Consensus and the Commons: Healthy Alternative Governance Processes Resisting Erasure by Global Capitalism and Colonialism

Robin Reid-Fraser

   The current global economic system values economic growth in the form of GDP as its primary goal and mark of “success.” This has severe consequences for the global environment, since ecological destruction often does not have immediate monetary impacts and thus is not generally calculated into short-term economic decision-making. In response to the failures of global capitalism, many resistance movements have sprung up around the world.

   This paper will focus on the ones built around restoring common resources and governing their use through collective decision-making. The principles of the ‘commons’ and direct democracy are often scoffed by conventional economists as being inefficient, utopian ideals without effective practical application. This paper will show that not only are common resource-sharing and direct democracy possible and more likely to have positive outcomes for communities and ecosystems; they are also long-established ways of life that were deliberately eroded by colonial and capitalist interests.

   In 1968, Garrett Hardin published his famous essay titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that resources held in common would carry out their own destruction. As the number of people using common resources for their own benefit grows at an unsustainable rate, the resources would eventually become so depleted that they would be available to no one. His first example of this was a common grazing pasture for animals. As cattle-owners increase the number of their cattle on common land, each would benefit individually in the short term. However, the number of cattle would rise beyond the population that could be sustained by the pasture and, eventually, the pasture would no longer be able to support any animals at all. His point was that maintaining a sustainable use of resources necessarily entailed enclosing common resources and turning them into government-controlled or private property. (Hardin 1248)

   Since Hardin published his article, a number of challenges have arisen against his assertion that the commons cannot be managed sustainably. Of particular note is Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, who argued that:

Although tragedies have undoubtedly occurred, it is also obvious that for thousands of years people have self-organized to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources. (Ostrom et al. 278)

   Furthermore, Ostrom et al. noted cases in which local group-property regimes managed resources in far more environmentally sustainable ways than global capitalist regimes. One case study compared land degradation in northern China, Mongolia, and Russia. In Mongolia, the land was still being managed by traditional group-property regimes, whereas in China and Russia the state government had intervened to enclose the land. According to the findings, 3/4 of the pastureland in Russia and 1/3 of the land in China experienced degradation. In Mongolia, however, only 1/10 of the land experienced similar effects (Ibid).

   If the commons aren’t destined toward the kind of devastation that Hardin depicts, what accounts for their historical decline? Silvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch (Federici 2004), writes about the shift toward capitalism that began in Medieval Europe. She argues that, contrary to its common portrayal as a relatively static and uninteresting period in history, the medieval era in fact saw widespread resistance by peasant farmers (or serfs) against the control that wealthy landowners held over their lives. Their struggle stemmed from the condition of occupying and working — yet without owning — land that sustained them.

   The experience of self-reliance which the peasants gained from having access to land also had a political and ideological potential. In time, the serfs began to look at the land they occupied as their own, and to view as intolerable the restrictions that the aristocracy imposed on their freedom (Federici 24).

   In addition to the plots of land that each family worked for themselves, serfs shared some areas and resources in common. As Federici writes, these included “meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (…) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation” (Federici 24). Contrary to Hardin’s tragic portrayal, use of the commons during the Medieval period was not simply an open-access free-for-all, and as Rodney Hilton writes:

Even if each family privately determined the use to which to put its garden or other enclosed plot within the village area, it had to observe a common routine of sowing and fallowing in the open field. It had to agree on the rules governing gleaning and concerning the number and type of animals grazing on the stubble, and concerning access to the commons. This was the practical basis of village common action. (Federici 31)

   The collective mindset of the peasants’ resistance efforts was dangerous to the ruling class at the time, who began to quell  dissent and break down social ties. The enclosure of the commons was part of the elite reactionary movement that began in the 15th century. Hilton describes this:

According to the survey of 1411 he (lord of Allesley) made arrangements as far as he could, with all neighbouring lords and freeholders in his various manor, that any claim they might have of common in any woods, wastes, moors, groves, meadows, pastures, ways, paths and approvements already made or to be made should be relaxed, often in exchange for considerable grants of land […] It was this encroachment of arable severalties which precipitated sharp social struggles in Coventry itself at the end of the fifteenth century, in which enclosures favoured by the city authorities were resisted by those citizens who claimed common pasture rights for their beasts on the city lands. (Hilton 42)

