Reclaiming the Commons

I went to the library the other day to return an overdue book of poems by W. S. Merwin, our current poet laureate.

I felt guilty because I’d been depriving other people of his wisdom and his art.

I felt guilty because I was hoarding a public good, part of the commons.

But the very idea of “the commons” is under assault these days from Republicans who want to privatize everything, and from the likes of Rand Paul, who denies that the commons even exists.

We need to reassert our claims to the commons, and we need to restore the concept of the public good.

And one excellent way to start is to get hold of an insightful new DVD called “This Land Is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons.”

It’s narrated by David Bollier, a brilliant longtime activist and writer, and it’s produced by the Media Education Foundation in Northampton (www.mediaed.org).

Bollier traces the historical roots of the commons, and its American roots, as well. He quotes former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, “If you steal $10 from a man's wallet, you're likely to get into a fight. But if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice."

Too many of us haven’t been noticing.

Bollier shows how the mineral and oil companies have ripped off the public lands, how the media companies have exploited the airwaves, how the bottling companies have seized our water, and how knowledge itself is being privatized.

In a telling segment of the film, he juxtaposes Dr. Jonas Salk saying that “the people” own the patent to his polio vaccine with the drug companies telling the South African government that it can’t make generic drugs to fight HIV/AIDS.

Bollier argues that “extreme privatization” and “market fundamentalism” took off with Reagan and Thatcher, and was then helped along by Bill Clinton. In reality, he says, it’s “crony capitalism,” as well-connected businesspeople make off with “piecemeal theft of the commons.”

He shows contemporary rightwing ideologues ranting against the idea of communal rights. And he has a clip of Glenn Beck deriding advocates of social justice, as Beck holds a swastika in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other.

But Bollier also talks, inspiringly, about the new movement to reclaim the commons, both here and around the world—and how you can join.

“This Land Is Our Land” is an urgent little film. Please check it out.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Lower, Not Raise, Tensions over North Korea."

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