‘Protest, Property and the Commons: Performances of Law and Resistance’ reviewed by Derek Wall

Reviewed by Derek Wall

About the reviewer

Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College, London. A former International …


Protest, Property and the Commons examines the cultural politics of the construction of squatted social centres. Social centres have emerged over recent decades in Europe, as activists, particularly from an anarchist or autonomist Marxist tradition, seize unused buildings and turn them into centres of political resistance. Occupy and similar movements have extended this tactic, but from student occupations to political squatting and even the creation of the Paris Commune, the social centre concept can be seen as significant. The book, as its title suggests, conceptualises social centres as commons, describing their creation as a form of commoning. Law, social movement theory, post-structuralism, literary perspectives (particularly from Derrida) and much else are mixed in to this thought provoking volume. This is a rich and complex text which will be of particular interest to those of us who see the concept of commons as key to communism and/or the deep democracy of potentially self-governing societies.

Commons are collective forms of property. In Britain, commons often take the form of land which is open to members of a community to graze livestock, fly kites or walk upon. A good example of a working commons is North Meadow in Cricklade, Wiltshire, where a water meadow has been maintained as commons since at least the 10th Century AD. Fisheries and forests may be commons, and the concept as a legal form has been extended to free software and the world wide web. The biologist Garrett Hardin wrote The tragedy of the commons in 1968, arguing that collective property was inevitably doomed to failure, because it would be abused by users. For example, too many cattle would be placed on the village green and it would be wrecked. Increasingly, commons have been seen, on the left, as the basis of communism, a form of social collective ownership. The commons is a key concept, for example, in the work of Hardt and Negri in titles such as Empire and Commonwealth. Lucy Finchett-Maddock is well aware of the traditional liberal or conservative disdain for collective ownership and the contrasting celebration of commons as a basis for communism and/or the deep democracy of potentially self-governing societies.

There are two key moments in the development of intellectual defence of the commons; two acts of theatre, which provide a fine balance between optimism and pessimism, and of comedy versus tragedy. There are, of course, two towering figures who researched the commons, Karl Marx and Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, who may be less familiar than Marx, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for economics, strictly speaking the Swedish bank price, for her work on commons.

In the first moment, Marx and Engels were young left journalists and radicals in 1843. They became aware that most court cases in the Rhineland were taken up with prosecuting peasants for picking up fallen wood. For centuries peasants had rights to pick up fallen wood from the commons but this had been made illegal. Engels argued that this was the key moment when Marx transitioned from studying pure politics to economic analysis (Foster 2000: 66). For Marx and Engels, communism was the restoration in a new society of traditional commons and common property forms.

In the second moment, Elinor Ostrom attended a lecture by Garrett Hardin, at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University, where she worked. Hardin argued that the tragedy of the commons showed that human being were doomed to wreck the environment because they could not cooperate to conserve resources. Commons needed to be sold to private owners or governed by a strong state, he argued, to avoid degradation. Hardin used the commons as a metaphor to illustrate his underlying concern with over population. Ostrom noted:

He indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilized after they have one child. He was very serious about it. `I was somewhat taken aback: “My theory proves that we should do this,” and people said, “Well, don’t you think that that’s a little severe?” “No! That’s what we should do, or we’re sunk.” Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian.’ (Ostrom in Annual Reviews Conversations 2010: 8)

Elinor then realized that although she had not used the term previously, she had studied commons, actually common pool property systems, that had not been tragic. She and her husband Vincent had studied water tables in California which were a common resource, because no one individual could practically own a part of the system without being affected by the action of other users. Despite difficulties, users had come to agreements to ration water use without destroying the water table. Whereas Marx’s commons encounter promoted his fascination with communism, Ostrom’s inspired her to engaged in detailed research on what made commons conservation possible. Ostrom was never a communist; her complex, perhaps undefinable and nuanced politics, is marked by a pursuit of self-governance or deep democracy. Ostrom robustly denied that commons were a universal solution, she believed in institutional diversity, but where Marx sought commons as communism, she saw commons as self-managed systems and celebrated this.