   As European countries began to explore other areas of the world, they found more practices of common resource-sharing and collective decision-making. Specific examples of this include the Haudenosaunee people, as described by Jack Manno:

The settled areas, known as the ‘clearings’ were under the responsibility and management of the nation of which the settlement was a part. The other areas, the ‘woods’ were understood to be open for access and use by all Haudenosaunee people but the Nation within which the woods existed had the responsibility to manage and protect these Commons. (Manno 8 )

   As exploration turned to the violent process of colonization, European colonizers needed to find acceptable ways to justify their vicious acts of land-grabbing and murder. They began to reduce of the status of indigenous people to something closer to non-human animals, as described by Hugh Brody:

On the settlement frontiers of the North American colonies, the question of the Indians’ humanity was also raised. If the indigenous occupants of the lands to which settlers were moving were not humans, but roamed, rather, as “beasts of the field,” then they had no right to resist the new Americans’ “manifest destiny” to take and use all newfound lands. (Brody 267)

   This below-human status was often directly linked to the fact that the indigenous peoples did not enclose their lands. Shiva describes a 1669 letter from John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who wrote that:

Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land by soe have for other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (Shiva 23)

   The Americas were not the only colonized land where this took place. Commonly held lands existed in India as well, and they were given lower value by the British because those lands did not fit into their idea of “productive” areas. Shiva explains how the “wastelands”, as the British called them, were taken by enclosure:

When the British established their rule in India, it was estimated that from one-third to one-half of the total area of Bengal Province alone was wasteland. The colonial concept of wastelands was not an assessment of the biological productivity of land but of its revenue-generating-capacity. Wasteland was land which did not yield any revenue because it was not farmland, but forest. These lands were taken of by the British government and leased to cultivators to turn them into revenue-generating lands. It was only at the end of the 19th century when forests also became a source of revenue that state forests were no longer called wastelands. Village forests and grazing lands, however, continued to be categorized as wastelands, even though they were vital fuel and fodder resources for the agricultural economy. (Shiva 25)

   In addition to commonly-managed resources, indigenous communities and nations also practiced various forms of consensus and collective decision-making prior to colonization. Many have continued these practices in explicit resistance to settler state governments, such as Canada, who have tried to impose other forms of governance. For example, the Mikmaq people govern through a body known as the Grand Council, which is, as Boyce Richardson describes:

A self-perpetuating body that has existed in an unbroken line since the time before contact with Europeans. It is based on the authority of Mikmaq families, and the Grant Captain’s duty as executive head of the Council, working under the leadership of the Grand Chief, is to keep in touch with every family, and to “watch over” as Sajek put it, “the whole spiritual universe”. A great deal of the decision-making in Eskasoni takes place informally as families exchange visits and through constant discussion arrive at a consensus about what should be done. (Richardson 35-36)

   Pre-colonial Indigenous natural resource-use regimes are not the only example of effective collective management and decision-making. In 2001, economic policies of Argentina’s elites led to an economic collapse. Unemployment was near 25%; many factories, which had provided stable and well-paying jobs, were on the brink of shutting down from bankruptcy  (Lavaca Collective). In the midst this crisis, workers across the country occupied their factories to prevent their closure.

   In spite of state repression, workers extended their occupations to takeovers and began running factories by themselves. They formed worker cooperatives, where most decisions were made through general assemblies attended by every worker, each with equal speaking and voting power. Furthermore, the lack of formal management structure — and the attendant expenses — meant that all profits could go directly to the workers, and it was usually distributed equally. Financial success has varied from factory to factory. Some “have gone on to export or even lead their markets, while others still find themselves right where they started.” (Lavaca Collective) Either way, the factories have challenged conventional ideas about the necessity of workplace hierarchies.

