thecapacity of community to bear the cost of failure without harming security of the community as a whole.Enclosures provide this opportunity and security—as in today’s science laboratories where experiments areconducted in a controlled, isolated space. Only the benefits are released onto the commons. Similar was the case The living commons: A historical understanding; page [6] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  7. 7. with the capitalist invention of the corporation, which was to ring fence the risk so that it did not affect the entirewealth of the investor.4.4 Commoning knowledge The earliest known attempt to common knowledge in India was by the Buddha (563–486BC), who taught inPali, the language of the commons. It is no coincidence that both of India’s ancient universities—at Nalanda andTaxila—were Buddhist with about 10,000 students and a teacher student ratio of 1:5. For his trouble, thegatekeepers of knowledge exterminated Buddhism from the land of its origin. A similar attempt to commonknowledge had to await the advent of Mohammed in Arabia in the seventh century—over a thousand years—whoensured that Islam was taught in the language of the commons, Arabic. Ironically, it was the adherents of Islamwho sacked both the Buddhist universities. Though Christianity was taught in Aramaic, the language of the people, its texts were in Hebrew, Greek andLatin—all languages of the gatekeepers. It reached such a level of exclusion that Europe, where the RomanCatholic church held sway, fell into the ‘age of faith’ or the ‘dark ages’—a term coined by a Roman CatholicPriest. ‘Dark’ in this context meant absence of written records. Literacy levels were close to zero. It took theReformation, and the insistence of the Protestant Christians on schooling and literacy, for the Roman Catholics toturn their attention to literacy in the Counter Reformation. In the millennial belief system on the return of Christ, Christendom launched an attack to ‘liberate the holyland’ at the time of his second coming. The contact of the Europeans with the Arabs during the crusades (1095–1291) led to the Renaissance (14 th century) and the Reformation (14 th to 16th centuries)—helped in no smallmeasure by the printing press (1440)—that helped democratisation of knowledge. One of the first books to beprinted was the Bible, first in Latin and then in the local languages of the people, again making ‘knowledge’accessible to the commons (the translators were burnt at the stake). With typical German efficiency, the hithertorestricted–to–the–Roman–Catholic–clergy system of education was thrown open to anyone with an interest instudying. An illiterate child could be taught cutting edge knowledge with industrial precision within five years. Adecade of schooling was all it took to churn out ‘bachelors’ and ‘masters’ in various specialities—something thattook a lifetime before. The schooling system—which socialises knowledge and social mores—was refined over the years so that anilliterate five year old going into the system would understand Nobel Prize winning concepts in less than tenyears. However, the dominant soon struck back, and coopted the ‘new normal’. Even today, with ‘universaleducation’ the rich (privileged) are taught to command and consume and the middle class to manage and save. Thepoor, as always, are taught to obey and sacrifice. In a commons framework, we would have a commons schoolsystem that encourages cooperation. The absence of such a system shows up in very many different ways. Themulti–tier schooling system teaches all children for 15 years that collaboration is bad and greed is good—and thensociety wonders why adults are so selfish and so corrupt. The unintended consequence of the printing press and increased literacy was that oral traditions were wipedout, de–legitimised, or made ‘less’ in short order especially within the legal system. Only written titles andcontracts were recognised. Much of the commons were enclosed as reserve forest and exclusive enclaves with thestroke of a pen. Five centuries on, oral traditions have not recovered from this knockout blow, despitedevelopment in audio visual technology. With this explosion of knowledge and scientific enquiry came the Age ofReason and the industrial revolution, which enabled fencing on a global scale.4.5 Colonialism, corporations, capitalism The imperial overreach of the crusades had a debilitating effect on most European monarchies. The crusade–weakened kings were almost bankrupt. They could not conquer the land required to expand their tax base tosupport their lifestyle. They could not raise taxes on their war weary subjects. Instead, the subjects wrestedconcessions from them. The Magna Carta, possibly the first citizens’ charter limiting the duties of the king, wassigned in 1215. The commoners realised governance—and the capacity to defend the commons—was intrinsic tothe commons and they needed to be present when laws and decisions were made regarding the commons. So theHouse of Commons was established in the 13th and 14th centuries. The surplus (extraordinary profits) created by the industrial revolution made capital accumulation possible, andthe merchant class wealthy enough to build ships and launch to foreign lands—something that only kings could dobefore. So the kings let some of their citizens go out and conquer other (non–Christian) lands for a part of theprofits. These citizens would have the exclusive right to plunder the foreign land and its people for a short period The living commons: A historical understanding; page [7] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  8. 