The following quotations are taken from:

Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy. Zed Books, 1999. Pp. 141-164.

From “Defending, Reclaiming and Reinventing the Commons”

“I, Maria Mies, come from a small village in the hilly area south of Cologne, called Eifel. When I was a child the village had thirty-two peasant households. All were subsistence farmers whose only regular money income came from milk production and the sale of potatoes and sometimes a pig or a calf. The village still had forests, land, brooks, roads, as commons, and these commons were maintained through a system of free communal labour, which each household had to contribute.

            For instance, when a road had to be constructed or snow had to be cleared off the road, or trees had to be planted in the village forest, each household had to contribute free labour,–male and female—to do this necessary communal work. I remember that these community actions were occasions of great fun. On the other hand each household also benefited from these commons. Even today every family still gets a certain amount of free firewood from the village forest. In former times, cows and pigs used to be driven to the village forest for grazing, and the village land was to be used by the poor.

            Today only two households are left in this village who are still farming the land. All the others have either given up farming or left the village. The village commons have either been privatised or are being leased out to a few big farmers who buy or lease all the land. The only commons still left is the village forest. But the system of free communal labour has been totally abolished and replaced by wage labour.

            These changes are a consequence of EU agrarian policy since the fifties. According to this policy the number of farmers was to be drastically reduced through the modernization, mechanization, chemicalization and capitalization of agriculture. Europe considers itself an industrialised region, and agriculture is subordinated to industry.

            This development model decreed that the subsidies and cheap credits given to farmers were all tied to expansionism, big investments, big machinery and production for the market. Those who could not compete in this field gave up farming, particularly young men who sought wage employment in industry.

            Along with this development model came a campaign to ‘beautify the villages’. Beautifying meant to make the village look like a suburban area, with parks for children, pavements, well-kept houses whose barns and stables were transformed into flats for tourists, while kitchen gardens were turned into well-trimmed lawns. Due to such ‘development’ schemes, the village of my mother, Steffeln, now has a debt burden of DM1 million.

            On the other hand, since more and more peasants have given up farming, the natural methods of using organic wastes as fodder for pigs and chicken, or as fertilizer, or compost, have also disappeared. Grass growing on the byways, which formerly was used to feed goats and cows, has become ‘green waste’. Moreover, the lawns in the new village park and in the private gardens are another new source of ‘green waste’. The same is true of the shrubs and trees along the community lanes, which have to be trimmed from time to time.

            The amount of waste, particularly organic waste, has increased tremendously. But since the old cycles of production and reproduction have been disrupted, there is nowhere any more, even in the village and its surroundings, where this organic waste can be dumped.

            As a way out the district administration has introduced the ‘green garbage bin’ for ‘organic waste’. And this waste is now exported as far as Thuringia where it is composted by an industrial composting firm. The reason for its export to Thuringia—the most easterly part of Germany—is the cheaper wages in the former GDR. Hence, a small rural community that some time ago was still more or less self-sufficient and had a commons regime which kept intact the community, the ecosystem, the local culture and economy now has to export its so-called ‘organic waste’ to a faraway industry for elimination

            The absurdity of this situation is enhanced by the fact that both the village and the district administration are indebted to such a degree that they cannot afford this garbage tourism, financially speaking. But since the peasants themselves have been declared ‘garbage population’ by the EU’s agrarian policy, the produce of the land that cannot be directly turned into saleable commodities has also to be declared waste and somehow got rid of.  But this getting rid of is not only causing further ecological damage—due to long-distance transport—it is also very costly.” 141-143

“If one looks only at the process happening today at the local village level in an industrialised society like Germany, one understands only half of the context within which these processes happen. Because what is happening at the village level in Germany is not determined by the village, nor even by the German nation-state or the EU, but is the result of a process of global restructuring of the capitalist world economy. In this global ‘free’ market system the Ricardian principle of comparative advantages is applied. Therefore it is cheaper to import food items from cheap labour countries of the South than to buy them from small farmers in industrialised society. The institutions that today regulate and promote this system of capitalist global trade and investment are the World Bank, IMF, GATT, WTO, regional trade blocs like the EU, NAFTA and APEC, and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

            Hence, if we want to understand what is happening to the commons in industrial society or how they could be reinvented, we have to go to the other side of the globe and examine what is happening to the commons there. Because these two processes are causally linked by global ‘free trade’ though they are apparently separated. They are also separated in the minds of people. But if we want to reinvent the commons we have to realise that the global is in the local and vice versa.” 144

“The structural adjustment programmes have been imposed on Papua New Guinea, as in most other indebted countries of the South, to repay its debt—of 3 billion kina—to the World Bank and other foreign banks…

            What makes the movement here against the neocolonial enclosure of commons so interesting is the clear analysis by the local people of the ‘development’ policy of the World Bank and IMF and the TNCs. The latter want to get access to the communal land of the clans because they want to start oil palm plantations or to search for minerals, or to get access to tropical timber. On the other hand there are the communities who want to hold on to customary communal rights and use of the land, which is the basis not only of their livelihood but also of their culture and language.

