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THE COMMONS / Vol. 88, No. 1 (Spring 2021)

Akeel Bilgrami, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Karl Marx offered a rich historical analysis of the commons (and communal property generally), present in the entire body of his work. With respect to the English commons, he detailed the five phases of the enclosure movement, from the late fifteenth century to the nineteenth century, leading to the genesis of the capitalist farmer and the genesis of the industrial capitalist. His analysis extended to colonialism and the expropriation of lands and peoples throughout the world, including extensive ethnological inquiries into communal “natural economies,” closely tied to his theory of metabolic rift. This analysis was carried forward by Rosa Luxemburg.

The vanishing of the commons is associated with not only a proletarianization of petty producers, but also a change in the pattern of resource use in accordance with the demands of the world market. It is an instance of primitive accumulation of capital that is called forth by the spread of commodity production and does not occur suddenly or gratuitously. It is a feature of capitalism both at its birth and throughout its life. Commodity production as a sui generis process, not to be confused with mere production for the market, has a spontaneous character that even afflicts economies seeking to pursue socialism but caught in its grip.

This paper discusses the social existence forms of labor that arose historically from the producers’ relation to the land, and the specific forms in which surplus labor was appropriated. Peasant producers in Asia were not serfs subject to corv.e; as taxpaying possessors of land, they had a relatively autonomous productive base, often enabling them to resist excessive demands by the state and to maintain the social reproduction of labor. Unpaid labor was voluntarily performed by communities to maintain their common productive assets like irrigation systems and forest resources. These traditions, though severely undermined in the colonial period, provide the basis of present-day attempts to preserve and revive cooperative principles.

Climate change is destroying the global commons to an extent unprecedented in human history. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established clear targets for stabilizing the global mean temperature at no more than 1.50C above preindustrial levels: cutting global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent as of 2030 and achieving a net zero emissions global economy by 2050. This paper argues that a global green new deal can achieve the IPCC’s targets while also expanding decent job opportunities and raising mass living standards for working people and the poor throughout the world.

Who is right about the environmental commons: Hardin or Ostrom? This paper recommends using the views of Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom in a complementary manner, arguing that they are not mutually exclusive in complex, evolving, multi-shot, and never-ending environmental common-pool resource management problems. In these problems, noncooperative (Hardinian) and cooperative (Ostromian) tendencies, behavior, and institutions can coexist while their levels of dominance continuously change. To determine their dominance levels and potential viability over time, the paper proposes considering propensity to cooperate as a variable that is dependent on societies’ level of development.

This essay takes the motif of ruin as an entry point for a foray into the subject of the commons. It engages Garrett Hardin’s nearly unknown discussions of literature and poetry to shed critical light on his famous idea of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and on the general relation of the commons to questions of language and measure. To summon resources for thinking against enclosure, the essay follows an itinerary that constellates historian J. M. Neeson, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the poet and theorist Fred Moten, and the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth.

This paper is about four different conceptions of the commons that constitute different systems of reference. It asks the question: What do they have in common? It contends that, ultimately, they have only the desire to survive, but that does not constitute a unifying or comparative basis.

This paper assesses the concept of social externalities through human interdependence, in relation to the economic analysis of externalities, including the analysis of the commons. It argues that there are social research limits to economic analysis. Our proposal is to consider a broader framework in which to any pattern of influence of an agent or a group of agents over a third party, which is not mediated by any economic, social, or psychological mechanism guaranteeing the alignment of the marginal net private benefit with marginal net social benefit, can be attached the “externality” label. The paper also establishes a tentative list of possible internalizing mechanisms for externalities under this broader framework, which includes: pricing and monetary incentives; altruism and solidarity; moral norms; reciprocity and mutual monitoring; centralized cooperative decision-making; and merger. With reference to the literature on the commons, it is striking how much of the focus is on what might be termed the “economic commons.” But individual interactions outside the economic realm also have properties of the commons. Individuals contribute to and draw on a well of trust and good will and their actions in this realm have externalities too. Further, the economic and social realms interact. The economic and social commons are inseparable. The object of the paper is to encourage research from all relevant disciplines of social sciences on the pervasive human interdependence that the notion of social externalities tries to capture.

A background of a relatively non-discursive and implicit set of practices is claimed, in this essay, to constitute a cultural commons that makes possible a wide range of foregrounded phenomena in the realm of law and regulation. The essay explores the extent to which this idea can be central, first, to a plausible response to the challenges posed by the argument for “the tragedy of the commons” and, second, to formulating a characterization of the malaise of alienation in the modern period, as well as the ideal of its overcoming.


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