8. (similar to patent and copyright) since the conquest was still in the framework of eminent domain. A ‘RoyalCharter’ was granted to the Dutch East India Company (DEIC, 1602–1800), British East India Company (BEIC,1600–1858), and Massachusetts Bay Company (MBC, 1629–1684). DEIC was granted monopoly for 21 yearsonly. The MBC Charter was ‘forever’ subject to payment of 20% tax but was revoked in 55 years. The 15 yearmonopoly of BEIC was made indefinite in 1609, but the monopoly was revoked by the East India Company Act1813 (the Charter Act). BEIC had only about a fifth of the business of DEIC, and yet controlled a substantial partof India. Revocation of the charter of BEIC and MBC brought these lands under the direct rule of the BritishCrown. The corporation as a legal entity was formed, so that the investors could share profits or loss according to theinvestment. Initially, these companies were incorporated for a single voyage and disbanded with the sharing of itsprofits. With increase in surplus, the corporations became more permanent with multiple ships and multiplevoyages at any given time. Private armies and navies were raised for the protection of the armadas and traderoutes. The corporation limited (fenced) the risk to the money invested, and did not extend liability to the entireassets of the investor. The monarch got a share in the profit, and was not liable for any loss. This corporation wasa fairly ‘democratic’ entity. With the development of capitalism came democracy, where one man would have onevote (equal share in governance of a nation) just as in a company it was a share in profit in proportion toinvestment. It was, in a sense, ‘commoning governance’ in the new lands, just as the commoners fought for, andgot, the House of Commons in the British Parliament. In the foreign lands considered ‘empty’, terra nullius, the colonisers literally and figuratively fenced off land fortheir own use. Technology made it possible to fence ever larger areas at increasing distances. Large parts of Africaand Asia were enclosed as game reserves and restrictions were placed on indigenous use of land. Most of this wasaccomplished through iniquitous declarations and treaties, enforced by the iron fist. To prevent internecineconflict, areas of influence were agreed upon by European powers drawing straight lines on a map. Theseartificially separated communities and did not have natural geography as borders, leading to many presentconflicts, along with the development of technology.4.6 Democratising knowledge and governance In the colonies, among themselves, the colonisers could move beyond the social and economic boundariesimposed on them by their own societies and nations with some limited social mobility. They freed themselvesfrom the tyranny of the kings and established the rule of law. The commons were beneficiaries of many of the innovations of the companies, chiefly the transparent rule oflaw (especially contracts), and set procedures of governance. The State could no longer just seize everything.There had to be a clear procedure. Retrospective changes were not permitted. The law of contracts was used byJohn Locke (1632–1704) when he argued that the king also had a contract with his subjects, and if he broke thecontract he could be deposed. The spread of knowledge meant that everyone could have a copy of the contract,and understand what it was explicitly. The modern written constitutions—the contract between the State and thecommons—are a direct result. In keeping with the secularisation of knowledge, these contracts have a scope foramendments, a distinction that sets apart these secular ‘bibles’ of the state from the holy books of faith basedideologies which are supposed to be ‘revealed’ and ‘unchangeable’ though incompatible and irrelevant tocontemporary times. They are a commoning of governance, keeping pace with contemporary times. Unfortunatelyfor the colonised, might was right. When the king or the corporation could, they did seize the land and violate thelaw. In India, the schooling system established by Christian missionaries who piggybacked on the mercantileconquest brought knowledge back to the commoners to a degree not witnessed since Buddhist days. Though thefirst printed Indian work was released on 6 November 1556, the revolution started with 1793 when the trickleturned into a flood that would churn out 86 dictionaries, 115 grammar books and 45 journals in 73 languages ofIndia (apart from the Bible in each of these languages) in a short span. With the backing of the state and theprinting press, they could make available books, and therefore knowledge, at an affordable price to the commoneron a scale hitherto unimaginable. Secularising knowledge by setting up the schooling system—first set up toproduce clerks for the colonial administration—provided for a lot of upward mobility. Both Ambedkar andMahatma Phule acknowledged that the advent of the British was far from an unmitigated disaster for thedepressed classes. On the contrary, it was a qualified blessing. The living commons: A historical understanding; page [8] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  9. 