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My Interview with Shareable.net

Journalist Cat Johnson recently published an interview with me on Shareable.net, the lively chronicler of new types of sharing and collaboration, especially on digital platforms and in cities.  The interview is a brief survey of my thinking on the commons as a promising political strategy and governance template.  Here’s an excerpt: 

“We need to imagine new forms of governance,” he [Bollier] says. “It’s not as if the state is going to be rendered useless or unimportant tomorrow, but the state needs to explore new forms of governance if it’s going to keep its own legitimacy and effectiveness.”

He points to the fact that government’s incompetence and incapacity for dealing with problems, as centralized, territorial institutions, is going to become more evident.

“Just as governments charter corporations, ostensibly to serve the common good,” he says, “the government ought to be chartering the commons and providing financial assistance and legal sanction and even privileges. Because at a local, self-organized level, the commons can perform lots of tasks that governments just aren't doing well because they’re too corrupted or bought off or too centralized and incapable of dealing with diverse, distributed complexity.” He adds, “At the core, it’s a governance problem. Even liberal, constitutional democracies are not capable of solving all these problems.”

Kester Brewin, a teacher of mathematics in South East London, was wondering why his son has been invited to countless pirate-themed birthday parties, but not any aggravated robbery themed parties.  What's the reason for our fascination with pirates?

 Brewin’s answer is an amazing 13-minute video talk  for TEDx Exeter (UK) based on his 2012 book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How they Can Save Us. The talk is a powerful account of 18th century piracy and a plea for all of us to become pirates as acts of radical emancipation.

For the full effect, I urge you to watch the full video....but here is a key excerpt transcribed from Brewin’s talk:

 

What I want to propose is that whenever we see pirates, we see a system in some kind of trouble, whether it involves politics, economics, spirituality, culture or the arts.  Pirates send us a signal that something that should be held in the hands of common people, has been taken away.

Now if we look back in history, the golden age of pirates, the early 1700s, we see England, Spain, France and Holland trying to enclose the new world of the Americas into their empires.  At this time we are right at the birth of emerging global capitalism.  The engine of this movement is the ship.  And the petrol in the engines are sailors. 

Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local.  I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London.  The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:

Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.

To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.

The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns.  The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example.  They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready. 

The Possibilitarians

The history of the Diggers in 1649 is the improbable basis for a dramatic production by the Bread and Puppets Theater, an experimental troupe based in Vermont that uses masks and puppets to entertain and educate people.  The troupe bills itself as providing “cheap art and political theater,” adding that it is “one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the country.”

As reported by Greg Cook of WBUR, the Boston public radio station, the Bread and Puppets Theater recently produced a show called “The Possibilitarians,” a counterpoint to the reactionary Parliamentarians of the time.  The show was described as an “epic and raucous pageant” about the 17th Century English radicals called the Diggers, who were seeking to build an alternative order to the proto-capitalism of its time, protesting in particular the private ownership of land. 

The Diggers have been wonderfully chronicled by historians such as Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down and Left-Wing Democracy In the English Civil War).  Of note is a recently published biography, Gerard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy (Pluto Press).

It’s great to see such history resurrected through an innovative kind of street theater.  The Bread and Puppets Theater was founded in 1963 by German immigrant Peter Schumann.  The troupe quickly became known for its massive papier-mâché puppets and for giving its audiences fresh baked break at the end of performances.  In the '60s and '70s the theater often mounted performances/protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear arms race, among other issues.  As WBUR put it, the Bread and Puppets Theater “vividly merged radical ‘60s theater with the alchemy and magic of traditional ritual, public pageantry and folk art.”

One of the games of childhood in the US, and in many other places around the world, is the board game known as Monopoly.  This classic board game pits players in a race to assemble monopolies of real estate so that they can charge higher prices and win the game by bankrupting their opponents.  Forming a monopoly is celebrated, along with the deceptions, predation and ruthlessness that any good competitor must show.  But hey, it's just a game! 

What is less well-known is the very different board game that preceded Monopoly and formed the basis for it.  The Landlord’s Game, as it was called, was originally conceived by actress Lizzie Magie in 1906.  She set forth a game in which people fought monopolies and cooperated to share the wealth.  The story of the true origins of Monopoly is masterfully told in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine by Christopher Ketcham.  “Monopoly is Theft” is the title of his article, which describes “the antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular game.”

Lizzie Magie was greatly influenced by Henry George, the author of the 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, who famously proposed a single tax on land as a way to fight unjustified monopolies of land.  She saw The Landlord’s Game as a way to popularize George’s teachings, especially the idea that no one could claim to own land.  As Ketcham writes, Henry George believed that private land ownership was an “erroneous and destructive principle” and that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.” 

The way that monopolies in land could be prevented – and the social value of land socialized for the benefit of all – was via a tax on land value. There was no need to overthrow capitalism; one need merely impose a single tax on land that would prevent monopolists from enjoying unearned, unfair "rents."  Ketcham provides a wonderful short history of Georgist thought and the great influence that it had in the late nineteenth century.  Henry George was celebrated by Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain and John Dewey as one of the great reformers of his time.  He was also reviled by the Catholic Church, landlords and businessmen as more dangerous than Karl Marx.

