Sunday, 16 October 2016

Back to the future: the commons as economic model for the @1st century

Many have heard of the commons as a quaint medieval practice where communities (peasants and landowners) alike revolved around an area of common ground where economic interests were mutually served. This model was intended to be put to the intellectual torch by the now infamous "Tragedy of the Commons" paper by Garrett Hardin in 1968. But, as we often say a funny thing happened on the way to the garbage bin of history: with the failure of both the top-down statist economic model in 1989 and of the "free" market  model (once again) in 2008, a remarkable  thing has happened; growing and respectful attention is being paid to the no longer quaint idea of the commons. And as part of this conceptual journey a  route is opening for social economics as a comprehensive economic model rather than a subsidiary alternative. In addition to traditional commons models, new forms are emerging, making for a kind of commons rebirth. Below TorontotheBetter is pleased to review the emerging trend and to welcome comment.  

The term social economy has become popular in recent years as a phrase that conveniently opposes economic models narrowly focused on finance and "rational" self-interest. And in this it has been successful as a rallying cry for all those who see economic activity as a tool of human, and so social benefit. At the end of the 20th century, with the two economic models  (exclusively market-directed and  hierarchically state directed) that had dominated since the birth of the modern age,  having demonstrated fatal weaknesses, social economy  became a kind of grab-bag of alternatives, ranging  from barter, co-operation and gift  economies, which each played emancipatory roles in a neo-liberal environment, but were, at root, philosophically and practically distinct, thus suggesting a mixed economy – a state controlled market - as the necessary best of an imperfect bunch.

But what has emerged in recent years is a new respect for a more primary and ancient model of economics for people and planet: the commons. The commons is, in its purest form of air, water and land, as it existed for millennia before enclosures, is, arguably, the original economic model, where a  group partakes  freely in the world’s natural wealth, while respecting the rights of all others to  do so too and so protecting the group  resource at the same time as partaking in it. The commons way is found in the difference between using and using up. Our self-interest is in protecting what we have, not exhausting it. The environmental movement was the first to make this point politically, but other groups, from gender-to  geographical  and cultural groups are increasingly seeing the wisdom of  this and understanding their common destiny as “commoners”.

As a number of recent books have noted, many ancient commons have survived  the privatization and enclosure frenzy of the industrial age. But what is really interesting at the beginning of the 21st century is that new, what we can call “super-natural” commons are emerging. The most important of these has been, the virtual common that is the Internet.  The exciting possibility is that the universally celebrated virtual commons that is the Internet can be a force for the “re-commoning” of original physical commons that have been privatized. Why is this already happening?  Because more and more have understood that privatization, enclosure and alienation have been producing more and more social waste and destruction, of  the environment and the  people who live by or on it, as ultimately we all do.                        


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