How Commons Grassroots Activists Are Shaping the Future

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* PhD Thesis: Reclaiming the Commons: a discourse for new politics . How grassroots activists are shaping the future. By Sophie Ball.


Abstract

"This thesis draws together a number of examples of activism and protest in order to shine a light on some of the discourses and practices that have emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that offer alternatives to the neoliberal discourse. I make the case for the political significance of the activists who have been a force for change that has been largely overlooked – until 2011, the year which saw a series of protests take place across a large part of the globe: ‘the year politics changed’. (New Statesman 2011) I present this argument through what I call the story of the commons, and assert that this narrative is evidence of a vision that has arisen piecemeal, and largely from grassroots levels. The examples of discourse and practice that this thesis explores illustrate both the emergence of the language of the commons from many different spheres of life and also its influence across a range of fields. The analysis includes a historical overview of the commons, while focusing on the evolution of the concept from the latter half of the 20th century to the present day, with the most recent material taken from events occurring in 2012.

Through this vision, we recognise what is lost through the hegemony of ongoing capitalist appropriation, accumulation and exploitation of all aspects of life and reassert rights over - reclaim - that which has been lost. Through the struggle of all those involved in reclaiming the commons, a discourse for new politics emerges and shapes the future. This thesis demonstrates the emergence of a new discourse of the commons that makes possible a reconceptualisation of social, economic and political spaces."


Summary Essay

Sophie Ball:


Introduction: Reclaim the Commons ... Occupy Everything

‘the commons...is a vision with great potential, perhaps because it is not being advanced by an intellectual elite or a political party, but by a hardy band of resourceful irregulars on the periphery of conventional politics. (That’s always where the most interesting new things originate.) These commoners are now starting to find each other, a convergence that augurs great things.’ (Bollier 2007(i):10)


This essay explores the ways in which different actors reclaim or ‘occupy’ spaces, and what lies behind this reclaiming. It connects some examples of contemporary activism to both recent decades of work on the commons, and centuries of resistance against enclosures. It is drawn from my recent research into emerging concepts of the commons, which has led me on a journey into the margins of disciplinary boundaries, and through grassroots activism, into the margins of social practice. The particular relevance of notions of the commons in today’s world is that they help us to conceptualise and articulate alternatives to what Fisher has called ‘capitalist realism’ (Fisher 2009). Many commentators have noted this dearth of alternative visions to the neoliberal discourse, an absence of other stories for us to tell about ourselves. The influence that neoliberalism has had over how we live our lives and how we can envision the way we live our lives – over the very ways we think about our humanity – and the ways in which spaces are seized back from this influence in order to manifest alternative economic, political and social practice, to tell different stories, and to create different futures: these are the themes that characterise the emergence of the discourse of the commons, and which will be explored in this essay. I will refer to some examples of contemporary manifestations of ‘reclaiming’ that have burst forth under the ‘Occupy’ banner, and also some work and activism from previous decades, linking both back to centuries of protest and resistance.


Occupying Academia

In the introduction to the programme for the London Conference in Critical Thought 2012, where I presented an early version of this essay, the organisers had noted that the idea for this conference had emerged from discussions that had taken place at the peripheries of other conferences:

- “We all felt that the most interesting panels and papers always seemed to appear at the margins of the event and the margins of disciplinary boundaries more generally. From this we were inspired to find a means of developing and sustaining the sense of community we found on these margins. Central to this vision was an interdisciplinary, non-hierarchical, and accessible event which made a particular effort to embrace emergent thought and the participation of emergent academics.”

So the roots of the conference lay at the peripheries, or ‘margins’, of other events and academic disciplines, until a new space was created for these margins to merge, at which the peripheral was made central, and where a new community of thought could develop. Given how the emerging discourse around the commons has begun to be explored at the margins of many academic disciplines in recent years, it was fitting that this conference should have featured some papers exploring ideas about the commons. This reflects how this commons thinking, and the practice that both generate it and is generated by it, have emerged, as Bollier describes, ‘on the periphery’, initiated by ‘resourceful irregulars’; and furthermore, how we can argue for a certain ‘convergence’ now occurring.

