Cogolati and Wouters, The Commons and New Global Governance

Samuel Cogolati and Jan Wouters (eds), The Commons and New Global Governance, Edward Elgar, 2018, xx + 350 pp, 1 78811 850 7, hbk, £110

The conundrum that sets the agenda for this book is the combination of capitalism as a global phenomenon, and human society as a nation state phenomenon: a conundrum even clearer as Britain leaves the European Union and nation states fragment. How, in this context, are the social forces required to control climate change and environmental degradation to balance the onward march of global financialised capitalism? What kind of global institutions might it be possible to create that would be up to the task? Understanding the essential global resources as ‘the commons’ is the editors’ and authors’ response, with the commons here understood as global rather than local shared resources – a ‘common pool resource’ – of which such initiatives as software open source communities are a forerunner. But how are the institutions that will be required to govern the global commons to emerge, and how will they be governed? That is the agenda of this well-researched and interesting volume.

Much of the inspiration for the authors’ attempts to discover feasible methods of governance for common resources stems from Elinor Ostrom’s research, in which she showed that historically and in a local context ‘the tragedy of the commons’ was in practice avoided. Those who exploited such commons as common grazing land achieved sustainability by establishing rules to govern the resource domains on which they depended. People do not act as short-term selfish utility maximisers, but instead are capable of managing the commons for their own and others’ long term benefit. This matters, because it means that it might be possible to develop the institutions required for ensuring that such essential commons as the seas and the atmosphere might be governed in such a way that they can continue to serve future generations, rather than everyone grabbing as much as they can in the short term and thereby destroying them.

The chapters of the book explore what kind of governance the global commons are going to need. The first section struggles with whether a global democracy is possible: a ‘cosmopolitics’; the second part asks about the institutions required, and recognises that arrangements appropriate to local commons cannot be simply transferred to a global level; and the third part asks whether current international law is sufficient to protect the global commons from the kinds of enclosure and commodification that more local commons have often suffered. A concluding chapter asks whether methods that might be developed for governing the global commons might also be appropriate for global governance more generally.

In this volume, ‘universalism’ means universal capitalism and universal human rights. The word is not in fact applied to the global commons, although of course it might have been, as it might have been applied to the governance methods explored in the book, which would have to be universal if they were properly to govern the universal commons. This provides a clue as to how this book might be helpful to those interested in such universal income provision as a national Citizen’s Basic Incomes or a future global Citizen’s Basic Income. At least three connections immediately present themselves. The global commons belong to us all, and should be governed on that basis, so any revenue generated by exploitation of the commons by individuals, states, or corporations, should be equally shared, which means in the form of a Citizen’s Basic Income. Where the commons have been commodified, access to them requires a monetary income, and as the commons belong to all of us, the logic of the situation suggests that a layer of income equivalent to the value of our need to access the commodified commons should be provided equally to everyone. And finally, both a national Citizen’s Basic Income, and eventually a global one, would need to be governed by appropriate institutions: and the institutional wisdom developed in this book would have a lot to offer to those nation state and global actors constructing the required institutions for a Citizen’s Basic Income.

This book is important. The global commons constitute the resources that will be essential to humanity’s future, so how they are to be governed is an essential question. And, as we have seen, the governance methods that the book discusses could end up having a significance well beyond the immediate subject matter of the book.