What is the basis of ownership? Where do we begin to re-examine the fundamentals of economics? How do we reconcile the distinction between the commons that are created by nature and the commons that are created by human beings?
Let’s examine how communities can oversee their collective resources sustainably, including both natural and human-created commons, and how they correspond to relevant laws of nature or Natural Law.
Locke and other liberal thinkers said that individuals have a right to homestead private property from nature by working on it.
A person has the freedom to mix his or her labor with natural resources -- originally common property -- thus making it one’s private property.
Enlightenment thinkers said that since people need to be able to protect the resources they are using to live on, they may call it their property, and this is a natural right.
But, as Locke qualified, they can do so only, "...at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others".
Notice that the idea of property ownership hinges on the determination of what makes property acquisition just.
Locke claims that even though the appropriation of property may diminish the rights of another, it is permissible as long as it does not make anyone worse off than they would have been without any private property.
The possession of a commons is justified only when there are commons of similar quality freely available to others or when a rent is paid to the relevant community.
By this standard, the acquisition of land or other commons are clearly not legitimate without compensation.
And history shows that commoners were not compensated for the commons which they once claimed as theirs.
Lacking formal title, impoverished commoners were persecuted for resisting the private enclosure of their commons and driven from their lands and means of subsistence.
Customary rights were criminalized. Dissent and resistance were not tolerated.
From the late 16th century onward, as the civil law of individual ownership preempted the accustomed rights of common ownership, the world has witnessed countless and continuous large-scale privatizations of the commons.
Liberalism’s original philosophical and legal claim was that social systems and moral obligations stemmed from people’s inherent natural rights.
But liberalism’s great social error occurred when Locke redefined the natural rights to common property, segregating people from their own environments, societies and cultures.
Property was moved from the realm of customary or natural law into the realm of human law or civil law.
The inalienable rights of the individual, derived from nature before the establishment of the state, were thus vested in constitutional government and the rule of law.
The property that belongs to the producer or laborer under natural law, is removed from the producers - or laborers - under civil law.
This political magic trick enabled materialism, individualism, objectivity and utility to triumph over collective and moral interdependence with both society and nature.
Commoners were thus denied claims to their shared property through the private rights of property acquisition.
How was this rationalized by metaphysical philosophy?
Locke said that, just as the mind owns the body, the person owns property.
This simple formulation became the justification for excluding the common rights of other people.
But Locke’s basic premise is false: the mind does not own the body.
And hence the idea that a person’s right of ownership to property does not have the metaphysical basis which Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers claimed.
The idea of ownership is not part of natural law.
What is the meaning of inalienable rights today?
The current claims for natural rights -- rights of nature, human rights, birthrights, rights for the greater good, and rights of common heritage -- are all highly significant.
Each has some validity based on the affirmation of a particular quality of the commons.
Yet none of these types of rights expresses the intrinsic indivisibility of common property: the commons both as a preeminent and emergent realm shared by nature and society.
The commons are things which need to be freely available to people if they are to fully participate in their community.
Whether these commons are preeminent (rivers, forests, indigenous cultures) or emerging (solar energy, social innovation, internet), self-organizing communities take collective action to preserve their local resources, both for themselves and for future generations.
Where the commons are provided by nature alone, each generation is obliged to ensure that they remain available for future generations.
And where the commons are produced within human society, each generation is obliged to preserve the knowledge needed to produce a like benefit for future generations.
But is there a basis for a unified economics between natural commons and the commons created by human society?
The most irreducible fact in economics is that resource systems may either be depletable (natural, material) or replenishible (natural, solar, social, cultural, intellectual, digital).
The complementarity of Earthʼs systems (mind, life, matter) demonstrates that the only way that depletable and replenishable resources can be conceived as an economic unity is through the relationships and connectedness that human beings share with them.
Value does not originate independently through communities on the one hand, and resources on the other, but in the relationship of the communities to those resources.
What unites natural and human-created commons through a new economic unity is that no one person may claim them as property – it is our trusteeship that makes them common.
Commons are both the resources themselves and the social relationships developed by the people who preserve, produce, manage, access and use them.
This is a source of inalienability that has largely been overlooked: the phenomenon of a commons practice undertaken by a community on behalf of a resource and its users.
The choice-based, deliberative actions of a group focused on preserving, producing and using a shared resource are both preexistent and evolving.
Hence, a commons practice is simultaneously an ontological expression of group being and a social/political expression of group becoming.
This brings us much closer to the non-dualism between nature and society that is missing in the current claims for ownership rights.
When self-organizing preeminence and rule-guided emergence are fused in a commons-based practice, the reality is one of spontaneous and autonomous order.
This is not a natural ‘right’ or even a ‘commons right’, since the term ‘right’ now presupposes the need for formal validation through the liberal social contract, positivist law or sovereign government.
