Here are two nice bookends for understanding British politics over the past eight centuries: The Charter of the Forest at one end, which from 1215 (until 1971!) guaranteed commoners the right to access to their common wealth for subsistence. And at the other end, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1981 ushered in a draconian regime of neoliberal capitalism that has eliminated those rights by stealing and privatizing common wealth.
In his recent book, Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, Guy Standing, an economist at SOAS in London, brings together both end-points of this history. The focus is on enclosures, but the point of the book, its manifesto, is to reclaim the commons, chiefly understood, in this context, as public assets and services.
The commons has had a recurring role in the “deep history” of the United Kingdom, but generally it has been treated as something over and done with. It is not generally regarded as a timely political issue that affects everyone. A big salute, then, to Standing for finally providing us with a full-bodied treatment of British commons in both their grand historical sweep and their importance in contemporary politics. He has synthesized so many diverse strands that have made (and unmade) the commons over the centuries – law, land, property rights, economics, culture, knowledge. It all helps illuminate how vital commons are to a fair, well-functioning society.
Appropriately, Standing begins his account with a chapter on the Charter of the Forest, the first legal guarantee of commoners' right to subsistence. Standing’s history of the Charter of the Forest is surely one of the most succinct and vivid that I’ve read of this near-forgotten portion of the Magna Carta. The account is not a dry history of strange people who lived a long time ago; it’s a compelling account of the first instances of many patterns of law, human rights, and political struggle that define our politics today.
“To a certain extent, the Charter can be regarded as an outcome of the first class-based set of demands on the state made by, and on behalf of, the common man (and woman), asserting the common or customary rights of ‘freemen.’…It was a truly radical document, guaranteeing freemen the right to the means of subsistence, the right to raw materials, and to a limited but substantive extent, a right to the means of production.”