Commons in the political mainstream?

The Labour Party in the UK, which has a good chance of taking political power at the next election, has been involved in a process of policy development which involves taking up ideas from the commons movement and is focused around the revival of and protection of commons.

In one week I have now been to three public events commemorating the Charter of the Forest of 1217 – a companion volume to the famous Magna Carta. Whereas the Magna Carta was about political and civil rights, the Charter of the Forest was about economic rights and, most sigificantly, it pre-supposed a commons based economy. At the three events that I attended the main speakers were Peter Linebaugh and Guy Standing who explained the historical significance of the Charter and of the enclosures over many centuries, and started the process of discussion about what a Charter for the Commons in the UK would and could mean today.

My own interest and involvement was through supporting the organisation of two linked events in and near Sherwood Forest County Park – to link the Forest Charter to the threat from Ineos, a major chemical company that is seeking to turn the Sherwood Forest area, and elsewhere in the North of England, into unconventional gas fields, with far reaching negative implications for the landscape, for agriculture, for water, for public health and the environment. It has been our argument that this was somewhat like a second enclosure – where, because of friendships in central government, corporations are able to ride roughshod over the interests and uses for local land water and air by local people. (See the CommonandFracking.) The local anti fracking group therefore held a meeting in front of the 1,000 year old Major Oak, with songs about land rights, resistance and enclosure – and then heard Peter Linebaugh and Guy Standing, as well as speakers about the resistance to fracking, at a further event at a local community centre.

I should stress at this point that this is not a marginal fringe idea in the Labour Party. Two of the meetings that I attended in the same week as our event – one in the House of Commons, and one at a conference on Economic Policy in Lincoln – were chaired by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and, in that sense, the “number two” in the Labour Party in seniority. Embracing a programme of linked policies whose leitmotif is a reference to restoring and protecting the commons appears to be becoming mainstream Labour Policy and has a good chance of becoming the guiding policy for a forthcoming Labour government.

Unless something happens to stop the process the draft themes spoken of by Guy Standing are likely to have an impact that is little short of revolutionary. His draft Charter for the contemporary commons will include land, water and the atmosphere as well as the social commons and cultural and intellectual commons too. This does not at all mean, however, in a straightorward way, that commons arrangements will immediately be revived in their old form. There is, it seems to me, plenty to be done clarifying what is to be restored as commons, what is to be done to support co-operatives or social enterprises and what is to be in public (state) ownership. Particular situations and contexts require different kinds of responses and these have to be clarified…..

That said…. some themes are that the current secrecy in the UK as to who owns land would be tackled with a new Domesday book or registry of land ownership and the introduction of land value taxation. Water would be taken back into public ownership – water privatisation simply handed an income stream to investors that should have been ploughed back into protecting our water resources. Environmental problems like fracking will not allowed. The woodland charter, an initiative to protect woodlands and trees, would be supported – and an end to the privatisation and chopping down of mature trees in some cities. The privatisation of public spaces – privately owned public spaces (POPS) would be stopped and owners of existing public spaces forced to reveal themselves and the regulations that they are putting in placce. At the same time community initiatives to tackle social, educational and housing issues would be tackled by encouraging community based initiatives like community gardens and community centres.

Perhaps most important of all is the proposal for a Universal Basic Income as being in the tradition of the historical Charter. In 1217 when the Charter of the Forest was adopted England had been in political and economic turmoil with war and violence, leaving many crippled people, many widows and great hardship. The Regent, William Marshall, realised he had to stabilise the country by making concessions for ordinary people so that they could stabilise their lives – and he did that at the expense of the monarch – who at that time was just ten years old and was probably too young to understand what was happening. Two charters, the Magna Carta of political rights and the Charter of the Forest of Economic Rights, then served give back to the people what had been taken from them by William the Conquerer and his band of gangsters. Large areas of the country had been taken by William and his lieutenants, and then by his successors for the exclusive hunting use of the king. The resources of these areas were now restored to the ordinary people of the time. Widows were allowed to take “reasonable estovers” – to provide for their basic needs with resources like firewood and building materials. The ordinary people were empowered to take fish from the rivers (piscary), to allow cattle (herbiage) and pigs (pannage) to graze, as well as to take clay and other materials. Because people now had access to the means of production they could work – as in work and provide for themselves. In the contemporary world Guy Standing argues that that is equivalent to having a basic income as a right and it looks like this stands a chance of becoming Labour Party policy.

