Thinking Like a Commoner: Billy Bragg, Universalism, and a World Wide Open

(The lyrics in italics are from Billy Bragg’s “The World Turned Upside Down”)

In 1649
To St. George’s Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people’s will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs

A few centuries after the Diggers went to St. George’s Hill, in 1985, when I was 17, I was traveling around Northern Europe and the UK.  From West Germany, I went up to Scandinavia where I spent Midsummer, then took an overnight ferry from Norway to England with the primary intent of making my way to the Beatles Museum in Liverpool, where I ended up couch-surfing with strangers for a couple of days.  Ahhh, youth!

While there, I happened upon an outdoor music festival and was introduced to the brilliance of Billy Bragg.  Not everybody is a fan of his music or his personality, though I think I will always remain a fan of his artistry and activism.

We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all

This past summer, I returned to England to meet my husband’s family.  We did not make it to Liverpool.  We hung out with his family and got to see the land of his birth and his early influences.  We took walks in the English countryside and there I encountered firsthand the legacy of the Commoners.

We walked along the public bridle paths, footpaths still open to the public on land that once was part of the common treasury, but as the Billy Bragg song, “The World Turned Upside Down” describes, is no more.  Only these narrow paths are open to the public.  The rest is now privately held.

Image The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command

Some of the public bridleways were bordered by dense barriers of old, old Yew trees.  They do not grow there naturally in this formation, but were planted, walls springing up at the command of those in power.  The photo here does neither their height nor their density any justice.


“Diggers,” the masses were called — due to their attempts to farm the common land.  Or Commoners. Or Levellers.   People who held that the earth belongs to us all, to the common good, and should not, and must not, be held in private ownership.

In the United States, we often ascribe this value to various Native American tribal communities and rightly so.  Or else to Aboriginal or indigenous peoples across the many continents.  However, for those of us without legitimate claim to these cultural communities, we can look more widely for other cultural and historical communities that have articulated and acted on this value.

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feed the rich
While poor folk starve

I think the Commoners of the mid-17th century would be shocked to know that their message, at least in 2013, was most closely emulated by the current Pope.  My guess is that would cause far too much cognitive dissonance for them, given that the papacy in those days was very much involved in securing land for one government or itself, rather than securing the welfare of the masses.

As a legacy-carrier of the Universalist impulse, I feel kinship with this depiction of the goals of the Commoners.  Universalism, the second U in UU, is an impulse which denies the presence of hell; consequently no one can be damned to it.  Universalism recognizes God’s love and mercy, which one might say is the original source of the gift economy (which is an significant aspect of the modern Commons movement).  There is no heaven to dazzle in front of the people, the carrot paired with the stick of hell, since all will be there in the end.

We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now

The Commons is not just historical.  It is alive and well.  It is social and political; it is interpersonal and economic.  And it is spiritual.  And it is something to which I think Unitarian Universalism should be paying closer attention.

There is a new book coming out.  It is a beginner’s primer, written by David Bollier, who works internationally with a swell of people and a group of swell people who are aiming for a world wide open.


Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons is well-written and user-friendly, directed at those who have never heard of the Commons or who have heard and want to know more.  I know this because even though the book is available starting mid February on Amazon, I had the honor to preview it.

It is the theory and framework behind the life and work of people like Wendell Berry.  It is the modern-day political and social vision behind the lyrics of Billy Bragg’s historical song about the Diggers (listen to the song!  it’s inspiring).

You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down

3 thoughts on “Thinking Like a Commoner: Billy Bragg, Universalism, and a World Wide Open

  1. Thanks for the post, Karen. The history is always instructive! I recommend Peter Linebaugh’s book, “The Magna Carta Manifesto” or Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down.” In a couple of weeks, the website for my book will go live at — and the book should be available from Amazon in early February. –David Bollier

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