Thursday, April 25, 2019

Against Ecological and Information Enclosures : Towards a Convergence of “Commons”


Project Proposition

Through inter-related processes of imperialism, colonialism and privatisation, an unevenly felt but universally-prevalent violent system of enclosure has been destroying collective practices and shared systems of meaning in communities around the world. Two common forms of enclosure involve ecological and knowledge practices. On the one hand, between the years 1750-1900, and starting with processes such as the enclosure of agricultural and pasture lands and the dispossession of the peasantry in England itself, most of the world’s most arable land was appropriated and exploited by colonial enterprise, a process which continues today through national policies, structural adjustment programmes, multilateral finance and development projects, and so-called “natural resource” exploitation. On the other hand, in more recent times intellectual property rights regimes have been – and continue to be – exercised to prohibit the manufacturing of generic drugs for HIV-infected Africans, to sue farmers for “theft” of genetically engineered (GE) seeds that have blown onto their land, and to control knowledge dissemination on the Internet.

This project draws on the idea of “the commons” to bring these political struggles against ecological and knowledge enclosures together, towards learning from each other and towards mutual solidarity and therefore, hopefully, greater strength. By virtue of their somewhat similar challenges to private property rights and the rules of property entitlement governed by nation states and the international market economy; by virtue of shared struggles for freedom; and by virtue of shared principles of collective ownership, we believe that the time has come to think through and act on this “commons” project. But we also suggest that if we fail to grasp the commonality between methods of enclosure globally, with their interlocking power structures and ideologies, all of us who are interested in a more open and just world – from individual crusaders to social justice movements – become far more limited in our capacity for bringing about change.Proposed Themes for discussion

  • Uneven impacts of enclosure
  • Common property systems under threat
  • Migration and Place
  • Piracy versus Intellectual Property
  • Property rights as poverty eradication
  • Histories of dispossession, displacement, memory, and return
  • Food sovereignty
  • Gender, race, and caste in political commons
  • The relevance of the “commons”
  • Common property versus commons
  • The Internet Revolution?
  • Histories and intersections of intellectual property and land struggles

Shiri Pasternak, in New Delhi, Nov 3 2007, in discussion with Jai Sen and Madhuresh Kumar, CACIM

Participants at the December 13 2007 Consultation

  1. Ashok Agrwaal, Lawyer, New Delhi
  2. Niyam Bhushan, Freeware practitioner and designer, New Delhi
  3. Shalini Bhutani, GRAIN, Delhi
  4. Bijulal M V, ISI – Indian Social Institute, New Delhi
  5. Avinash Jha, Librarian, CSDS – Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi
  6. Adil Hasan Khan, IELRC – International Environmental Law Research Centre, New Delhi
  7. Kanchi Kohli, Kalpavriksh, Delhi
  8. Benny Kuruvilla, Focus on the Global South, New Delhi
  9. Vinay Lal, Director, Education Abroad Program, University of California, presently based in New Delhi
  10. Raj Mathur, President ILUGD, Delhi
  11. Gora Mohanty, Astrophysicist, working mainly on the localisation of free/open source computer interfaces to Indian languages, based at Sarai, CSDS; and member, Indian Linux User’s Group, Delhi
  12. Nishant, Delhi-based journalist who dabbles in literature, politics, history, films, radio, publishing, and web journalism
  13. C K Raju, Distinguished Professor & Director (Academic), Inmantec, & Editorial Fellow, Centre for Studies in Civilizations, New Delhi
  14. Suvrat Raju, Doctoral candidate, Harvard University, USA
  15. Himanshu Upadhyaya, Intercultural Resources, New Delhi
  16. Shiri Pasternak, Food sovereignty activist and PhD Candidate, University of Toronto, Canada
  17. Madhuresh Kumar, Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan, and Jai Sen, CACIM, New Delhi


Jai Sen of CACIM started the meeting with a welcome to everyone and introduced Shiri Pasternak to the meeting. He explained that this meeting was organised :

  • To create a space for Shiri to meet people in this part of the world and also expose her to the idea of Commons in this side and who are looking at things in different ways.
  • To explore structural political concepts of ‘commons’ and how the different forms of commons converge at different places.
  • To organise a political meeting of minds to critically engage with each other and reflect on the issues with which all of us are engaging in respective fields.

