Social Charters: A comprehensive program for (re)claiming sovereignty over our natural and social commons resources

Social Charters:  Praxis of the Commons

By James Bernard Quilligan, Commons Economist & Advocate                

Beyond the Market State

There are two operating systems involved in the provision and allocation of goods and services in modern society. Each has familiar roots in history. Adam Smith’s legacy is that the self-interest of individual producers and consumers competing through the market automatically maximizes their welfare and that of everyone else. The legacy of Thomas Hobbes is that the self-interest of individuals who maximize their own welfare inevitably leads to social chaos and conflict, requiring state authority and the legal use of coercion. Since the Industrial Revolution, these seemingly divergent philosophies have fused into a single center of authority — the Market State — with the market responsible for economic productivity and the state for social control. Unlike decentralized systems which lead to disorder, inefficiency and waste, this monocentric order is said to optimize efficiency through centralization and the division of labor. Yet there is much evidence to the contrary. Modern markets and sovereign states are highly inefficient in providing and allocating resources simultaneously at different levels of human need and demand. By suppressing cross-scale linkages of common goods and profiting from mismatches in scale, the world’s hierarchical distribution structures prevent individuals from sustaining long-term productive use of their own resources.

The Market State cannot effectively provide goods and services to meet the needs of people for two reasons. First, through its bureaucratic rules and institutions, the Market State separates resource producers and providers from resource users, resulting in a division between individuals and groups which produce goods and services and those who consume them. When goods and services are not produced and consumed by the same people, they degenerate into meaningless commodities with negligible value. Second, by focusing mainly on aggregate data in their decisions on resources, modern markets and public administration exclude the intrinsic value of human and ecological well-being. When the primary source of human meaning is mediated by prices, commodities and private property, individuals are cut off from the natural wealth of their local/regional ecosystems and global commons; the social wealth of families, voluntary associations and communities; and the ideas, beliefs and cultural practices of others.


Presently, the market creates value by enclosing a common area with fences or borders (to extract its resources for production and deposit the ensuing waste), while the state defends this privatized property through its monopoly powers of enforcement. Yet there are a variety of institutional domains that foster and maintain collective resources outside of this framework. Many alternative systems have developed parallel sets of norms and rules to oversee their commons sustainably, preserving the autonomy and freedom of individual choice and generating higher efficiency than can be gained through distributive enterprises operated as private monopolies or state hierarchies. These resource communities incorporate the underlying principles of the Market State — the spontaneous, self-regulating social order of markets and the rule-based systems of state enforcement — yet go beyond them by rejecting privatization, centralization and the idea that institutional change can come only from the top of a social hierarchy. People in traditional communities generate resilient and effective resource management based on local ideas, learning, imagination and deliberation. Emerging commons such as the internet demonstrate similar properties of shared administration and value creation through social innovation and open designs. Such centers of decision-making, focused on the choices of individuals and the institutional context of those choices through dialogue and negotiation, enable individuals in diverse communities to discern their common interests for self-corrective action. Hence, the institutional structures of the commons — formally independent of each other yet guided according to social rules — create a new level of production and governance beyond the modern division of labor.

The key is involving resource users in the process of production. This should be self-evident, since users are often the first to recognize problems and identify solutions in the allocation and provision of common goods. Praxis is the process by which a theory or skill is enacted or realized. In contrast to the Market State’s model of the ‘delivery’ of goods and services to a passive public, when consumers are co-producers of the goods and services they receive and organize, their practical and applied knowledge is embodied directly in their commoning. As co-producers, the motivations, knowledge and skills of resource users become part of the production praxis, leading to new ways of interacting and coordinating social and economic life. By enhancing the effectiveness of resource provision and allocation and the creation of value, these new forms of co-production have the potential of transforming much of the present system of economic, political and social decision-making. This praxis of the commons — the participative and power-sharing forms of organization among resource users and producers/providers — isn’t really new. It’s the ancient but much-neglected foundation of community.


When resources are mismanaged, the development of covenants and institutions by consumer-producers is a critical step in protecting and sustaining them. A social charter is a formal declaration which outlines the rights and incentives of a community — involving both local jurisdictions and the multijurisdictional environment — in the supervision and protection of a common resource. The charter describes patterns of relationships between the resource and its users, managers and producers, allowing them all an opportunity to voice the mutual interests and responsibilities emerging from their rights to these common goods. The social charter empowers a geographical group and a broader association of stakeholders to hold a commons in trust for its beneficiaries, thereby safeguarding these vulnerable resources from the growing pressure to exploit them. This ensures that marginalized groups have access to common goods and that the benefits arising from their use are distributed in a fair and socially cooperative manner for present and future generations. Effective maintenance and preservation of a particular commons is thus generated through the collective action of citizens, customary representatives, social networks, academics, scientists, bilateral donors, development partners, regional organizers, intergovernmental organizations, independent media and other stakeholders — with limited input from government and the private sector.

