Global Society and Commons

Two of the most distinctive — and for many, controversial — features of Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory are his assertions that society is composed entirely of communications and that it is global in extent. This stands in direct opposition to Talcott Parsons’ earlier nationalistic view of national social systems and would, no doubt, be as controversial with third sector theorists as it has been generally. However, it generally fits with the “facts on the ground”.

For most of the past four decades, many third sector theorists (a.k.a. nonprofit theorists, civil society theorists, et. al.) have pursued visions of national third sectors of nonprofit, voluntary and philanthropic organizations. Part of the reason for this has been strategic: For several decades until his untimely death in 2021, Lester Salamon championed the study of national nonprofit sectors and, working together with a broad range of indigenous scholars in-country, was associated with nearly 50 such national studies. In the U.S., where nonprofit status is closely tied to federal tax policy and state-level incorporation, the IRS has been one of the moving forces in the formulation of the reigning taxonomy of organizations, officially titled the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE).

Salamon’s involvement with so many national studies over so many years was, no doubt, associated with his announcement, in 1993, of a “worldwide association revolution.” To my knowledge, no one has ever challenged, or even seriously questioned, Salamon’s claim. Now has anyone seriously expanded upon it. A few years earlier, Dennis Young had staked out a prior claim — that was largely ignored — that the nonprofit organization and voluntary action sector was, actually “the first” sector, preceding both the “state” and “market” sectors both historically and functionally. There is considerable evidence to support Young’s claim, both early and late. Robert Anderson’s (1973) history of voluntary association traced such associations to the paleolithic period, well before the rise of cities, governments or formal economies. More recently, anthropological and archeological evidence detailed in Graebler & Wenhow’s (2021) book, make a strong case for both the first sector argument and for Luhmann’s claims of the universality of society. However, most researchers and scholars in this field are very present-oriented. Thus when the first genuinely global group formed in 1990 and adopted as its name the International Society for Third Sector Research, both the ideas of national sectors and the third position somehow behind, between or derived from (as assorted “government failure” and “market failure” theories prominent at the time proclaimed) the die was cast.

An initial assumption of the commons theory of voluntary interaction of the “near-universality” of commons did nothing to challenge or overturn (Lohmann, 1992). Near-universality in this sense fits with the current distribution of national third sectors, but also fits just as easily with Luhmann’s vision of modern, global, communication-based society.

Evidence for both an even stronger universalistic view, and something of an operational definition of commons in the sense I use the term comes from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorse by the United Nations. Article 18 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Article 19 says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Article 20 provides the operational definition of commons in the statement that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Associations and assemblies

An additional large body of evidence supporting the universality of commons is to be found in the hundreds of case studies done by the Indiana University Workshop on Political Theory has similarly isolated common characteristics of common field agriculture, fisheries, irrigation and other commons throughout the world. Although members of the Workshop typically concentrate on the common pool resources involved, nearly all of these commons take the organizational forms of, and are governed by, membership associations and assemblies.


Anderson, R. T. (1973). Voluntary associations in history: From Paleolithic to present times. Voluntary Action Research, 1, 9–28.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything: a new history of humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

International Association for the Study of the Commons.

Lohmann, R. A. (1992). The commons : New perspectives on nonprofit organizations and voluntary action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Salamon, L. M. (1993). The Global Associational Revolution: The Rise of the Third Sector on the World Scene. Center on Civil Society. (Johns Hopkins University, Occasional Paper #15.)

Young, D. R. (1988). The nonprofit as a first sector: Policy implications. Proceedings from Independent Sector, Washington DC.



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