Communal Commons: A Review

by Raven Glomus

This week on the blog I want to review a bunch of things that are not books.  (I hope to have at least one more week of book reviews in the future.)

This review will focus on a very academic article that I had the privilege to read.  Everything but the abstract is behind a paywall at the Wiley Online Library.  I strongly suspect that you might only be interested in reading the original paper if you were really interested in understanding how Elinor Ostrum’s commons framework applies to income sharing communities or you yourself were writing an academic paper about the communes.

Basically, Elinor Ostrum challenged Garrett Hardin’s influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  He said he thought that with any common shared thing among many people, everyone had the incentive to get as much of a scarce resource as possible and thus shared resources will be used up rapidly.  Elinor Ostrum did ethnographic research and showed how in traditional cultures this is not true, that communities found ways to make resource sharing or the sharing of the commons, relatively fair–and they had the incentive to maintain this fairness in a way that was sustainable.

Nazli Azergun at the University of Virginia has written a paper about how Ostrum’s framework could be applied to the Twin Oaks community: “Resource allocation at an income-sharing community: An application of Elinor Ostrom’s commons framework”, which was published in the journal Economic Affairs–a journal published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which describes itself as “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”.  This explains the British spellings in the article.

The author points out that: “As an income-sharing community, Twin Oaks meets all needs of its members in kind, through various communal resource-sharing/pooling mechanisms. Relatedly, resources that are not usually considered as commons outside Twin Oaks, such as labour, utilities, or food, are transformed into commons through members’ willing participation in community structures and norms.”  And further, “…Twin Oaks aims to provide for its members’ every need through egalitarian communal resource-sharing structures. This, most members believe, provides for a more sustainable and equitable livelihood than they experienced in ‘the mainstream’ United States, where free health care and education and many other welfare provisions are considered inaccessible luxuries.” A quote that I really like is “Members usually appreciate the community structure as an ‘anti-capitalist bubble within the capitalist economy’, acting as ‘communal and egalitarian within, and profit-driven and capitalistic without’, which ensures benefits and comforts that they would not be able to enjoy were they participating in the market economy on their own.”

Clothesline at Twin Oaks–picture not in original article

In this paper, Nazli Azergun discusses Elinor Ostrum’s basic premises as well as looking at the many different ways that the ‘commons’ framework is applied.  She states that “By centring my analysis on the resource-sharing and labour-pooling mechanisms at Twin Oaks, I aim to shed light on the actual processes through which human-made commons are generated and allocated as such…”    She then gives a history and description of Twin Oaks before diving into a discussion on Resource Sharing and Labour [sic] Pooling at Twin Oaks.  She uses Elinor Ostrum’s definition of common-pool resources as “natural or humanly created systems that generate a finite flow of benefits where it is costly to exclude beneficiaries and one person’s consumption subtracts from the amount of benefits available to others” and points out that once you are a member at Twin Oaks, you are able freely share in the community’s resources  with “little oversight or restriction of access”.  

The author talks a lot about the TO labor system and how it incentivizes sharing and collaboration.  But she also notes that the system is vulnerable to abuse and quotes several Oakers who fear that there are people that are abusing the system, and thus making other folks work harder.

Nazli Azergun doesn’t hesitate to look at the downside of all this.  She has a section in the paper called “Twin Oaks: ‘Not Classist or Racist but Clueless’” where she looks at how some of the rigid egalitarian structures at TO support middle class folks and work against folks that are working class and/or people of color.     She states “Those who oppose strict egalitarianism in labouring point out that the members who have appropriate educational and social backgrounds pursue physical labour-light areas such as office jobs or childcare, without granting others the opportunity to rotate between labour-light and labour-heavy areas. And, they emphasise, those who do not have the appropriate educational and social background are mostly the non-middle-class individuals and/or persons of colour. To correct for this reproduction of mainstream racial and class hierarchies at Twin Oaks and make the community more accessible to minorities, this group proposes that the community drops strict egalitarianism in labouring processes in favour of an equitable treatment that takes into account the imbalance of physical labour in different areas.”

Her conclusion is “…income-sharing communities such as Twin Oaks seem to work decently enough in practice, as most members claim to be contented with the ways of life that they offer. What is problematic, according to some members, are implicit instances of classism and racism which become visible when communal frameworks fail to address the overlapping system failures and problems of people of colour and non-middle-class members. While the opposing groups within income-sharing communities connect the resolution of these issues to a prioritisation of equity over equality in resource-sharing and resource-pooling, I would also argue that Ostrom’s permission for dynamism and pragmatism in relationalities across individuals and institutions allows for a better adjustment of institutional frameworks, rules, and values to ensure greater benefits for all. Despite the differences in commitment levels and practicality issues, I believe income-sharing communities constitute promising models of equitable and sustainable commons management, similar to the way Ostrom had imagined.”

As I said, this is a fairly academic paper published in an economic ‘free-market’ journal.  I don’t recommend that readers rush out to purchase access to it unless, as I said, they really want to see in detail how Twin Oaks fits within the ‘commons’ framework or they are also academics wanting to add references to their work.  Rather, I am excited that a group of folks who have probably never thought about these issues, now needs to confront them.  Ironically, this paper describes a very viable alternative to the free-market system in a journal which describes itself as a think tank for that very system.  If it gets one or two of those folks to realize that there are more useful possibilities beyond that system, maybe it will have accomplished its purpose.  Who knows, maybe it will encourage someone to think twice about the free-market system and maybe even consider leaving it.

Communal Commons: A Review

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