One cheer for the commons

A recent article on Resilience.org proclaimed that ‘the commons is the future’, so let me state my thesis plainly at the outset: no it isn’t, and in the event that humanity manages to create sustainable societies and/or sustainable resource use in the future, common property regimes will likely only have a fairly minor role to play in them. I’m not going to dwell much on the Resilience article, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but the general position I’m staking seems to put me at odds with a lot of environmental and egalitarian-minded people whose views I otherwise largely share, so maybe it’s worth exploring further – as I do below under a number of headings for ease of argument.

What is a commons?

People often talk rather loosely about the ‘global commons’ or humanity’s ‘common treasury’ of soil, air, water, knowledge, seeds etc. Part of the problem in thinking about commons arises right here at the definitional outset, because these things aren’t actually commons. They’re what economists call public goods – that is, a good where consumption is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, like air – the breaths I take don’t impede the breaths you take, and it’s hard for us to limit anyone’s access to air in such a way that we can charge them for breathing (…don’t mention it to George Osborne though, just in case). A commons, by contrast, is a resource where people’s use of it does affect others’ use, and indeed is often at risk of destruction by overuse. To remedy this, a commons identifies a specific community of users (and thus, by implication, a wider community of non-users) and a set of usage protocols that specify how the resource is to be used. A classic example is the commons of pre-industrial England, where certain local people were entitled to graze a set amount of livestock on land they didn’t own, or glean corn from the fields after harvest, or take gorse as firewood. The tripartite commons definition operates in these cases – a resource, a specific community, a usage protocol.

Private – Public – Common

Commons certainly have their place in the scheme of things, but I’m not entirely sure why they seem to be flavour of the month in alternative economics circles. Most likely it’s because both private and state ownership of economic resources have had a poor track record in recent times, with callously rapacious capitalism and repressive, monolithic communism both standing indicted in the historical dock. Do the commons, neither purely private nor purely public, offer a fresh option?

Maybe. But let’s look closer. Yavor Tarinski, in the aforementioned ‘Commons is the future’ article, refers to the work of leading commons scholar, the late Elinor Ostrom, on the commons in the Swiss Alpine village of Törbel. Tarinski writes, “In the Swiss village in question, local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing.”

Let’s look at what Ostrom says:

“For centuries, Törbel peasants have planted their privately owned plots with bread grains, garden vegetables, fruit trees and hay for winter fodder. Cheese produced by a small group of herdsmen, who tend village cattle pasture on the communally owned alpine meadows during the summer months, has been an important part of the local economy. Written legal documents dating back to 1224 provide information regarding…the rules used by the villagers to regulate the five types of communally owned property: the alpine grazing meadows, the forests, the “waste” lands, the irrigation systems, and the paths and roads connecting privately and communally owned property”1

In other words, the primary subsistence activities undertaken by the villagers, which take up the majority of their time, are private affairs. Only in the case of a few less intensive activities are things arranged communally – important activities, to be sure, but scarcely indicative of a thoroughly communalised mindset. To me, it seems strange to home in on Törbel’s commons as somehow exemplary of a commoning life distinct from private property relations, when so much of the village economy is clearly organised through the latter.

Undoubtedly there’s a need in contemporary politics to transcend some of the more problematic consequences of traditional economic systems, both private and state organised, and commons provide some interesting examples of self-organising collective institutions in this respect. But as Ostrom herself pointed out, institutions are seldom wholly private or public – “the market” or “the state” (indeed, markets require state manipulation to operate, and even the most totalitarian of regimes is incapable of eliminating private economic relations). Ostrom provides many examples of the ways that commons – whether pastures, fisheries, irrigation schemes or water catchment protection – draw strength from what she calls “rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy”2. So perhaps there’s a need to go beyond simplistic notions of markets or states being bad and commons being good, and to specify more richly what kind of private, public or common institutions can be effective in different circumstances. Ostrom’s work stands as an impressive rebuke to those who think that communities can never organise their own resource use effectively without the help of the state or the market, but she’s at pains to show that commons don’t always work and aren’t always an appropriate mode of organisation.