9. 4.7 The dance of the dinosaurs A couple of centuries after the charters, the companies themselves fell victim to hubris and imperial overreach,and the natives were in revolt everywhere. These companies had fine–tuned their exploitative mechanisms and itwas no longer a light touch revenue extraction. Just as the kings before them, these companies exhaustedthemselves in conquests and turned to the kings for protection or support. The monarchs who were content withtaxes, and had rebuilt their strength in the interregnum, could not allow the lucrative revenue stream to dry up, andso directly stepped in with their armed forces to secure the estates and trading posts of the companies. Thecolonies were brought directly under the British Crown (Massachusetts in 1686, India in 1858), making for globalenclosures as against the enclosures within national boundaries earlier. Internally, the rejuvenated state in the 18 thcentury reverted to its old policy of maximising revenue extraction by taxing even the sunlight streaming intohouses, by linking taxes to the number of windows. Though they opened up the knowledge commons, the colonialsystem fenced ever larger parts of the countryside. As with most second comings, the second coming of the state met with disaster, after initial ‘success’. Within ahundred years most of the known world was colonised, the rapid explosion of technology making even morefencing possible. The turn of the 20th century saw a race for colonisation and resources on an unprecedented scale.This race to fence off the world saw a deepening exclusion of the colonised people from their own lands in greaterdegree. It could not but end in conflict which, in 1945, resulted in the creation of a new world order after twodebilitating wars by the imperial powers in 20 years. With the imperial powers weakened by the global wars, the locals again asserted themselves and reclaimed thecommons. This led to a host of wars of national liberation, and many new nations were formed in the 1940s–1960s. Unfortunately, the locals took over the colonial state and the fences remained. Though there were attemptsat recommoning such as nationalising common resources, the state structure remained the same. The world wasfenced off between the Capitalist and Soviet blocs. There were sub–blocs within this, as the US continued with theMonroe Doctrine of hemispheric dominance, or in blunt terms, considering the whole of the Americas as its‘backyard’ where it alone could have any military role, while projecting its military power in remote corners of theglobe. The new nation states enforced various copycat forms of restriction, from actual fencing to increasinglyintrusive and restrictive visa regimes. Social movements were at the forefront of the recommoning effort. The Suffragettes in the late 19th century, andthe feminist movement since the 1960s, tried to being women into the global commons in governance and allpublic spaces. The most significant successes were that of the women’s movement, closely followed by the civilrights movements (anti-race in USA, and anti-caste in India). These movements directly challenged the fencing ofthe commons by patriarchy and race/caste. Women, blacks and Dalits demanded and got the right to vote, study,and enter ‘public’ spaces. The anti-war/peace movements demanded that common resources not be wasted fordefending the hegemony of the elites or for their turf wars but be used for common good. Capitalism (which started off by breaking the fences put up by feudalism but had by now become another namefor privatisation and fencing) struck back using the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Thenewly created states were targeted by, in John Perkins famous phrase, ‘economic hit–men’. Structural adjustment,essentially privatising national resources and buying up the local leaders, was the norm to ensure that iniquitousregimes continued. The Regan—Thatcher revolution in both sides of the Atlantic pummelled the commons andthe commoners in the 1980s. Public utilities—including water—were privatised in the UK. There was talk ofshrinking the state so that it could be flushed down the toilet. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990,capitalist triumphalism even proclaimed the ‘end of history’. The 1990s saw an even more savage round of privatisation that fenced not only the existing resources but laidclaim to any that could possibly be discovered anywhere in the universe. GATT (General Agreement in Trade andTariffs) was followed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with its GATS (General Agreement on Trade andServices), IPR (Intellectual Property Rights), TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), TRIMS (TradeRelated Investment Measures), and GAA (General Agreement on Agriculture). New acronyms GM (GeneticallyModified) and BT (Biotechnology) found their way into everyday lexicon. Everything became ‘property’ andwhatever possible was even physically enclosed. Agreements under the WTO ensure that the knowledge of the industrial societies is kept private while openingup the traditional knowledge as global commons. The World Economic Forum (WEF), a private club withmembership of the world’s thousand leading companies, which started in 1971 increased in power and prestige inthe 1990s. Its annual meetings in Davos decided the global economic policy for the year. This private club had The living commons: A historical understanding; page [9] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  10. 