The women of Erakulapally – a small village two hours west of Hyderabad, India – spread a blanket onto the dusty ground and carefully made thirty piles of different seeds: their treasure, the symbols of their emancipation. A rich aroma wafts through the air.
For these women – all of them dalit, members of the poorest and lowest social caste in India – seeds are not just seeds. They are the vehicle for a remarkable transformation in their lives, local farming and their ecosystem.
Over the past twenty-five years, thousands of women in small villages in the Andhra Pradesh region of India have escaped from working as low-paid, bonded laborers, to become self-reliant farmers able to grow enough to feed their households. Food was once unaffordable and hunger common. Now the women can feed their families, often without having to buy anything in the market. Despite their status as dalits, they are no longer filled with fear and anxiety, but rather show great confidence and pride in themselves.
A group of us attending the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons drove out to meet the women last week. We were welcomed with a tasty millet-based drink and a short chorus of joyous singing. Our meeting was hosted by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grassroots organization that is helping the poorest rural women of India recover their rich traditions of sharing seeds and community-managed farming. The foyer of the building in which we met featured a “seed shrine” -- dozens of small clay pots filled to the brim with colorful seeds.
Every two years, the universe of scholars who study the commons converge on some spot on the planet to present their research findings, argue about theoretical models and party-hardy. Just kidding about that last one, but it is hard to imagine a more interesting party than 600 people from 90 countries around the world.
I have encountered an Indian economist who has closely studied the role of women in improving the sustainability of forest commons in Nepal (Bina Agarwal), an Australian academic who has written about modern-day gleaning such as “dumpster diving” (James Arvanitakis), a British activist who helped pass a modern-day law to protect British common lands (Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society), an Indian-American who is studying how language shapes our ability to understand the commons (Vijaya Nagarajan), a Belgian historian of the European commons (Tine De Moor), among many others.
It is quite a pleasant shock to suddenly be around so many people who not only know what the commons is; they can get into some rather arcane and sophisticated arguments about it. The conference is skewed towards academics, however, which means that the policy and activist sensibility is somewhat muted. That’s too bad, but I hope it might change in the future.
There is also an emphatic focus on natural resource commons, with a very limited exploration of so-called “new commons,” by which the IASC academics mean commons that have arisen in unconventional realms such as the Internet. I find this too bad, because there is so much to be learned from digital commons, which are among the most robust commons out there. The phrase “new commons” is also vaguely off-putting because it privileges the natural resource commons so absolutely. Now I have an inkling of how Native Americans must have felt to have been “discovered.”
I have decided to start an annual list of the most remarkable efforts to resist market enclosure over the preceding year: Annals of the Inalienable. It’s about people who are so committed to a certain set of values – the sanctity of a cherished piece of land, the integrity of their community --that they resisted great pressures to cash in. The idea is to showcase those people who showed great courage and tenacity in resisting the siren call of The Market in order to preserve something of deeper value.
In a time when human organs and living organisms are routinely propertized and sold, the act of standing up for “the inalienable” is a radical act.
I was much inspired by a story in the New York Times about Jake Locker, a quarterback for the University of Washington who was destined to be a top draft pick for the NFL last year. That enviable spot could easily have made Locker a multimillionaire. Instead, he turned down the offers in order to finish his education, continue playing with his team and live in the small town of Ferndale with his fans -- the "Ferndawgs." In his junior year, while football scouts were swarming for Jake's attention, the crowds actually chanted, “Don’t go, Jake!”
Coming to terms with the commons means a willingness to learn a new language and the alien worldview that it makes possible. That is one of the great lessons that I have gleaned from reading histories of English commons and the enclosure movement.
I realized this anew upon reading an essay by historian Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” in the December 2010 issue of Radical History Review. (Alas, the essay is locked behind a paywall, but fortunately, a website called “Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order: A Collaborative Project” -- which Radical History Review has a hand in – has posted a downloadable pdf version of the essay here.)
Linebaugh -- the great scholar of the commons and author of The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2006) – has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing that have disappeared. I was struck by two passages describing the folkways of commoners. The first links “body-snatching” with the commons, a conjunction that made me start. It turns out that, amidst a civil rebellion in Otmoor, near Oxford, England, in the 1830s, a rallying cry of the commoners was “Damn the body snatchers!”