That’s why we need to find a new phrase for natural rights.
Its original meaning has become so distorted that it need a new definition which speaks to today’s reality.
Commoning is the self-organizing and rule-guided practice of a community to preserve, make, manage or use a resource through collaboration.
What the commons movement means by commoning, or co-producing and co-governing, is very similar to what Henry George meant by producing.
To demonstrate this idea, of the use but not the possession of property, we turn to the variety of institutional domains that foster and maintain collective property outside of the market and the state.
People in traditional communities generate resilient and effective resource management based on local ideas, learning, deliberation and cooperation.
Newly developing commons such as the internet also demonstrate similar properties of shared administration and value creation through reciprocal networks, social innovation and open designs.
In both cases, the key is involving resource users in the preservation, production and use of a common resource.
When users are co-producers of the goods and services they receive and organize, their motivations, knowledge and skills become part of the production praxis, leading to new ways of interacting and coordinating natural, social and economic life.
This collaboration between users, producers and suppliers over their shared property is the basis of commoning.
Property belongs to the producer. Society and nature express a harmonious order with the individual.
So we are beginning to understand the field of economics again as a subsystem of society.
And we are also beginning to see society as a subsystem of the biosphere.
Each of these levels -- economics, society and nature -- includes and transcends the one before it.
The economy exists because society has provided it with infrastructure.
And society exists because it has the biosphere to sustain it.
Hence, the economy, society and nature form a nested hierarchy, or holarchy.
How can this principle be brought forward.
Since the Market State has no interest in, or constitutional responsibility, for the commons, a new social contract must be written to give the commons and commons trusts a central role.
What is needed is a post-constitutional order and legal system that is premised on the autonomy of the commons outside of the public and private sectors.
This will mean challenging the present social order of proprietary rights through the practice of commoning.
And a key part of this change will be a shift in the flow of revenue from private to common property.
Under the present system of rent, individuals and corporations act as rentiers by acquiring various commons and holding their revenues privately.
Economic rents are a medieval custom which was carried over through the age of liberalism until today.
For centuries, the private rental of property has produced an outcry from many observers.
Baruch Spinoza argued against the common property of land being rented to producers and called for the taxation of land rent.
Economists from Adam Smith and David Ricardo to John Stuart Mill and Thorstein Veblen were also critical of the pre-industrial tradition of property rents earned from land.
Henry George claimed that the squandering of rental income is a direct cause of social poverty.
John Maynard Keynes went so far as to predict the “euthanasia of the rentier” in some distant future.
These commentators viewed land rent as unearned income gained by landowners who do not continue to invest in their property, yet benefit from increases in its value.
Many analysts have proposed replacing the taxation of houses and buildings with a tax on the land beneath them.
But today, it’s not only land value that needs to be taxed.
Before the 19th century, land was the dominant form of property.
Since land was immobile and material, value could be created through scarcity and exclusive rights.
At present, many other forms of natural and socially created wealth (labor, governance, ideas, languages, social networks) are challenging the concept of property based on scarcity and exclusivity.
Although these immobile, material forms of property, and these mobile, immaterial forms of property are very different in their nature, they are unified through the economic paradigm of the commons.
That’s why it’s possible now to end the flow of rent to the private sector, which derives this unearned revenue from the enclosure of common property.
Instead, society could create trusts that charge rent for the use of a variety of commons.
This entails a shift from private rent (where common/public resources are privatized and rent remains in private hands) to commons rent (where revenues are used for the common/public benefit).
In such a system, each major resource could be represented by a commons trust.
The trust would place a cap on the resource according to its sustainable limits, leaving some portion of the resource available for use.
The trust would then charge private industry or state businesses and utilities for use of the resource. For example, a small rent may be placed on replenishable commons such as indigenous knowledge, education, intellectual property, music, arts, land, pastures, parks and gardens.
Rent may also be assessed on depletable commons such as minerals, technological hardware, aquifers and the atmosphere.
Rather than flowing to the private sector, this rent would flow to commons trusts.
These rental fees would then be used to preserve, restore and manage the resource and ensure that revenues from the commons benefit everyone equally, especially the poor and marginalized.
In a society based on commons rent, the incentives of businesses and government would be roughly similar to today’s: the private sector profits through the extraction and production of resources rented to them by the commons sector, and the state serves the interests of both the private and commons sectors.
The difference in this new system is that wealth circulates more freely and equally through nature and society, rather than being captured by individual interests.
This transcends the framework of the Market State by creating a much more representative balance of power and wealth between the commons, business and government.
Now is the time to manifest plenty in our world, to manifest the processes needed to ensure that it is used widely and sustainably, so that everyone will get their needs met today, tomorrow and hundreds of years into the future.
The commons must be created and sustained for the benefit of everyone in society. The commons is the economics of replenishment.