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Rediscovery Of The Commons 
Managing For The Common Good, Not Just For The Corporate Good

David Bollier is the director of the Information Commons Project at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at the Normal Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communications.

This is the first in a series of three articles by David Bollier for TomPaine.com, adapted from his recent book Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth (Routledge).

For at least the past 20 years, it has been a mantra in our national political life that the so-called free market is our best hope for a brighter, more beautiful tomorrow. From Ronald Reagan's sermons on the "magic of the marketplace" to the giddy euphoria of the Internet revolution, politicians and business leaders have locked arms in praise of strong property rights, deregulation, globalization and the marketization of everything.

But even before the dot-com bust and the astonishing financial and ethical meltdown of some leading American corporations, there has been a growing counter-movement afoot. This insurgency not only insists that markets have distinct limits, but that there are serious alternative ways of creating and managing wealth in socially benign ways. Call it a rediscovery of the commons.

It is a quiet trend with diverse manifestations. But at heart its goal is to prevent the private plunder of resources that belong to everyone and to erect new mechanisms for assuring their popular control.

The issues that surround the commons "are very likely going to drive the next big turn of the political wheel," predicts Jonathan Rowe, a former top Senate staffer and now director of the Tomales Bay Institute. "In recent decades, the market has been penetrating into realms previously thought off-limits. It is claiming every last inch of physical and psychological space, from the outer reaches of the solar system to the most intimate interiors of daily experience."

Broadly speaking, the commons identifies a set of interests that are distinct from the state and the market. A good shorthand might be "we the people." The state may intervene as a trustee on behalf of the commons -- to protect widely shared interests or resources -- and "market populists" may like to claim that markets are more democratically empowering than democracy itself. To whatever extent these claims may or may not be true, the point is that the people have sovereign interests that are separate from those of government and markets. "The commons" offers a conceptual framework for expressing these interests.

Unlike the market, which is dedicated to private economic gain, the commons is about communities managing their shared property for the benefit of all, as a civic entitlement. It's about managing for the common good, not just for the corporate good. It's about assuring popular enfranchisement, not granting privileges according to one's ability to pay or invest.

Just as "the market" can refer to anything from stock markets and furniture retailing to lemonade stands, so "the commons" has many tiers of meaning. Three of the more important types of common assets include:

Public Assets

These are resources that the people own and that government manages as a trustee and steward. For example, Americans collectively own the electro-magnetic spectrum used by broadcasters. Even though it is worth tens of billions of dollars, Congress has essentially surrendered huge swaths of the spectrum to broadcasters for free. The inequity is immediately obvious because wireless companies, in sharp contrast, pay huge sums of money for use of the spectrum.

Millions of acres of public lands containing minerals, timber, oil and grazing areas also belong to the public. But like the airwaves, government allows major corporations to use and abuse these resources for far less than their market value. It has also allowed public lands to be used even though ecological harm is likely to result.

The federal government is also the sponsor and steward of enormous stores of federally sponsored research, reports and databases. Taxpayers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for risky basic research for new medications, often resulting in major breakthroughs. Yet the profits -- and they are hefty -- typically accrue to the drug companies alone. "Such a deal!," exclaims James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology. "The taxpayers pay to invent a promising drug, then give a monopoly to one company. And the company's role? To agree to sell it back to us." Love has extensively documented how exclusive licensing deals for federally developed drugs force taxpayers to pay higher prices for AZT and ddI (HIV and AIDS-related drugs), Prozac (depression), Capoten (hypertension), Taxol (cancer) and many other medications.

Common Assets

These are "unowned" resources -- the atmosphere, life forms, genes -- that have not been formally brought under the control of either markets or government. They are resources that all humans own as a moral right, but which have no formal recognition in law and no historic role as a market commodity. The human genome and the genetic structures that make up agricultural crops, for example, are common assets that are now being converted into private property.

As Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke revealed in their remarkable report, Blue Gold, some companies are trying to lock up vast quantities of water in Canada and Scotland in order to transport and sell it to "thirsty" regions of the world. Once "marketized" as a global commodity, water -- a basic necessity of life -- may become too expensive for local communities to afford, especially when an affluent region halfway around the globe is willing to buy it. The disruptive effects on regional ecosystems are given little consideration. This is a classic model of how an aspect of nature that once belonged to everyone is being converted into private property.

Social Commons

Many commons have less to do with managing a physical resource than with communities of people pursuing a shared mission. Examples include scientific disciplines, Internet affinity groups and local communities. Through the exchange of gifts -- time, energy, resources -- members of social commons create special interpersonal bonds among each other, which over time are the basis for creating value in highly efficient, socially satisfying ways. Online genealogical Web sites and blood donation systems, for instance, are based on people freely "giving" to the commons -- and eventually reaping benefits later. Not all forms of "self-interest" resemble the selfish, acquisitive behavior of the market.

