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!”
What does the corporate enclosure of the Internet look like? It starts with grand words wrapped in timid acts. That's what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave the American people as he punted on the important issues that need to be resolved. Internet users and startup entrepreneurs needed to be assured that their data-traffic would not be delayed or stifled just because AT&T, Comcast or Verizon might wish to do so.
Given the political clout that Internet service providers have within the Obama administration and Congress, the new rules will only hasten a further consolidation of power over Internet access and a new marketization of Internet content and traffic. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without new battles that might slow or limit this outcome. But the FCC's unwillingness to defend our interests -- in the face of telecom oligopolies with enormous political influence and legal resources -- is a clear sign of where things are headed. Downward.
Those antic law professors who gave us Bound by Law – a glorious superhero-comic treatment of the fair use doctrine in filmmaking -- are at it again! Forget DC Comics. I want my IP Comics! Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins are apparently out to build a franchise by translating the arcane monstrosities of copyright law into clever, hilarious and downright educational comic books.
Their latest offering, due out in the spring or summer of 2011, is Theft! A History of Music -- Musical Borrowing from Plato to Hip-Hop. Aoki, a professor of law at the UC-Davis School of Law, is the graphic artist for the comic book. Boyle and Jenkins -- both professors at Duke Law School – researched, wrote and designed it. Boyle is the former Chairman of Creative Commons and co-founder of its spinoff project, Science Commons. Jenkins heads the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
The International Commons Conference in Berlin continues to generate some interesting follow-up work. One of the most engaging is a series of videos shot by Alain Ambrosi of Remix the Commons. The day after the conference, Alain interviewed ten commoners, including me, asking each of us the same questions, such as "What struck you most about this conference?"and "Would you say there is a commons movement?"
The Remix the Commons project is still a work-in-progress and won’t be fully operational for a few months. However, in the meantime, two different series of videos are available: “Define the Commons / Définir le Bien Commun / Definir el Procomùn,” and “Framing the Commons in Berlin.” The latter consists of a series of nine separate interviews with Silke Helfrich (Germany), Michel Bauwens (Thailand), Julio Lambing (Germany), Beatriz Busaniche (Argentina), Frédéric Sultan (France), Valérie Peugeot (France), Rosa Maria Fernanda (Ecuador), Alberto Acosta (Ecuador), Hervé Le Crosnier (France), and me. Each interview is conducted in the interviewee’s native language.
So now NATO is interested in the commons! Or at least, it’s interested in what it thinks is the commons. In September, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.” Attendees were mostly unknown to us commoners, but they are described as “senior representatives from the EU institutions and NATO, with national government officials, industry, the international and specialised media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs.”
The event, hosted by a Brussels-based think tank called Security & Defence Agenda, had its own ideas about what the commons is. Let’s just say the sponsors apparently don’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their needs.
No. To NATO decisionmakers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states, yet which are necessary to fruitful intercourse among nation-states. So, for example: space, the oceans and the Internet.
One of the abiding dramas that we moderns are fated to endure is the nagging sense that something more real, more authentic is happening elsewhere, that we do not really inhabit our own skin and have sovereign experiences. Why is this? Former magazine editor and essayist Richard Todd explore this vague, uneasy phenomenon in a series of beautifully written, amusing and often profound chapters in his book, The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity (Riverhead Books, 2008). I've been reading it lately and finding much nourishment.
Todd writes: "This book began with a simple feeling, the sense that my life and much of the life around me was not ‘real.’” What does it mean to be “real,” and why do we care about it so much? The twenty-one essays are sparkling, humane meditations on “authenticity” and the false and simulated. Why do we prize an object that has a documented historical provenance over an identical facsimile? Why are the the hyper-real, personal lives of celebrities so compelling to so many people even though the details are so palpably artificial? Why is irony often as revealing and truthful as professions of unvarnished “sincerity”?