It’s worth remembering how acts of commoning can have lasting consequences, including legacies that we may not even remember. Bernard Marszalek, who has lived in Berkeley, California, since the 1980s, brought to my attention the near-forgotten history of Ohlone Park in his city. The park is a fairly large patch of greenery that a forgotten corps of enterprising commoners in effect gifted to later generations.
The time was 1969, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority had demolished 200 Berkeley homes in order to dig a trench for an underground portion of their rail system. As Marzalek tells it, “BART then filled in tons of dirt on top of the tube it built and in this way ‘reclaimed’ the land that it bulldozed. It strip-mined Berkeley to submerge the trains and above left four blocks along Hearst Avenue a barren, ugly field of dust in summer and mud in winter. An eyesore. BART officials said that they didn’t have funds (or mental bandwidth?) to develop it, that is, monetize it.”
A year later, writes Marzalek in his history of Ohlone Park, another unsightly mud pit emerged when the University of California razed a square block of homes with plans for building student housing. But it ran out of money, leaving another eyesore. “The south campus community believed that the university wanted to remove a dissident community of artists, lefties, and hippies that had lodged in the affordable housing on that site,” he wrote.
If there is any doubt that ordinary, non-credentialed people are prepared to step up to the daunting challenges of climate change and Peak Oil, I’m pleased to report that the good people of Kingston, New York, gave a resoundingly positive answer this past weekend.
More than 230 people (1% of the city’s population!) showed up at a bold convening called “Surviving the Future: Connection and Community in Unstable Times.” The event invited the public to explore some of the big questions facing humanity right now, with a local twist: “What do we need to navigate these tumultuous times an create the systems and ways of being together that best serve us?” “What’s already going on in and around Kingston?” “What more do we think is possible?”
This event was the brainchild of six community groups seeking to pull together activist-minded doers. It was an experiment in trying to catalyze a new level of emergence in the Hudson Valley and discover if artists, tenants, racial justice advocates, sustainable farmers, alt-transportation experts, relocalization enthusiasts, and many others, could come together and start to develop a shared vision for change.
The event began with three talks on Friday evening to frame the challenges. People heard an inspiring talk from Kali Akuno of the famed Cooperation Jackson project that is using cooperatives to empower the people of Jackson, Mississippi, to take charge of their lives. Ariel Brooks of the New Economics Coalition explained what is meant by a “Just Transition” ("transition is inevitable; justice is not"). And I introduced the commons as a valuable tool in this quest and noted the “pluriverse of noncapitalist alternatives” already emerging. (Micah Blumenthal and Evelyn Wright were excellent facilitators throughout!)
I am always amazed at how commoning reaches into the most unlikely realms of life. The latest example that I’ve discovered is jazz performance! For the moment, leave aside the idea of jazz as an artform that is fundamentally about commoning – improvised collaboration, individual artistry that flowers within an ensemble, being attuned to the present moment.
Let’s just consider concert production as a commons.
In western Massachuetts, where I live, Pioneer Valley Jazz Sharesrepresents a creative mashup of the CSA farm model (community-supported agriculture) with concert production. Instead of paying upfront for a season’s supply of vegetables, people pay for a September-June season of ten jazz concerts. It’s like a subscription model but it’s more of a community investment in supporting a jazz ecosystem. Talented musicians get to perform, fans get to experience some cutting-edge jazz, the prices are entirely reasonable for everyone, and a community spirit flourishes.
As the group explains:
Our members purchase jazz shares to provide the capital needed to produce concerts with minimal institutional support. A grassroots, all-volunteer organization, we are a community of music lovers in Western Massachusetts dedicated to the continued vitality of jazz music. By pooling resources, energy and know-how, members create an infrastructure that is able to bring world-class improvisers to our region.
Cofounders Glenn Siegel and Priscilla Page decided to launch Jazz Shares after realizing that there were many more jazz musicians in the region than there were commercial venues to support them. As a longtime concert producer at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Siegel lamented, “Each season I would receive many more worthy gig requests than I could honor. With a limit on how many University concerts I could produce each year (six), and without the personal resources to just write checks, I got tired of saying ‘Sorry, no’ to some of my musical heroes. I knew there must be another way to bring these great musicians to town.”
