Our age is witness to a proliferation of discourses about the ‘commons’. They are emerging from more and more quarters, and the word is being applied to more things than ever before. One important strand of discourse, claiming to be communist, seeks to apply it to all kinds of spheres, from the earth and its natural bounty to culture, and to all sorts of resources, from the most immaterial, such as common knowledge, to the most material, such as the use of the earth’s finite natural resources. Internet activists refer to information and knowledge that exits on the web as the ‘digital commons’. Businesses, powerful countries, and international agencies, while they do not invoke the ‘commons’ in discussions of domestic policy, are in the forefront of invoking the notion of ‘commons’ in the international sphere, applying it to impressive array of spheres, from the high seas to airspace, to outer space and cyberspace.
There is a notion to apply the term only to ‘non-excludable’ goods, goods whose enjoyment by some does not prevent that by others, either because they are plentiful, such as the fresh air, or because they are not ‘used up’ by any single user, such as a song. There is, however, the idea to also apply it to excludable goods too, such as food or housing, or health-care, or schools and universities, or social services, which, they argue, should be shared in some fashion that is fair and just beyond present, typically capitalist, arrangements.
Struggles for the ‘commons’ are associated in the popular imagination with progressive and deeply legitimate causes. Even non-Marxists, for instance, are familiar with Marxists famous discussions of enclosures in Part VIII of Capital and associate them with the myriad struggles since that have sought to preserve lives and livelihoods. That, however, is also why contemporary discourses about the ‘commons’ require us to delve deeper. There are at least two layers of misunderstanding that we need to peel off before we can begin to judge specific claims about the ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’. The first has to do with the meaning of the ‘commons’ itself and how the concept relates to property forms and governance. The second has to do with the domestic and/or international politics involved in claims about the ‘commons’. Once we have removed these understandings, we will be in a position to ask exactly what the social, political, and economic implications of this or that ‘commoning’ claim are and decide for ourselves whether we would support this or that claim.