This conference provided a more radical – and much more needed - space than might be immediately obvious. For the dominance of particular epistemologies and methodologies can restrict what sort of research is valued or even recognised in academic disciplines. Furthermore, the mainstream of academic disciplines can limit research in areas that challenge the status quo; this is strongly evident in the field of International Relations, as has been discussed by contemporary critical theorists in this field. Booth highlights this trend in a way that reflects the influence of Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’ in the wider society: ‘...one of the tragedies in the history of the study of international relations has been the way in which an ideology (a theory of the powerful, by the powerful, for the powerful) has appropriated the cloak of objectivity and practicality.’ (Booth 2005:6) So it is also in the ‘real world’, of course, where the status quo is rigorously defended by those whose interests it serves, and where the dominant neo-liberal ideology is disguised as a non-ideological, common sense approach. Reminding us of the responsibility that lies within academia – and the connection between academics and activists - Vrasti quotes Graeber:‘‘...in killing the radical imagination we are doing the work of capital, which has a lot of resources invested in having this ‘machine of hopelessness’ prevent us from imagining alternative worlds’ (Graeber 2011).’ (Vrasti 2012:123)

Thus by providing a forum for discussions about the commons, this conference has itself ‘reclaimed’ or ‘occupied’ space, in an echo of the prefigurative practises that characterise many contemporary movements such as Occupy. Encouraging work that falls outside of the mainstream is not necessarily an easy undertaking: ‘...one would be naive to understate the difficulties facing those attempting to develop alternative critical approaches within academia.’ (Wyn Jones 1999:162) As another academic working in the field of International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE) has put it, “academia has its way of letting us know what sort of things we can and can't do if we want to be secure”. Wishing to respond to the work of the Occupy movements, Nick Kiersey, Political Scientist at Ohio University, initiated the setting up of a discussion group called ‘Occupy IR/IPE Theory’, which became a Facebook page and soon after a strand at an international conference.


In an email sent to a group of academics in October 2011 in which he first put forward the idea, Nick noted the following:

- “...with the rapidly unfolding developments on the streets of many major cities around the world to "#occupy" public spaces and engage in experimental forms of public organization, this might be a time for International Relations and IPE scholars to reflect and explore the significance of the #OCCUPY movements, and how they affect our discipline, its politics, its knowledge, its power, its work...”


Out of the conversations that followed came an issue of a journal, from which the following is taken:

‘It is precisely because IR scholars cannot explain, understand or even imagine radical change, despite our professional training and despite the noble ambitions that have inspired many of us to go into academia (and stay there against all odds), that we are now acting like temporarily embarrassed intellectuals trying to do something of a ‘reality check’ about what it is that #occupy can teach us about our work and our impact in the world.’ (Vrasti Op cit:121)

Ontological and epistemological questions are raised by an awareness of a missing story and a missing politics. The questions we ask and the language we use – as well as the things that we do - help to create the reality that we discover and explore. Academics are actors like any other, trying to find the right words to describe the nature of the cultural, political and economic forces that constitute this historical moment and to create a story for our times.


Reclaiming personal & public space

The act of reclaiming or occupying touches on our political structures, our economic systems, and the physical spaces we share, from the world’s oceans and our very atmosphere – our ‘global commons’ - to the city streets. It also touches on social spaces including human knowledge itself, the development of which can be influenced in ways touched on above, and to which access can be limited and priced, or can be shared freely. The concepts of ‘reclaiming’ and ‘occupying’ are currently populating many different spheres in a burst of popularity, as Vrasti notes:

- ‘#occupy model of leaderless, demandless direct action...has gone viral. Every morning we wake up to new reports about ‘occupying X’ where X can be anything from cities, campuses, boardrooms, buildings, highway, and public events, all the way to academic disciplines’. (Vrasti Ibid)

Like Vrasti, I became aware of a sudden increase of the use of the words ‘occupy’ and ‘reclaim’, in many different contexts. I include here just two examples. In February 2012 I read a letter in the London Review of Books giving us an account of an ‘occupation’ of the Museum of Modern Art in New York: Occupy Wall Street activists had led a discussion in the Rivera galleries followed by a general assembly on the central second-floor atrium; the letter writer reflected on the ‘huge profits from financial speculation on our cultural commons’ reaped by Sotheby’s and asked ‘how a public might assemble to reclaim all art as part of the commons instead of a fetish of capital...’ (Young 2012) Another is one of my own recent favourites that came from a pamphlet by a teachers’ union that encouraged its members to ‘reclaim the classroom’ and ‘reclaim your professionalism’.