So when do they work? Summarising Ostrom’s intricate analysis very crudely, the answer seems to be when there’s a relatively small number of people of fairly equivalent social standing who have a long-term interest in using a resource, particularly when that resource has a low value per unit area, or is erratically productive, or is hard to intensify, or is hard to exclude people from. I’ll come back to this. But I hope that answer begins to hint at why commons may not always be the optimal strategy for a sustainable agriculture of the future.

Of selfishness and altruism

The fact that commons seem to involve an element of altruism is, I suspect, one reason for the contemporary enthusiasm over them as a reaction to the tired nostrum of orthodox economic theory concerning intrinsic human selfishness. So are people intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic? Both, surely. A close look at successful commons invariably reveals elaborately constructed procedures to detect and disincentivize cheating and free riding, while a close look at historical court proceedings associated with functioning commons reveals numerous actual examples of such behaviour. Not necessarily very frequent examples – the mark of a good commons is strong arrangements to ensure that people stick by the rules – but numerous enough for all that. Most people surely display all manner of altruism in their daily lives, but commons based on the notion that everyone will play ball because of an intrinsic human altruism soon founder.

To develop that point further, I’d suggest it’s untrue that private property regimes inevitably instil selfishness or that public authority is inevitably unresponsive and monolithic, just as it’s untrue that commoners are intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic (David Bollier’s interesting book Think Like A Commoner sometimes errs, I believe, in its tendency to assimilate private property to capitalism and thence to beggar-my-neighbour self-interest: private property relations are not necessarily capitalist relations). Again, we need richer descriptions of the ways in which specific forms of economic organisation function or malfunction in specific cultural contexts. Part of the problem, I think, is the ascendancy of a neoliberal fundamentalism in western politics over the last thirty years or so that insists every sphere of life must be marketised. Recoiling from this delusion, and bruised by the defeat of the alternatives offered by traditional leftism, progressive thinkers have cast around for alternatives and lit upon the commons. But, as outlined earlier, commons usually only work well in particular rather specialised situations – and indeed themselves depend on wider private and public institutions. It’s often better, I’d argue, to work at correcting the malfunctioning aspects of private or public sector institutions than to assume that a commons will solve the problem.

Poverty and the commons

Much has been written on the enclosure of the commons – paradigmatically, on the extinction of commoners’ rights in early modern England. The reality of it was more complicated than pro- or anti-enclosure propagandists will usually admit, but I’m broadly sympathetic to the position sketched by historian J. Neeson that the enclosure of the commons represented the destruction of a peasantry and its reconstitution as a proletariat3. Enclosure undoubtedly imposed hardship on the rural poor, and for that reason I mourn it. Most of my writing revolves around making the case for a contemporary peasant agriculture. I do not welcome the destruction of peasantries, historic or contemporary.

But let’s get a grip. The loss of harvest gleaning rights must have been a blow to many a poor rural family, but would you like to go on your hands and knees through a cornfield in search of your supper? Commons can be a good way of intensifying land use, making them more ecologically and economically efficient, and thereby helping redress poverty in situations of great economic inequality. But they don’t in themselves radically challenge that inequality. Indeed, in some ways perhaps they buttress it. In situations where the poor have little access to resources, commons arise which help them make best use of what’s available to them. But there are better ways of creating access to resources. Those ways change over time, too. When the cost of containing livestock was prohibitive, it made sense for people to band together and employ a cowherd to tend their beasts on the common pasture. Nowadays, it would probably cost more to employ a herdsman on the commons than to fence your own fields.

But nowadays few of us have our own beasts or fields. Instead we have ideas and creative output we want to disseminate. The modern commons is about information and information sharing – an ‘open source’, ‘digital commons’. The idea of open source is that the great stock of human knowledge is a commons that shouldn’t be enclosed. But it seems to have turned into the notion that stuff ought to be free, and that people shouldn’t expect recompense for the work they put into uploading more content into the collective human consciousness. In other words, when we talk about the modern digital commons, the community and the protocol part of the commons definition goes missing. We happily fill Microsoft or Apple’s coffers so we can gain access to the content of this ‘digital commons’, but we expect the creators of content to furnish it for free on the grounds that they’re just recyclers of the knowledge commons, forgetting that so too are Microsoft and Apple. As farmers down the ages will tell you, the middleman makes the money and the producer gets little or nothing. This is not a commons.

There’s a donate button top right on my blog, by the way.

