why the commons is not for communists

“The commons” is composed of our shared assets: the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and water-cycle; basic scientific knowledge (which cannot be patented); the heritage of human creativity, including folklore and the whole works of Plato, Shakespeare and every other long-dead author; the Internet, viewed a single structure (although its components are privately owned); public law; physical public spaces such as parks and plazas; the broadcast spectrum; and even cultural norms and habits. Some of us believe that protecting and enhancing the commons is a central political task of the 21st century. For different flavors of that argument, see, for example, OnTheCommons, The Tomales Bay Institute, and Lin Ostrom’s workshop at Indiana.

I have suggested that enhancing the commons might be a strategy for increasing equality. If that strategy belonged to the radical left, I would not hesitate to embrace it. However, I don’t think that it has much to do with traditional leftist thought. It is worthwhile to distinguish the theory of the commons from Marxism, just for the sake of clarity. I see several fundamental points of difference.

The commons is not state-centered. Some common assets are completely un-owned (e.g., the ozone layer), and some are jointly owned and managed by associations. Some belong legally to states and are controlled by them: think of Yellowstone. However, it is by no means clear that states are ideal–or even adequate–owners of commons. I realize that some Marxists have also been skeptical of the state–including perhaps old Karl himself, who wished that it would wither away. Nevertheless, a major current in Marxism has been statist, and the commons isn’t.

The commons is only a part of a good society, not the whole. Some anarchists want everything to be treated as a common asset, but most of us simply value the common assets we already have and want to protect them against corporate “enclosure,” over-use, and other threats. We have no interest in abolishing either the state or the market; on the contrary, we think that both work better if they can draw appropriately on a range of un-owned assets, from clean air to scientific knowledge.

The commons supports “negative liberty.” Isaiah Berlin famously contrasted the absence of constraints (“negative liberty”) from the capacity to do something (“positive liberty”). For example, the First Amendment gives us negative liberty by removing the constraint of censorship, but we don’t have positive freedom unless we own a newspaper–or a website. Marx’s own ideas about liberty were complex and perhaps ambiguous. But most Marxists have believed that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty–or have even dismissed the latter as a snare and a delusion. Although a commons may enhance positive liberty, what it most obviously provides is negative liberty. If something is un-owned, then there is no legal constraint on our using it. This is both the beauty of a commons and its weakness. The commons, if anything, is a utopian libertarian idea rather than a Marxist one (although some libertarians have forgotten that they are inspired by freedom, not by markets).

The commons is not (literally) a revolutionary idea. Preserving the commons may take radical action at a time when the oceans are being depleted, big companies are privatizing the software that underlies the Internet, and scientific research is being diverted to produce patented products. However, I don’t think we need fundamentally different national institutions from the ones we have today, and therefore I see no need to upset our polity. On the contrary, we ought to revive old and powerful traditions that support the commons. At the global level, I suspect that treaties and trans-national popular movements will be sufficient to protect the commons; there is no need for anything like a global state. It is good that we don’t need revolutionary political change, because revolutions almost always go wrong and destroy what they set out to promote.