It was in a Tiny Ruins song I heard the concept of “the commons” being invoked if not for the first time, maybe the first time in this kind of ordinary way, in a line in a song that anyone might sing, or listen to. The yearning in the song is for a utopia more whimsy than realism, with ballet dancers for traffic controllers, and all the billboards painted over with colours, and even so, the commons aren’t depicted as something we need to work together to build but just as something it would be nice if “no one felt like taking.” But however well our lives might be going, the commons were being taken, have been being taken from us, systematically, for centuries and with an exponentially new drive since the 1970s, even the internet, which looked, for a few years, as if it might be a space in which the commons might flourish, largely given over to advertising and algorithms. I think this is partly why I loved the Agnes Varda film Visages, Villages, or Faces, Places, so much – driving around taking photographs becomes a way of creating a commons, inventing public projects, collaborating with people and communities to come together around large-scale public art. And then this morning I read the word commons again in George Monbiot’s article for the Guardian about how communities are coming together in response to the COVID-19 threat. How surprising that we can come together in self-isolation! But some people are feeling less isolated, he writes, than they have for years, and he lists dozens of community actions linking people and providing services all around the world. At the same time as people are taking on a greater social responsibility in communities, governments are taking on a greater role offering the kind of safety net that hasn’t been seen for decades. It is very strange living through a time in which lives are changing so dramatically and not just in one country but everywhere, and so fast. It must have been a bit like this during the Second World War, which, come to think about it, there seem to have been a lot of films and television series about recently, as if perhaps we had already felt the loss of the commons, and were ready for a shift in power away from corporations and private wealth, towards both states and communities, though admittedly that nostalgia came dressed up with a lot of uniforms and relied on a lot of mostly decent policing, not a lot of ballet dancing by the traffic controllers.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.