By Laura Quinn
In a New York Times Book Review retrospective on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, novelist Martin Amis peevishly claims that “the chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature.” Hardly a novel claim, this truism of neoliberal economic thinking means to establish human “nature” as inexorably competitive, greedy, proprietorial, and individualistic.
David Bollier’s Think Like a Commoner (New Society Publishers, 2014) is a compelling refutation of this tired, yet tenacious formulation of human “nature.” Bollier argues that human beings have a long and ongoing history of “commoning,” that is, engaging in collective behavior that models “a practical paradigm for self-governance, resource management and ‘living well.’” What Bollier modestly bills as a short introduction (under 200 pages) to the commons is much more than that: it meticulously argues that the commons is an actual site of resistance to the very real tyranny of the “free” market in our national political imagination.
Bollier’s work is brief but also detailed, precise, and lucid. Its definition of “the commons” is specific: commons are “a resource + a community + a set of social protocols.” This definition highlights the socially self-imposed discipline and structure of the commons, as well as its dynamism, the adaptive and evolving social practices that Bollier calls “commoning.”
Three compelling arguments are threaded through this exposition of the commons. First, Bollier establishes convincingly that the commons is an enduring paradigm with a long rich history and a robust (especially digital) present and future. Second, the conceptual vocabulary of the commons, the very naming of it, constitutes a “different way of seeing and being,” one that poses a powerful antidote to the dominant neoliberal paradigm of the market. Finally, (though it was published two years prior to 2016) the book enables us to believe that “thinking like a commoner” presents our best resistance strategy against predatory capitalism and the billionaire populism that seduced so many working class voters in the last presidential election. In short the commons and “commoning” offer our best political hope.
Citing the economic “truism” fed to undergraduates that human nature is by nature acquisitive, competitive, and proprietorial, Bollier describes how the Tragedy of the Commons has been opportunistically deployed as a master narrative. In this narrative publicly held and managed resources, from grazing and agricultural land to natural resources, infrastructural sites and facilities, knowledge and culture sites (including universities) are all enclosed. This history of privatization presents itself as an inevitable outcome, as progress, as what Bollier aptly terms “the empire of private property.”
The convincing counterargument Bollier mounts grows out of a chapter titled “The Eclipsed History of the Commons,” and expands with the chapter “Many Galaxies of Commons.” These provide abundant examples, both ongoing and resurgent, of commoning found in local food movements and farmers’ markets, in blood and organ donation systems, in time banking, indigenous peoples’ commons, and, most strikingly, the rise of the digital commons, now under “enclosure” threat from the Trump-era FCC, through the overturning of net neutrality.
History of Economics classes routinely and opportunistically offer up a disheartening chronicle of the inevitable defeat of these idealistic efforts. But Bollier sees this history as evidence of the tenacity of the commoning imperative in human experience. He calls attention to an impressive international display of careful empirical and longitudinal studies that demonstrate the resilience and sustainability of this important, alternative paradigm.
Vocabulary matters. A shift from “ownership” to “stewardship” is central, as is the shift from “competition” to “cooperation.” Human social relationships are paramount. Bollier turns to both evolutionary science and metaphysics to account for “the deep visceral appeal of the commons paradigm” where “life is seen as an evolutionary process in which embodied subjects interact with their environment and other living organisms to create meaningful relationships.” Using such language, it’s hard to normalize the alienating social and human effects of what Bollier renames “the tragedy of the market.”
Alas, offering up the commons as an effective political resistance strategy is when the paradigm seems most vulnerable. Bollier is insightful about this vulnerability, acknowledging that “liberal democracies in theory seek to promote the greatest good through individual rights, universally applied, among legally equal citizens,” thus making “few provisions for collective rights that exist beyond the individual.” But commons scholars argue, he retorts, for a “’triarchy’ that realigns authority among the State, Market and commons,” a vision that seems unimaginable, however desirable, to pragmatists on the political left and center.
It is only unimaginable, however, if we allow the rich history of commoning to be eclipsed, if we fail to see and support its contemporary manifestations, and if we underestimate not just the staying power of the commons but also its potential appeal to those disenfranchised and alienated by the tragedy of the market. This book deserves to be widely read and taught.
Laura Quinn is a member of the Thomas Merton Center and a professor retired from Allegheny College.