Brain Dropping #116
Enclosing the Commons. Here in Vermont we still honor the tradition of the Commons, at least in name.
Almost every Vermont town has a swath of green space in the middle of town called the Commons, belonging to everyone in the community. I’ve been told, until recently in some of the more rural towns, sheep would be brought in to graze instead of using a mechanized lawn mower. The idea of a Commons harkens back to the middle ages when large areas of grassland was accessible to all, for pasturing sheep, cows, gathering grass, fishing and to collect firewood. The land under collective control was called “The Open Field System.” Rural laborers who lived on the margin depended on open fields to fend off starvation.
In England the tradition of the Commons was deeply entrenched in the agricultural community. In the early seventeenth century the landed aristocracy began the process fencing off the open fields called – “enclosure”- driving the peasantry off the land. Between 1604 and 1914 5,200 Enclosure Acts were passed by Parliament putting 6.8 million acres of land (11,000 sq. miles) off limits to ordinary Englishmen. Enclosures peaked in 1750 forcing peasants to leave the countryside for the city’s slums brought about by the “Industrial Revolution” just about to switch into high gear. Between 1750 and 1820 enclosures dispossessed farmers from 30% of agricultural land in England. The dispossessed peasantry formed what Karl Marx called “the reserve army of labor,” driving down wages and fueling the expansion of capitalist exploitation – a process which continues to this day.
Although technically not “enclosure” as practiced in England – the loss of the commons continues today in the U.S., as a conflict between the public interest and private money-making schemes. Our national “Commons” includes our national parks and 52% of the land in Western States, which is Federally owned, meaning public land. Big Oil and Big Agriculture in collusion with their hirelings in Congress are exploiting the Commons for huge profits with less than fair returns for the taxpayer. Herds of cattle grazing on private land pay a fee of $15 per animal per month and only $1.35 on public land. It’s been known for decades that oil drilling leases on public land are going for peanuts, and royalties are pitifully small, depriving the national treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars. In Florida, Big Agriculture is trying to push through a gigantic land grab which would privatize 500,000 acres of publicly owned waterfront land. In the U.S., we’ve allowed the privatization of waterfront properties, blocking off access by the public to beaches, all in contravention of the ancient law of “riparian rights” – the right of all persons to have access to a body of water. Riparian rights are still in effect throughout Europe.
“Eminent Domain”, a legal ploy, is being used frequently to dispossess home owners for the sake of private enterprises. This was the case in New London, Connecticut when a group of homes were seized and demolished because Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, was building a new research facility and did not want those “eyesores” nearby. The U.S. Supreme Court, in yet another horrendous decision favoring big business and ignoring the 5th Amendment “taking” clause (which authorizes such takings for public use only) approved the city’s actions. The same was true in the South Bronx to make room for the new Yankee Stadium. Fewer seats for the peasantry but many more “Skyboxes” for the elite, in that case.
Another method used by the American aristocracy to limit the freedom of the “peasantry” to enjoy the “commons”, is the process of gentrification – taking over moderate rental neighborhoods by building extravagant condos, or redesigning older homes for rentals that ordinary people can not afford, thus driving them out to the fringes of the city. A case in point is what’s happening on the streets of Central Park South – the insane proliferation of sky high towers whose shadows literally block the sun from Central Park. With the collaboration of ambitious architects and money-grubbing realtors, these towers, with apartments selling for tens of millions, destroy the diversity of the neighborhood, and create an opulent, antiseptic ambience, well protected by the police, who discourage low-income “peasants” from walking those streets. Stop and Frisk, anyone?
We need more people like the Mayor of Paris, France. She has proposed severe restrictions on such gentrification in central Paris, to preserve a more human-scale quality of life, and to maintain the diversity which makes Paris the “City of Light” – unlike New York City where trying to see the sky can give one a case of vertigo.