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May 7, 2014

Commons 101

A reading list from activist and scholar Peter Linebaugh

(Photo by College360 under a Creative Commons license)

Peter Linebaugh--a leading scholar of radical possibilties who coined the word commoning--lists his choice of the best books to learn more about the commons. It is excerpted from his new book Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance, a compilation of Linebaugh's recent writing on the commons covering everything from Thomas Paine to Karl Marx to Occupy Wall Street, which belongs on any commons syllabus too.

Linebaugh is a child of empire, schooled in London, Cattaraugus (N.Y.), Washington D.C., Bonn, and Karachi. He went to Swarthmore College during the civil rights days. He has taught at Harvard University and Attica Penitentiary, at New York University and the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. He used to edit Zerowork and was a member of the Midnight Notes Collective. He co-authored Albion’s Fatal Tree, and is the author of The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra (with Marcus Rediker), the Magna Carta Manifesto, and introductions to Verso’s selection of Thomas Paine’s writings and PM’s new edition of E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. He lives in the region of the Great Lakes and works at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

The books on this list may not be easily acquired just because book stores are closing, libraries face budget cut-backs, and schools supplant the page with the screen, or the book with the computer. But if you’re reading this you already know that knowledge, like a place to meet, can be obtained with patience, resourcefulness, and working with others. I have listed the books in rough order of difficulty.

Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983)

Share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, clean up your own mess, put things back where you found them, say sorry when you hurt someone, don’t take things that aren’t yours, and when going into the world hold hands, stick together, and look both ways!

Jay Walljasper (ed.), All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (New York: The New Press, 2010)

An anthology in ten chapters, with helpful lists, dictionary, solutions, by noted scholars and thinkers. This is a good place to start because it is practical, simple, and short.

Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (New York: Picador, 2009)

The author became, despite himself, subject of a messianic cult, but don’t worry, this is a sensible introduction saying that the age of homo economicus is past and that we are all commoners now.

“p.m.”, bolo bolo (New York: Autonomedia, 2011)

A new edition of this beautifully creative and visionary set of practical suggestions, full of sweet delight for readers from twelve to seventy and up with lovely new words for new roles and life-styles in the comedy of life.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009)

Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser dressed properly, combed her hair, and applied her make-up before descending the shaking stairs into the maelstrom of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Immediately, she began helping her neighbors, and soon the Mizpah Café was feeding thousands. Solnit's extraordinary story is of commoning amidst disasters – Mexico, Halifax, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans – and of the clumsy, counter-productive efforts of authorities who generally make the mess worse.

David Bollier, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth (New York: Routledge, 2002)

One of the earliest responses to the onslaught of privatization, especially strong on the Internet, influenced by Ralph Nader, well-written with the intensity of thorough and quiet conviction. Bollier is a world-wide activist on behalf of commoning.

Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Richard Walker, and Cal Winslow (eds.), West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California (Oakland: PM Press, 2011)

Documents commoning projects in northern California in the 60s and 70s, including the free theatre in San Francisco parks; Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the Black Panther's breakfast program; rusticating hippies and back-to-the-landers; the Pacifica radio network.

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004)

Beautifully illustrated, already a classic text, passionately conceived, it helps to re-conceptualize the relations among racism, sexism, and capitalism by locating the historical trauma against women and the commons.

Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy, trans. Patrick Camiller, Maria Mies, and Gard Wieh (New York: Zed Books, 1999)

Written by European feminists with strong ties to Bangla Desh the authors act locally and think globally and vice versa! They provide alternatives to the axioms of capitalism and patriarchy: man is selfish, resources are scarce, needs are infinite, the economy must grow. They teach standing on our own feet, speaking in our own voices.

Peter Linebaugh, Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

Declared by the Nation magazine and “the year’s most lyrical and necessary book on liberty.” Three chapters on American history, one on India, and several on English history, with song, drama, paintings, and murals. Found to be useful to the briefs of the Center for Constitutional Rights in the Gitmo cases.

Lewis Hyde, Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

This is a superior book in defense of the cultural commons. It takes on the absurdities of branding, copyright, and privatization of ideas, thoughts, and beauty. It has splendid chapters on Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Its 21st century concept of civic virtue calls on us to resist enclosure.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009)

The concluding volume of a trilogy of high academic theory and challenging philosophy which names the republic, modernity, and capital as three obstructions to the commons. It has a terminology of its own. Love is the process of creating the commons and overcoming the solitude of individualism.

Jessica Kimpell (ed.), Peter Linebaugh Presents Thomas Paine (New York: Verso, 2009)

An introduction links Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Agrarian Justice, Paine’s classic pamphlets, to the commons debates by describing Paine’s expropriation from the commons by enclosure, by the division of labor, and by bureaucracy. How he became a world revolutionist in response to mind forged and boss forged manacles.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

She won the Nobel Prize and this book possesses the strengths of American social science. She takes "the tragedy of the commons" and "the prisoner’s dilemma", and demonstrates their shallowness by logic and empirical inquiry into communal tenure in Switzerland and Japan, fishery commons in Turkey, Nova Scotia, and Sri Lanka.

Herbert Reid & Betsy Taylor, Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010)

A political scientist and a cultural anthropologist do their thing for advanced students of political theory and philosophy with surprising and welcome derivations from their experiences in the Appalachian mountains and with the Appalachian people.

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd edition (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2011)

The biographer, the noted peacenik, commoner, and historian writes about a founder of the arts-and-crafts movement and leading thinker of how working and poor people can transform the world. This biography is a fantastic reference guide, as well as a sustained trip into the crucible of art and argument just before World War I and the Russian Revolution.