The Importance of The Commons in a Post-Work World

Bringing it all together

Bringing it all together

While reading through Would a Work-Free World be so Bad by Ilana E. Strauss I was struck by this passage:

American towns and cities aren’t really built for lots of free time: Public spaces tend to be small islands in seas of private property, and there aren’t many places without entry fees where adults can meet new people or come up with ways to entertain one another.

I’ve commented on this article before but wanted to focus more on this particular area because I think it’s interesting to talk about what role common areas might have in a world that has a lot less work in it.

Just for a refresher the sort of work being discussed isn’t defined so much by its inherent effort (whether it’s too much or too little) but rather the social context it falls into. In society today our work lives are largely defined for us by bosses, governments and cultural narratives that we don’t tend to have a lot of bargaining power with.

Arguing with cultural narratives is possibly the easiest because it’s the least physical but ideas such as “workers needs bosses to manage them” are still pervasive and often require a great deal of effort to resist. You might be able to educate a few people and perhaps over time you can do even more but it’s still time consuming and difficult to guess what will exactly appeal to peoples intuitions. And even when you get all of that right, without enough material resources you still might not be able to do anything meaningful.

In any case, in trying to address the undertheorization issue for anti-work that philosopher John Danaher discusses I think it’d be a good idea to talk about what I imagine to be a prominent part of a post-work world: The commons.

First,I briefly want to define what I mean by “the commons”.

It’s probably not too difficult to envision what I mean on an intuitive level. You might imagine parks, public pools, commonly walked trails and so on. More generally they are just areas affect a given community in a notable way, though this opens up bigger questions of how notable does it have to be to count?

If there is a pollution issue within the community does it immediately become an issue of the commons? Or does it just become an issue for the person or particular group of people it affects the most? I won’t spend more time on these issues but thought they were at least worth raising.

In addition, it’s worth separating The Commons from “public” property as Roderick Long does in his essay In Defense of Public Space (and later expanded on in his A Plea for Public Property):

Throughout history, legal doctrine has recognized, alongside property owned by the organized public (that is, the public as organized into a state and represented by government officials), an additional category of property owned by the unorganized public. This was property that the public at large was deemed to have a right of access to, but without any presumption that government would be involved in the matter at all.

This one gets a little more tricky to give examples of but we might see things as a commonly walked along paths by a given community in a forest as something that the community shares in, but the government doesn’t regulate or get itself involved with. The trickiness comes from the fact the government tends to interact in most things we understand as “public” and so it hinders our abilities to imagine present situations where we truly have public spaces.

It seems obvious to me, but if a certain area of land is centrally owned by a particular institution and that institution gets to unilaterally make the rules and regulations, then how “public” a given thing should be questionable. If the community at large can’t make decisions through general consensus and instead it’s decided from the top down, then how much does that community actually control that given area of land?

Part of why a post-work world should be an anarchist one is so we can take back the commons and open them up for bountiful amounts of play, leisure and self-directed / cooperative productivity. Have places where things like curfews, exorbitant fines, rules surrounding personal conduct and so forth would be decided by the people who actually tend to use the spaces themselves, instead of bureaucrats who may never see it in their life, much less interact with it.

The commons have been a historically easily accessible space for the public to gather together and play, think, relax and do many of the things that help them get through their day. Parks are well known for organizations of parties and events and taking them out of the hands of government means that communities could more easily organize and host such events. There’d be less entry costs due to the removal of permits and other barriers to entry that can often make organizing prohibitively expensive for people in the first place.

I think it’s important here to clarify that just because there’d be a reduction in the number of regulations, fees and permits, doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have way to make sure public spaces wouldn’t be well protected and organized (when they need to be organized at all). You could certainly have commonly agreed upon rules of edict that would extend to areas of the commons and just by the nature of smaller and more decentralized organizations based on anarchist ethics, it’s likely that you would see a lot less need for an abundance of rules and regulations about how to interact with common spaces to begin with.

Going back to the original quote I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that public spaces often operate in “seas of private property” given that private property (such as cafes) are often used in a similar way to public spaces. To be fair, if the owners of the private property have certain norms or rules around their property that are restrictive then that’s another story. But I don’t actually think private property is inherently restrictive to the notion of having public property.

I suppose, as an anarchist, that that’s a contentious point but I’m not interested in arguing about the legitimacy or lack thereof when it comes to private property. Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong about that it occurs to me that public property is and has always been an important to people living their lives outside the confines of work.

I see no reason why we shouldn’t expand that as we move forwards.


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