To help us understand why this discourse should emerge in so many different spheres, we must see that the appropriation of commons, which at one time took place simply through the enclosure of land, can now be understood as occurring in all spheres of life. Many writers have noted what Rutherford describes here:

‘Just as early industrial capitalism enclosed the commons of land and labour, so today’s post-industrial capitalism is enclosing the cultural and intellectual commons (both real and virtual), the commons of the human mind and body, and the commons of biological life.’ (Rutherford 2008:13)

The notion of reclaiming spaces – the relevance of the crucial prefix ‘re’ indicating a sense of a right to something that once existed before it was taken away or destroyed - is fundamental to the concept of ‘reclaiming the commons’. The Zapatistas demanded release from the reach of the Mexican government, in order to end centuries of oppression and the deliberate diminishment of their culture, articulating their right to a space in which to live out their cultural way of life; they stated their preferences and proclaimed their independence from the government. The Zapatistas live in a certain geographic territory, but the claims they made went far beyond the physical spaces of their villages. It was not surprising that their actions resulted in a massive wave of repression by their government; what was surprising was how the Zapatistas’ discourse seemed to create a resonance that has inspired action and discourse globally.

In November 2009, a ruling was made in the US that repayments should be made for land grabs. Most people ousted from ‘their’ land, and deprived of the livelihoods that their land provided for them and without real alternatives, continue to be deprived, and in some cases to protest, but not be compensated or supported in any way. In many cases, there is no formal or legal land ownership in place; not until there is business to be done and money to be made. Many of these lands, as well as having been a source of livelihood for local populations, have huge environmental significance; ‘owned’ by nobody but vital to our planetary ecological systems.

The air we breathe – now highly polluted in many parts of the world – has been termed (environmental) ‘commons’; we all need it and use it, and we effectively share it. Water is an example of a natural resource that is both more easily exploitable than air, and where over-usage has highly destructive impacts. In cases where the supplying of water has been taken over by private ownership, people have found themselves deprived of access to water through not being able to pay. This privatisation of a natural resource has not passed without resistance, and in the case of Bolivia water services were successfully reinstated as a free public service. In other examples, usage by private companies has simply taken up all the water traditionally used by local farmers, as has been the case of Coca Cola plants in India. Finally, general levels of use of water by the general population are leading to severely falling water tables and dire warnings about sustainability. Water is a commons that is a vital natural resource that is not being sufficiently protected from over-exploitation; ironically the only examples of controlling access to it deprives the poorest of water usage and leaves businesses free to empty our water tables.

The Occupy movement has brought us tented communities in city squares across the globe, and has generated a wave of action and discourse around the practice of ‘occupying’. These actions are protests certainly, but more than that they are attempts to live out, even if only temporarily, an alternative to that which they protest against. The Occupy movement is often accused of not really knowing what alternatives it proposes. Yet it is the creation of the space itself that is significant – the space in which to push back the norms, to suspend the processes of business as usual, a space in which to articulate the desire for alternatives and where these alternatives are afforded the space to emerge. The Occupy protests make demands for truly democratic systems by reclaiming a space for the voice of citizens.

Through the Occupy movement, activists both make and demand space and voice for ordinary people whose wishes often remain unheard, drowned out by the dominance of market forces. Occupy articulates a rebellion against the exclusion of the common person – expressed as the 99% - from meaningful participation in the political process. It criticed the lack of truly democratic process even in nation states calling themselves democracies, reflected in how little influence people feel they have over decisions that affect themselves and others. It revealed anger and frustration over some of the conditions of modern society which result from a political and economic system that is imposed upon, rather than chosen by, the majority of people, a system designed by and for the ‘1%’. Issues raised included the levels of deprivation and economic inequality experienced globally; the long-term management of the environment, where current practice is perceived as threatening to bring about irreversible levels of climate change, pollution, and destruction or over-consumption of natural resources including water; the production of goods that we are much encouraged to consume – as if our very economies/lives depended on it – which often comes with heavy environmental and social costs.

