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The commons

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“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

Karl Marx
In Sum

Our common wealth — the shared bounty that we inherit and create together — precedes and surrounds our private wealth. By building a system that protects and expands our common wealth rather than one that exploits it, we can address both our ecological and social imbalances.


The concept of the commons dates back to Roman times, with emperor Justinian (530 AD) declaring, “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.” The Magna Carta (1215) estab­lished forests and fisheries as commons open to all. John Locke (1689) declared that private property is appropriate only if “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

In pre-capitalist times, shared commons were the source of sustenance for most people. Though corporations have enclosed and diminished much of the commons, it lives on in three portfolios: natural wealth (air, water, seeds, ecosystems, other species); community wealth (streets, parks, the Internet, money, social insur­ance); and  cultural wealth (music, art, science, open-source software). All of these are gifts we share and are obliged to preserve for others and for future generations.

The trouble is that, under capitalism, common wealth is increasingly appro­­priated by private corporations and wealthy individuals for profit. To counter this, we need to expand and strengthen both the com­mons and the institu­tions that sustain them.

Several doctrines flow from the idea of the commons:

Public trust doctrine: The state must act as the trustee of common wealth for the benefit of all, or designate accountable trustees.

We’re all in this together: The capitalist-era risks of unem­ploy­ment, disa­bil­ity, illness, climate change and unfunded retirement are best shared collect­ively rather than borne indivi­dually.

Polluter pays: Polluters should pay to dump wastes in shared eco­systems.

Precautionary principle: Ecosystems should be managed for long-term health, not short-term profit.

One person, one share: Rent from common assets belongs to every­one equally.

Usufruct: Our right to make use of a given resource is contingent upon our responsibility to preserve and enrich that resource for future generations.

It’s important to note that, though the commons sector needs state sup­port (just as the private sector does), it’s not identical to the state. One can imagine a vibrant commons sector built around the Internet and the air­waves; trusts that protect key essential resources like clean air, water, forests and topsoil; universal health care; dividends paid from common wealth to everyone and local arts funds based on copyright fees. One can also imagine fees on private transactions that profit from the financial commons.

An important function of the commons sector would be to charge corpor­ations for costs (such as bank bailouts and pollution) that they currently impose on the rest of us. If this were done, businesses would speculate less and invest more in clean technolo­gies, and rent from commons use could pro­vide non-labor income to all.

In short, a twenty-first-century commons sector wouldn’t replace the market or the state, but would rather serve as a necessary balance to them. While such a sector won’t emerge all at once, we can build it piece by piece over time.

MOST FAMOUS APPLICATION: Parks and wilderness areas, the Internet, Wikipedia, Social Secur­ity, the Alaska Permanent Fund (pays equal dividends to all Alaskans with revenue from oil leases).

MOST INFAMOUS BETRAYAL: Free gifts of air to polluters, money to banks and airwaves to broadcasters.

is an entrepreneur and writer who has founded and led several successful companies. Barnes began his career as a reporter on The Lowell (Mass.) Sun, and was subse­quently a Washington correspondent for Newsweek and West Coast correspondent for The New Republic. In 1976 he co­founded a worker­-owned solar energy company in San Francisco, and in 1985 he co­founded Working Assets Long Distance (now Credo Mobile). His books include Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons (2006), Who Owns the Sky? (2001), and Pawns: The Plight of the Citizen-Soldier (1972).

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