Collective Land Rights and Capitalist Economy, 19th-21st Centuries

Exploratory Workshop, 24–25 November 2022, Duisburg

How are collective land rights conceptualized, implemented and exercised in the age of capitalist economy? Can they protect local communities from the destructive effects of the free market? How do state bureaucracies and legislations and land users navigate between the responsibility for common resource pools and the benefits of private market? The workshop addresses the topic in a broad geographical and historical perspective by focusing on transnational activities of experts, transnational/international organizations, social activists and local stakeholders.

The workshop builds on several research perspectives. The ambit of recent investigations into collective land rights (and collective property rights in general) has been common-pool resource theory (CPR). Its central themes are the commons, the communities which own them (e.g. village farmers), and the sustainability of communal resource use. While sustainability had been traditionally regarded as incompatible with commercialization, more recent research has turned towards the role of the market and the state in the shaping of commons use and ownership rights. Another research field concerns the global spread of the liberal property regime and its effect on agrarian life-worlds since the 1990s. Here, research has been guided by the political concern for fragile rural societies, including indigenous communities, mostly in post-colonial and post-socialist contexts, as well the securing of land tenure in the face of global “land-grabbing.” While scholars in the 1990s seemed to have found the means of solution in individual land titles, the 2000s have raised doubts about the efficiency of the formalization of property rights through titling and opened up towards the exploration of customary systems of tenure based on communal ownership.

Organizer & Moderator: Borbala Zsuzsanna Török

Borbala Zsuzsanna Török is a former Senior Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research (KHK/GCR21) at the University of Duisburg-Essen and a Senior Researcher and director of the research project 'Uses of civil justice and social policy in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1873 – 1914' (Austrian research Fund) at the University of Vienna. Her research fields include the sciences of the state and statistics, the entangled histories of East-Central European scholarship and sociability, the socio-cultural history of civil legal reforms in the Habsburg Monarchy and more recently the history of commons. Her monographs include Exploring Transylvania. Geographies of Knowledge and Entangled Histories of a Multiethnic Province, 1790 – 1914 (Brill Publishers, Leiden, 2015) and Statistik as State Building in the Habsburg Monarchy, ca. 1790–1880 (Berghahn Books, forthcoming 2023).

The workshop focuses on collective land rights as a common topic of these overlapping fields, having in mind the historical fact that the advocation of collective property rights as a corrective to capitalism´s destructive force has been as old as the capitalist economy itself. Moreover, after the triumph of the concept of individual property, the nineteenth century witnessed transnational debates on “collective property rights” and even their selective implementation in the framework of social protectionist policies. Both 19th century legal scholars and their peers today have been keenly aware of the dangers posed by land enclosures in the process of capitalist transformation, a concern that also resonates in today´s sociological literature, whether of CPR inspiration or focused on large-scale land acquisitions. 

We are looking for a historical and transnational sense of collective land rights. What do the 19th century developments have in common with the political and intellectual discourse on collective property rights at the end of the 20th, in the framework of decolonization and the recognition of indigenous rights and climate change governance? Indeed, there is growing knowledge on both international and governmental strategies (and their failures) today, also on grass-roots movements for alternative land (and property) rights. How do they relate to each other in the interconnected public sphere? Can they be conceived as part of a transnational phenomenon?

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Keynote: The Commons State. A Plea for a Comprehensive Concept of Historical Commons Based on Swiss History

Daniel Schläppi, Berne

24 November, 5 – 6:30 pm (CET)

Swiss history is characterized by a strong tradition and culture of commoning from the beginnings to the present day. Starting with the middle ages a complex network of alliances developed among the Swiss cantons who worked together for the purpose of peacekeeping. The allies supported each other militarily and agreed on specific conciliation proceedings for conflict mediation. Over the centuries, the fragile structure grew together. Although each of the 13 cantons was an independent state, they started to conquer subject territories together in 1415 which were managed as common property even in spite of confessional schism.

During the 17th and 18th centuries communities took more and more charge of functions of the state at their own expense (such as market regulation, fire brigade, maintenance of infrastructure, residence registration office and welfare institutions). In consequence important administrative tasks and “public services” were based on collective resources and municipalities and corporations settled their agendas independently. The Swiss model can be seen as a perfect example of 'Co-Production of Statehood', as a 'Commons-State' rather built bottom up than top down.

The Swiss political system remained stable for centuries due to various forms of redistribution for the benefit of the full-fledged members of the communities. Some very old institutions have even survived into the 21st century.


Daniel Schläppi, holds a PhD in Swiss History and is an associate scientist at the Historical Institute of the University of Berne. Besides working as a freelance historian, archivist and university lecturer he has done a lot of research on historical commons over the last thirty years. His doctoral thesis from 2000 dealt with the so-called ‘Zunftgesellschaft zu Schmieden’ in Berne dating from the late middle ages. In 2006 he wrote a book on the ‘Zunftgesellschaft zu Metzgern’ in Berne. In 2009 he initiated a SNF research project on ‘Common Property, Collective Resources and the Political Culture of the Old Confederation (17th and 18th centuries)’. In addition to numerous articles on collective resources and historical commons he published the volumes ‘The Economy of Social Relations’ (Die Ökonomie sozialer Beziehungen, together with G. Jancke in 2015) and ‘From Commons to Share Economy’ (Von der Allmende zur Share Economy, together with M. Gruber in 2018) and the highly regarded essay ‘Die Eid-Genossenschaft’. From 2020 to 2021, he worked on an ‘SNF-spark-project’ entitled ‘The commons state. How cooperatives affected statebuilding using Swiss examples’. Daniel Schlaeppi also has a career as an internationally known musician.

Academic website (Uni Berne)