The Commons of World, Experience, and Identity

The commons, sadly, have become less common. Mark Vernon writes that, “in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody” (Spiritual Commons). The Charter of the Forest formally established the commons within English law and it lasted from 1217 to 1971. That isn’t some ancient tradition but survived far into modernity, well within still living memory. The beginning of the end was the enclosure movement that was first seen not long after the Charter was signed into law, but the mass evictions of peasants from their land wouldn’t happen until many centuries later with sheep herding, coal mining, and industrialization.

It’s hard for us to imagine what was the commons. It wasn’t merely about land and resources, about the customs and laws about rights and responsibilities, about who had access to what and in what ways. The commons was a total social order, a way of being. The physical commons was secondary to the spiritual commons as community, home and sense of place (“First came the temple, then the city.”) — “Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory” (Alan Moore, “Coal Country”, from Spirits of Place); “…haunted places are the only ones people can live in” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life). The commons also was a living force, at a time when Christianity permeated every aspect of life and when the felt experience of Paganism continued in local traditions and stories, often incorporated into Church rituals and holy days. Within the commons, there was a shared world where everyone was accountable to everyone else. Even a chicken or a wagon could be brought to court, according to the English common law of doedands (Self, Other, & World).

The parish was an expression of the commons, embodying local community and identity that was reinforced by the annual beating of the bounds, a practice that goes back to ancient Rome, a faint memory of what once was likely akin to the Aboriginal songlines in invoking a spiritual reality. It was within the parish that life revolved and the community was maintained, such as determining disputes and taking care of the sick, crippled, elderly, widowed, and orphaned. We can’t genuinely care about what we feel disconnected from. Community is fellowship, kinship and neighborliness, is intimate relationship and familiarity. This relates to why Germanic ‘freedom’ meant to be part of a free people and etymologically was related to ‘friendship’, as opposed to Latin ‘liberty’ that merely indicated one wasn’t enslaved while surrounded by those who were (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness).

“It is the non-material aspects of life,” Vernon suggests, “that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering.” He states that a crucial element is to re-imagine, and that makes me think of he living imagination or what some call the imaginal as described by William Blake, Henry Cobin, James Hillman, Patrick Harpur, and many others. And to re-imagine would mean to re-experience in new light. He goes onto speak of the ancient Greek view of time. John Demos, in Circles and Lines, explains how cyclical time remained central to American experience late into the colonial era and, as the United States wasn’t fully urbanized until the 20th century, surely persisted in rural eras for much longer. Cyclical time was about a sense of recurrence and return, central to the astrological worldview that gave us the word ‘revolution’, that is to revolve. The American Revolutionaries were hoping for a return and the sense of the commons was still strong among them, even as it was disappearing quickly.

Instead of time as abundance, the modern world feels like time is always running out and closing in on us. We have no sense of openness to the world, as we’ve become insulated within egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. As with beating the bounds of the parish, cyclical time contains the world into a familiar landscape of the larger world of weather patterns and seasons, of the sun, moon and stars — the North Wind is a force and a being, shaping the world around us; the river that floods the valley is the bringer of life. The world was vitally and viscerally alive in a way few moderns have ever experienced. Our urban yards and our rural farms are ecological deserts. City lights and smog hide the heavens from our view. Let us share a longer excerpt from Vernon’s insightful piece:

“Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

“Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

“He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.”

That is reminiscent of an event from 1994. There was a major earthquake on the West Coast and Los Angeles had a blackout. The emergency services were swamped with calls, not from people needing help for injuries but out of panic for the strange lights they were seeing in the sky. It scared people, as if the lights were more threatening than the earthquake itself — actual signs from the heavens. Eventually, the authorities were able to figure out what was going on. Thousands of urbanites were seeing the full starry sky for the first time in their entire lives. That situation has worsened since then, as mass urbanization is pushed to further extremes and, even though smog has lessened, light pollution has not (Urban Weirdness). We are literally disconnected from the immensity of the world around us, forever enclosed within our own human constructions. Even our own humanity has lost is wildness (see Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human).

