The Commons: A Debated Concept

Common goods (such as the air, water, rivers, seas, knowledge) are in fashion. And as such, they run through many discourses and practices, and are claimed by many so-called “alternative” movements, of which the Indignados are one of the most emblematic examples. Therefore, we can consider that the notion of ‘the common’ broadens the theoretical foundations of the collaborative economy, while also giving us tools to deepen the socio-political approach of the movements that claim the commons.

In fact, this notion covers a great variety of situations: experiments in the sharing and solidarity economy, urban struggles, and environmental movements (in particular on natural and energy resources), even debates about open source and free software. It therefore figures prominently in the wide range of alternatives proposed by “activist collaborative” groups (on the cooperative model of sharing ownership, values, and decision-making). It differs from forms of “collaborative co-production,” with the latter’s unequal benefits and vertical power structures, with ‘Uberization’ often presented as the prototype.

  • Dujarier M.A., 2015, « The activity of the consumer: strengthening, transforming or contesting capitalism? », American Quartely, Vol.56.

Yet we must be careful when trying to explain the stakes involved with these symptomatic manifestations about common goods. The first pitfall is to try to build a coherent whole from a set of multiple realities, which cover a wide variety of social groups and issues. While we need to try to identify the core meaning of ‘common’ to avoid oversimplifying and in order to conceptualize its theoretical import, we must not forget that the experiences arising from the notion of the common each have their own specificity. The common is a plural whose variations escape a singular attempt to understand them.

CC Pixabay gibbysocks

Another trap would be to think that the return of the common(s) means the return to a status quo ante, which would have existed long before the advent of the sovereign state and economic liberalism. The eternal Return is never that of the same person, or of an equal, Gilles Deleuze said after Nietzsche – and breaking with a teleological vision of History does not prevent a concept from reinventing itself. While the Universalist dream is no longer admitted, the practices and discourses of the common differ from those that were organized around the collective, whatever its name (socialism, communism). Playing on “old” emancipatory utopias, some commoners have invented ‘commonism’. In fact, the common is a matter of scale. Its basic element is that of the neighbourhood, whether contiguous or connected.

Finally, we must free the ‘common’ from the ‘community’. While the latter has multiple markers of exclusive membership in a group (with one’s identity preserved and enclosed co-ownership) where the survival of the group is at stake, the former is characterized by inclusiveness: in denying the rationales of property, a project based on the sharing of resources comes into being.

Plural, local, networked, inclusive—today this is how the ‘common’ of our commons appears. But what shades of history haunt its return?

Detour through History

First, we must look briefly at three historical moments. They reveal the legal influence on the concept and help us understood what it is about.

In the second half of the Middle Ages, the Commons referred to restrictions on the use of royal domains (hunting grounds). They gave serfs usage rights in certain sections of wooded pastures and meant the ‘landless’ could glean and graze herds after harvest. ‘Communal’ pastures were those lands that peasants did not own individually, but which they could use in ‘common.’ The ‘common’ thus emphasized custom over written law (with jurisprudence punishing practices after the fact rather than forbidding them in law), the difference between ownership and use rights (some owned the land, others had the right to use it), and finally a set of obligations in return (free use of dead wood and fruit in return for service during wartime).

CC Pixabay Clker-Free-Vector-Images

But the commons also meant the war of enclosures, which began in the Renaissance with the first signs of economic liberalism and agro-industrial concentration (in England, intensive livestock farming was gradually abandoned as the cloth industry took off). An exclusive right of land ownership was then gradually established, to the detriment of longstanding uses.

In fact, the origins of the ‘common’ can be found in Antiquity. Roman law defines res publicae, i. e. things belonging to the people (poplicus), and res publica, the public thing, leading to political organization. In the period from the Republic to the Empire, the notion of a public separate from the State gradually faded, although never developing into the notion of private. From then on, “the first direction taken by Roman policy was that of ‘state-ization’ of the common. The second was the spiritualization of the notion of ‘commons’ in the Christian context” (Dardot, Laval).

  • Dardot P., Laval C., 2014, Commun, essai sur la révolution au XXIème siècle, Paris : La Découverte.

