Re-thinking ‘the commons’: examining dilemmas, exploring solutions

Dr. Leila Sinclair-Bright is a Career Development Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. In this article, she reflects on the notion of ‘the commons’ as recently debated in an interdisciplinary, open forum discussion event in Edinburgh.

 

Common Dilemmas

This open forum discussion was designed as a starting point for an interdisciplinary exchange of empirical and conceptual work exploring the theme of ‘the commons’ and collective ownership across different contexts. Excellent papers were presented by Dr. Tahl Kaminer (Edinburgh College of Art), Dr. Marisa Wilson (GeoSciences) and Dr. Kieran Oberman (Politics and International Relations) and followed by open discussion with the audience.

Dr. Kaminer’s presentation focused on the influence of the idea of ‘the commons’ in contemporary urban agriculture and regeneration movements. Kaminer opened by distinguishing the commons from the public space. Originating during the enlightenment, the notion of ‘public space’ has always been linked to civil society ideals. However, public spaces have long been as much about keeping particular elements of society out, as they have been about providing an arena for open movement and debate. In contrast, within contemporary urban agriculture and regeneration, ‘the commons’ has become a political movement that seeks to undermine and critique the control of urban space, as well as current economic and political conditions. Here then, the notion of ‘the commons’ is actually used to challenge the idea of a controlled public realm by various super-structures, from the state to corporations. As a movement, Kaminer suggests that ‘the commons’ provides an ideal but unachievable horizon that ‘rallies the troops’, but does not necessarily offer activists achievable, immediate objectives. Kaminer ended by pulling into question the efficacy of the commons movement, positing it more as a conceptual spring-board deployed by a variety of movements to gain traction and raise support for their campaigns, but often not leading to practical change.

Dr. Marisa Wilson’s paper examined local modes of governing food commons and how those interact with state and market models of the commons in Cuba. At what scale do we define food sovereignty? While sovereignty is usually defined at the national scale, how do localised models of food sovereignty fit into the national project? Since the late 19th century, food sovereignty has been promoted as a national ideal in Cuba, with individual profiteering denounced as against the national interest. From 1959, this became a top down institutionalised model of food ‘commoning’ that aimed to redistribute and provide basic food needs for Cuba’s population. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban state was increasingly unable to adequately provide for its population’s food needs, and practices of local level food provisioning increased and/or became more visible. Local food industries were, however, still justified in terms of a local level fight for collective national food commons, and denunciations of private profit from food sales were equally prevalent at this scale. Simultaneously, powers in the agro-food industry were gradually devolved. More recently, the Cuban state has even begun, somewhat ambivalently, to support local level food networks, but maintains strict controls on their capital inputs. Local food providers thus rely on transnational remittances to supplement their capital input needs. Yet these local/transnational networks are still justified and framed into terms of contributing to the national food sovereignty cause. This fascinating case study revealed the multiple complexities at play around food commoning, and raised questions about the relationship between practices of ‘commoning’ and scale which also pertain to current discussions around food sovereignty in other contexts, such as Latin America and Scotland.

Dr. Kieran Oberman’s presentation, provocatively entitled: ‘Against the commons: an egalitarian argument for privatisation’, provided a schema of three different models of ownership: egalitarian collective ownership; common ownership; and equal ownership. In the egalitarian collective ownership model, a collective body owns the resource, say land, and everyone has an equal say on how it is used. In the common ownership model, everyone has use rights, but no one has individual ownership rights (so you could not sell the land, for example). In equal division, everyone has an equal share of the property, or the value of the property (for example basic income), and can choose what to do with their share. Collective and common ownership both curb individual freedoms. In the first, one can only act according to the agreements of the collective body; in the second, one only has use rights and individuals cannot enjoy the other rights that might come with ownership. Thus, Oberman suggests that equal ownership should be the starting place for those things which the majority believe should be commonly owned, such as the planet earth and its natural resources. Individuals can then choose to opt for a collective ownership model and pool their resources if they so choose. Oberman’s schema provided a useful starting point for assessing why and how different groups chose different models or combinations thereof, as well as highlighting a consideration of what rights are gained or lost in each case.

Re-thinking the Commons

The three presentations provided rich material for further discussion. We began by identifying the need to separate out what different kinds of rights inhere in particular claims of ownership (sale rights, use rights, etc…) rather than simply working with the oversimplified binary of individual ownership/privatisation/commodification: collective ownership/commons/non-commodified realm. Four themes for further enquiry also emerged: how the transition between different ownership models works; how governance affects the very framing of the ‘problem’ of the commons; what is a common/practices of commoning, and (how?) does transitioning between different ownership models actually change the ‘object’ in question. It is hoped that this event was the beginning of a set of interdisciplinary working relationships that may lead to further collaboration as a group or between individuals whose research interests intersect.

More about the author:

Dr. Leila Sinclair-Bright completed her doctorate entitled, ‘This Land: politics, authority and and morality after Zimbabwean land reform’ in 2017 (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests are in labour, property, conflict and politics. While her regional expertise lies in Southern Africa, she is in the early stages of developing her next research project on common property regimes in the UK.

 

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