Some thoughts on the commons


As we try to consider all the evidence that has been gathered over the last three years in the Social Haunting research a number of different themes have emerged. One of these has been the idea of the commons. On the night this photograph this photo was taken I found myself reading Gary Snyder’s early nineties’ classic ‘Practice of the Wild’. Snyder is an elegant writer who is often associated with beat zen in the sixties. A talented linguist, an anthropologist and an ordained zen monk Snyder is one of those writers who wrote extensively about the commons.

Snyder observes that it was enclosure in Middle Ages England that started the removal of common land. The process accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries providing an expelled population ripe to be exploited in the mills, mines and factories of the industrial revolution, urbanised in the into cities like Manchester. Of course this was a brutal process but what is really telling for me is a short paragraph where Snyder explores the linguistic origins of the word ‘Commons’. In Ancient Greek you have ‘ko’ (together) with ‘moin’ (held in common), therefore we arrive at common and onwards towards ideas like community. Now I often get drawn into debates about what the word community means, after all I am a member of Unite Community. People will suggest that the word suggests boundaries, insider and outsider, that it is a static concept that excludes.

Yet Snyder suggests otherwise: he points out that the European root word ‘Mei’ means to “move, to go, to change”. Far from being static, exclusively linked to place community is a dynamic concept where in its original archaic linguistic form it meant an “exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom and law”. As an anthropologist he speculates that this might describe the original exchange mechanism  where “the gift always moves”. (The classic example is the Kula trade of the Trobriand Islanders as described by Malinowski). This root word ‘mei’ comes into Latin as ‘munus’ from which we get ‘municipality’ and I would think mutual.

If we see the commons as a dynamic concept then we can see that preserving a community might not be an exercise in nostalgia or a sedimentation of memory but a glimpse of the future. Which brings me to why I was reading Snyder in the first place. The photo is of my street, taken on Wednesday 11th December this year it shows an enclosure. At 7am that morning an Amey crew came to cut down one our street trees. We as a community fought back. ‘geckos’ snuck behind the barriers to slow down the felling; other residents filmed proceedings, made pots of tea, offered cake to other protestors. A security team were there to prevent anyone shinning over the barriers to prevent the felling by tree hugging. At one point, the police were called: it all got fractious.

As the day wore on, the protest look like failing; the chainsaw started to scream and the security guards relaxed and all seemed lost. Then from nowhere a ‘bunny’ appeared: a protestor wearing a mask. While the guards were not looking the bunny did not leap over the fence but instead crawled under the gap between the chain link and the street and hugged the tree. Unable to forcibly remove the bunny the felling was thwarted for the day. As of yet the crew has not returned.

I think Gary Snyder would love how the community fought back to reclaim its common inheritance. Not just to preserve but to create a sustainable and fair society in the future. I suppose we were “reclaiming the commons” and in so doing perhaps we were reshaping and recomposing Class. Well that might be another discussion!

Mark James

Mark JamesComment