Making the Commons Real: CCL Round Table with Dana Nelson

The Center for Cultural Landscapes hosted Dana Nelson as part of its ongoing series of Restoration round tables during the 2017-2018 school year. This set of discussions aims to examine the concept of restoration in multiple disciplines across built, natural, historic, political and literary environments.  

Nelson began with remarks critically interrogating the appeal of prevailing conceptions of the commons.  Many kinds of commons are touted as a mode of radical resistance against the forces of globalization and market capitalism.   Intellectual organizations like Creative Commons and Wikipedia, and sharing economies like LendingClub, Uber and Air BnB are popping up across the American scene.  Some thinkers, like Naomi Klein, Herbert Reid, and  Betsy Taylor have noted that emerging commons are a sign of the spontaneous resistance to neoliberalist globalization.

Nelson rejects these claims that commons work in opposition to prevailing structures of power.  She argues that we need to look elsewhere for the commons’ enduring utility, and that romanticized notions of commons rest on two mischaracterizations.  First, while commons are often characterized as durable, many successful commons actually originate from situations of scarcity.  The second misconception is that commons are open to all takers when functioning commons draw clear boundaries of who is “in,” and who is “out.” 

She also criticizes leftist melodramatic appeals for the centrality of the commons.  Notions that commons are pure, menaced, and desperately in need of saving blinds societal actors to the genuinely useful aspects of the commons.  These types of dramatic appeals set the commons in terms of simplified antagonisms: victor vs. victim, conquerer vs. conquered.  While these arguments come from understandable desires for moral clarity, they entrench powerlessness as a proof of righteousness, and rhetorically prevent actors from participating in the systems they seek to change. 

As a counterpoint to this oversimplified and melodramatic view of the commons, Nelson turns to the work of Elinor Ostrum, who challenged Garrett Hardin’s oft-cited 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” that argued that common management of shared resources necessarily leads to degradation.  In her Nobel Prize winning study, Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrum empirically examined the cases of successful shared management and general factors needed for successful common management of resources. 

Nelson expands on Ostrum’s work to make the case that the commons provide four crucial lessons for self-governance from  within, not in opposition to, current systems of power.  She notes that successful commons are not inherently anti-capitalist, are not places of unfettered inclusiveness, do not necessarily ensure equity for all, and do not work by opposing dominant power structures.  She argues that commons work by carving out niches for alternative practices within the prevailing economy, creating multiple, overlapping scales of self-governance.  She argues that commons are more like niche ecologies: context-dependent, messy, morally ambiguous systems which push for self-sufficiency within a capitalist setting.  They are not heroic or pure, but are messy and complicit.

Nelson concluded by examining the implications of this view of the commons for  American life.  Rather than seeing the American electorate as a set of atomized individuals whose only political agency lies in the singular act of voting, perhaps the commons provides a model for a different type of organized multitude.  The theories of commoning could provide strategies for non-hierarchical political power emerging from entities of collaborative agency.   Borrowing theory from Stuart Banner of UCLA Law School, she notes that the commons can serve as a third type of political “ownership,” not public, not private, but an in-between space of self-consolidation through practices of collectivism. 

Nelson’s talked spurred a lively discussion on application of these conceptions of the commons to various aspects of land restoration and environmental and resource management.  How do these concepts apply to knotty and large-scale problems like climate change or management of western American public lands?  While the commons don’t provide easy answers, these ideas do provide many fascinating possibilities.  Nelson suggested some methods of commoning, like allowing for constituent self-organization and  injecting localized knowledge and management practices could provide alternative strategies for engaging large-scale policy discussions.

Dana Nelson is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, and Chair of the English Department.  A founding co-editor of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, she has written widely on literature, history, politics and culture, and is a frequent guest expert on public radio and television shows. Her most recent book is Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States (2015)