Shiri Pasternak started with a brief presentation of her ideas on Commons and Enclosures. She said that she is looking at the question of enclosures because it helps her understand and address the questions of the commons. She discussed the relationship between private properties, privatisation, pooling of resources, and commons movements in Canada. She defined enclosures and drew a relation between enclosures of land and of information. She said enclosures in Marxist terms stand for furthering capitalist expansion, the stopping of sharing and preventing access to land by way as a consequence of accumulation in the hands of a few. It forces the majority of people into wage labour, separates them from their source of livelihood, and makes them part of the market economy. Understanding this helps us understand the commons. She added that the process of enclosure is vital for understanding the idea of a commons, and that in order to defend the commons we have to talk about enclosures.

She added that one needs to use the language to talk of information and place-based commons as an entry point to this discussion. She also made these points.

  1. The explosion of finance capital : Today, 232 trillion dollar finance capital is in circulation. The speed with which it is gaining prominence is a reflection of the fact that it is spawning new forms of control every day.
  2. Intellectual property is the new form of social control where monopoly and enclosures of property is established through slow and steady processes.
  3. The cooptation of the commons by the governments, professionals, architects, etc is happening everywhere. For example, Microsoft is today as concerned about open source as is the open source community. So if we don’t look at the question of social control, there is nothing very radical about open source.
  4. The colonisation and appropriation of information and land is happening unabatedly on a huge scale the world over.

She argued that convergence is necessary – but asked how can one get to achieving convergence in a decentralised way ?

She emphasised that property relations across the world are a way of understanding social relations in societies and their language of rights, and that perceiving and comprehending different concepts of rights is important for understanding notions of commons and the struggle for convergence.

Finally, she emphasised that there are different kinds of projects on the commons across the world, and that she is looking ahead to and expecting convergence between many of these initiatives in the future.


The presentation was followed by a rich discussion on the varying definitions of the commons.

Raj Mathur of ILUGD urged that we don’t use the term ‘intellectual property’ because there are so many – five – different laws that apply, and because using the term implies that it is divisible – which is not true of the information commons.

Shalini Bhutani of GRAIN started the discussion by saying that it is possible that high-level discussions might have no relevance to what is happening on the ground. She went on to say that the idea of the commons has different meanings in different cultural contexts. For example, in Latin America there is no concept of the commons – this is an English idea / applies only to areas colonised by the British). The meaning there is therefore very different from the very specific meaning we have in the South Asian and Indian context.

Ashok Agrwaal questioned this suggestion – that the idea of the commons is only an Anglo-Saxon? system. He asked in what ways the idea of commons is different in different cultures, and argued that the language of commons existed in all cultures and that it is not linked with British legislative history.

Vinay Lal chipped in by adding that there were differences in ideas of universals and particulars; one person’s commons is another person’s particular. He argued that there also existed a shared notion of commons in Latin America – but from the colonisers’ perspective however, since Latin American cultures didn’t have a conception of writing, the colonisers said that the commons did not exist. In other words, the indigenous peoples’ conceptions of commons are different from that of those who had a written culture. He also referred to his book The Future of Knowledge and Culture.

Ashok replied by saying that the concept of commons exists in every group of people but their particular notion might vary. As far as he knows, there are different words or expressions that exist in all different languages and cultures for it.

Vinay added that although at a colloquial level the commons is the same everywhere, there are important differences. He suggested that one might argue that even common sense is not common – because there are different shades to this.

Shalini tried to explain that by arguing for the “commons” does not mean to fight for one way of doing things. It is not about perpetrating more monocultures but about sharing. For her the struggles to defend the commons are like wet clay. There is enough and more diversity of approaches that needs to be factored in while the debate is being moulded. The idea is not to suggest harmonisation or homogenisation; but to keep those diversities alive. This is also linked with respecting what different cultures and contexts have to offer. A voice for “commons” need not mean we all have to act in one common way!

