The concept of commons emerged in England in resistance to land enclosure, the early stages of what Marx later described as “primitive accumulation”, the claiming of land and resources for private ownership by those in power. In some places this primitive accumulation looks like land-grab for mining, industrialization and cheap labor; in other territories it is represented by the straight lines drawn on a map, a pipeline, or the obliteration of islands in nuclear proving grounds; but mostly it is the erection of fences, and sometimes golf courses, to define a territory as privatized or militarized.
The process of enclosure is driven by state capitalism, it takes place outside of democratic processes, and removes collective rights to gather wood, graze animals, grow food, to own culture, to live in an empty building, to drink fresh water, walk and enjoy the landscape or to even sit in a town square and sing. In medieval times, commoners traditionally had rights of access and use, even if the land was owned by the crown. Today commoning describes various kinds of collective ownership and responsibility. These include co-operatives, squatters’ rights, and systems to protect cultural and intellectual commons such as creative commons licensing and open access publishing.
Thinking about the commons as a concept for the 21st century in this way draws correlations between the enclosures and colonization which open up spaces for new kinds of allyship. Colonization is the implementation of enclosure on a global scale, which commodifies people and planet, exploiting and eroding bodies and ecosystems, violating practices of care and stewardship. The commoners stake their land rights as responsibilities, finding voice and having agency, their relationship to place is articulated through collective gardening, sharing, making, living and resisting through forming new legal and political structures.
The commons are not simply resources, or a single group of people, the act of commoning is a process, a lived set of collective ethics which value relationships between humans, and the relationship between humans and the environment for the sustenance of all life and non-life. Commoning is a resistance to the enclosures of colonization which we inherit from our children.
Dr Ele Carpenter is Professor of Interdisciplinary Art & Culture, and Director of UmArts working directly with the School of Architecture, School of Art, School of Design, the Department of Creative Arts and Bildmuseet to support and develop new arts research. UmArts was founded in 2021 and will focus on some of the most important issues of our times including: Planetary Care, Decolonisation, and the Nuclear Anthropocene.