Towards a Convivial Economy, the writings of Patrick Noble


I see one of the greatest follies of these times in the power of architects and the disempowerment of builders – what I call status enclosure. That enclosure acts like land enclosure by the extraction of rent without returning an economic/social contribution. It also severs the connection between tools and their effects. For instance, a farmer buys (with her own money) pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilisers and seeds as an integrated architectural package. She reads instruction (from the corporate architect) on the sides of the drums and sacks. She makes no attempt to understand what’s in the drums and sacks. She is told by the architect that in applying that system she’s become the “cutting edge of the industry”, I’m cutting edge, says the proud farmer – who has ceased to be a farmer and has become both the funder of and also the tool of a distant and careless architect.
Meanwhile, the truth of an agriculture’s dependent integration with ecological cycles, becomes lost. The connection is direct – between the application of a tool and natural reactions to it. Larger society is dependent on the sensual hand, heart, perception, ingenuity and loyalty of the farmer – but fields have been abandoned by the senses of people and occupied by the senseless (actually without senses) architectural tools of corporate monopoly.
There is a danger here of a battle between good and bad architects, in which we must naturally support the good. Naturally we cheer the good, but a good ecological design remains a senseless design. The presence of the (middle class) architect and a lack of the (working, peasant, yeoman – your choosing class) farmer remains the central problem.
Now, if we remove the architect from her enclosure and from her class system and replace her in a just and properly functioning society, she may have an equally (egalitarian) proper function. That function may be within either the scepticism of science, or the morals of philosophy – she can move between both at differing times. Also, our farmer may be a curious reader of the latest contributions to both science and philosophy and those contributions may broaden her facility to understand nature’s reaction to her own tools. If, because of that insight she adjusts her techniques, it remains a farmer’s, not an architect’s adjustment. All the contributions to a culture – musical, poetic, literary, philosophical, scientific – enrich it and also enrich it beyond the coercions of power. They add to commons of bequeathed humanity – also beyond the manipulation of power. That addition is the finest addition and it is to those commons that I appeal, to throw off the architects of power and to re-instate the arts of builders. In short, I appeal to the memory of ancestors and to those who’d have descendants. Today’s architecture is the briefest of perversities – riding the back of invading and fossil-fuelled monopoly.
Tomorrow, shrugging off enclosure, the architect and the farmer may converse happily on the common, but each with a clearly separated role – the farmer in the field – the architect on the page. On Winter nights, the farmer will love to turn those pages. On Summer days, the architect may wander, entranced – breast-high, among scents and sounds of (as days pass) green to golden fields of corn.
What is ordinary is marvellous – ordinary sights, scents, tastes, sounds, breezes, days, seasons – complex beyond unravelling, but knit into culture like good ordinary wine…
Ordinary skill is the same – too complex to unravel but similarly knit into marvels of sea and soil.
Ordinary ways of life are now overlain and (for Europeans) nearly totaly abandoned by invading and extraordinary architectures impossible without fossil fuels – ring roads, retail/industrial parks, massive machinery, aviation, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, matricides…
I propose that most would lean back into those abandoned lives with a sigh – like a nice cup of tea and one’s favourite chair. We left it, as Marie Celeste for a new era – an architect’s vision, to which we contributed no part. To be sure, we’d left an ordinary mass of ordinary human folly, injustice… – find a wrong and it would be there. But since we had our trades – within those trades and with new knowledge contemporary to changed times, we could… dream on you say.
Nor will I engage in discussing merits of historical periods – follies of kings, bishops and factory gates – merits of trades, guilds and common fields… – as you’d expect.
Mine is a good ordinary vision of good ordinary wine. It is palpable in the elegance of those parish churches – the joy of mosques, temples, cathedrals – too complex an elegance for the pen of architect. The power behind the cathedral is a flaw – but consider this – that flaw is an enclosure – rather like the architect’s enclosure. It is not a flaw in the jewel. That musical eruption – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, even Beethoven was patronised by corrupt, self-serving powers, but that is no flaw in the jewel. Shakespeare politically prudent – surviving two bloody courts – bequeathed us jewels. Chaucer, the customs official… The border ballads – Thomas the Rhymer sung from folk memory amongst violent (or fearful) border reevers… sung like good ordinary wine.
Today, enclosure is pretty much complete. In truth, it completes the end of civilisation. The evidence is absolute – climate change, fast-depleting soil and utterly-mined resources. There is no one in charge to notice. Of course, there remain a few self-determined proper shops and trade’s people – just as there are a few independent minded farmers, but they are tiny islands in a vast sea. Enclosure (the tide of that sea) is the means to private property and rent – which lie outside social commons and apart from laws of physics, economics and nature. The last public services (they are commons) will soon be enclosed. Most already are so. Within their property, owners behave as they choose, without commons of restraint. They have no eyes, or ears. Consumer signals? No. Demanded and accepted consumer right within monopoly supply, gives a monopoly credence, but does not change it.
We can’t tell how the powers will behave as we reclaim commons, pick up our tools and attempt to live properly and ordinarily with each other. We do know that we follow an ordinary, and very well-trodden, course of history. Governments, kings and squires have forever manipulated, but skilled and ingenious house-holders and trades people have similarly forever (until very, very recently) managed the economy.
Where that pattern was interrupted, or weakened has been by land and resource enclosures. For instance, catastrophic land enclosure and the sack of monastic social systems at the Reformation dispossessed the skills of whole communities, which sought refuge where they could – in swelling cities, prostitution and other degradations. Nevertheless, the ordinary trades continued to manage the larger economy. Coal enclosure and its companion, the factory gate, later opened to receive still more of the dispossessed. So blind enclosure gained more effects just as European history “progressed”– that is – as further commons were swallowed into the enclosures of the architects. Even so, many continued self-determined trades and did so into living memory.
I think and hope that many from both left and right of politics would consider it a relief to sink into the comfort of a gently applauding ancestry. Of course, the applause is in our imagination, but that imagination narrates the unwinding tale of Everyman’s place – her identity; her terrain; her culture. Hey! Storytellers narrate, farmers farm, fiddlers tap my feet and shoemakers make shoes – and good, ordinary, proper architects design possibly-good permacultures – on the page – not on the land. The page is a wonderful thing and all may do better by opening the book.