Contemporary peasants, contemporary commons

But I digress. Let me conclude by getting back to land use and thence to agriculture. Here’s an example of a contemporary commons that can work very well: residents in an urban area successfully petition their hard-pressed municipal authority to cede a piece of wasteground to them on a preferential long-term lease, organising themselves to tidy it up and improve access so that it becomes a valued recreational haven in the hurly-burly of the city. It works, because the characteristics of a successful commons that I outlined above mostly apply – a community of interest, an extensive resource that’s hard to intensify or exclude people from etc.

But now suppose that the commoners decide to plant a community vegetable garden on the site. At first, the volunteer days are well attended and the garden gets off to a flying start. But growing vegetables is a lot of work, and most people’s interest soon flags. Volunteer attendance starts to drop off, and the hardy few who are now carrying the project begin to resent making produce available to those who aren’t pulling their weight. They try to come up with some protocols about inputs and rewards from the garden at a fractious meeting in which accusations of selfishness fly from all quarters. Some residents really would like to help, but they aren’t sure if they’ll have the time, or even whether they’ll still be living here come next growing season. And now there aren’t enough volunteers even to keep the beds properly weeded. Then a property development company appears on the scene with its eye on the gardens, which it thinks could make a good site for housing. They offer to buy the commoners handsomely out of their lease. Many of them are keen on this idea. The community gardeners are aghast.

I’ve seen this kind of thing play out many times. I could dwell on the ramifications at length, but instead let me offer a brief closing thesis. Before we can have meaningful contemporary agricultural commons we need to create a relatively egalitarian community of small farmers who are in it for the long haul and who are anxious to preserve the productive potential of their local environment for themselves and their descendants. Once such a community has arisen, it will likely find many creative ways of forming commons around the interstices of its activities which will increase the efficiency of local resource use. So in this sense, yes, commons can definitely be a part of the future, and probably a bigger part than they currently are. But – as in Törbel – the most important, most intensive activities are likely to be better served by a private property regime, so long as it’s a private property regime geared primarily to providing homes and productive agricultural land to farmers who have independent agency within publicly-agreed norms of acceptable behaviour, rather than a private property regime geared to the easy monetisation of assets (in other words, that it’s a peasant and not a capitalist private property regime – a compassionate and community-minded one, yes, but a communal one, probably not). Private property certainly isn’t the only possible way of organising a just and sustainable human ecology, but it’s one that’s familiar to us westerners. And it’ll be hard enough wresting a private property regime of petty proprietorship from the fiery hell of capitalist land values without further saddling ourselves with idealistic commoning arrangements as a means to earn our daily bread. Let us not run before we can walk.

Notes

  1. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-2.
  1. Ibid. p.14.
  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

29 thoughts on “One cheer for the commons

  1. Another contribution fit for long chewing. Many thanks.

    I find myself walking along with this up to the very end. Indeed I really like the final sentence – wisdom for the ages. So what’s a quibbler to do? Well, I do have something to toss back for your pondering.

    For the metaphorical advice that we not attempt running until we master walking… this would seem to work best for a group with a homogeneous level of experience getting about. Small children, toddlers perhaps, are yet to belong as they must first learn to crawl before they attempt walking. At the opposite end of the experience distribution are those so old and frail they must not only abandon hope of running, but seek assistance with a long held knowledge and experience of walking. My point being we seek to allow all the living a fair share – though some are still learning and others are past knowing but still incapable of full participation. And to yank all that back to relevance here I might point out that some societies were running fairly well, others were failing after having had some success, and still others were struggling to get on their feet in the first place. I like the notion of learning to walk before running, but expect those who imagine they’re running right now will scratch their heads about your meaning. Where would an aboriginal society fit along the continuum? Would aborigines be crawlers still needing to learn to walk – or so far past running that in their folk wisdom they are content to shuffle along (or… who am I to project that an aboriginal existence is somehow ‘NOT’ a running existence in the first place?).

    So my impression is your thesis will work best for small groups of like minded folk at a similar place in their development. Perhaps many, many groups of like minded folk. But many others may gaze upon a Pandora’s open box of other possible livelihoods and persist in their running along.

