Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 10, October 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Civil Commons ~ What They Are and Why They Matter

Giorgio Baruchello

October 2019

Hoodoos at the Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA
Photo by Luca Galuzzi, Wikimedia Commons

“The nature of language, the air we breathe, the common fire, food recipes, universal health plans, the world wide web, common sewers, international campaigns against US war crimes, sidewalks and forest paths, sports and sports fields, the open science movement, the Chinese concept of jen, the Jubilee of Leviticus, public streetscapes, effective pollution controls, birdwatching, city squares and sidewalks, Buddha’s principle of interdependent origination, old-age pensions, the rule of life-protective law, universal education, universal hygiene practices, footpaths and bicycle trails, fair elections, unemployment insurance, the global atmosphere, maximum work hours and minimum wages, public parks, clean water, the Tao, community fish-habitats, public broadcasting, the ancient village commons before enclosures, the unnamed goal of the Occupy Movement.” (McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure, 2013, p.240)

This list is long and heterogeneous. However, all the cited items share one fundamental characteristic: they are comprehensively life-enabling. Across multiple generations, all human communities have established, and ipso facto endowed themselves with, an immense selection of—and here comes another long list—intellectual conceptions, physical amenities, traditional praxes, compassionate values and voluntary associations, forms of skilled competence and disciplinary investigation, as well as legal and customary practices, the paramount aim of which has been as ultimate if unseen: to allow and augment the expression and enjoyment of life capacities by all the members of each given community. All such human institutions, whether tangible or intangible, are defined as “social constructs that enable universal access to life-goods”, i.e., “civil commons” (McMurtry, 2013, p. 237).

The civil commons are not fixed once and for all. They have been evolving up to the present time and are open to the ideal future objective of providing all life goods to all who need them, beyond the historical achievement of any past period. In McMurtry’s understanding, all these evolving and evolvable life-enabling ideas, institutions and instruments are, first of all, commons, insofar as they normally regard whole communities, rather than isolated individuals, who are instead the starting point of today’s standard conceptions of human life in economics and social science at large. Nor, relatedly, are these commons confined to private-sector agreements among individual economic agents to sustain their common resource pools, as argued by Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom while trying to solve the so-called “tragedy of the commons” in terms of self-maximising game theory.

Quite the reverse, these historical and modern commons are community-owned and sustainably governed by customs and rules making them civil commons. They are precisely not marketable pastures available to all members of a particular community to exploit, without supervision or penalty in case of misappropriation or misuse. They are life-supporting social constructions, pastures that the community recognises culturally, i.e. in its shared modes of thought and speech, and that the same community strives to protect and exploit with care through generational and even ecological time. Public health-care is a contemporary example of the civil commons.

Contrary to much expert talk, textbook dogma and unaware secular superstition, there is no logical necessity and no historical certainty of the assumed happy connection between seeking private profit and generating societal wellbeing, as shown on the grandest scale imaginable by the ongoing environmental collapse denounced, inter alia, by the United Nations themselves. McMurtry’s civil commons are therefore the opposite of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 textbook “commons”, the unregulated character and presumed tragic fate of which justify their private appropriation in reverse projection of the problem as the solution.

Private market appropriation for profit not only over-exploits the common life-ground of natural resources and ecosystems, but also multiplies inequalities for the exclusive benefit of the non-producing few. The aristocrats’ arrogation of ancestral common lands in England and Scotland began this process of degenerating the common life-ground for short-term market gains, but privatising forces now expropriate for profit the very public and scientific knowledge bases of human civilisation in the face of a climate crisis threatening humankind itself as a species (e.g. for the sake of life-destructive armament sales and financial control over peoples’ life-supporting crops, water resources and old-age pension savings).

The Blue Marble, the first full-view photograph of the planet, was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts en route to the Moon in 1972.
Source: Wikipedia
Nonetheless, McMurtry argues that in underlying human evolution, organised social agency, both corporeal and conceptual, is designed to spur collective vital ends; thus, progressive movements unite in such a common cause even if they are unaware of what joins the dots beneath their specific life concerns. These ends have been variously pursued by perceiving, reflecting upon and, on the one hand, encouraging life-enablement or, on the other hand, revealing, obstructing and/or responding to life-disablement—as these dynamic phenomena are beckoned by the specific types of standardised assessment belonging to each token of civil commons in its unique socio-historical circumstances (e.g. today’s ministerial commissions determining the levels of general literacy of a nation, or the medieval churches ringing the tower bells whenever barbarian raiders were sighted).

None of these civil commons is intrinsically invulnerable to deterioration, instability or ruin. Life-disablement can by caused by tribal councils, law-enforcers, religious establishments or, as long denounced inter alia by Thorstein Veblen and Albert Einstein, democratic parliaments captured by private interests. Nevertheless, civil commons remain necessary in order to make social cohesion and coexistence possible, hence economic activity itself as well. If they are not in place, then civilisation ends—or does not even begin.

Since its first appearance in the 1990s, McMurtry’s notion of civil commons has been gaining widespread acceptance amongst human and social scientists across disciplinary divides. Underneath McMurtry’s broadly adopted notion of the civil commons, however, lies the more basic theory of value called “Life-Value Onto-Axiology” (LVOA), which will be the subject of a separate article of mine.


Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio Baruchello is an Icelandic citizen and works as Professor of Philosophy at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. He read philosophy in Genoa and Reykjavík, Iceland, and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Guelph, Canada. His publications encompass several different areas, especially social philosophy, theory of value, and intellectual history. Northwest Passage Books has recently published five volumes of collected essays by him.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

— Samuel Johnson (1709-1794)


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