A life on the commons.

The message of common land.

I am far from certain but I have this notion in my head that ‘Common Land’ is an English thing. Here’s a Wikipedia extract:

Common land is land owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person, but over which other people have certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel.[1]

A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.[2]

This article deals mainly with common land in England, Wales and Scotland. Although the extent is much reduced due to enclosure of common land from the millions of acres that existed until the 17th century, a considerable amount of common land still exists, particularly in upland areas, and there are over 7,000 registered commons in England alone.[3][4]

Common land or former common land is usually referred to as a common; for instance, Clapham Common or Mungrisdale Common.

Despite the idea of common land having an English ‘ring’ to it common land is also found in the USA. Back to that Wikipedia reference:

Common land, an English development, was used in many former British colonies, for example in Ireland and the United States. The North American colonies adopted the English laws in establishing their own commons. A famous example is the New Haven Green in New Haven, Connecticut.

When I was living in Devon it was not unusual to take a walk with Pharaoh on some very famous open access land: Dartmoor.

Dartmoor: English countryside at its best.

So where the devil am I going with today’s post?

Last Thursday week, the 12th, I published my review of George Monbiot’s valuable book Out Of The Wreckage.

This book struck me as the most important book I have ever read in my lifetime. Why? Because it gets to the heart of what is happening today. But it offers even more than that. For instead of a shrug of the shoulders or eyes turned skywards from a friend when one mutters about the fact that we are living in ‘interesting times’, George Monbiot offers hope and guidance.

The day after I published my review George Monbiot published an article in The Guardian newspaper that threw more light on the commons philosophy and why, as in his book, he “offers hope and guidance”.

It is republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s generous permission. Yes, the focus is on British politics but GM’s core message applies equally to the USA and other countries.



13th October 2017

We should use the political space being opened by the Labour resurgence to develop a new, participatory economy

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th October 2017

We are still living in the long 20th Century. We are stuck with its redundant technologies: the internal combustion engine; thermal power plants; factory farms. We are stuck with its redundant politics: unfair electoral systems; their capture by funders and lobbyists; the failure to temper representation with real participation.

And we are stuck with its redundant economics: neoliberalism, and the Keynesianism still proposed by its opponents. While the latter system worked very well for 30 years or more, it is hard to see how it can take us through this century, not least because the growth it seeks to sustain smacks headlong into the environmental crisis.

Sustained economic growth on a planet that is not growing means crashing through environmental limits: this is what we are witnessing, worldwide, today. A recent paper in Nature puts our current chances of keeping global heating to less than 1.5°C of at just 1%, and less than 2° at only 5%. Why? Because while the carbon intensity of economic activity is expected to decline by 1.9% a year, global per capita GDP is expected to grow by 1.8%. Almost all investment in renewables and efficiency is cancelled out. GDP, the index that was supposed to measure our prosperity, instead measures our progress towards ruin.

But the great rupture that began in 2008 offers a chance to change all this. The challenge now is to ensure that the new political movements threatening established power in Britain and elsewhere create the space not for old ideas (such as 20th Century Keynesianism) but for a new politics, built on new economic and social foundations.

There may be a case for one last hurrah for the old model: a technological shift that resembles the Second World War’s military Keynesianism. In 1941, the US turned the entire civilian economy around on a dime: within months, car manufacturers were producing planes, tanks and ammunition. A determined government could do something similar in response to climate breakdown: a sudden transformation, replacing our fossil economy. But having effected such a conversion, it should, I believe, then begin the switch to a different economic model.

The new approach could start with the idea of private sufficiency and public luxury. There is not enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury: if everyone in London acquired a tennis court, a swimming pool, a garden and a private art collection, the city would cover England. Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities – wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks – create more space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.

Wherever possible, I believe such assets should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons. A commons in its true form is a non-capitalist system, in which a resource is controlled in perpetuity by a community, for the shared and equal benefit of its members. A possible model is the commons transition plan commissioned by the Flemish city of Ghent.

Land value taxation also has transformative potential. It can keep the income currently siphoned out of our pockets in the form of rent – then out of the country and into tax havens – within our hands. It can reduce land values, bringing down house prices. While local and national government should use some of the money to fund public services, the residue can be returned to communities.

Couple this with a community right to buy, enabling communities to use this money to acquire their own land, with local commons trusts that possess powers to assemble building sites, and with a new right for prospective buyers and tenants to plan their own estates, and exciting things begin to happen. This could be a formula for meeting housing need, delivering public luxury and greatly enhancing the sense of community, self-reliance and taking back control. It helps to create what I call the Politics of Belonging.

But it doesn’t stop there. The rents accruing to commons trusts could be used to create a local version of the citizens’ wealth funds (modelled on the sovereign wealth funds in Alaska and Norway) proposed by Angela Cummine and Stewart Lansley. The gain from such funds could be distributed in the form of a local basic income.

And the money the government still invests? To the greatest extent possible, I believe it should be controlled by participatory budgeting. In the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre, the infrastructure budget is allocated by the people: around 50,000 citizens typically participate. The results – better water, sanitation, health, schools and nurseries – have been so spectacular that large numbers of people now lobby the city council to raise their taxes. When you control the budget, you can see the point of public investment.

In countries like the UK, we could not only adopt this model, but extend it beyond the local infrastructure budget to other forms of local and even national spending. The principle of subsidiarity – devolving powers to the smallest political unit that can reasonably discharge them – makes such wider democratic control more feasible.

