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The Drama of the Commons
ings about common property endowed their object of study with an antiquated flavor. Portrayals of the most famous example, the English Commons and their enclosures (Ault, 1952; Baker and Butlin, 1973; Thirsk, 1966; Yelling, 1977), suggested, if only by implication, that common property is a curious holdover from the past that was destined to disappear in the face of trends toward modernization.1 To many observers, placing common property in the historical past seemed so obvious as to be natural.
The most sustained theoretical engagement with community and communal forms of life, occurring as it did toward the end of the nineteenth century, gave further credence to the idea that the disappearance of norms of community and forms of communal life is an integral if perhaps regrettable part of progress. Theorists of the time, among them Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Ferdinand Tonnies, and Max Weber, wrote about the effects of industrialization on existing social arrangements, and gave theoretical expression to their observations. The dire tone many of them adopted as they theorized their concerns about the future of community came to constitute further evidence confirming an implicitly teleological theory of social change where communities and communal arrangements that governed social interactions inevitably would disappear over time.2
Similarly, the ethnographic work of many anthropologists sometimes described cooperative arrangements for managing rural resources, or resources owned by indigenous peoples. It implicitly implied that such arrangements lay outside modern life. If historical studies of community located common property in the past, contemporary work by anthropologists located the commons in nonmodern, nonwestern societies. Undoubtedly, sophisticated ethnographic analysis has contributed immensely to the current state of our knowledge about how common property institutions work. But it has also hinted despite itself, simply by virtue of its subject matter, that common property may be no more than the institutional debris of societal arrangements that somehow fall outside modernity.3
Therefore, it would be fair to say that for much of the twentieth century, the dominant theoretical lenses that have framed how social scientists view peasants and rural life have helped distort analytical vision so as to impart to community and communal forms of sociality only residual vigor, a transitional existence, and an exotic attraction. Economic and political power have been seen to rest on an urban-industrial social organization and the simultaneous eclipse of rural life. It should scarcely surprise that those writing about postcolonial states found them undertaking policies that would undermine rural communities by promoting fast-paced development and rapid urbanization (Bates, 1981). The effects of emerging and spreading market relations similarly were seen to assist the vast movement of history by promoting the pursuit of individual self-interest or contractual obligations, and destroying community ethic and customary rules.4