The theft of the commons

We’ve written about the commons a few times in the past, and this piece by Eula Biss is probably the best one. Although not directly related to cities, since she looks at the more traditional agricultural village-based commons, it’s an excellent explanation of the concept and its history, extremely useful as background for any discussion about other forms of commons.

Biss goes to the UK to explore a history of the commons, and one example still exists in Laxton. On the way she explores the value of commoned resources, enclosures, capitalism, feudalism, othering, a form of autonomy for women, rights of commoners turned into theft through literal land grabs, independence, Luddites, the American cowboy, gleaners, “improvement,” and the fascist roots of the myth of the “tragedy of the commons.”

Very recommended if you are into ideas of the commons or curious about the history. One quote to make a note of is this one, on the nostalgia accusation oft levied when people propose old methods: “‘Would you go back?’ strikes me as the wrong question to ask of nostalgia. The question, as Zadie Smith puts it, is how to ‘restate the things you find valuable in the past … in a way that’s livable in this contemporary moment.’

The article is quite long, here are a few choice quotes:

In Laxton, villagers who held rights to Westwood Common could keep twenty sheep there, or the equivalent in cows. No one was allowed to keep more animals on the commons in summer than they could support in winter. Common rights were continuously revisited and revised in the course of centuries, as demand rose and fell. […]

Whereas personal nostalgia peoples the mind with real memories, political nostalgia often travels back to a time that is as unreal as time travel itself. In this past, white people imagine themselves free from competing claims to land and property, to rights and recourses. This is a past in which we had no obligation to other people. Such a past never existed, but that sort of freedom remains an enduring fantasy. […]

The history of the distant past is often speculative. Like science fiction, it gives us a way of thinking about what might be possible, as much as what might have been. In this sense, both the past and the future are imaginary, but real, too, as ideas. […]

How to locate the commons in a world that is mostly enclosed. How to recover a tradition of rebellion against monied claims to property. How to use machines rather than be used by them. How to be canny, like the workers of the past, and how to be conservationists, like commoners. We can learn from the time before enclosure, but we can’t go back there.

Image: By Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash. County Antrim, Northern Ireland, UK.