10. governments come in only as invitees—a reversal of roles that accurately reflected the changed power relationsand the state of the commons. Copyright, initially for 14 years, extended progressively to the life of the author and beyond. It became life ofauthor plus 40, to 50, to 60 years, and now is life of the author plus 100 years. Biotechnology led to the unveilingof the human genome, and consequently the patenting of life. The growing privatisation of knowledge resulted inwork on GM crops. These crops were considered so commercially valuable that they had a killer gene insertedinto them so that they would not be able to reproduce—the farmer would have to get back to the company for thenext year’s seeds. Despite polluting adjacent farms, the scientists and marketers thought of their invention asvaluable—so much so that they referred to the bees (responsible for most pollination) as ‘pollen robbers’. Themind had become completely warped. The government was captured by the mercantile barons and cared moreabout consumers than citizens. Even essentials such as water became a commodity and many believed in marketpricing water. ‘User fees’ were proposed. Public utility services were handed over to corporations. Rivers wereprivatised. Bottled water made its appearance. The tipping point was probably 2003 when, for the first time inhistory, a majority (52 of 100) of the world’s largest economies were corporations and not nation–states.5 The commons today5.1 Recognising the fundamental right to commons Within a decade of Capitalism’s triumphalism, the Labour Party (PT) came to power in southern Brazil—in thetriumphalist American ‘backyard’. To celebrate they started the ‘World Social Forum’ which grew to be a worldassembly of the commons. The organising principles of the WSF are radically different from other suchassemblies—no joint statement, no spokespersons, and multiple locations spanning the globe. Since then, the South and Central American peoples have been at the forefront of the global transition tocommons. The pushback ‘recommoning’ was most dramatic in the case of water in the first decade of the 21 stcentury. By the middle of the decade, water was recommoned in Bolivia. In 2006, the water utility company Suezwas removed from La Paz Bolivia. It was forced out of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, Argentina soon after.Adelaide, Australia took back its water from a private consortium after years of being engulfed in a ‘big pong’(stench) caused by leaking sewers. In India the secretive plans of the World Bank to force privatisation in NewDelhi were stalled in 2005. Water as a right was recognised legally by Uruguay on 31 October 2004. South Africa, Ecuador, Ethiopia andKenya declared water as a human right in their constitutions. In April 2005 the Belgian Parliament passed aconstitutional amendment recognising water as a human right. In August 2006, the Indian Supreme Court ruledthat protection of natural lakes and ponds is akin to honouring the right to life—the most fundamental right of all.In September 2006 the French Senate accepted ‘the right to access to clean water’. The Netherlands declared the‘right to water’ through a constitutional amendment in 2008. In January 2011 the Supreme Court of India ordered the protection of the commons, eviction of encroachersand periodic compliance reports in the case before it on encroachment of the village pond, but which it suo motoenlarged to cover all commons. Interestingly, it made a distinction between the encroachers and the commonersdirecting that the commoners should not be evicted. Before parting with this case we give directions to all the State Governments in the country that they should prepare schemes for eviction of illegal/unauthorized occupants of Gram Sabha/ Gram Panchayat/ Poramboke/ Shamlat land and these must be restored to the Gram Sabha/ Gram Panchayat for the common use of villagers of the village. [...] Regularization should only be permitted in exceptional cases e.g. where lease has been granted under some Government notification to landless labourers or members of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, or where there is already a school, dispensary or other public utility on the land. Para 22, CIVIL APPEAL NO.1132 /2011 @ SLP(C) No.3109/2011 Britain too started the process of restoration of commons with the deeply flawed Commons Registration Act1965, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which entitled walking on all those commons whichpreviously had no access, subject to certain restrictions. The Open Spaces Society could record and protect manycommons, including wetlands, despite opposition from the government and the real estate–builders lobby. Commons appropriated during colonial and imperialist times were returned to indigenous people right acrossthe globe. This got a fillip in 1992—500 years after Columbus landed in the ‘new world’—due to concerted actionby alliances of indigenous people at all levels, and a misguided attempt by Europeans to ‘celebrate’ the event that The living commons: A historical understanding; page [10] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  11. 