All this would be framed within a system such as Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics which, instead of seeking to maximise growth, sets a lower bound of wellbeing below which no one should fall, and an upper bound of environmental limits, that economic life should not transgress. A participatory economics could be accompanied by participatory politics, involving radical devolution and a fine-grained democratic control over the decisions affecting our lives – but I will leave that for another column.

Who could lead this global shift? It could be the UK Labour Party. It is actively seeking new ideas. It knows that the bigger the change it offers, the greater the commitment of the volunteers on which its insurgency relies: the Big Organising model that transformed Labour’s fortunes at the last election requires a big political offer. (This is why Ed Miliband’s attempts to create a grassroots uprising failed).

Could Labour be the party that brings the long 20th Century to an end? I believe, despite its Keynesian heritage, it could. Now, more than at any other time in the past few decades, it has a chance to change the world.



Muddy rambles by Dartmoor Cross on Dartmoor.

The above photo was first seen on the South Downs Walking website.

All of you and all of your dogs have a wonderful weekend.

13 thoughts on “A life on the commons.

  1. Much to digest. I am not sure if GM’s ideas will work. The problem with big government, is big government…it usually has a habit of shooting itself in its own foot. I do like the common ground and public rights of way that have been set aside for everyone to enjoy. It always falls to local councils to maintain such areas. How this would work at the national level is not immediately predictable. But I am all for people living in shared public space as long as they can retreat to their own little haven of their own making without too much interference from the state.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Colette,

      This essay from GM doesn’t set out his powerful argument as well as his book does. Would his book be something you would want to read?

      For the essence of GM’s ‘commons’ approach is to reduce how our lives are managed to the lowest political denominator. In other words, those aspects of our lives that are best managed by our local communities be so done. Those aspects best managed by the next social level up, as in Borough, Town, or County, left to that group. Then upwards to State or the country equivalent. Then upwards to Nation.

      Does that make it clearer?


      1. Yes, that is clearer Paul…it seems to be that the ideas have some anarchistic qualities…I.e.limited government at local level and only bringing in the higher levels of government to keep social balance from community to community. A more democratic overview incorporating the rights of all. But what happens when one self governing community gets the idea that their accumulated efforts to live well and shared between their own community, are seen as ‘too wealthy’ by the upper levels of government, and taken for distribution to poorer and less well organised communities. That builds resentment which turns to anger and violence. Think Brexit, Catalonia, Taiwan… Eventually the parent takes all the toys and causes more than a few tantrums. That is why I see it as problematic. Despite GM’s applaudable ideas…somebody will get their nose out of joint over it.


      2. No, GM tackles this, especially with regard to Brexit. For he says that it is beyond absurd that something so fundamentally important to the UK and so full of consequences and implications, as all Brits now realise, shouldn’t have been decided on a single ‘Yes/No’ vote.

        That the feelings of every eligible resident and citizen of the UK should have been explored in detail over weeks and months until the key issues had been defined.

        Then a survey or polling process could have been undertaken that truly ended up with a democratic and representative view.

        Make sense?


      3. Yes. Too many were voting with different issues in mind (just like Catalonia). It ends in bitter disappointment when one finds that the issues are unresolved. Nothing is black and white and Yes, No, votes only cause division.


    1. Thank you so very much. Yes, I have been across to your place. Give me a couple of days to get my ducks in a row and I will feature your nomination as a separate post here. Once again, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In Hawaii, this is called ‘open space.’ Our community is a huge advocate of it, and we have managed to preserve some of the most exquisite shoreline in the islands. As to anything beyond community, things get trickier. In the US, it becomes corporate and is always – and I do mean always – about money. Sad, that.


  3. I loved this article Paul, Geroge is such a forward thinker. And his articles have always spoken to me..

    He is so right in what he says about our systems etc being outdated.. And what we have planned is too little too late to help the carbon emisons as he says they will cancel out each other by the time they come into effect.

    I see ‘Community’ Projects of all kinds, including the ones he outlines here, the way forward.. And I loved his ideas, and enjoyed reading up on the concepts of Land Value Taxation. Which seems on the face of it a fairer way of valuation.

    And can see after reading the link about the participatory budgeting in Brazil how it helped to prevent infant mortality. When resources are focused upon people’s needs, in this case sanitation and the health service in Brazil, etc.

    When we will ever get a government in power to bring about such changes is another matter Paul. I would like to think it could happen with the next elected government. ( the Doughnut Rung theory ) sounds all well and good.. But like many who go into politics with good intentions of changing the world.. They often find when they get there, its not that easy.. As with most Big Business, politics has also become that.. And as many a town in the North of England will tell you, London’s priorities are often first on the agenda, and the ‘Little Folk’ who poured their working lives into industry are forgotten..

    We are now looking at skill bases that have and are fast disappearing, and its only recently we are seeing introduced again the apprentices for those leaving education.
    Coming from the point of the Textile industry which was at its height a huge industry here in the Midlands,
    The skills and machinery have all gone abroad.. Like the Steel Works ..

    Big finance is all about Profit.. And think only of their own pockets. Not of the workers who are made redundant, laid off, and whose skills are lost. They care little about Communities which have gone into decline with Shops boarded up, Buildings left empty and Youth with no prospects turning to drugs as an escape mechanism.

    So Paul while I Soooo want to believe that we could make the government See this idea as a way forward.. It is doubtful it is going to happen any time soon, unless a big shake up occurs to alter the way people perceive the way of moving out of the dark ages that the governments of today are stuck in..

    I wish it wasn’t so.. Which is why we need more George Monbiot’s in the World..

    As you can see.. I enjoyed this posting Paul 🙂


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