We can speak of the world as living, but to most of us that is an abstract thought or a scientific statement. Sure, the world is full of other species and ecosystems. That doesn’t capture the living reality itself, though, the sense of vibrant and pulsing energy, the sounds and voices of other beings (Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond) — this is what the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her “Stroke of Insight”, described as the “life-force power of the universe” (See Scott Preston’s Immanence of the Transcendent & The Premises of Our Existence), maybe related to what Carl Jung referred to as the “objective psyche”. One time while tripping on magic mushrooms, I saw-felt the world glistening, the fields shimmered in the wind and moonlight and everything breathed a single breath in unison.

That animistic worldview once was common, as was the use of psychedelics, prior to their being outlawed and increasingly replaced by addictive substances, from nicotine to caffeine (The World that Inhabits Our Mind). And so the addictive mind has built up psychic scar tissue, the thick walls of the mind that safely and comfortably contain us (“Yes, tea banished the fairies.” & Diets and Systems). Instead of beating the bounds of a parish, we beat the bounds of our private egoic territory, our thoughts going round in round like creatures caught in a tidal pool that is drying up in the harsh sunlight — when will the tide come back in?

* * *

Here is some additional historical info. The feudal laws were to some extent carried over into North America. In early America, legally owning land didn’t necessarily mean much. Land was only effectively owned to the degree you used it and that originally was determined by fencing. So, having a paper that says you own thousands of acres didn’t necessarily mean anything, if it wasn’t being maintained for some purpose.

It was every citizen’s right to use any land (for fishing, hunting, gathering, camping, etc) as long as it wasn’t fenced in — that was at a time when fencing was expensive and required constant repair. This law remained in place until after the Civil War. It turned out to be inconvenient to the whites who wanted to remain masters, as blacks could simply go anywhere and live off of the land. That was unacceptable and so blacks need to be put back in their place. That was the end of that law.

But there were other similar laws about land usage. Squatting rights go back far into history. Even to this day, if someone shows no evidence of using and maintaining a building, someone who squats there for a period of time can claim legal ownership of it. Some of my ancestors were squatters. My great grandfather was born in a house his family was squatting in. Another law still in place has to do with general land usage. If someone uses your land to graze their horses or as a walking path, some laws will allow legal claims to be made on continuing that use of land, unless the owner explicitly sent legal paperwork in advance declaring his ownership.

There was a dark side to this. Canada also inherited this legal tradition from feudalism. In one case, a family owned land that they enjoyed but didn’t explicitly use. It was simply beautiful woods. A company was able to dredge up an old law that allowed them to assert their right to use the land that the family wasn’t using. Their claim was based on minerals that were on the property. They won the case and tore up the woods for mining, despite having no ownership of the land. Those old feudal laws worked well in feudalism but not always so well in capitalism.

I’ll end on a positive note. There was a law that was particularly common in Southern states. It basically stated that an individual’s right to land was irrevocable. Once you legally owned land, no one could ever forcefully take it away from you. Even if you went into debt or didn’t pay your taxes, the land would be yours. The logic was that land meant survival. You could be utterly impoverished and yet access to land meant access to food, water, firewood, building materials, etc. The right to basic survival, sustenance, and subsistence could not be taken away from anyone (well, other than Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc; okay, not an entirely positive note to end on).

Happy Birthday, Charter of the Forest!

This is the birthday of an important historical document. Eight hundred years ago on this day, 6 November 1217, the Charter of the Forest was first issued. Along with the closely related Magna Carta (1215), it formally and legally established a precedent in the English-speaking world. It was one of the foundations of the English Commons and gave new standing to the commoner as a citizen. And it was one of the precursors for the Rights of Englishmen, Lockean land rights, and the United States Bill of Rights.

The Charter of the Forest didn’t only mean a defense of the rights of commoners for, in doing so, it was a challenge to the rights of rulers. This was a sign of weakening justification and privileges of monarchy. And such a challenge would feed into emerging republicanism during the Renaissance and Reformation, coming into bloom during the early modern era. This populist tradition helped to incite the Peasants’ Revolt, the English Civil War, and the American Revolution. The rights of the Commons inspired the Levellers to fight for popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. And it took even more extreme form in the primitive communism of the Diggers.

