Peter Linebaugh has been an insightful and prolific historian and commoner for nearly fifty years, He is one of the most illustrious historians of the commons in the world today, best known for his social and political histories of commoners caught in struggles with state power and early capitalists.
I caught up with Peter recently for a talk about his scholarship and political thinking about the commons in history, now available on Episode #14 of my podcast Frontiers of Commoning. We explored such issues as the importance of the Charter of the Forest and Magna Carta; the criminalization of customary practices as early capitalism arose; the special relationship of women to the commons and therefore their persecution; and the role of commoning in struggles for political emancipation.
In the 1960s, Linebaugh was a student of British labor historian E.P. Thompson, a towering figure who inspired a generation of left historians to show how history can illuminate contemporary life and politics and provide strategic guidance.
Linebaugh, now retired from the University of Toledo after stints at many major universities, has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing and being that have disappeared. At the University of Warwick, in England in the 1970s, Linebaugh was part of a group of historians who called themselves the “crime collective” because they studied the “social banditry” (Eric Hobsbawm’s term) that was used to resist early capitalism in England.
Unlike most academic fields, Community Economies is highly transdisciplinary and socially committed. In fact, it is formally dedicated to “ethical economic practices that acknowledge and act on the interdependence of all life forms, human and nonhuman.”
It also rejects some premises of standard economics, highlighting instead the vast amounts of informal, off-the-books work that is not necessarily monetized or intended for the market. This takes many forms, as the Community Economies “iceberg” image (below) helps illustrate. Even though parenting, community life, care work, gift economies, barter, vernacular culture, and many other form of life are productive and valuable, economists generally dismiss these as trivial or uninteresting. After all, there is no market associated with them and no money changing hands.
To get a better understanding of Community Economies and the work of both CEI and CERN, I recently interviewed Professor Katherine Gibson of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, in Australia, for my Frontiers of Commoning podcast, Episode #13.
Gibson is famous for developing -- along with Julie Graham, the geography professor at UMass Amherst who died in 2010 – the very idea of “diverse economies.” It is meant as a counterpoint to capitalism without being derivative of the capitalist worldview and epistemology.
Under the joint byline J.K. Gibson-Graham, the two wrote such books as The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of the Political Economy (2006), A Postcapitalist Politics (2006), and Take Bake the Economy (with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy) (2013).
Much of the work of the 300-plus CERN researchers around the world is devoted to bringing “invisible” parts of the economy into the daylight. This consists of treatises on such topics as the Solidarity Economy, degrowth, co-operatives, community finance, local trading systems, underground markets, open source software, and commoning, among other topics.
If you’re a good ancestor of the Enlightenment, you probably believe that “nature” is something entirely separate from us. We moderns live at a sanitized distance from messy biophysical realities, after all. Lately, this casual premise of ours has been taking some serious hits, however, with the acceleration of climate change, species extinctions, collapsing coral reefs, cataclysmic weather events, and more.
In recent weeks, I've noticed a big uptick in the number of creative overtures to the realm previously known as nature (a term that implies that humanity and nature are separate). I decided to bring together some of the more imaginative gambits that I've encountered.
What underlies each example, it seems, is our aspiration to treat “nature” as a living system of diverse elements, each with its own agency and imperatives. Or as Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Seneca Nation, put it years ago: “What you people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.”
So how do we get better acquainted with our nonhuman relatives?
A New Pronoun for the Natural World
Robin Wall Kimmerer, the celebrated author of Braiding Sweetgrass, suggests we should start with the idea of using a new pronoun when referring to nature. In a recent essay in The Ecologist magazine, she urges us to avoid the use of the pronoun “it” in such circumstances:
“Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using 'it' absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an 'it' we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. 'It' means it doesn't matter….
When I met Andreas Weber ten years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism and conventional biology. Only later did I realize how much his thinking about living biological organisms has to say about the commons. Andreas is a theoretical biologist and ecophilosopher based in Berlin, Germany, who proposes that science study a mostly unexplained and radical phenomenon -- aliveness!
Andreas is my guest on the latest episode (#12) of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast this month. It’s a provocative 45-minute conversation that may have you re-considering some the nature of life, biological processes, and evolution.
Weber rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each fiercely competing with maximum efficiency to be the fittest in the laissez-faire market known as “nature.” Instead, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently creative and expressive in their struggles to thrive. This struggle is not just about competition, but about symbiotic, enduring cooperation.
This re-framing of the evolution story not only forces us to rethink how life emerges and evolves, but how our entrenched categories of thought about the political economy – nature as the template for our nasty, brutish free-market economy – is simply wrong.