   In addition to fostering resource-management regimes that reduce ecological destruction, collective decision-making and sharing of the commons often has positive social benefits, This is in contrast to hierarchical structures, which are damaging to the majority of the people involved. Taiaiake Alfred writes about the efforts of state governments such Canada to erode traditional forms of indigenous governance:

Along with armed force, they use dependency – which they have created – to induce people’s compliance with the will of an abstract authority structure serving the interests of the economic and political elite. It is an affront to justice that individuals are stripped of their power of self-determination and force to comply with the decisions of a system based on the consciousness and interests of others. (Alfred 26)

   Similarly, Peter Gelderloos, wrote that “the existence of a hierarchy isolates group members from one another, so feelings of hostility are more likely to develop than feelings of solidarity” (Gelderloos). Consensus decision-making, on the other hand, is a deliberate effort to erase hierarchies. It ensures that everyone has space to share their opinion and that everyone’s talents and energy are meaningfully put to use. Keith McHenry, a co-founder of Food Not Bombs, a consensus-based global organization that reclaims and cooks food that’s near expiration(often from dumpsters) to serve in public spaces to people in need, writes that: “Consensus is on the cutting edge of global social change because it reflects the core values that every truly progressive political and social group is working towards. Consensus encourages its participants to express their interests directly to their group and it ensures that all are heard. It is cooperative, not adversarial […] Consensing on decisions usually produces greater commitment to those decisions than would be the case if a voting process was used, with “winning” and “losing” sides, and with the “losers” grudgingly acquiescing to decisions they dislike” (Gelderloos).

   Consensus decision-making can operate on a large scale. Relatively small and localized groups can appoint spokespeople to bring their consensus-based decisions and positions to bodies representing larger numbers of people. Gelderloos describes this method  as way to share information and ideas among activist “affinity groups” working on similar issues:

Spokespersons can communicate the desires, limitations, and general goals expressed by their affinity groups, and using that information as a starting point, the spokescouncil can create a structure or framework that assists each affinity group in pursuing its desired ends, and allows each affinity group to work together without ever relinquishing the ability to decide its own course. (Gelderloos)

   Collective decision-making and resource management processes operate with the assumption that the people most affected by the decisions around a resource are those in closest physical proximity and, as such, they should be the ones responsible for making decisions pertaining to the resource. Furthermore, these decision-making processes assume that everyone generally wants the best for their community. Paul Hawken, author and entrepreneur, describes an example of this in the context of a workshop for a group of middle management employees run by his friend. The managers work for a multinational chemical company that manufactures herbicides and pesticides containing known carcinogens. The employees were told to design a spaceship that would leave Earth and bring back its inhabitants “alive, happy and healthy” one century later:

On the winning spaceship, they decided that they needed insects, so they determined that they could have no pesticides. They also decided that weeds were important in a healthy ecosystem, and banned herbicides also. Their food system, in other words, was totally organic […] And, at the end, they were asked if it would be okay if just 20 percent of the people on the spaceship controlled 80 percent of the resources on board. They immediately and vociferously rejected that notion as unworkable, unjust and unfair. And then they realized what they had said.’ In short, as Hawken concludes, ‘In small groups, with appropriate goals and challenges, we all know the right thing to do. As a society within the world of corporate capitalism, we are not very bright. (Suzuki & Dressel)

   When given the chance to design their ideal community, even a group of employees who manufacture and sell harmful chemical products  chose to avoid those same products. Furthermore, they all wished to disperse power rather than leave it to a minority of decision-makers. As long as alternatives to hierarchies and environmental degradation  were available, they were embraced by the workers.

   Local, collective decision-making and resource-management processes are often brushed off as being naïvely idealistic in our current context of corporate globalization and Western domination. However, these processes have always existed, and continue to exist in a variety of forms around the world. In many cases, they have proven incredibly resistant to colonialist, capitalist efforts to exterminate them. Currently, collective decision-making processes are gaining popularity worldwide, particularly among those who recognize the severe social, economic, and ecological damage caused by global capitalism and the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a small minority. While global collaboration is necessary for dealing with global issues such as climate change, supporting local participatory governance mechanisms strengthens our collective global capacity and empowers the insights of those most closely situated and most affected.

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