We need a vision [1] for a better future. Consider expanding the Commons [2] while taming Capital [3].  

The Commons is where parts of the earth — land, water, air, schools, roads, health, factories and fields, are shared. Thinking about the Commons and other strong options for the future of society is now urgent. The slow breakdown that was occurring has become clear through the government's inability to meet the challenges of COVID, climate change, and fairness. Now what? Something will happen. 

It is possible that big data operating through large corporations, with sensors in every part of the economy and private spaces, and managed by algorithms, could work. But that same technical capacity could be used for very effective local management with sensitivity to local conditions and guided by democratic participation. Much is afoot and we should want to participate. We need a cooperative ethos. The world is still Hobbesian, all against all. 

Food and habitat breakdowns will motivate local solutions. The Green Revolution proposes subsidies for green projects but no structural change in governance nor property. We must go further into causes and solutions. Imagine if food and family were the focus of social organization! As COVID fades, climate will loom, requiring us to think more structurally. 

A major goal of social development should be to cut poverty to zero. That doesn't mean equality — which is a problematic concept. (Who gets to live by the ocean, who gets to marry the prom queen?). But it does mean that we lift the bottom up, not in terms of cash, but in living conditions. Each person should live a life that feels good to them and provides support for their development as a family member, citizen participant, and artist. I think it takes us toward what can be called Gardenworld and its politics

Developing the Commons means cutting some of the concentration of assets at the top while vigorously creating better circumstances where most people actually try to live. But getting from cash to the Commons is not going to be easy, despite its attractiveness, requiring changes in regulations and, most importantly, changes in culture. 

To understand the future for the Commons it is helpful if we have some background thinking on how all of the earth, being free for roaming, shrank to the ownership of a small percentage of the people. This has been a slow process we may need to untangle carefully. 

Water and air used to be part of the Commons. Now, water is in bottles and good air at expensive resorts. Land has disappeared behind boundaries and titles. This started with nomads and their cattle, at first free to roam. But with increasing population, of people and cattle, grassland became scarce and conflictual until governance stepped in to divide it up. Cattle were owned but the land was just nature. The concern shifted from the cattle — the small herds — to the grazing [4]— land itself. This is a huge shift and caused reactions. The nomoi in the word eco-nomy comes from Greek nomos, law, but in pre-platonic Greek it meant equal distribution. But a law is not developed without a felt need, and that need was to maintain fairness of land division. 

Douglass Carmichael

Strategy Consultant, Institute for New Economic Thinking

[1] There are many people probing in the directions explored in this essay, however most present ideas in terms of policies and avoid 1) A vision of what kind of new world might emerge, and 2) what actions would help us get there.


[2] From wikipedia: The use of "commons" for natural resources has its roots in European intellectual history, where it referred to shared agricultural fields, grazing lands and forests that were, over a period of several hundred years, enclosed, claimed as private property for private use. In European political texts, the common wealth was the totality of the material riches of the world, such as the air, the water, the soil and the seed, all nature's bounty regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. In this context, one may go back further, to the Roman legal category res communis, applied to things common to all to be used and enjoyed by everyone, as opposed to res publica, applied to public property managed by the government. A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner. 


[3] Capital is surplus wealth that can be used for investing. The word comes from Latin, Cap, head, as in new head of cattle. Very unequally distributed in modern society. 

[4] The word capital comes from Latin Cap, for head, as in new head of cattle.

The first attempt at maintaining equality was to divide the land into equal portions, but not all acres of land are equal, so the process moved on to meet the needs of rising populations while maintaining nomoi — but how? In early societies, nomads, hunter gatherers, and empires, were mostly based on cattle. Food was harvested and brought to the administrative center, stored in large urns, and distributed on the basis of need. The pyramids were not built by slave labor, but by agricultural labor provided with feasts during off seasons. 

Humans, from the earliest traces, lived communally, following the way of living of earlier primates. Human groups from bands to tribes shared food and danger. Within the group, no one starved. So even today, “We are all communists in a family”. The path of history has been for private property to cut into that shared community until it only remains in the kinship family. Even at home, many people on cell phones do not share dinner. 

The whole path of human history has been a struggle by elites to chip away at the Commons and take more for themselves, leading to a class society of favored and unfavored. It is this simple arc of elite wealth vs. the poverty of the rest of us which is the base for the current situation, where elites dominate, and the rest are marginalized. The point is that a better future with a larger sense of the Commons is in conflict with existing institutions. There is no policy that can get us to that better world without people commited to that struggle. 


