This series makes a simple claim: that the commons theory of the last half century, in its various forms and schools, has been substantially shaped by early modern ways of thinking about the evolution of civilizations. In particular, it has hewed closely to models that gelled in the Enlightenment-era works known as “stadial theory,” passed down to the twentieth century through the disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, and strongly entrenched in the patterns of thought of property theorists to this day.
I do not wish to argue that recent thinkers deliberately or consciously based their theories on early modern precedents, nor do I claim that their theories simply recast old theories, pouring old wine into new bottles. What I wish to argue, rather, is that modern commons theory is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being the passage of human societies from stages of “barbarism” or “savagery” to “civilization.” This way of thinking, largely elaborated in the eighteenth century, has proved to be so powerful that it continues to shape the discourse around common property and environmental commons into the twenty-first. As Nathaniel Wolloch has argued with respect to similarities between stadial theory and Norbert Elias’s civilizing-process theory, “the similarities between these two perspectives are much clearer than their differences, and point to a continuing tradition in modern historiographical interpretations of the rise of civilization.” For Elias’s theory substitute property theory, and for historiographical interpretations of the rise of civilization substitute theoretical interpretations of the rise of private property, and you have my argument.
The significance of this claim lies not only in its implication that modern commons theory has been somewhat confined by the straits of a discourse of which it is not even always aware. It lies also in that its portrayals of transitions between property regimes largely partake either of Enlightenment assumptions of civilizational progress or of a Romantic reaction to this attitude, with its valorization of the primitive. Thus do deep cultural attitudes, rooted in the speculative thinking of an earlier age, color todayʼs theories — positive and normative — of the commons.
After describing (in post II of this series) these earlier ways of thinking I will note (in post III) the striking similarities of recent theories of the commons to the earlier models, and then (in post IV) try to trace the channels of influence. I will conclude with why I think this matters.