The Commons as a Social Relation
At the recent Berlin conference on the economy and the commons, participants had the common burden of finding a common definition of the commons. The organizers, I think, wanted for us to at least agree that it was a social relation. The commons was not just some thing—like the water or land—but our social relation to things. In this sense, the commons is not given, but chosen.
So when we say that something is a “social” relation, what does that mean? How about saying that social relations give us our social identity, and furthermore, that our social identity comes from the social groups we belong to such as class or ethnicity? There are many such social groups. Vietnam vets, for example, would be a social group if those who were in the military during the Vietnam War are seen as, and perhaps see themselves as, sharing a similar identity.
There are also social relations among different social groups, such as the social relationship between owners and laborers, or we could say between masters and servants. Such social relations are usually dominated by unequally distributed privileges and vulnerabilities. Such social relations, one could say, provide the context for the economic practices of providing goods and services. Because these social relations are based on the ownership of property, only those who have something they can convert into property, such as labor, can participate in such social relations.
Actually, the economy is comprised of multiple social relations, such as the social relations between loaners and debtors, buyers and sellers, and rich and poor. Those with the most power in these relations (the elite) largely determine their actual characteristics.
If the commons denotes social relations, are the social relations relationships of equality or inequality? Maybe we could think of internal and external social relations: relationships among members of the social group and relationships among one group and other groups. Then one could say that the social relations among the commons social group aims for equality, while the actual relationships among the commons social group and the group of property owners is one of inequality, and of conflict.
If all of this is true, then being a commoner—living in common social relations—means living with the elite in social relationships of submission or conflict. At least that seems to be the choice that comes with the idea of the commons as a social relation.