Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 2

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Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 2 of 2

I won’t go into what killed the commons. Nor will I risk being a romantic and nostalgic by suggesting that it always worked out well.  And I certainly don’t want to suggest that we try to ‘go back.’ But we can learn from it. Because its practices and its ethos were distinctive – they  are both alive and relevant today.

This is evident in Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 book Governing the Commons, in recognition of which she was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Surveying current commoning practices, she argued that the self-governing commons is an alternative to running society and its institutions either on a corporate model or a state bureaucratic model.

The key is its de-centering of decision-making authority, through ‘poly-centric’ layers of distributed power resting on the direct accountability, direct democracy of local self-organizing, self-governing and self-resourcing initiatives.

I’ve found evidence of this legacy in 19th and early 20th century rural Canada. For example, there were communing practices in the over 2,000 farmer-organized and self-governed cheese factory cooperatives that dotted the  Ontario countryside from the 1860s to the 1950s, and in the self-organized, self-governing self-help tradition of Agricultural societies and fairs and other farmer organizations.

It’s also evident  in the legacy of the CCF,  the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The word, commonwealth was originally  common weal, or well-being and welfare. Interestingly, it figured in some of the founding documents of Canada, notably the Quebec Act –  where John Ralston Saul (in A Fair Country) interpreted it to mean “the fulfillment of the self within the shared wellbeing of society.”

It also figured in some of the clergy-led protest around the Enclosure movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries when the commons were enclosed and turned into private property. They called themselves “Common Wealth Men,” and both spoke from the pulpit and penned pamphlets championing “a Christian Commonwealth based on distributive justice,” as one put it. J.S. Woodsworth was their direct descendant and brought this kind of vision to the creation of the CCF, according to Walter Young in his history of the CCF, The Anatomy of a Party: the National CCF.

In Young’s account, its intention was to “transform Canadian politics from the politics of special and sectional interests to the politics of collective concern for the welfare of the individual in a society collectively organized” and to establish a “cooperative commonwealth in Canada.” Its founding took place over the course of several important gatherings of first labour groups and then of farmer groups, with these coming together with another important group – the League for Social Reconstruction – to officially found the CCF as a political party.

It remained largely a social movement, though its concrete successes  –  old age pensions, associated with Woodsworth and Medicare, associated with Tommy Douglas – derived from its also going the distance of being a political party. (It left unresolved how the small-p politics of a social movement can feed the big-p politics of a political party without either becoming subservient to the other.)

camp_woodsworth_gabriola_island

A scene from the CCF Camp Woodsworth on Gabriola Island, B.C. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

In honouring and learning from the CCF’s legacy as a social movement, it’s important to remember its more social and cultural aspects: that it was about people as whole human beings coming together in community, and together tilling the soil of common ground, shared values, vision and commitment. They did this through shared learning and getting-to-know you opportunities – like the CCF summer camp here on Gabriola, but also including book clubs and study groups, augmented by the intellectual ferment of the League for Social Reconstruction, and publications like the Canadian Forum magazine which published poetry as well as polemics. According to Young’s book, fellowship was important, not just as a by-product of all these gatherings but as something to be championed in its own right. I think of it as the social glue and grease of cooperation.

The federation concept in their name was also important. It’s a form of scaling up dialogue and political organization in a way that preserves the integrity of the constituent more local parts. Regional conventions allowed people to come together representing an array of local organizations, and to genuinely talk and listen their way toward consensus around policies, while also developing a leadership capable of navigating the larger political arenas.

What can we take from this legacy to guide and inspire us today? I think it affirms the importance of a lot that’s already going on here on Gabriola that is cultivating common ground,  often using commons-like practices in the process. Of course, there’s the Gabriola Commons itself, which consciously builds on the traditional commons model: with its self-organization and self-governance, its commoning of knowledge in monthly council meetings, its Saturday morning work bees and post-work bee lunches of hearty soup & bread, and its conservation covenant that seeks to conserve both the social and the natural in what could point the way to an ecological contract.

There’s also GALTT, GYRO, Sustainable Gabriola and Island Futures, and all the self-organizing, self-governance capacity that has arisen from these groups to inspire and sustain other initiatives like Gertie, the community bus service and the GabEnergy solar hydro project and more.

On the cultural side, a similar DIY self-organizing spirit animates a lot of the projects that have emerged under the leadership of people like Leah Hokanson with her Lulu Performing Arts Society, plus the Gabriola Arts Council and the local library, much of it broadly inclusive and participatory.

In a book called No Culture, No Future,  Simon Brault, who is currently the head of the Canada Council of the Arts, summarized years of working to make culture a part of planning for the revitalization of Montreal. “Cultural participation in all its forms… has become a goal to strive for so that …cities don’t fall apart due to the economic, social, linguistic and cultural disparities,” he wrote. The goal is to rebuild and restore common ground in our social and political environments.