“The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and expedite its occurence”
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

Revival of the Commons by a Labour government would be quite revolutionary, but in what context would the new policies be launched and how would they be countered by the political economic elite? If the times are bad, and if the elite succeed in persuading most people that a commons policy programme is making them worse, or is even the cause of the chaotic times, then a charter for the commons could flounder and be defeated.

After the crisis of 2007-2008, which was partly caused by elite criminality in the finance sector, governments of, and for, the same people that were responsible for the crisis succeeded in restoring business as usual AND succeeded in establishing an interpretation of the crisis as being the result of the financial irresponsibility of governments. A generally accepted narrative became that fiscal austerirty was necessary to restore economic stability – and this austerity, by targeting the most vulnerable people in society, fostered a climate of fear and all round insecurity by scapegoating refugees, foreigners, unemployed, disabled and homeless people.

Over and over and over again in history we return to the same place – when it is in difficulties the ruling elite launch policies to terrorise ordinary people by rendering the conditions of their lives insecure or, to use the words of Guy Standing, “precarious”. They will do it again – and they will do it arguing what they have argued for centuries. The narrative is essentially the same – a universal basic income will be called unnacceptable because when “the economy” is in difficulties (their economy that is, the one that they own and that we work for) “hard medicine” is needed – above all to get people to accept lower wages, more “flexibility”, more labour discipline which they claim is necessary. Some unemployment, argued Mrs Thatcher’s favourite economist, Frederick Hayek, is necessary to impose “labour discipline” – it is, he said, an alternative to corporal punishment. And one can expect the economists to line up to be interviewed on TV to say much the same thing, if not so blatantly. “We cannot afford” a basic income they will say – and on the contrary “we” will be told that we need more “economic reforms” and “hard medicine” to get the economy fit to compete in tough international competition.

It will be variants on this old story – the rich need more money to incentivise them to invest in the economy and to work harder. The poor will have to accept less money and more insecurity if the economy is to be efficient and flexible….

So let’s be under no illusions there will be a counter attack – and the economic conditions in the UK and globally will be increasingly grim. My argument then is that a Labour Policy to revive the commons will be taking place at the limits to economic growth during a time of ecnomic crisis in the UK and indeed of the whole globe.

Quite apart from a severe crisis brought about by Brexit there are other things spiralling out of control. There are already advanced signs that oil and energy prices are likely to soar in 2018 and beyond. The big oil companies have been cutting back their investment instead of increasing it to open up new sources of supply to replace their depleting oil fields. The extraction costs of oil and gas are high but prices for oil have been too low and the oil companies are building up debts. They have not been able to afford investment in new fields. At the same time the unstable geo-politics of energy threatens disruption in energy supplies and higher prices. But if oil prices and energy prices rise, consumers and companies will be forced to cut back many discretionary expenses to be able to pay for their higher energy bills. There will be less left over for other things, including for servicing debt. Servicing and rolling over debts will become difficult and the debt mountain may tip over. Central bank policies to increase interest rates will not help but make things worse.

In fact it is likely that the global economics and politics are heading towards some kind of collapse and major wars with great disruptive potential. Here I am not only writing about the likely effects of a chaotic Brexit but of the further development of a number of other currently dangerous trends in the British and global economy – climate change advancing more rapidly that previously assumed; the crisis in the global fossil fuel sector due to depletion and rising extraction costs; a very high level of debt that can only be sustained by very low interest rates – which however creates other problems like speculative bubbles; geo-political shifts of power undermining the USA and Europe in favour of China and Russia and destablising the Middle East, the Ukraine and Eastern Europe and elsewhere; instabilities and delegitimisation of political institutions created by splits at the highest levels of the states such as in the USA; some very threatening public health crises with diseases like the plague, the marburg virus and ebola in countries like east africa that could create chaos if they spread.

All these can be quickly summarised with the phrase “reaching the limits to economic growth” in a highly interrelated and complex world. We are in a situation that is very vulnerable to ecological, economic and social collapse because of chain reaction failures in social and technical hub interdependencies (chain reactions of bankrupcies, breakdowns in financial flows, catastrophic disruptions in trade and supply chains, the spread of contagious diseases, breakdowns in digital networks or power grid failures).

THIS is the context for calling for a programme that takes the protection and revival of the commons as its central theme. This is where we are.

