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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