For those of us in rural areas like Gabriola and the Salish Sea, I think the goal is slightly larger: to heal the disparities of habitat, and to extend the sense of shared habitat from the strictly social of a built habitat to the living habitat of the land. One way to do this is by learning how to be allies to the Indigenous peoples of this land in their journeys of healing and reconnection with the land, and honouring our obligations as treaty people.

None of this is easy. None of this will happen overnight. There’s a lot of healing and recovery to be done: restoring agency to people, and extending the possibility of this to non-human others; honouring and recovering voice; and cultivating the common ground necessary to receive and support the seeds of renewal, gradually replacing a social contract of rights with an ecological one of shared responsibilities and right relations.

Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

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Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 1 of 2

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past…  when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me.

 

John Capon, Grace McInnis and other CCF Campers in 1945.

1945 CCF Camp Woodsworth, with the young Gabriolan John Capon (seated left centre) with a number of CCF luminaries, including Grace McInnis. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past. It can inspire if people see themselves as more than a part of a narrative that merely got lost on the road to empire and globalization. They will put their faith into some of the emergent economic and social alternatives of today if they can see these as linked to an historical legacy – when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me. At least that’s what I think.

The legacy I offer is that of the pre-modern commons. Its’ ethos and practices have persisted in such modern organizations as the CCF: the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, that flourished in Canada in the 1930s.

I encountered the commons by accident, having gone looking for some alternative to the current endgame of corporate and investment globalization, something that would get me out of the box of thinking only about jobs and alternative investment opportunities.

On a whim, I went to Scotland to trace my ancestral roots, and found them at something called Tullicro, a pre-modern commons hamlet in the remote Glen Lyon River Valley in the Highlands. Over the next three years, I immersed myself in the historical record on this much-misunderstood form of societal organization.  I combined this with long days actually walking the land that my ancestors had walked, and farmed and pastured their sheep, cattle and goats, in common.

The first thing I learned is that the commons isn’t just land: it’s people and land living together; habitat and human inhabitants.

It’s  people living in direct relation –even right relations–  with the land for mutual sustainability. That was the first gem of discovery: an ecological form of direct democracy in which ‘agency’ was not only local but centred in relationships, not isolated individuals. Moreover, these relationships included the land and non-human inhabitants of habitat.

I learned that the word ‘common’ means ‘together as one’. I also learned that this togetherness was worked out through ongoing commoning relationships, between families in the commons community and between them and the land they had co-inhabited since before recorded time. An ethos of the shared or common good infused this, which meant very simply limiting individual ambition within the carrying capacity of the local community and environment.

The commons is actually a verb – to common. Commoning involved sharing work and resources like plows and breeding bulls, sharing the land and common pastures. And this involved a lot of shared self-organization into work bees, and also self-governance and related justice. It was about contributing your share, getting your share, and also about sharing decision-making power and related responsibility.

It was responsible self-governance, with this practiced first and most often at the level of the daily work-project team – be this around maintaining stone fences or getting everyone to the common pastureland called the Shieling for the summer, and more broadly in regulations such as the limits, or ‘stints’ on how many sheep, cows and goats any one family could pasture at the shieling.

Another thing I learned is that the economics of it was interwoven with the social, the cultural and the spiritual. I want to emphasize this because we’ve been schooled to think of economics as separate from how we live our lives, and so the contradictions that economics forces upon us are kept at a distance. Yet when social and cultural priorities inform economics, the economics that emerge can be different – something that is happening today in everything from community-assisted agriculture to fair-trade networks.

One aspect of the social and cultural was in commoners’ knowledge practices. Instead of a super-powered expert few and a disempowered many, you had the commoning of experience and observation into shared knowledge – notably through the spoken word. This knowledge informed  decisions at commons meetings – such as when certain strips of shared farmland should lie fallow for a season, or how many sheep could be sent to the common pasture land for the summer so that the pasture would not be over-grazed. Not only did everyone have a stake in getting these decisions right. Everyone had a share in the knowledge that informed them.

The cultural included the social aspects of the meetings and all the shared work. It also included gatherings around the music of a kaelie (ceilidh), both pagan and Celtic Christian faith practices and rituals accompanying the annual flitting to the shieling.

This wasn’t culture as consumption. It was culture as participation, as self and shared expression, as social bonding and mutual trust.  All of this cultivated the common ground of the commons. It underpinned the success of its small-p politics by helping sustain a shared commitment to the common good and trust in the mutuality of this.

Part 2 of this presentation will be posted on Monday, October 3, 2016.

People’s Climate: Di-vestment and Re-vestment

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“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 4

When the great Crash, ecologic or economic, comes, Heather Menzies’ brilliant critique will provide an understanding of why it came about, and a path towards a truly sustainable way for humanity to live on the planet.

