Sub-theme 11. Advances in Frameworks and Theory
Which political constellations are conducive to commons formation?
Elinor Ostrom showed that neither privatization nor state control is required to manage resources sustainably. Because of this, commons have largely been considered an alternative for both market economies and states. These findings, however, do not imply that other political or historical settings are always unnecessary or detrimental to the formation of commons. Elinor and Vincent Ostrom focused on the concept and the implementation of polycentricity. Commons rarely exist in an institutional or political vacuum and are often nested or incorporated into constellations of larger or parallel political institutions. But the proof that commons could function well without a state or that states are only required as a kind of partner state on a supra-local level leaves some fundamental questions unanswered. Arun Agrawal stated that the reason the role of states (or other political constellations for that matter) has been understudied in relationship to the commons is because of the overall goal of collective action scholars to show the importance of local groups and institutions. This session wants to explore just this hiatus: In which kinds of political constellations can commons exist and thrive? Do decentralized political structures more easily foster collective action, or can commons appear and flourish in market economies, heavy manorialised/feudalized societies, or strong states? This session hopes to invite interdisciplinary perspectives on commons, including historical, anthropological, political, and/or sociological approaches.
1. Commons in a state economy: Exploring Ptolemaic Egypt as an illustrative case
KU Leuven, Belgium
This paper will explore whether commons could exist and thrive in societies with a strong state apparatus and intensive bureaucratic control. Studying the genesis, evolution, and demise of commons throughout history allows one to study the motors, motives, and conditions required for commons to arise and endure. One of the conditions that were put forward was the freedom to organize. De Moor, for example, stated that the rise of medieval commons coincided with a period when state power was feeble and sovereignty was fragmented. By looking at Ptolemaic Egypt, we will show that commons could develop and thrive even in a highly bureaucratic and strong state. Due to this case, we will discuss the compatibility of strong states and commons in the past and present.
2. Commons, commercialization and state formation. Rural transformation in the Ardennes during the eighteenth century
With this research paper, I question how historical common land systems were strongly entangled with and interacted with market economies and state institutions. As such, I establish a critical long-term perspective on the dominant stance in current-day commons scholarship that commons are preferably withdrawn from such supra local political and economic structures. To this end, it is essential to highlight historical trajectories in which commons could reproduce and survive in close interaction with economic and political changes at large. In this paper, the Belgian Ardennes, where village communities successfully preserved their common lands during the eighteenth century, serves as a research case. The commons of the Ardennes did not endure as a result of inertia or isolation as is often presumed in historiography. Rather, I demonstrate how they survived in flexible interaction with economic commercialization and state formation that both marked the history of the European countryside in the eighteenth century. By analyzing the commons as dynamic social relations, I reveal a complex history in which common lands became active drivers of rural transformation. This paper, therefore, explains how the commons could endure in a context of commercial expansion and state formation and offers a historical-explanatory perspective on the long-term reproduction and transformation of common land systems.
3. Commons as an epistemological challenge: The case of early modern craft guilds
University of Antwerp, Belgium
In literature on the commons, the collective management of resources often comes up as a ‘third way’ between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’. Both the commons and the state and the market are then reified, while in reality they are mostly intertwined and can rarely be understood separately. Historical research is particularly revealing in that respect because the idea that commons were a kind of ‘third option’ is anachronistic almost by definition. This is eminently the case for research on the period before the 19th century, when the state and the market developed as separate abstracted entities.
This paper specifically zooms in on late medieval and early modern craft guilds, associations of fellow professionals that can be seen as organisations of collective action, but not as entities alongside the state or the market. They should rather be understood as bodies that helped shape the state and the market. None of these entities preceded the others, and they can only be understood in their relation to each other.
Research on this inevitably leads to questioning the usual analytical frameworks. I will argue for an approach that abandons a priori categories such as state, market and commons and advocate one that focuses on relationships, networks and mediations, and in which states, markets and craft guilds are seen as ‘assemblages’ or ‘macro-actors’ that are both composed and defined by their external relations and their interconnectedness.
Ultimately, my epistemological critique will reveal that a proper understanding of (the relevance of) early modern craft guilds presupposes openness to a radically different worldview, one in which the Western analytical view is radically questioned.