New Start magazine, a British magazine associated with the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies, has just come out with a terrific issue (#525, October 2014) about co-operatives and commons. The essays focus on how “more democratic forms of ownership – of land, housing, workplaces and the public realm – can revive our places.”
While most of the essays deal with British co-ops and commons, the lessons and strategies mentioned have a relevance to many other places. Consider land ownership, a topic that is rarely a part of progressive political agendas. Steve Bendle, director of a group called Community Land and Finance, offers a clear-eyed assessment of how government is obsessed with enhancing the value of land for landowners and developers – while largely ignoring how land could be used to serve citizens, taxpayers and the wider community.
Unneeded land and government buildings, for example, are generally put up for sale on the market rather than used to serve the needs of a community for housing, work spaces or civic infrastructure. The assumption is that privatized, market-driven uses of the assets will yield the greatest “value” (narrowly defined as return on investment to private investors).
When government (i.e., taxpayers) finances new roads, subways or rail systems, the market value at key locations and buildings invariably rises. But government rarely does much to capture this value for the public.
Bendle concludes: “So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.”
Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live. And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.
A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality. It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons.
By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.
Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:
“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food. This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one. A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food. Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”
Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran. Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years. Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.
So why should investors always have the upper hand in “development” plans when the resource at stake is a beloved building or public space? Why should the divine right of capital necessarily prevail?
How refreshing to learn that England has created a special legal process for preventing market enclosures of community pubs. There is even a Community Pubs Minister, whose duty it is to recognize the value of pubs to communities and to help safeguard their futures. So far, some 100 pubs have been formally listed as “assets of community value.”
I know, I know – what would Margaret Thatcher say? "Damned government interventions in the free market!" Fortunately, that kind of market fundamentalism has abated for a bit, enough that the Community Pubs Minister -- Brandon Lewis, a Conservative Party member of Parliament! -- now extols “the importance of the local pub as part of our economic, social and cultural past, present and future.” He adds: “We have known for hundreds of years just how valuable our locals are. Not just as a place to grab a pint but also to the economies and communities they serve and that is why we are doing everything we can to support and safeguard community pubs from closure.”
Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local. I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London. The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:
Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.
To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.
The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns. The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example. They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready.