The present interest in new commons is a very welcome development. It shows that more and more people understand that our present capitalist world system cannot solve any of the problems it itself has created. Most people who want to create new commons are looking for an altogether new paradigm of economy and society. Yet I think it is necessary to look more critically at the main concepts and arguments used in the contemporary discourse on “the commons”. Today there is a new hype about the “new commons”, including myths about the Internet as a commons and that it has created new communities. In this article I ask: what do we mean when we speak of “new commons”? What can we learn from the old commons? What has to be changed today? Is there a realistic perspective for new commons?
The present interest in new commons is a very welcome development. It shows that more and more people understand that our present capitalist world system cannot solve any of the problems it itself has created. Most people who want to create new commons are looking for an altogether new paradigm of economy and society. Yet I think it is necessary to look more critically at the main concepts and arguments used in the discourse on the commons. Today there is a new hype about the ‘new commons’. What do we mean when we speak of new commons? What can we learn from the old commons? What has to be changed today? Is there a realistic perspective for new commons?
First, I want to emphasize that no commons can exist without a community. The old commons were maintained by a clearly defined community where people had to do communal work in order to sustain themselves. This work was neither forced upon people nor was it a nice pastime or a luxury. It was necessary for people’s survival or subsistence. Every grown up person was expected to share this necessary work. Everyone was responsible to maintain the commons as a commons. This responsibility had not to be formally enforced by laws. It was necessary to maintain the life of all.
The old commons
I come from a small village in the Rhineland in Germany. There were thirty-two peasant households. Most were subsistence farmers whose only regular money income came from the sale of milk, grain and potatoes and sometimes from selling a pig or calf they did not need for themselves. The village had still a common forest and common land. Brooks, ponds, roads, trees which grew along the brooks were commons. Even today there is still a village forest, but people have to pay a certain price if they want to cut trees. Our village forest and other village commons have a boundary and there are rules how they can be used. The village council can lease them out, but they cannot be sold or privatized.
But contrary to what Hardin wrote in “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) these commons were not just free for everybody to take as much as he could without considering the needs of others or even caring to maintain these commons for future generations. In fact it was understood by everybody in the village that these commons had to be maintained, cared for, repaired or renewed by the free work of the village community. It was the responsibility of the whole community to maintain the village commons. For instance, when new trees had to be planted in the village forest, an able-bodied man or woman from each household had to contribute their free labour to do this work. Or when a road had to be repaired or constructed each household had to send a man, a woman or even a child to hammer the hard basalt stones into small pieces for the gravel road. After the devastations of World War II this free communal labour was necessary everywhere in Germany to reconstruct the country. The village council had to see to it that the unwritten common rules were obeyed. This communal work was hard labour, of course, but it was also fun. I remember that such tree-planting sessions where mostly young women and men worked together were times of joking, singing, eating and enjoying life together. There are still photographs where one can see how much fun the young people had.
The main principles of the commons were (and are): Commons could not exist without a community who took care of them. On the other hand, no real community could exist without commons. All persons in the community were responsible to maintain and care for the commons, even children. This responsibility was not enforced by formal law, because it was evident to everybody that people’s survival and subsistence depended on the commons and on free communal work. Thus the old village economies were moral economies (Mies, 1992). The village economy was in certain ways an enlarged household economy, where everybody had to participate to keep the whole house alive.
Apart from free access to the commons and free communal work, the community had the obligation to care for the poor who could not care for themselves. My mother told the story of an old widow who lived alone in her house and could not take care of herself. But the village community had the obligation to give her food and look after her. All households had to bring her food in turn. Thus absolute poverty did not exist in those communities.
Destruction of the old commons by enclosures
The destruction of the old commons and of the moral economies (Mies, 1992) was not due to the self-interest, greed and competitiveness of individuals, as Hardin assumed, but to the enclosures which capitalist landlords and industrialization forced upon villages and towns to appropriate and privatize common land, forests and brooks. The enclosure of the commons in the eighteenth century was also necessary for the emerging industrialization to find enough proletarians to work in the urban factories. We cannot speak of commons today without remembering the old enclosures, and we cannot speak of new commons without looking at the new enclosures which are taking place everywhere in the world.
Writing in the 1700s, Rousseau was the first who understood what the enclosure of the commons really meant for humankind. He wrote:
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found enough people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor, you are undone once you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.”
Enclosure means piracy, violence, theft, appropriation of what belongs to the people: land, forests, water, rivers, open spaces in cities and villages, but also knowledge, culture and language. Those capitalist thieves just put a price tag on everything which said: “This is my Private Property”. This means they turned commons into commodities. The word “private” comes from the Latin word privare, which means stealing, robbing, colonizing. This robbery does not happen without violence, without war. War against nature and war against peoples. This method is still used today to steal, colonize and commodify commons everywhere, particularly in the South. But today these enclosures are called development and modernization. In fact, without the enclosures in the South and the North would not have been able to ‘develop’ its industry and its capitalist global market and it could not go on with its growth mania (Shiva et al., 1997).
The new enclosures
My interest in the commons began in the early 1990s. At that time a new discourse on the commons took place all over the world. We – Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and I – participated in the debates about the destruction, the defense and the re-invention of commons (Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies, 1999). This new interest in the commons was due to the global enclosure movement which began around 1990 with the introduction of the neo-liberal Free Trade Policy. This restructuring of the world economy is based on the following principles: globalization, liberalization (deregulation), privatization and universal competition.
The institutions which restructured the whole world according to these principles are: The World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) which was transformed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). These institutions worked and work in the interest of mainly US-American, European and Japanese transnational corporations (TNCs).
These global institutions “opened up” practically all economies in the world for the “free market”, which means for the plunder by international capital. The countries of the global South were the first victims of this new global enclosure movement. Because they were indebted to the WB and the IMF these institutions forced them by their Structural Adjustment Programs to open up their borders for foreign investment, to privatize their national health systems, their education systems, their transport systems and their service sectors and other areas which so far had been under national control. Their local and national cultural knowledge was stolen and appropriated by transnational corporations. This was possible because of the Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) of the WTO. The method of how to steal this common intellectual property was the new Patenting Agreement of the WTO. But unlike in the West, people in the poor countries of the South resisted this new wave of enclosures of their commons.
Resistance against enclosures in the South
In many parts of the South masses of peoples resisted this new enclosure policy of their commons, many of them successfully. Here are two of those success stories.
Papua New Guinea
When in 1997 Western TNCs tried to get access to the riches of Papua New Guinea, they were confronted with the fact that all land was still under communal control. It belonged to different clans who spoke different languages and had different cultures. No capitalist enterprise can function profitably under such conditions. The main local newspaper wrote:
“In most areas of the country land is still communal property. Such a system makes nonsense of the Western private enterprise concept in that individuals will find it difficult to tie up communal land for the long period of time necessary for a plantation or any other enterprise. The pressure of the community would break up the business in any case.” (The National, 17 July 1995)
The World Bank whose aim it was and still is to develop the world for capitalist interests demanded that the government of Papua New Guinea passed a ‘Land-Mobilization Act’ to ‘free the land’ for foreign investment. But the people said NO to this development plan. They did not want to give up their customary commons: land, language, culture, in short their identity, their home-land. The prime minister was desperate. He thought that the World Bank Credits for ‘development’ could not be rejected by poor people. He urged the people to obey the new law: ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ he said. This sentence sparked off a wave of furious protest letters to the press. Here is one example:
“WE DON’T WANT TO BE BEGGARS IN RICH COUNTRY.
… The dictionary defines beggar as a person without money and resources. And beg means to ask formally humbly and earnestly. Let me now ask: Why do we beg?
This statement was made as a counter to the people’s protest on July 18 led by students and the National Coalition for Socio Economic Justice, comprising NGOs, unions, Melsol and churches against customary land registration and all other aspects of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) contained in the World Bank/IMF policy matrix.
We in Papua New Guinea have never been beggars and we do not wish to be one. For many thousands of years that our ancestors had walked this land, they survived without begging from the outside world. They developed their own system of survival to sustain life. Had they lived by what you suggested, Mr Prime Minister, you and I could have gone down in the luck of extinct species of the human race.
