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Destroying the Commons: How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta

2 years ago, Written by , Posted in Articles, Educational Material, Media re-posts

Here, we put an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2012, about the Magna Carta and the lesser known companion charter titled the ‘Charter of the Forest’ and how the current administration in the U.K. is straying from the ideals outlined in these two documents. The excerpt is the part focused on the ‘Charter of the Forest’. The speech is reproduced and can be found here in full, and an interview on the same subject is podcasted here.

The Second Charter and the Commons

The significance of the companion charter, the Charter of the Forest, is no less profound and perhaps even more pertinent today — as explored in depth by Peter Linebaugh in his richly documented and stimulating history of Magna Carta and its later trajectory.  The Charter of the Forest demanded protection of the commons from external power.  The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life.  The forest was no primitive wilderness.  It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations — practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world.

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization.  The Robin Hood myths capture the essence of its concerns (and it is not too surprising that the popular TV series of the 1950s, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” waswritten anonymously by Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for leftist convictions).  By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world, some involving extreme violence, as in the Eastern Congo, where millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cell phones and other uses, and of course ample profits.

The rise of capitalist practice and morality brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are treated, and also of how they are conceived.  The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential argumentthat “freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all,” the famous “tragedy of the commons”: what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice.

An international counterpart was the concept of terra nullius, employed to justify the expulsion of indigenous populations in the settler-colonial societies of the Anglosphere, or their “extermination,” as the founding fathers of the American Republic described what they were doing, sometimes with remorse, after the fact.  According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness.  And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use.

In reality, the colonists knew better and there were elaborate procedures of purchase and ratification by crown and parliament, later annulled by force when the evil creatures resisted extermination.  The doctrine is often attributed to John Locke, but that is dubious.  As a colonial administrator, he understood what was happening, and there is no basis for the attribution in his writings, as contemporary scholarship has shown convincingly, notably the work of the Australian scholar Paul Corcoran.  (It was in Australia, in fact, that the doctrine has been most brutally employed.)

The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge.  The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins.  But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self.”

Like peasants and workers in England before them, American workers denounced this New Spirit, which was being imposed upon them, regarding it as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free men and women.  And I stress women; among those most active and vocal in condemning the destruction of the rights and dignity of free people by the capitalist industrial system were the “factory girls,” young women from the farms.  They, too, were driven into the regime of supervised and controlled wage labor, which was regarded at the time as different from chattel slavery only in that it was temporary.  That stand was considered so natural that it became a slogan of the Republican Party, and a banner under which northern workers carried arms during the American Civil War.

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Who Will Have the Last Laugh?

A few final words on the fate of the Charter of the Forest.  Its goal was to protect the source of sustenance for the population, the commons, from external power — in the early days, royalty; over the years, enclosures and other forms of privatization by predatory corporations and the state authorities who cooperate with them, have only accelerated and are properly rewarded.  The damage is very broad.

If we listen to voices from the South today we can learn that “the conversion of public goods into private property through the privatization of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one way neoliberal institutions remove the fragile threads that hold African nations together.  Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities, and a nation.  This is one of the benefits that structural adjustment programmes inflicted on the continent — the enthronement of corruption.” I’m quoting Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in his searing expose of the ravaging of Africa’s wealth, To Cook a Continent, the latest phase of the Western torture of Africa.

Torture that has always been planned at the highest level, it should be recognized.  At the end of World War II, the U.S. held a position of unprecedented global power.  Not surprisingly, careful and sophisticated plans were developed about how to organize the world.  Each region was assigned its “function” by State Department planners, headed by the distinguished diplomat George Kennan.  He determined that the U.S. had no special interest in Africa, so it should be handed over to Europe to “exploit” — his word — for its reconstruction.  In the light of history, one might have imagined a different relation between Europe and Africa, but there is no indication that that was ever considered.

More recently, the U.S. has recognized that it, too, must join the game of exploiting Africa, along with new entries like China, which is busily at work compiling one of the worst records in destruction of the environment and oppression of the hapless victims.

It should be unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the predatory obsessions that are producing calamities all over the world: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.  Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are serious, if not awesome, and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come.  There are some efforts to face reality, but they are far too minimal. The recent Rio+20 Conference opened with meager aspirations and derisory outcomes.

Meanwhile, power concentrations are charging in the opposite direction, led by the richest and most powerful country in world history.  Congressional Republicans are dismantling the limited environmental protections initiated by Richard Nixon, who would be something of a dangerous radical in today’s political scene.  The major business lobbies openly announce their propaganda campaigns to convince the public that there is no need for undue concern — with some effect, as polls show.

The media cooperate by not even reporting the increasingly dire forecasts of international agencies and even the U.S. Department of Energy.  The standard presentation is a debate between alarmists and skeptics: on one side virtually all qualified scientists, on the other a few holdouts.  Not part of the debate are a very large number of experts, including the climate change program at MIT among others, who criticize the scientific consensus because it is too conservative and cautious, arguing that the truth when it comes to climate change is far more dire.  Not surprisingly, the public is confused.

In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama hailed the bright prospects of a century of energy self-sufficiency, thanks to new technologies that permit extraction of hydrocarbons from Canadian tar sands,shale, and other previously inaccessible sources.  Others agree.  TheFinancial Times forecasts a century of energy independence for the U.S.  The report does mention the destructive local impact of the new methods.  Unasked in these optimistic forecasts is the question what kind of a worldwill survive the rapacious onslaught.

In the lead in confronting the crisis throughout the world are indigenous communities, those who have always upheld the Charter of the Forests.  The strongest stand has been taken by the one country they govern, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and for centuries a victim of western destruction of the rich resources of one of the most advanced of the developed societies in the hemisphere, pre-Columbus.

After the ignominious collapse of the Copenhagen global climate change summit in 2009, Bolivia organized a People’s Summit with 35,000 participants from 140 countries — not just representatives of governments, but also civil society and activists.  It produced a People’s Agreement, which called for very sharp reduction in emissions, and a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.  That is a key demand of indigenous communities all over the world.  It is ridiculed by sophisticated westerners, but unless we can acquire some of their sensibility, they are likely to have the last laugh — a laugh of grim despair.

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