Such a charter was one of the expressions of what would later develop into liberal and radical thought during the enlightenment age and the early modern revolutions. Democracy, as we know it, would form out of this. Through the American founders and revolutionary pamphleteers, these legacies and ideas would shape the new world that followed. The ideas would remain potent enough to divide the country during the American Civil War.

We should take seriously what it means that these core Anglo-American traditions have been eroded and their ancient origins largely forgotten. It’s a loss of freedom and a loss of identity.

Who owns the earth?
by Antonia Malchik, Adeon

The commons are just what they sound like: land, waterways, forests, air. The natural resources of our planet that make life possible. Societies throughout history have continually relied on varying systems of commons usage that strove to distribute essential resources equitably, like grazing and agricultural land, clean water for drinking and washing, foraged food, and wood for fuel and building. As far back as 555 CE the commons were written into Roman law, which stated outright that certain resources belonged to all, never owned by a few: ‘By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.’

The power of this tradition is difficult to explain but even more difficult to overstate, and its practice echoes throughout Western history. The Magna Carta, agreed to in 1215 by England’s King John at the insistence of his barons, protected those nobles from losing their lands at the whim of whatever sovereign they were serving. It also laid down the right to a trial by one’s peers, among other individual rights, and is the document widely cited as the foundation of modern democracy.

What is less well-known is the Charter of the Forest, which was agreed to two years later by the regent for Henry III, King John having died in 1216. With the Charter, ‘management of common resources moves from the king’s arbitrary rule’, says Carolyn Harris, a Canadian scholar of the Magna Carta, ‘to the common good’. The Charter granted what are called subsistence rights, the right that ‘[e]very free man may henceforth without being prosecuted make in his wood or in land he has in the forest a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit, a ditch, or arable outside the covert in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour’. Included was the permission to graze animals and gather the food and fuel that one needed to live.

These rights went over to America intact and informed that country’s founding fathers as they developed their own system of laws, with a greater emphasis on the rights of commoners to own enough land to live independently. (That this land belonged to the native people who already lived there didn’t factor much into their reasoning.) For Thomas Jefferson, according to law professor Eric T Freyfogle in his 2003 book The Land We Share, ‘[t]he right of property chiefly had to do with a man’s ability to acquire land for subsistence living, at little or no cost: It was a right of opportunity, a right to gain land, not a right to hoard it or to resist public demands that owners act responsibly.’

Benjamin Franklin, too, believed that any property not required for subsistence was ‘the property of the public, who by their laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition’. The point was for an individual or family to gain the means for an independent life, not to grow rich from land ownership or to take the resources of the commons out of the public realm. This idea extended to limiting trespassing laws. Hunting on another’s unenclosed land was perfectly legal, as was – in keeping with the Charter of the Forest – foraging.

The land itself, not just the resources it contained, was part of the commons. Consider the implications of this thinking for our times: if access to the means for self-sustenance were truly the right of all, if both public resources and public land could never be taken away or sold, then how much power could the wealthy, a government, or corporations have over everyday human lives?

The idea of the commons isn’t exclusive to English and American history. In Russia, since at least the 1400s and continuing in various forms until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, land was managed under the mir system, or ‘joint responsibility’, which ensured that everyone had land and resources enough – including tools – to support themselves and their families. Strips of land were broken up and redistributed every so often to reflect changing family needs. Land belonged to the mir as a whole. It couldn’t be taken away or sold. In Ireland from before the 7th century (when they were first written down) to the 17th, Brehon laws served a similar purpose, with entire septs or clans owning and distributing land until invading English landlords carved up the landscape, stripped its residents of ancestral systems and tenancy rights, and established their estates with suppression and violence. The Scottish historian Andro Linklater examines variations on these collective ownership systems in detail in his 2013 book, Owning the Earth: the adat in Iban, crofting in Scotland, the Maori ways of use in New Zealand, peasant systems in India and China and in several Islamic states, and of course on the North American continent before European invasion and settlement.

But the commons are not relics of dusty history. The Kyrgyz Republic once had a successful system of grazing that benefited both herdsmen and the land. Shattered during Soviet times in favour of intensive production, the grazing commons is slowly being reinstated after passage of a Pasture Law in 2009, replacing a system of private leases with public use rights that revolve around ecological knowledge and are determined by local communities. In Fiji, villages have responded to pressures from overfishing and climate change by adopting an older system of temporary bans on fishing called tabu. An article in the science magazine Nautilus describes the formation of locally managed Marine Protected Areas that use ancient traditions of the commons, and modern scientific understanding, to adapt these communal fishing rights and bans to the changing needs of the ecosystem.