    Shall we move to phrase the debate with terms like stewardship instead of ownership? Are there real benefits from adopting ‘best practices’ and ‘one size fits all’ prescriptions for land holding? Or do the unintended consequences of prescribing a set of strictures mess with and limit the attainment of happiness?

    Eminent domain, zoning, other strictures in defense of private property (or standing against property rights) are politically charged issues. And the context of all the various controls… makes my head spin. Guess I’m still a crawler.

    Love the work you’ve done thus far. But I’m supposing there’s still quite a bit more to do.

  2. The point you make about subsistence activities being “a lot of work”, whether in a Calvinist Swiss village or a postmodern ecovillage, and therefore most resources being private (to get rid of freeloaders) is, I think, the key.
    In fact, I think it might be back to front.
    Perhaps the attitude that work is intrinsically good and holy, and more so because it’s HARD work, is what leads us inevitably into the private sphere (because how else to show that you’ve worked hard except by accumulating the fruits of your labour)?
    Perhaps I’m being idealistic here, but it seems like the point about the commons — whether it’s a food forest, grazing land, cohousing, or software libre — is that economically viable activities (i.e. work) are more fun and less hard, when they’re carried out in common? And that work is not an evil in itself when it’s a shared activity?
    If we start from that point, it’s obvious that we should design our production around common systems in which work is fun. Of course that is easier said than done… My own experience, though (mostly in natural building), says it’s possible, though it requires changing our habits of thought…

  3. Excellent post. As someone involved in the management of one of the few remaining English lowland commons that is still actively grazed by commoners for food (as opposed to being grazed to conserve the habitat created by the commoners of the past grazing for food!), I can attest to the importance of those procedures and checks to prevent misuse. These are all the more important with an increasing list of non-agricultural interests that are brought to the common (conservation, ‘amenity value’, dog-walking, barbecues, drone-flying, homemade rockets to name a few).

    For a nice description of a pre-enclosure English equivalent of Törbel, see the first part of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, where she describes the old folks’ memories of the village before enclosure: private vegetable garden/orchard/pig/chickens where the intensive effort went, then a cow or a few geese grazed extensively on the common, where fuel was also gathered.

  4. Thanks for those comments. Some brief responses:

    Clem, on ‘running before we can walk’ I certainly don’t intend that as some pseudo-evolutionary yardstick with which to judge human societies in general, if I’m interpreting your point correctly. I’m thinking specifically of my own society, or perhaps of ‘western societies’ which arguably are similar. What I mean is that if we want to see more sensible stewardship of local resources and more justice in human relationships, then I don’t think the best starting point is sitting down and trying to reconfigure existing property relations as commons. I think we need to start by getting farming right and by equalising landownership. Worthwhile commons will then emerge quite naturally.

    Robert, I agree that different habits of thought would be more conducive to commoning than the typical modern western mindset, but I don’t totally agree with your line of argument about work. It’s true that work can be about status – either in showing that you’ve worked hard and are therefore a praiseworthy person, or in accumulating material resources that enable you to gain advantages over your fellows (Calvinism, which you mention, has of course been masterful at both). But work is also just work – the ongoing, daily effort of subsistence production. And the fact is that most societies historically, including ones that are a lot more comfortable with common property than ours, tend to keep subsistence work mostly individualised. I think there are various reasons for this, including the free rider problem and the additional transaction costs of guarding against it in common property arrangements – so the latter only usually make sense in the kind of extensive situations analysed by Ostrom where collective benefits outweigh transaction costs. The previous sentence may sound a bit too infused with the individualistic assumptions of orthodox western economics, but I think it’s defensible and translatable into wider cultural terms. One of which, to riff off your comment, is that yes work can be more fun and less hard when you do it with other people…but it depends a bit on who the other people are. I’d stress though that my emphasis on private property needn’t be incompatible with more collective forms of work – building being a case in point (eg. barn raisings).

    Si, I’m glad you commented – I was hoping you might. I meant to add to the post that where traditional commons still exist I’d like to see them strenuously defended, so good on you for carrying the torch. Interesting that your experience (and the Thompson reference – thanks for that) is congruent with my argument here. It must be a lot harder to keep the show on the road when not all the commoners are especially motivated by the commoning practices…which is probably my key point.

