Sub-theme 4. Commons between colonial legacies and the Anthropocene
Honour the heritage – Historical commons as binding legacies
Contemporary research is increasingly focusing on commons beyond natural resources such as forests and pastures. Instead, the ‹commons› are understood as common goods that are conceived in terms of actors and their practices and therefore include very different types of collectively owned and managed goods.
The spectrum ranges from corporately maintained infrastructures to militia and disaster protection, the cultivation and the development of vernacular legal traditions, legal spaces and group privileges as well as religious and ritual practices with their essential symbols and moral implications. Specific forms of collective action are just as much a part of this as persuasive self-images and meaningful historical narratives in connection with jointly claimed and exploited spaces. Immaterial goods such as knowledge, social and financial credit, collective efforts for social welfare, security, commemoration of the dead and the salvation of souls, the avoidance of taxes plus fair and reliable procedures for the distribution of goods are as important as electoral procedures that, at least superficially, grant equal opportunities to all participants (e.g. drawn by lot). As a result, a finely branched cooperative self-governance emerges on site and helps even small people to achieve agency in the capillaries of society and territory. This not only holds society together but it also legitimates the ‹commons state› at it’s best.
The power and the agency of historical commons, cooperatives and communities as basic units of the society, the state, the constitution and the extremely federalist political institutions characterize Swiss history since the Middle Ages – far beyond the example of ‹Törbel› made world-famous by E. Ostrom. Thousands of communities and cooperatives that have existed for centuries in the territory of today’s Switzerland have in common that the commoners have always seen their common properties as a highly precious heritage of their ancestors. And they understood themselves as trustees of a historical legacy to the benefit of future generations.
The panel will look at comparable phenomena and figurations from around the world from all epochs in which one or several of the aforementioned manifestations of commons have been cared for, managed and inherited over transgenerational periods of time, so that the goal of sustainable resource preservation became paramount. It is about strategies of physical and discursive valorization and the inventiveness of smart groups that achieved to preserve their collective resources in the long term despite fundamental historical upheavals such as colonialism, technical innovations, social conflicts and political revolutions.
1. The Afterlives of International Development: developing creative methodologies to research intangible unintended legacies
International development involves ideologies and activities ostensibly directed towards the improvement of the well-being of populations in the Global South. Mainstream development interventions emphasise forward-looking ideas of progress and advocate for novelty. In so doing, however, the sector is often myopic, as evidenced by countless unintended consequences that stretch beyond interventions’ official life cycle. Whether deemed a success or a failure, such interventions leave behind a long trail of tangible and intangible traces. The places where those developments took place were neglected physically, but remain very present in the people’s memory and continue to construct unexpected histories.
This paper draws on a new ERC project called “The Afterlives of Development Interventions in Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique)” (AfDevLives). The presentation by the project’s three PhD students will conceptualise the afterlives of development interventions and touch on core questions related to temporality, local reappropriation and legacies shaping the sites’ everyday encounters. The research project is engaging with the possibility of turning away from the dominant developmental logic—notably by combining methods inspired by phenomenology and by drawing attention to the aesthetics of ruination. Looking at foreign interventions as part of the local narrative, embedded in rumours, songs, tales, and place-naming, we will share new creative methodologies to research those material afterlives and intangible legacies situated within case studies in Eastern Africa’s historical commons.
2. The commons denied. Why Buen Vivir cannot be adequately understood by Western sociology
Universidad Central del Ecuador, Ecuador
Buen Vivir (or Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa, Suma Qamaña in Aymara) caused much attention among academics with ecologist stances or stances critical to development during the years 2008 to 2015 and until now. Buen Vivir is understood as an open project to construct an inclusive future that respects nature as necessarily connected to humankind, society, and communities. For this, it is based on local experiences, especially indigenous ones. Yet, it goes beyond those local experiences and turns the different struggles into a form of political commons that connects political projects, academic research, and the everyday living of marginalized groups. This forced commonization of local political struggles includes epistemic violence as the concrete elements of those struggles are invisibilized or subsumed under other elements that can express different ideas. Especially sociology as an academic discipline had a hard time adequately understanding the different elements of Buen Vivir.
This presentation will unravel the different strands of the global debate on Buen Vivir as commons and trace the forced commonization of indigenous struggles in it.
3. Legitimizing ownership with ancestors? The heritage as an argument in conflicts about commons in early-modern central Switzerland
University of Zurich, Switzerland
In the planned presentation I investigate the role of the ancestors as a rhetorical figure in conflicts about commons between groups with a different legal status. In central Switzerland, Genossen, members of native families with full civic rights, framed later immigrants as a distinct legal group, called Beisassen, in order to exclude them from the access to collective resources, like forests and pastures. In that context references to the ancestors served as a crucial argument for both parties in order to legitimize ownership. In a conflict in the village Weggis in 1816 about the rights of the Beisassen, the Genossen claimed that the Beisassen’s ancestors hadn’t contributed to work and costs since the land was bought off from feudal lords in 1378. Why should their descendants be entitled to enjoy the fruits of those efforts? But the temporal dimension also worked as an argument in the other direction. As a heritage, passed on from fathers to sons, it was the responsibility of the Genossen to preserve the resources for future generations and prevent the threat of over-exploitation, posed by immigration. I will understand those arguments not as mere rhetorical pretexts but also as expressions of a real dilemma, which required a balancing act between social and ecological values. In the last section I will ask if these arguments can be read as indicators of a more patrilineal understanding of property devolution, that emerged in common property systems. In order to keep the number of members stable, user rights were often passed on only along the male lines, which led to a fixed set of Geschlechter, who belonged to the cooperative. It was not the investments of any ancestors, but those of the agnatic ancestors, sharing the same surname, that mattered in those arguments.
4. Historical commons as binding legacies in the older and most recent history of Switzerland
University of Bern, Switzerland
Historical commons form a solid material basis on which robust and resilient associations and cooperatives emerge over generations, easily surviving even revolutions and fundamental structural upheavals.
Responsible for this are some specific characteristics of collective property which are characterized by the following features:
– Common property is considered indivisible. This means it is not an option for any of the participants to be paid out proportionally, because belonging to a viable group is, especially for pre-modern people, without alternative in order to be able to maintain their own household economy.
– Participation in collective resources is therefore essential. Because of that common property is regarded as a very valuable heritage from earlier generations. It must be preserved at all costs and passed on to one’s own descendants.
– The decision-makers and ordinary members of the mentioned collectives see themselves as links in an extraordinary continuum of ever new generations. From this they derive a fiduciary responsibility for the common good.
It is consistent with this way of thinking and acting that very different actors in various contexts repeatedly point out the value of the heritage of the ancestors or forefathers and emphasize their own responsibility for it. This fact can be demonstrated with a variety of examples from the older to the most recent Swiss history.
The power and the agency of historical commons, cooperatives and communities as basic units of the society, the state, the constitution and the extremely federalist political institutions characterize Swiss history since the Middle Ages – far beyond the example of ‹Törbel› made world-famous by E. Ostrom. Thousands of communities and cooperatives that have existed for centuries in the territory of today’s Switzerland have in common that the commoners have always seen their common properties as a highly precious heritage of their ancestors.