Hunter gatherers shared the kill in the group, but as society grew more complex and land was fenced, the idea of the sacrifice emerged as a way of maintaining the culture of sharing. If you read Homer, you will see how often cattle were sacrificed; the smoke went up to the gods and the people ate the shared meat. Athens in the fifth century was dependent on sacrificed cattle to feed the population. (See the amazing book Against the Grain by James C. Scott.) There was no process of buying or selling. These were cashless societies without markets. Remnants of the old tradition still exist. I was visiting a large estate outside Edinburgh and around lunch time on a Saturday, small groups of people were walking and spreading blankets. I asked the host, who explained they were townspeople and they had the right to share the land. In modern day Scotland, all land is considered open to people for walking and picnicking. This seems strange to us.

The word “common” sounds a bit weak, but its history shows its depth. (from the Online Etymological Dictionary) com - together and then:

The second element of the compound also is the source of Latin munia “duties, public duties, functions,” those related to munia “office.” Perhaps reinforced in Old French by the Germanic form of PIE *ko-moin-i- (compare German gemein, Old English gemne “common, public, general, universal;”

So the Commons points not just to use, but to co-responsibility. 

The Commons extended into the 18th century in England. The idea is simple: elites by virtue of gifts from the King claimed much of the land and what was left over was used by unlanded farmers and craft workers, grazing their own cattle and planting gardens. 

Understanding these differences in the living realites around the world helps us see that other arrangements are possible. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the American Republic, spent months studying and reporting on the differences he found in different republics. We need to be that wise about the various possibilities for the Commons. Everyone had the right to use roads. It is unfair that roads are being converted to tolls so that the wealthier can afford fast lanes. 

What are “Commons”? We need to understand that they are part of a different way of experiencing the world. Just as in a dance you need to be aware of your partner, in a society with a strong Commons, cooperation emerges as a kind of dance with others, with lots of intuition for others. Commons and cooperation replaces consumerism and isolation. There is a major psychological difference between walking on land that is collectively ours and land that is owned by another, where we have to be continually on guard, like musical chairs. Hunting and camping lands used to be Commons until encroaching land grabs led to parks as designated zones free for regulated use and controlled by the state. Wilderness used to be a place without any presence of the state. “The people are in the forest and the emperor is far away in his palace” — Chinese saying). 

Two major problems for society are the feeding and housing (homing) of the people, and the people come in families with children and old people. Feeding and habitat, now under stress, are where new Commons may form — a food line now, shared housing tomorrow. Imagine that the government distributed food-stamps to everyone in generous quantities to get their needed and desired food. If Mary wants company for dinner, she uses her stamps, and her guests chip in and give her some of theirs. Such a system would be kind to surplus. Under capitalist conditions, the more a farm produces, the lower the prices and the lower the income of the farmer. Throughout history, cities have imposed this structure on farmers, lowering their portion of societal wealth. In the Commons, surplus is not a threat to anyone as farmer-needs are met by the same shared understanding of food and habitat. 


We can imagine towns with new civic centers that, in a park, combine schools, town offices, retirement homes, kindergarten play centers, libraries, and modest medical help. Perhaps a cafe, an all-purpose small general store, and maybe even an incubator facility for new business start-ups. Generations and interest mix. 

Capitalism and democracy are two parallel systems for making decisions. It is important to see that major decisions are controlled by the owners of capital. In the Commons, such investment decisions are discussed by the whole community. The problem now is that capital can too easily buy the political process. 

The result is a society that does not offer much to people in their quest for a full life. Legislation of many kinds has forced people out of families into acquisitions. Basic needs for curiosity, love, self regard, friendship are shifted towards more for me less for you. If we are not empathetic we have to cut off our own emotional sensibility, and this is at great cost. David Hockney writes that “If you see your surroundings as beautiful, thrilling, and mysterious, as I think I do, then you feel quite alive.” Life is not met well with feedlot institutions. Humans need more. Creating a full spectrum of conditions for a full human life for each person is potentially freed up in the Commons. 

The Commons will not eliminate conflict, but is built on much more participation. The problem is society seems to need elites that coopt participation for themselves. This means conflict is always present and always needing pushback. Are elites needed to run society? Probably. Small group research shows that a leader always emerges. Take away that leader and a new one emerges. 

A generation of elites breeds a next generation of lazier and less aware leaders who, from an elite position in the social structure protected by zoning and gated communities, lose contact with the reality for the main part of the population. Failing to understand the whole hastens crisis. So, how are they chosen, educated, rewarded in the Commons? 


