On being conservative for the common against those who are conservative for enclosure

I don’t think I can do whatever I like. I don’t think I have unlimited rights to express my creativity, sexuality and so on – though I do have some rights. In truth, we cannot be creative in a world without limits. We need forms. For example, every work of art is fleshed around a kind of moral skeleton, from which it has no liberty to stray without loss of meaning. Once upon a time, I came of age into a time of obligation and mutuality. I must be conservative. I also came of age into a world of natural delights, which were not of my making, but which I am bound to protect, celebrate and pass on for the delight of others. Those delights are not mine, but I can contribute my perception of them. I cannot “improve” them, but can easily do them harm. The protection of delights of the common is a learnt behaviour, which we first inherit and then bequeath as our children eventually come of age. Culture is what we do, not what we are or have. Commons are the inherited dynamo for methods to maintain a culture. Commoning may be dextrous, ingenious and inspired with new perceptions, but it must always be conservative.

Enclosure is a device to escape the obligations of the common and so gain personal liberty to misbehave. Today’s so called conservative political parties have all been founded to protect the lawful amorality of libertines. Every enclosure is the same – land property, status property, intellectual property, monetary property – and their rents…

Let’s think of commons and rationing – commons and the duration of space or conversely – the substantial punctuations of time…

Here are some thoughts – The language of the common is rhythmic.

The language of enclosure has no sense of time.

All is urgency on the common today – climate change, cascading species-loss and the invasion of dis-functional cult economics. Behind the enclosures we can gently sleep. In truth, the mass of population reclines behind the wire. Many though, anxiously pace labyrinths of debt and rent – in waking nightmares. Some are entangled in the wires, while commons call, like birds singing from inaccessible woods.

Because most political, social and working life is enclosed, people falsely conclude that our struggle must be to improve those enclosures – not to step gently into the wood. That choice, to weave improvements into the wires, is the course taken by most of the liberal left. It endorses enclosure.

Today’s conservatives would consider this writing to be “radical left” and yet, though I’ve little choice but to identify with the left, I consider myself at heart, conservative.

That is, because I would be conservative from the common – the common of the duration of things and of allotments – allotments of both space and time. I have rations of space and time. The heart of my economy is both the celebration of what I have and also its absolute rationing – fair shares.

Farming practice is a useful model for every practice – the practice of rationing – the law of use and return, so that what we do is fitting. How do we fit? Within a restlessly paced boundary? – No. I say, by the practice of fitting and conservative behaviour.

Green writers use the terms limits and boundaries, but seldom rationing – the allotment of rations and also the rationing of allotments! But a ration is a palpable substance that is also shaped by duration. My ration can be loved, hallowed, tasted, shared. I can rest in it and I can call it abundance for just a while. It does not ask me to pace boundaries, or to pause at an extent. I live at its heart. I am a part of both its nerves and its metabolism. I can enjoy my responsibility for it, knowing that my eaten cake will vanish, just as Summer comes and vanishes – everything, including the sequence of my heartbeats will vanish. We carefully share rations of such precious things. If we fit our ration – let’s say of soil, water… and follow the rule of return, then we can fit an undiminished landscape of soil and water that yet bears our traces. (see Ivan Illich, below)

Commons define fitting behaviour and that behaviour must always be conservative. Consider this – a synonym for fitting might be happy – or felicitous…

Also consider – modern conservatives, such as those in the currently extreme right-wing UK Conservative Party, would conserve their status quo of monopolies; of status – they’d extend the rigid shape of an existing fence-line into changing times, while this writer from the apparently radical left would conserve the far more ancient moral directions of the common, which also mutate as the times mutate.
Note that this conflict is an ancient one. It indicates why empires will always fall.

Modern conservatives conserve no less than the stillness of property (land, status, seed…) at their imagined and preserved end of history. But history unwinds invisibly… – visible only to the unenclosed common intelligence human beings.

Here is a favourite passage of mine from Ivan Illich, (Declaration on Soil 1990) –

We note that (such) virtue is traditionally found in labour, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces.

Yet in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts that would allow us to relate virtue to common soil, something vastly different from managing behaviour on a shared planet.

In case that readers think that mere philosophy is a snowflake falling to the fire of today’s awesome problems, I note that the study of economics – the management of households and their supporting businesses – is a branch, I think the central branch – the trunk, of moral philosophy.

I’d go as far to say that commons are inherited and also bequeathed moral philosophies – the time-honed, ancestral guidance of community.

Eric Linberg beautifully discusses the same in a deeply thoughtful article on the conservatism of Wendell Berry. (Look and See; Listen and hear: Wendell Berry and the Contradictions of our Climate, Resilience.org)

He speaks of Wendell Berry’s “unembarrassed appeal to morality and its requirements. More specifically, the moral order of a unified society, Berry says,

“requires the addition of a third term: production, consumption, and return. It is the principle of return,” he continues, setting up perhaps the most beautiful lines in The Unsettling of America, “that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care, of a different and higher order than that required by production and consumption alone.”

