Great Britain

It was 82 years ago last week that 400 men of the British Workers Sports Federation marched up to Kinder Scout, a bleak moorland plateau in Peak District of England. The march was an act of civil disobedience to protest the lack of legal access to “ramble” on open lands. As the trespassers scrambled up toward the Kinder plateau, they encountered the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers.  What happened next is the stuff of grand lore in British rambling: 

In the ensuing scuffle, one keeper was slightly hurt, and the ramblers pressed on to the plateau. Here they were greeted by a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had set off that morning crossing Kinder from Edale. After exchanging congratulations, the two groups joyously retraced their steps, the Sheffield trespassers back to Edale and the Manchester contingent to Hayfield.

As they returned to the village, five ramblers were arrested by police accompanied by keepers, and taken to the Hayfield Lock-up. The day after the trespass, Rothman and four other ramblers were charged at New Mills Police Court with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace [and]….were found guilty and were jailed for between two and six months.

The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the trespassers unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy, and ironically united the ramblers cause.   A few weeks later in 1932 10,000 ramblers – the largest number in history – assembled for an access rally in the Winnats Pass, near Castleton, and the pressure for greater access continued to grow.

On the 75th anniversary of this act of civil disobedience, in 2007, Lord Roy Hattersley described the “Kinder Trespass” as “the most successful direct action in British history" (unless you want to count Gandhi's quite larger direct actions as part of British history!).  (Here is The Guardian’s account of the Trespass in 1932.) 

Why did this event have such an impact on British consciousness that it is still celebrated – and remains controversial in some quarters? 

Because it was about the legitimate scope of private property rights. The Kinder Trespass was intended to point out how unfair and anti-social private land ownership laws were, and how they constrained the public's “right to ramble."

So why should investors always have the upper hand in “development” plans when the resource at stake is a beloved building or public space? Why should the divine right of capital necessarily prevail? 

How refreshing to learn that England has created a special legal process for preventing market enclosures of community pubs.  There is even a Community Pubs Minister, whose duty it is to recognize the value of pubs to communities and to help safeguard their futures.  So far, some 100 pubs have been formally listed as “assets of community value.”

I know, I know – what would Margaret Thatcher say?  "Damned government interventions in the free market!"  Fortunately, that kind of market fundamentalism has abated for a bit, enough that the Community Pubs Minister -- Brandon Lewis, a Conservative Party member of Parliament! -- now extols “the importance of the local pub as part of our economic, social and cultural past, present and future.”  He adds:  “We have known for hundreds of years just how valuable our locals are.  Not just as a place to grab a pint but also to the economies and communities they serve and that is why we are doing everything we can to support and safeguard community pubs from closure.”

The Green Party of England and Wales really knows how to stake out some fresh territory in their national politics!  At the autumn conference, the Greens adopted a resolution calling for “a programme of reform to remove the power to create money from private banks, and to fully restore the supply of our national currency to democratic and public control so that it can be issued free of debt and directed to environmentally and socially beneficial areas.” 

Bold thinking!  The Greens explain why the existing banking system is so pernicious: 

"The existing banking system is undemocratic, unfair and highly damaging.  Banks not only create money, they also decide how it is first used – and have used this power to fund financial speculation and reckless mortgage lending, rather than to finance investment in productive businesses.  Through the interest charged on the loans on which all credit is based, the current banking system increases inequality.  It also regularly causes economic crises:  banks create and lend more and more money until the level of debt becomes unsustainable, boom turns to bust, and the taxpayer bails out banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  Finally, the need to service the growing mountain of debt on which our money is based is a key driver of unsustainable economic growth that is destroying the environment."

The right to create money and profit from it is known as seignorage.  Banks currently enjoy this right and exercise it through their lending, which creates most of the money in circulation.  Governments have effectively let banks privatize control of the money supply.  In so doing, governments have forfeited the opportunity to provide debt-free lending to support productive enterprises and public needs as opposed to fueling boom-and-bust speculation and relentless economic growth that destroys the environment.