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.

Chomsky on the Commons

Noam Chomsky recent gave a meaty talk, “Destroying the Commons:  On Shredding the Magna Carta” that shows how fragile the rights of commoners truly are. Achieved after enormous civil strife, the Magna Carta supposedly guaranteed commoners certain civic and procedural rights.  A companion document, the Charter of the Forest later incorporated into the Magna Carta, expressly guarantees commoners stipulated rights to access and use forests, land, water, game and other natural resources for their subsistence. 

Both documents are now being shredded today with barely a peep of acknowledgment that centuries-old principles of human rights are being swept aside.  Much of Chomsky’s talk is dedicated to his familiar critiques of US geopolitics and corporate globalization.  But he has a few illuminating passages about the Charter of the Forest and modern-day enclosures, especially in the global South.  Chomsky gave the speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Citing Linebaugh’s book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, Chomsky writes:

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization…. By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.  

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world….

Diggers 2012 Set Up Camp at Runnymede

In development that feels strangely like kismet, an encampment of dispossessed young people who wish to opt out of the corporate system and reclaim a basic freedom of working the land, have made their way to Runnymede, a hallowed site in the history of the commons. 

Runnymede is where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, settling the long civil war with barons and commoners, and leading to the Charter of the Forest that granted explicit commoning rights to commoners.  Runnymede is therefore an appropriate place for contemporary Occupy-style encampments.  It's where the king formally recognized that he was not above the law, and that the commoners have rights that must be respected.  But history and king-like proxies have papered over such truths.  (Peter Linebaugh's Magna Carta Manifesto is THE book to read on this subject.)

A group that calls itself Diggers 2012 is now trying to engineer a rendezvous between that past and a commons-directed future.  After being forced out of their encampments in London, the Diggers are now establishing their own Runnymede Eco Village. (Thanks for the alert on this news, James Quilligan!) The Diggers want to secure their own right to the land and to develop their own autonomous system for self-governance and subsistence.  Some want to create a banner, "We don't want workfare, we want landshare!"

After being shooed from one place to another, and suffering the destruction of their plantings, the Diggers decided to set up camp at Brunel University’s Runnymede campus, which has gone unused for six years and is poised to become a construction site for apartments.  In The Guardian, columnist George Monbiot has a wonderful column about the encampment at Runnymede, which he described as “a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb.

The Diggers are off on an out-of-theway, unused piece of land. Not exactly a prime location on which to attract attention.  But they are nothing if not determined to make a point and build another world. As one camper explained:  “Like our forbearers, ‘The Diggers’ of the mid 17th Century, we too will face the same forms of oppression as we attempt to make use of the disused land. And like the Diggers, we are committed to continuing our mission to make use of the disused land in the face of brute force. So if the bailiffs come, we may go, but we may too come back and keep coming back. For you can tear down our structures and rip out our crops, but you cannot kill the spirit of our vision. We are not here to fight anyone. We know in our hearts that our activities are just and reasonable. So we will carry on.”

A thousand-year-old tradition of farming commons in southern England may be jeopardized as housing prices drive out farmers and render the commoning rights moot.  Yes, there are still self-identified commoners in England.  BBC radio recently interviewed a handful of the remaining commoners who rely upon the New Forest in Hampshire to feed their cattle, sheep and chickens.  The 23-minute radio report focused on how the farming commons is a way of life that has preserved the distinctive ecological landscape – and how this future is now in doubt.

New Forest is said to be the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, healthland and forest in the southeast portion of England.  The land became a royal forest in 1079 when King William I shut down 20 hamlets and isolated farmsteads, provoking an uproar.  He then consolidated the land into a single tract, the New Forest, which he used for royal hunts. 

The traditions of commoning in the New Forest are quite involved and detailed, as Wikipedia notes:

Commons rights are attached to particular plots of land (or in the case of turbary, to particular heaths), and different land has different rights – and some of this land is some distance from the Forest itself.  Rights to graze ponies and cattle are not for a fixed number of animals, as is often the case on other commons. Instead a marking fee is paid for each animal each year by the owner. The marked animal's tail is trimmed by the local agister (Verderers’ official), with each of the four or five Forest agisters using a different trimming pattern. Ponies are branded with the owner's brand mark; cattle may be branded, or nowadays may have the brand mark on an ear tag.

Students of the Declaration of Independence are often told that Jefferson changed John Locke’s classic formulation of the phrase “life, liberty and property” to the more transcendent “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is usually attributed to Jefferson’s high-mindedness.  Now I learn from Bruce Littman, who is associated with the Burlamaqui Society in Geneva, Switzerland, that there may have been a more calculating political motive behind this change. (A top o' the hat to Rolf Carriere.)

According to the Society – a private dining club that organizes “pursuit of happiness” dinner debates – Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748) is “best remembered for his attempt to demonstrate the reality of natural law by tracing its origin to God's rule as well as to human reason and moral instinct.  He believed that both international and domestic law were and should be based on this kind of “natural law.” 

The Society states:

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