Modern economic ideology has overwritten sharing as the basis of human history

The commons and collective efforts to govern them are probably as old as humanity. They are certainly as old as Western civilization. And yet, very few people know it, and most who don’t know the history would even say that what I say is in doubt. This is because the spread of the ideology of modern Western civilization has not only downplayed the role of common property in our history, it has also reinterpreted the successes of the commons as successes of capitalism.

The truth of it comes right out and grabs you in the roots of two words, “commoner” and “capital”. In modern usage, the word “commoner” refers to someone who is common (and poor), as opposed to someone who is exceptional (and rich). But the actual roots of the word referred to people who depended in their daily lives on the commons: forests, rivers, peat bogs, and other lands that were common property, and managed collectively, for centuries. The governance regimes that developed around commons were complex, efficient, fair, stable, multi-generational, and uniquely suited to the local ecology. They were beautiful, until power grabs around the world made them the property of the wealthy and powerful, and reduced commoners to common poverty.

The word capital comes from Latin roots for “head,” a reference to heads of cattle, an early form of tradable property that may have formed the intellectual root of ideas of property on which capitalism is built. The herding of capital is typical of the pastoralist life that characterized much of life before the invention of agriculture and the state. A notable feature of pastoralists around the world is that they tend to share and collectively manage rangelands. Some of the oldest cooperatives in the world, like a Swiss one of more than 500 years, are grazing cooperatives. Collective ownership is at least as old as the management of domesticated herds, and it is absolutely essential to most instances of it, particularly among herders living in low-yield lands surrounding the cradle of Western civilization. In other words, common property is what made capital possible.

Common property is alive and well today, and just as new technology is making it more and more goods privately ownable (and therefore distributable through markets), it is also giving people more and more opportunities to benefit from collective action, and continue to be a part of history.