From Chapter Eleven of Notes From Nowhere


Meanwhile, what of the wilds?

Dog and stick pastoralism of the hills can continue without either oil, or fertilisers – provided it has markets for meat and wool.  However, a geographically-imposed self-reliance encouraged an initially-small increase in the growing of timber trees.  Then, as grain yields crashed in the lowlands, a huge market for food of any kind consumed the herds and flocks of the hills.   Impoverished arable soils provided the radical impetus to re-organise the inter-connections of agriculture.  So, the underfed and highly-populated lowlands stripped the under-populated uplands of an alternative food – meat.  People devoured the flocks, which, as Thomas More said, had once devoured the people.  The hills slowly returned to trees, which provided more employment than sheep had ever done.  So people and trees replaced not only sheep, but historical acts of enclosure.  Justice accompanied nature by reversing the clearances.  Workshops and timber mills grew as the trees grew – often powered directly by water.  However, wool was prized and mountain streams also came to power new looms – mostly for carpets and rugs.  Hill cultures of woodland, quarries, workshops and small flocks and herds began to find their functions in the larger economy.  The lowlands grew into a new culture – intensive horticultural-holdings and allotments surrounded settlements – and were embedded within them – while arable acreage spread across many old pasture lands.  The opposite was also the case – arable regions evolved patchworks of rotated grasslands for dairy herds and their followers and for laying hens.  Pigs were very much a backyard, or farmyard part of the culture – symbiotic to wastes and surpluses.

Today, patterns of land ownership have imposed a hopeless ennui on communities which could otherwise have sought the dynamic changes needed for our times.  Those with property have watched unperturbed, as land values have risen towards lunacy.  Anyone with new money can buy into the cartel, so inflating values still further.  Those within the cartel have grown richer without effort – rent has increased with property prices and “business” loans for further profligacy are handed copiously to the propertied.   Many people buy houses simply for their inflating values and rents.  “Buy to let” is thought of as a business venture, yet it contributes nothing and takes much.  That nearly all property has been stolen by violent enclosure, or purchased from those that did so, is not regarded in law, because acts of enclosure had been made lawful by the thieves themselves – and re-enforced by their now-comfortable and dignified descendents.  Protecting the state of inherited comfort overrides every other moral consideration.  Protecting particular property overrides protection of the whole…. Of course small particular properties can be fiercely-defended as hallowed ground where families have lived, loved and died.

The sanctity of the commons may also be handed reverently between generations.  But the naive cup has been spilled onto trading floors of ownership.   Trust, probity and curious concern have been liberalised, while law’s fences keep out ethics (and common values) from property transaction.  Property law, which considers only rights, has no need to consider the common morality of the common realm.  The more site value inflates, so the more it commands frivolous borrowing and so the more both it and the subsequent spending are defended by property owners.  Climate change, resource depletion and economic collapse have been seen by the propertied as fictions of the envious mass!  Trespassers will be prosecuted.  The Westminster Environment Minister and a high proportion of today’s cabinet (and their country supper friends) fall directly into that category.

It is not house-value which has inflated – nor the agricultural value of land.  It is the site value – the casino value, which bears no relationship at all to soil, construction materials – or to atrophy.  House values do not inflate, they depreciate.  Timbers rot.  Wiring decays.  What’s more this island set in a silver sea is not a property – it lives on the common.  A perversity of law has divided that common into property.  You say a common is owned by its commoners? – But what is owned by a commoner is not a right, but a responsibility.  The commoner has the right to be responsible for a specific common.  Her role is also defined – the maintenance of the common.

What if we place those hallowed grounds where families have lived loved and died – those home, sweet homes as castles – not on a site value determined in a casino, but on the common and set in a silver sea?  Well, so it transpired…. to an extent….

I must return to my narration of events.  When a community buys out its landlord, (as is happening now in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland) the property could be seen as held in common by the community for future generations of that community.  How do we treat my house and garden, because I see them as my castle?

How do we treat the common land of roads, harbours, town halls, market squares and so on?  Can this island’s jewels set in silver seas be owned at all?  If taxes are raised to build (let’s say) a new river bridge for the common good then the taxed must own it in common.  Taxes are raised for standing armies and nuclear submarines.  The taxed elect parliamentary representatives to oversee the commonly-owned army and nuclear submarine.  Members of parliament are supposed to represent constituencies of commoners in the House of Commons – where the common wealth is administered.

