Searching the Past for Policy Alternatives

Ways to a better future to be learned from "commons" past
April 1, 2014

When Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work restoring the credibility of the self-governing commons, she boosted the revival of this alternative to state or market control. Its heritage is huge and hugely important, especially for organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Perhaps most importantly, it offers a way of organizing and governing society that bridges the culture-nature divide. Historically, the commons consisted of both land and the people who inhabited it: social relations and ecological relations were all of a piece. The word "common," which derives from the Latin (com & unis, meaning "together in one," or com & munis, meaning "bound by mutual obligation") was not so much a noun as a verb. People "commoned" as they came together in shared work, sharing road and fence maintenance through work bees, sharing an infield through allotted strips, sharing a plough and set of oxen to pull it, setting limits called stints on how many sheep and cows each family could send to the upland common pasture for the summer, thus sharing responsibility for not over-grazing it.

Commoning was a way of life. It was a way of living in direct relations – even right relations – with others on shared land, and with the land itself: in fields and pastures, fens and forests.

In Scotland, the concept of duthchas was part of the commons culture. Translated into English, it means one's heritage, and also "a heritage of the soil," with this understood more broadly as a set of both rights and responsibilities toward one's people and the land that they inhabited. This understanding prevailed long after land began to be controlled by single agents and considered as private property, through the feu land charters that were one of the distinguishing features of feudalism, and the writings of John Locke and his idea of private property accumulated through individuals' improvement of common land.

An 1811 account of Scottish life noted that the clan chieftain was "not allowed to part with any territory [even] for the preservation of his life. . . The habit of making all private considerations subservient to the good of the community" persisted.

Along with this socio-ecological model, the commons legacy includes a lot of do-it-yourself practices, from work, governance, and regulatory practices to knowledge practices. Everything was grounded in the local context, in relationships and daily life, with the shared knowledge and experience of this voiced in the public meetings, or general assemblies of the commons hamlets, fermtouns and townships.

In Scotland, these inclusive public meetings to discuss the business of the commons were sometimes called nabec, meaning "neighbourliness." It was here that bylaws governing the opening of infields, first to gleaners and then to livestock after the grain was harvested, were discussed and adopted. It was here, too, that field officers and constables were appointed or elected. They were responsible for everything from allocating strips of infield to farm families each year (and letting some lie fallow) to ensuring that everyone observed the stinting rate in what livestock they sent to the common pasture – and impounding any animals exceeding a family's quota.

One of the key findings in Ostrom's research on successful commons today is the importance of accountability in rules and their enforceability so that the "free rider" problem is addressed, trust can develop, and a sense of community can grow around that mutual trust.

In at least some commons communities, it was customary for a field officer taking his oath of office to remove not just his hat, but his shoes and stockings too, and to stand barefoot in the field as he swore to be faithful in the fulfillment of his duties.

The knowledge practices are one of the most important legacies of the commons to understand and, if possible, to revive, because what you know and what you see as real hinges so much on how you know and see. The key point here is that knowing was grounded in the here and now, and accountable to it, too – not to outside sources of adjudicating authority remote in space and time.

All the commoners were enfranchised in the important work of keeping track of what was going on. They came to know the commons, both as community and as environment, as insiders immersed in the webwork of its life. They came to know by relating to it, attuned to shifts and changes. This also enfranchised them as knowledgeable participants in commons policy-making as their grounded local knowledge was brought to bear in commons decision-making. As their observations were heard, this in turn affirmed their importance as citizens, members and inhabitants of the commons, sharing responsibility for the common good.

There are many ways in which the pre-modern commons can inform, inspire, and provide a larger frame of meaning to current activism everywhere – from food security and fair trade to the direct action of the Idle No More and Occupy movements, and to some of the watershed recovery initiatives undertaken by environmental groups like Pollution Probe.