Reclaiming seignorage for public benefit has been a serious idea among many progressive economists for years.  A notable figure in this regard is James Robertson, the founder of the new economic foundation in Great Britain, in 1986, who has championed this issue for years.  Robertson’s most recent book Future Money explains how re-gaining public control over how new money is created and circulated could result in “an annual savings to all citizens of the UK of £75bn, and second in a one-off benefit to the public purse totalling £1.5bn over a three-year transition period.”

Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

The Summer issue of STIR is rich with thoughtful, provocative articles on the commons:  pieces on urban aquaponics and student housing coops, a how-to guide for saving the seeds from your tomatoes, instructions for sharing sourdough starter for bread-making, and more.

Two of the more arresting pieces in the issue are an insightful essay by Dougald Hine on “Commoning in the City,” and an interview with the British environmental activist George Monbiot on the concentration of land in England. 

Hine is a British writer and thinker who has started the School of Everything and the Dark Mountain Project.  Hine clearly appreciates that the commons disrupts the familiar thought-frames of conventional politics.  He writes:

“Of everything I hear during these two days [at a Stockholm conference on “Commoning in the City”], the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

In the latest issue of Stir to Action, John Gurney, an historian of the Diggers of the 17th century, has some fascinating perspectives on the Runnymede Eco-Village, a squatters encampment that began in June near the site where the Magna Carta was signed by King John.  In his essay, “The Diggers, the Land and Direct Activism,” Gurney reflects on the parallels between today’s encampment and a similar one that occurred in April 1649:

"It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of privatge property, and the time was ripe for it tobecome once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

….Digging lasted for just over a year from April 1649. The Surrey Diggers abandoned their St George’s Hill colony in the summer of 1649, after having succumbed to frequent assaults and legal actions, and by late August they had relocated to the neighbouring parish of Cobham. Here they remained until 19 April 1650, when local landowners brought hired men to destroy their houses and burn the contents and building materials. New Digger colonies had, however, sprung up elsewhere, inspired by the Surrey Diggers’ example and by Winstanley’s extraordinarily rich body of writings.

Invasion of the Olympics

And now, the movie poster for The Olympics – or as John Stewart puts it, deference to the IOC’s bullying over unauthorized uses of the trademark “Olympics,” “The Quadrennial corporate sponsored international ring-based sports event.” 

This poster was made by Smuzz,  a British illustrator of sci-fi books, among other things who lives in Lancashire.  Funny how the Games™ seem more of an excuse for corporate branding and image-polishing than something that belongs to the athletes themselves or to Londoners.

For those of you who (like me) have trouble reading the fine print on the poster, it reads:  “£25 billion taken from depleted public funds.  Square miles of public land permanently truned over to private contractors.  £553M on security.  13,000 armed forces personnel – more than Britain deploys in Afghanistan.  New police powers.  Wholesale destruction of public parks, sports facilities, allotments, conservation areas, and public spaces.  The Olympics – a self-governing multinational – transforming public property into private assets in every city it lands.  Policed by  G45.  Sponsored by Dow Chemicals.”

Chomsky on the Commons

Noam Chomsky recent gave a meaty talk, “Destroying the Commons:  On Shredding the Magna Carta” that shows how fragile the rights of commoners truly are. Achieved after enormous civil strife, the Magna Carta supposedly guaranteed commoners certain civic and procedural rights.  A companion document, the Charter of the Forest later incorporated into the Magna Carta, expressly guarantees commoners stipulated rights to access and use forests, land, water, game and other natural resources for their subsistence. 

Both documents are now being shredded today with barely a peep of acknowledgment that centuries-old principles of human rights are being swept aside.  Much of Chomsky’s talk is dedicated to his familiar critiques of US geopolitics and corporate globalization.  But he has a few illuminating passages about the Charter of the Forest and modern-day enclosures, especially in the global South.  Chomsky gave the speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Citing Linebaugh’s book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, Chomsky writes:

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization…. By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.  