If a community buys its pub, village shop, wind turbine, quay, or sail-trading vessel then those with most bonds or shares may come to have an overly-large influence on the means to the common good.  So it has been in the past – property and Westminster vote have gone together.  Accidents of birth have determined not only the power which comes with wealth but democratic power.  We have been born, in or out of power by accidents of land or sex.  Property law has thus determined laws of the commons – Inheritance by primogeniture and sex – and worse – propertied power has enclosed most of the commons of these islands by simple violence.  An “undisputed” enclosure has been enough to establish it in law – and within a system of justice where only the propertied have had influence.

So the early, innocent excitement of community-owned shops, or harbour quays faced the ancient dilemmas.  The one person, one vote of today’s Welsh, Scottish, European and Westminster parliaments is by no means replicated in most of public life.  What is the larger part of post-modern public life? – I’d say ring roads, retail parks, super markets, corporate high street brands – and the means to supply them – the great corporations, Monsanto, Cargil – and the means to connect them – the energy corporations, motor manufacturers, the super market chains… The list can go on to your choosing.  Cabinet ministers often move straight from parliament to a seat on one or other – or more of those company boards.  Much of the common realm has been given away or sold cheap – health, education, policing, prisons, railways, roads, large parts of the commons of cities, such as Liverpool One and Canary Wharf…… Both handed common streets to private companies.

Common land has been enclosed in various surges of greed in medieval times but accelerated from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth centuries until only unproductive moorland has remained.  Indeed, the central doctrine of the reformation was not to reform Christian understanding, but to enclose church and monastic properties.  Monasteries had administered refuge and Christian charity.  The reformation transferred that wealth from monastic responsibility to the exclusive rights of the few.  Now we have the last remaining realms of the common good sliding shiftily behind fences where wealth accumulates and men decay.  It has been the central doctrine of the Blair, Brown and Cameron/Clegg governments to “liberalise” the last of the commons – under the egalitarian theatre of consumer choice – that is to liberate responsibility from the constraints of its personal, catholic, convivial and inherited roles into a frivolous and careless mass-dependency on the new dukedoms – the brands.  This Earth; this realm this….and that is no more.  Don’t forget that commons define roles – how we behave on the common, whereas properties are defined by their borders.  So commons are cultural, moral and dynamic, whereas property is static, amoral and defensive.  Consumers have right to be irresponsible.  Commoners have right to responsibility.

How did the great resettlement recognise unequal, monetary contributions to the common good, while also maintaining the good as common?  Of course, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century communism had overridden the dilemma by holding (at least in theory) everything as common.

But working side by side on the great collective fields had not evoked the same pleasures as personal work on a personal allotment.  This story-teller recalls a rose-tinted, pre-reformation, medieval world of, on the one hand, defined responsibilities, trade guilds and devoutly-accumulated skills, and on the other of unskilled and helpless power firmly on a throne, which holds the defined roles of defence of the realm and the administration of justice.  Power administers a kingdom which is created by its people.  Without that creation it has power over nothing.

That structure was replicated in microcosm: the squire and his manor; the laird and his kinsmen.  Feudal systems had defined the roles of all, including the roles of the powerful.  Their weakness was the unaccountability of the powerful to a higher authority.  (Hence the value of Church & Kirk)  The lord could (and often did) administer a tyranny and forget his defined role.  On the other hand, the folly of post modernity is that power has no definition – in either ethics or physics.  It listens neither to ancestry, nor responds to descendents.  Nor does it respond to the social consensus of a ballot box – rather it manufactures one to its contemporary ends.  Naturally the manufacturing is in the hands of the powerful few.  The larger part is assumed – dependency on the brands, while a packaged democracy is provided as a distraction in which citizens can play at making choices between political brands.

Rose-tinting is a natural colouring to the histories we carry as security into contemporary adventures.  It is convenient for my picture to remove serf from my Merry Athens of a Midsummer Night’s Dream – which I have populated with idle lords who oversee the realm and ingenious and busy artisans, merchants and peasants who actually run it.  The Lands of Fairy (Nature) make natural mischief with them all.

Anyway, it happened that extra-ordinary demands called for extraordinary adventures.  A contagious rose-tinting suffused the dawns of most in the mass assimilation of that first wishful thought!

