The Plunder of the Commons…

A call has been made for a Charter of the Commons for the 21st Century to be created to reverse the attacks that have been made on “those things that belong to all of us and to none of us…things that come to us from society”. The call was made at a packed meeting of 500 people in London by Professor Guy Standing to launch his new book Plunder of the Commons; a manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth.

 

Guy Standing, also author of the best-selling The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, has advised the UN and governments around the world on labour and social policy. He participated in the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest in 2017, speaking at meetings in Runnymede, Sherwood Forest, Lincoln and London organised by New Putney Debates.

 

He also proposed the establishment of a National Commons Fund, to be sourced mainly from levies on the commercial use and exploitation of the commons including the oil, natural gas and minerals in the ground, as well as the renewable commons such as the forests, air and water, and even from ideas. There would, for example, be levies on frequent flyers. He said the fund should raise £200bn a year.

 

He called for a revival of the commons ethos, and for the creation of new commons based on communities of interest and communal forms of management that respect customs of sharing and preserving natural, social, cultural, civil and knowledge resources.

 

Guy harked back to the 800-year-old Charter of the Forest, the little-known and in many ways more important companion charter to the Magna Carta, because it was a charter for the common man, laying out the rights of ordinary people to access and use the forests and countryside to survive. It was also the first environmental charter, he said. The two charters were the foundation stone of our constitution and severely curtailed the power of the monarch and his favourites to enclose the forests for hunting.

 

Many people, Guy said, didn`t understand the full meaning of the expression “the commons” nor the extent that they had been plundered, particularly since the time of Margaret Thatcher`s government. Thatcher herself, he said, had contempt for the institutions of society which she correctly saw as standing against the market. She had encouraged individualism and selfishness. The rise of neo-liberal policies and the growth of private wealth meant that public wealth had declined.

 

The privatising of school playgrounds and the right-to-buy housing policies were just a form of stealing from the commons. Worst of all, he said, was the privatisation of water, another form of commercialising the commons, especially as no less than 400,000 acres of land were given to the new water companies. He said there were now more leakages of water than before, none of our rivers are fit for swimming, and around £18-19bn had gone abroad since the privatisation, as most of the companies are foreign-owned.

 

Guy went on to explain his five different categories of the commons:

 

  1. The Natural Commons, the commons of popular imagination, the woods and forests, the land, the rivers, the lakes, the seashore, the air we breathe. These have been under severe threat for centuries from governments, rulers and the rich as they are enclosed and privatised for individual profit. “One lesson from history is clear: once the commons are lost, they are extremely hard to revive or restore”, he said.

 

  1. The Social Commons are described as the facilities and amenities essential to normal living that are provided outside the market, built over the generations and paid for through taxes, donations and voluntary commoning. These include the services of the welfare state, healthcare, public transport, parks etc. The social commons are under attack from all sides…and the effects of austerity have been particularly pernicious for the poor.

 

  1. The Civil Commons…the right to justice, universal, and based on due process and equality before the law. Enshrined in the Magna Carta as the principle of proportionality in the punishment of a crime, punishment for misdemeanours should not deprive the person of their livelihood. The Charter of the Forest stressed the importance of LOCAL common law. The civil commons had been under great threat in the 17th and 18th century oppression of working people, from the enclosure of their lands. The civil commons have also been ignored by governments in events such as: the Peterloo Massacre, the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the suppression of the chartists, vicious class-based actions against the General Strike, and even the Tottenham riots. Justice was now out of reach of commoners, Guy said. And the police cuts, probation cuts, private prisons, the bedroom tax, the hostile environment policies, the administration of private justice in privately-owned public spaces (POPS) were other examples of attacks on the civil commons.

 

  1. Cultural Commons. Access to the creative and artistic sides of life, to art, sport libraries, theatres has been severely curtailed, particularly over the last 10 years with the huge cuts in local government grants.

 

  1. Knowledge Commons. The informational, intellectual and educational commons are all shrinking. And the information commons, in spite of its great potential to open up the access to knowledge to all, are dominated by a handful of “technological leviathans”, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc, who capture, organise and commodify information. This is a form of enclosure, Guy said. These companies have suppressed the competition by simply buying up any start-up enterprise that could become a rival or take the technology in different directions.

    Guy Standing signing copies of his book

 

 

Guy includes at the end of the book an example of how a Charter of the Commons for the 21st Century might look. In the preamble he writes: “The commons are our collective knowledge and our traditions of sharing in society. They are of most value to those on low incomes, the property-less and the precariat…To reduce inequality and strengthen citizenship it is vital to revive the commons….the commons can only be safe if there is strong democratic governance”.

 

The draft charter goes on to detail 44 articles. Article 2 calls for a new Domesday book with a “comprehensive record of the public and private ownership of land, including a map showing all commons and Open Access land”. Other articles call for the abolition of subsidies based on the amount of land owned, the restoration to common ownership of the water companies, a carbon tax, and many others relating to the five categories of the commons.

 

Caroline Lucas said at the meeting that the book was a hopeful one, published at the right time when climate strikes were taking place and in a time of great disillusion in the neo-liberal project. Do we want to live in a society of fear or one of kindness and care, she asked. And she spoke up for basic income as an anchor, and as right for everyone. Government inaction, she said, was leading to climate catastrophe. The interests of the planet were not compatible with continued exponential growth. The digital commons were a democratic resource owned by the people…but now the big tech companies were harvesting and selling our data. How can we bring Google and Amazon into public ownership, she asked.

 

David Lammy, Labour MP for Brent, said the book was a manifesto to bring people back together post-Brexit. The absence of what we should share leads to a toxic atmosphere. Local amenities have been decimated, he said. He cited the recent loss of the youth service commons and the impact on young people, including the increase in knife crime, that followed. A big factor in the crisis of mental health, he said, is the loneliness caused by neo-liberalism `s emphasis on individualism. The book gives us a new vision for developing a counter-culture. “We must revolt”, he said.

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