Today, we are at a turning point as we face ecological and political crises that are rooted in conflicts over the land itself. But these problems can be solved if we draw on elements of our tradition that move us toward a new commonwealth―a community founded on the well-being of all people and the natural world. In this brief, powerful, timely, and hopeful book, Jedediah Purdy, one of our finest writers and leading environmental thinkers, explores how we might begin to heal our fractured and contentious relationship with the land and with each other.
You put an old word at the heart of your subtitle: “The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.” What do you mean by “commonwealth”? Why that word?
JP: “Commonwealth” is a name for a moral vision of political economy. It’s an ideal in which we are not at odds with one another and not at odds with the earth. In a commonwealth, all good and necessary work is honored, my success doesn’t come at the cost of your failure or debt or exploitation, and our everyday lives aren’t cumulatively destroying the living world. So a commonwealth is the opposite of the economic world we have now, which throws us into constant tragedy: just living means using up the world and, often, misusing one another—through the gig economy, through exploitative supply chains, through an economy that’s unequal and, for so many people, frightening and dangerous.
What are three changes that would make our economy more of a commonwealth?
JP: Yes. First, fully funding an egalitarian caregiving sector: good, publicly funded health care; universal child care for those who need it; and good pay and working conditions for caregivers like nurses, who are often paid well but overworked, and home health aides, who tends to be poorly paid, vulnerable, and overworked.
Second, a Green New Deal to remake our energy, transport, and food systems so that getting to work, calling your parents, staying warm in the winter or cool in the summer, no longer means contributing to the breakdown of all the earth systems we need.
Third, a shift from private luxury and public poverty—which is our current model, with mansions in the suburbs and crumbling bridges, high-rise apartments and broken subways, amazing private schools and desperate public schools—to private moderation and public excellence. Trains and buses that run frequently and on time are better than traffic jams. Beautiful parks are better than backyards (not that you have to give up backyards!). But defunding has associated public things with poverty and inadequacy, and private wealth seems the only way to take care of yourself and the people you love. A commonwealth would reverse that.
Where does that idea come from?
JP: I think using the old word highlights an old truth: that an economy is always, in part, a moral vision of how people should live together. I’ve been a critic of the technocratic tendency of the economics profession (and its epigones) to say their expertise tells us there’s only one right way to run an economy, but the critique of technocracy can miss something equally important: American and now global capitalism, once classically liberal and now neoliberal, has always depended on a moral case. It’s about opportunity, mobility, and getting what you deserve. It’s about achieving growth: “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Today that economy is delivering much less on its own terms than it once did. In this country, it was always false for many people, often indigenous, nonwhite, or newly arrived. We all know that for almost 50 years it’s been getting more unequal, mobility has been going down, and growth has become the driver of climate change and other ecological crises. A rising tide drowns all coasts. Defending standard American capitalism under these conditions is defending an ideology, something that masks reality and serves some interests over others.
But the commonwealth idea is an alternative to that whole picture. Very broadly, it looks to long traditions of moral economics, ideals that put cooperation and caregiving first, and see those as bringing out the best in people, in our potential to live together and to live on the land. Some of the sources of that idea include an eco-feminists like Carolyn Merchant, a utopian socialist like William Morris, and an agrarian radical like Wendell Berry. I don’t mean to identify with everything any of those people have said, not by any stretch, but that’s the tradition, one that tries to put different values at the center of our material lives.
Wendell Berry is a critic of the modern state and large-scale politics and policies, isn’t he? And so are some of the other radicals you admire, who may see the modern state as what anthropologist James Scott more or less called it in Against the Grain: a giant exploitation machine that some people use to enslave others and seize resources. But you put the state at the center of your story.
JP: Critics like Scott, as well as indigenous and other radicals who point out the deep exploitative history of the modern state, are quite right. But the state has a double potential. It got us into this, and only it can get us out. It is the most powerful tool yet devised for raiding, expropriation, and control, but it is also the only way to a large-scale, collective decision about how we are going to live together. It has always been both exploitative and emancipating—often exploitative of some people and emancipating of others, as with the American history of elevating settlers and subordinating enslaved people, but also simultaneously exploitative and emancipating of the same people at the same, such as by freeing peasants from feudal bonds but throwing them onto capitalist labor markets. The goal should be not to reject the state because of its bad potential but to radicalize its emancipating potential, deepening it and extending it universally, with no one excluded. I think the best expression of this idea is in Aziz Rana’s great book from 2010, The Two Faces of American Freedom.
You call humanity an “infrastructure species.” What is that? How does it fit into your argument?
JP: This is a key reason that we can’t get away from the state. For every human being, on average, there’s 4,000 tons of built environment supporting us. About a third of that is intensively farmed soil, so cut that out if you want, and you still get about 2,700 tons per person of roads, buildings, cars, cables, etc. We’re like crustaceans, soft creatures in a powerful exoskeleton: take away our infrastructure, and global population would fall by maybe 95-99% and most of us would be able to do almost nothing. There’s a scene in the book where, with a hurricane bearing down on Durham, I do a thought experiment: how long can we survive if various systems break down? It’s pretty sobering to think through.
One consequence of being an infrastructure species is that in many ways our “human nature,” if you want to call it that, is out of our individual control. For me to be a person living with other people—doing work, having a family, just getting by—means tapping into all these systems, my technological exoskeleton. And that, in turn, means a definite carbon footprint and a bunch of other ecological consequences.
So what I think a communitarian like Berry misses is that there are very steep limits to what we can do locally, voluntarily, or from the bottom up, if those efforts aren’t oriented to a fulcrum where we can actually change this built world. And that’s the state. There’s no other.
