March 29, 2019 — In its most recent issue, the newsletter Open Space of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice invites us to develop new forms of solidarity with the help of a very old idea, straight out of the Middle Ages: that of the commons. Let's take a closer look at what it's all about, and try to get out of... common places!
Wikipedia's definition is simple: "A common is a resource shared, managed and maintained collectively by a community; it establishes rules in order to preserve and sustain this resource while providing the right to use it by all". However, the commons are much more than that.
Anyone who has ever stopped in the old city of Boston has probably walked through this huge green space called the Boston Common. Anyone who has travelled to France or taken an interest in its history has sooner or later read or heard the word "common". This term sometimes refers to a village or a municipality, or sometimes to the revolutionary and socialist utopia that was the Paris Commune in 1871. What are we talking about here?
The word "common" takes us back to the Middle Ages and to what were then called communal goods, i.e. those meadows and pastures that belonged to the entire peasant community, thus escaping the control and taxation of the lord. Each farmer entrusted a shepherd with his few cows or sheep. Responsible for feeding this collective herd, the shepherd had to escort them to the mountain pastures or communal meadows, then bring them back safely, but fat and fulsome, to each peasant. For peasant communities crushed by seigneurial royalties and starved, access to these common goods was a matter of life and death. This was until agrarian capitalism and the movement of enclosures sounded the death warrant for these communal goods. They were transformed into private property, surrounded by fences and guard dogs....
The contemporary commons movement emerged in the wake of the Occupy movement, in the wake of the 2008 economic and financial crisis. It invites citizens to regain control of their collective destiny. How? Sometimes by peacefully occupying public squares in protest against social injustices, sometimes by engaging in local and municipal politics in order to fight against the prevailing neoliberalism. Why? To rebuild links between citizens and put in place alternatives to capitalism, individualism and every man for himself. Let us think here of the spontaneous occupation and citizen mobilization in Notre-Dame des Landes, France. Or to the outpourings of solidarity between migrants and French citizens in the infamous "jungle" of Calais - this temporary camp where desperate African and Middle Eastern refugees have crowded in, fleeing violence and misery. The peaceful Sioux resistance in Standing Rock, South Dakota, and the pacific resistance of the Wet'suwet'en Nation in British Columbia are also good examples.
This issue of Open Space therefore explores the prophetic potential of these commons, as well as their ability to create alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, from one end of the planet to the other. This issue has been frequently addressed by Relations magazine, including Jonathan Durand-Folco, a professor at Saint Paul University and a member of the journal's editorial board. But also by the French economist and Jesuit Gaël Giraud SJ.