As befits our time of converging existential crises, a number of new anthologies of essays are popping up to make sense of how modern industrial society got here and to propose coherent strategies for moving forward. Today I’d like to call attention to a fantastic collection of 29 original essays, The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy, edited by James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier and published by Routledge.
This 480-page book is a cornucopia of fresh, original thinking by leading thinkers and activists such as Gar Alperovitz, Tim Jackson, Michael Shuman, Ed Whitfield, Riane Eisler, David Korten, Richard D. Wolff, Kali Akuno, Aaron Tanaka, and J.K. Gibson-Graham.
Chapters cover a wide gamut of topics: social democracy and radical localism, the elements of a new, green economy, worker democracy, the Solidarity economy, cooperatives, participatory economics, reparative economics, and much more. (I have my own chapter on commoning as a transformative social paradigm.)
The Next System Project is an initiative of the Democracy Collaborative, which has long been showcasing the best research and strategic thinking about "visions, models and pathways that point to a 'next system' radically different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present...." So it's a pleasure to have so many diverse voices consolidated into a single volume.
Radio Kingston may be the closest thing to a commons that I’ve encountered in the world of radio. It’s a community-minded, noncommercial platform that lets the people of Kingston, New York, and the Hudson Valley, see and hear themselves on the air.
WKNY AM 1490 is not a raucous place of shock jocks, blaring ads, and ratings-driven Top 40 music, nor a place for dark conspiracy theories and hate-mongering. It’s a vibrant mix of music, conversations about all sorts of local concerns, and community storytelling.
The limited mix of formats in contemporary radio could easily lead you to conclude that there aren’t any serious, intelligent, caring, progressive, or creative people in your community. In October 2017, Jimmy Buff set out to change that for Kingston when he took over an aging commercial oldies station and set about working with the community to build a new type of radio-based commons. You can hear a longer version of this story on Episode #11 of Frontiers of Commoning, available here.
Buff is an experienced on-air personality who, in the course of 30 years, had performed on-air at a major New York City rock station and a legendary Woodstock station. As the new director of WKNY, he welcomed the challenge to see how far community radio could go. Thanks to a single donor, the NoVo Foundation, WKNY has had the rare freedom to experiment and feature voices and formats not generally heard on local radio, without incessant fundraising or worries about weekly ratings.
The station’s programming has blocs of airtime for rock, pop, and classical, as one might expect, but also slots for polka, German sounds, and offbeat types of music. There are shows dedicated to the concerns of LGBTQ people, seniors, people of color, women, the local arts scene, mindfulness practice, Italian culture, the environment, and regional business.
It’s a bit odd that land reform is barely mentioned in most progressive agendas. Maybe that's because it is seen as challenging the presumed virtues of private property and capitalist markets. Yet secure access and tenure to land is essential for achieving so many progressive goals, from building new sorts of regional food systems to providing affordable housing and enabling local self-determination and personal well-being.
Severine is a young organic farmer, activist and organizer based in Maine who has had a remarkably productive career as an advocate for young farmers and land reform. She helped start Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. In recent years, Agrarian Trust has started ten Agrarian Commons in the US, in an attempt to make community-supported, collectively stewarded farmland available to younger farmers. As the project notes: “With 400 million acres of land in the U.S. expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now.”
Agrarian Trust is just one of many new ventures that Severine has helped set in motion. She also played a key role in starting Greenhorns, a grassroots cultural organization that produces a literary journal, radio show, blog, and other media for young farmers. She helped launch Farm Hack, a project that designs and builds farm equipment using open source principles.
More recently, Fleming pulled together Seaweed Commons, a network of people concerned about seaweed aquaculture and intertidal commoning. The project is focused on improving “the ecological literacy of stakeholders in the marine economy.” The challenge includes preventing toxic algae blooms, capturing the runoff of nutrients from salmon pens around the world, and ensuring ethical, environmentally responsible cultivation of seaweed for biofuels and aquaculture.
I don't normally post long essays, but I want to share this terrific piece by Maywa Montenegro de Wit on the struggle to create a socio-legal class of seeds can be shared.This mode of seed usage prevailed throughout most of history, of course, but as major ag-biotech corporations have aggressively pushed proprietary and genetically modified seed, seed-sharing and breeding among farmers has become marginalized and sometimes illegal. This has made farmers more dependent on expensive seeds and industrial farming techniques with harmful ecological impacts. It has also discouraged traditional agricultural practices that work with nature in which seed is shared and improved upon through commoning.
Montenegro isan assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her work draws on political ecology, science and technology studies, and rural sociology to address issues of seed diversity and access to it.