The co-operative movement has preserved a lot of the commons legacy, with its principles of self-organization, self-governance, and self-fianancing. An estimated one billion people belong to co-operatives worldwide, ranging from housing and energy to food, finance, and work co-operatives, with the Desjardins Caisse Populaire and the Granby (Dairy) Co-operatives in Quebec being two of the largest.

Seen through the lens of a commons sector of the economy, the numbers could be infinitely larger as the frame would include self-governing enterprises in Haiti using the traditional Afro-Caribbean self-help concept of konbit, and also farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, a range of social enterprises embracing fair-trade and fair-labour practices, including some actually calling themselves commons – be these community gardens in Detroit or Berlin or fisheries co-operatives in Chile.

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Can the CCPA play a role here? One way might be in creating discussion fora, both online and face-to-face through spaces like 25One Community (in Ottawa), bringing together people who've done even small things like starting a neighbourhood backyard rink for local kids or founding a food co-op or community kitchen, and helping them identify the policy lessons they learned in the process.

What start-up best-practice policies might be generalized into a downloadable DIY kit for others building on such initiatives elsewhere, with a summary published here in the CCPA Monitor? What lessons from the pre-modern commons, such as doing things in shares, and leadership from within project teams, are worth emulating, to sustain initiative and avoid volunteer fatigue?

The CCPA might also help foster a critique of where government or insurance regulations inordinately impede alternative models of social, socio-economic, and socio-ecological organization along the lines of commons and co-operatives. From my own research into the rise and fall of small farmer-owned cheese factory co-operatives in Ontario, from the 1860s to the 1960s (By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar), I know that the cost of compliance with government regulations (regulations on which big business advised the government) became so burdensome that small, independently or co-operatively owned enterprises could not survive.

Similarly, the CCPA might be the logical champion of a commons-like sector of the economy, a sector where economic choices can be governed by the social priorities of community and the ecological priorities of local habitats, the bullying power of the marketplace and so-called free-trade agreements checked by the priorities of the common good backed by expanding popular support.

The CCPA could also contribute to identifying a model of policy-making and related research that is appropriate for the kind of alternative economy and society it supports. The people associated with the People's Food Policy, from which Food Secure Canada emerged, modeled something useful. It was very participatory, very inclusive, and started with people's lived realities. As Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, told me once: "Everyone has a personal food policy: fast, slow, cheap or organic, and everyone can engage around that."

Does an alternative approach to policy-making put more emphasis on participatory process than product outcome? Is it as much about empowering agency, and re-enfranchising people as commoners – that is, knowledgeable and responsive participants in the shared habitats of their world -- as it is about getting the clauses right in the perfect policy statement? Does policy look more like responsible best practices that are responsive and accountable to local realties as well as broad general principles than compliance with standardized and rigid regulations?

The images used to describe the self-governing commons of pre-modern times are instructive. One report compares the governance culture to an ongoing collective agreement, with its bylaws and regulations understood as "operative custom," the "outcome of cumulative adjustment." A contemporary echo of this can be heard in A Postcapitalist Politics, whose authors write about revitalizing agency and direct action. They quote Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who notes that "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

Organizations dedicated to cognitive justice in international development have learned some important lessons in changing organizational as well as research practices. A report published by the Coady Institute in Nova Scotia summarizes some observations emerging from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountabilty (DRC), whose network of knowledge activists linked to universities and think- tanks in seven core countries reflected on the effects of bringing more collaborative, participative approaches to their work. One commented that it made their commitment to local accountability real. Others spoke of an increase in humility "which allows one to learn and act with others," letting experience speak to abstract concepts. It humbles them, inviting them to shift from "public intellectual" to identifying themselves more as "participatory intellectual."

To re-phrase a couple of popular mottos: We are the policy change makers we've been waiting for, and the policy changes we want to see made.

The CCPA has never been more important.

(Author and scholar Heather Menzies was recently awarded the Order of Canada for her "contributions to public discourse." Her 10th book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good – a Memoir and Manifesto, will be published by New Society Publishers in May. All references in this essay are available in that book.)