Ownership of the Commons

English: A map showing community property stat...

A map showing community property states in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the difference between the commons, community property, and public or private property?

IMO at that level of generality those are almost useless distinctions. Within any community there exist a variety of distinct  people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextets. This is true even in the most extreme cases of “all things held in common”. My version of the tragedy of the commons is when the philosophy or ideology of a group does not accurately describe the reality of its practice. Then the philosophy or ideology can become an obfuscating factor, and the rules of actual behavior may be buried or forced into invisibility, with human nature acting as an invisible hand, often with unintended results. I’ve seen this personally in communes and collectives in which I gave participated.

For example, imagine a highly idealistic commune. All property is supposed to be held entirely in common. There is not supposed to be any private property or any boss. But adults still tell children what to do or take certain things away from them– it is a necessity of physical reality. The same is true for a member who has dementia. These are obvious exceptions to the rule of equal sharing, but between the child, the adult, and the senior with dementia are many tiny degrees of variation. In fact, no two people are exactly the same, and the actual relations between people and property vary by degrees. Things also vary by degree. I share the hammer but not the pocket knife I sharpen a special way. I share my coat but not my toothbrush. Similar aspects of exclusivity apply to things like chainsaws, guns, medical instruments, etc.

Ownership is very relative. It is a bundle of many rights or powers along with a bundle of responsibilities, and each is relative as to its strength, weakness, etc. So ownership can be attenuated down nearly to nothing and still be a form of ownership. At one level if you see it you own it, at least compared with the guy who never laid eyes on it. OK, it may not be a kind of ownership that fits our customary default categories, but those are artifices. I’m speaking of ownership in a more general way as any form of control or even potential control (sort of like potential energy) and the commensurate duties and responsibilities that go with that. Also, practically every living thing, including bacteria, owns stuff, in the sense of controlling stuff or excluding others. Can you think of a place or thing to which that doesn’t apply? If not, then if people tried to create a category of things that were unowned it would be a kind of fiction. Fictions can be powerful, but I’m much more a non-fiction guy. So, instead of searching for something in the world that is literally unowned, a better aim for me is to define the kind(s) of ownership I like or dislike.

Every hextet of people-places-things-relations-rules-results is sufficiently unique for it to merit some individual attention. Making categorical assumptions is an important timesaver, but we gloss over particulars at a cost. Speaking of hammers, for example, one community where I lived separated claw hammers into three categories by appropriate users: novice, experienced, and expert. Tools with cutting edges are also a good example. An expert not only knows how to use an adze, draw-knife, or chisel well, she knows how to sharpen it in the best way. But some users even break hammers. Thus user-place-tool-work-maintenance-results is a system that is only as good as its weakest link.

No trespassing. Keep out. Private property. Su...

“The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify thedistribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.” (Matt Bruenig, “There is no such thing as redistribution“)

The people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextet is unique for every actual instance, no matter what the big philosophy or mythology of the community may be. Does that mean that generalizations such as the commons or a community property philosophy are meaningless? No, generalizations and abstractions have their utility. But they also have their limitations, typically in oversimplification and lumping dissimilars together. No two commons are the same, and no two people or things within a single commons are the same. I’m not just referring to the tautology that nothing and nobody is physically equal in the physical world. Human equality is generally understood to mean civic/legal/moral equality, not equality in form or function. We are all physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally different, and shared ideals and narratives often mask those differences, even from ourselves.

English: Eastatoe Falls, North Carolina. On PR...

Eastatoe Falls, NC. On PRIVATE PROPERTY. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a large enough sample, me are taller than women. But no one is surprised when a particular woman is taller than a particular man. Similarly, a particular item of private property might be shared or conserved better than a particular item of public property.

Another way in which property and ownership are relative is this: property may be shared in common among group A, but not shared with group B. If group A were flower children and group B were corpoRats, I’d be the first to cheer for such an enclosure.

Private and public are relative. Sharing and exclusion (or enclosure) are relative. Commons is relative. Community is relative.

The generalizations of private, public, community, and commons have utility for certain purposes, but that utility is relative. Public and private is not the same as apples and oranges. One person’s apple is not another person’s orange. Oranges and apples don’t vary by degrees over a spectrum. There is no point on the spectrum of apple variety that it is an orange or a banana. Not so with ownership and property. All forms of ownership and property lie on a common spectrum, so that from one perspective a thing may appear private and from the other side of the spectrum that same thing may appear public. Similarly, from the inside a community may appear enlightened and egalitarian, and from outside it may look like a bunch of airheads or elitist assholes.

“Often…property is juxtaposed to commons – as if commoning was a negation of property. Unfortunately, this view presupposes and consolidates a very narrow understanding of property, where the general is conflated with the particular. Property relations are not only exclusive, private property rights as instantiated within capitalist democracy (that is, a particular conception of property). As a jurisprudential concept, property can be used to understand, analyse, reflect upon and organise social relations with regard to things in any context (this is the general conception of property). The conflation of the general with the particular, which conceals the historical and anthropological fact that property can be and is understood (very) differently, takes on a further dimension in colloquial talk.” (J.M. Pederson, Commoning)

Analysis has levels. Too often we compare and contrast things at one level while some particulars at another level may be just the opposite. I’m not just saying that exceptions prove the rule. There’s more to it than that. If we only contrast capitalism and socialism at the general level, we get no closer to the particulars where actual social engineering is possible. We need to continually oscillate between generalities, which provide ontological categories and hypotheses, and particular in vivo and in situ cases that provide empirical data.

