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The plunder years

Ever felt you’ve been robbed? Well, according to Professor Guy Standing, you’re not alone – we’ve all had our shared resources plundered

19 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Professor Guy Standing speaking to Prime Minister Boris Johnson

ACCESS to natural wealth has been part of our culture and constitution since a document called The Charter of the Forest was signed alongside Magna Carta in 1217.

It was in St Paul’s Cathedral where the 10-year-old King Henry III watched his regent, William Marshall, place the royal seal on a document that enshrined basic laws governing the use of natural resources, assets and shared social amenities.

And this charter is the starting point for a new book by Professor Guy Standing, who teaches at SOAS in Bloomsbury. Professor Standing will be discussing Plunder of the Commons – A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth at How The Light Gets In, a festival of ideas, this weekend at Kenwood House.

In it he traces how, for centuries, something that is ours by birthright – a shared natural and creative wealth we all should be able to draw on, add to and protect – has been whittled away by successive exploiters from barons and landed gentry to industrialists and capitalists.

He argues that what should be our shared “commons” – natural resources and human knowledge – “have been plundered, illegitimately.

We think of enclosure of land, notably by the Tudors and in the Victorian age. But we need to expose the systemic plunder of all forms of ‘common’ that has taken place since Margaret Thatcher, and accelerated under austerity,” he adds.

“Their policies have depleted our shared wealth; our national utilities have been sold off to foreign conglomerates, social housing is almost non-existent, our parks are cordoned off for private events and our art galleries are sponsored by banks and oil companies. And this plunder deprives us all of our common rights, recognised as far back as 1217.”

His book calls for a new charter to “retrieve and revive principles of shared activity that have accompanied the commons over the ages”.

He says it is not only the case of fighting back against the injustices of centuries but since 2010 our “commons” have been plundered like never before by the policies of the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition, and the 2015 Tory government.

He explains that The Charter of the Forest sat on the statute book for 754 years. Its importance was such that all churches were required to read it to their congregations at Christmas, Easter and the feasts of St John and St Michael.

“Today, its principles are ignored and few have heard of it,” he writes.

Professor Guy Standing 

“In 2015, when the government ordered a copy of Magna Carta to be sent to all 21,000 primary schools with guides to what it meant, it did not do the same for the Charter of the Forest.

“No wonder, since, although it continues to inspire those who read it, the exemplary values and principles it enshrined have been abused over the centuries by monarchs, elites and governments.”

The Charter was made up of 17 articles and can be considered as “the first class-based set of demands on the state made by, and on behalf of, the common man and woman asserting the customary rights of ‘freeman’.”

It was a radical document, guaranteeing a series of rights to the means of subsistence and materials. It also was one of the first cases of environmental law, placing limits on the exploitation of natural resources and the need to reproduce and preserve them. It laid out how commoners could use land for livestock, to use wood for fuel or building, through to mushrooms picked, rabbits snared and fish caught. But. as Dr Standing discusses, this Charter was soon nibbled away.

“It should not be seen as just an interesting historical document relating to long-past tussles over common land but, like Magna Carta, as expressing eternal universal values. A thriving commons – encompassing not just the natural environment and its uses, but our public services, our social and justice systems and our cultural and intellectual life – is just as vital for a good society today as access to the commons was in medieval times,” he states.

Dr Standing says the contemporary idea of the “commons” are those shared services we use – and that just as the enclosure acts stole from our predecessors, neo-liberalism and austerity have done the same today.

“The commons have been eroded by neglect, in recent times accelerated by budget cuts due to austerity,” he adds. “Often, the erosion has resulted from the deliberate neglect, part of the strategy adopted by the early Thatcherites in which services and industries were starved of investment in order to induce public indifference to, and support for, their privatisation.”

And he cites how when the global economy crashed in 2007-2008, government reacted with its “twin lies” – stating high public debt caused the crash and that the government needed to reduce debt to balance budgets by large cuts to public spending that “shrink the commons”. Instead, he argues, “the government set about cutting revenue, with lower taxes and higher tax relief for privileged interests and slashed spending to fill a hole that it had artificially expanded.”

Dr Standing suggests a modern Charter will protect and enhance our shared common wealth, and argues that because private interests have plundered common resources, they owe us compensation.

He suggests a Commons Fund, into which levies would be placed and reinvested, similar to Norway’s government oil fund, which has used revenue in such a way that means technically every Norwegian is a millionaire. The 44 articles described in his book protect the environment by stopping rampant exploitation, promote social justice by shifting tax from income from your labour to taxing private wealth and the misuse of our commons – and offers a new system of distribution that is for the good of all.

Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. By Guy Standing, Pelican, £9.99
How the Light Gets in is at Kenwood September 21 and 22. See howthelightgetsin.org/london

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