Because ideas about reclaiming and the commons are now found in all these spheres of life, it did not come as a surprise to be involved personally in an example of convergence. The conference at which this paper was first presented, as has been discussed, was itself a convergence of elements that found each other previously on peripheries. The nature of the conference, (‘interdisciplinary, non--‐hierarchical, and accessible’) encouraged the attendance of ‘emergent academics’, which was therefore likely to include people whose activities extended more greatly into other areas of life, which could then serve to initiate collaborations that overstepped the traditional boundaries of academia: all because a space was created for it to happen....And so it was that four months after the conference, I was invited to attend an event at a theatre entitled ‘Imagine a Spectacle’ that was the inspiration of Rafau Sieraczek who I had met at the conference. This event was part performance, part lecture, part audience participation, breaking down the traditional boundaries of theatre and parameters of learning. In this space, created temporarily within a small theatre (once a church), instead of the suspension of disbelief, this spectacle offered us a suspension of belief. It brought together artists of different genres (dance, music performance, illustration, parkour). Moved by the artistry into a space of mind that was open to suggestion, we were then played interviews with the sociologist Antonio Negri and Fulvio Molena, the occupier of a theatre in Italy, who both talked about the need to reclaim space in which to envision new realities. The audience were helped to shed the blinkers of ‘capitalist realism’ and to participate in the telling of new stories, the founding of new beliefs.

Naomi Klein is one writer who presents extensive research into the reach of corporate power into peoples’ lives, and resistance to it particularly in US urban spaces, in a book entitled: ‘No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, No Logo’ (Klein 2000). The focus of much of the book is the effect of advertising and branding and other aspects of corporate power on public space and cultural life in the US, linked also with the socio-economic conditions of the workers who produce most of the goods that are exported and sold to consumers in the US. City pavements have not yet been referred to as commons as far as I am aware, and yet they are. In the case of London, they are privately owned, but all people have freedom of access to them – an urban ‘right to roam’ - but do we take this too much for granted? Is this right becoming limited to shoppers?

Every time a shopping mall springs up, our right of access is curtailed, for here the rules of private property apply and there are usually rules controlling entry and behaviour, such as no smoking and no ‘hoodies’. Naomi Klein argues that unless you are a shopper – and look like you intend to and can afford to shop – you are persona non gratis in these spaces (op cit). Developments in some city centres that have taken place are even more subtle. For example in Liverpool, without putting a roof over the top of it, an ‘enclosure’ was conducted of an area around Hope Street – once the stronghold of the Chinese community – that saw the first privatisation of an outdoor, urban area and the consequent control over entry and usage replacing an absolute freedom of access that was never considered because nobody would have thought that it could be taken away. (Paul Kingsnorth 2008)

The student protests of November 2010 and the rioting that began in Tottenham, in the London Borough of Haringey, and spread to other neighbourhoods in London and other cities of the UK in August 2011, also were occupations of space that contained within them a demand for voice – or in the case of the riots were at least an expression of frustration at a lack of voice or space. The physical take-over of space in a riot or a demonstration brings attention by disrupting the normal flow of life, but also acts as a symbolic take-over, or claim-staking; the physical occupation is an assertion by voices previously denied, by opinions previously disregarded, demanding a hearing – people reclaiming ‘ownership’ of the political and the economic systems that govern them and in which they lack agency. The Zapatistas and the Occupy movements both exemplify this message.

Also in Tottenham, the Wards Corner Community Coalition have been fighting development plans that would see the demolition of homes, shops and an Edwardian indoor market currently housing hundreds of small local businesses (homes and businesses which serve people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds almost exclusively) and the building of 8-storey blocks of privately-owned flats and retail space for chain stores and a national supermarket in their place.


In June 2010, the WCC Coalition won an important victory in a Judicial Review test case. The press release from the law firm representing the Coalition states the following:

- ‘The Court of Appeal handed down a ruling that Haringey Council had acted unlawfully by not properly considering the impact on Tottenham’s diverse local community of planned new housing and retail developments. The case is the first to decide that local authorities must assess impact in race equality terms before authorising major developments.’ (Bindmans 2010)


