ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reinventing the Commons

The article makes a case for the reinvention of the commons in the social sciences. The individual treatment of rights reduces the collective to a mass of persons. Instead the commons acknowledges the inviolate place of humans as part of the cosmos. The marginal and dissenting imagination must invoke the poetry of nature as it engages the current politics and economics. The commons, in its diversity, seeks wisdom through a dialogue of knowledges, moving beyond traditional “publics,” and “time.”


Social science, of late, has become a tame, domesticated exercise, an extension of state policy, a legitimiser of current knowledge systems. Even as “-isms,” whether feminist, Marxist or liberal, it produces the predictable and the routine. As politics, one faces a redundancy of concepts which offer little and promises less. Contemporary social science needs to recover the magic of its concepts, a sense of polysemy that granted a long tumultuous career to each word as world. In this sense, words like rights, class, revolution have lost a halo, a promise of enabling critique, while official words like development have acquired the status of a brand. The idea of the nation state summons one to duty, unlike nationalism which had a liberating effervescence several decades ago. The time has come to revive, reread, or reinvent our concepts so that they become more critical and life-giving. The ideas of the future, of alternatives, of plurality or dialogue need to be revalourised. Social science has to go beyond current imaginations and categories to locate imaginaries, which offer new horizons of thought and new dreams of alternatives. One concept with such a possibility is the idea of the commons.

The commons as a concept and a lifeworld emerged as a multiple but overlapping imagination in different fields. In economic history, it faced the ruthless consequence of the Industrial Revolution as it confronted the “Enclosure” as well as the “Panopticon.” In ecology it reappeared as part nostalgia, part utopia as it became a model of refuge for the vulnerable. In political theory it provided a foil to the individualistic world of rights, creating a different politics out of the worlds of access rather than the certainties of entitlement. In folklore it created a new imagination as a poor man’s version of paradise beyond Davos. However, its focus in the social sciences has got more empiricist and confined to a limited taxonomy. It is no longer a metaphor or dream of an alternative world, but a defeated form of knowledge, despite Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) attempt to give it a textbook immortality in economics. However, there is no collective dream of reviving and extending the idea of the commons to other domains.

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Updated On : 21st Feb, 2021
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