Poor Richard

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6 Responses to “Ownership of the Commons”

  1. jmp Says:

    You wrote: “Commons ≠ commons, people ≠ people, and private ≠ private, so it is almost meaningless to say that common property ≠ private property. Similarly, because of the variation within types, capitalism ≠ capitalism and socialism ≠ socialism, so it is almost meaningless to say that capitalism ≠ socialism. In fact, in certain specific cases of capitalism and socialism, capitalism = socialism!”

    ——————– Indeed! Similar argument laboured here: http://commoning.wordpress.com/essay/

  2. Ownership of the Commons | Peer2Politics | Scoop.it Says:

    […] IMO at that level of generality those are almost useless distinctions. Within any community there exist a variety of people-places-things-relations-rules-results. This is true even in the most extreme cases of “all things held in common”. My version of the tragedy of the commons is when the philosophy or ideology of a group does not accurately describe the reality of its practice. Then the philosophy or ideology can become an obfuscating factor, and the rules of actual behavior may be buried or forced into invisibility, with human nature acting as an invisible hand, often with unintended results. I’ve seen this personally in communes and collectives in which I gave participated.  […]

  3. David Hawthorne (@ahito46) Says:

    P.R, I followed the bread crumbs here from FB/The Next Edge discussion: The conversation at the FB/Next Edge pivoted on what I call ‘the collaborators frustration with collective stasis,’ We get all het-up about change but frozen in inaction by the order of actions, ownership of the ideas, and distribution of the blame or credit for outcomes. (I enjoy your colloquial reference to P.R.A. -for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the trauma I suffered the ‘B’ in my undergrad years for failure to discuss the significance of ‘The Commons’ with sufficient rigor in an American HIstory final.). My question is this: In the concept of ‘the commons’ there is also a distinction between rights of ‘ownership’ vs. rights of ‘usership.’ The Commons made it practical for small communities to manage a large enough piece of land where their individually owned livestock could graze. The Commons of the American colonial north became the site for other ‘community-used’ (rather than individually owned) assets, like the church, or town-meeting hall. (By contrast, in the southern colonies, the places for grazing livestock were part of the landowner’s hold. The small farmer’s had to find his own land to graze his livestock. (This distinction made ‘owning’ large plots of land crucial; so large numbers of laborers were needed to work the lands (slaves), while in the northern colonies, farms tended to be small, as the land needed for the care and feeding of livestock tended to be communal. So here we see how two contemporaneous strategies played out, ‘The Commons’ and ‘The Plantation,’ each with very different consequences in culture, perception,and historical trajectories. The discussion over on FB (or at least the one I was having) was not about the ‘right way’ or the ‘wrong way’ to do develop social innovations. My sense of it is that ‘actions’ have consequences, and consequences produce information not previously recognized. We are in very real ways conducting social experiments. For instance why have political, legal, and economic systems organized as they are when so much about how humans interact in society has changed? We are not ‘organized’ as we were in the 17th and 18th centuries, but many of our ‘institutions’ remain bound by those constraints. Innovation, which gets a lot of good publicity these days is still manacled by accepted social norms, rituals, and truisms, that ought to be ignored in some instances.) Doing ‘little’ experiments doesn’t seem to generate as much friction with existing norms, but can still produce important insights as to how things ‘actually’ work. Wouldn’t Next Edge, LIving Bridges, or similar “networked social labs/incubators” or whatever name they go by, be useful? I’m trying to set up something like this to build external trade for small markets (hypothesis is that, “productivity” increases, when there is discernible demand for excess production (pull).

  4. Poor Richard Says:

    David, thanks for the comment. Sorry for my slow response.

    You wrote: ” My question is this: In the concept of ‘the commons’ there is also a distinction between rights of ‘ownership’ vs. rights of ‘usership.’ ”

    The distinction between ownership and use is that user-ship is a subset of ownership. In other words, ownership is a “bundle” of rights that typically includes a variety of usage rights. However, there is a possible semantic argument that all conceivable ownership rights could be defined in terms of usage rights, since exercising any right can be considered a “use”.

    Even if we say that ownership and use are two different things, we should not contrast the compound concepts of “collective use” and “individual ownership” directly, as that would be like comparing apple pie with orange juice. Instead we should compare collective use with collective ownership and individual use with individual ownership.

    In any case, we have essentially the same range of conflicts and tensions between individual use and collective use, and between conditional use and unconditional use, as we find in the varieties or forms of ownership.

    So I don’t think that drawing a contrast between “ownership” and “use” rights is nearly as useful as looking at the specific terms and conditions that we attach to each specific right that we chose to include or exclude from the bundle of rights that makes up any model of ownership, custody, possession, use, etc.

    I’m all for innovation and experimentation, but I like to focus on the specific rights, conditions, rules, relations, etc. rather than the broad labels that are used. Generic terms like “property” and “ownership” often have traditional and customary connotations and interpretations that don’t really have a rigorous legal or technical definition until we add many additional details.

    One of the points I stress is that (in all the legal systems I know of) property and ownership are always subject to rules, regulations, limits, and conditions. Whatever we call stuff (property vs resource, ownership vs use, private vs public) for convenience, it is the specific “contractual” details that are essential and which must be clearly enumerated in order to compare one model with another.


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