HIDDEN INSIDE THE Commonwealth – both the word and the idea – is a crucial concept: the commons. A much-misunderstood political, social and economic idea, the commons is a powerful lens through which to examine the past, present and future of the Commonwealth of Nations. The commons is perhaps the oldest-known model of social organisation. It is about co-operation to ensure long-term stability for communities in and with the living world.
In these times, when conceptions of the world tend to be prescribed by notions of individualism and private property, it’s no surprise that the commons is often misunderstood as a thing – a field, or the atmosphere; some chimerical, mystical form of property that belongs to everyone and therefore to no one. But the commons is much more than that. An ancient concept, imbued with deep understandings of connection – to each other and to the natural world we are part of – the commons is better understood as a system than a form of property. It is a system by which communities agree to manage resources, equitably and sustainably. As commons theorist David Bollier describes in Think Like a Commoner (New Society Publishers, 2014), it is ‘a resource + a community + a set of social protocols’.
The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, and the people, and the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, share the benefits and prevent freeloaders.
The Commonwealth of Nations was born of the brutal and destructive ‘enclosure’ of the commons: the British Empire evicted people across the globe from land they had managed for millennia, which they enclosed for private profit and extraction of resources. The Empire was then transformed into the Commonwealth through struggles for self-determination, as people fought back against this enclosure. The Commonwealth, in turn, now faces irrelevance as people seek to reclaim democratic and social agency from a neoliberal system that alienates and disenfranchises them.
The Commonwealth needs a new approach with which to face the challenges of the twenty-first century; reclaiming the ancient wisdom of the commons could well be the answer. The astonishing rebirth of commons across the globe – communities rediscovering and developing different ways of coming together – could be the path towards an equitable and sustainable future for the Commonwealth and its 2.4 billion people.
COMMONS PRACTICES HAVE existed for millennia, and many indigenous peoples still implement them in the present day – where they are able. More than a system for managing individual resources, the commons presents a model for a new (old) way of organising society, a new politics. It’s a radical path: neither capitalism nor socialism, but a truly ecological political system.
The commons as a form of governance has always faced many challenges. Human psychology and society are complex, and selfishness – the desire for wealth and power over others – sometimes outweighs care, compassion and co-operation. Commons are designed with this in mind, with cultural norms and quasi-legal structures in place to balance our impulses. But throughout history, there are numerous examples of commons culture being replaced or overruled, usually locally or temporarily. Over time, they have been gradually whittled away, to remain mostly at the margins.
Then, along came the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern capitalism. Where previous systemic challenges, like imperialism, still included some form of internal balance – a religious imperative, or a feudal system of devolved mutual responsibility – capitalism threw that out. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation (Farrar & Rinehart, 1944), where all previous social organising principles saw markets, land and money as ‘embedded’ within social relationships, capitalism ‘disembedded’ them, removing any social, religious or moral constraints from the operation of the market. Capitalism became the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition and non co-operation its credo. Commons were systematically enclosed and people were booted off land that was now a resource to be used instead of shared and protected.
It was in the British Empire where this culture found its practical and philosophical apogee, both at home and across the globe. From the brutality of the Highland Clearances, the Irish Potato Famine and the industrial urbanisation of England – where people were forcibly evicted from, or lost control over, land they had managed for millennia – to appalling acts of genocide on several continents, the early history of what became the Commonwealth is steeped in the enclosure of the commons. Terra nullius is the ruthless legal expression of a political philosophy that saw commons practices as non-property, as uncivilised, as fundamentally worthless. The legal structures of ‘real property’ and ‘Crown land’ saw any and all land held and managed in common, often since time immemorial, seized and converted into a resource from which the monarch could extract value. Driving people off the land and into cities disconnected them from nature; we lost sight of it, lost the vocabulary to describe it, lost the capacity, skills and even desire to steward it. The British Empire, through its actions, its laws and its culture, did its best not just to enclose the commons, but to erase the concept altogether.