Joseph Tainter in his essential book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, argues that as nations evolve, they become more complex and as they grow more complex, the maintenance cost increases more rapidly than the productive capacity of society. This continues until the curve of rising costs eats up all the surplus, and keeps on going till collapse. Moreover, the elites own the infrastructure. When problems emerge in the infrastructure, the elites — instead of paying to repair the system — act to cut costs and take the savings for themselves. 

A different governing occurred in Athens. Key roles were filled by lottery, drawn from all citizens. People had to be educated enough to fill those roles if chosen, and roles had to be understandable enough that such chosen citizens could do them. This is a very different kind of society than we know, but may be what the Commons requires. Wikipedia has a summary

Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition [lottery] was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy: 

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely... The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election. 

In Athens, "democracy" (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the "many" (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran the government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: "It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy.”

I want you to take seriously that restructuring this society for the better is not just a question of policy, but of actions to make things better, an effort that is with us for the duration of animal life. 

Some societies have dealt with parts of this. A priestly society such as Teotihuacan in Mexico seems to have developed a living situation of great equality at the material level. As you move out from the religious center, houses seem to be all of the same size. They also seemed to have kept the population equal to the capacity of an agriculture tied to the available acreage on the valley floor. This required managing two systems as one: birth and demographics with food production. [5]

“The fittest survive.” But who are the fittest? The competitors or the cooperators? Humans don’t have to follow evolution. Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” is clearly not scientific nor Darwinian, but we can hold to it because it sets the conditions for a less conflicting and more attractive society. Of course, we have not reached that goal. We're living in the arc of an uncompleted French Revolution. Fascism, Communism, and perhaps even American “Free” enterprise were well meaning, wrong headed attempts to follow through, leaving the task still open. 

The slow evolution from the shared Commons of the past to the current decaying state is filled with details we may need to undo. One such detail: the CO2 in the atmosphere took cars — now about three billion — a hundred years, pumping out burnt gas at 25 lbs of CO2 per gallon. Since you can't run a car’s engine in reverse, removing that existing CO2 will be very difficult, given existing and proposed technologies. So too will reversing the reduction of the Commons from the whole of the earth, its air, water and sunlight, to a small part of the earth chopped in pieces generation by generation. 

An important paper, often used to discredit the idea of the Commons, Garret Hardin’s in 1968, , “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The paper was actually written to deal with nuclear disarmament. He argued that community based farmers would overgraze their own cattle at the expense of the community. Historically, what ruined the Commons was not the overgrazing by “commoners”, but the use of the legal process for large landholders to legally take the land from the Commons, mostly for sheep. This process is known as “enclosure.” (See E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common. For a positive view of the possibility of Commons now see Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons.)

The old is held together by folk tradition. Habit is the enemy of change and the friend of stability. Habit that preserved the Commons will also tend to preserve the current competitive society. Just as it took a long time for Commons to give way to private property, so too will habit hold on to rent, market, and jobs. If we want to move toward less consumption and more craft, recreation, and family time, it will be hard, but oh so worthwhile. William James wrote: 

[5] New research in archeology and anthropology are making this past available as resource.

Habit is the enemy of change and the friend of stability.

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. 

For the Commons to succeed it will have to be attractive, building on the desires, explicit and vague, shared and private, across all generations and other differences which split us. Black and white should be replaced with the beauty of tone. We should appreciate each other. Rich and poor should not be segregated as the resulting ignorance is stifling. 


John Maynard Keynes wrote a wonderful essay, frequently quoted: “Economic prospects for our grandchildren, based on the idea that we can produce the basics — food housing health education — with fewer people as tech advances.” But here’s the rub. He suggests that the savings can go to leisure, but we are caught up in growth rather than rethinking what we want and how best to get it. Growth maintains the financial system, and we probably need it to collapse. It has been fateful for society that we chose the path of constantly increasing consumption rather than the constant advance in the quality of human lives - including fairness for all. [6]

So how might a Commons emerge? We need ordinary people (who are never actually ordinary at all) to want to participate in the creation of a world that works for everyone — especially themselves. They need to realize that strong people require a strong community and a strong community requires strong people, and that it feels good to be working with others toward a new goal. The Commons can give quality of life in food, habitat, attractiveness of surroundings, safety, and appreciation. “Do you like living here?” “Sure. It should have always been like this.” More relationships, less traffic. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration with “happiness,” he did not mean consumer bliss, but the number of roles each person played in society. The more roles, the more our talents are integrated with reality. 

In Scotland, as part of what is called the Scottish Enlightenment — from which Jefferson got the idea of happiness — there was a general philosophical view toward what was called “common sense.” The view of the world and life and actions large and small shared by “all reasonable people.” 

