Thijs Lijster: The commons versus capitalism

Although every proprietor knows his own, … all things, so long as they will last, are used in common amongst them: Thomas Morton regarding the Five Nations in North America    Once referring to natural resources and collectively managed land, the notion of the ‘commons’ has expanded across cultural, scientific and digital realms. Can commonality dodge the threat of capitalist exploitation and develop into an organizational principle for complex societies?

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the concept of the ‘commons’ has steadily ascended in significance in activist circles, scientific literature and in fields ranging from political philosophy and economics to jurisprudence and cultural theory. Traditionally, the commons were the natural resources that belonged to no one, which everyone could use: the forests where wood was gathered, the fields where cattle grazed or the wells where clean water could be drawn. According to current economic and political theory, over the course of capitalism’s emergence and ascent during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, these commons were gradually expropriated and turned into private property – the so-called ‘enclosure of the commons’.

Theorists now seem to agree that this was not a one-time transition but an ongoing movement. Indeed, new commons are being created that are also in danger of being expropriated or destroyed today. In 2001 Naomi Klein wrote Reclaiming the commons, a short essay in which she mentions the anti or alter-globalization movement in the same breath as environmental movements, urban activists and labour movements, all of which she says were part of a growing resistance to increasing expropriation, privatization, ‘public’ resources and services…

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