C.R. Lawn knows what primitive accumulation feels like. As founder of the Fedco Seeds cooperative, he saw fungicide treatments become ubiquitous in the 1980s, and decided to stop sell- ing seeds laced with the hazardous chemicals. In the 1990s, as GMOs came online, he placed a moratorium on the technology out of concern for unknown risks. Nine years later, when Monsanto bought out Seminis — Fedco’s largest supplier of vegetable seeds — Fedco began boycotting the company because, as Lawn explains, “we could not in good conscience sell their varieties.” The chemicals, the GMOs, and the patents, Lawn says, are part of a broader phenomenon: “We have privatized our common wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the common good.”
C.R. Lawn and his Fedco growers and packers are not alone in these deliberate rejections of seed enclosures. They are part of a movement gaining traction in many parts of the world, Global North and South, that refuses to adopt the dominant wisdom: that agrobiodiversity is best managed as private property; that breeding innovation will not occur in the absence of patents, variety protections, and other intellectual property (IP) rights; and that “improved seeds” result from individual ingenuity, rather than from collective knowledge, gleaned in and through experience with the land. From India to Peru, France to the Philippines, social movements are now advancing a bold discourse of seed freedom, seeking to reclaim what has been appropriated, privatized, and separated from the everyday and practical experience of farmers and farmer-breeders.
This chapter traces a novel expression of seed freedom that emerges from something old: the concept of a “commons.” Conventionally defined as social or natural resources not owned by anyone, but over which a community has shared and equal rights, the commons go back many centuries in agrarian history, their enclosures marking a crucial juncture in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I add to the burgeoning new commons literature by looking at commons as a biocultural form, speciﬁcally in relation to seeds. Scholarly emphasis to date has been primarily on rules and institutions of resource management, following the principles of a well-governed commons. My argument is that seeds turn our attention to the politics and practices of access to means of reproduction. We consider how community rules, values, and practices of making new seed varieties — or plant breeding — are at once driven and shaped by a larger political economic order. We explore how seed diversity is gained and/or lost through histories of legal, scientiﬁc, and biological enclosure.
Following recent contributions to commons scholarship, I emphasize commons as a living, dynamic ﬁeld of practice — not simply a resource divided amongst people, but a social transformation developed in and through the practices of commoning. Moving from noun to verb, this formulation also puts greater emphasis on the people and communities intrinsic to the commons — not just on the seed, but on farmers, seed savers, and plant breeders.
For Dave Jacke, a designer of ecological landscapes since the late 1970s, human culture and our “inner landscapes” are the floating variables for our future on Earth. “Western culture, psychosocially, is extremely underdeveloped,” Jacke says in the just-released Episode #9 of my podcast, Frontiers of Commoning. “We humans believe we are separate [from natural systems]. That is kind of like the developmental stage of a two-year-old.”
The question facing the human species is whether we can sufficiently adapt our cultures to make them compatible with living ecosystems. This was a primary topic in my discussions with Jacke. “Very few people alive today have any idea of what a healthy ecosystem looks like,” said Jacke, “because all of us have grown up in damaged ecosystems. We do not understand the abundance that is possible.”
But paradoxically, our “under-development” is a reason for hope: “If the human species were as developed as we could be, genetically, as we face all the perils we face, we’d be screwed. But the fact that we have so much room to grow, psychosocially, is our greatest reason for hope,” Jacke claims.
Jacke has been a serious student of ecology and design since the late 1970s when he embarked on a career designing and installing landscapes for homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas. He is a passionate teacher and consultant about designing human cultures using ecological principles -- sometimes known as "applied ecology," or what some folks call permaculture. He pursued this work through his firm Dynamics Ecological Design based in Montague, Massachusetts. [Email: davej/at/edibleforestgardens.com]
Update, December 14: The campaign to protect Montenegro's Sinjajevina pastoral commons and the communities that steward them has succeeded for now! More at this excellent overview piece by Pablo Dominguez at FreedomNews.org.
For years, the US Navy deliberately used the lush Caribbean island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for target practice. It shot all sorts of projectiles onto the island until 2003, when huge public protests and civil disobedience made the wanton destruction too hot for the Navy. It withdrew from Vieques, by then a severely contaminated tropical wasteland that is being "cleaned up" (if possible) and turned into a wildlife refuge.
Now we are at the dawn of a similar situation in the highland pastures of the Balkans known as Sinjajevina.The region’s large mountain grasslands – home to eight native tribes with 22,000 people and a rich biodiversity – has been used for centuries as pastoral commons, “katuns.” The area’s biodiversity is recognized by two nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites. Until recently, Sinjajevina had been a place of stable lives lived in happy coexistence with the land.
Obviously, such things cannot be allowed.The government of Montenegro, supported by key NATO allies, has established a military training ground on the pastoral commons. NATO saw no need to hold any public hearings or consultations with the people who live there. With the government’s assent, it just barged right in, sidelining government plans for a regional park to protect the local ecosystem and communities.