Life is pretty good here in the Volunteer State. As an East Tennessean I am particularly fond of the great Smoky Mountains, my scruffy little city of Knoxville, the University of Tennessee and surrounding colleges, a multitude of markets (including a rising craft beer scene) and an array of state parks. Just the other weekend my family and I, accompanied by some close friends, made our way out to Frozen Head State Park. Here, on a rather cool August afternoon, we built camp under Hemlock, Oak and Poplar, cooked over embers, played in the cool, trickling waters of Flat Fork and enjoyed our child’s laughter on his first overnight adventure in the Cumberland forest.
I live for these moments. Simple, quick escapes into the wild. It is a good break from the trials of the week. As an instructor of Natural and Behavioral Science at a local community college, it is nice to run into nature, sit, breathe and enjoy her complexity. It recharges me for the classroom and helps me give my best. In the halls of the academy I work to cultivate the interests of students, to teach them science, describe what we know about how the world operates, to note the mysteries that still need to be solved and to instill a sense of wonder regarding the natural environment. Science is much more than methodology, it is a way to understand our place in the cosmos and thus the human condition.
State parks and the halls of higher education are just two examples of spaces that mean a lot to me and many other Tennesseans. Whether it is the solace of the park or the curiosity of the classroom, these institutions reflect a human desire to explore, labor, leisure, wonder and create.
With this in mind, I am rather disturbed by a Request for Proposals (RFP) posted on August 11 to the Tennessee Department of General Services website. In a cost saving effort, the executive branch of Tennessee’s government is looking to outsource management of public institutions (including parks, campgrounds, research facilities, colleges, classrooms, prisons and National Guard armories) to the business sector. The RFP asked for private contractors to “provide a short narrative” regarding their expertise, qualifications, job timelines, service level agreements and geographic vendor presence. I am equally disturbed that these conversations with private vendors have been going on for months with no public discussion of just how it would change the nature of these public goods — including how a new for-profit model might impact labor and admission to facilities.
Of course, the RFP should not be surprising. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is just following modern conservative doctrine. Of course the alternative, modern liberal doctrine, isn’t desirable either. As far as the conservative is concerned, cutting spending and selling public lands and institutions to the highest bidder is sound economics. The plan is applauded by the political right as a benefit to taxpayers with little or no reflection on the detriment done to public goods. On the other side of the aisle, Tennessee Democrats and the operating union UCW-CWA (which, full disclosure, I am a member of) are rallying on behalf of public workers. The idea is, the stronger the public sector, the better off is Tennessee labor. The Haslam plan is berated by the political left who have little or no understanding of the destructive nature of the state and its maintenance of public goods. What the state gives it can easily take away.
In viewing governance as such a black and white concept we lose the very concept of democracy. The false duality that says public goods can only be managed by either the state or private business fails to recognize that both approaches are authoritarian and overlook liberty as a praxis. We forget about the ability of “we” the public to run and manage our own affairs. We completely overlook the commons. Yet, common lands, institutions, and resources, coupled with our (freed) markets, build the public arena. It is in this arena that debate, consensus and adaptation, if empowered, can mold real governance. Conservatism and modern liberalism both deny the public their right to the commons. The commons are lost, as the state and allied business interests control the public arena. This is true everywhere, not just in Tennessee.
I write this article in defense of the overlooked common sector. The common sector is all but forgotten in our contemporary political discourse. Equally forgotten is common property. Common property is land or space in which all members of a given community hold equal rights over said territory — power is equally distributed. There is no coercive body delegating property management or use, as in state territory, nor is there exclusive ownership given to an anointed individual or privileged group, as with private property. Common property is liberated from enclosure movements — the cultural, social, economic and natural resources remain accessible to and managed by all stakeholders. This is not to say there is no governance of these resources. To the contrary, a highly ordered, decentralized, adaptive governance applies to common property. The people govern collectively.
Lucky for us, commons governance is slowly making a comeback. There are many examples of commons methodology. One poignant example is adaptive management of natural resources. Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) is an increasingly popular method of conflict resolution developed to resolve complex problems requiring collective action. ACM implores science, considers politics and fosters discussion between competing interests to build mutualistic approaches to conflict resolution.
Take the work of famed Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, an economist and political scientist, challenged the idea that centralized authority, be it through government regulation or private property ownership, was necessary to successfully manage natural resources. In her landmark book, Governing the Commons, she demonstrated, under classical libertarian conditions (power equally distributed among individuals), that common property can be successfully managed by organized community members and user associations. Her life of research sheds light on commons governance and alternative social organization. She is not alone: “Ostromites,” as they are lovingly called, are everywhere. Even in government institutions, commons practitioners are decentralizing authority every bit they can.
For an earlier example, consider Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921). Kropotkin was a Russian prince, but is famous for his anarchism and discussions of evolutionary biology. It is Kropotkin who advanced the understanding of mutualistic relationships in the natural world. From his work, and others after him, we see the world as a place of competition, but also of incredible cooperation. Kropotkin’s work and those who’ve built on it has had a profound impact on how I view natural systems and our own capabilities as a species.
The common sector revisits the idea of (small d) democracy. Imagine a world where individuals, neighborhoods, a communities, cities, localities, etc. are interested and engaged in the affairs around them. The common sector presents the idea that there is no need to look to vertical power structures (such as the state or the business class) to make decisions, but that we can look horizontally to one another to make decisions. This is our right to the commons. It is the liberty of the individual to cultivate his neighborhood, community, city, region and so on. The commons are a market, freed of the restrictions of the state and capital, in action.
Such an ethic of governance allows competition of ideas between institutions, so that we may labor to maximize our potential and interests. Individuals discover their place in the community, and are empowered to labor free of capital, market or state restrictions.
As far as access to institutions goes, at the societal level, it is my belief that education, wild lands (via parks), health care and other services will be so sought after, that the models that govern them will change. I will use academia as an example.
Education is one of the greatest undertakings of our society. Learning is a life long pursuit and an endless adventure. Education provides the instruction and tools necessary for people to reach their maximum potential during this pursuit. Education is much more than teaching to a test or preparing individuals for the workforce — it is paramount to the cultivation of society. Education works to enhance the natural capacities of individuals by developing their innate need for intellectual growth. The old motto still rings true: “Learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but instead respond in different ways to the stream of knowledge and its current.”
When benefits such as these transcend the community, the community may find the institutions that provide them so critical to the social order that they will be removed from the cash nexus. “Public” institutions would truly be public, a common regime. Private institutions, specialty institutions, under a new business model, free of the state, could compete in an open market, and this competition would drive down cost to the benefit of all individuals.
Commons governance is rebel governance. Liberty is no enemy of human labor. Individual and common interests will thrive alongside one another under liberty. Our enemy is the state, its allies and the calculated enclosure of our commons.