11. still was a raw wound for the Africans and the native Americans. Land and resources were returned to indigenouspeople from Canada to Norway to Australia and New Zealand, in one of the largest decolonisation moves after the1950s. Even India enacted Panchayat Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) in 1996, followed by theScheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, popularly calledthe Forest Rights Act (FRA). New commons, and a new understanding of the commons, are emerging to support the survival of thecommoners, quite distinct from the digital commons which occupies the ‘new commons’ space in the commonsdiscourse. The new commons in the Indian context is a result of a series of policy changes that have come up as aresponse to community struggles for survival and dignity. They are an attempt to recognise and ensure certainbasic rights for marginalised communities as well as more responsive state functioning. In India there are, andhave been, strong movements to ensure recommoning—that the fences are brought down and the enclosuresopened up. The anti-caste movement is one such. The women’s movement and that of the sexual minorities areothers. What is new is that they are now being institutionalised with constitutional and legal support. The Right toInformation Act, RTI, 2005, (recommoning information) which provides transparency in the use of publicresources, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (recommoning the benefits of the use of nationalwealth) and the Right to Education Act 2010 which provides for free and compulsory education to all childrenaged six to fourteen (recommoning knowledge, tearing down the walls of caste and economic privilege), despiteflaws, lay a strong foundation for a new commons-led society. Others, such as the FRA, recognise existingcommons and attempt to correct historical injustice by returning land and resources to the communities. In fact,these ‘commons’ were fenced off for so long and so effective was prohibition, that these are ‘new’ commons forthe majority of women, Dalits, Adivasi and children. In addition, there are a series of Supreme Court orders that recognise silence and natural and mineral resources—including electromagnetic spectrum—as commons that can be privatised only for public utility, and even so fora limited period. The Right to Food campaign is another ongoing process in the same direction that still needs tofind an appropriate language of rights, policy and implementation. The law recognises that fencing is only temporary—hence the time limit for patents and copyrights—and thatcommons are the norm. In 2012, the Supreme Court of India allowed compulsory licensing of an anti–cancer drug—slashing the price of the drug by 97%! The legal framework for returning the commons to the commoners, andrestoring the primacy of the commons in the constitutional framework is well underway. In international law, parts of Antarctica are recognised as global commons. So are most of the oceans but for 12nautical miles from the coastline as ‘territorial waters’. There is right of passage in the 200 nautical mile exclusiveeconomic zones. All of outer space is considered common to humanity (rather arrogant of the human race—sinceeven the Earth is not exclusively a ‘human’ commons). This is in stark contrast to the earlier wave of discoverywhen the Royal Charters were exclusively for colonising non-Christian lands. Perhaps this is belatedacknowledgement of the futility of the concept of terra nullius. Though there are stray attempts from private actorsto fence/lay claim to outer space with the possible emergence of technology that would enable such fencing, as ofnow the international (human) law recognises it as commons.5.2 A new knowledge base The International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC) was founded in 1989 as an interdisciplinaryknowledge sharing community. Through academically rigorous research, sharing of findings and their biennialconferences, it could convincingly prove, in economic terms, the utility of the commons. Elinor Ostrom, apolitical scientist, got the Economics Nobel for her effort in 2009. This increased interest on the commons, andmoved it from being at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, as interdisciplinary studies normally are. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Senior Economist Mahbub ul Haq developed theHuman Development Index and Report in 1990, together with Amartya Sen in contrast to the World Bank thatbrought out the World Development Report. GINI and other indices to measure inequality and wellbeing wereinvented. At about the same time, there was an explosion of interest in ‘the rights of mother earth’ and theBolivarian revolution. The knowledge economy made the fatal flaws in tools of measurement of the industrial erapainfully evident. Governments commissioned better measures of development. The ‘mass’ nature of technology and business models, especially the internet and mobile telephony, opened upa lot of space. While a security and privacy threat, paradoxically, this very same medium offers privacy and a levelplaying field to some of the most excluded sections. Sexual minorities excluded from the physical commons have The living commons: A historical understanding; page [11] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  12. 