A Defense of the Commons

On the 3rd October, 2015 the people of Saiden decided to establish their own community library. This was followed by the people of Pydengumiong, Mairang (6th August, 2016) and Khliehumstem (5th September, 2016), who also did the same. These libraries are housed in the community halls of the villages and are open to the public. These three events were sponsored and aided by Kali Kit Kot’, a Shillong-based Mobile Bookshop and Children’s Library and their partners, Ri Khasi Book Agency, who through these initiatives, envisioned the creation of a critical citizenry in the state. A critical citizen is an empowered citizen, or so they say.

Knowledge of different ideas is the prerequisite for the development of a critical mindset in whose absence a fatalist mindset develops. This gives rise to the TINA (there is not alternative) syndrome and an attitude of indifference among the people. This is more so for the people who are living in ignored zones, deprived of social amenities like education, health and infrastructure. I was in a job interview recently where the elites were discussing how to decide what is right for the local people on the basis of their technical expertise. These experts claimed supremacy on the basis of their working-experience in the state of Meghalaya, an experience which consists of telling people what to do rather than listening to what the people want to do. Instead of learning what the people had been doing for ages they come with their own ideas decided by the funding of the project. Later they sit in official meetings deriding the laziness of the people because they don’t do what is required (or told) to improve their lot. The people on the ground also do not complain because they feel that they lack the authority that the experts possess. For the experts, this so-called expertise is derived from their degrees and their designations, which are the products of their supposed hard work and intelligence. The fact that it is actually because of their monopolization of the mechanism which confers them with this expertise, i.e., formal education, is never expressed. Empowerment of the citizenry can only come about when this aura of expertise is challenged. And to challenge it, the monopoly of the mechanism which grants them this privilege has to be contested as well.

The establishment of these community libraries is a small step towards challenging this hoarding of expertise, especially by people from urban areas. A library is a repository of the knowledge from around the world and across the ages brought together in one location. It is only when one has knowledge of the various possibilities that can be imagined that the people can endeavor towards creating a better future for themselves and others. The means are just as important as the ends which are desired. Education is an important public good but it is the monopolization of education by private concerns that has led to the stratification one observes in society. It is here that the communitarian (community ownership) aspect of the library becomes very important. The library in Saiden, Mairang and Khliehumstem are commons – a resource which belongs to the whole community. This distinction is very important in light of the attack on commons that is being perpetuated in Meghalaya in particular and in India in general.

In 1968 Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist wrote a paper titled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ which raised concern over the issue of overpopulation and how the regime of common property resources is going to accentuate hardships. The paper cited the example of common grazing lands which due to increasing herd size would face eventual exhaustion. This is because a common property regime lacks rules of self-organization and makes it difficult to assign responsibility. This allows the people to consume without accountability. In case of humans also, commons would allow each person to act for their own self-interest and consume as much resources as possible making them unavailable for others in the future. A common property regime allows self-interest to triumph over common good. The solution therefore lies in a private property regime which assigns individual liability to ensure sustainability of resources. The irony in all this is that the self-interest which led to uncontrolled exploitation in the first place was predicted to somehow ensure sustainability if given complete control.

Individual responsibility is one of the most cherished ideals of a neo-liberal utopia and whenever one talks of reform in any sector of the economy it is in terms of reducing communal control (public property) and bringing in private ownership (privatisaton/disinvestment). The narrative of the inefficiency of communal ownership (and therefore of commons) has become highly intensified after the liberalisation of the economy in 1991. This was done on the pretext of bringing efficiency and ensuring profitability, touted as the main weakness of communal ownership structure. This is consistent with the argument made in ‘tragedy of the commons’ which raises concern of lack of individual responsibility causing inefficient consumption which in the long run leads to bankruptcy of the resource base. Commons and the property regime that supports are therefore touted as a major impediment for economic or environmental sustainability. The demand of privatization of education is a part of the same paradigm.

