The Commons and the Commonwealth

HIDDEN INSIDE THE Commonwealth – both the word and the idea – is a crucial concept: the commons. A much-misunderstood political, social and economic idea, the commons is a powerful lens through which to examine the past, present and future of the Commonwealth of Nations. The commons is perhaps the oldest-known model of social organisation. It is about co-operation to ensure long-term stability for communities in and with the living world.

In these times, when conceptions of the world tend to be prescribed by notions of individualism and private property, it’s no surprise that the commons is often misunderstood as a thing – a field, or the atmosphere; some chimerical, mystical form of property that belongs to everyone and therefore to no one. But the commons is much more than that. An ancient concept, imbued with deep understandings of connection – to each other and to the natural world we are part of – the commons is better understood as a system than a form of property. It is a system by which communities agree to manage resources, equitably and sustainably. As commons theorist David Bollier describes in Think Like a Commoner (New Society Publishers, 2014), it is ‘a resource + a community + a set of social protocols’.

The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, and the people, and the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, share the benefits and prevent freeloaders.

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