Spinning for the Commons

On a shelf in the Library of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics sits a small wooden box with worn leather carrying handle—13 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches. It opens to reveal the parts of an apparatus for spinning cotton. Govindra Deshpande presented this traveling spinning wheel to Bob Swann at the "Tools for Building Sustainable Local Economies" seminar convened at Bard College in 1983 by the E. F. Schumacher Society, the predecessor of the Schumacher Center.
 
 
Govindra told how he had walked with Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual successor to Gandhi, during the establishment of the Gramdan Villages of India. Vinoba was concerned with inequity in land distribution, which prevented the landless from constructing homes and earning a livelihood.
 
To address this concern, Vinoba journeyed from village to village on foot. When he arrived, the villagers would gather around him, so great was their reverence for this gentle man. Vinoba spoke to them as follows: "My brothers and sisters, those of you with more land than you can use, won't you share that land with your brothers and sisters who are in need?"  
 
Inspired by his appeal, those with excess land would assign title to Vinoba, who would reassign it to the poor. This practice was called "Bhoodan" or "Land Gift."  Much of India's land was redistributed in this way, but without tools to work the land or capital to build, the land lay unused. The new owners sold their titles back to the wealthy, perpetuating the pattern of unequal distribution. So Vinoba initiated a new practice called "Gramdan" or "Village Gift."  The title to the land was transferred to the village itself, instead of to individuals, and then leased for productive use. If the lessee left the region, the use rights reverted to the village for redistribution. Many of India's villages became Gramdan Villages, bringing about a peaceful land-reform initiative.
 
It was the practice of Gandhians to engage in productive labor while holding meetings, thus setting an example for others. When arriving at a village, Vinoba and his followers would sit on the ground, open the cases of the spinning wheels they carried with them, assemble the parts, and spin. Gandhi taught that the spinning of cotton was both a symbol of, and practical step toward, freeing India from the economic oppression of Europe. The cotton was later woven into khadi cloth, a home-spun substitute for the silks and linen imports from Belgium and England.
 
1953, Bihar, India, Vinoba Bhave spinning by Frank Horvat.
 
Govindra told us that the spinning wheel he was giving Bob was the very same one that had been with him during his long walks with Vinoba. He was making this gift because of Bob's leadership of the community land trust movement—a voluntary land-reform initiative in the United States inspired by Gramdan.
 
At the seminar we had just discussed the community land trust as one of the tools citizens could use to implement a new economy that met social, ecological, and cultural criteria. We knew about Bob's years of work advocating for a new approach to land tenure, and we recognized the appropriateness and gracious generosity of Govindra's gift. We all were moved.
 
In its simplest form, the economy is no more than that place where human labor, organized by human ingenuity, transforms the natural world into products for use by others. All production requires access to land and natural resources; however, Bob taught us it is not land and natural resources that create wealth but rather the transformation of those resources into products needed by others. Land and natural resources are the base, the givens of an economic system, but they are not themselves appropriate commodities.
 
When land and natural resources are treated as commodities and traded on the market, as in our current system, an imbalance occurs in the economy. A few people can then profit from the need of all for access. No new wealth is generated, only a speculative value with all the consequences of a speculative economy, including social inequity and ecological degradation.
 
How might access to land and natural resources be allocated instead, if not by the market?  This was one of the questions Bob Swann addressed in forming the first community land trust in 1967 in Albany, Georgia, as a way for African American farmers to gain access to land. There are now hundreds of community land trusts around the United States, and the movement is spreading to Europe and other parts of the world.
 
A community land trust is a nonprofit, regionally based, open- membership organization with a board of directors elected from the membership. Its goal is to acquire land by gift or purchase, develop a land-use plan for each site dependent on social need and ecological constraints and then lease that land on a 99-year basis. Access is by social contract with the community, as in Gramdan, rather than by market.
 
The lessee owns improvements on the land—such as homes, barns, fences, perennial stock— but not the land itself. At resale the improvements are offered back to the land trust at current replacement value adjusted for deterioration, so the lessee retains equity equal to the rise in building prices but not the speculative gain on the land.
 
The Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires owns three tracts of land with a total of 24 homes kept permanently affordable for year-round residents. The Jug End site of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics' office is also on Community Land Trust land, as is Indian Line Farm, the first Community Supported Agriculture farm in this country.
 
A one-time donation to the Community Land Trust for the purchase of the land by Berkshire citizens ensured that Indian Line's prime farmland is kept in permanent production. The lease specifies minimum crop production and natural growing methods. Farmers
Al Thorp and Elizabeth Keen cover yearly operating costs and the mortgage on their home and farm buildings through the sale of their vegetables, but they do not have to push the land beyond its natural limits to pay for the costs of the land itself.
 
The same method can be used to secure land for a community cannery, a solar-energy site, or other community supported industries.
A community land trust is an elegant tool for the local community to do its own land planning and allocation.
 
But it is more.  Ultimately it provides a radically different system of land tenure, one that takes the Commons out of economic exchange.  It was Aldo Leopold who in his Sand County Almanac, spoke to the urgency of a new land ethic.  "We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
 
The community land trust movement has grown slowly, acquiring one tract at a time.  To bring about the level of change in our relation to land envisioned by Aldo Leopold will require dramatically increasing community holdings of land. It will necessitate the willingness of individuals to gift land out of the market and back into its rightful place in the Commons. 
 
Vinoba Bhave provided the spiritual leadership that inspired such land gifting in India. Region by region around the world a new Gramdan movement will be led by engaged citizens who are alarmed by a deteriorating eco-system and who recognize the injustice of the current system for distributing land. It will start with localized examples of land gifting and grow into a broad cultural revolution for the Commons.
 
For years the spinning wheel sat idle on the shelf in the Schumacher Library, the wooden box closed, the pieces unassembled inside it. No one knew how to put it together or use it.
 
In October of 2012 Ron Gaydos, one of the participants of that 1983 E. F. Schumacher seminar, visited the Library with a film crew. He was producing a film on the new economy with the working title of "True Value.” The Schumacher seminar had been a turning point for him in his thinking about economics, and the film would begin with the Berkshire projects he had studied then.
 
He reminisced about the people at the seminar, including Govindra Deshpande, and said that the Indian elder had taught him how to use a Gandhian spinning wheel. "Do you remember how?" I asked. "Perhaps," said he.
 
I brought the spinning wheel from its shelf and unwrapped it. Ron’s hands recalled what he had learned, and soon everyone in the Library watched as the cotton spun. Tears and laughter. We were delighted by the serendipity of the moment and moved by the long history of Commons advocacy represented by the small wooden case again in use.