Friday, 5 June 2009

The Magna Carta Manifesto

The Magna Carta Manifesto
Liberties and Commons for All
Peter Linebaugh (University of California Press, Berkeley 2008)

In The Magna Carta Manifesto, Peter Linebaugh takes a moment in our ancient past and makes it a contemporary beacon in the social history of advancing human rights. He puts the 1215 Magna Carta at the centre of a complicated network of the legal, constitutional, cultural and political efforts to assert the primary importance of public rights and property to political history.
Linebaugh takes the signing of the Magna Carta as a formative moment in history, that captured principles which have been fought for and which continue to be fought over around the world. "Behind the event lay powerful forces of pope and emperor, dynastic intrigues of France and England, wicked deeds of progrom and bigotry in the name of God Almighty, the disintegrating effects of the money economy and the multifaceted popular defence of the commons." (p. 24) He situates the Magna Carta and what he believes is an equally significant parallel document of the time, the Charter of the Forest (1217), as key icons in the advancement of public or collective rights over what he generically calls "the commons".
The book traces the use and possibly the abuse of the principles embedded in these two documents through history and to different parts of the world - the United States, Mexico, Nigeria, England, India. Linebaugh ties together a number of forces that compete over private versus public property, and exposes how this competition relied on these principles or distorted them according to contemporary standards. In effect, he traces how the principles of the Magna Carta have evolved according to forms of subsistence production, resource accumulation, industrialization and the development of capitalism.
For example, Linebaugh writes, "The dissolution of the monasteries took place in 1536, a massive act of state-sponsored privatization. More than any other single act in the long history of the establishment of English private property, it made the English land a commodity." (p 49)
The book traces how the Magna Carta and its principles of collective rights has fed legal and constitutional struggles that led to The Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the abolition of slavery in England (1807), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and other important rights achievements. He also traces how peasants and working people fought for their rights to the commons through popular revolts in Germany (1548), England (1632), Mexico (the 1800's) and the Unites States (1770's).
How women were denied their rights as citizens in a process that is closely aligned to the competition over the commons, is highlighted. His commentary on women and jury duty for example, exposes the gap between constitutional icons and chauvinistic idolatry that have plagued women through the 20th century. "The devaluation of women's work and the degradation of her body related directly to the enclosures of open fields, the loss of commons, and the depopulation of villages. Prostitution becomes the synecdoche for commodity production. She is a proletarian (she has "no external thing to lose"). She becomes prostituted and cheated simultaneously by the commodity." (p.65)
With a rather sweeping generalized approach to finding cause and effect, the author progresses through history and writes about key formative moments. "At the dawn of modern capitalism in the sixteenth century, Magna Carta was ignored for two reasons. First the centralized monarchy of the Tudors tended to monopolize force, where the Magna Carta tended to hedge the power of the king. Second, in the sixteen century the commodity began to become the local, national and imperial form of economic accumulation, replacing the many forms of communing. But in the seventeenth century this changed, as Magna Carta took on its modern form - the protector of individual rights and free trade - just as private property (the legal form of commodity) was reconciled during the English Revolution with mixed forms of political power." (p.171)
It is also an important contribution of this book, to note that the Magna Carta lost its essence in the USA as the founding fathers constructed the institutional means to colonize aboriginal land then commodify industrial labour. While treating the great charter as a constitutional icon, Linebaugh shows how the Magna Carta was idolized to the point that the "idol destroys what it purports to preserve." (page 243)
If there is any deficiency in this book, it is the attention allotted to the linking of political advocacy in the 20th century to the contribution of the Magna Carta. There are many contemporary examples of people striving to regain the commons or collectively gaining their rights that could have been examined. In particular, I would have liked to read more about the process of economic globalization that has shunted the commons aside as corporate interests have succeeded in promoting finance capitalism and its required individualization. I think there could have been more written on how the foundations of western democracy, embedded in the principles of the Magna Carta, are being eroded by economic globalization and its undermining of sovereignty, unionization, social programs and the fair distribution of wealth and opportunity.
I think the book could have reflected on how progressive organizations (unions, non-governmental agencies, public interest organizations, community groups) around the world are fighting globalization and in effect promoting a return to principles of the commons. I think we need to expose and examine how corporate efforts to promote privatization (of public services and state enterprise), to downsize government (shift power to international bodies like the World Trade organization) and to open up natural resources to the power of the marketplace are taking private control of public assets, much like royalty had done for centuries. And the historical path of the development of human rights that has been laid out in the book, could also include some analysis of how communication technologies have redefined the commons and the ability of advocates to promote the principles of the Magna Carta.
However, for anyone engaged in the struggle to claim back public control over private interests - corporate, cultural, class, or state - this is an insightful book. For anyone trying to understand the process of achieving personal security in a world dominated by an ideology of ‘might is right', this is useful reading. For people around the world seeking ways to protect our environment, guard our water or promote renewable energy, this is a basic resource. For those interested in situating the struggles of aboriginal people for their cultural and legal autonomy, to appreciating the value of the International Court, this is fundamental reading.
I found Linebaugh's depiction of how human rights have developed instructive and oddly reassuring. This analysis helps clarify the progress, albeit slow and incremental, of human rights. This account exposes some of the frailties and frustrations that people have encountered and continue to encounter in social advocacy. And in a subtle way, this book creates its own commons, a historically and geographically unbounded collective of living and dead, who committed themselves to sharing the benefits of society in opposition to those who chose to concentrate those benefits in the hands of the few.

Dennis Lewycky
Winnipeg, CANADA
March 2009
words 1,200