            In Papua New Guinea 97 per cent of the land is still traditional commons land. And as Professor Faraclas… writes, not only has each clan its own communal land, but the four million people speak 869 distinct languages which are linked to the clan or tribal land. ‘No indigenous linguistic or ethnic group predominates, either politically or numerically (none makes up more than 7% of the population)’…

            Land, language, culture and community are not separate departments but interwoven in such a way that everybody has access to land:

While 85% of the population live in rural areas and have access to the benefits of this land usage system directly in day to day life, most of the 5% of the population that live in towns and the 10% that live in rapidly growing urban shanty settlements can return at any time to their ancestral areas and use the land. Because of this system, hunger, homelessness and unemployment are unknown, an achievement that should make Ppua New Guinea a much more convincing case and model for true developmental success than other countries which, in the name of development, have reduced their populations to landless, homeless, hungry paupers, desperate to sell their bodies and their work at any price’.

The resistance to ‘land reform’ at the dictate of the World Bank is therefore a struggle not only for control over communal land but also for the preservation of languages, cultures and livelihoods. The government tried to sell the ‘land reform’ to the people as ‘land mobilisation’ or ‘freeing th land’ in the name of modernization and development. The political elite saw a close relationship between its own destiny, the nation-state and development. Thus one commentator in the daily national complained:

Today, as the nation faces a drastic shortage of foreign reserves, land-owners [customary commoners…] are holding up no less than three multimillion kina [local currency] projects… In the end it looks like the landowners [the commoners…] are really the people with power. They give the final green light, a travesty on the meaning of governance. It makes useless the role of the national government. 

What this commentator deplores, namely the impotence of the national government to disempower the local communities, is indeed a sign of the sovereignty of these communities. The communities in Papua New Guinea understand that the modern nation-state and its elected government cannot protect their interests and their livelihood. They hold on to a different concept of democracy, namely people’s or communal democracy, or communal rights, based on common ownership of land, language, culture. Community rights are something the Western concept of sovereignty cannot—or rather can no longer—accommodate. Rights are only rights of the individual or of a nation-state, but not of a village, a tribe, the community of peasants, the community of women, etcetera. So long as resources like land, water and biodiversity remain under the control of communities, private property rights—today promoted by GATT/WTO—and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) clause of the WTO cannot easily be put into practice.

            Therefore it is also clear that Western-style capitalist entrepreneurship cannot develop if the land remains under communal control of the people; nor can the TNCs have access to it. Another commentator writes:

In most areas of the country land is communal property. Such a system makes nonsense of the Western private enterprise concept in that individuals will find it difficult to tie up communal land for the long period of time necessary for a plantation or any other enterprise. The pressures from the community would break up the business in any case.

Financial institutions do not dare to commit money to enterprises on communal land. The local press also makes very that it is the World Bank that is behind the land mobilization or ‘freeing of the land’ policy of the Papua New Guinean government: ‘Being a promoter of free and unhindered success of the free market economy it is only natural that the World Bank should fund this process [of ‘land mobilisation’] as part of its commitment to assisting Papua New Guinea’… These sentences are not meant critically. They show, however, how difficult it will be for the World Bank/IMF and the TNCs to continue capital accumulation if local communities continue to hold on to customary commons and resist privatization and enclosure of commons.” 145-147

“If we compare the above two stories, a number of theoretical issues around commons become clearer. We shall state some of them in the form of brief theses:

  • Capital has to continue the colonial enclosure of other people’s commons if it wants to continue its constant growth or accumulation.
  • The fact that small peasants in Germany can be made ‘rubbish people’ or redundant is causally linked, on the one hand, to their integration into modern, industrial agriculture with heavy external inputs and production for the market, and on the other to imports of raw materials and food items from the cheap labour countries of the colonized South. Thus soya or tapioca for cattle feed exported to Europe from Brazil or Thailand destroys the small farmers’ existence in Europe as well as in these countries.
  • Whereas people in the South can still see the connection between their sustenance or livelihood and their control over their commons, this insight has almost totally vanished in the North.
  • In Europe the enclosure of the commons began in the nineteenth century. Natural resources are mainly either private or state-owned. On the other hand, the people made redundant by this process found alternative livelihoods by migrating to the industrialised cities or to the colonies. As more and more food is imported from the global market into the supermarkets of the North, not only the urban consumers but also rural producers have largely lost the consciousness that their livelihood depends on their relation to the land. They consider money and the market as the sources of their sustenance.
  • This has direct implications for resistance against new enclosure movements by capital. In Papua New Guinea there is still a close link between community and commons which is the basis of people’s power and sovereignty. In the North, even villages are no longer living communities. Their livelihood and sustenance are no longer guaranteed by their control over land or commons; instead they are affected by the global supermarket and, so far still, by some support from the state. This is the reason why there was hardly any resistance in Germany or elsewhere in Europe against the GATT, the elimination of small peasants and the further enclosure of the commons. Moreover, so long as the colonial exploitation of the resources of the South goes on under the stewardship of the World Bank and IM< the WTO and the TNCs, the nation-states in the industrialsed world can still afford to feed the victims of their enclosure politics for some time: the peasants made redundant, the jobless, the landless, the homeless. But as recent statistics show, even in these rich countries the welfare state is crumbling and poverty is mounting rapidly.
  • In this situation it is indeed time to learn from Papua New Guinea, as Faraclas tells us, how to defend what commons we have that still exist, and also how to re-create new ones. This is a question of survival also for people in industrial society in the North.


It is usually assumed that the violent processes of enclosure and colonization of commons, both in the North and the South, belong to the dark, ugly ‘prehistory’ of modernity. Marx saw in them manifestations of the primitive accumulation of capital, which would disappear with scientific progress and with capitalism as a self-reproducing growth machine.

            The fact that we are discussing ‘new commons’ today shows, as we have already pointed out earlier, that this process of primitive accumulation has never ended but is accompanying capitalist accumulation. This, however, points to a problem inherent in this mode of production: it can enclose, colonise and exploit material and non-material commons, but it cannot recreate them. And yet it needs such areas for the ongoing process of accumulation. What is it to do?

            The recent neoliberal phase of globalization oaf the capitalist economy has the aim of opening up ever more areas of the world and ever more dimensions of ongoing primitive accumulation The ‘objects of desire’ in this process are not only land, mineral resources and tropical forests, but also the biodiversity of the tropical countries and indigenous people’s traditional knowledge of plants, animals, sees and processes of regeneration. Globalisation of the economy in combination with biotechnology, particularly gene technology, the new ‘technology of the future’, leads to a new phase of enclosure of commons. Jeremy Rifkin writes about this:

The granting of patents represents the culmination of a five-hundred year movement to enclose the planetary commons that began inauspiciously on the village green in small rural hamlets scattered throughout England and the European continent. Now even the building blocks of life itself have been enclosed, privatized and reduced to a marketable product.” 149-150.

“Reinventing the commons: the subsistence perspective

In our view commons cannot exist without a community, but equally the community cannot exist without economy, in the sense of oikonomia, that is, the reproduction of human beings within the social and the natural household. Hence, reinventing the commons is linked to the reinvention of the communal or commons-linked economy.

            What does such an economy look like? We think that this reinvention of a communal economy has to be a process. To this process belongs the following:

  • the defending and reclaiming of public space. Opposition to further privatization of common resources and spaces, both in the North and the South. In the North reinventing the commons could well start with responsibility for what we have described as ‘negative commons’, for example, waste.
  • regionalisation and localization against the trend towards globalization. This means production, exchange and consumption within the region, so that an ecological regional reproduction takes place. Only in such regions can people form communities and feel responsible for the region.
  • decentralisation
  • reciprocity as against mechanical mass solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, we argue, means only that everybody should have an equal share of the booty from the plunder of the environment. This is usually called social justice. This aspect of the process reflects our critique of the socialist belief in technological progress, which provides an apologia for industry and proletarianization, with the consequence of ecological destruction and women’s subordination.
  • the policy from below instead of the policy from above. This concept means policy as a living process of the people in local communities, including reciprocity. We do not believe in global solutions, nor in the global politics of a new megastate, sometimes referred to as ‘global governance’. These global solutions only serve as a legitimation of a capitalist and imperial power. In the case of women, global politics serve to establish a discourse of all women being equal, so that they can be treated and controlled equally, according to the norm of the white, urban woman of the North under a patriarchal regime. That exactly is the case today and how this discourse functions can be seen very well in global population policy, actin in the way Hardin had envisioned.
  • Manifold ways of realizing a community and a multiplicity of communities.” 163-164