If our ancestors have taught us some lessons, they are that we can live without excessive control and manipulation from outside people and international institutions. The Prime Minister has reduced us to nothing when we know we are blessed abundantly with resources. We are a rich people with what we have. People who know their true connection to land will understand this. Take the land and we are true beggars on our own soil … The people, NGOs, student unions, churches and concerned Papua New Guineans have been issued a challenge to formulate home grown alternatives …
Our agenda is simply the survival of our indigenousness and welfare and not be dictated by outsiders …” (The National, 27 July 1995)
This letter shows that the anger of the people was not sparked off only because their ancestral commons were to be stolen by foreign investors. More important seems to be that they felt that their dignity was violated when their Prime Minister called them ‘beggars in their own land’. This feeling of a common dignity has its roots in the fact that people know that they can produce their own subsistence without any help from foreigners. Yet the resistance against the piracy of the commons in Papua New Guinea shows that subsistence concerns are not just economic ones, they are intrinsically interwoven with culture, language, identity and particularly a sense of dignity of a community. Without a community which upholds this dignity no resistance to enclosures will be possible.
The second example of resistance against the new enclosures of the commons is the story of how the local and communal knowledge about the neem tree was stolen, patented and thus privatized by an American chemical company and how this commons was recovered by people’s resistance against this piracy.
The neem tree grows wild everywhere in India, in the countryside and in the cities. Everybody uses it freely. People use its twigs as a tooth-brush, and farmers mix neem leaves under their rice because neem protects the grain from fungus. Vandana Shiva writes:
“ … neem is used as a medicine, prophylactic, biopesticide, biofertilizer, biofungicide, nitrogen-fixer in the soil. The neem tree finds myriad of uses in every home and every community in India.” (Shiva et al. 1997)
The substance which makes neem so precious is azadirachtin.
After the introduction of the new global free trade policy and the TRIPs agreement, a host of transnational pharmaceutical corporations were keen to get patents on neem. The American chemical company W. R. Grace got a patent for the use of neem for the production of all kinds of pesticidal and medicinal commodities. This was a classic case of a new enclosure of a tree and the common knowledge about its use which for thousands of years had been free for everybody. After patenting the neem tree people had to buy products made of neem, because neem products were now the private property of W. R. Grace.
But this piracy and privatization of the age-old common knowledge of the Indian people about neem provoked a massive protest movement in India. Vandana Shiva writes:
“The Grace Company’s aggressive interest in the Indian neem production has provoked a chorus of objections from Indian scientists, farmers, and political activists, who assert that transnational companies have no right to expropriate the fruit of centuries of indigenous experimentation and several decades of Indian research. This has stimulated a transcontinental debate about the ethics of intellectual property and patent rights.” (Shiva et al., 1997)
Farmers and activists organized huge demonstrations against the patenting of neem; but this protest was not successful in the beginning. Only after Vandana Shiva from India, Florianne Koechlin from Switzerland and Magda Aalfort from Belgium lodged a complaint against the patenting of neem at the European Patent Office in which they stated that neem was not an invention by Mr. W.R. Grace but a creation of nature which had been used and modified by Indian farmers for thousands of years, the European Patent Office agreed that neem was not an ‘invention’. It withdrew the patent for neem from W. R. Grace.
The new discourse on the commons today: the internet as commons
Today we experience another new discourse on the commons worldwide. But contrary to the earlier discourse on the commons I hardly see any resistance to today’s enclosures. I do not yet understand properly why and how this new discourse on the commons started. But I know that many people who are critical of the destruction of the environment, the crises of the economy in all countries and the lack of perspectives all over the globe are searching for an alternative. Some of them see the evil in the main pillar of capitalism, namely private property. They are looking for a new way of saving a new type of global commons. And many of them see the Internet as the great saviour. They talk of knowledge commons or of creative commons and their enthusiasm is obviously based on the Internet. Everybody talks of the Internet as the creator of new commons. Even in mainstream papers one finds articles on the ‘new commons’. I do not share the enthusiasm about these new commons. In fact, I think that this enthusiasm is not only based on illusions but on myths. I consider this new commons discourse as just another hype which keeps people occupied while the new and old rulers of the world enclose and destroy our Mother Earth, the only global commons we all have.
Myths about the internet as commons
The new discourse on the commons is to a large extent inspired by the belief that the Internet is a global commons. Even people who once were critical of the capitalist enclosures and the neoliberal policies of globalization, liberalization and privatization think that the Internet is a new global commons which would solve all economic, social, ecological and political problems in the world. Here are some of the main arguments of this belief in the Internet as commons: There are certainly more arguments of the defenders of the Internet as commons. But I think, these are the most important ones. I consider them as myths. In the following I compare the Internet as new commons with the old commons.
- The Internet is neither private property of anyone, nor is it the property of the state. Hence it is a global commons. It can be used by everyone everywhere free of costs.
