Tag Archives: public agency

The Charter of the Forest & The New Enclosures

November 6th 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of The Forest – a landmark document in English law which guaranteed common people access to royal lands to forage, graze their animals, gather wood for fuel and building and to conduct small scale farming. Coming two years after the Magna Carta whose benefits were limited to a small number of barons, the Charter of the Forest set out a “a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources”, an early understanding of the importance of mutuality and reciprocity between people and living natural systems. Since England was covered by roughly two thirds forest – much of which was “royal” land, this was the equivalent of guaranteeing that the poorest people would be able to subsist off the land without fear of the harsh punishments that had been imposed in the late 1080s by King William II (“Rufus”) and later by King Henry II.

The Charter of the Forest, like Magna Carta, was incorporated into English Statute Law in 1297 and has the distinction of remaining law until revoked in 1971 (its key provisions having been incorporated into subsequent Acts of Parliament over the centuries and finally into the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971). One of its effects was to constrain monarchs and landowners from enclosing ‘common’ land by default, although in later periods this was circumvented by the passing of individual Acts of Parliament – most notably in the 18th Century when huge areas were sequestered by the nobility and the wealthy for their own personal gain at the expense of local communities.

“The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it guaranteed rights to herbage (gathering berries and herbs), pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood), agistment (grazing), turbary (cutting of turf for fuel), and the collecting of honey.”
Julie Timbrell

The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.” In this respect, the charter’s guarantees may have provided inspiration for critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine, whose books Common Sense, Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice set out key concepts of liberty, governance and equitable access to the commonwealth (such as a universal basic income).


The Charter of the Forest is included in the set of books I published in 2015 celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – read it online, download and make up your own copy, or purchase one of the last remaining sets (bound with red silk).

The New Enclosures

The digital revolution and the growth of network communications has led to an extraordinary profusion of new types of ‘commons’ whilst, at the same time, seeing a breathtakingly rapid enclosure of these ‘commons’ by a handful of global corporations. Their rise to pre-eminence over the initially fragmented and anarchic world wide web has been swift yet is by no means certain or secure. The growing scandal of electoral interference via social media advertising in the 2016 US election and Brexit Referendum (as well as reported hacking in the 2017 French presidential election) has exposed just how vulnerable to (if not complicit in) uncivil, anti-democratic action these platforms are. Coupled with the Snowden revelations of blanket surveillance by US & UK government agencies (no doubt mirrored to some degree by other governments elsewhere) we can see that these technologies are fundamentally imbalanced in favour of large, opaque institutions and corporations.

Its clear that the digital realm will need more than just bland promises to act well from those who seek to profit from it most. It is as intrinsically a network of sites and places where humans come together to interact as any other traditional places where rules, laws and social conventions define the ways in which we behave in our own interests without harming others. Those who have power in these spaces are, from time to time, held accountable and required to act with responsibility. Such conventions differ across cultures, societies and jurisdictions and there have been (and remain) many notable exceptions, severe imbalances and asymmetries. In our uncertain times, it is to models of stewardship of the commons like the Charter of the Forest that we could look for precedents in developing compacts – about the kind of world we want to live in – between ordinary people and those who have power.

2018 will see the adoption across the European Union of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – what is probably the most important shift in how we will come to use digital technologies in recent memory. The GDPR creates some new rights for individuals and strengthens certain existing rights: to be informed; of access; to rectification; to erasure; to restrict processing; to data portability; to object; and, in relation to automated decision making and profiling. It also regulates data  ‘controllers’ and ‘processors’ to be accountable in demonstrable ways and to maintain comprehensive records of all data control and processing. There are, however, significant loopholes (via the derogations) that may well be exploitable by governments, public agencies and corporations in spite of the GDPR’s provisions.

Others have also sought to find complementary ways to negotiate the boundaries between platforms and users: one noteworthy attempt (which I made a small contribution to) is the Social Charter for Smart Platforms, created as part of the EU’s Smart Society research project. Such charters are, I believe, fundamentally different from some of the more exotic technological attempts to ‘automate’ trust by devolving conscious responsibilities and observation of mutual obligations to background processes – such as the ‘blockchain‘. These simply replace one set of powerful people at the centre of key social processes (bankers, politicians, lawyers etc) for another set (engineers & programmers) who understand and can manipulate the fiendish complexities of its computational processes. If anything, I believe we need to rely less on automated systems that replace human consciousness, and focus more on engaging people to feel their own agency in participating in the relationships that drive our societies and cultures. 