Jai intervened by adding that what we are trying to say is that the idea that there are things that are common – and not that there is a singular common – is true in all cultures. But there are differences, so we need to become aware of differences and of particular usages; and to recognise that even the commons has boundaries. The commons is not a matter of semantics; and the understanding that comes from different legislations might well not be so common.

Ashok added that the idea of a commons goes with that of enclosures; he cannot imagine one without the other. The binary shapes the debate. He argued that the origin of commons is not only to be seen in the English legislature – and even though there is an interchangeability of the terms ‘commons’ and ‘enclosures’ used in different contexts.

Shalini added to her point by emphasising that there are certain concepts that are culturally specific and comes from certain particular experience. For instance, there is no word in many Indian languages for the term patent. Equally, the commons everywhere has particular rules for inclusion and exclusion.

Adil Hasan Khan of IELRC (International Environmental Law Research Centre) argued that the terms commons and enclosure are not opposite or binary; they are different ideas and reflect particularities.

Ashok rejoined by saying that the issue is therefore not about either commons or enclosures but about the balance between them; that the notion of private property did exist in tribal societies as well and the idea and the talk of balance was there too, when they talked about the commons.

Avinash Jha of CSDS (Centre for Study of Developing Societies) pointed out that what was being said that our imagination of the commons should be more caring and careful.

Shiri at this point reminded everyone that there are many ways to define commons and sharing – and that even more important that defining the commons was to define enclosures

Himanshu Upadhyaya of Intercultural Resources mentioned a slogan he had heard : Gaon ka pani gaon mein samaye … sookha hamen yahi sikhaye – a slogan in Hindi about water harvesting. But he argued that there is a problem in the way in which this slogan problematises the reality of rain as being decentralised… then why cannot our ways of using the rain also be decentralised ?

Jai said that we are talking about two distinctly different uses of the term enclosure – one that is legal (as in the Anglo-Saxon? system, that we have inherited through colonialism) and popular / colloquial usage, reflecting what people / communities practice. The first is necessarily very cultural specific.

He went on to say he had a spanner to throw in the works : That what is ‘common’ is also, in some societies, segmented and exclusionary – such as caste. So we also need to rethink what ‘common’ means.

Vinay came in again at this point with a caution – that to talk of commons and enclosures solely in the context of property is reductionist. He cited the example of E P Thompson and his notion of a moral commons. He argued that the idea of private property can easily co-exist with that of the moral economy, and that if the notion of a commons is ‘universal’, it is also culturally and geographically specific and is therefore far too limited. He asked : “What does it mean to sell 200 km of a river ? Is the Ganga a part of the cultural inheritance of every Indian ? Or not ?”.

Gora Mohanty of ILUGD then added that we all are talking about the commons in sense of tangible things and of limited resources – where they (the Linux Users Group) come from, it is always in terms of an unlimited domain – of ideas and the sharing of ideas. “If we share an idea, we do not lose anything.” He pointed out how our whole language is a function of being used to scarcity. But we are now in a new situation, and the genie is out of the bottle : Ideas are in abundance and hence free sharing is the basis for fighting IPRs in seeds. So the problem is turned on its head !

Tea break

Picking up the discussion post tea, Shiri pointed that how servers controlled by radical groups are different from msn or yahoo commons, and cited examples of decentralised forms of anti-privatisation struggles against the World Bank and IMF and the ways in which they have explored how open source software works. Property is only a way of talking.

Himanshu argued for circulation of articulations and asked can we go beyond copyleft, right, and centre and talk of just circulation, which is much more important.

Niyam Bhushan said communication and expression are two different things, one should not confuse the two. Sanskrit has four voices. Understanding the word as ‘noun’ is a mistake and the thing is to understanding everything as a verb. The problems in the software world are that it is moving from noun to verb. Everything is a phenomenon; it’s not just a noun. When we start thinking of the world as a verb, then the whole worldview changes. He urged the group to see the world through that and then the meanings of the words changes.