A key activist involved in the work shared with me the reflection that it had taken three years of activism and thousands of pounds just to achieve an acknowledgement that the community should be allowed a voice. To think this a meagre outcome for a long struggle however would be to underestimate the forces that were taken on in this protest, and miss the relevance of this success. This journey - the protest, the fund-raising, the alternative community-led development proposal and the legal process - is an example of what it takes to pave the way for the ‘new acts’ that Couldry proposes in his book entitles ‘Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism’: ‘a post-neoliberal politics only gets moving if it articulates ways of organising society, the economy and politics that enable voice to matter.’ (Couldry 2010:137)


According to the WCC’s website:

- ‘The Coalition is a unique grassroots movement that has no traditional structure or recognised leaders and utilises a range of practices in mobilisation and campaigning. The movement is entirely founded on the ideals of inclusiveness and collaboration: the website, for example, is collectively and organically built by contributors.’ (Wards Corner Community Coalition http://wardscorner.wikispaces.com/ 2010)

Bollier might consider the Wards Corner Coalition’s legal success to be an example of ‘the beginnings of a new movement to make property law and markets more compatible with a larger set of ethical, environmental and democratic values.’ (Bollier 2007(ii):6) For more than thirty years, neoliberalism has declared that market functioning trumps all other social, political and economic values; neoliberalism should be understood as a profound and powerful mode of cultural politics as well as an economic discourse (Couldry 2010). Through the noting of the legal relevance of the Race Relations Act to the development in question, the neoliberal culture is not only challenged but legally required to make an adjustment, not just for the present case; as Bindmans notes in its press release: ‘The Court of Appeal’s decision has major implications for planning and development.’ (Bindmans 2010)

The concepts of the commons that I have introduced, some that go back centuries and others that have appeared only in recent decades, show us that the discourse is essentially an evolving language describing the organisation of and access to resources (for want of a better word) beyond the norms of legally defined ownership. We might ask ourselves whether this is a language that emerges out of the era of globalisation, as people become more aware of each other as a result of the rapid development and spread of communication technologies, and more interdependent, bringing about an impulse towards more collective action. We can now be conscious of the world and its populations as one whole; and we are aware of the impact on us of the behaviour of others in environmental terms, hence needing to find new ways of managing our shared resources.


Elinor Ostrom was joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her analysis of the commons, and Time magazine included her in its most recent list of ‘100 most influential people in the world’, saying the following about her:

- ‘Virtually all the world's most urgent problems require collective action. Be it environmental protection, the international financial system or the dimensions of inequality, Ostrom's work sheds light on the direction society must follow to avoid misuse of shared resources, "the tragedy of the commons."...After the TARP bailouts and the devastation of democracies in Europe by financial technocrats, the world is again beginning to appreciate what Elinor Ostrom has deeply, persistently and quietly been illuminating for nearly 50 years’. (Johnson 2012)


Reclaiming the Commons

But what are these ‘commons’ that we are to reclaim? The examples that have been taken from contemporary discourse and movements in the discussion above emerged against a backdrop of much research and work on the commons that has taken place in recent decades. For the purpose of discussion, we can define these resources by identifying them in three broad areas: knowledge & information; land; and other natural resources. The first ‘type’ of ‘commons’, the knowledge and information commons, refers to shared and open use of and access to information & knowledge resources. Long-held traditions of sharing the development of knowledge and the outcomes of research are evolving into new ways of organising and protecting these traditions, partly as new means of networking and sharing information have emerged through the development of the internet. However, it is also the case that such organisation increasingly becomes necessary to protect public ‘ownership’ of or access to knowledge and ideas as the reach of corporate power threatens free and open access to knowledge. This growing encroachment is evident in a multitude of areas, such as in the legal processes of privatisation and patenting. The control and use of the media is also an important issue in this area. The World Wide Web, however, has provided an open forum for the exchange of news and opinions, leading to a revolution in how we get our information, share and access knowledge, form our opinions and network with each other. Under this type of commons we can also include ‘cultural commons’.

Secondly, the commons often denotes land, either land in common ownership, or land to which access is permitted for certain usages by persons other than the land-owner, indeed where that access & usage has legal status giving the persons rights of usage that override the rights of private property. We have a long history of commons as right of usage of land in the UK, first protected in the 13th century charters, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, progressively eroded through the centuries but also fiercely defended and resilient to the point of maintaining and in some cases regaining some legal status and even re-emerging through new assertions of modern constructed rights to the usage of land such as the right to ramble.

