Historical context of the Commons

«Earth, water, air and fire (what we would call, in contemporary terms, energy) have, for thousands of years, been considered primary elements and the common base materials of life, ever since the dawn of Western philosophical thought in ancient Greece. In the Metamorphosis by Ovid – a classic of Latin literature written more than two thousand years ago – the goddess Latona thus addresses a group of peasants who refuse to allow her to drink from a pool: “Why do you refuse me water? The common use of water is the sacred right of all mankind. Nature allows to no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water. When I drew near, it was a public good I came to share. Yet I ask it of you a favour (…). A draught of water would be nectar to me; it would revive me, and I would own myself indebted to you for life itself». These words condense the elements that were to proper legal regulation more than five hundred years later, in the Justinian Code. Contrary to the res nullius – goods that belong to no one and that can therefore be appropriated by whoever takes them first – air, water and sunshine are natural commons, that belong to everyone and because of this cannot be appropriated privately and exclusively by any one person. These are not goods from which is legal to make profits. They are inalienable goods, which are not even at the Princeps -that is, the Roman Emperor’s- disposal. Goods that are essential for life, hence connected to the fundamental rights of every human being. Rather, to be precise, the natural commons are in fact common to every living being – plants and animals included – if we do not want to remain trapped in a strictly anthropocentric point of view.
Nevertheless, over the centuries, the number of commons that have been annihilated and privatised has slowly grown: at the time of Justinian no one could have predicted that one day modern capitalism would be born of “enclosing” these goods nor that there would be a successive push towards privatisation, not only of the land but also of seeds and biodiversity, and then water, air and even knowledge itself (for example, through intellectual property rights).
By Michael Bauwens

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