Radical commons discourse and the challenges of colonialism



Publication Details

Maddison, B. 2010, 'Radical commons discourse and the challenges of colonialism', Radical History Review, no. 108, pp. 29-48.


When Garrett Hardin wrote that `cries of rights and freedom fill the air¿, he meant this to be a contextualising critique of the radical challenges to the social order of the late 60s. In setting his arguments about the commons amidst contemporary challenges, Hardin was participating in a centuries-long struggle in the Anglophone world for ownership of the commons - both as spaces and as a set of meanings associated with the term.Much historical work has subsequently contested the strong association made in radical scholarship of commons with `rights¿ and `freedoms¿. The debate has really centred on examining the historical operation of commons within the British context, from which commons discourse has principally emanated and been disseminated globally. Close empirical studies have contradicted the claims that commons were places of `rights¿ and `freedom¿ Similar observations can be made about commons elsewhere ¿ within Europe as well as across the colonised world. If popular mentalites associated the term `common¿ with meanings of `rights¿ and `freedoms¿, it did so against many of the actual practices of commons as restricted and exclusive spaces.This paper proceeds from these foundations to make two central points. Firstly, it argues that the origins of this historiographical conflict over the meanings of the term common derive from an inadequate historicization of the meanings of the term itself. We may go some way to resolving this conflict by returning to a key moment in the evolution of its meaning ¿ the 17th century English revolution. Winstanley and the Diggers are often interpreted in the historical literature as mounting a defensive action against enclosure, in order to preserve and re-establish actually existing common lands and the `rights¿ and `freedoms¿ which they enabled. Yet this is now an uneasy `fit¿ with the historical studies that emphasis the exclusivity and closed nature of the English commons. The mistake here is to see radical social movements like the Diggers as defensive, seeking to re-establish an older world, rather than highly revolutionary and progressive movement that sought to establish a new social order along relatively egalitarian and communitarian principles. If the Diggers in the English Revolution are seen in this wider context of their radical political objectives, the commons discourse ¿ filled with `rights¿ and `freedoms¿ - that they projected was an attempt to expand dramatically the contemporary meanings of the term commons and its practices, rather than to simply to defend and rehabilitate those older, exclusive commons practices which anti-commons scholarship has articulated.The second point examines what happens when this association of `rights¿ and `freedom¿ is deployed in colonial settings. Many colonial studies within the Thompsonian/Subaltern Studies mode echo the narrative of Anglo-European scholarship, showing how colonisers¿ enclosure of commons across the `colonial¿ world was a curtailment of ancestral, indigenous common `rights¿ and `freedoms¿. Yet colonialism did not everywhere eradicate common land: in colonial Australia (1800-1920), extensive formal Commons were being established against the historical grain, at a time when others across the globe were being systematically dismantled (North America might be a limited exception to this generalization). This section of the paper examines this establishment the socio-economic role of Australian colonial commons in an emergent capitalist society. The Australian commons were strongly associated with `rights¿ and `freedom¿ in popular white discourse, and frequently were used as a basis of semi- or non-waged economic independence of the white rural poor. Nonetheless, that they were formed on tracts of enclosed native land (itself hitherto a form of strictly regulated `common land¿), meant that Australian commons ¿ and the colonial commoners who used them - contributed to the dispossession

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