  5. Many thanks for so perfectly articulating my vague and mildly guilty dissatisfaction with the idea of the commons as it is being packaged these days. I had a class with Elinor Ostrom; that was a long while ago, but I don’t remember her being nearly this blithely dismissive of either the benefits of private property nor of the “state” control of commonly used property. Don’t think she ever struck me as in favor of outright communal ownership. Your choice of a community garden breakdown was a perfect illustration.

    Cheers to peasantry is probably a better title. I’ll see that & raise you one.

  6. Chris, once again you’ve blown my mind.

    Despite the fact that this post has crushed – or at least put some tractor sized dents in – a couple of my cherished ideals (shibboleths?) regarding the commons in general and the open source model in particular, I find your logic compelling.

    The only (and it’s a rather minor) point of disagreement I have is with the supposition of air (more particularly, *breathable* air) as public good which I’d argue does not fit the definition of non-rivalry. In fact, as corporations, governments and individuals all pursue their ‘rational self interest’ by treating the atmosphere as a sewer, then Garret Hardin’s ‘tragedy’ scenario becomes clear: in many cities those activities do in fact impede people’s ability to breathe that air.

    Perhaps this doesn’t make a breathable atmosphere a commons, but maybe we need a third concept outside of both commons and public goods.

    What I think we can say is that a breathable atmosphere, just like ocean fisheries, and other areas that may not qualify as a commons per the classic definition, also do not fit neatly into the ‘public goods’ definition – and their situation under exploitation does seem to fit neatly into Hardin’s tragedy model: pursuit of “rational self interest” leads to impoverishment of all participants and beyond, which in a global system may encompass creatures not directly dependent on the system being analyzed due to its inextricable interconnections with other systems. That is, whether we call it a commons or not, Hardin’s analysis certainly seems on point for certain cases.

    All of this, though, is admittedly academic and a bit beside the point. What really struck home for me in your essay was the point at the end about keeping in mind the difference between ‘community-minded’ and ‘communal’ – such hard headed but necessary distinctions are crucial, and too easily lost sight of.

    Thanks for the always thought provoking and incisive work that you do.

  7. I tend to agree with your perspective that private ownership plays a central role in creating a sustainable future and that the ‘commons’ thesis is largely triggered by anti-corporate/anti-capitalist sentiment that effectively throws out the baby (private property relations) with the bathwater. However I think also the commons is re-imagined to also include some deeper form of democracy that creates a third way beyond private/public ownership which to some extent your article does not include. But certainly agree that devising and managing stewardship democracy would be a grand and radical undertaking and so it might be best to stick with private ownership that is restrained by a public morality just as Adam Smith envisaged. This points to better governments and ultimately a moral/ethical state that will serve the role of stewardship over the commons. In this respect the evolved version of the commons as reiterated from a stewardship perspective is not so much the basis of how we manage individual activity which is best served by private property relations and rational self-interest but how we manage society as a whole in order to ensure a sustainable future for all which is argued would be best served by a morality based on the stewardship of the commons.

  8. Thanks Elizabeth, Oz and Steve – glad my comments resonated. I don’t like to be a renegade just for the sake of it. Ach, maybe I do… Anyway –

    Elizabeth: Cheers to peasantry? Done.

    Oz: point taken, though I think it’s possible to argue that the breathing of air is technically still non-rivalrous even if it’s polluted. However, as you point out perhaps it’s more appropriate to think of air nowadays as a Hardin-esque open access regime. And that indeed points up to a limitation of the commons model – if each community had its own little bubble of air that they had to look after it would be easy to turn the open access regime into a commons with some appropriate usage protocols. But because air is a public good which is pretty much shared across the planet (localised smogs & pollution an exception granted) nobody seems to be able to figure out how to prevent a tragedy scenario unfolding…except perhaps through carbon pricing, a nettle that our contemporary politics seems incapable of grasping.

    Which brings us to Steve: yes, I agree, nicely put – the real issue is how to navigate from where we are to better governments and a moral/ethical state. It’s just that I think we get into a muddle if instead of confronting that problem directly we slide off into enthusing about common pastures in the Swiss Alps…

    • Agreed. The global commons thesis (as it is various used by activists or UNEP) is only relevant in highlighting the need for a global stewardship mindset but it still raises the question of who is going to enforce the necessary protections of the ecological world within national boundaries if not a state body. Of course anarchists dismiss the idea of a state and so will tend to resort to more traditional definitions of the commons but I imagine within a more community socialism context. As you say, even this is a big leap of faith for most people so perhaps the first step is in creating our own version of a moral/ethical state.