– David Suzuki

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather with friends at her annual ladies gardening party.

Heather with her friends at her annual
ladies gardening party.

Divestment is part of the shift, but only the moving-away-from-the problem part. Moving toward the positive vision I outlined, of a society and global economy operating within the carrying capacity of the earth and its atmosphere, requires a partner line of action: what I call re-vestment.

The root word, to vest, means to clothe, to place in the possession of a person things like power and legal authority. It’s generally understood in the passive sense, as in someone vesting this authority in me, with me waiting ’til it happens, if it ever does. But this is a time of taking possession, as in the Occupy Movement blowing the whistle on a dysfunctional global economy. There’s also an array of DIY initiatives filling the gap left by the retreat of governments looking after the common good. So I invoke the word this way: taking back our power and authority. In fact, that’s the energy behind both sides of this coin: divesting ourselves as in withdrawing support for and compliance with the status quo, plus vesting ourselves in creating a new one.

This two-fold dynamic of change must operate in a lot of areas, including in ways of thinking and knowing. Consider this: The process of change is not something out there that we are trying to influence, at the UN Climate Conference and elsewhere, at least that’s only part of it. We are the process of change ourselves, individually as micro-agents of change participating in street actions, but also through the changes we make locally, re-purposing buildings into shared space and community, reviving old institutions like commons and community gardens, cooperatives and village/farmers’ markets operating on the priorities of right relations and fair trade, not profit.

The more people re-possess their voice, their power to enact a vision of an economy accountable to the sustainability needs of the earth and its inhabitants – even at the level of composting and local food cooperatives – and the more they own the experience they gain as relevant policy-related knowledge, the more the di-vestment/re-vestment process will bring this alternative vision to life. (I’ll come back to knowledge and experts in a later blog posting.)

In this first blog entry on this subject, I just want to say a couple more preliminary things; then perhaps some of you will take it further with your responses.

One of these is that the divestment/re-vestment involves changing the scale and pace of things in many areas of life, not just in industrial development. It’s important to focus on one dramatic thing, such as the accelerating extraction rate in current oil and gas development and the lethal link between this and carbon emissions. That has galvanized attention, and people have taken action!

But curtailing the rate of extraction is not a stand-alone event. To contribute to the larger shift – a lowering of demand as well as of supply, and of all development being regulated and limited by the realities of what this planet and its inhabitants can sustain – this larger, multi-faceted shift must be happening as well. (Happily, it is!). The larger agenda therefore involves scaling down, from machine scale (the global investment market is the largest machine of all!) more to a human and habitat scale, and moderating the pace of life (and the rising expectations of life the market constantly feeds us with) to something more conducive to fully experiencing life instead of simply consuming it. This doesn’t mean eliminating the global scale in everything, nor slowing everything down to a walk in the park – just a shift toward a healthy mix.

In my book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I talk about this as both structural change and a personal and shared, social one of healing. How can we reconnect with the earth and be governed by its needs and limitations if we aren’t connected to ourselves and attentive to our own needs and limitations? We need to heal the disconnects within ourselves and the lives we live, as members of families and communities if we are to succeed in healing the earth.

For me, therefore, change must operate simultaneously on three levels:

1) the personal level of our daily lives;

2) the local and ‘mezzo’ level of pilot projects, institutional change, NGO actions and other sustained change generally at a local level and grounded in making a difference in real life; and,

3), the meta level of larger movements, solidarity building (especially with Aboriginal people whose often unextinguished treaty rights keep alive this other vision, of the earth as shared habitat, not real estate and extractable resources), and sharing the evolving vision, the many stories of turning it into the new common sense.

Moreover, these three levels are linked, and need to be intentionally linked so that communication can flow between them, generating dialogue and consolidating alternative-informing knowledge. Change will emerge through iterative evolution, with meta-level organizations with strong social-media networks helping to facilitate this evolution through the linkages, dialogue and policy discussion general assemblies that they create. (Besides 350.org, I think of Friends of the Earth and, in Canada, the Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians.) Besides identifying emergent strategies and championing meta-level actions, they can plug donors and would-be volunteers into local projects and institutions making meaningful change in the here and now.

I’m trying to live these three levels of change myself: coming home to myself by scaling and pacing my life within the carrying capacity of my (aging!) body and peace of mind, including through spiritual practices and gardening; coming home to my local community, through commitments to actual projects and institutions there (The West End Well Food Cooperative in Ottawa and the Gabriola Commons in BC), and coming home to the earth through both the gestalt effect of all that personal and local connection plus reaching deeper into the wisdom of the past and of contemporary thinkers, schemers and dreamers, and networking about this with others, including through this blog.

As I do, I identify myself less completely as a citizen of a nation state, and more as a commoner: an implicated participant in shared habitat, with both a right and a responsibility to be involved in its well being.