Posts Tagged ‘commons’

Last year, I was honored to deliver the 9th Annual Wheelright Memorial Lecture at the University of Sydney.

A couple of weeks ago, my longtime friend and collaborator Katherine Gibson presented the 2017 Wheelright Memorial Lecture, “Manufacturing the Future: Cultures of Production for the Anthropocene.”

her work has consistently challenged orthodox and heterodox economics’ primary focus upon the operation of ‘Big-C’ Capitalism. Instead, Gibson has crafted a unique methodological framework she terms ‘participatory action research’, which looks to the diversity of existing community economic arrangements by engaging directly with local subjects.

The method engages with local communities to shed light upon the idiosyncrasies and often non-commercial nature of local modes of provisioning. Rather than accepting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the notion of the inevitable degradation of commonly used land and resources – Gibson’s work has revealed the importance of the commons to many existing developmentally diverse communities. She thereby challenges the core tenet of orthodox economics, which prioritises the optimisation of the allocation of scarce resources through facilitating smoothly functioning markets.

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This particular protest dates back to 22 May 1816, in Littleport [ht: ja], when about 100 workers left The Globe armed with pitchforks, cleavers, and guns and smashed windows and broke down doors, stealing money, food, and goods from their wealthy neighbors.

The Littleport Riots were not isolated events, but part of “a wave of unrest” from 1815 onwards, according to Anglia Ruskin University historian Rohan McWilliam.

“There was economic dislocation after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815, which increased taxation on wheat,” he said.

“Labour wages weren’t keeping up with the cost of living, while poor harvests exacerbated the situation.”

Previously common land, on which labourers could grow crops or keep livestock to supplement their wages, was being enclosed by landowners.

Their employment conditions had also changed, said University of Hertfordshire historian Katrina Navickas, to “daily hirings instead of yearly hirings – in essence, the introduction of a type of zero-hours contract”.

This was exacerbated by a breakdown of the Poor Law, which was supposed to help the most vulnerable based on need with small sums of money and “in kind” goods such as shoes. . .

And then to tighten the screw still further, the Game Laws passed in 1816 restricted the hunting of game to landowners, with transportation the penalty for poaching – or even being found in possession of a net at night.

The disturbance broke out when a group of mostly unemployed men met at the Globe Inn, for a meeting of the village Benefit Club.

More than 300 people eventually participated in the riot, which spilled over into Ely and was put down on 24 July by the Cambridgeshire Militia and the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Dragoons.

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On 28 June 1816, five men were hanged, “having been convicted of divers Robberies” during the riots.

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Gerhard Richter, “Vesuvius” (1976)—detail

 

We’re supposed to be grateful that finally, in “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” we have the opportunity to see the paintings in Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s burgeoning art collection.

“We are very excited for this exhibition of paintings from Paul Allen’s collection—all extraordinary landscapes—to be seen by the public as it travels the country on its five-museum tour. The exhibition explores landscape painting through works by a wide variety of artists and artistic movements over almost four centuries—it’s this breadth that makes the show so fascinating,” says Mary Ann Prior, director of art collections at Vulcan, the organization that produced the exhibition.

The show is comprised of works spanning five centuries by such artists as Paul Cézanne, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gerhard Richter, and J.M.W. Turner. “Seeing Nature” is co-organized by the Portland Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, in collaboration with the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. “These are really exceptional pieces of art, and there’s something about landscapes that is universally attractive, which is why I find them so interesting,” Allen says. “By sharing these paintings with the public, it is my hope that people will have the same eye-opening experiences I had when I first saw them.”

But not Philip Kennicott. He focuses attention, first, on the Richter painting in the show.

It is one of several volcano pictures in the Allen collection, but it is perhaps the most ominous and unsettling. Rather than depict the drama of volcanic eruption, Richter shows the mountain asleep, barely visible in the distance, viewed from a small rock outcropping across a vast, hazy sea. The painting captures the double nature of the sublime, the terrifying power of nature (in this case dormant) along with the inherently arrogant belief that man can overpower, assimilate and tame nature (implied ironically by the vantage point, high and distant).

The Richter is the most keenly critical work in the show, dramatizing and undermining the idea that man can stand above and survey the world as if he owned it. Many wealthy people believe that this is true, but in the end they are always disabused of the notion. “Ars longa, vita brevis” comes for everyone at some point.

It’s not clear whether Allen understands this, sees the irony, or just likes the painting, which can pass surreptitiously for a postcard view of a pretty place. And that’s the problem. Like so many other shows devoted to work amassed by individual collectors, the collector himself is a cipher. His comments in the catalogue interview are disturbingly inarticulate and jejune. The promise that an exhibition such as this one will illuminate something interesting about the collector, or the idea of collecting, is almost never fulfilled.

And, then, Kennicott raises more general issues about the show itself and Allen’s collection:

In the end, we’re supposed to feel grateful. But I don’t feel grateful. I resent the fact that when this show is over (it will travel to Minneapolis, New Orleans and Seattle through 2017), all of the art will remain in the private collection of Paul G. Allen. And I can hear the retort: That’s life, that’s capitalism, and get over it because at least it’s not in Qatar.

But the problem with collecting masterworks of great artists is that the act of ownership is in itself a kind of theft, stealing from the public commons of genius. Put another way, once a work of art is important enough to be of interest to a man like Allen, it belongs to all of us. He may not know that, but we do. And so when the show is over and the art is subsumed back into the private palaces of plutocracy, one feels its loss more keenly than any fleeting gratitude to the person who made it temporarily accessible.

Congratulations to James Boyce, who is this year’s recipient of the Fair Sharing of the Common Heritage Award presented by Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation.

Here are excerpts from his acceptance speech:

once we take seriously – as I do – the proposition that this common heritage belongs in common and equal measure to us all, we move beyond a positive statement of facts to a normative declaration of ethics. We move beyond an understanding of what is to an assertion of what ought to be.

To say that the environment belongs in common and equal measure to us all does not mean that we have inherited a free gift with no strings attached. For our common heritage carries with it a common responsibility: the responsibility to share the environment fairly amongst all who are alive today, and the responsibility to care for it wisely to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, and the generations who follow will share fairly in our common heritage, too.

In making this claim, I do not wish to minimize the great environmental challenges that lie before us. From local landscapes burdened by toxic pollution and reckless resource extraction to the global threat of climate change, we can see the fruits of greed and short-sightedness, the results of the failure of our society and others to live up to the moral imperative summed up in the phrase, “fair sharing of the common heritage.”

But I am also mindful of the words of the late Raymond Williams, who wrote: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” And I am conscious of the great steps forward that humankind has made, and that through our struggles we continue to make, on the road to establishing that the environment is our common heritage both as a matter of moral principle and as a matter of law.

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There’s an interesting tension in today’s “Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences”: Oliver Williamson’s work in the new institutional economics justifies, in the name of economic efficiency, the vertical and horizontal integration of capitalist firms as well as the diminution of antitrust regulations; while Elinor Ostrom’s work on economic governance undermines the idea of the tragedy of the commons (which has often been used as a justification for privatizing the commons) and points, instead, to the viability of the noncapitalist organization of the commons by the commoners themselves.

See also the lessons “bapfeld” draws from today’s Prize for the decision to close the Department of Economics and Policy Studies at Notre Dame.