Bijulal – introducing himself as someone coming from a village in Kerala and as a second-generation learner – asked what the use is of the kind of knowledge we are sharing at this workshop ? He said that in a way he felt the discussion was very open, but also that we were trying to enclose ourselves. How can these energies be translated to ordinary people ?

Kanchi Kohli of Kalpavriksh, saying that she was trying to grasp what we are talking about, argued that the concept of commons has so far always been determined by power dynamics. Often, even while talking of creating a commons, we are creating an enclosure – and some people are waiting for this to happen. Similarly, the concept of commons has a danger of falling in line with privatisation lobby. So, she has a problem with the language of commons because she would be worried if we were to put all the biodiversity pool into a commons because that would then become an opportunity for private parties to monopolise it. Simply to say ‘commons’ does not come easily to her.

C K Raju at this point asked whether in talking about commons, are we in reality legitimising private property ? We should be aware of danger of appropriation of common knowledge in this argument.

He also raised the question of history, and where the appropriation of Arabic and Indian knowledge by the Romans and Greeks and made Greek. History is a source of power; we need to talk about the commons in history. That is where a lot of struggles have happened and are continuing to happen.

Raj (Mathur) questioned this – asking how this matters.

CK Raju rejoined by saying that you are all talking about the interpretation of knowledge; I am talking about ownership. He explained how the West appropriated the knowledge of calculus and how different forms of ownership and appropriation of knowledge have had their impact. For example, indigenous communities in Lakshwadeep lost their navigation techniques and now depend on the compass instead of the ropes they earlier used and that were far more flexible and sensitive.

Ashok argued that it matters because people appropriate knowledge and then say that those appropriated from have no knowledge and therefore no future.

Raj argued that you cannot appropriate knowledge. He felt that the appropriation of histories and cultures should be read with caution because as far as knowledge is concerned, he felt that it can’t be taken away – only its practice can. So the struggle has to be against hegemony, not the appropriation of knowledge.

Ashok argued that definitions themselves appropriate knowledge – and take away.

Kanchi said that if people cannot use their knowledge, then it dies.

Avinash felt that the idea of convergence is problematic. Ecological knowledge is not only physical – it is also ecological ! So there is a problem with the idea of convergence, because ecological and information commons are not placed equally. We need to attempt a dialogue on what the principles for convergence should be.

Shalini said she was very excited by the idea and possibilities of convergence – the idea of commons at the physical level and of freedom at the informational level. Many cultures are insulted by the idea of their knowledge being taken voer – so talking about physical place and knowledge place is vital.

Niyam added that it is not only about knowledge but also about knowing. And that this convergence is going to change the world.

Gora agreed. He said that the point is to make knowledge that people can more easily appropriate it. Some people say that this is unaffordable, but it has been shown to be possible.

Avinash felt that the effort should not be given up – and must be towards opening dialogue. The question though is whether what applies to software necessarily applies to other areas. So there may in fact be a triple convergence – which will be complex.

Himanshu further added to the debate by asking : “Is sharing an imperative ? Who has the power to share ? You share only when you have the power to share. And maybe that’s why West can talk about it.” He extended this further by asking : “Do you also share your errors ? What happens to those people who have not resolved the question of having land ? Do we, and can we, also share poverty and disability in a context of social injustice ?”.

Madhuresh Kumar of CACIM felt that this is a question of ethics.


Since this was a first meeting among participants who had deliberately been chosen from different disciplines and streams of thought, it is not surprising that much of the discussion was exploratory in nature. But what was significant was that everyone present felt very enthused about the discussion and it was suggested and commonly agreed that the conversation needs to be carried further.

Madhuresh of CACIM suggested that we could continue the conversation by organising presentations of each other’s work in this area rather than CACIM trying alone to organise the follow-up process. The proposal was agreed to and the meeting ended with an offer by Shalini Bhutani to lead the next session and the agreement by all to meet again soon. CACIM agreed to play the role of taking steps necessary to follow this meeting.

This draft prepared by Madhuresh Kumar, CACIM, with comments by Jai Sen, CACIM, February 8 2008