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This is the fate of young people today: excluded, but forbidden to opt out.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.

At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy, to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned land. Implementation is less simple. Soon after I arrived, on a sodden day last week, an enforcer working for the company which now owns the land came slithering through the mud in his suit and patent leather shoes with a posse of police, to serve papers.
Already the crops the settlers had planted had been destroyed once; the day after my visit they were destroyed again. But the repeated destruction, removals and arrests have not deterred them. As one of their number, Gareth Newnham, told me, “if we go to prison we’ll just come back … I’m not saying that this is the only way. But at least we’re creating an opportunity for young people to step out of the system.”

To be young in the post-industrial nations today is to be excluded. Excluded from the comforts enjoyed by preceding generations; excluded from jobs; excluded from hopes of a better world; excluded from self-ownership.

Those with degrees are owned by the banks before they leave college. Housing benefit is being choked off. Landlords now demand rents so high that only those with the better jobs can pay. Work has been sliced up and outsourced into a series of mindless repetitive tasks, whose practitioners are interchangeable. Through globalisation and standardisation, through unemployment and the erosion of collective bargaining and employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage.

The promise the old hold out to the young is a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity. A rentier class holds the nation’s children to ransom. Faced with these conditions, who can blame people for seeking an alternative?

But the alternatives have also been shut down: you are excluded yet you cannot opt out. The land – even disused land – is guarded as fiercely as the rest of the economy. Its ownership is scarcely less concentrated than it was when the Magna Carta was written. But today there is no Charter of the Forest (the document appended to the Magna Carta in 1217, granting the common people rights to use the royal estates)(2). As Simon Moore, an articulate, well-read 27-year old, explained, “those who control the land have enjoyed massive economic and political privileges. The relationship between land and democracy is a strong one, which is not widely understood.”
As we sat in the wooden house the diggers have built, listening to the rain dripping from the eaves, the latest attempt to reform the House of Lords was collapsing in parliament(3). Almost 800 years after the Magna Carta was approved, unrepresentative power of the kind familiar to King John and his barons still holds sway. Even in the House of Commons, most seats are pocket boroughs, controlled by those who fund the major parties and establish the limits of political action.

Through such ancient powers, our illegitimate rulers sustain a system of ancient injustices, which curtail alternatives and lock the poor into rent and debt. This spring, the government dropped a clause into an unrelated bill so late that it could not be properly scrutinised by the House of Commons, criminalising the squatting of abandoned residential buildings(4,5).

The House of Lords, among whom the landowning class is still well-represented, approved the measure. Thousands of people who have solved their own housing crises will now be evicted, just as housing benefit payments are being cut. I remember a political postcard from the early 1990s titled “Britain in 2020”, which depicted the police rounding up some scruffy-looking people with the words, “you’re under arrest for not owning or renting property”. It was funny then; it is less funny today.

The young men and women camping at Runnymede are trying to revive a different tradition, largely forgotten in the new age of robber barons. They are seeking, in the words of the Diggers of 1649, to make “the Earth a common treasury for all … not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the creation.”(6) The tradition of resistance, the assertion of independence from the laws devised to protect the landlords’ ill-gotten property, long pre-date and long post-date the Magna Carta. But today they scarcely feature in national consciousness.

I set off in lashing rain to catch a train home from Egham, on the other side of the hill. As I walked into the town, I found the pavements packed with people. The rain bounced off their umbrellas, forming a silver mist. The front passed and the sun came out, and a few minutes later everyone began to cheer and wave their flags as the Olympic torch was carried down the road. The sense of common purpose was tangible, the readiness for sacrifice (in the form of a thorough soaking) just as evident. Half of what we need is here already. Now how do we recruit it to the fight for democracy?

References:

  1. http://diggers2012.wordpress.com/
  2. http://info.sjc.ox.ac.uk/forests/Carta.htm
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jul/10/lords-reform-disarray-timetable-motion-withdrawn
  4. Clause 144, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2012/10/section/144/enacted
  5. There are some useful summaries of the implications of this clause here: http://www.squashcampaign.org/
  6. Gerrard Winstanley, 1649. The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.