We are also in what the limits to growth theorists called a situation of growth “overshoot” – where the benefits of further growth have been exceeded by costs. In fact we are in a situation where the costs of further growth often make for greater instablity and fragility in the systems that sustain society. Industries like the fracking sector are undermining and running down the ability of communities to support each other in providing the basics of human existence. We are in a situation where the precarity called for by irresponsible economists when they want to impose even more austerity discipline on exhausted populations is undermining the very foundations of human society and the very foundations for ecological survival.

A Labour government will not have the power to prevent many likely economic disruptions. Although the elite may claim that commons policy has caused the problems the truth is that the difficulties ahead will have nothing to do with a commons based economic and social policy.

In fact a future Labour government can and should describe its commons policy as what is needed to help communities and the environment to survive in the difficult times which it did not create. In a commons based system if there are hard times then the burden really is shared as if we really are “all in it together” – and this particularly means taking steps to protect the most vulnerable. Commoning means striving to provide for everyone’s need but not for anyone’s greed. In a commons based economy you do not try to achieve production growth but run the economy for a different purpose – for long run security – for the safety of current and future generations – with no privileged free riders. This is what social and environmental sustainability means and requires.

When the economy goes past the limits to economic growth the problem is that continuing to expand some sectors of the economy, like the oil and gas sector, can only be done by damaging other sectors of the economy and/or communities and/or environments – the landscape, the water, the air, and the people and species living with these. Running the economy “in the safe mode” thus requires local communities to ensure that their priorities for landscapes and waterscapes get priority. There can be no more allowing powerful industrial sectors using their well connectedness in central government to impose destructive uses for land, air and water that preclude other uses. Uses must be at a scale that matches the local carrying capacity.

In an economy like this the priority is every bit as much to save resources and to avoid the need to produce – as it is to produce more stuff. With shortages of energy and thus restrictions on travel and transport more needs will have to be met closer to home and the home will itself have to be re-developed. In a prolonged period of economic contraction it will be necessary to focus on rearranging the domestic and household economy and the neighbourhoods in which they operate. This in turn means that the distinctions between economic policy, social welfare, health and educational policies will all need re-thinking.

How are communities to cope with radical reductions in resources? The commons solution to this question is by more sharing. The chief aim of a degrowing economy based on commons principles is achieving the same level of service/amenity for households in warmth, shelter, necessities and materials by sharing, repairing and re-purposing already existing resources and infrastructures.

Sharing as in the library principle extended to other resources – resource centres for tools and machinery, workshop space, domestic appliances.

Sharing as in sharing living space – people living together to save warmth and energy as with co-housing as well as sharing domestic appliances and tools.

Sharing as in sharing transport and travel arrangements – including public transport infrastructures.

Sharing as in shared cultivation space as in community gardens and community supported agriculture – people helping and learning from each other in cultivation, sharing of tools, seeds etc.

Much of this can be done by re-thinking and adapting educational, training and community leisure provision at a local level.

There will also be a need to integrate health and mental health facilities into this development. During a period of economic crisis we should anticipate large numbers of distressed, disorientated and displaced people with corresponding physical and mental health problems.

“Asylums” in the original meaning of the word are needed where people can re-stabilise and “re-cycle” their lives – such asylums will need to be places where able bodied people can not only find basic security, shelter and food but participate in household and cultivation activities, make new relationships and get a new start in life. It is important that such arrangements are integrated into the life of communities so as not to become new “institutions” in which dislocated and displaced people become devalued and ghettoised scapegoats on whom the frustrations of the community are offloaded.

Commons arrangements at the level of the local community will therefore be very pre-occupied by spatial and land use issues. Many uses for land and buildings will become redundant and means must be found to bring derelict land back into use as soon as possible – if it is not contaminated. This means into cultivation where that is appropriate.

Issues for the progressive re-design of urban and suburban habitats will be important. Building materials will likely largely be scavenged from redundant and derelict uses.

The temptations for those owning and managing the legacy institutions of the fossil fuel economy are already visible – an attempt to continue business as usual by ever more destructive forms of extreme energy which carry a high risk of land and water contamination. This threatens to be very damaging to any ability to “start again” with new ways of using on ecological design principles land like permaculture. At the same time land reclamation and means for cleaning up contaminated land must be a priority.

Featured image: Eastmoor Community Garden, UK. Source:

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