Tobias Jones is a British writer and journalist now based in Italy. In 2010, Tobias and his family set up a working woodland sanctuary in Somerset for those in need, his thoughts and insights on communalism and the need for it can be found in his bestselling books ‘Utopian Dreams’ and ‘A Place of Refuge’. For further information about Tobias, click here.
This interview was conducted through written correspondence, the photo was taken by Donna McDowell.
KP Can you describe what you mean by ‘the commons’ and when that era existed?
TJ Until the late twentieth century, when western society broke with the norm, all human societies set aside lands in common for use by all. In Britain, it was usual for woodlands to be sources of “plowbote” or “housebote”, places where you could source wood for free to repair a plough or a home. The same was true of agricultural land, to which everyone living in the countryside had access, even if only a tiny strip. There are plenty of excellent books on the subject, like David Bollier’s Think Like a Commoner and Peter Linebaugh’s Stop, Thief! It was only with the beginnings of enclosure, from the 16th century onwards, that those shared lands began to be fenced off by landowners and wealthy aristocrats, and claimed as their own to create deer parks, sheep pasture and so on. The process of enclosure seemed, to some, progressive, inasmuch as it made agriculture more efficient, maybe, and gave serfs and villeins a wage rather than livestock, wood and land.
KP Your observation is that we have become less community-orientated and more atomised, what have been the key engines of this fragmentation?
TJ The engines of fragmentation? Hard to know where to start. Capitalism, cars, central heating, television, consumerism, greed, nuclear families, the obsession with privacy, lack of modern tolerance of outsiders, the desire to have our own spaces and to possess them, rather than enjoy them. There are other factors like the erosion of religion, which means that churches are no longer communal meeting places, and there’s far less incentive to feel a sense of solidarity when one isn’t commanded to do so by a Deity. The Enlightenment gave license to an individual conscience, and many of the consequences of that were positive, of course: a notion that we could think for ourselves rather than rely on a theocracy or hereditary monarchy and so on. And it hasn’t, of course, all been one way: the creation of parks, national and civic, and of the National Trust, museums and so on. But that modern communality isn’t organic, but contrived. It’s often a heritage version, which continues to be part of a financial exchange – you buy the ticket to the “national” stately home or to the museum of olde treasures. Those other icons of communality – post offices, pubs, village halls – are forever disappearing.
KP What do you think the effects of this have been, how has it changed individuals and society?
TJ I’m convinced that one of the consequences of atomisation is the epidemic of depression and mental illness in developed societies. We have everything we want, but still lack a sense of rootedness, of purpose, of devout care for others. Loneliness is ubiquitous. And often the solution people look for (more self-help) is the opposite of what’s required. It’s often when you take focus away from the self, that the self is healed. It means that society is incredibly selfish and bewildered by the degree of alienation from each other. Even television no longer unites us, as there are so many millions of programmes on offer, so the simple discussion of what we all watched last night no longer happens. When we’re so lonely, we’re bound to make individual decisions, and selfish political ones, which only serve us, not the commonwealth.
KP So how do we turn back the clock on this, how do we return to happier days of community living?
TJ Whilst it was an incredibly easy sell (albeit an expensive purchase) to persuade people of the need for privacy, and individual freedom, and possessions, it’s a very hard sell to persuade people of the joys and contentment to be found in opposite: sharing, in holding things in common, in losing riches and privacy and ownership. I don’t think any movement or prophet will be able to turn the clock back, but that only the looming energy and ecological crisis will force it upon us. When there is shortage instead of abundance, then we will be forced to share spaces, fuel, tools and so on. There are, of course, tiny pockets on the earth where that is happening already: the removal of garden fences in mid-terrace houses to create shared back-gardens of an acre or two… communes and intentional communities… informal book exchanges in old telephone booths. But much of the large-scale sharing is sponsored by, and enabled by, huge corporations, so that the ideal of sharing a bike or a room is part of a hyper-capitalist world rather than a generous, money-free one.
Unfortunately I’m convinced that what many people think is the solution is only increasing the problem. The internet, social media, smartphones, constant connectivity: all have created new addictions, dependencies and loneliness. The reliance on machines to bring us together I find acutely sad, and you only need to look over a train carriage, a bus stop or a restaurant to see people interacting with phones rather than with each other. The promise of connectivity has created a disconnect with where we’re at right now, who we’re with. I’m a self-confessed luddite because I distrust Google, Apple, Amazon and all the others. As the saying goes, when everything is free, you’re the product. Our questions, needs, queries, desires, purchases, friendships and photos are being logged, stored and sold, so that we in turn can be sold to.
KP Part of your approach at Windsor Hill Wood was a return to agronomy and a more basic rhythm of life – how is recovering ways of life from a bygone era important in reinstating the commons?
TJ That’s why I believe that it’s only through returning to timeless human activities (farming, carpentry, baking etc.) that the commons will ever be recreated, because all those activities require other people in order to plough, herd, fell, and to break the bread with. They are basic tasks which create egalitarianism and togetherness. Religion, too, has a part to play. The word orginally meant, of course, “riligare”, something that bound people together. Today many people are rightly wary of, if not appalled by, the mistakes of organised religion. But the recreation of the “commons” requires a religious sensibility: a rediscovery of the sacred, a willingness to be open-handed and open-hearted with others, an acceptance that we are mortal stewards not immortal owners.
In the end, the difference between a private and a communal vision of the world is very stark: the former tends to be selfish, money-obsessed, polluting, one-generational, sacriligious, lonely, competitive,meaningless and expensive; the other is selfless, timeless, sacred, social, meaningful, rooted, vernacular, full of purpose and free. To me it is, as they say, a no-brainer.
KP Are you hopeful about the future?
TJ As I said, there are tiny initiatives, but nothing to rival the direction of travel which is piloted by the huge corporations and hyper-capitalism. The commons won’t be recreated until the next major crisis – epidemic, war, whatever: it’s only in crisis that people are drawn together, as Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell so clearly demonstrated, and only in a crisis that we discover who we truly are. So no, I’m not optimistic, because I’m aware that what I long for will emerge through misery, that midwife of so much human progress.