The Commons: Opening and Enclosing Non-commodified Space

James Arvanitakis


This paper begins with a simple question—‘how can you steal something that no one owns’? Though a simple question, the answer is complicated, for the stealing of ‘things’ owned by no one explains an important aspect of capitalism’s insatiable appetite. Historically the conditions for industrialisation and market economies were created by capital through the colonisation of common lands and common modes of production—things that are shared but not owned. And this is an appetite that shows no sign of abating. This paper looks at the concept of the commons as aspects of our lives that no one owns but that everyone enjoys. Today the commons are constantly under siege. However, this claim does not only refer to ‘physical’ commons; here, I extend the concept of non-commodified ‘spaces’ into the cultural sphere.
By outlining how capital continually works to enclose the commons—both physical and cultural—this paper aims to present a key contest occurring between neoliberalism and today’s social justice movements. This conflict is based on the manufacturing of scarcity through enclosure versus the concept of abundance through sharing and cooperation. The purpose, then, is to identify the source of this enclosure, and why it continues, as well as describe potential paths to challenge it.

Full Text:



AID/WATCH 2005, AID/WATCH Campaigns [Online] Available at: [Accessed March 2005].

Australian Stock Exchange and Australian Shareholders' Association, 'Demutalisations since 1985. Avaliable at . Accessed 28 January 2006.

Allen M. 2004, 'The war on a terrorism advisor, ' Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March, 39.

Barber, B. 1998, 'Democracy at risk: American culture in a global culture, ' World Policy Journal, 15.2: Summer 1998, 29-41.

Bauman, Z. 1999, Liquid Modernity, Polity, London and New York.

Bollier, D. 2002, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth, Routledge, New York.

Brooks, P.M. 1999, 'The privatisation of teaching hospitals, ' Medical Journal of Australia, 170: 321-322.

Burke, K. 2004a, 'How private schools get paid, ' Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March.

Burke, K. 2004b, 'Pressure on NSW to slash funding for private schools, ' Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March.

Davis, J. 2001, 'Gifts and trade, ' in Cullenberg, S., Amariglio, J., and Ruccio, D.F. (eds), Postmodernism, Economics and Knowledge, Routledge, London and New York, 475-482.

Ecologist, The 1996, Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan Publications, London.

Farhat, R. not dated, Biopiracy: genetic engineering, life patents and the manufacturing of scarcity, AID/WATCH, Sydney.

Fingleton, J. ed. 2005, Privatising land in the Pacific: a defence of customary tenures, Discussion Paper Number 80, June 2005, the Australia Institute, Canberra.

Goldman, M. 1997, 'Customs in common": the epistemic world of the commons scholars, ' Theory and Science, 26.1: 1-37."

Habermas, J. 1991 [1962], The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

16 Hardin, G. 1968, 'The tragedy of the commons, ' in Dryzek, J.S., and Schlosberg, D. (eds), 1999, Debating the Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, Oxford University Press, New York, 23-34."

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2000, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A.. 2004, Multitude, Penguin, New York.

Hartmann, B. 2004, 'Conserving racism: the greening of hate at home and abroad, ' Different Takes, 27, Winter 2004 [Online] Available at: [Accessed November 2004].

Hughes, H. 2004, 'Radical reforms needed to make Pacific viable, ' The Courier-Mail, 7 December 2004, 15.

Jacobs, M. 1997, 'Sustainability and markets: on the neoclassical model of environmental economics, ' New Political Economy, November: 365-385.

Karvelas, P. 2004, 'Land rights may be privatized, ' The Australian, 10 December 2004, 4.

Kingsnorth, P. 2004, One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement, Simon & Schuster, London.

Klein, N. 2005, 'The rise of disaster capitalism, ' The Nation, 2 May 2005, [Accessed May 2005].

Lessig, L. 2004, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, Penguin, East Rutherford, NJ.

Mayne Group 2004, Mayne Group [Online]. Available at: [Accessed February 2005].

McAuley, I. 1998, 'Health - a common good, ' New Doctor, 68, Summer 1998, [Online]. Available at: [Accessed January 2005].

McTaggart D., Findley C., and Parkin M. 1999, Economics, 3rd Edition, Addison Wesley Longman, Melbourne.

Metherell, M. 2004a, 'Land system holds us back, says Mundine, ' The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2004, 6.

Metherell, M. 2004b, 'Howard backs private gain from black land, ' The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2004, 7.

Milberg, W. 2001, 'De-centering the market metaphor in international economics, ' in Cullenberg, S., Amariglio, J. and Ruccio, D.F. (eds), Postmodernism, Economics and Knowledge, Routledge, London and New York, 407-430.

Osborne, S. P. 2000, Public-Private Partnerships: Theory and Practice in International Perspective, Routledge, Oxford.

Ostrom, R.C., and Thrainn, E. eds. 1990, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pearce, F. 2002, 'Market forces are the way to save the planet", ' New Scientist, 175.2350: 10."

Patomaki, H. 2001, Democratising Globalisation: The Leverage of the Tobin Tax, Zed Books, London and New York.

Rustomjee, S. 2001, 'Exploring social disintegration, ' Group Analysis, SAGE Publications, London.

Shiva, V. 2000, Protect or Plunder? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights, Zed Books, London.

Sklair, L. 1996, 'Conceptualising and researching the transnational capitalist class in Australia, ' Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 32.2: 1-19.

Sklair, L. 2000, The Transnational Capitalist Class, Blackwell Publishers, Sydney, London.

Szerszynski, B. 1999, 'Performance politics: the dramatics of environmental protest, ' in Ray, L. and Sayer, A. (eds), Culture and the Economy: After the Cultural Turn, Sage, London, 211-228.

Thompson, E. P. 1963, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Books, London.

Wallach, L., and Woodall, P. 2004, Whose Trade Organisation?, The New Press, New York and London.

Wood, A. 2002, 'Individual enterprise the key to progress for Aborigines, ' The Australian, 29 April 2003, 13.

Yunupingu, G. 2005, 'Turning back the clock for Aborigines, ' Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2005, 11.



Share this article: