The Commons, four proposals by George Monbiot

After graduating in zoology, Monbiot joined the BBC as a radio producer, making natural history and environmental programmes. He transferred to the World Service, where he worked as a current affairs producer and presenter, before leaving to research and write his first book. As an investigative journalist, he travelled in Indonesia, Brazil, and East Africa. His activities led to him being made persona non grata in seven countries and being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Indonesia. In Britain, he joined the roads protest movement and co-founded The Land is Ours. Its first high-profile success was in 1997, when it occupied thirteen acres of prime real estate in London built an “eco-village,” (which the writer visited) and held on to the land for six months. Sir Crispin Tickell, then Warden at Green College, Oxford, made Monbiot a Visiting Fellow. Monbiot believes that drastic action coupled with strong political will is needed to combat global warming and that climate change is the “moral question of the 21st century”.

In Common Wealth, an article later feebly retitled by a Guardian sub-editor, Don’t let the rich get even richer on the assets we all share, George Monbiot focusses on the commons which unlike the state, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form and provides an incentive to protect the living world.

He names three elements of the commons which have been attacked by state power and capitalism for centuries:

  • Resources, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software.
  • A community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it.
  • And the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.

These resources that no one invented or created, or that a large number of people created together, are stolen by those who see an opportunity for profit. Monbiot comments that ‘business acumen’ often amounts to discovering novel ways of grabbing other people’s work and assets. He adds:

“To judge by the speeches at this week’s Labour conference, the party could be receptive to this vision. The emphasis on community and cooperatives (which in some cases qualify as commons), the interest in broadening ownership and fighting oppressive trade agreements all point towards this destination”.

He addresses political parties in general, hoping that they can recognise that the economy has four sectors, not just state and market:

“That’s the point at which it can begin: the social and environmental transformation for which so many of us have been waiting . . .

“There are in fact four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.

“Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after, fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school, there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.

“There’s another great subsidy, that all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through their seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons . . .

“The theft of value by people or companies who did not create it is called enclosure. Originally, it meant the seizure – supported by violence – of common land. The current model was pioneered in England, then spread to Scotland, Ireland and the other colonies, and from there to the rest of the world. It is still happening, through the great global land grab.

“Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who have captured essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.

“You can see enclosure at work in the Trump’s administration’s attempt to destroy net neutrality. Internet service providers want to turn salience on the internet – now provided freely by a system created through the work of millions – into something for which you have to pay. To ensure there is no choice, they have also sought to shut down a genuine internet commons, by lobbying states to prohibit community broadband. In the crazy plutocracy the US has become, four states have made this form of self-reliance a criminal offence, while others have introduced partial bans.

“Another example is the extension of intellectual property through trade agreements, allowing biotech companies to grab exclusive rights to genetic material, plant varieties and natural compounds. Another is the way in which academic publishers capture the research freely provided by communities of scientists, then charge vast fees for access to it”.

Monbiot’s proposals: balance market or state by defending and expanding the two neglected sectors

  • There should be wages for carers, through which the state and private enterprise repay part of the subsidy they receive.
  • Communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends.
  • Anyone who owns valuable land should pay a local community land contribution (a form of land value tax): compensation for the wealth created by others. Part of this can be harvested by local and national government, to pay for services and to distribute money from richer communities to poorer ones.
  • The residue should belong to a commons trust formed by the local community. One use to which this money might be put is to buy back land, creating a genuine commons and regaining and sharing the revenue.

He expands on this idea and others in a book published this month – Out of the Wreckage – in which he shows how new findings in psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology cast human beings in a radically different light: as supreme altruists and co-operators.

He shows how we can build on these findings to create a new politics: a ‘politics of belonging’.

Both democracy and economic life can be radically reorganized from the bottom up, enabling us to take back control and overthrow the forces that have thwarted our ambitions for a better society.




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