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.