What I think the Charter of the Forest offers us is a model for how we can come to describe things that are beyond private ownership – things that belong to a commonwealth we can all share in, nurture and harvest from. How our current generations steward these resources, be they tangible systems of living nature, physical resources or intangible ideas and knowledge is what is at stake. After the horrors of the Second World War and the upheavals of the mid-Twentieth Century, it seemed as though there was a chance that a fairer world was slowly emerging. But relentless greed and the modern day enclosures of wealth and resources principally via privatisation of national assets, the sequestration and obscuring of wealth in tax havens away from its fair contribution to taxation, these factors have dire historical precedents and echoes. Increasing inequality, reducing fairness and commonality have only ever resulted in catastrophic civilisational upsets or collapse. Coupled with impending climate change the pressure for radical change in how we share our world and govern our polities can only build up so much before something ruptures.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity…

…What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”
Frantz FanonThe Wretched of the Earth

On Public Agency

For some time now I have been engaged in a process of transforming my way of life and ways of working. In doing so I have continued to muse on the problem of communicating to others what it is that I do. I have never felt entirely comfortable describing myself as an artist, nor as a designer, nor as a researcher nor any other one thing (they never quite seem enough). And it is such a mouthful to always have to say that I am an “Artist, Designer and Researcher” (my long time favourite personal soubriquet, “maker of mischief”, is also not always suitable for attracting potential sponsors, funders and clients when trying to earn a living). I have been pondering on the nature of who and what I am as much as what it is that I do, and in doing so I’ve begun to think of a description that encapsulates my aspirations as much as the way I work across a variety of fields and disciplines.

What drives me is my fiercely independent desire to enact and enable conditions for change : to co-create and co-design processes that help other people to feel empowered to assume agency for themselves. As a counterpoint to the many kinds of agent who are empowered by the state (and increasingly by private interests and corporations) to act on their behalf, I feel that our society also needs people to act as self-determined public agents for the public good. Citizenship could well be conceived as how far we are actually able to be autonomous beings, empowered and acting with agency not just acted upon by those we continually devolve power and agency to (politicians, agents of the state as well as the often faceless machinations of bureaucracies and big business).

Such a role would combine the capacity for visionary thinking with the ability to observe, analyse and interpret the conditions we inhabit and with the ability to design tools, processes and solutions for action. It would be animated by a conscious ethos clearly set out and shared, not straitjacketed by moralistic codes of conduct. It would have to be fluid, flowing around obstacles and changing with the landscape without altering its essential nature.

I’m not enough of a writer or speaker to consider myself a public intellectual and I have never been an activist nor attracted to activism per se, so I don’t see this role as being quite the same as those, despite being founded on a clear ethos of working for the public good and sharing many commonalities. I’m more of a pioneer than an entrepreneur and, whilst I’ve always been attracted to analysing problems and devising solutions, I’m not enough of a scientist or a detective to be a consulting …, well, what exactly?

In my practice over the past two decades I have often framed the bigger picture, devising the overarching strategies that bring together all the elements (people, resources, organisations etc), whilst leaving some of the tactical decisions to those better able to make them at the point of need. I’ve blended this with designing and making tools and techniques; creating ways to express and share ideas, insights, observations and discoveries; creating spaces and facilitating collaborations between unusual or unlikely partners; and creating opportunities for others. In the role of transdisciplinary and disruptive innovator I have sought to introduce artistic practice into unfamiliar and unorthodox situations as a means to achieve uncommon insights. This kind of delicate interplay between people coming from all kinds of backgrounds leads me to think think that the role of the public agent might be contrapuntal to those sanctioned for itself by the state (or other institutions) – neither in opposition nor antagonistic, but interwoven as a separate melody within the whole musical structure of state, private interests and the public.

Some aims a public agent may have could include,

  • to seek intelligence on the forces that act upon the public and make transparent that which is obscured;
  • to analyse and interpret the conditions of society and culture to enable reflection and realisation;
  • to act for change that empowers people to assume agency for themselves by helping to design tools, processes and situations that enable this;
  • to act consistently within the frame of a stated ethos, but not to be above employing subversion and subterfuge in achieving their goals;
  • to remain fiercely independent whilst constantly collaborating with others… alert to attempts at co-option and resilient enough to engage constructively with people and entities that may not be working for the public good themselves;
  • to never be afraid to change yourself, or to go into unfamiliar or uncomfortable places and situations, or to simply be when action is not needed or possible.

This concept of the public agent is very much a work in progress, indicative of my current thinking rather than a definitive statement of intent. In fact the modest contribution I have made to the public good is probably not enough to have earn’t me the right to style myself as a public agent but it remains what I aspire to achieve. There are, indeed, many other people who have a far better claim to being a public agent than myself, people whose examples shine through as beacons of inspiration and hope.

Over the past few days I’ve had an opportunity to discuss some of these ideas with other participants at Blast Theory’s Act Otherwise seminar which has reinforced my sense that artists and artistic practice have a special place in our society for working in this way. It is not so much an obligation or responsibility as a really exciting challenge to live up to. That so many others, in their own ways, share that excitement and commitment to making positive change makes all the difference, reinforcing the feeling that it is an effect of community not just individuality.