By encouraging a range of self-organizing capacities, social charters give substantial discretion to individuals in designing effective institutions matched to the local, regional and global scales of vital goods and services. This enables a diversity of individuals and officials to make rule-based adjustments for the stewardship of their commons through multiple centers of power and decision-making. Social charters have been developed for forests, pastures, irrigation systems, water, fisheries, internet, knowledge, genetic resources, public health, energy, landscapes, historic sites and other domains. Examples of commons-based social charters include WANA (West Asia-North Africa) Forum, Charter of the Culture Forum of Barcelona for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge, Praja Foundation, Pacific Youth Charter, People’s Charter for Health, and the Sky Charter proposed by State of the World Forum. Resource communities like these express the values of democracy, equity and justice by managing their commons as directly and locally as possible. Through their transparent decision-making and decentralized control, these social chartered initiatives generate an entirely new context for collective action.

Rights of the Commons

Social charters are based on commons rights. Commons rights differ from human rights and civil rights because they arise, not through the legislation of a state, but through a customary or emerging identification with an ecology, a cultural resource area, a social need or a form of mutual labor. By expressing the rationale behind a group’s collective actions and the importance of understanding who shares what, how it is shared, and how it may be sustained for future generations and species, commons rights affirm the sovereignty of human beings over their means of sustenance and well-being. Instead of seeking individual and human rights from the State, people now claim long-term authority over resources, governance and social value as their planetary birthrights, whether at a local or global level. As an initiative of citizens and officials for governing the use and disposition of resources, those who create a social charter thus ensure that administrative power is decentralized in order to maintain community access to — and sovereignty over — their own commons.

Galvanized by the increasing awareness of commons rights across the world, governments will ultimately give as much attention and support to the local institutions of the commons as they currently extend to private companies. Through the assertion of people’s inherent rights to their common goods and the creation of their own formal declarations and institutions, the role of the state will become much more balanced between enabling the people of the commons and enabling corporations. After all, commons and businesses are the world’s two primary sources of value creation. Instead of regulating commerce and finance in the public interest (while also regulating the commons for the benefit of commerce and finance), a new responsibility of the state will be to recognize people’s locally developed rules for a commons by confirming and upholding their social charters. This allows resource communities to enforce their own rules and coordinate their sources of sustenance, livelihood and collective wealth without being challenged by external authorities.

To Create a Social Charter

With the growing interconnectivity of people, goods, technology and institutions, a new approach is needed for a new world. Instead of the unitary decision-making, monitoring and enforcement of the Market State, social charters focus the praxis of a commons upon the characteristics of goods and services and the freedom of choice of resource users in production and governance. This expression of autonomy, intentionality and intelligence around the shared values of collective production and consumption represents a new ontology of social order. When people discover or invent a commons, their self-interest aligns with collective interests and relationships, and their personal engagement and independence are distributed throughout the social network. The framework of a social charter operationalizes these emerging interests and practices, generating higher efficiency, more secure livelihoods, and greater personal and social meaning than enterprises which presume that individuals must be supervised through the command structures and exclusionary boundaries of private and state property. Since every commons varies by its specific resources, history, means of governance and production, and the social and cultural character of the community which uses or produces these common goods, there is no universal template for social charters. But a practical baseline is emerging. A social charter for a particular commons would include:

1. Vision and Mission Statement

2.  Historical Claims

•   a description of the existing users, boundaries, power and control of a commons

•   a summary of traditional or emerging claims to legitimacy and responsibility for   preserving the common resource

•   a notice of claims to reparations or re-territorialization of resource boundaries


3.  Rights to Fair Access and Use

•   a declaration of the users’ rights to organize and participate in the development of new institutions and rules

•   a statement of the entitlements and responsibilities of users, managers, and producers of the commons

•   a statement of equitably shared benefits, quality standards and safeguards

•   a code of ethics and common values


4. Resource Management

•   a quantifiable set of non-monetized metrics for measuring the common resource

•   a means of matching the rules of provision and appropriation to local conditions

•   a framework for democratic and transparent decision-making and participation

•   a structure of accountability for conflict resolution and redress of grievances

•   a process of monitoring and evaluation

Note:  Social Charters can serve as framework for by-laws incorporation in a legal trust entity.  Social Charters developed in a deliberative process of stakeholders are the first major step in reclaiming sovereignty which can be legally recognized in a Commons Trust.  For more information on Commons Trusts, see Global Commons Trust website below.

 James Bernard Quilligan, commons advocate and economist, has been an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975. He has served as policy advisor and writer for many international politicians and leaders, including Pierre Trudeau, François Mitterand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Lopez Portillo, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and Prince El Hassan Bin Talal.

He has been an economic consultant for government agencies in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Tanzania, Kuwait, India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada,
the United States. He has also served as an advisor for several United Nations programs and international development organizations, and has articles in numerous national and international publications under his own name and serving as ghost writer.  Quilligan is the Founder and Director of Global Commons Trust.

Want to learn more? Global Commons Trust provides information and support for creating social charters and commons trusts:

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Categories: Commons, Direct Democracy, Economics, Identity & Strategy, Thinking Together, Uncategorized


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