April 28, 2009

The Commons is About 'Commoning'

Professor Louis Wolcher's impassioned video on the "meaning of the commons."

Professor Louis Wolcher of the University of Washington delivers a great speech about “The Meaning of the Commons” on this YouTube video. His speech is an introduction to the National Lawyers Guild’s one-day conference, The Law of the Commons, held on March 13, which I previewed “here.”:

Below, a few highlights from Wolcher’s remarks. But I still urge you to watch Profesor Wolcher’s passionate presentation, which focuses on the political implications of the commons today.

Wolcher cited Peter Linebaugh’s glorious book, The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press), as an indispensable history of how the commons and law relate to each other. In our times, the Magna Carta is incorrectly remembered as the King’s grant of certain rights to the commoners under the law. But in fact, the Magna Carta is about the commons asserting those rights as theirs, and forcing the King to publicy affirm their rights as a matter of law. The impetus, in other words, came from the commoners, not from the King.

The commons, said Wolcher, citing Linebaugh, is not simply a conflict over property rights> It is about “people expressing a form of life to support their autonomy and subsistence needs.” The commons is a verb — “commoning.” It’s about “taking one’s life into one’s own hands, and not waiting for crumbs to drop from the King’s table.”

Instead of the state or the sovereign declaring the limits of the possible, and inscribing those limits in stipulated legal rights, the commons is about “ungranted, unscripted forms of life,” Wolcher said. “This begins to open the commoners to freely create the future in common with each other….” He added that the commons empowers “the shared imagination of people in solidarity with each other confronting a world falling apart before our eyes.”

Wolcher noted the strange fact that medieval peasants may have been in a more advantageous position than modern citizens of the liberal state. The former at least had a shared cultural memory about commoning; that memory was an everyday social practice that went back generations. But now, said Professor Wolcher, market culture has virtually eliminated any collective memories of commoning. “We are in a less fortunate position because we have no cultural memory of a different way of being,” he said.

The Seattle chapter of the National Lawyers Guild deserves great credit for convening an illustrious group of law scholars, academics and activists to try to build the commons anew and rediscover the virtues of commoning. I will look for other papers and videos associated with the Seattle conference.