Whose commons? An exploration of ownership, against humanunkind

Author: Maria Martelli

Our human world is shared with all kinds of other tattered, broken worlds.

Timothy Morton

I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished

Mary Oliver



The commons is one thing, or another, but what can be grasped of it is that it is something collective, something „common” to someone. Different theorists say different things,  from Hardin (1968) who puts it forward as a problem (a tragedy, even!) of managing collective goods, to Ostrom (2010) who solves this false theorizing of „commons” by urging us to look at specific examples (of common pool resources collectively managed, such as Swiss pastures). The first looks at grazing lands and fisheries and says something along the lines of: if we no one owns them, man (man, not some other instance of human) will make the maximum use of them for himself, and thus destroy them, slowly, and everyone will be worse off. The second is more careful and writes not of such abstract men: she pays attention to proper research and shows just how many mechanisms there are to organize a „commons”.   They both have something in „common” – they admit there is such a thing as a commons, maybe even „the” commons, and that it poses a governance problem, maybe even intrinsically economic. Well, they might be just tilting at windmills (and I can only say this fearlessly because Cervantes is dead – as all literary scholars know, he killed Don Quijote furiously to make sure no one else would continue writing his adventures).

Let’s look at this concept from up close. What is a common? Silvia Federici (2010) says „we have land, water, air commons, digital commons … languages, libraries”, and goes on to ask that we pay attention, not to „craft the discourse … in such a way as to allow” crisis-ridden capitalism to revive itself by feeding off it. Her analysis is deeply political, demanding that we acknowledge the reproductive labour of women that makes much of life as we know it possible. Moreover, she pushes for the creation of communities that recognize that the „production of our life inevitably becomes a production of death for others”, and thus act consciously, for example by refusing „to see ourselves as separate from…” others. This, finally, brings us to one of the first questions I wish to raise – do we have things, or do things „have” us? Is it us, humans (before, just men), who own and produce and have a „commons”, or is the commons something that has us, that hosts us, that keeps us alive – and thus irreducible from ourselves? I doubt I could be writing this if there was no air to breathe, and yet we speak of air as a commons we all own, and thus can use as we wish (even pollute, ultimately, at a cost – a carbon tax!).

Conceptualizing otherness as something we can own is dangerous for many reasons, some of which we know from the very first writings of such tragedies of commons: overfishing, overgrazing, overuse of land, water, forest; others we learnt much harder: slavery, the colonial subject.  It is always through „pain, / and pain, and more pain” that we take something out from the world, and decide whether it is ours or mine, just mine. The talk of commons is usually so: something is ours. We own it. Yet who are we?

It is not a coincidence I am adressing the human „we” in the age of the anthropocene (Cruzen & Stroemer, 2000). Scholars keep on debating what to call it and what it is, but some data is clear: humans have changed the earth to a previously unimaginable extent, altering biochemical cycles, modifying landuse, putting carbon in the atmosphere and driving the sixth extinction. Yet the „we” of humankind is still spurious – it was not really all of us who did this, but rather industrial Europe and post-war United States, right? Still, the atmosphere is for everyone to breathe, including the birds. And let’s not forget the trees, so many are dying (Kolbert, 2014). These commons of ours are either getting enclosed or destroyed, or wait, is it both? Let’s go and touch Earth by looking at two unrelated, maybe surprising, examples of thinking in „commons”. The first is an idea from an article (Bram, 2016) that looks at dating apps through game theory. The problem with such apps (ex. tinder), as the writer says, is that there is an „overfishing” tragedy. The „shared resource” is the women’s attention, and they get way too much of it and in poor quality, as most users are male. Now, the article goes on to show that there is a technical fix to this problem, for example by restricting the number of matches. Is it just me or you, too, can feel a tingling feeling down your spine when calling women’s attention a shared resource? Such a description is to show that a commons, whatever commons, seems to be always someone’s, and of something, and thus an enclosure itself. The second example is David Gatlin’s beautiful anthill art, made by pouring molten aluminum down ant colonies. Just for a moment inhale and take the viewpoint of an ant in its home, dying in burning liquid coming from above. And then revere in the splendor of the ant’s constructions. Whose property is it, the ant colony, and whose property is it, the molten sculpture, and do we, by viewing, make it into a commons, a human enjoyment of Nature (as Timothy Morton calls it, to denaturalize it and laugh)? Or was it a commons before, the ant’s commons, which we have enclosed? Do animals have commons, or is „having”, and „common”, and „us/we”, something restricted to humans?

Questioning does not end here (and it shouldn’t), but if time is a commons too, I have enclosed enough of it by turning back thoughts upon its being. However, it might be worth it to try to conceive of something beyond the commons (and thus beyond ownership of any kind). Something fitting to a present in which we know we live with bacteria (Morton, 2017), and because of it, too. Fitting to walking upon an Earth we overuse, an Earth which kills us slowly in return (Scranton, 2015). Maybe the commons is not ours, maybe we are the commons’.



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Federici, S. (2010) Feminism and the politics of the commons. Published in Uses of a WorldWind, Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, edited by Craig Hughes, Stevie Peace and Kevin Van Meter for the Team Colors Collective, Oaskland: AK Press, 2010

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Morton, T. (2017) Humankind:  Solidarity with Nonhuman People. Verso, August 2017, pp. 11 / 109

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Scranton, R. (2015). Learning to die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization. San Franciso, CA: City Lights Books.

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