It was not until in 1790 during the French Revolution that the idea of the Nation as embodying the sovereign people came into being. Then also the raison d’être of placing the public sphere under the State’s control was questioned: “The republic is conceived of both as a common good and as the mode of government of this common good” (Bosc). Thus, the Convention montagnarde reveals “a peasant vision – resulting from what remained of the experience of the commons – and through that, a republican vision.” It also reveals a corporatist melting pot of crafts and trades based on the sharing of resources and knowledge, providing the “right to existence” of all its members: “equality giving the right to freedom, with freedom [not being] not a right in itself, inseparable from equality.” The Le Chapelier Law would reduce this, while promoting the spirit of ownership and that other crucial freedom for capitalism, that of free enterprise.

CC Pixabay Clker-Free-Vector-Images

  • Bosc Y., 2016, « Communs et républicanisme : l’expérience de la Révolution Française », Colloque de Cerisy Vers une République des biens communs.

Finally, I should mention the recent upheavals in Italian politics, which suggest that there are some signs of hope even during an accelerated privatization of public goods: a draft of a legal definition of common goods (Rodotà Commission), a referendum triggered by a popular initiative recognizing “water as a common good,” and an article in the Constitution legalising horizontal subsidiarity (citizens can substitute for public authority in managing the country’s resources).

Straddling these two stories of the privatization of material and immaterial resources and the state-ization of common goods, we find the adventure of the common, beyond a simple cleavage between the private and the public. What’s more, with these goods and resources (that are non-rival goods because of their unlimited and non-excludable consumption or use (open distribution)) that have traditionally been common goods, we are now seeing a complete transformation of the notion. While the concept of cognitive capitalism is controversial, at least it allows us to focus on the rise of the common through its emancipation from the territorial and through its sharing: the ecology of organic and the digital economy (for example, in the rights granted by a creative commons license).

A Manifesto and Policies/Practices

CC Pixabay Geralt

Although the return of the concept of Commons seems assured, the notion divides people as much as it brings together. A harsh controversy pits the promoters of an “absolute commons”, establishing the manifesto of rights that must be acquired by fighting, against the supporters of a “relative commons,” through contracting variable practices.

In the singular, “the common is not a good. It is the political principle from which we must build the commons and relate to them, in order to preserve, extend and sustain them…This consists of an activity that can only be done in and through conflict” (Dardot, Laval). In the plural, “the commons can be defined as sets of collective resources [governed] through a governance structure ensuring the distribution of rights among the partners participating in the commons and seeking the orderly use of the resource, allowing its long-term reproduction” (Coriat).

  • Coriat B., dir., 2015, Le retour des communs, Paris : Les Liens qui libèrent.

Here we can see cultural differences related to the law, which is the very foundation of the common – the law in which one believes, whether written or customary.

On one hand, we have the written law – the Roman Civil Code – with the notion of property at its very core in its strictest sense: either it is property, or it is not. Thus we see a possible relationship with the French movement, Nuit Debout, in explaining the confrontation between the discourse of the representative of public power (Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris: “public places cannot be privatized”) and that of commoners staying on the square and willing to respond to her: “strictly speaking, the public domain is not a common good, except when it has been appropriated, and made alive by communities of ordinary people.”

CC Wikimedia Commons

And then, there is this other conception of the common as “à la carte” – so many situations, so many commons – which are easy to string together when the law allows a variety of practices. There is no essentialization of ownership, because commons are characterized by property regimes associated with resources and the bundles of rights attached to them. Let us assess this balancing between the singular of a principle and the plural of its forms applied in practice. The commons come from environments that they also help bring into existence (Coriat). But the commons is also the theoretical principle and the instituting regime that makes usage rights (and the resulting obligations) as the reason for an engagement (Dardot, Laval). For example, in Germany we witnessed the “takeover of Tempelhof”, this airport taken back from property developers after a great fight and against the opinion of the Berlin Senate, through a referendum initiated by the people. Since then, the site’s resources (air, soil) have been co-managed by elected officials and associations.

The subjectification at work in citizens’ empowerment is matched only by the increased sharing of knowledge about the environment in which that empowerment is exercised. This phenomenon shows the continued relevance of the devices highlighted by Michel Foucault, while preparing the arrival of democracies based on dialogue rather than delegation.

  • Callon M., Lascoumes P., Barthe Y., 2001, Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la démocratie technique, Paris : Le Seuil.


CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

Crédits image à la Une : CC Creatives Commons France et crédits image d’entrée : CC Pexels

Citer ce billet
Emmanuel Doutriaux (2019, 3 mars). The Commons: A Debated Concept. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 27 mai 2024, à l’adresse

Emmanuel Doutriaux

Evcau, Ecole nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris Val de Seine (

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