Suffice it to say, this was not a popular process. Many are blind to that now. Centuries of what is often called ‘progress’ have brought many people longer, healthier lives; better food and water; literacy and numeracy; extraordinarily great art; the ability to travel and extend our horizons; and the technological sublime, with all the information in the world at our fingertips. But they have also triggered crisis. Several interlinked crises, in fact. The world faces right now a crisis of equity, a crisis of ecology and a crisis of democracy. And the impossibility of ignoring these crises today has exposed the dark underbelly of the system and the process that embedded it, which history lessons have tried to obscure. While a few individuals and moments of dissent might be well known (for example, Gandhi, the suffragettes, the Irish Rebellion, the Eureka Stockade), the scale of the ructions and instability – civil disobedience campaigns, revolutions and stark oppressions – throughout the history of the British Empire is largely overlooked. The commons have never ceased to chafe at their enclosures.
CONSIDERED THROUGH THE lens of the commons, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth was a response to people’s struggles for self-determination and Britain’s inability, after two world wars, to hold them back. It was an expression of democracy and equality, of free association, of replacing ‘dominion’ with ‘influence’. Devolved democracies, the welfare state and basic environmental protections, all of a piece with the process of transforming Empire into Commonwealth, released the pressure valve. But the pressure is rapidly rising again now, as can be seen everywhere from Brexit to Corbynism to the Scottish independence movement, from the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance to Hindu nationalism to Inuit people blockading Canadian fossil fuel developments. People are desperately seeking agency, feeling like it has been taken from them. And it has. ‘Take back control’, the Brexit slogan, makes sense. It is absolutely correct to say that ‘elites’ have taken control of our lives, have bought or stolen or been given our institutions, our democracy. However, what the Brexiteers and similar demagogues from Trump to Hanson do is the classic bait and switch. They grab the disenfranchisement and disconnection, and rally people into a group, not in order to build better futures together, but rather as a mob, primed and ready to incite. They rile people up about unfairness and inequality and lack of control, and then direct it towards some scary ‘other’, like Muslims, Jews, blacks, immigrants, gays, the unemployed, greenies. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, No Is Not Enough (Allen Lane, 2017), they use the cover of another, false, enemy to complete the corporate takeover of the state.
And this is what has really occurred, of course: a second era of enclosure – by capital directly this time, rather than Empire. Observing governments across the Commonwealth, from Turnbull’s to May’s to Modi’s, actively governing for corporations over citizens, the clear picture is one of private interests enclosing government and democracy as last vestiges of the commons. Thanks to privatisation and the corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services, government no longer has any real presence in our lives. The relationship between citizen and government has become one of customer and service provider in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role. We face a deep democratic deficit, with the undermining of the power of voting, of protest, of parliaments even. See governments manifestly failing to implement the democratic will on issues from marriage equality to renewable energy to euthanasia (although we may have seen some degree action on these between writing and publication). See the access corporations have to parliaments and MPs while the right to protest is increasingly circumscribed and outlawed. See investor-state dispute resolution in international trade law, where companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often when citizens have no such power themselves.
Meanwhile, our adversarial system, where politics becomes a gladiatorial battle rather than a tournament of ideas, the over-simplification of political disagreements to superficial caricatures, horse-race politics, the idea of ‘sensible centrism’, all contribute even more to disillusionment and disenfranchisement.
THIS IS WHERE we find ourselves now, across the Commonwealth and beyond: disconnected from each other, from nature, from democracy, and hungering for connection, for meaning, for agency. What would it mean to posit the commons as an alternative political system that is able to effectively face up to twenty-first century challenges, from climate change to technological change, from extreme inequality to the extreme right?
The central point of difference as against nineteenth and twentieth century systems is that both capitalism and socialism are essentially political tools for managing the economy – the production, consumption and exchange of goods and services – ‘disembedded’ from society, and both frame the world within that rubric. While schools of thought at the margins of each – from Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s ‘blue-green’ Natural Capitalism (Earthscan, 1999), to the eco-socialist municipalism of Murray Bookchin – have tried to extend their parameters towards community and ecology, the mainstream of both has stubbornly refused to shift. Where socialism has adopted aspects of capitalism, as in China, it has effectively performed a double disembedding, heading even further away from systems of interconnection. In that context, neither capitalism nor socialism has the capacity to deal with the crisis of disconnection, of disenfranchisement, that is at the heart of the many crises we currently face. Both drive homogenisation, steamrolling local cultures of all kinds, failing to appreciate the strength that comes from interconnected diversity – the secret recipe of ecology.
