By News Express on 23/01/2017
One of the most insidious things about enclosures is how they eradicate the culture of the commons and our memory of it. The old ways of doing things; the social practices that once bound a people together; the cultural traditions that anchored people to a landscape; the ethical norms that provided a stable identity – all are swept aside to make room for a totalising market culture. Collective habits give way to individualism. Cherished traditions fall victim to whatever works now or saves money today. The colorful personalities and idiosyncratic lore of a community start to fade away.
Karl Marx memorably described the commoditising logic of capitalism, saying: “All that is solid melts into air.” Enclosures eclipse the history and memory of the commons, rendering them invisible. The impersonal, individualistic, transaction-based ethic of the market economy becomes the new normal.
If we are to understand the commons, then, it is useful to learn more about its rich, neglected history. Capitalist culture likes to think that all of history leads inexorably to greater progress, if not perfection, as society climbs towards the present moment, the best of all possible worlds. The complex, overlooked history of the commons tells a different story. It is an account of how humans have learned new and ingenious ways to cooperate. It is a story of building new types of social institutions for shared purposes despite systems of power (feudalism, authoritarianism, capitalism) with very different priorities.
Commons tend to be nested within other systems of power and institutional relationships, and therefore are not wholly independent. There is often a deep “creative tension” between the logic of the commons and the imperatives of its host environment (whether feudal lords, technology markets or national laws). This is why many commons thrive in the interstices of power, in “protected zones” tolerated or overlooked by Power, or accidentally remote from it.
The stark reality is that commons tend not to be dominant institutional forms in their own right. This subordinate role can be seen in the flourishing of medieval land commons under feudalism; in mutual associations under socialism and communism; and, in our time, in gift economies such as academia and civic associations under capitalism. Such commons were (and still are) nested within larger systems of power and rarely functioned as sovereign forces.
Still, human reciprocity and cooperation go back millennia. With the dawn of civilisation, legal traditions were invented that sought to protect the shared interests of the many and of future generations. The human impulse to cooperate is rarely expressed in purely altruistic forms; it tends to work in creative tension with individualism and power. Even though we like to contrast “individualism” and “collectivism” as opposites, in the commons they tend to blur and intermingle in complicated ways. The two are not mutually exclusive, but rather dynamic yin-and-yang complements.
Historical, small-scale commons belie the claims made by contemporary economists that humans are essentially materialist individuals of unlimited appetites, and that these traits are universal. Quite the opposite. The real aberration in human history is the idea of Homo economicus and our globally integrated market society. Never before in history have markets organised so many major and granular elements of human society. Never before has the world seen so many societies organised around the principles of market competition and capital accumulation, which systematically produce extremes of selfish individualism, inequalities of wealth and crippling assaults on natural ecosystems.
This is worrisome on its own terms, but also because of the instability and fragility of large-scale, market-based systems. Six years after the 2008 financial crisis, the greater powers are still scrambling to re-establish trust, credibility and social stability to many global and national markets. Whether through crisis or choice, it is virtually inevitable that the human race (or at least the industrialised West) will need to rediscover and reinvent institutions of human cooperation.
What evolutionary sciences tell us about cooperation
Given their premises about individual self-interest, it is not surprising that economists consider the world a nasty, competitive place that will degenerate into anarchy unless the State steps in to restrain bad actors and mete out punishment. A formidable set of political philosophers – John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes – set forth this worldview in the 18th century; in the words of Hobbes, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Upon its principles of universal selfishness and individual “rationality” entire systems of law and public policy have been built.
But what if this is mostly a “just so” story – a partially accurate fable that does not really describe the full, empirical realities of human nature? What if it could be shown that human cooperation, reciprocity and non-rational behavior are just as significant a force as “competitive rationality” and “utility maximisation”?
This is the startling conclusion of much contemporary research in the evolutionary sciences, especially brain neurology, genetics, developmental and evolutionary psychology, biology, organisational sociology and comparative anthropology. These sciences are confirming that social reciprocity and trust are deeply engrained principles of our humanity. They may even be biologically encoded.
One of the first scientists to explore this possibility was the Russian zoologist Petr Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Kropotkin surveyed the animal kingdom and concluded that it “was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human.” Animals live in association with each other and mutually aid each other as a way to improve their group fitness.