- The Internet makes knowledge a universal commons. All knowledge in the world can no longer be the private property or privilege of any one or any elite.
- Moreover, the Internet has truly created new social communities where people can make friends everywhere. They can see them, chat with them, exchange news and views with them, in a private or social chat-room like Facebook and Youtube as a global social network with the whole world. And free of costs.
- The Internet truly creates real democracy because it creates the possibility for participation, and for transparency. No government, no party, no corporation, no bureaucracy can keep anything secret, because Internet specialists can discover these secrets immediately and expose them to the public.
- The Internet has created the possibility for every citizen to influence local, regional, national and international politics. The Internet will therefore increase the sense of responsibility of every citizen.
- The Internet will stop violence in the world, because if people do not meet each other face to face, attack each other, kill each other in reality but only virtually, they have an outlet for their aggressions and need not kill ‘real people’. Wars will become a thing of the past. Eventually all conflicts on earth can be solved peacefully by the ‘International Community’ represented by the United Nations which is responsible to keep peace on earth and solve all conflicts between nations.
- The Internet overcomes all limits of time, space, and even of the real, material world. Thus it is a source of freedom for everyone.
- The Internet once invented and established on our planet will stay. The Internet means progress. One cannot stop progress; we cannot go back to the Stone Age. Apart from that, the Internet is necessary and our daily life is no longer possible without it.
The Internet is not a commons. It is in fact the private property of a handful of huge global monopolists like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and a few other global players. They control the hard- and software of all factories that produce and sell commodities based on the Internet. These commodities have a price. In a capitalist economy nothing is produced for free. But who pays the price? First of all, nature pays the price. The earth is exploited more or less for free in the search of those so-called rare minerals like gold, coltan, tantalum, platinum and others without which no computer could function. These “rare minerals” are found for instance in the Republic of Congo but also in China and in Bolivia and in other countries. After the huge caterpillars have left the mining sites, they only leave huge holes in the earth, holes like wounds in the body of Mother Earth. Apple and the other IT giants will not and cannot heal these wounds. And the result of this violence against Mother Earth is warfare among the local communities, as is the case in the Republic of Congo. Hence, every computer is a product of a new process of global enclosures.
But there are also human costs which do not appear in the balance sheets of the IT corporations. The Internet may appear ‘cheap’ or even free of cost for the users, but the real human costs are paid by the workers who dig out these rare minerals from the earth in Africa or elsewhere. The recent strikes of miners in South Africa who dig out platinum from the earth were the consequence of their exploitation by IT corporations. The workers demand better wages and better working and living conditions. These conditions are worse today than they were under the Apartheid-Regime.
The Internet is also not free of costs even for its users. The hardware (computers, cell-phones, smart-phones, i-pads, i-phones etc.) cost a lot, particularly due to their inbuilt obsoleteness. Once a new gadget appears in the market it is almost immediately made obsolete and replaced by another, ‘better’ one. The old one cannot be repaired. The big IT corporations compete with each other for ever newer, ever faster, ever more sophisticated and cheaper hard- and software on the global market. But every new invention kills the old inventions which then become waste, electronic garbage, which then has to be dumped somewhere in the world. This dumping of E-garbage is free of cost for the IT companies, but not for the environment and the people who live near these garbage dumps.
So, who pays the true costs for the Internet if we include all those “external costs”? In fact, if all these costs were included in the price of a computer or a cell phone, most people would not be able to afford them. And the big IT corporations would go bankrupt.
What about the Internet as knowledge commons? Has the Internet truly enhanced our knowledge in and about this world? The German psychologist and neurologist Manfred Spitzer (2012) found out that children and youngsters who sit for hours in front of their computers or their PlayStations suffer from ‘Digital Dementia’. Their school performance is very low. Many cannot read or write. Many leave school without an exam. They hardly know anything about the real world. They live in their virtual world and are hardly able to cope with the requirements of everyday life. The images they see on their computer screen are available all over the world at a finger’s click. But I ask: Is this the knowledge commons or creative commons people mean when they talk of the Internet as commons?
For the old commons knowledge meant that everyone knew how to handle a hammer and a spade and all other tools necessary to produce and reproduce their life. They also knew at what time saplings could be planted or not, everyone knew the songs sung at common gatherings and at home, everyone knew the histories told by the old people about the community and the world. All shared the language, the culture of their village and their region and their country. Hence they knew all the skills necessary to live their life in the real world in a real community in which they felt safe and at home. They were proud of their identity and they fought for their own dignity, as we saw from the story about Papua New Guinea. Where is the identity, where is the dignity of the Internet users?
