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  • Posted February 24th, 2019

    What are ‘the commons’ in the 21st century? Interview with Pat Conaty

    What are ‘the commons’ in the 21st century? Interview with Pat Conaty

    So today we’re talking with Pat Conaty, senior research fellow at NEF and Co-operatives UK and author of the Resilience Imperative, with Michael Lewis. We’re talking about ‘the commons’.

    Hi Pat – first question. Is ‘commons’ a singular or plural word – i.e. should I ask ‘what is it?’ or ‘what are they?’

    Yeah, commons is a plural word.

    And what’s the definition?

    There’s something called common pool resources – like, for example, 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.

    There’s been much more discussion on commons since Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her book Governing the Commons. She showed that over a billion people in the world depend on commons for some or all of their livelihood. Many of those people are in Africa. If their land is lost – enclosed or privatised – they will go the way of people dependent on the commons in the UK – they lost their land to enclosure over the centuries.


    I remember at university, we had a session on Garrett Harding’s Tragedy of the Commons. He said that common resources are always going to be degraded because people will try to cheat – they’ll graze more cattle than they should etc. But Ostrom opposed that position, didn’t she?

    Yeah, she not only opposed it, she disproved it. He wrote his thesis in an article in Science magazine in 1968. He said that commons were declining because they’re not an efficient way of providing for people. The state can provide; the market can provide; but the commons are going to be obliterated. That’s their tragedy. If no-one owns them and looks after them, they’ll be degraded. But Ostrom disagreed. She researched, in the 1970s and 80s, lots of places all over the world that were managing resources in a different way – not by the state and not by the market. She found Alpine meadows in Switzerland that had been managed as commons for hundreds of years. She found the same thing in the Philippines, where people were managing fisheries with commons rights.

    What are commons rights?

    Three things:

    1. The common pool resource – whatever that is: fish, meadows, rivers etc.

    2. Stakeholders that have an interest in preserving the commons. This could be local farmers, fishermen, or any local citizens.

    3. 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.

    So I guess 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.

    And what about seeds, or software, or the welfare state. 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.

    So free and open source software is an example of the commons. Wikipedia as well?

    Yes, that’s a good example.

    Any others?

    In India, in Andhra Pradesh, farmers have been developing seed banks, to protect the property rights of seeds, from being taken over by GM companies wishing to eradicate common ownership of seeds. In Peru, a grassroots movement has set up a potato park to protect varieties of potato – it’s where all potatoes come from, initially. There’s a big movement of ‘commoners’ doing different things to protect different resources all over the world. They need to be united in a wider movement that aligns them together.

    Would you say that the economy is split into 3 sectors – state, market and commons?

    In the post-WWII, mixed-economy way of looking at the world, the commons are seen as marginal. If you want to get something done, you look to the state or the business community. But the argument of the commons movement is that the commons is an excellent way of provisioning, but it’s a disempowered part of the economy, that’s taken for granted.

    Look at social care. Carers are paid badly, but actually, around 90% of care is provided by family members and friends. That’s a common resource. It’s not counted because it’s not monetised. But the whole world would fall apart if people stopped practising mutual aid.

    Are commons always free?

    They can charge for the cost of maintaining them. In that sense, co-operatives are a form of commons, potentially. 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.

    I’m thinking of definitions. I’ve never thought of co-ops as part of the commons. I saw them as part of the market sector, just co-operatively owned and non-extractive. Maybe commons could enclose all of the new / co-operative / solidarity economy?

    Remember 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.

    And how do we do that?

    Co-operatives are a key point of the mutual aid struggle to create common wealth again. The term co-operative commonwealth gained a resonance in the latter half of the 19th century. Even when the Labour Party built its constitution around 1918, Clause 4 was about national ownership, but it was also about common ownership. It recognised the benefit of co-operative, common ownership.

    And the benefits of decentralisation of decision-making?

    The co-operative movement was interested in decentralisation. Stephen Yeo’s upcoming book, the Three Forms of Socialism, talks about the three types – parliamentary socialism, the welfare state / NHS etc., and ‘associationalist’ socialism. This last one is working-class self-help organisations – for example, trades unions, mutual societies, co-operatives & friendly societies – all created by working-class people to provide for themselves when the market couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about them.

