Savagery, Civilization, and Property: Theories of Societal Evolution and Commons Theory

David B. Schorr


This article argues that modern commons theory has been substantially shaped by early modern ways of thinking about the evolution of civilizations. In particular, it has hewed closely to models that gelled in the Enlightenment-era works known as “stadial theory,” by authors such as Lord Kames and Adam Smith, and passed down to the twentieth century, to theorists including Garrett Hardin, Harold Demsetz, and Elinor Ostrom. It argues that stadial thinking reached modern commons theorists largely through the disciplines of anthropology and human ecology, paying particular attention to the debate among anthropologists over aboriginal property rights, colonial and international development discourse, and neo- Malthusian conservationism. The effects of stadial theories’ influence include a belief among many that private property represents a more advanced stage of civilization than does the commons; and among others a Romantic yearning to return to an Eden of primitive and community-based commons. Thus do deep cultural attitudes, rooted in the speculative thinking of an earlier age, color todayʼs theories — positive and normative — of the commons.

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