The Romantic Commons

The historical agricultural commons of England were extinguished in the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet the romantic image of rural life has survived, and the story has been repeated – in the genre of the Western, in the idea of the Internet as a frontier. In all of these, the price of the private property replacing the commons has been community and independence.

Let me start with J.M. Neeson’s evocative description of seeing an old film showing men chatting as they shared the work of planting an English common1. Years later she visited the common in person:

. . . when the road dipped down under the railway bridge on the western side of the parish and came up next to the old common, without doubt it invaded an older world. The description of common fields as open fields is entirely appropriate. Distances are shorter when fields are in strips. You can call from one to the next. You can plough them and talk across the backs of the horses at the same time. You can see at a glance whose bit of the hedges or mounds needs fixing, what part of the common ditch is choked with weeds. Standing at the centre of the village feels like standing at the hub of the whole system: the fields spread out around you, the decision to sow one with wheat, another with barley is written on the landscape. For all that individual men and women work their own bits of land, their economy is public and to a large degree still shared.


Neeson writes how the parliamentary enclosure acts stripped the commoners of their rights. Hedges and fences rose up around what had been shared pasture, fields, forest, and marsh. Many commoners had subsisted for centuries on what the commons provided; now they were forced to seek out wage labor. Large numbers end up on the poverty rates, creating the new phenomenon of pauperism.

Before enclosure, many or most commoners were poor but independent. Proponents of enclosure called them “lazy” – by which they meant the commoners had little interest in working for anyone else. This was the winning argument in favor of enclosure: without the benefits of the commons, peasants would be forced to seek wage labor. Neeson explains how every effort was made to prevent the workers from returning to self sufficiency. Even hedges were chosen so as not to bring any benefit, for the people “would still be less inclined to work, if every hedge furnished the means of support.” The wrenching social change was a means to bring both land and labor into the market for the long-term wealth of the nation (and the short-term enrichment of the enclosers).

The market expanded, a new urban proletariat was formed as dispossessed peasants flowed into newly industrial cities. Enclosure was part and parcel of the process by which a new, wealthier society was born. But the price was high: injustice, poverty, and the destruction of communities. Enclosure was a step on the road to modern society – but perhaps not a necessary one. Even today historians and economists debate whether enclosure produced real benefits.


The most well-known explanation of the commons and enclosure (and one that influenced me tremendously as a teenager) is a 1968 essay by Garrett Hardin. The Tragedy of the Commons explains how shared resources are vulnerable to exploitation by self-interested individuals. Hardin was concerned with contemporary overpopulation, not historical agriculture, but his argument has been broadly deployed to support enclosure in particular and private property regimes in general.

The Tragedy model is both common-sense and deeply flawed. Hardin explains the costs and benefits of a user of a common pasture. The land is only capable of providing grazing for a certain number of animals; beyond that, overgrazing ruins the land. It is in the collective interest of users of a commons to ensure this does not occur. For the individual grazer, however, the calculation is different. The benefits of an additional animal all accrue to one person, while the costs are shared by all users of the commons. Thus there is no incentive for individual grazers to restrain their use of the land; overgrazing and ruin is the ultimate result.

Hardin proposes two ways to avoid this. One is centralized control to manage the commons. The other is the institution of private property: then the benefits and costs of managing a given piece of land all flow to the same person. From this analysis, enclosure appears to be the only palatable alternative to a command economy.

In reality, few historical commons – in England at least – were ruined by overgrazing2. The commons existed within and were managed by communities of people with an interest in long-term sustainability. Use of the commons was managed by a variety of means: legal rights, local custom, community norms and rules put in place by the community. When overgrazing did occur, it was often practiced by people outside the community: landlords or large farmers in pursuit of profit, enclosure advocates who had an interest in the failure of the commons. Unsustainable use was particularly frequent in the years before enclosure, when the extinction of the commons was a foregone conclusion. Lords who attempted to overgraze or extinguish commons rights before enclosure were often successfully blocked both by the courts and by the action of commoners. Neeson tells the story of one lord who grew grain in the common; the people broke down his fences and grazed their cattle on his crop, then dared him to sue. He backed down. It took acts of parliament – on the order of 100 per year at the height of enclosure – to overturn centuries of custom and law and extinguish the commons. The greater challenge to the commons wasn’t self-interested overgrazing but self-interested enclosure.


Central to the tragic romance of the commons is the loss of independence. Private property increased the wealth of individuals, but in this case property and individualism brought with them a loss of independence. Communities were dismantled and a way of life came to an end. People experienced a great loss. Neeson writes of the collective and ancestral memory of beef and milk by people who could no longer afford them.

The myth of the lost independence and community of the commons is echoed in the myth of the American frontier3. Films like Shane and Once Upon a Time in the West depicted the independent cowboy and the end of his way of life. In Shane, homesteaders settle the prairie and fence in the open range. Cowboys find themselves obsolete: some fight back, scattering herds and burning homes; the hero Shane defends the settlers, but he cannot be one of them. He knows there is no place for him in this new world.

In Once Upon a Time in the West it is the railway, not farmers, which displaces the cowboys. The cowboys have one last chance to play a role before their horses are supplanted by locomotives. The tracks will stretch from sea to sea; the frontier is closing.

Both metaphors – the commons and the frontier – have been repeatedly applied to the Internet. The connection is made explicit in the names of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons, echoing in hacker writings like Eric Raymond’s Homesteading the Noosphere. The open source community – as it is called – defines property in distinctly non-private terms as the right to distribute, not the right to exclude. Communities of interest online are oriented around sharing (ideas, feelings, culture) using technology designed for the same (blogs, wikis, forums); the people who compose them are more interested in communication than privacy or control.

The analogy with the historical commons of land is actually inaccurate, for the political, social and economic characteristics of land and ideas are more unlike than like4. On an intellectual level, I am inclined to discard the term “commons” for intellectual works and activities as deceptive. The underlying ethos, however – of community and independence – is the same, as is the threat: absorption by the market in the form of a particular kind of private property. The romance of the commons captures much of what is politically, socially and culturally important about the Internet, indeed about ideas, creativity and communication in general.


1 J.M. Neeson. Commoners: common right, enclosure and social change in England, 1700-1820. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2 Although the Engish commons were relatively stable, commons tragedies are certainly not uncommon. Overfishing, depletion of soil, destruction of forests and pasture are all problems in the world today. Where communities and governance are weak, or where people doubt the future value of the resource (due to risk, mobility, or fears for survival), it is difficult for commons to survive.

3 In the historical commons, community was the foundation of independence. In many Westerns the cowboy is clearly outside the community of civilization. This is certainly the case in Shane and Once Upon a Time in the West. In my mind, the clearest depiction of this is the ending of Seven Samurai when the peasants turn away from their saviors to sing together in the rice fields. However, though I’m not expert on Westerns or the actual west, I feel the relationship between cowboy and community is more complex and interdependent. The cowboys in The Searchers are certainly rooted in their community, as are the characters of science fiction Westerns like Star Trek and Firefly.

4 An explanation of how and why the analogy fails is outside the scope of this post. Problems with treating information as resources in a commons include its nonexcludable and nonrival (or even antirival) nature, the role of information and price in the market, and difficulties with reification.