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Some Principles of the Commons

by PETER LINEBAUGH

Human solidarity as expressed in the slogan “all for one and one for all” is the foundation of commoning.  In capitalist society this principle is permitted in childhood games or in military combat. Otherwise, when it is not honored in hypocrisy, it appears in the struggle contra capitalism or, as Rebecca Solnit shows, in the disasters of fire, flood, or earthquake.

The activity of commoning is conducted through labor with other resources; it does not make a division between “labor” and “natural resources.”  On the contrary, it is labor which creates something as a resource, and it is by resources that the collectivity of labor comes to pass.  As an action it is thus best understood as a verb rather than as a “common pool resource.”  Both Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ and the environmentalism of Rachel Carson were attempts to restore this perspective.

Commoning is primary to human life.  Scholars used to write of ‘primitive communism’.  ‘The primary commons’ renders the experience more clearly.  Scarcely a society has existed on the face of the earth which has not had at its heart the commons; the commodity with its individualism and privatization was strictly confined to the margins of the community where severe regulations punished violators.

Commoning begins in the family. The kitchen where production and reproduction meet, and the energies of the day between genders and between generations are negotiated.  The momentous decisions in the sharing of tasks, in the distribution of product, in the creation of desire, and in sustaining health are first made here.

Commoning is historic.  The ‘village commons’ of English heritage or the ‘French commune’ of the revolutionary past are remnants from this history, reminding us that despite stages of destruction parts have survived, though often in distorted fashion as in welfare systems, or even as their opposite as in the realtor’s gated community or the retailer’s mall.

Commoning has always had a spiritual significance expressed as sharing a meal or a drink, in archaic uses derived from monastic practices, in recognition of the sacred habitus.  Theophany, or the appearance of the divine principle, is apprehended in the physical world and its creatures.  In north America (“turtle island”) this principle is maintained by indigenous people.

Commons is antithetical to capital.  Commmoners are quarrelsome (no doubt), yet the commons is without class struggle.  To be sure, capital can arise from the commons, as part is sequestrated off and used against the rest.  This begins with inegalitarian relations, among the Have Lesses and the Have Mores.  The means of production become the way of destruction, and expropriation leads to exploitation, the Haves and Have Nots.  Capital derides commoning by ideological uses of philosophy, logic, and economics which say the commons is impossible or tragic. The figures of speech in these arguments depend on fantasies of destruction – the desert, the life-boat, the prison.  They always assume as axiomatic that concept expressive of capital’s bid for eternity, the a-historical ‘Human Nature.’

Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.  The ancient court leet resolved quarrels of over-use; the panchayat in India did – and sometimes still does —  the same, like the way a factory grievance committee is supposed to be; the jury of peers is a vestigial remnant which determines what a crime is as well as who’s a criminal. The “neighbor” must be put back into the “hood,” as they say in Detroit, like the people’s assemblies in Oaxaca.

Commoning has always been local.  It depends on custom, memory, and oral transmission for the maintenance of its norms rather than law, police, and media.  Closely associated with this is the independence of the commons from government or state authority. The centralized state was built upon it. It is, as it were, ‘the pre-existing condition.’  Therefore, commoning is not the same as the communism of the USSR.

The commons is invisible until it is lost.  Water, air, earth, fire – these were the historic substances of subsistence.  They were the archaic physics upon which metaphysics was built.  Even after land began to be commodified during English Middle Ages it was written,

But to buy water or wind or wit or fire the fourth,                                                                      These four the Father of Heaven formed for this earth in common;
These are Truth’s treasures to help true folk

We distinguish ‘the common’ from ‘the public’.  We understand the public in contrast to the private, and we understand common solidarity in contrast to individual egotism.   The commons has always been an element in human production even when capitalism acquired the hoard or laid down the law.  The boss might ‘mean business’ but nothing gets done without respect.  Otherwise, sabotage and the shoddy result.

Commoning is exclusive inasmuch as it requires participation.  It must be entered into.  Whether on the high pastures for the flock or the light of the computer screen for the data, the wealth of knowledge, or the real good of hand and brain, requires the posture and attitude of working alongside, shoulder to shoulder.  This is why we speak neither of rights nor obligations separately.

Human thought cannot flourish without the intercourse of the commons.  Hence, the first amendment linking the rights of speech, assembly, and petition.  A moment’s thought reveals the interaction among these three activities which proceed from lonely muttering to poetic eloquence to world changing, or

Bing! Bing!   the light bulb of an idea
Buzz! Buzz!   talking it over with neighbors or co-workers
Pow! Pow!    telling truth to power.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com

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