Material World: Socialism as a World Commons

The world’s environmental crises stem largely from the failure to share the ownership and use of the world’s natural and industrial resources. The principle of sharing has always formed the basis of social relationships in societies across the world. We all know from personal experience the importance of sharing to family and community life. In fact, sharing is far more prevalent in society than people often realise. The idea of individual (or private) ownership of land is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is now a growing movement that reminds us of this and which promotes the development of ‘the Commons’ and which has gone beyond the prevailing ideas of conventional capitalist private property economics.

Professor Cosmo Innes (1798-1874), Advocate and Professor of Constitutional Law and History wrote in his Scotch Legal Antiquities,

‘Looking over our country, the land held in common was of vast extent. In truth, the arable – the cultivated land of Scotland, the land early appropriated and held by charter – is a narrow strip on the river bank or beside the sea. The inland, the upland, the moor, the mountain were really not occupied at all for agricultural purposes, or served only to keep the poor and their cattle from starving. They were not thought of when charters were made and lands feudalised. Now as cultivation increased, the tendency in the agricultural mind was to occupy these wide commons, and our lawyers lent themselves to appropriate the poor man’s grazing to the neighbouring baron…’

Many parts of the world have had a tradition of common property rights. In Scotland, for example, they include rights arising from commonties, grazing rights, peat-cutting rights, salmon rights, rights to use harbours and foreshore, mineral rights, sporting use rights, rights to usufruct, rights of access to resources and rights of passage over land and inland water. ‘Commonty’ in Scots Law means a piece of land in which two or more persons have a common right. A widespread example of such common property is living in a tenement. Those who own or rent a flat also hold other parts of the property, e.g. the stairs or close (and have its common responsibility – taking turns to clean the stairs) and access to the communal back-garden (drying greens).  It is estimated that half the land area of Scotland was still common land in 1500. They provided areas of free access. It was not a ‘free for all’ but their use was covered by sets of rules that were well established and understood locally. The resources of the commonty were solely for personal usage, and individuals could not, for instance, cut timber for sale or rent grazing to someone else. No-one could make any financial profit.

This past still lives on in many Scottish place-names. A green provided an area where markets and other events were held, garments bleached and a host of other communal activities carried out. The greens in fishing communities were used for the repairing of nets, the salting and drying of fish.  A loan was a common route through private property to and from an area of common land or some other ‘public’ place. The distinction between this and a right of way was that the loan was itself common land and not just a right of use. Rigs were narrow strips of cultivated land. Traditionally, rigs were used by different cultivators and the rigs periodically re-allocated between them. This system was known as runrig.

In socialism the immediate users of parts of the Commons that the world’s resources will have become would not be trying to make an independent living for themselves but would be carrying out tasks on behalf of the community where the aim of production would be to satisfy society’s needs on a sustainable basis. This is not the kind of ‘one size fits all’ solution since socialism need not be exactly the same everywhere and at all times, though plainly its basic principles will not vary: a system of economic production and consumption where the Commons is for all and wealth is shared by all but owned by none. Humanity has to move away from today’s private and state ownership models, and towards a new form of resource management based on non-ownership. Common ownership would embody the principle of sharing on a global scale, and it would enable all communities to take collective responsibility for managing the world’s resources. Without a global movement of ordinary people that share a collective vision of change, it will remain impossible to overcome the influence of the vested interests of the capitalist class.  Currently, the world still lacks a broad-based acceptance of the need for planetary reconstruction but such a mood is beginning to stir.


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