And in a following passage:

“Thus, the great internal conflict within Liberal Environmentalism, not to mention left-leaning politics in an age of limits. Our natural environment requires this “care and responsibility of a higher order,” yet Liberal choice forbids any such requirements. We desperately need limits and constraints; yet our Liberalism requires that they be freely chosen and that they reflect our personal style. One of my main purposes, here and elsewhere, is to reflect on the way a reconciliation to this contradiction is or might be imagined. An originary Liberal attempt, lost long ago in the trenches of the Somme and scattered by the fragments of modernist culture, was the dream that Enlightened knowledge would guide us to freely choose a higher order. More recently, the systematic depersonalization of power, order, and authority represented by the market economy has been a facile proxy. Communitarians, in contrast, have hoped that finding a true natural order would provide a “reunion to that which one belongs and from which one is estranged.”

The rule of return is the central principle of all farming methods. It is a part of both that belonging and the defeat of estrangement. It is also the central moral of the commons. One whose guidance is the rule of return may be called a conservative – conserving by methods which focus on, as Ivan Ilich says, not an abstract earth or energy system, but the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces.

Of course, we may be imprisoned or worse for living beyond the wires, but we negotiate the conflict as best we can. From the common we must negotiate with the enclosures.

Dougald Hine explains the danger in that negotiation. (The Three Languages You Need to Bring a Project to Life, dougald.nu):

“The Upward language is the language of power and resources: the language of funding applications, the language of those who are in a position to interpret regulations and impose or remove obstacles. It is not a reflective or a curious language, it is a language of busy people who make decisions without having time to immerse themselves in the realities their decisions will affect. It is an impoverished language and when you have to describe what you are doing in its terms, you will feel that something is missing. You need a guide who is initiated into the relevant version of this language, who knows which words currently act as keys to which doors, what you have to say to have a decent chance of the gatekeepers letting you through. Yet even inside these institutions, you are dealing with human beings, so if you can allow glimpses of what matters about your project to show through the filter of keywords, it may just make a difference.”

He points out the dangers:

“For example, you might recognise the kind of project which has an Upward language but no Inward language, which appears to have been constructed entirely for the purposes of accessing funding and resources, with no underlying life to it. Whole organisations seem to exist to create such projects, serving little other purpose.”

Many green writers, though usually with the best intent and I’d say, nearly all NGOs have lost their way with that upward – what we might call “grown-up” language. Such language is usually studded with acronyms and code words which demonstrate the speaker’s battle-hardened prowess in a “real” grown-up world. Such adversarial language is rather like the trespassers will be prosecuted signs at the fence-line of enclosure. It has not the diversity to celebrate what’s within the fence – to make it worth the defending – it is a tool to keep invaders out. At the edge of the Hundred Acre Wood in which Pooh and Piglet hunt for the Woozle, a sign so faded that only the letters, Trespassers W remain, leads Piglet to fancifully expound how Trespassers W was an ancestor of his. As David Bollier (and also Lee Hoinacki) points out, the common is a realm, more of verbs, than nouns. I’d go further – it is a spiritual world – the same spirit which was inhabited by our ancestors and must remain for habitation by our descendants. The wood (or guiding spirit) is populated by goings-on; by verbs; by responses, whereas the woodland property is made up of nouns – unresponsive things. In the language of commons, we can speak of time – of the duration of things and of a variety of clocks of differing speeds, such as receding, or returning felicity, decay, regeneration, life-span, ancestry, heartbeats, hopes, tides, diurnity, seasons, or the elasticity of times between hope, excitement or disappointment during a Woozle hunt in a hundred-acre wood…

If grown-up language has not the capacity to express the whole of truth, then we should use it with the greatest care – though it may be a tool for defending those lawful (and lore-full) properties of a common – that is, their right to exist – to be acknowledged in the eyes of others. It may express simply – this common exists.

When Theresa May leans forward, wagging her finger, to say, “there is no magic money tree”, she is using the ancient ploy of those who live by such trees to keep commoners in their place and without them.

Theresa lives by magically debt-created money; by quantitively easing magic money into the money flow – most of which ends in increased property prices and increased rent – accumulating the wealth of those reclining beneath the money trees, while further impoverishing those, who by Trespassers W, have been expelled from the wood.

But the phrase is effective, because there are no magic money trees on the common, or in an ordinary household. She appeals to both an ancient moral and a law of physics to maintain the depravity of the amoral and dis-physical casino which sustains her circle of friends and her government. Householders know that money does not grow on trees and so return home reflecting that our Theresa has a wise head on her Tory shoulders. Many, who would otherwise consider that social justice and climate change were a part of balancing budgets, instead, recoil from the idiocy of magic money trees (the social spending of the Left) and vote for Theresa in the following ballot. Citizen-contributions to pay for that social spending are similarly demonised by the wagging finger as importunate attacks on hard-working households.

I suppose the lesson of this little essay is to beware of grown-ups – the grown-up in ourselves as much as in others. Our true coming of age is into the spirit of the common; into the responsibilities of the rule of return and the maintenance of the joys of precious things. That is – to become conservative and to stand against the violent conservation of suicidal, time-dead, greed-laden fence-lines, which has become the purpose (in UK) of Tory, Liberal and New Labour political parties. The world over, it seems that similar stories unfold…


Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.