12. found a haven in the virtual anonymity of cyberspace, though law enforcement and moral police turn theanonymity to their advantage by using fake IDs to out identities. The very anti–thesis of the restrictive IPR regimes is the copyleft movement that has come up with ‘creativecommons’ with its own standards and licensing. Even capital needs the creativity of FOSS (Free Open SourceSoftware), leading to the paradox of multi–billion dollar software companies financing the Free SoftwareFoundation, implicitly acknowledging that the corporations (closes) need the creativity of ‘crowd computing’(commons) and that non–monetary incentives are superior creativity enablers. Wikipedia, built totally with freecontributions, is way and above all other encyclopaedia both in terms of absolute volume and the breadth ofknowledge and matches them in accuracy despite being ‘open’. 3 It is also the most up–to–date of them all, beingonline and being constantly updated. While practices of copyright and patenting continue for some kinds of knowledge systems, creative commonslicensing and a growing free software movement are now mainstream. The share of generic drugs in health care isgrowing, giving the disease industry a run for their money. The Wikipedia and its various forms show ampleevidence of the benefits, wide acceptance and support for commoning. Creative commons are anacknowledgement that knowledge creation is a social process. Freeing the airwaves, the use of free and opensource software (FOSS) and hardware are good beginnings. More universities—including ivy leaguers such as Princeton, Harvard and IGNOU—are putting out theircourse material and research papers in open access, using the power of the internet, ‘commoning’ even moreknowledge without intermediaries or gatekeepers. Some even have free online courses—Udacity (Stanford), edX(Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT) and Coursera (Stanford, Princeton, University ofPennsylvania, and University of Michigan). Udacity encourages collaborative learning among students, possiblyleading to cooperation by students in other spheres too. The Government of India has a policy of open access forall publicly funded research. The open design movement includes even highly technical and specialised spheresfrom computers to cars—from operating systems (Linux, Android) to hardware. Open discovery in health, bringsdown research costs immeasurably.5.3 The new economy There is a global shift from an economy based on scarcity to one of surplus. The global institutions of the stateand the market are yet to even know of the shift, let alone understand it. The global systems are designed forappropriation and hoarding rather than distribution and sharing. The consequences are butter mountains and milklakes in Europe being dumped in the sea while there is famine in Africa. In India it has resulted in large-scalerotting of food in godowns, while about half the children are malnourished. The commoners have responded by the freecycle and share economy, totally bypassing the market andmeasurement indices. ‘Volunteerism’ has increased tremendously over the years, contributing skills andcompetencies free of cost to the commons. Economic theory and measurement tools too caught up with reality,understanding that the air is not empty nor an externality that can be the thrash can of the world, anymore than theoceans are. Economists took a hard look at ‘externalities’ and devised better measures for corporations. Nationaland international laws, such as the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste, seek to price in the entire cost ofownership, including safe disposal, and make the manufacturer liable for the pollution caused by the ‘waste’ evenafter the end of their product life. In this model, use of the global commons for dumping waste is priced in basedon the principle ‘the polluter pays’. In the heydays of capitalism, profits were privatised and the costs including pollution were socialised,‘externalised’, right up to interstellar space. Contracts concerning precious natural resources were leased out on acost plus basis—as if the contractor was doing the community a favour rather than exploiting scarce naturalresources. Now the standards are different. Different regulatory bodies set the terms and conditions for serviceprovision (quality, pollution levels—no more an ‘externality’—and end user pricing). This is a better balancebetween private enterprise and public service with a more equitable sharing of risk and reward on the one handand resources and equity on the other. There are some tentative steps towards ‘green accounting’ and ‘green budgeting’ so that the ‘national balancesheet’ would reflect the use of irreplaceable natural resources and the commons and not treat them as externalities.The economic indicator ‘gross domestic product’ or GDP is supplemented by national green accounts that would3 Jim Giles, ‘Internet encyclopaedias go head to head’, Nature, vol. 438 no. 531 (15 December 2005), Note 4 Chapter 1 quoted by Tapscott D and Williams A D in Wikinomics. www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html The living commons: A historical understanding; page [12] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  13. 