Lucy Finchett-Maddock obviously had her own commons epiphany and asks us to ‘Imagine a 25-year-old girl, just arrived from another country or another town, settling into her newly found home with her squatter friends in a social centre’ (2016: 1). This was remembered from her visit in 2009 to ‘The Library House’, a social centre in Camberwell, South London. She was inspired by the passion and commitment of the squatters she met.

Marx sees commons as about class struggle, for example, in chapters 26 and 27 of Capital, outlining the theft of English and Scottish commons. Ostrom unpicks Hardin’s tragedy and formal models such as the Prisoners’ Dilemma, using a wide range of research techniques to show how, at a micro level, commons can be made to work. The institutionalism of Ostrom and Marx and Engels contrasting approaches are both vital in understanding commons. In contrast, Lucy Finchett-Maddock takes a broadly cultural perspective. The importance of culture is implicit and sometimes explicit from both Marx and Ostrom but Finchett-Maddock usefully places it centre stage in her work.

Social centres were not, of course, studied by either Marx or Ostrom, but as collective forms of property they can be examined as commons. Finchett-Maddock’s reflection on the cultural construction of social centres might also give insights into other forms of commons. She argues that commons have to be socially constructed through appropriate rituals. Commons demand the activity of communing. Social practices help create, if I am reading her argument correctly, an archive that reconnects commons today with a history of commons in the past and provides, albeit in nonlinear time, more commons to come. Drawing on Lefebvre, she argues that space is also constructed by specific practices. She suggests the contingent nature of property law, noting specifically how law and resistance to law are intertwined, both assaults and enables political squatting, social centres and commoning.

The book provides an almost encyclopaedic account of the cultural construction of social centres with the citation of very diverse thinkers. Theory is backed up with appropriate participant observation. It is certainly a text that inspires chasing up references and learning more.

There are some criticisms. I thought her account of Ostrom was largely sound, however, strangely, it failed to reference Ostrom’s most important work Governing the Commons (1990). It also ignores the fact that Ostrom is often praised by, and has her roots in, free market and Austrian based thinkers; she was a long way from being a conventional leftist. I also feel that the citations can be too extensive. Thinkers like Derrida and Carl Schmidt appear at a dizzying pace and unless one is already familiar with their work it is difficult to fully assess their relevance here. I also wonder about the extent to which right wing thinkers such as Schmidt and the supporter of fascism Ezra Pound, who is also briefly referenced, can provide the left with real insights. Perhaps they can provide resources for the left, but the use of these demands extreme care.

Social centres are an anarchist endeavour but perhaps the creation of commons demands organisation forms of a more enduring and formal nature? How might we learn from both the creation and defeat of perhaps the biggest social centre in history, the Paris Commune? It can be seen as helping to inspire Lenin’s notion of a revolutionary party. While distinctly post-Leninist, a political organisation, the largely Kurdish based Peoples Democrat Party, in Rojava, Northern Syria is attempting to build a commons based society (Wall 2016).

My biggest caution is clarity. Sophisticated social theory is often difficult to access but for politically engaged academics it is important to try to communicate it as clearly as possible. While often dealing with highly technical commons matters, Ostrom in Governing the Commons or Marx in chapters 26 and 27 of Capital volume one provide broadly readable accounts. Parts of this text could be more accessible. Ultimately however one crisp line summarizes the book and demands repetition ‘[i]f a society is a construction, then it can be de-constructed and re-constructed’ (2016: 158). While Ostrom noted that we were fallible individuals and Marx warned that we are restricted to some extent by social and historical forces, they would both have agreed with this formulation from Finchett-Maddock. Private property, the state, etc., can all be transformed or disposed of. This is a book that hints at some ways of performing a very different world into existence, partly through remembering the commons of other times.

7 August 2016


  • Foster, J.B. 2000 Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature New York: Monthly Review Press
  • Annual Reviews Conversations 2010 An Interview with Elinor Ostrom http://www.annualreviews.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1326999553977/ElinorOstromTranscript.pdf
  • Wall, D. 2016 Elinor Ostrom in Rojava Kurdish Question http://kurdishquestion.com/article/3135-elinor-ostrom-in-rojava-commons-economy-and-feminism

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