Finally, the language of the commons has been widely used to discuss the environment more widely and the world’s natural resources. This includes the management of fisheries, forestry, and water resources, as well as the ‘global commons’ and ‘atmospheric commons’ in the context of the global environmental crisis: resources that we all ‘share’, and can be polluted or otherwise damaged by some users to the detriment of the rest of the population, hence demanding new perspectives and new values in global governance. James Quilligan is an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975 whose work on the commons spans four decades, and includes an ongoing involvement with various initiatives for the United Nations and also at grassroots level. He was making a case for a ‘Common Heritage of Mankind’ as early as the 1970’s, which idea has returned to the fore more recently (as a ‘common heritage of humanity’) in the development of concepts of the global commons, as issues of global governance for environmental matters become critical. More recently (May 2012) Quilligan could also be found giving seminars in London as part of a series of workshops entitled The Emergence of a Commons-Based Economy, organised by the ‘School of Commoning’, a small grassroots group set up in London in 2010 to promote the education of commons-based approaches in human and social interaction. He also participated in the ‘Making Worlds’ event, an Occupy Wall Street Forum on the Commons held in New York on February 2012. Quilligan promotes commons-based approaches by applying their practical and philosophical implementation in the development of new economic and political models, with the aim ‘to build bottom-up support for political and economic change through the commons.’(Quilligan 2011)

Within the institutions of international governance, there have been discourses which once were part of a debate that have become sidelined and silenced to such an extent that it is easy for us to overlook the fact that there ever was a debate at all. The Common Heritage of Mankind is one such discourse, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) one of the outcomes of the debate. Quilligan worked with Willy Brandt, the former German Chancellor, and other world leaders, for the ‘Independent Commission on International Development Issues’ – more commonly known as the Brandt Commission - a group focused on drawing together proposals to address the vast inequalities between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world, which were published in two reports: North-South (1980) and Common Crisis (1983). The report focused on comparing the economic power and the wealth of the global north with the poverty of the global south and delivered the message that business could not carry on as usual; the global economy needed to be restructured in favour of developing countries. As well as a general emphasis on international issues such as food, aid and financial reform, it drew attention to problems affecting both developed and developing countries such as the environment and the precariousness of the global economy itself, conditions to which all countries would be vulnerable and which should therefore be addressed collectively.

Together with Arvid Pardo, Quilligan developed the Common Heritage of Mankind concept, and continues to develop a Common Heritage of Humanity practice. This approach recognised the global commons and sought to formalise agreements concerning their protection, particularly from exploitation by powerful developed nations.


Referring to Henry Kissinger and others in NATO who orchestrated the creation of the G7 and ‘coerced OPEC to invest its money in Western international banks, not in the counterrevolutionary movement of the global South’, Quilligan writes:

- ‘But the G7 didn't stop us. As a countermeasure, we pressed our case for the Common Heritage of Mankind (Humanity) in international fora, including the United Nations. Many people forget (or are unaware of) this now, but the UN at that time was a very vibrant place, full of transformational ideas. I was a liaison between Arvid Pardo (godfather of the Common Heritage movement), a large group of diplomats from the global South, and the global NGO community. We began to negotiate a Law of the Sea Treaty to give all people, and particularly those in poor nations, the right to preserve and/or enjoy the benefits of the international seas and seabeds. We also applied the idea of the commons to outer space, the atmosphere, and the world's transborder forests. We made a lot of progress (at least for a historical era that did not yet have the benefits of the Internet, the Rio Summit, and the concept of sustainable development.) Virtually all of the developing countries supported us. We had strong allies throughout the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77, UNCTAD, in progressive capitols of the West, behind the Iron Curtain, in China, and among hundreds of NGOs across the world. It was an exciting time indeed.’ (Ibid)

Despite this vision, the impact of the evolving neo-liberal agenda under Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl made itself felt more and more strongly, and hindered the influence of the Brandt Reports and of the Common Heritage approach.


The commons agenda disappeared from the official platform as a new wave of enclosures took place across the globe:

- ‘During this thirty-year drift in world economic policy and corporate political doctrine, at least $2 trillion in national resources–including public gas, water, and electricity industries, as well as schools, health services, and other utilities–have been sold to private investors across the world.’ (Quilligan 2002: 40).