13. take natural capital use into account. The World Bank has developed the ‘adjusted net savings’ (ANS) which theyclaim is a macro-level indicator of sustainable development that measures the ‘true rate of savings in an economy,taking into account investment in human capital, depletion of natural resources and damage caused by pollution’.ANS is a ‘national balance sheet’ by adding human capital accumulation and deducting natural resources losses.Though a deeply flawed tool (its environmental impact measure does not even begin to capture the cost of globalwarming), it is a step in the right direction by recognising the need to eliminate ‘externalities’. Though the green economy is a step forward from a sustainable economy, which was a step forward from the‘enter-exploit-exit’ economy, it is still within the framework of ‘more of the same’—carbon trading, eco-development—that led to the crisis in the first place. Better tools need to be developed, fully within the commonsframework.5.4 To preserve and to protect: the challenges The commoners in Britain lost their first battle in stopping the enclosures, but found their space in governancethrough the House of Commons, which now prevails over the House of Lords. This leads us to the first challengeof the commons: The commoners need to be sovereign over their commons and have the capacity and willingnessto defend it. If not, then it is not their commons. If the community cannot preserve and protect their commons,they will soon be alienated from it. The concept of independent village republics ‘gram swaraj’—the promise ofthe Indian independence struggle—is based on this. A corollary is that these communities need to be internally just—inclusive and equitable—with increasingspace for self–expression. Communities that do not transform themselves to meet the new aspirations of theirconstituents will soon find themselves disintegrating, their members drifting away and the commons wasting. Themastery of the vocabulary of commons is often by the most regressive sections that seek to keep the commonersaway from the commons—in what is called the ‘elite capture’, of both the vocabulary and the commons. Thus thesecond challenge to the commons is of building inclusive, equitable communities with equal access, benefits andcontrol, capable of defending the commons. Collectives of the invisible communities—of women, Dalits andAdivasis, the disabled and the other disadvantaged—need to be built up so that they can enter into the commonsand into its governance. It means building inclusive and representative institutions of production, governance anddistribution in a manner that encourages and embraces diversity, difference and dissent. It is relatively easy insmall homogenous communities in a small, exclusive geo–political area over which it exercises sovereignty. Itbecomes more challenging for complex social systems as we move from the micro level towards a ‘global village’were ‘the community’ includes the richness of diversity. It is a tall order, but well within human capacity andreach. An important rule is that the commons need commons. Commons need other commons to help sustain it—fromthe physical to the knowledge to the socio–cultural and legal. None of the commons are standalones. The pasturesneed the land, air and water to survive. Privatising any would lead to the destruction of the other commons. Theidea that ‘commons need commons’ covers not only the physical commons such as land, air and water, but alsothe built commons. To defend the commons an alliance of communities is necessary. The World Social Forum is one such beingconstructed at the global level. It is not monolithic and its organising principles are very different from thetraditional structures. Several regional and national level bodies exist or are in the process of being created. It isimportant to note that commons is plural. There is a vast diversity within commons, their use, and regulation.What we inherit is a multi–verse of commons across generations: a gift from the past, to be used for present needs,and preserved for posterity. Alienation is not an option. If the vocabulary—formal or colloquial, written and oral—does not support it, then the vocabulary must be grown to support it rather than restrict human endeavour due tolinguistic limitations. The state as an institution of property was, is, and always will be, hostile to the commons. This is true even, orperhaps especially, when it uses the language of commons. As its capacity to enclose increases, it seeks to invadeand enclose as much of the commons as possible. It will then build arguments for legitimising such conquest. Thedoctrine of ‘eminent domain’ is a Damocles sword hanging over the commons, which the state views as its‘property–to–be–cleared of encroachments’. Any expectation that the state will protect the commons is naïve inthe extreme and akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop. The state appropriates the commons, displaces the people, destroys their livelihoods, and then magnanimouslyreturns a few crumbs as charity cloaked in the language of rights, entitlements and security—the ‘right’ to The living commons: A historical understanding; page [13] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in