This is critically important in the context of current debates within both green and social-democratic politics around the world. It opens a way through ongoing Greens ructions and past Corbynism, as well as a broader path for a new approach to governance across the Commonwealth. The commons shows us that we do not face a choice between the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of centralised control. We do not face a choice between privatisation and public ownership. This is not a binary, as both like to depict it.
The commons presents another model that is about deep interconnection. It is a participatory, deliberative democratic model, embedded in nature, based on the principle of subsidiarity, giving control to those at the most local level, and limiting the opportunities for domination and free-riding.
Viewed another way, under capitalism nothing is connected: everything is atomised, all is abstraction relying on made up and demonstrably false assumptions such as purely rational homo economicus and trickle down. Under socialism, people are connected. However, the natural world is often excluded, and socialism’s systemic tendency towards centralisation and uniformity frequently undermines participatory democracy and autonomy. In the commons, everything – in its grand, messy diversity – is connected.
Conceptualise it a third way: for the right, government should get out of the way of business but maintain strict social order. It’s a rhetoric of freedom with an increasingly obvious undercurrent of hard control. For the old left, government knows best. It’s a rhetoric of democracy with an undercurrent of paternalism increasingly apparent in race and gender relations – for example, among young white men campaigning for Bernie Sanders, who became colloquially (and not positively) known as ‘Bernie bros’. Neither capitalism nor socialism give people control over their own destiny. Neither can deal with the disconnection and disenfranchisement that are at the heart of the crises we face.
FOR THE COMMONS, government’s role is to enable people and communities to find their own way within the context of equity and sustainability, and within clear, democratically developed limits to prevent abuse. This is, of course, a form of left-wing politics – a green left. It is a philosophy that implies strong regulation of corporations and markets because they are based on rewarding free-riding. It implies high taxes on the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth because they are the basis of co-operation, trust and equity. It implies true equity, deep equity, systemic equity.
The great irony of the ongoing mainstream struggle between those who say there is no alternative to capitalism and those who want to tear it down is that capitalism is already crumbling. In many ways, we no longer live under true capitalism – we live in a corporatocracy. The ultra-rich have taken control, as capitalism’s obsession with competition essentially ensures they will, unless carefully regulated. Most of us live comfortable-enough lives that we’re okay with this, especially when we’re misdirected to think about other things, our lives kept deliberately busy, binge-watching the next series on Netflix, hating the people over there…
While the old world is crumbling, the new is already struggling to be born. There are monsters here, with the rise of fascism. However, a whole lot of people are out there already building new social structures based on commons principles. And that is where the long-term, systemic answer to fascism lies – in undermining their capacity to recruit by building better, more-inclusive, more-exciting ways of connecting. The commons era is here. It’s always been here and it’s growing again, across the Commonwealth and beyond.
From London’s Participatory City project to Totnes’s Transition Town initiative, from the Bristol Pound and other local currencies to Common Weal’s deliberative processes around the Scottish independence referendum, the UK is bursting with commons projects. In Australia, the recent New Economy Network Australia conference showcased bartering communities, repair cafes and Bendigo’s new bHive co-operative. The conference brought in experts from Europe, the US and New Zealand to discuss projects and systems from municipal organising to co-operative social enterprises, and garnered wisdom from First Nations people. In India, seed-sharing groups are using commons principles to rebuild resilience and agency. A large-scale trial of universal basic income is about to start in Canada and smaller pilots have been undertaken in India as well as other countries outside the Commonwealth. And community groups from Melbourne to London to Toronto are fighting to take back public space from advertising and other forms of private enclosure.