7 Responses to “The Promised Land”

  1. Heather Formaini

    It has been my ambition to encourage all young people to learn two things after school or university: how to build their own houses and how to grow their own food.
    Monbiot is pointing out a universal truth and those of us who have some something to spare can now take the opportunity to raise the funds to get land for these young people.
    They can then lead the way for those who will without doubt follow them.
    Here is a great task for those of us in permaculture, wherever we live.

    Reply
  2. Bernie Edwards

    That’s better, George. A great article on a subject close to my own heart and one which I believe we shall hear a great deal more of as the younger generations begin to realise that they need to take matters into their own hands in order to get out from under the thumb of the repressive powers that be and take back the land from those that now ‘own’ it. Bring on the revolution!

    By the way, I still can’t forgive you for the recent blunder you made over Peak Oil.

    Reply
  3. Water Woman

    At last a POSITIVE way through the problems which have been dumped on people or weeds or diseases or whatever. 2,000 years ago someone tried to tell people that fighting negativity is to organise failure. Now Permaculture is so accepting of difference, it offers us a chance to come together and support each other and become human again instead of just being consumers.
    Community land! let’s all support that idea.

    Reply
  4. Miguel Varella-Cid

    For the sake of our children and generations to come those of us who see the truth must communicate & share it.
    Knowledge & each taking responsibility for our learning and sharing to others is the key for change.

    Through knowledge, be an inspiration in who we each are so that others will want to learn more themselves. Tell all those who will listen of the dangers we see in today’s government & encourage others to seek out the truth & share it>
    We can collectively create awareness so the lies that are perpetrated by our media become apparent and no longer have their designed effects.
    There’s a war of stealth and deception right before our eyes and it’s up to each and every one of us to recognise it and make it obvious to the rest. If we all feel strongly against the ways we are governed then together we can be the change that happens.

    Reply
  5. Bernie Edwards

    My earlier post was to applaud the action of the Diggers 2012 group mentioned in the article. Perhaps I should say that in that post I am not advocating armed revolution, though I am not ruling out that it may come to that at some stage and in some quarters of the globe over the issue of land rights. On the contrary I believe that we should be moving away from privatisation of common resources towards a model of co-operation.

    This year (2012) is the UN International Year of Co-operatives. As part of that, co-operatives have formulated an ethical plan for 2012-2014 and are promoting it with a call to ‘Join the Revolution’. http://www.co-operative.coop/join-the-revolution/.

    This is the sort of revolution that is needed and there is no legitimate reason that land cannot be freed up for co-operative use in the same way that millions of people come together for a whole variety of co-operative ventures.

    In Australia, this year will also hopefully and finally see the introduction of a new Co-operatives National Law, replacing the current, varied and incompatible State laws: http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/About_us/News_and_events/Media_releases/2012_media_releases/20120510_new_cooperatives_laws_to_cut_costs_and_reduce_red_tape.html.

    I have been following the progress of this legislation for a while now, since becoming interested in it as possibly the best framework for Eco-villages. I still think that is the case but I have mostly given up on the idea now, having found that most such groups in formation are made up of well-intentioned, middle-class, well-off individuals who are too ingrained in the consumer-industrial system to take serious steps to effectively get such projects off the ground.

    Good Luck to Diggers 2012, OWS, and all such free-thinking groups that will assuredly rise in the future.

    Reply
  6. Lisa

    Why don’t we use something like kickstarter.com or pozible.com to help people buy land for permaculture projects. Groups or individuals propose a project, set a target, and people donate to help them get there. I’m not sure if it’s better to use an existing site or create our own. What do people think?

    Reply
  7. Arthur Freeman

    I am in the process of launching a campaign with indegogo to finance 100 Online Permaculture Design Certificate courses. I would like any and all advice that will help me succeed. Thanks!

    Reply

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