Commons Language: Provide the Words and They Will Speak


February 23, 2007


Browse in Commons Language

Language is a silent commisar in our political and economic life.  What we can say – what we even can think about – is a function largely of the words that are available for us to use. “It is hard to focus the attention upon the nameless,” is how William James, the psychologist-philosopher, once put it.  One big reason that the discourse of the commons is so deficient in our public life – and why there is so little awareness of the thing itself – lies here.  Where are the words that we would use?

The vocabulary of the market is beyond extensive.  It exists in such profusion that it is hard to tell where it stops and the rest of the language begins. Such basic terms as value, benefit, wealth, good, are suffused with market meaning and the astigmatism this includes.  (Is the “value” of a tree or of a life really what an economist says it is?)  It is a good question whether economics as we know it could have evolved without the English language to serve as host.

The language of the commons by contrast is sparse; compare the vocabulary available for discussing, say, the ownership of a business with that for discussing the interests (another example by the way) in the ocean or sky.  Partly this is a symptom of the historic nature of commoners themselves.  In the formative era of market culture they were peasants, illiterate, and therefore mute in the historical record.  There is no vocabulary of the commons for much the same reason there is no story of it, apart from the one told by those who enclosed it.

The “tragedy of the commons” in other words is yet another example of the saw that history is a story told by the victors.  Native Americans say, or English peasants, would have told a different version, with a vocabulary encoded a different way.  Add to this skewed history the lack of current venues for discussion of the commons.  There is a business section in the New York Times but no commons section; a Marketplace show on public radio but no show called Commonsplace; stock market reports but no corresponding feedback on the state of the commons. It hardly is surprising that discussion is missing, and that cognition of the commons is correspondingly repressed.

Words are the fingers of the mind.  What we cannot grasp through language, we cease even to see.  Provide new language, however, and we get new sight.  Provide receptive venues and discussion blooms.  This has been the experience in my town here on the Northern California coast.  About a year ago, a group of us started a series of discussions in living rooms and public venues on the concept of the commons – what it is and what an awareness of it could mean for our town. Local architects, planners and business owners picked up on the idea. One thing led to another.

Then, on a rainy Saturday a couple weeks ago, some sixty people gathered at our community center.  They divided into groups, walked through town, and looked for ways to enhance the we-ness of this place we share. People talked about creating footpaths, calming traffic, building green strips on space now covered in asphalt. Now the architects are compiling the ideas and rendering them as drawings.  We are forming an organization to try to carry the ideas out.

A new discussion has started.  People are realizing that as their neighbors walk around town, they mull over the same things they themselves do.  And people are seeing the place differently.  It no longer is something fixed, a given; but rather a setting that is full of we-ness potential.  When I go to the coffee shop, or to the gym, I am likely to hear something that begins “You know that empty lot down by the Green Bridge?”  Or, “I’ve been thinking about Third Street, and all the cars parked there.”

It’s contagious, much the way the self-seeking of the money culture is. It is true that our town is somewhat exceptional in its community-mindedness.  People come here to create a kind of life they cannot find elsewhere.  Still, this idea of the commons speaks to a brooding sense of confinement, violation and loss that is widespread in America today.  People also are depressed about the national and global scene; there is a natural instinct at such times to revert to the local and concrete.

The commons provides both focus and content for this instinctive turning.  It is a word, and a consciousness as well.