Note — Jul 03, 2022

The Theft of the Commons

I’ve included a number of articles about the commons in the past, this is probably the best one. Eula Biss goes to the UK to explore a history of the commons, one still existing in Laxton, and on the way 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 of the history. One quote I’m especially filing for re-use, and that’s especially relevant to all my mentions of commons or luddism, is this one by Zadie Smith, on the nostalgia accusation: “‘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.’

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.