Creating the Commons

The commons can be understood as a set of resources that have been de-commodified: that is, these are resources that are used to directly support life, rather than to extract a profit through sale on the market.

Members of a limited-equity housing cooperative in D.C. gather on the front steps in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
Members of a limited-equity housing cooperative in D.C. gather on the front steps in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Photo courtesy of Amanda Huron

A slowly growing population in the radical left community realizes that it is high time for human beings to create a human economy. We need an economic system that meets basic needs and works for the benefit of human life, not an individualistic capitalist lifestyle. A critical component of an economy based in real human needs is community control of land. The way we envision community control of land is through the commons.

The commons can be understood as a set of resources that have been de-commodified: that is, these are resources that are used to directly support life, rather than to extract a profit through sale on the market. In addition, the commons are collectively governed, and sometimes owned, by the people who use them. The community of people who use the resource, and help to govern it, are known as commoners.

Who is this community? The community is made up of those people living in the affected area, and those people trained, coached, and educated in commoning: that is, in how to work together to democratically control and manage community resources, including not just land, but also housing, schools, food, environment, wellness, and other aspects of human life. All resources are held in a common with principles, rules, and accountability to a committee of leaders cultivated and nurtured in practices of commons lifestyle. These leaders are recognized because they made a commitment to a new lifestyle—one not centered on the exploits of capital, but on the social ecosystem of collective work and communal living. The marketplace is not land and capital, but a space and place for building bonds with people and community.

One example of the commons can be found in the limited-equity housing cooperatives of Washington, D.C. These are co-ops that have been purchased by their low-income members, with financial assistance from the city, and removed from the speculative market. They provide long-term affordable housing for their members, and are democratically controlled by their member-owners. These co-ops are a testament to the strength and organizing power of their members. Yet some of them struggle with the challenge of maintaining a commons in the midst of a hyper-gentrifying city. In order to ensure long-term, sustainable community control of land, we need to build structures that support the work of smaller-scale enterprises like these individual co-ops.

One way to build this structure is through a community land trust. A community land trust is governed both by the people who live in homes on the land trust, and also by people who live in the surrounding area and are dedicated to the long-term sustainability of the commons. This dual governing structure ensures that the needs of individual land trust households and the larger community are met.

Examples of the land trust vision can be found in Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and Vermont’s Champlain Housing Trust . The sole purpose of land trusts is to meet the needs of the community and environment. The shareholders’ vulture culture is removed. Nonetheless, we need to be prepared to reorient all community members to unlearn the capitalist and economic death habits of exploitation of people and the earth to the maximum extent possible. The economic life of a commons is focused on birthing and nurturing to build life through meeting the basic needs of human beings rather than a marketplace controlled by ruthless profiteers and greed.

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