Preservation of the commons has not, then, been completely forgotten. But it has come close. The commons are, essentially, antithetical both to capitalism and to limitless private profit, and have therefore been denigrated and abandoned in many parts of the world for nearly two centuries.

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

We like to think we are a free people in a free society. But our freedoms are social and political freedoms.

They are freedoms of the system we find ourselves in. We didn’t freely choose to be born into the system. We signed no social contract. There is no escape from the system itself. Our freedom is only how we play the game, not whether we play. We didn’t write the rules,  and yet we must obey them.

That is what society is. We do not exist in a state of nature. Natural rights and natural liberty is what someone has who lives alone on a desert island. They are free in a way few people could ever imagine. Most people in that situation, though, would gladly sacrifice the freedom of their isolation for the costs of being a member of society.

Society makes dependents of us all, for good or ill. This is increasingly true as civilization develops.

Even as late as the Great Depression, people still could support themselves through subsistence farming/gardening and living off the land. There was still a lot of land freely open to hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Restrictions were few and the population was smaller.

That is no longer the case.

Those on the right like to complain about all the minorities and poor who are dependent on the system. But that is unfair. They were made dependent, as we’ve all been made dependent. This is to say, at this point, we are all interdependent. That is what society means.

No one is self-made in our society. Those born into privilege, whether class or race privilege, are the least self-made of us all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Only those disconnected from and clueless about their own dependent state can talk bullshit about being self-made and rant about libertarian rhetoric.

Civilization brings many benefits. But it comes at great costs. Those who benefit the most are those at the top of society. And those who pay most of the costs are those on the bottom of society.

The predicament of modern civilization wasn’t lost on the American revolutionaries, most especially the founders. Living in the colonies, they found themselves on the edge of modern civilization. Founders like Thomas Jefferson could see in the Native Americans the past of his own people, the English, who were once a free tribal people. Many took inspiration from the Native Americans because it reminded them where they came from and reminded them that other alternatives existed.

Native Americans not only had more freedom than the colonists had, but also less inequality. Thomas Paine recognized that the two went hand in hand, and that they were based on the lack of privately owned land. To privatize the Commons was to destroy the ancient right to the Commons (as described in the English Charter of the Forest, although going back to Northern European common law) and so was to sacrifice one of the most basic freedoms.

There was a reason the colonists were obsessed with the rights of Englishmen. They were ancient rights, often having preceded the British Empire and even preceded the establishment of an English monarchy by the Norman Conquest. It was what all of English and Anglo-American society was built on.

The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few. In England, it meant theft from the working class (making them into landless peasants). Similarly, in the colonies, it meant theft from the Native Americans (accompanied with genocide, ethnic cleansing, and reservations that made them wards/prisoners of the state). In both cases, that theft has yet to be compensated. The descendents of the robbers still profit from that theft. The injustice goes on, generation after generation. The theft didn’t happen just once, but is an ongoing process. The theft wasn’t justified then and remains unjustified.

Paine accepted that the loss of the Commons was maybe inevitable. But he didn’t think the act of theft was inevitable. He demanded the public be compensated, and that compensation should be for every generation. It was morally wrong to impose theft of the Commons onto future generations by privatizing land without compensating those future generations for what was taken from them before they were born.

It wasn’t just about compensating wealth as if it were just an economic transaction. No, it was more about offsetting the loss of freedoms with the gain of other freedoms, and it was about how forcing sacrifice onto people who didn’t choose it morally demanded society accept the social responsibility this entails. When people are forced into a state of dependence by the ruling elite of a society, the ruling elite and their descendent beneficiaries lose all rights to complain about those people being in a state of dependence.

In losing the Commons, people lost their independence. They were made dependents against their will, forced into laboring for others or else forced into unemployed poverty. That is the price of civilization. The fair and just thing would be to ensure that the costs and benefits of that act are evenly shared by all.