  9. Hm. I grew up under um, Marxism-Leninism, and this is how things worked. The smallholding was private. This included the stables, the barn, the orchard, the food garden. At the back of the smallholding was a fence. Then a public path. Then (in most of the villages, the ribbon farm pattern prevailed) you had small fields that belonged to the family, and where subsistence crops were grown. The small fields were separated by what I call hedgeland, not hedges like in England, but mostly grass, and often a fruit tree here and there. There were paths. We kids would pasture the cow and the goat on the hedgelands. Now even though the fields were private, there were no fences, and anyone could go walking there, or pick strawberries, or field mushrooms… Then, the large fields, cowbarns, pig pens etc were owned by the ag cooperative. Each family owed the coop some work, and some produce. But even there, there were no fences, except for the animals, and anyone could walk anywhere. The forests and meadows may have been owned by the village collectively, or the coop, not sure there. But each family had access for firewood. Again, no fences anywhere except around tree nurseries. Anyone could drive up and go berry or mushroom picking or just hiking, where ever you wanted, and not just the locals, anyone. The feel of the whole arrangement was that the land was “ours” — as a commons, apart from the smallholding itself. But in reality there were gradations, and largely open access. I imagine the village maintained the pathways and dirt roads.

    I also want to stand up for gleaning. Potatoes were gleaned by kids who went out to rake up and burn the leaf residue to cut down on disease, fly kites, and roast the gleaned potatoes as their reward. The grain fields were gleaned by flocks of geese after harvest. And kids pilfered the leftover fruit in the orchards. So basically it was the job of the kids to make sure things were not wasted. 🙂

    • Another thought. Here in America, private property makes life miserable. It’s the worst. You can’t go anywhere, and they can shoot at you if you trespass. I trespass anyways…

      Only livable way to live is to be close to some corridor like the Appalachian trail, or even better, out west where there is lots of federal and BLM land. Otherwise, you are no better than a hemmed in serf. So the point I am making is there is private property and private property. Many shades of livability. (I loved the English system of stiles and paths over private land.)

      • It is true that private property relations can be premised on an exclusionary rather than inclusionary basis. This is evident in the UK even with the stile system. In some parts there is a tendency for farmers to get very irritated and others where as long as the country code is followed it is ok to wander with a possible friendly visit on a quadbike.

        Is it possible to formally contract the more idyllic inclusive commons private property relations of your younger self which I might call communitarian (although there are those that despise the term) without resorting to a marxist-leninist state or is democratic community socialism the way forward.

        • Thanks for that interesting description Vera – sounds like the kind of functioning agricultural commons I was describing, but only after you have the agriculturalists in place who have a similar lifestyle and a similar investment in its long-term reproduction. I’d be interested to know how much of the picture you describe carried over from pre-communist days, and how much emerged (under what circumstances…?) post-communism.

          Good point about children as gleaners. I was thinking about livestock as gleaners, but not children. I wonder what the balance of child & adult gleaners was in traditional peasant commons – maybe I have Millet’s picture fixed too firmly in mind: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gleaners. I like the idea of children improving ecological efficiency – especially in view of the letter in the current Permaculture Magazine which dismisses the possibility that anyone with children can seriously espouse sustainability.

          On private property – yes as Steve (and Elinor Ostrom) say, it’s all about the kind of private property. I think things are a bit less restrictive here than in the US – I like our footpath network (there’s one across my holding) mostly, though again a bit of public education about farming wouldn’t go amiss…dogs among the sheep, trampling the hayfield etc.

          • Steve, I don’t think anyone ought to own land, period. Not where you can ruin it and move on. I am for some sort of mix of community holding with usufruct private control.

            Chris, I am told that things have changed quite a bit; the coops fell apart, people got back their land from the pre-commie days but were no longer interested for the most part to continue subsistence ag, and also because of lost skills. So now many people lease their land to large private farms. Folks tell me that the look and feel of the countryside has changed for the worse.

