Common pool resources
Like the Atlantic Ocean, it isn’t owned by anyone. Or the Antarctic. There’s common land still in this country. Not much, but still some. The difference is that a common pool resource can be degraded, polluted, vandalised. The oceans are being degraded because no-one’s looking after them. So if you have a common pool resource that isn’t owned by anyone, it could be made commons if a group of stakeholders take charge of it – steward it, look after it, for the common good. They would form a governance system to do that. You can see this for example with community land trusts. The CLT secures a piece of land, which is put into common ownership with a legal structure. It gives a lease to people to build houses on it, but the land itself is held in common. That’s one example. There are many others.
- The common pool resource – whatever that is: fish, meadows, rivers etc.
- Stakeholders that have an interest in preserving the commons. This could be local farmers, fishermen, or any local citizens.
- A set of agreed rules that people have to abide by to protect the commons against what David Bollier called vandals, shirkers and other wreckers.
Things that are not privatised or enclosed
There are a lot of things that are actually ‘common wealth’, that haven’t been privatised – yet. But almost everything that’s not privately owned is threatened by enclosure. It’s a relentless threat to the sort of things that we take for granted, because we’ve always had access to them. The free and open source software movement arose to protect our data – from being privatised. The most basic commons are gifts from nature for all of us – fresh air, rainwater, sunlight, plus the beauty of nature – nobody owns sunsets, for example. Capitalism hasn’t found a way to enclose these things yet.
Co-operatives are a form of commons, potentially as they can charge for the cost of maintaining them. They’re developing a common wealth asset. For example, the Industrial Common Ownership movement, which was developed in the 70s, was trying to increase the number of worker co-ops in this country. The Industrial Common Ownership Act was passed when Tony Benn was at the Department for Trade & Industry. They set up co-operative development agencies (CDAs) and by about 1990, the number of worker co-ops in the UK had grown from 100 or so in the mid-70s to 3000. So there was a huge growth in common ownership businesses. Then the policy changed, CDAs had their budgets cut, and the number of worker co-ops has fallen again to under 500. But they were trying to develop common ownership of the means of production.
When the co-operative movement began – that’s when enclosures were happening at a rate of knots. There had been thousands of acts of enclosure in the century leading up to 1850. Land was being lost. Cities were attracting people to work in factories. Robert Owen and others were articulating a vision, and developing a social science, separate from economic science. They were arguing that land should be in common ownership, that the means of production should be in common ownership, and they were working on solutions so that money could be in common ownership. Those were the three main areas.
The idea was:
1. How do we take people out of the market, to get beyond wage labour?
2. How do we take money out of the market, to get beyond interest? and
3. How do we take land out of the market, to get beyond enclosure?
These things mean that ordinary people had nothing to sell but their wage labour.
To build common wealth, you have to reverse enclosure. You have to make the resources open-access.
To learn more about acquiring resources to make them accessible to a community see the sections on Assets