But as communities took economies into their own hands, so a rose-tinting of inequality became necessary for the common good.  After all, as consumerist dependency on the brands of corporate power was diminished, so the reliance of people on each other was increased.  My dependency on the provisions of others may be balanced by my provisions to others.  But because some provisions are larger than others, inequality is a natural outcome of different behaviours.  Ah well, that some are more equal than others is a reversion to natural behaviour and by no means undermines a pursuit of the common good.  Rather, it can be a part of the comic muddle that is ordinary, sad, funny, convivial humanity.  If commons are statutorily-defined, then property has limits and what’s more behaviour on the common also has limits.  The great resettlement blundered into its mistakes and so into its source-books for learning.  Orwell’s Animal Farm is by no means an inevitable progression.  The wild and unlimited behaviour of post modernity and the fantastical pronouncements of its commercial and political leaders had created chaos and so common limits to behaviour were generally accepted with relief, gratitude – and also with hope for a more orderly future.  Knowledge that Utopia was unattainable and acceptance of the make-do and mend promoted a charitable and generally forgiving state of society.

Basic income was provided by taxation, but what was to be taxed faced the same bizarre difficulties, which go with our comic humanity.  But the severity of some taxes passed almost without comment.  Anachronistic wealth: site value of property, money inherited from coal, oil, gas or biofuel businesses and so on could be taxed at such a rate that they evaporated or were re-distributed to remove their burdens.  Share holders who’d gambolled on the wrong horses faced the ancient gambler’s lesson.  There was a common sorrow; a regret – for the utter folly of the doctrine of economic growth from a fast-diminishing supply, which most had once accepted without thought.  It had been the promise of almost every politician and the accepted position of the BBC and the popular post-modern press.  The regret meant that most were eager to put the shame of such a past behind them.  Eagerness to deny our part in discredited history is human nature.  Fear of chaos and the knowledge that escaping it had been a very close-run thing, lead to an acceptance of the necessity for order – and for taxation to finance a better, but by no means perfect world.     

Three new opportunities: Basic income for all adults – collapse of the property market – the end of oil – all lead to the dynamic vivacity – to the romance of a human-scale economy.  Nations of new shopkeepers; new farmers and growers; new manufacturers; new sail-traders stirred the tired pot of human ingenuity.  Weary (self-satisfied) dependency on the extra-ordinary provisions of coal, oil and gas had diminished much that is truly extra-ordinary from the social imagination.  The return to ordinary nature; to human nature confined to laws of physics, made those things extra-ordinarily bright and new – particularly, because not one, physical thing can pass into the social imagination unless it has first passed through the senses of an individual.

The wheels of the stars rise and fall through the night in predictable east-west patterns, just as my story does to a preferred pattern of human behaviour.  Humanity may not behave as I prefer, but this, as I say, is a night-time tale, which is actually the only kind of tale that can be truthfully told.  The day is too complex for narration.  Its tales are told after they pass into history.  The way to manage a day is to live it – not vicariously by the advice of schooling, research institute, or accepted authority.  Lessons hide within the day and we discover them by collision – by bruised shins, punctured egos and sometimes by unexpected delights.  We know the night will come.  Then we can expound the adventures of the day and set our records straight.  However bad a day has been, we know that at nightfall we can laugh, pass the bottle, then sleep.  That a night-time utopia seems inappropriate for the day means that we’ve learnt some lessons from our fallibility.  That a night-time tale is held as applicable by peer-reviewed statistics means that it has probably been told at the court of the Naked Emperor.  How such a population as ours, which has been created by fossil fuels and fertilisers, can survive without fossil fuels and fertilisers is a question without an answer.  There are no data.  All answers lie in living without fossil fuels and fertilisers.  There is no other course but to do it.  What’s more, we have no choice.  My midsummer night’s dream is a night-time tale to re-set my course for the next lessons of the day.  No statistics, white papers, or research programmes can refute it.  There is not a new thought under the sun.  Only tools can change.  Human nature cannot.  Intelligence does not.   Circumstances change.  We adapt tools as we apply them to new circumstance by using the same intelligence possessed by our Bronze Age ancestor.  We’ve a long and unproductive wait if we hang about for the next intellectual mutation of our species.  However, if we consider that we have a highly-dramatic new circumstance then every one of us can become a character in the yet-to-be-written high drama.


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