            The picture I describe definitely carried over from before communism. Except for the forced collectivization. But the coops had been happening already, my grandfather was one of the pioneers, except the way his coop did it was real, the farmers got all the profit after overhead was deducted, hardly any bureaucracy, and no apparatchiks; and the farmers had real say in how things were run. The commie coops unfortunately were not run that way, people ended up as drudges, did their 8 hours work and stopped caring for the land. And then, subsistence began to fade, the cow and goat stable was replaced by a garage, bales replaced loose hay, people grew pullets for the coop instead of keeping an old fashioned chicken flock, grandfather had to give up the horses because nobody wanted to take over, and my heart broke.

          • Thanks for that extra info Vera – very interesting. On property, I think the problem is it’s quite easy to ruin things and then move on with all sorts of different tenure systems, not just private property. There’s a danger of getting too hung up on the specific form of tenure – private, public, common – rather than addressing how it functions or fails to function which emerges from the details. But I agree that all property regimes need to be socialised in various ways in terms of wider public interest. The difficulty is in achieving adequately effective and subtle public controls – private, public and commoning arrangements all have their pitfalls here.

          • Yes, Chris, I completely agree. But if enclosures were once possible, then maybe unenclosures are too, ey?

          • In terms of ensuring positive functioning and preventing negative functioning, legal easements can be attached to the deeds. Covenants can be similarly utilised but are more complicated to apply.

  10. Vera. Interesting. To be honest it is more my ideal too but how to transition to that.

    Do you see community holding to be more akin to collective ownership of the socialist sort or more akin to common ownership of the communist sort.
    Thanks.

    • How do you describe the difference between the two, Steve?

      I have been racking my brains how to make it possible for people to take land out of the market. Looked into land trusts, but they are set up for other things. So I am baffled. So far, my best bet is a housing coop here in the States, which used to be an urban thing but is now being promoted in rural areas. And even if I should devise a way to keep it off the market, who says that a couple generations down, when the land rises in value, or is needed for public project, who says they won’t find a loophole? Of course they will. Still… it could be a movement. Giving land back to itself. (?)

      • I see the former as being owned by a specific group/community/organisation and so using/profiting/selling is by the members alone and member’s rights are protected by the presence of an ethical state which functions to resolve ongoing class struggles. The latter is being owned by everyone and so everyone has usage/profit rights. Selling rights thus become redundant as does the need for a state due to society becoming classless (egalitarian).

        In the UK, the closest contract to the latter that I know of is community benefit society with an asset lock. With the former it is a cooperative with asset lock and in the middle (kind of) is community interest company with asset lock. Not that I am an expert by any means.

        • Steve:
          Expert or no, you’ve pointed this Yankee toward something altogether new… and for what it’s worth others curious about community shares can have a look at:
          http://communityshares.org.uk/sites/default/files/community_shares_handbook.pdf

          [this is over 100 pages of information, but the .pdf file is not enormous]

          In addition to legal easements and covenants we have zoning laws which allow smaller government districts (townships even) to set boundaries on acceptable land use. Drainage basins (rivers, etc) have begun to ‘organize’ to regulate certain land use activities (I set organize into quote marks because it’s not clear to me how this is being put together – some is top down, federal to state and local; other efforts beginning at the grass roots level – and I may well be mistaken in details).

          I have a significant difficulty with trespass. I don’t hold to Vera’s notion that private property is an evil. And I have serious issues with folk who imagine any parcel that lies before their feet is free for them to trample at will. Actually, foot trampling is well down the list of potential insults to land from trespassers – a list which includes poaching, vandalism, and careless destruction.

          Because of property easements and zoning restrictions there are obligations to property owners that if ignored or violated result in penalties. When a trespasser violates such an obligation the landowner can be fined for the infraction. Having worked hard to be in a place of stewardship in the first place it is mighty disheartening to see one’s hard work disgraced by derelict trespassers.

          We have parks and byways for those wishing to ramble beyond their own living room. I’ve never walked into a neighbor’s yard and killed and gutted a 200 pound ungulate. I would rather appreciate the neighbors extend me the same courtesy.

          • Clem, I don’t hold that private property is an evil. When it comes to things won through labor and inventiveness, no problem. But land cannot be earned, only stolen from common usage. That’s why I favor some sort of a mix of community and usufruct private control, depending on what is being done with that land.