Participatory City is among the most exciting projects around. Trialled in south London and now starting a far larger project across the huge and socially disadvantaged Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the project team are working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own urban commons projects, from cooking co-ops to knitting groups, from pop-up shops to tool libraries. They are doing this partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community. They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills, from homelessness to drug addiction to family violence, by making people across the area feel included, feel they have more control over their own lives. They see it as a different mode of politics: not public, not private, not paternalistic, but participatory.
A vital part of the Participatory City equation is ensuring that local community activities are linked to the systemic, political goal. Participating in a local Buy Nothing group, where goods and services are given and received with no strings attached, is an inherently non-capitalist act, but it doesn’t create change if it is in isolation. It only becomes a transformative act when explicitly and directly connected to the greater whole.
This raises a central question for a system of governance based on the commons. How does government support what needs to be led from within the community itself? Indeed, how do we reclaim politics, re-enfranchise ourselves, when the very concept of politics is currently on the nose?
Essentially, the task is two-fold: to switch government from undermining communities to institutionally supporting and enabling them, and to build around genuine prefigurative politics, demonstrating leadership, showing what can be done. Where currently governments are allowing corporations to enclose our public and democratic space, we need to make the community, the commons, the focal point of government by building participatory democratic processes and institutions at every level. This doesn’t mean postal votes; it means citizens’ juries for major issues, participatory budget processes, participatory planning in local areas – proactively, rather than only as a reaction to developer proposals. Some of these ideas are being explored to great effect in South Australia. Others are being developed through the co-governance agreements that Bologna is implementing with citizens to deeply involve them in urban development. Political parties can act on this too by being more truly grassroots, involving members and supporters in decision-making processes, as the British Labour Party and the parallel Momentum movement have done under Jeremy Corbyn.
Also, remembering that we don’t face a private–public ownership dichotomy, government and politics can and should support the growing body of local, community-based democratic and participatory initiatives. Government can give institutional support to sharing and repairing, for example, from underwriting public liability insurance to giving tax breaks to repair, as the Swedish Greens recently implemented. Government can regulate to encourage and support the development of community and worker-run co-operatives, from childcare to fruit packing, from food co-ops all the way through to large-scale energy co-operatives. One of the reasons European countries are moving so successfully and smoothly to high levels of renewable energy is because so much of it is being developed, owned and run by and for local communities through co-operatives.
At a high policy level, one approach which is likely to be vital in a transition to a commons politics is a universal basic income. UBI is a system where income doesn’t start at zero to ensure that nobody in our society lives in poverty. Just as the vast majority of us agree that nobody should do without healthcare and nobody should go without at least a basic education, nobody should be left in poverty. But, deeper than its redistributive effect, it is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways in which people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources, time, energy and support they need to take the steps they want in life, including creating and joining local community groups and activities. It is an enabling policy for the great majority of people, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and inherently devaluing freeloading and greed-based behaviours
One practical point of strategic intervention, and one of my personal passions, is working to reclaim public space from advertising. This is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests for profit, and cities such as São Paulo and Grenoble show that it is possible to reclaim it by banning various forms of advertising in public space. In Melbourne, a civil disobedience group called Tram Clean has recently sprung up, removing ads from public transport. On the safe and legal side, CATS, the Citizens’ Advertising Takeover Service, was launched in the UK in 2015. CATS crowdfund to buy advertising space and replace it with pictures of cats. Simple and effective, reclaiming the commons and removing a powerful cultural driver of anti-commons behaviour.
One of the basic principles of commons governance is subsidiarity – the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest level practical. While there will always be some benefits to centralisation, to reduce duplication and, of course, to deal with large-scale or global issues such as climate change, many decisions can and should be made by local communities for themselves within democratically determined limits.
Could the devolution of governments within the UK, as well as the process of self-determination that transformed the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations, and the current explosion of commons-based practices among communities from one end of the Commonwealth to the other provide a model for a transnational network of commons?
It would be extraordinary and inspiring if the Commonwealth, born as it was through the brutal and destructive enclosure of the commons, could lead the way to the next political system through the rebirth of the commons.