    You use the word socialism – and that’s guaranteed to scare off the right. I’ve spoken with people on the right, and they associate socialism with state control – but the co-op movement is part of a free market – in fact a freer market than corporate capitalism, where money concentrates and corrupts the political system. That completely prevents a free market. There’s nothing there to scare the right, and have half the population against us right from the start.

    There are those on the right who would take us in the direction of Mussolini – a type of socialism for a certain part of the population, in terms of the way fascism interpreted that.

    I guess what I’m talking about is not a centralised state, but a decentralised market economy, neither left nor right, the components of which are democratic and non-extractive – including co-ops and sole traders. I think there are people on the right who would be perfectly happy with an economy like that. I don’t think we need to put ourselves in opposition to them.

    In the co-operative commonwealth framework that I’m laying out, what’s different is a recognition that personal property, up to certain limits, is OK. But above those limits, you can easily get to a situation where some people have more houses than they need, and become landlords.

    And then immediately, that’s extractive.

    Exactly. There should be a limit to property rights; and certain things shouldn’t be privately owned at all – like land. If land is privately owned, you’re setting up the potential to rack-rent people. Community land trusts, for example, by taking land out of the market, can reduce by half the cost of housing.

    I recently came across the philosophy of geolibertarianism – that no-one should own land, but that it should be a resource for all of us, and if you want to use it to farm it, then you pay some sort of compensation to your community for the fact that no-one else can use that land, because you’re using it. It’s similar to Georgism – Henry George. I thought it was very interesting. So if you’re a huge landowner, it’s going to cost you a lot to ‘own’ it.

    That’s the idea of land value tax – to tax the land out of private ownership and bring it back into common wealth. So basically, there’s a big difference between John Locke’s theory of private property – which could be infinite, which is the libertarian right view. But the Robert Owen / co-operative view was that there are certain things that should be brought into common ownership, like land and like money, like the means of production.

    Don’t the labels ‘democratic’ and ‘non-extractive’ nail it? It highlights the fact that, for example, farmers, who are doing useful work, can have wealth extracted from them by huge landowners who do nothing useful.

    Yes, it’s the argument against unearned income. The early economists talked about earned and unearned income. They used the labour theory of value until the 1860s.

    You’re talking about Ricardo and Adam Smith?

    Yeah. But then people like Robert Owen started to use the labour theory of value to develop the concept of socialism.

    I thought it was interesting that Ricardo and Smith introduced the labour theory of value, but I guess they thought they were just talking to other academics, and that the working class didn’t, and probably couldn’t read, but then Marx came along and explained it to the working class, in ways that they maybe wouldn’t have approved of.

    There were people well before that – in the 1820s, like William Thompson for example. He was one of the founders of the co-op movement. He explained how the labour theory of value could be empowering for working people.

    OK, so people were saying it well before Marx.

    Yes – Marx’s ideas come from what are sometimes called Ricardian socialists, using the labour theory of value to create a co-operative society.

    Many people say that the labour theory of value is past its sell-by date, but I can’t fault it. Can you?

    That’s a deep question. There are books and books about that.

    Do you know Kevin Carson? On the front cover of his book, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, he put a quote by Benjamin Tucker: “The natural wage of labour is its product” – so he wants to say it really clearly – all wealth should belong to the people who create it. Morally, that seems right to me. And I’m a big fan of Carson.

    Yes, Kevin’s done some very interesting work, and I’ve had some correspondence with him. He did a review of our book, the Resilience Imperative. He’s trying to revive a mutualist economy perspective, which is a framework for thinking about this non-extractive economy that we’re trying to build.

    Part 2 coming soon: How do we grow the ‘co-operative commonwealth’?


    1. Over a billion people in the world depend on commons for some or all of their livelihood.
    2. The commons is an excellent way of provisioning, but it’s a disempowered part of the economy, that’s taken for granted.
    3. There should be a limit to property rights; and certain things shouldn’t be privately owned at all – like land. If land is privately owned, you’re setting up the potential to rack-rent people. Community land trusts, for example, by taking land out of the market, can reduce by half the cost of housing.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


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