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world….

The International Olympics Committee is one of the biggest, most aggressive marketers of the Olympic Brand.  It should come as no surprise that athletes want a piece of the action for themselves.  American runner Nick Symmonds has shown his appreciation for the true Olympic spirit by auctioning off a corporate sponsorship on his left shoulder. 

Hanson Dodge Creative, an advertising and design agency in Milwaukee, won the right to pay Symmonds $11,000 to tattoo its Twitter hashtag on his left shoulder.  As a piece by Stewart Elliot in the New York Times assures us, it’s only a temporary tattoo – but it will be there for the duration of the Olympic Games and 2012. 

The Olympics once prided itself on honoring amateurism in athletics – a standard that was often controversial on the margins because it was hard to enforce.  Everyone needs to earn a livelihood somehow, and the eastern bloc countries for years had a form of state-sponsored professionalism of athletes.  That said, is it an emancipation for athletes to be selling their bodies as a vehicle for corporate tattoos?  Talk about “branding”!

Hanson Dodge bought the "tattoo rights" before Nick Symmonds won a berth on the US Olympic team.  After he made Team USA, it meant that Hanson Dodge would now get far more public exposure for its $11,000 than originally anticipated.  Symmonds proudly noted, “You’re never going to find a better cpm.”

Yes, athletes have become experts on advertising.  A “cpm” is a trade term for “cost per thousand,” or the cost that advertisers pay TV, radio or newspaper outlets to reach a thousand consumers.  One might say that Symmonds is a perfect representative for Team USA:  sell, sell sell! 

There is something very sad about the Olympics becoming little more than a strike-it-rich business opportunity.  Symmonds is unapologetic.  When he finished first in a race in June, he stuck out his tongue in defiance, and said:  “My brand identity is to treat every day like it's your last, live life to the fullest.”  Living life to the fullest apparently means acting like a boor and leveraging the cash value of Brand Symmonds.

To judge from James B. Quilligan's recent series of talks in London, Brits are more receptive to, and interested in, the idea of a commons-based economy than ever.  Below, James reflects on his many encounters and dialogues over the course of two weeks.  --DB

Twelve seminars in twelve days? Each on a different topic?

Imagine the angst I felt last winter when organizers in London approached me to make this demanding array of presentations on consecutive days.

They explained that each of the sponsoring groups had a unique perspective on the commons, ranging from economics, business, politics, democracy, culture and technology to land reform, private property, trusteeship, interest rates, systems theory and spirituality.

Once I’d grasped the constellation of issues, I welcomed the challenge of integrating them with the commons. It sounded like real fun.  After extensive preparations, the Quilligan Seminars were held from May 7 - 18 at various locations in London. (For reference, my talking points on all the sessions are included here.)

The commons agenda may seem a long way removed from electoral politics and mainstream respectability.  But we have already seen how the commons sensibility has propelled the Pirate Party to its surprising breakthroughs in Sweden and Germany.  And now we have Blue Labour in the U.K. making a strong bid to re-conceptualize British politics.

A key figure in this transformation is Maurice Glasman, an academic, activist and Labour life peer in the House of Lords.  Glasman has earned wide respect for his community work in London, such as working on a living wage campaign for cooks, security guards and cleaners.  He also worked with faith communities on immigration issues, including a campaign called “Strangers into Citizens” that sought to integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods by fostering social understanding and cooperation among people.

“The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here,” Glasman recently wrote in the Guardian. “The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.”

The "Blue" in Blue Labour refers to its commitment to a “small-c conservatism."  By “conservative,” Glasman and his colleagues mean a commitment to cultural tradition, community and social solidarity – those old-fashioned, “soft” things that are usually treated by politicians as sappy rhetorical inspiration.  What makes Blue Labour stand out from this tradition, however, is the way it brilliantly blends a deeper humanistic vision with a hard-nosed economic analysis, including a staunch opposition to neoliberalism and globalization.

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