Why A Commons Movement Now?

Why is the fledgling commons movement arising now? Much has to do with the palpable excesses of our market culture. Not only has American material output reached new pinnacles, as represented by SUVs and McMansion homes, American obsessions with private property are reaching some absurd new levels.

A family with a rare genetically transmitted disease has actually patented the disease gene so that patent-hungry university researchers couldn't do so. A German publisher of a magazine called "O" has gone after Oprah for control of the letter "O" as a magazine title. The World Wildlife Federation challenged the World Wrestling Federation over control of the letters "WWF."

Many proponents of the commons are revolted by the new frontiers of property-grubbing. It's unseemly and a denial of some of our most appealing public-spirited American traditions. That's one reason why the American Library Association recently started an Information Commons Project. The ALA's immediate past president Nancy Kranich points out that "libraries provide the real and virtual spaces in communities for free and open exchange of ideas fundamental to democratic participation and civil society" -- a function that expansions in copyright law now threaten.

Others are animated by the ripoff and abuse of public resources -- airwaves, public lands, the Internet, public spaces, schools and libraries, and more. That's why policy entrepreneur Peter Barnes proposed the idea of a congressionally chartered "Sky Trust" that would help the public assert ownership over the atmosphere and collect fees from companies that pollute our shared atmosphere.

Champions of the commons want to regain public control over public resources and preserve them for public benefit. Marketeers tend to want to monetize these resources for private gain.

The new conversation about the commons is burgeoning for cultural reasons as well. Now that communism is dead, it has become more permissible to talk in respectable company about cooperation and collaboration. To be sure, Microsoft still Red-baits Linux users as un-American, and representatives of the film and recording industries cry "piracy" when people share digital information, even when that sharing is entirely legal.

Paradoxically, much of the economic growth of the 1990s stemmed from the Internet, the biggest and most robust commons in history. The idea that a commons can be a valuable resource for wealth-creation in the market calls into question some core assumptions of economic theory.

Economists, for example, routinely claim that people will have no incentives to create valuable information or creative works unless they have strict copyright protection and the ability to participate in markets. But this simply is not true on the Internet. The biggest effusion of creativity and knowledge in history has occurred precisely because there were weak copyright protections and a general absence of markets. Yes, e-commerce has flourished in some sectors and many kinds of information will not be created without copyright protection. But the Internet has demonstrated that a commons of digital content and infrastructure is critical to competitive, well-functioning markets, not to mention a healthy democracy.

It should be remembered that the Internet was not the brainchild of Larry Ellison or Bill Gates, but of public servants and academics operating in an environment far removed from the market. As a result, the open, end-to-end architecture of the Internet has facilitated the free and easy sharing of information. It has unleashed a creative explosion of Web sites, listservs, open source software development, peer-to-peer file sharing communities -- a robust ecosystem of innovation that no market could or did create on its own. (Thought experiment: Compare diversity of expression on television or radio with that of the Internet.)

The commons movement is about re-conceptualizing what should be public and shared and what limits should constrain the expansion of markets. Contrary to the Milton Friedman acolytes, not all aspects of life should be controlled by markets. That's why the commons movement insists upon pioneering new models of community control of resources. It also challenges the presumption that virtually everything should be for sale in the market.

Naturally, the strategies and styles of this eclectic movement vary. Yet the groups that are most active -- environmentalists, biotech activists, anti-commercialization advocates, media reform advocates, open source programmers, defenders of the public domain in copyright law -- share a commitment to fighting pernicious market excesses. It's gotten so bad that the only viable protest option, writes Baffler editor Thomas Frank, is to "commodify our dissent" -- the title of a book of essays critiquing the "gilded age" of the 1990s.

But "the commons" is not just a reactive critique of the market. It is also about advancing a new and positive vision. The idea is to instigate a broader vector of conversation than the sterile, misleading debate about free markets ("good") versus regulation ("bad"). The concept of "the commons" insists that ecological stability, social values, aesthetic concerns and democratic traditions should carry as much weight around the policymaking table as economic analysis.

At this early stage, it is unclear how the commons movement will evolve and perhaps consolidate. But one thing is clear: the scope and ferocity of market activity is rapidly expanding into every nook and cranny of nature and culture. As market imperialism intensifies and transforms nature, communities and culture in new ways, the commons is likely to become a more frequently invoked organizing principle for resisting -- and for imagining better, more humane alternatives.


Related links:

"Peter Barnes' proposed Sky Trust"

Published: Jul 25 2002

Related articles on Tompaine.com:

The Corporate Theft Of The World's Water 
An Excerpt From Blue Gold

Debunking The Myths Of Bottled Water 
An Excerpt From Blue Gold


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