Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

August 14, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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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.

We are not witnessing a turn towards anarchism, exactly, but something more pragmatic: a shift in the general mood, reflecting the reality of people’s experience after five years of this unending crisis, itself coming after decades of neoliberalism. It is the attitude that underlies the Squares Movement, from Tahrir to Syntagma, the Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park. If those camping out in cities across three continents were reluctant to distill their discontent into a set of demands on government, this was not simply a utopian refusal to engage with the compromises of political reality; it was also a conviction that to put hope in government is now the most utopian position of all. This is also the attitude that has driven the rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and it has all the uncomfortable ambiguities such an example suggests.

Into this vacuum, the commons enters as an alternative to both public and private. I find myself wanting to push this further, to suggest that it indicates a significant historical rupture, in at least two senses: a breaking of the frame of politics as a tug of war between the forces of state and market; and the failure of the project of the public, the promise of liberal modernity to construct a neutral space in which we could meet each other as individuals with certain universal rights. This latter point is particularly uncomfortable, we discover during our conversations in Stockholm, since many of our ideas of social justice are founded on that framework. Yet if it is true that the rise of the commons reflects the failure of the public, it is not clear that we can simply expect to borrow its assumptions.

A politics that has abandoned the public might justly be called a post-modern politics. We have already seen the cynical form of such a politics in the hands of Bush, Blair and Berlusconi: the reliance on controlling the narrative, the disdain for ‘the reality-based community’. Against this, the appeal to older public values looks sadly nostalgic. (Think of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series for HBO, The Newsroom: its opening titles, a montage of a nobler age of American journalism, the series itself offers a kind of liberal wish-fulfilment, while Obama presides over drone wars and assassination lists.) The attraction of the commons, then, may be that it promises the emergence of a non-cynical form of post-modern politics…”

The interview with George Monbiot focuses on the appalling increase in the concentration of land ownership in the UK in recent years.  Besides its obvious inequities, the consolidation of ownership has contorted democratic policymaking to benefit the rich, and made it more difficult for people to use the land for alternative purposes such as land cooperatives and community-supported agriculture. 

Monbiot has a new book, Feral, which is a call to “rewild” the land in the UK so that we can “rewild” ourselves.  He points out that the landowning class in rural Britain is disproportionately made up by wealthy city-dwellers, who, according to Tory-oriented editor Fraser Nelson, care more about wildlife and the environment than the people who actually live in the countryside.

Monbiot coins the term “agricultural hegemony” (taking a cue from Gramsci’s “cultural hegemony) to describe “when the demands and perspective of the farmers and landowners are being conflated with the demands and desire of the whole rural population….What you’ve got here is a real democratic deficit – a real lack of democracy – because the majority of rural people do not really have a voice in what happens in the countryside.” 

This dominance of rural land by wealthy citydwellers means that enclosure is still alive and kicking in the British countryside.  In 2011 the government tried to sell off England’s forests, which fortunately was stopped by activists.  But the political pressures to enclose nature, and monetize it for the benefit of landowners, remain quite strong.  The government has established an Ecosystem Markets Task Force and the Natural Capital Committee, which support the idea of monetizing “nature’s services” for the benefit of landowners. 

Monbiot:  “What is effectively being said is that biodiversity, the hydrological cycle, typography and all these other public benefits – such as the rain – no longer belong to everyone and no one, but now they belong to the landowner.  It is now proposed that the landowner would be paid for supplying them.”  A terrific interview with Monbiot by STIR editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh.

STIR has now become a print-based magazine, which is a sign of its success in reaching more people.  However, as a struggling enterprise with an insurgent vision, it needs to raise money from subscriptions, and so its articles will no longer be published immediately on the Web.  You can buy the Summer issue for £3.95 from here – or wait until the issue is posted online this fall.  STIR is one of the few magazines that captures the emerging sensibilities of commoners and commons activism, so it is well worth your support.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: rewilding, the commons