            When I was growing up, nobody would walk into your yard and kill an ungulate. But neighbors freely came by without being announced. And while it would have not been acceptable to trample, say, the private field in the back of the holding, anyone could walk on the marginland. And when the time for gleaning the fields came, the kids with their goose flocks did not hew to private property but to their own kid rules, and how to have fun together. So the geese went where ever. Much of this can be governed by agreeable informal custom.

            I have another rule for private property. Own the little things, share the big things. Fraid I am a bit short on how to apply it. 🙂

            And as for doing damage when traipsing over the land, heck, just shootem. 😉

        • Steve, I am not sure. The Indians “owned it all together” and that made it possible for conmen to cheat them out of much of it. I’ll have to look into the organization you mention.

  11. Vera, you said: “But land cannot be earned, only stolen from common usage”

    I will suppose that if one were to trace the use of a particular parcel back far enough in time there might be found one original human who took on said parcel to steward it for private gain. This first stake might be considered ‘stolen from common usage’. Whether interesting or appalling many of us in the U.S. actually revere those first settlers or homesteaders who blazed trails into the wilderness – the lands available to common usage. Indeed I would imagine the previous tenants of the U.S. landscape would not hold the same view, but this is grist for a whole other conversation.

    So the particular parcel to which I’ve attached some heartstrings has been passed through a couple hundred years of private ownership*. No one living today can rightly suggest they remember a time when this portion of the planet was commonly held. In order that I might legally claim some temporary right to use this parcel as I see fit (within the restrictions of the law) I made a purchase – at auction – against other worthy commercial agents. It was hardly stolen. I know you didn’t mean to suggest somehow that I did steal it. But I would like to pursue in this conversation just how we might move to a point where properties obtained and maintained within a legal framework could come to later be reacquainted with a common or non-private form of stewardship. Eminent domain could be suggested in this conversation for just such a conversion. Know that though I’m not a legal scholar, I will be prepared to defend hard won private property rights in the face of simplistic eminent domain arguments.

    *If anyone is curious, last July I wrote a hypothetical history of the parcel of land described above:

    https://gulliverspulse.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/farming-in-the-u-s/

    • Clem, I don’t assign blame in my designation. It once belonged to all. And one day, someone said, hey, this is mine, and you can’t hunt and gather here, so sod off. So they stole it. What else would you call it?

      In England they called it Enclosures. Theft of a similar kind.

      Btw, I once traced several parcels of land in NY state all the way down… all the documents were at the country court house. Once, there were Indians. Then, in several different transactions of a very dubious character, large chunks of land were acquired by the crown. Then, the crown bestowed them on various settlers, sometimes for free. Later, land speculators added another layer of dishonesty. But I don’t mean to dwell on that… I mean to say, how can we hold land in usufruct so that the land is cared for right?

      If I farm so badly that gullies appear on my land and soil washes away, surely my neighbors, my community ought to have something to say about it? I hate eminent domain. Makes me think of Blazing Saddles.

      Basically, my problem is, when I am gone, I want my land to be its own. not a hunk of merchandise on the auction block. So far, I have not met any lawyerly types who are working on this. Though maybe they are the wrong types for solving this problem…

      • Can you not leave your land in trust with easements attached.

        I think the different indian tribes had demarcated territory as does all predatory creatures.

        • I looked into land trusts, and they are not what I thought they were. Hm. Will have to dig some more.

          The Indian tribes had their hunting and gathering grounds, so to speak, loosely acknowledged. But land was not bought and sold. They were tricked, often by getting drunk, some gifts were offered they took for sharing the land… it’s a sorry tale. They did not have the concept of owning land.

          • Yes I know ref Indians ☺. My point is that being territorial underpins a sense of belonging, this is our land, ownership. Deed contract do at least provide a measure of protection (rule of law) as opposed to no rule of law which you obviously acknowledge with regards usufruct.

            How about bequeathing your land to the woodland trust or other such organisation if they exist in the US

  12. Sorry, I’ve been busy the last couple of days and unable to comment, but glad to see you all have been debating away in my absence. I’ve nothing of huge relevance to add (so what’s new, some might say…) but thanks for stopping by here.

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