  14. 14. education, employment scheme, and food ‘security’. Rather than this dependency creating charity, restoration ofthe commons to the community, strengthening their sustainability, and enhancing their carrying capacity is the truemeasure of rights and security. But the state, being an institution of property cannot do so, limited as it is by itsinherent characteristics and design as an instrument for the protection and promotion of property. It is forcommunities to retake the commons, and then refashion them to egalitarian ends. The non–physical and the newcommons are important, since the concept of ‘control over the commons’ is fundamentally changed with thedevelopment of new commons. There is a need for a clear understanding of the role of power, and power relations, with respect to commons.Forcible commoning—internal colonisation—is a potent and ever present threat, whether by ethnic swamping, byslow strangulation, or through religion and jingoistic nationalism. The institutions of property are the greatestthreats to the commons. Control of the state by corporations adds a disturbing new dimension. Addressing stateand non–state power is an important factor in protecting the commons. Since the state has claimed the sole right toviolence, neither it nor power can be ignored by any serious student or supporter of the commons. The presentinstitutions of the state are to protect property. Therefore, it is not the ‘capture of the state’ or its presentinstitutions that is important. These institutions can only protect property. To nurture the commons, a new kind ofinstitution, social organisation, socialisation and reproduction of knowledge—a different way of life itself—isnecessary. The state has used words to drown the voices. This happens when words are lost and divorced from the voicesthat gave rise to them. One can certainly profit from mastering the words and the vocabulary, but real responseand change demands more than that. Since the economic restructuring of 1992, there have been some disastrousefforts to privatise water, rivers and water supply. Large tracts of common land (pasture, mangroves, coast andforest) have been invaded and fenced off literally and figuratively resulting in citizens movements forcingtemporary rollbacks. However, far from the media glare, active state intervention to dispossess the commonersand indigenous people proceeds at a fast pace. It cannot be business as usual. Looking to business to evolve solutions, using the same tools by whatever label—Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or carbon trading—will only dig a deeper hole. This is one problem wecannot spend our way out of. It requires a fundamental restructuring of society itself, going to the normative rootsand re–examining our belief systems. Groupthink will not suffice. The responsibility of civil society is to ensure equitable communities are in place to reclaim the commons. Allsolutions cannot be expected to come only from the communities involved, and the civil society has a role to playin the transition and evolution. Connecting and facilitating greater coordination among the movements forrestoration of the commons is a task that civil society is ideally positioned to do. Engaging and influencing thelawmakers, developing the knowledge and skill sets around commons, helping communities build higher qualityof life through commons based livelihoods are other areas that civil society could consider. Engagement ingovernance is anathema to civil society, but here again there are signs of hope. The Green Party and the PirateParty have the requisite base to get elected into the European Parliament and are present there.5.5 The commons as an answer Still socialised in the Cartesian and dominance framework, there is a widespread belief that the commons isexternal and it is often forgotten to include humans within them. But as the construct ‘House of Commons’ shows,it was not always so. We have forgotten the fundamental unity of the commons, that ‘we are the living commons’. Strengthening commons institutions lie at the centre of any political and ecological solution. Traditionalinstitutional mechanisms and practices provide a starting point but a communitarian solution should be developedbased on the contemporary situation. New commons are constantly emerging and being recognised. They need tobe recognised and promoted with appropriate institutional mechanisms for their management and judicious use.These need to be developed at many levels, in micro level village communities, at the meso– and macro–scale.Change of power relations is the true benchmark of success. Building equitable, inclusive communities ensures that all are a part of the commons and that the commons canactually be accessed by all the commoners. Today we are at the threshold of another major global shift. Theconditions of the previous shifts are well in place—the imperial overreach, an information revolution, and anassertion of civil society. Collaboration and commons are the way to the future. It is not even a matter of if orwhen. The change is already underway. —oO(end of document)Oo— The living commons: A historical understanding; page [14] Anita Cheria and Edwin; office@openspace.org.in

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