Mainstream science in the 12th century took a very different direction, however. It has generally embraced models of rational self-interest to explain how organisms behave and evolve. In the evolutionary sciences, natural selection has traditionally been seen as something that happens to individuals, not to groups, because individuals have been considered a privileged unit in the biological hierarchy of nature. Thus evolutionary adaptations have been thought to happen to individuals, not to collectivities or entire species. Scientists have generally dismissed the idea that biological traits that are “good for the group” can be transmitted and evolve at the group level.
Over the past decade, however, there has been an explosion of new research by respected scientists such as Martin Nowak, E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson, who argue that group-level selection is a significant force in human and animal evolution. Empirical evidence suggests that evolutionary adaptations can and do occur at all levels of the biological hierarchy, including groups. The basic idea is that while cooperation and altruism can be “locally disadvantageous” for individuals, they can be highly adaptive traits for groups. As E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson put it, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” In short, reciprocal social exchange lies at the heart of human identity, community and culture. It is a vital brain function that helps the human species survive and evolve.
Controversy still rages, of course, but it would appear that humans are neurologically hardwired to be empathic and cooperative, and to connect emotionally with their fellow humans. As author and essayist Rebecca Solnit showed in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, members of communities beset by catastrophes such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1907, the German Blitz of London during World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks generally show incredible self-sacrifice, joy, resolve and aching love toward each other. The communities such disasters create are truly “paradises built in hell.” Her book is an answer to the economists and political leaders who believe that the world is made up of isolated, selfish individuals who must be governed through authoritarianism and fear.
“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution,” writes Harvard theoretical biologist Martin A. Nowak, “is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world,” adding: “Thus, we might add ‘natural cooperation’ as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection.” It bears noting that the popularity of “individual selection theory” during the latter half of the twentieth century coincided uncannily with the heyday of market culture and its ethic of competitive individualism. A case of culture affecting scientific observation?
What is notable about the more recent findings of evolutionary science is the recognition that individual organisms function within a complex system of interdependence. This means that individual self-interest and group survival tend to converge, making the supposed dualism of “self-interest” and “altruism” somewhat artificial. Anyone who participates in useful online communities will recognise this feeling; individual and group interests become more or less aligned and self-reinforcing, if occasionally disrupted by disagreements and external jolts.
As a social scientist, Professor Elinor Ostrom studied hundreds of cases around the world in which communities were able to self-organise their own systems of commons-based governance and develop a cooperative ethic. Her research unearthed an ethnographic reality: that commons can persuade individuals to limit their narrow self-interests and support a larger collective agenda. The gratifying news is that evolutionary scientists are confirming these claims at the more elemental level of genetics, biology, neurology and evolutionary psychology.
The forgotten legal history of the commons
The subterranean life of the commons in evolutionary science — which is only now being recognised – parallels its legal history. The law of the commons has also been largely ignored, and yet it actually goes back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, and is stitched like a golden thread throughout medieval history in Europe. Landmarks of commons-based law — such as Roman legal categories for property and the Magna Carta and its companion Charter of the Forest – are deeply embedded in Western law.
Consider King John. In 13th-century England, a series of monarchs began to claim larger and larger plots of forest lands for their personal recreation and use, at the expense of barons and commoners. By threatening the basic livelihoods of commoners who depended on the forest for their food, firewood and building materials, these royal encroachments on the commons provoked prolonged and bitter civil strife. Livestock could not roam the forests; pigs could not eat acorns; commoners could not gather timber to fix their homes; boats could not navigate rivers upon which dams or private causeways had been built.
After years of brutal armed conflict, King John in 1215 formally consented to a series of legal limitations on his absolute power and stipulated that other members of society, including commoners, were entitled to due process, human rights and subsistence, among other rights. This was the great Magna Carta, one of the foundations of Western civilisation. The rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, the prohibition of torture and the rule of law all derive from the Magna Carta. All these legal principles have since found expression in modern constitutions around the world as the fundamental rights of citizens. They are also affirmed by a number of leading human rights conventions.
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•Lawrence Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org (07066375847).
Source News Express
Posted 23/01/2017 1:55:14 PM
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