Reconnecting Democracy, Civil Rights and the (Land) Commons

Excerpted from Pat Conaty:

“On your key point Henry below that the Levellers (civll rights movement) and Diggers (the commons and commonwealth movement) took separate paths, you are right. But this was not any intention as key Diggers were Levellers and they described themselves as True Levellers.

The same divergence happened during the early days of the industrial revolution in the 1790s as Tom Paine (civil rights) and Thomas Spence (the commons and commonwealth) also diverged somewhat. Thomas Spence like Winstanley could see and argued that civil rights alone will not lead to full democracy. Full democracy requires a property rights foundation in commonwealth and beginning with amended rights to land use to overcome enclosure.

From 1815 Robert Owen and others like Ricardian socialists led by the Irish Co-operative leader, William Thompson sought to unite both but through economic democracy. The Chartists and especially the Irish leaders not only pushed for the undelivered annual Parliaments but they also set up the Chartist Land Company and raised sufficient share issue investment from trade unions to set up half a dozen Chartist co-operative villages.

It was Parliamentarians that forced the closure of the Chartist Land Company in the early 1850s. But John Stuart MIll picked up this cause and joined others in the first movements in London to protect Open Spaces and to create urban commons and parks. Also he argued that all land should be brought into commonwealth, either locally by campaigns or by municipal urban renewal to tackle slums or by land nationalisation. Municipal socialism in Birmingham and Glasgow took up Millian ideas.

Parliamentarians have favoured public land solutions off and on. But check out this compelling court case and story by Tania Branigan the Guardian correspondent in China. She shows how Zhang Haixan and a modern day Digger movement group of leaders in the 21st century in China is being jailed just for asserting commons ownership and use rights on what was nationalised by the Communists and is no longer being treated as common ownership but sold off.

The disconnect in thinking between commons land and land in public ownerships is a grand canyon tragically and seems rooted in the Leveller and Digger separate roads. Like a one-eyed Wall, the state simply is out of touch with the practices of commoners down the ages for how to productively and locally steward land to build commonwealth.

Hence the need for an very clear, articulate and compelling Politics of the Commons to build social-public partnerships in the communitarian ways.

Anyway now that a CLT in London is happening and being recognised, this Politics of the Commons is not an impossible sell in my view.

Emma Howard in the Guardian is seeking to do stories on all the CLTs in the country, so the Guardian is getting on board.

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