On the idea of the commons

Commons notebook page
Page from the collaboratively produced commons notebook

At the first full network meeting on 11-12 December, five academics shared diverse stories about the commons. This is the text of the story shared by Dr Leila Dawney (University of Exeter), Co-Investigator of the Crafting the Commons network.

Recently, the idea of the commons has made a comeback in the humanities and the social sciences, as well as in contemporary forms of activism. This idea, previously associated with the back to the land movements of the 1960s and 70s, with debates over resource management or with the pursuits of social and legal historians, has gathered traction both as a way of imagining ecological and political futures, and of finding ways to live in an increasingly privatised world.

In this emergent politics of the commons, we can notice two specific trends. Firstly, the expansion of the term from thinking about how to manage static resources such as land, forests and rivers (as discussed by early commons scholars such as Elinor Ostrom), into new commons such as airwaves, knowledge, skills, code, tools and atmospheres. Secondly, the language of the commons, with its spatial and land-based connotations, has been supplanted with that of commoning, implying ongoing, practical engagements and entanglements between people, materials, non-humans and spaces. In part as a response to the critique of humanism in the humanities and social sciences, and the urgent demands of the Anthropocene, this linguistic move has decentred the human from the commons, and positioned non-humans not only as resources for human use, but as fellow actors in entangled ecologies. In turn, this move has tied debates about commoning into emerging scholarly literature on practices of maintenance and care.

This interest and expansion, however, has placed pressure on the commons: as a political concept, it is being made to do a lot of work. It is becoming a catch-all for ways of living and being more gently; a hinge for hopeful politics in a bleak, damaged and individuated present. In doing so, the term itself can get lost. It is hard to pin down, and hard to really isolate what makes something a commons, rather than public, for example, or what separates commoning from sharing.

Below I suggest four axioms/provocations as a starting point for thinking about the commons. These have emerged from previous research into the idea of the commons, and from discussions held during the commons theory retreat at the start of this project.

  1. Commons are positioned, and come into being, in relation to enclosure and dispossession. The privatisation or incorporation into relations of capital of forms of labour, life, care, knowledge, matter and sensation is here understood as an effect of capitalist expansion, which continually seeks new markets and opportunities for profit. The spectre of dispossession (as more and more aspects of life become commodified) is at the heart of the politics of the commons, and this in turn gives it a particular timbre: one of loss, melancholy, or what we discussed in our retreat as a form of “proleptic elegy” – a mourning of lost futures. In other words, commons theory and politics often emerges in the context of existing, historical or potential loss. One question we might like to consider, then, is of the implications of this, and what happens when loss is not the shadow in the corner of the commons.
  2. Commons are surrounded by cultural imaginaries and fantasies that act as a resource and fuel its political charge. In the UK, the land enclosure movements of the 17th and 18th centuries invoke tales of loss, as in (1) but also idyllic fantasies of a pre-enclosure commons, which were no doubt less bucolic than they are often painted. In postcolonial contexts, the seizing of land and rights, and the dispossessions of entire forms of life can lead to troubling celebrations of indigeneity. Commons fantasies can be incredibly productive, but they can limit our thinking too. We need to acknowledge the fantasies of commoning that we bring to our practice, reflect on their cultural specificity and be open to subaltern voices that offer their own stories of commoning. This means thinking with and against dominant imaginaries of the common, and amplifying those voices that don’t get so easily heard, or that offer different perspectives.
  3. Commons often have their own problems and hierarchies. Commons operate as space that is neither public (as mediated through a state) nor private; they are collectively held and operate according to internal rules. The commons is not the same as public space, although they can share properties and sentiments. As Gibson-Graham point out, they do not need to be owned in common, yet they are managed and organised in common (Gibson-Graham, Cameron, & Healy, 2013). In practice, this means that commons are not necessarily egalitarian: they can exclude some and celebrate others. They can be unjust, bound by internal (and less visible) hierarchies that have their own economies, such as longevity of service, gender, assertiveness. They perceived openness may hide opacity. They may, as a result, fall prey to the “tyranny of structurelessness” (Freeman, 1972). In addition, commons do not have to be explicitly progressive or radical: they can, and often do, take place within politically conservative institutions. Nevertheless, they can open us to the world; generating an excess to the enclosure of creativity, production, care and custodianship. They can foster hospitality, generosity and openness, but this is not necessarily so.
  4. Commons have to operate in a privatised, individualised world. To think, practice and be in common involves recognising our context within a present that is replete with powerful ways of capturing, privatising and individualising life. As makers and academics, we work in contexts that celebrate and reward individual endeavour, and valorise the cult of the lone genius. To resist this, at times, can be exhausting, and certainly self-detrimental in terms of our income and careers. It may lead to failure, both our own and that of our collective projects. Commoning requires physical, emotional and creative resources to fight back against the privatising of life.

To take things forward, then, we offer four questions:

  1. What alternative fictions and imaginaries can we look to in support of our practice? How can we amplify those voices that are silenced or suppressed?
  2. How can we common life and work in institutions that individualise?
  3. How can we question the internal politics of our own practice to produce a less Panglossian response to commoning?
  4. What infrastructures can we help to produce, that gesture towards commoning in a generous and open way?


Freeman, J. (1972). The tyranny of structurelessness. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 151-164.
Gibson-Graham, J.-K., Cameron, J., & Healy, S. (2013). Take back the economy: An ethical guide for transforming our communities: U of Minnesota Press.

Lisa Falaschi
[email protected]