The next myth is that the Internet, above all Facebook, creates a global community: everybody can communicate with everybody in the world. One can chat, make friends, exchange photographs, talk about one’s hobbies. Facebook is particularly popular with young girls and boys. They are users, not persons, and every user sits alone in front of a computer, using Facebook or some other IT gadget. The exchange between those atomized individuals takes place only virtually, not in reality. These users are just a mass of isolated individuals, who cannot touch each other, smell each other and see each other as living persons. Their communication is totally desensualized. Such a mass of users cannot be a community in the true sense, where everybody is responsible for the wellbeing of the whole community and for all its members, as we saw it in the old commons-based communities. In the Internet no user can protect herself or himself from vicious attacks, insults or any cyber-mobbing. Cyber-mobbing has already led to suicides. Nobody who participates in this ‘social network’ can do anything against this cyber-mobbing. The anonymity of the Internet even leads to insults of whole communities as what happened recently when an unknown ‘user’ put a picture in the Internet which insulted Prophet Mohammad. This insult lead to mass demonstrations of people living in Muslim countries all over the world in which even an American ambassador was killed. The Internet does not know ethics, it is a-moral, which means nobody feels responsible for the effects it has in the real world, even if these effects may lead to real wars.
Here we see an important difference between the old commons and the so-called Internet-commons. As we saw, in the old commons everybody was responsible to maintain and care for the commons. Everyone was also responsible to respect the community and all people living in it. Everyone was responsible to keep peace in the community. This responsibility is absolutely absent in the global social networks of the Internet.
Some people believe that the Internet promotes democracy all over the world. They say that the ‘Arab Spring’ and the struggle for democracy in Egypt would not have happened if the Internet had not existed. True, the Internet facilitated the fast exchange of information about the rallies in the Tahrir square in Cairo and in other countries in North Africa. But democracy needs more than quick information. To establish a true democracy, where all people can participate to discuss what democracy means in a particular country, at a particular period of time under particular social and economic conditions – all this needs time and many debates and dialogues about the new social perspective and a new vision. The Internet by itself cannot create such a vision. It is just a machine. Democracy cannot be created by a machine, by a deus ex machina.
That the Internet promotes peace is another even more dangerous myth. It rather promotes wars. One has only to look at the killer games which millions of gamers – mostly young boys or men – are addicted to.
Finally, the believers in the Internet as commons argue that the Internet liberates humankind from the constraints of time, space and even of matter. How true are these assumptions? Indeed, the Internet seems to have overcome the limitations of time: people can communicate in a second with other people. The whole global finance system is based on this immediate communication. But also normal people communicate more and more by e-mail and the Internet than by mail or telephone. They can also communicate with more people in a shorter span of time. But what is the price for this speed-driven communication? People get exhausted, burnt out, feel that they have to reply to every stupid mail message. Or they simply give up looking at the e-mail every morning. Time is the only thing that cannot “grow”. We can pack more and more activities in an hour, but we cannot ‘save’ time, nor can we extend one hour. Time rolls on and on. We cannot stop time.
The same is true for space. The Internet creates the illusion that I can be here in Cologne and at the same time in Ireland. But this is only an illusion. In reality, I sit here in front of my computer and click on the key board to finish this article. In reality I cannot be in two places at the same time. These limitations of time and space are due to the fact that we are part and parcel of Nature, and that means we are part and parcel of the material world without which life would not exist on this planet. Even this planet would not exist, it does not exist “virtually”. Matter matters.
Bennholdt-Thomsen V., Mies M., The Subsistence Perspective, 1999, London: Zed Books.
Hardin G., “The tragedy of the commons”, Science, 1968, vol. 162.
Mies M., Rilling R., Spitzer H., Green O., Hucho F., Pati G., “Moral economy-a concept and a perspective”, Science and Peace in a Changing Environment, 1992, Vol. I, Marburg BdWi: Schriftenreihe Wissenschaft und Frieden.
Shiva V., Jafri A., Bedi G., & al., The Enclosure and Recovery of the Commons, 1997, New Delhi: Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.
Spitzer M., Digitale Demenz, 2012, München, Droemer Verlag.
Community Development Journal, Volume 49, Issue suppl_1, January 2014.