Commons Reading Group

Thanks to everyone who participated in the first meeting of the Commons reading group seminar…

The group met every two weeks for a couple of hours on a Thursday evening. The first texts we looked at were mostly historical which provided an interesting point of departure. In the coming months, which will begin in mid-January, we’ll be looking at more contemporary expressions of the commons and some recent debates which have come to the fore (the relationship between commons and contemporary capitalism, and between the commons and the state/public, for example).

Here are the texts:

The first text was ‘On the Commons‘, a public interview with Massimo de Angelis and Stavros Stavrides. It was more theoretical than subsequent texts but it offered a good overview of the historical context and contemporary significance of the commons.

The second text was ‘Burning Times‘, an appendix to the book Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk. This extended the notion of enclosure beyond the privatization of common land, describing the ways in which primitive accumulation went hand in hand with the disciplining and eradicating of certain bodies, desires and knowledge, specifically those associated with women.

The third (chapter 1 & 2) and fourth (chapters 3 & 4) texts were taken from Peter Linebaugh’s book The Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh identifies the legal/juridical and material/economic components of the Magna Carta, founded in 1215. These represent certain rights which are founded in law but enacted in practice through access to and use of material resources. He moves on from this founding moment to show how the Magna Carta has been forgotten, abused and reclaimed at different moments in history, including through struggles over the commons- the Diggers and the Levellers, for example. This allowed us to see how the commons, something which is part of everyday life, came to be politicized and articulated in specific moments of antagonism.

E.P.Thompson’s classic essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, was the final text we looked at before the break. Thompson identifies the many ways in which discontent and protest arose around the issue of food prices as the market economy came to displace the ‘moral economy’, one which was not based on the ‘invisible hand’ of supply and demand, or the individual pursuit of profits. What is significant about Thompson’s analysis is the way in which he returns agency and thought to the ‘riotous crowd’. Not yet a ‘political’ subject with a clear program for change the people he describes are still capable of resistance and self-organization. These nascent movements emerge sporadically and ambiguously from different ways of valuing and knowing the world. Attending to these ‘un-neat’ forms of expression and organization is an important task. He writes in the introduction:

“We know all about the delicate tissue of social norms and reciprocities which regulates the life of Trobriand islanders, and the psychic energies involved in the cargo cults of Melanesia; but at some point this infinitely-complex social creature, Melanesian man, becomes (in our histories) the eighteenth-century English collier who claps his hand spasmodically upon his stomach, and responds to elementary economic stimuli.”


One comment

  1. […] event is connected to the Commons Reading Seminar which we have held this year in GradCam. GradCam have also part sponsored the […]

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