JP: No other that can collectively and intentionally change it. No other that can be democratic.
There are a few ways to change the world. Technological innovation is one, arguably the biggest, but it’s visited on most of us like fate. Cultural change is another, and very powerful, but to make ecological or economic change, it has to work within the frames our infrastructure lays down. Environmental crises are the best example: no amount of ecological consciousness can get us out of this system. What consciousness can hope to do is feed into political change that changes the system. Technology creates thresholds of possibility, opens new roads that we could take. Consciousness creates horizons of desire and value, discloses ways we would want to go. Only politics can choose and build the road, and keep it open to all—infrastructure again.
You write in the book about “losing a country,” taking a phrase from Thoreau to describe the experience of 2016 after Donald Trump’s election. As you note in that chapter, one telling thing about that phrase is that it implies you had a country to lose. Are you a patriot, a disappointed patriot?
JP: That word is one of the ones Trump is working busily to corrupt. Earlier this week, Trump spoke at the United Nations, talking down climate action and saying the future doesn’t belong to “globalists,” but to “patriots.”
I’m not willing to give him that word. He means nationalism, of course, the kind of nationalism that militarizes borders and grabs resources in a time of global scarcity and crisis—the nationalism that is a form of barbarism.
I take a form of patriotism that I think I share with Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and Pauli Murray—another Durhamite: your country is a problem you can’t escape, and you have a special responsibility to take seriously all of the harms and wrongs that it involves you in and to dedicate yourself to the ways that it might, nonetheless, be a thing decent in possibility.
That’s one contrast between patriotism and nationalism. Another is that American patriotism is not the opposite of internationalism. Generally speaking, versions of the country have also been images of the country’s place in the world. Some of these rely on racialized American exceptionalism, like Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialism. Some assume American hegemony, at least over half the world, like Cold War liberalism, or over the whole world, as neoliberalism, market-first globalism did in the long 1990s (1989 to 2008). But if you back further, American revolutionary republicanism saw the country as part of a network of freedom-seeking movements for emancipation and self-rule. That’s why Lincoln and Marx, for example, were in a broad way part of the same international network.
A vision of the country helps you to see whose side you’re on in the world, and vice-versa. That’s how it’s always worked. So today my patriotism puts me on the side of people everywhere working for a Green New Deal, deepened democracy, full political status for migrants, generous caregiving—in short, an internationalist commonwealth politics. For me, that is a developed form of patriotism.
You’re a law professor. Shouldn’t you be telling us about the standards for impeachment? What’s your standing to talk about these themes?
JP: It’s true that a part of this book is simply public argument, the kind any non-expert should be able to make to fellow citizens (using that word in the inclusive sense—people who live together under these institutions—and not to distinguish citizens from newcomers). But my confidence in the arguments comes from years of studying environmental law, constitutional law, and property law. What those show me is that the most practical institutional considerations and the most ambitious moral visions are always tied together. Constitutional law has always been about what it means to be a member of this political community, and what we owe one another. Property law has always been about who owns the world and who just works here. Environmental law has always been about the meaning of the world and the human place in it. I’m saying these as compressed slogans, but they’re real. This is part of why, as I argue in the book, the idea of a Green New Deal isn’t unrealistic or dreamy (Nancy Pelosi famously called it a “green dream or whatever”): It’s what realistic environmental policy looks like in an infrastructure world, when we have to take responsibility for the world we make and the meanings we find in it.
Talking about “taking responsibility for the world we make” calls up your last book, After Nature, which was subtitled “A Politics for the Anthropocene.”
JP: This book, more than that one, actually is a politics for the Anthropocene. But the word appears, I think, only once in This Land. Once you’ve understood the Anthropocene, you can stop talking about it. That’s the prize.
But this book also looks back, more than anything I’ve written in years, to the themes of my first book, For Common Things, which was published 20 years ago. In This Land I write about West Virginia, where I grew up, and mining and landscape, in ways I first set out to do in For Common Things. I even found the phrase “common things” coming to my fingertips a few times in the final chapter of This Land. In some ways, this is the public moral and ecological argument of that book, coming back after two decades of learning and work. Readers can decide whether I’ve learned anything!
What other books and thinkers are you in conversation with here?
JP: In the notes for this book, which I posted online, I recommend a lot of places people can go for deeper reading, including the work of Jessie Wilkerson, Dorceta Taylor, and Ronald Eller. The people I’m most engaged with here are political theorists and students of political economy: I mentioned Aziz Rana’s Two Faces of American Freedom. Also very important is Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, on the political economy of neoliberalism. And Katrina Forrester’s very important reconsideration of political theory for the time after the American Century, In the Shadow of Justice. Also Martin Hagglund’s argument about the nature of value and the need for a democratic socialist politics, This Life.
I’m also in conversation with some really wonderful legal scholars. I’m always influenced by my friend and co-author David Grewal’s writing about the history of the very idea of an economy, and Michelle Anderson’s writing on landscape, place, history, and justice. Historians of the state like Karen Tani are the best of my profession, really, alongside the young legal scholar Lina Khan, whose writing on Amazon’s market power does so much to show how we are all caught in the market, unless we can change it politically. That’s what I always come back to: what does it mean for a social world to be genuinely democratic, in a way that lets all its members thrive and the world flourish? For that, you need law and institutions, and you need vision. And you need ways to put them together. That’s what I’m working to do in this book.
Jedediah Purdy is professor of law at Columbia Law School. His previous books include After Nature, A Tolerable Anarchy, Being America, and For Common Things. He contributes to the New Yorker, the Nation, the New Republic, the Atlantic, n+1, and other magazines. He lives in New York City. Twitter @JedediahSPurdy