Who might such reasonable people be? Shakespeare in The Tempest looks on the future, 

[6] Rethinking the logic of growth is essential since the meme in this society is that growth is essential. Essential for what? Basically to pay off the interest on debt and keep financial careers viable. The US economy at its best still was creating poverty. The argument for jobs is that only with growth can we have full employment. But this avoids the issue of what is work and time for? Back to Keynes and our grandchildren. This can be rethought, and many are now trying. Wealth can be increased by rearranging what we have without need for extraction from the environment nor workers. Aristotle writes in On Generation and Corruption, that we can have development without growth.

Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world that has such people in it.

We need to think of terrarians as a positive identity. Earthlings? Perhaps. Words will play an important part, but we do not yet know which words. The Commons can span from local communities to watersheds to continents to the internet. Which raises the question, what is the role of technology in the Commons? Currently, tech development is too linked to private monopolization. Should tech be broken up, or perhaps better, turned, at maturity, into Commons owned utilities? 

How might such a Commons be managed? First, it requires human connection. People isolated in consumerism and competition are not good at cooperation and co-creation. This decade will tell us about the current state of our decency and civic mindedness. I am optimistic that, in the midst of legitimate and illegitimate violence, tolerance and empathy are stronger than fear, hatred, and opportunism. 

Once we can gather, we can manage the Commons in Open Space, developed by Harrison Owen. It goes like this. In the morning we gather in a circle. People are invited to suggest things we need to do or think about. In the center of the circle is a pile of paper and some markers and a microphone. Each person who wants to lead comes to the center and writes the topic and announces it on the microphone. There are post-its on the side of the wall with rooms and times, and each presenter picks one that identifies the when and where. When the mornings ideas seem well gathered, people go and sign up for the effort they want to join, and then they disperses into small groups around the leader. The group comes back at the end of the afternoon for thoughts about what happened. The process repeats the next day or perhaps a week later. In this way, the community, in shared cooperation with self chosen tasks, deals with its issues. Note that in this system unattractive tasks can become necessary tasks, and some will volunteer for them for the sake of community. Obviously, if no one volunteers for the task maybe it should be forgotten. In modern society we pay low wages to the most disadvantaged to do terrible jobs, such as meat rendering. The psychic burden of such jobs is destructive. No one should do these jobs on more than a very part time basis. 

Commons means more human interaction. Confucius was asked what should be learned. He replied “Know your fellow people.” The psyche won't go away. Frustration, fear, guilt, disdain, and jealousy. Seven deadly sins, pride, evy, glutton, lust, jealousy, greed, sloth. The virtues, less well known, charity, prudence, hope, humility, kindness, perseverance, courage, justice. All the stuff of the great operas. You will want to understand these, in yourself and in others. Critical self inventory also includes understanding your historical and institutional background. 

It's hard to imagine how the change from markets could be brought about. People are deeply controlled by their self chosen habits. In the spaces created by a serious breakdown, their first and deepest impulse is to do what they know: to reestablish mine vs yours, set up boundaries and contracts and private property.

The division into private property is the opposite of the Commons. But to show you how fluid even the most basic concepts are, private property is worth analyzing. Property comes from proper, “What is proper to a man of rank to show his status in society.’ We still use it this way — “Are you dressed properly for the party?” What is a social sign, property, in the community evolves into something that can be bought and sold. 

Private is slightly more difficult, Etymological Dictionary has 

The original Latin meant “remove from the pub;ic”. (From Latin prīvātus (“bereaved; set apart from”), perfect passive participle of prīvō (“I bereave, deprive”), from prīvus (“single, peculiar”). That is, death from the group. What is private is a death and the state bereaved. 

A long way to the modern meaning. This is worth some reflection. It implies that being removed from the community is to lose life. That is, life comes from being in the community. This is psychologically true, as we have seen in the COVID crisis. The implication for the Commons is clear. 

These histories are important because they show:

1. Key concepts evolve through culture and use, not given by god or nature

2. Point to issues a new Commons will have to rethink over and over.

We seem stuck now, but we might see a quick reorganization of the need for community in space created by the breakdowns, (such as a fifty percent unemployment or actual starvation) or maybe requires a long multi generational evolution (see The Long Revolution by Raymond Williams.). Remember that the Commons is as much political, cultural and experiential as concerned with material. People and institutions in the Commons, where people’s interactions with all others are fluid, changing, not static. 

Social arrangements result through political struggle against overbearing elites, but in the struggle elites have been winning out, culminating in ungovernability, substituting market and poverty for political choice. The long arc is toward human fullness. The struggle, from uprisings in the old empires through the Europe of the Renaissance to the present is incomplete. The effort for the Commons is part of continuing the arc. It will not be easy. 

For an alternative view.