The ground reality is actually quite different. The case against commons does not take into consideration that communities in different parts of the world have developed institutional mechanisms to take care of their resources to ensure sustainability. Take for example the Khasi property regime which apart from ri kynti or private land has provision for community land, e.g., law shnong, law adong, law kyntang, etc., which are regulated so that the broader ecosystem services (land, water, etc) are ensured not just for the present but future generations as well. This whole structure is based on the principle of custodianship not ownership. The existence of commons, therefore, does not destroy sustainability but strengthens it. Its weakening however has on the other hand played havoc in the Khasi society and neither efficiency nor profitability has been achieved as promised. The wrecked state of natural environment in the state is a testament of that. At the national level, the attack on common property regime has been marked by crony capitalism epitomized by the likes of Mallya and the recurring pattern of bad loans, a significant portion of which emanates from the corporate world. Thus, sustainability, efficiency and profitability have been found to be false promises made by a false religion. But the faith in it has not diminished, if anything, it is being pushed as a new common sense.

The biggest problem with the attack on commons however, is not the false promises but the fundamental issue of access which distinguishes the common from the private property regime. In ‘the tragedy of the commons’ it was contented that limiting access will rein in unsustainable consumption which will bring in turn sustainability. The question of what happens to those who have been barred was not considered. This is a very important issue because the people who are prevented from using the commons are actually the ones who need it the most. Throughout history, the poor were the ones who benefited greatly from the commons as they acted as a safety net in times of stress. The increasing destitution of the many at the cost of increasing affluence of the few is the result of the disappearance of the commons under the onslaught of the private property regime. Who are the neo-tribal elites of our Khasi society if not those who have benefited from the destruction of the commons and the profits of private property regime? Commons, more than ever, have become the need of the hour. This is more so in case of knowledge.

Knowledge is power but like all power when concentrated leads to exploitation. The neo-elites of our society apart from controlling the natural and financial resources also control the knowledge-creation process which allows them to create mechanisms to perpetuate their hegemony. It is not surprising that modern education has not created mass empowerment but only accentuated the dominance of the privileged in the society. Further limiting access to knowledge will only exacerbate the disparity. It is in this context that the creation of commons, such as the community libraries, is very important. It allows the community as a whole to access knowledge that would have not been available to them, especially in those areas that suffer from political and administrative apathy. And when communities start getting involved in the process of not just knowledge-consumption but ultimately knowledge-creation that the structures of domination can be effectively challenged.

As part of its vision, KKK plans to start more libraries in the days to come. When people from the remotest parts of the state can tell the elites that they don’t perpetually need instruction from them, the vision of empowered and critical citizens would be sowing its seeds. It is a long way to go, but by establishing these commons, the process has begun.


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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

One Comment

  1. Farooque Chowdhury
    October 24, 2016

    wish successful continuity of the praise-worthy initiative.
    public library is one of the first public properties in the world.
    postal address of the libraries will help possible wellwishers to send books to the libraries.
    on great Hardin’s “famous” analysis of the commons, i like to quote the following lines:
    “Section of theoreticians is there to uphold the commons robbers’ cause. So, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, 162, 1968) by Garrett Hardin, a biology professor and author of a biology text book, turns into a sacred script to the mainstream intellectuals bent on denying commoners’ rights on the commons although the professor wrongly refers to an article on nuclear war to put his conclusion on false premise, stuff the article with incomplete “facts” and inconsistent arguments: “Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty.” After expressing this “innovative” analysis that confuses the commons and personal liberty the professor recites Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, Who shall watch the watchers themselves?, but fails to watch the comedy his sham arguments present.
    “The professor once proposed, like the Nazis, “control of breeding” of “genetically defective” people (Biology: Its Principles and Implications, 1966).
    However, forces and institutions standing against commoners embrace the professor’s article. Ian Angus observes: “Since publication of The Tragedy of the Commons in Science it has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. […] Like most sacred texts, The Tragedy of the Commons is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.” (“The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”)
    “Citing “The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies”, a World Bank Discussion Paper, Ian writes: “For 40 years [the article] has been […] ‘the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues’. [The article] has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and much more.” (ibid.)
    ““The tragedy thesis”, Jonathan Rowe writes, “is rote to first-year economics students. […] The theory has no relevance at all to commons that are without boundaries or limits, such as language, knowledge, and networks such as the Internet. (op. cit.)
    “Quoting Iain Boal’s essay “Interview: Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse” Ian tells more bitter facts: “What’s shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies. Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the ‘scientific’ foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. . . . The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a ‘common treasury.’ We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish.” (op. cit.)”
    (“Claiming The Commons That Capital Consumes”, Farooque Chowdhury, countercurrents.org, August 7, 2012)

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