The Diggers of 1649, the Runnymede Eco-Village of 2012

In the latest issue of Stir to Action, John Gurney, an historian of the Diggers of the 17th century, has some fascinating perspectives on the Runnymede Eco-Village, a squatters encampment that began in June near the site where the Magna Carta was signed by King John.  In his essay, “The Diggers, the Land and Direct Activism,” Gurney reflects on the parallels between today’s encampment and a similar one that occurred in April 1649:

"It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of privatge property, and the time was ripe for it tobecome once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

….Digging lasted for just over a year from April 1649. The Surrey Diggers abandoned their St George’s Hill colony in the summer of 1649, after having succumbed to frequent assaults and legal actions, and by late August they had relocated to the neighbouring parish of Cobham. Here they remained until 19 April 1650, when local landowners brought hired men to destroy their houses and burn the contents and building materials. New Digger colonies had, however, sprung up elsewhere, inspired by the Surrey Diggers’ example and by Winstanley’s extraordinarily rich body of writings.

Gurney traces the history of land activism in England inspired by the Diggers, including the "The Land Is Ours" movement in the 1990s.  The Runnymede Diggers have adopted the sloan, "To make the waste land grow," which seems like a nice riposte to John Locke and his claims that private property rights were the primary tool for encouraging the development of "waste lands."  Not necessary so.  In Spain today, hundreds of jobless farmworkers are taking over vast tracts of land that their wealthy owners are leaving uncultivated, thanks to government subsidies and absentee owners, as the New York Times reports.   

Gurney’s full piece can be read here.  His new book, Gerrard Winstanley: the Digger’s Life and Legacy, will be published by Pluto Press in November.  He also wrote the book, Brave Community:  The Digger Movement in the English Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2007; reissued in paperback, 2012).

In the same issue of Stir, Derek Wall, the former Principal Speaker of the Green Party of England and Wales, puts forward a theme that is gaining increasing traction – the commons-based economy as a new way forward.  In an essay, “Commons:  Alternatives to Market and State,” Wall, a founding member of Green Left and the Ecosocialist International, writes:

The economics of sharing is essential to overcome climate change and other environmental ills.  If we can share goods we can reduce our impact on the environment while getting access to the things we need.  Car pools might be seen as a good example and there is a role for state provision of shared resources — good public transport is an example.  Boris bikes are a good example of social sharing, we don’t privately own the bikes, its just a shame that the bikes taunt us with Barclays label and only extend to Central London.

The commons economy moves us beyond commodification.  Goods are produced because they are useful and/or beautiful not just to generate cash.  An economy of free can evolve, capitalism to some extent generates artificial scarcity, keeping us insecure to get us working and consuming.

Commons economies are based on the principle of usufruct.  This is the concept that we can use something as long as we leave it in a good or improved state for others.  Its the key principle to my mind of effective green politics and socialism.  Indeed Marx observed in Capital, Volume III:

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

I don’t think utopia or blueprints are helpful and we don’t have to answer every question about the practicalities.  We must recognise that capitalism has failed and struggle practically and intellectually for an alternative.  Its not a matter of imposing a social sharing economy but of fighting commodification. The corporate world is keen to enclose the commons of cyber space, fighting legislation such as ACTA and SOPA is essential.  The battle to re-legalise squatting is another example.  Housing in the UK is obscenely commodified, in the USA there are more empty homes than homeless people.  Leaving buildings empty as investment chips should be a crime, homeless people showing creativity and using space should be celebrated.

As the ideologically embedded errors of conventional economics become clear, it's time to re-imagine the entire discipline of economics so that it can begin to incorporate social reality, and not just monetary abstractions having the same imaginary existence as credit default swaps.  A commons-based economics would require that our mental models become far more empirical, intersubjective and holistic.