Magna Carta On The Commons

Runnymede meadow and Rotunda locating the drafting of the Magna Carta

John Ford

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose

Magna Carta was not far from the minds of the colonists in 1776. The Declaration of Independence addresses indirectly issues of jury trials, habeas corpus, and taxation. Tom Paine was calling for a Charter of the United Colonies. Paul Revere was designing colonial scrip money in 1775 for Massachusetts showing a colonist holding the Magna Carta.

But much of the Commons has become completely unrecognizable today, our collective memories short circuited by the forward march of free market forces and the inevitable commodification of virtually everything that has followed in its wake. We have lost much. It could be said that we no longer really live in societies, but in economies where citizens have become consumers and where many predictably so, are only one paycheck away from homelessness.

It was this idea of this loss of collective memory that professor Louis Wolcher talked about in an address given at the Seattle Lawyers Guild conference on The Commons in 2009, where he commented that, “the story of privatization, the enclosure of the Commons is a story about how we have forgotten to resist. It is a story of how this tradition of Commoning has become completely forgotten”.

Looking to broaden our understanding of the nature of the Commons as something much more than resources to manage Wolcher states that, “Commoning is a way of social ordering based on a set of interrelationships. It is a shared imagination of people in solidarity with one another”.   Wolcher has raised some compelling points for consideration that go straight to the issues of globalism and privitization; that is, why is it so important to remember, and how shall we continue to resist?

This struggle of resistance may soon be defined by our ability to remember those things that were at the center of a kind of cultural wisdom that in different places and periods of history helped define us as a people connected to a specific place.  And if we are to prevail in reestablishing customary rights on the Commons, and prevail we must, we might begin by revisiting those stories that even though largely overshadowed by the forces of globalization remain part of an underground stream of resistance.

This is a stream of resistance that has flowed from Runnymede on the Thames, the island that witnessed the birth of Magna Carta and then onto the English Commons with the Levellers and the Diggers in the 17th century, across the Atlantic with the multiracial motley sailor crews that sparked the American and Haitian revolutions and the abolitionist movements.

It was this cultural memory, saturated as it was with in a subsistence way of life that allowed them to resist based upon the fundamental idea of self-determination where you take subsistence in your own hands. Within the Magna Carta, self-determination was founded upon customary rights. These depend upon both our access to and the control over a way of life that includes sustenance and well being, and that can only evolve on the Commons, and not in the neoliberal free market that is intent on destroying the Commons. The long war against terrorism that was begun under the Bush doctrine and ramped up in the Obama administration in concert with their NATO allies is not a war against terrorism. It is a continuation of the war against the Commons that has been ongoing for over 500 years. It’s a war against us.

The casualties of this war are many and food is probably first on the list. Debt is the ammunition of choice here where developing nations through terms in loan agreements with IMF/World bank agencies are forced to buy heavily subsidized grain staples from the U.S., destroying their own agricultural history. This war includes not only the loss of traditional food crops, seed banks, and medicinal plants, all victims of patenting and genetic modification gone mad, but also the loss of an entire web of social relations, our sense of place, community and history.

The globalists, militarists and privatizers understand clearly what this war is all about. Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ is not just a slogan….it is the program. And this program depends entirely on the substitution of commodity for community, the substitution of consumers for citizens and the substitution of entertainment for cultural memory. It also depends upon us doing nothing. And that is what they are counting on most.

The Commons therefore can be understood to be not just resources that require ongoing stewardship to ensure that they remain for future generations, but more importantly can also be recognized as a set of relationships that work to remind us of our interconnectedness with people, place and community that arise through a shared responsibility to protect and sustain these common goods. So to speak of the Commons, is to assert a way of life where the synergy of relationships between people, place and the natural world are more important then the dictates of the neoliberal market that continue to commodify, privatize and militarize the remaining vestiges of all those things that might make us more human and more caring.

In recognizing that the institutions of government are incapable of acting any more on behalf of the people, or in even acknowledging the existence of, let alone the rights of the Commons, it becomes imperative that we begin to work to put the Commons back on the agendas of social organization and political dissent.

It is in this regard that the eminent historian Peter Linebaugh has given a new voice to the struggles on the Commons through his retelling of the story of the Magna Carta and its companion document, the Forest Charter. Writing in The Magna Carta Manifesto, Liberties And Commons For All, Linebaugh asserts that, “Magna Carta did more than secure individual rights; it established commons rights. Common rights are embedded in a particular ecology. Commoners think first not of title of deeds, but of human deeds”. And further comments Linebaugh, “Commoning is collective. Being independent of the State, commoning is also independent of the temporality of the law and the State. Magna Carta does not list rights, it grants perpetuities. It goes deep into human history”.

Commons rights can be looked at as rights of sustenance and sustainability and Commoning could be seen as a way of life characterized by self-reliance that keeps intact this complex set of pre-existing customs and social bonds called the Commons. What the English peasants learned on the Commons, and what we are now struggling to learn here in our dystopian villages is that political and legal rights exist only on an economic basis. A free citizenry requires rights to economic self-determination. Commoning, says Linebaugh “is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. They belong to experience not schooling”.

These rights of sustenance and the ability to maintain a subsistence lifestyle were documented in the Forest Charter where the first clause affirms rights to pasturage and pannage. The third clause dealt with reparations for the Commoners fully returning their access to the woods and forests. This clause, one of the most important, because as Linebaugh has pointed out, everything including fuel, transportation and implements at that time depended upon wood resources, in the same manner that we depend upon oil. In the same manner that we are dealing with the limitations of ‘peak oil’, they were dealing with the limitations of ‘peak wood’.

Even though the Forest Charter and Magna Carta are typically remembered as documents where the king grants certain rights to his subjects and limits his own power, Magna Carta did not so much grant rights in this sense. What it did was to confirm customary rights that had been in existence on the Commons for hundreds of years. These rights were self-evident, unscripted, ungranted natural rights that the king was forced to admit publicly. The impetus to secure these rights came from the public and not from the king.

Magna Carta is probably most notable in securing rights to due process, habeus corpus, jury trials and banning torture. Less known for its role in granting rights to women and widows. The Forest Charter placed in perpetuity rights to grazing, estovers, and gleaning. Taken together they placed the Commoners firmly on the land and then under the law confirming their customary rights to access and subsistence in securing their freedoms.

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