‘Omnia Sunt Communia’ investigates the role of commons in post-capitalist transformation

Camperdown Commons in Sydney. Photo via: savingourtrees.wordpress.com.
Saturday, September 9, 2017

Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons & the Transformation to Postcapitalism
By Massimo De Angelis
Zed, 2017
456 pp, $20.76

Massimo De Angelis, an Italian academic based at the University of East London, has produced a thought-provoking guide to “commons” as a means of transforming and ultimately displacing capitalism. Commons, referring to collective forms of ownership, are increasingly seen as a way of moving beyond both oppressive states and exploitative markets.

Karl Marx famously described how German commoners who collected fallen wood from the forests were criminalised in the 1840s. Marx noted how collective ownership dominated past societies and, for him, communism was literally the recreation of the commons.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and commons are seen as the basis of cyberspace, from open source and free software to Wikipedia.

It is a bit unusual to see Latin book titles, but the phrase Omnia Sunt Communia is indeed relevant. It means to hold “all things in common”.

Writing both as an active commoner and from a broadly autonomist Marxist approach, De Angelis provides a carefully argued account of how we can use commons to create a new society.

He builds on the two great commons thinkers, Marx and Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. Refreshingly, while viewing both individuals as prophetic and cutting edge, he offers criticism of their respective ideas about commons. He suggests where he thinks they are in error or can be supplemented.

Ostrom looked at the governance of common land, fisheries and forests, showing that US academic Garrett Hardin, who advocated “the tragedy of the commons”, was in error. Hardin argued that common land would inevitably be destroyed through over use; to conserve the environment we need, he suggested, either a strong state to keep us in line or to privatise resources.

Ostrom points out that actual forms of common ownership often worked well, and spent decades researching how people could collectively manage them.

De Angelis points out that while Ostrom’s work is useful, destruction of the commons came from imperialists and capitalists, stealing the land, expelling the commoners and turning commons into private property. For him, Marx’s examination of the commons being eroded by powerful forces is essential.

We might note that a serious study of the commons would include Ostrom’s 1990 book Governing the Commons, published in 1990, and chapter 26 of Marx’s Capital, where he chronicles the enclosure of Britain’s commons.

De Angelis, influenced by the autonomist approach to Marxism, is critical of notions of revolutionary parties. He argues that Marxists and socialists, rather than introducing commons, have simply reproduced state power. His alternative, inspired by social movements and communal struggles particularly in Latin America, is to promote a decentralised participatory path to transformation.

I am overall more supportive of both Ostrom and non-autonomist forms of political change. Indeed, without some understanding of direct political intervention that might involve political parties it is difficult to see how capitalism might be transformed. Nonetheless, De Angelis has produced a very important and instructive title.

He stresses community participation, and points in his strategy might be contested, but I feel he is correct to see commons as a practical alternative. He is also sophisticated and essential in his argument that both capitalism and commons are systems that are mutually reinforcing. As systems, they have economic, social and political elements that reinforce each other.

So, which we might think of common land or commons in software, the argument here is that we are talking about a whole way of life.

To move beyond capitalism, which is so ecologically destructive and exploitative, we should recognise the value of commons. While I might question elements of the argument here, De Angelis has applied his considerable academic understanding to his practical experience of communing to advance a critical conversation on social change.

[Derek Wall is joint international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales. His latest book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals will be published by Pluto in October.]