As an economist might put it, there was a market failure (demand did not induce an adequate supply). So commoning came to the rescue!
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory,a shattered Democratic Party and dazed progressives agree on at least one thing: Democrats must replace Republicans in Congress as quickly as possible. As usual, however, the quest to recapture power is focused on tactical concerns and political optics, and not on the need for the deeper conversation that the 2016 election should have provoked us to have: How can we overcome the structural pathologies of our rigged economy and toxic political culture, and galvanize new movements capable of building functional alternatives?
Since at least the 1980s, Democrats have accepted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the free-market “progress” narrative—the idea that constant economic growth with minimal government involvement is the only reliable way to advance freedom and improve well-being. Dependent on contributions from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Big Pharma, the Democratic Party remains incapable of recognizing our current political economy as fundamentally extractive and predatory. The party’s commitment to serious change is halfhearted, at best.
While the mainstream resistance to Trump is angry, spirited, and widespread, its implicit agenda, at least on economic matters, is more to restore a bygone liberal normalcy than to forge a new vision for the future. The impressive grassroots resistance to Trump may prove to be an ambiguous gift. While inspiring fierce mobilizations, the politicization of ordinary people, and unity among an otherwise fractious left, it has thus far failed to produce a much-needed paradigm shift in progressive thought.
This search for a new paradigm is crucial as the world grapples with some profound existential questions: Is continued economic growth compatible with efforts to address the urgent dangers of climate change? If not, what does this mean for restructuring capitalism and reorienting our lives? How can we reap the benefits of digital technologies and artificial intelligence without exacerbating unemployment, inequality, and social marginalization? And how shall we deal with the threats posed by global capital and right-wing nationalism to liberal democracy itself?
When I walk my dog Jackson along a burbling brook, I always smile when I pass the Bunny House. It’s like greeting a familiar leprechaun in the forest. The “house” is a small wooden box with a shingled roof, sitting atop a four-foot pole. One side of it is open to passing hikers.
Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”
It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.
I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.
Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest. There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side. The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.
I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it. Tragic! I was so dismayed. The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it. The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!
I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”
The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”
While most of the essays deal with British co-ops and commons, the lessons and strategies mentioned have a relevance to many other places. Consider land ownership, a topic that is rarely a part of progressive political agendas. Steve Bendle, director of a group called Community Land and Finance, offers a clear-eyed assessment of how government is obsessed with enhancing the value of land for landowners and developers – while largely ignoring how land could be used to serve citizens, taxpayers and the wider community.
Unneeded land and government buildings, for example, are generally put up for sale on the market rather than used to serve the needs of a community for housing, work spaces or civic infrastructure. The assumption is that privatized, market-driven uses of the assets will yield the greatest “value” (narrowly defined as return on investment to private investors).
When government (i.e., taxpayers) finances new roads, subways or rail systems, the market value at key locations and buildings invariably rises. But government rarely does much to capture this value for the public.
Bendle concludes: “So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.”
Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live. And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.
A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality. It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons.
By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.
Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:
“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food. This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one. A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food. Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”
Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran. Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years. Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.
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.”
Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local. I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London. The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:
Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.
To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.
The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns. The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example. They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready.
For all the enthusiasm that “going local” has garnered in recent years, securing local control as a legal entitlement is generally a very different matter. Federal and state law tend to place strict limits on what local communities can do to protect themselves from outside commercial forces.
The truth of the matter is that local communities don’t really have much legal authority to prohibit polluters and extractive industries (mining, water-bottling, timber companies) from coming into their towns and ruining the place. In the U.S., at least, and in most other places around the world, national governments have the sovereign power to override local authorities, and they are only too willing to do so. After all, politicians’ partnerships with major industries help grow the economy, boost tax revenues and reap political contributions to repeat the whole cycle.
Of course, the “market externalities” that result -- poisoned soil, polluted rivers, etc. – aren’t taken into account. The traditional response of public-interest attorneys is to “work within the system” to deal with these problems, using available laws and judicial processes.