These words describe the enclosures so ubiquitous in the neo-liberal era that such organisational methodology has come to be taken as a given, as if no alternatives existed.

Quilligan has continued to work with ideas based on the Common Heritage notion, developing models based on notions of the commons, still seeking to promote them at UN level, but also at grassroots level. The Common Heritage of Humanity concept sought to make provision in international law – such as UNCLOS – to prevent the appropriation of common heritage spaces by any private or public entity; the aim was to ensure the protection of certain environmental spaces and to protect the interests of human beings independently of the sovereign state (or private corporations). In this notion we find embodied an echo of the notions that are present in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest: a limitation put upon the power of the sovereign (king or state) as a means to protect resources for the benefit of citizens.

Here the final theme of this essay emerges, the connection between contemporary grassroots movements that ‘reclaim’ and ‘occupy’ not only with a development of ideas and practice around the commons in recent decades, but with social history going back over centuries. In a book devoted to exploring the ongoing significance of these two charters, Linebaugh notes that ‘...historians have been derelict, ignoring Magna Carta and thus laying the groundwork of forgetting. As for the commoning provisions in the Charters of Liberties, they have been ignored as out-of-date feudal relics. The argument of this book says their time has come.’ (Linebaugh 2008:11) Linebaugh evaluates the significance of Magna Carta as a source of protection against tyranny, and describes how its companion, the Charter of the Forest, enshrined and protected the subsistence rights of the poor partly through protecting their right of access to commons.

The history of rural Britain can be described as a gradual process of enclosure – or privatisation – of common land, which is land that had been collectively owned or managed, or to which access had been protected. A debate has raged for 500 years between those for and against enclosure. This history is ongoing, and has indeed resurfaced with new meaning, as protest against the neoliberal economic model finds voice through this story; a story that Linebaugh identifies as ‘the suppressed praxis of the commons in its manifold particularities, despite a millennium of privatization, enclosure, and utilitarianism’. (Op cit: 19)

Similarly to the concepts enshrined in the Charters of Liberties, those embodied in The Common Heritage notion suffered as a result of changes in the political and economic environment, in both cases being eroded by appropriation – either by the state, or by private individuals. As Walljapser notes on the website of On The Commons, referring to the message of another champion of the commons Andrew Kimbrell (lawyer, environmental activist and author): ‘environmental destruction and economic inequity is simply the modern version of medieval lords seizing resources that rightfully belonged to everyone.’ (Walljasper 2011) With regard to UNCLOS, the opposing notion of an Exclusive Economic Zone, which gives states special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources for 200 nautical miles around their borders, was included and has advanced, to the point where the idea of a commons became almost entirely eroded. However, as thinkers such as Quilligan foresaw – and as he noted in The Brandt Equation - the neo-liberal model would lead to financial, environmental and social crisis.

At the present time, it seems quite pragmatic to acknowledge that the time for a revival of the notion of the commons has indeed come. I conclude this essay with an extract from a poem written for and read at the Development Trusts Association (DTA) 2008 Conference by Gerard Benson that reminds us how the concept of ‘the commons’ has threaded a path through British history and holds meaning that is still relevant to us in the contemporary world. The commons go back further than the 17th century, but the very fact that a protest poem endures even for 400 years and re-emerges with meaning and relevance in an apparently vastly transformed society, indicates an enduring need for what the commons represents, and suggests that a theme emerges in the struggle over the commons which may be found to run through the social, political and economic history of Britain, a theme which has a renewed relevance and urgency in the circumstances of the present day. Through the commons we discover a language through which an emergent political sphere is revealed. Benson expresses the spirit and purpose of development trusts through this language of the commons (‘community enterprises working to create wealth in communities and keep it there. They trade on a 'not-for-personal-profit' basis...’(Development Trusts Association 2010) He illustrates the mission of the trusts by linking them with the struggle against enclosure and the power of cumulative capital over the centuries.


The text in italics is itself extracted from an anonymous English protest chant, circa 1600, objecting against the British Monarchy's habit of building fences around and on land previously public (Duhaime 2009):

Must it go on and on the same?
What was that old rhyme, again?
The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But sets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose

So true. But somewhere along the line

Someone has added to the rhyme:

And still the geese a common lack
Until they go and take it back.  (Benson 2008)

References

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