Sorry, Owen Jones, but your British history is not mine (or anyone else’s)

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Owen Jones is a political activist, an atheist and a secularist. That’s a kind of people who traditionally receive a lot of training – should we say programming? – in set thought from an early age from various institutional power settings, such as school, college, university, party, NGO and other parts of the establishment.

It’s a very frustrating environment – the activist scene – and a field of ossification. New ideas, approaches and, democracy forbid, free thought is not allowed.

Owen Jones writes in The Guardian that “Sorry, David Cameron, but your British history is not mine“, but Owen Jones has got the wrong end of (at least) one stick: the Magna Carta. Now, the Magna Carta is commonly thought of across the intellectual and leftist spectra of thought as a declaration of rights of barons et al. to do whatever they please and with time it came to be seen as nothing other than the beginning of what is nowadays called industrial capitalism. And only that.

Cameron probably sees it like that, since he wants it pushed into the minds of children in “his” realm. And Owen Jones sees it like that, he rhetorically provokes his readers, repeating a dogma he once heard in a meeting or read in an liberal, academic book, perhaps: the Magna Carta is the beginning of evil, the work of exploitative nobles. What a shame and what admission of ignorance: Owen Jones and David Cameron do indeed share views on British history: they both have false assumptions of the Magna Carta and mislead people with their rhetoric.

Why are they wrong? Simple: Charter of the Forest (Thanks Peter Linebaugh!). Further information available? Yes, of course….

Here is an excerpt from a thesis outlining a view on history which is shared neither by David Cameron, nor Owen Jones, but which is the history of the people below, the peasants of a distant past forgotten by schooled and programmed minds, left and right:

“In the latest addition to the social history library, Linebaugh makes his best effort yet to connect movements of old and today around the concept of the commons in “The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All” (2008). Linebaugh sets on par, rightly so, the mainly peasant and indigenous experiences of contemporary enclosure with the experiences of those whose lands – whose commons – were enclosed in the transition into capitalism, especially from the 13th century onward. He lists the leader of the indigenous peasants of Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos, the Nigerian women who in outrage in 2003 occupied a Chevron oil terminal, women of the upland communities of Vietnam, whose forest reserves are enclosed with consequent suffering, the Native Americans of the Adirondacks, the seventeenth-century conquest of Ireland, colonial Kashmir, and Amazon rubber tappers:

“The red and green threads connecting these regions and historical moments are environmental havoc, expropriation, and ordinary peoples’ struggles to protect common rights, resources, and social norms” (Epstein 2009: 701).

In doing so, “Linebaugh extracts tendencies toward enclosure and environmental destruction in the name of commercial profit, the substitution of petroleum products as the world’s base economy, and the expropriation of indigenous people” (Aldous 2008: 1) and presents this dark side of “capitalist democracy” as a fall from grace inherent in the political reality of the separation of the Magna Carta and the Charter of Forests. These two Great Charters of Liberties (hereinafter the Great Charters), when understood and interpreted together had a direct relation to “a world of use values” (Linebaugh 2008: 42-43) in that the common rights, the rights of the commoners, were “laid upon the land” (Thompson 1993). That is to say that the customs of the people, the customary practices that they had in common and that they practised when commoning were articulated in the Great Charters, thus integrating the political organisation and activities of the commons and establishing a freedom for the commoners outside of the state. “Commoning” is a verb, meaning what commoners customarily do “on the commons” (Linebaugh 2008). De Angelis in this regard writes:

“Commoning, a term encountered by Peter Linebaugh in one of his frequent travels in the living history of commoners’ struggles, is about the (re)production of commons. To turn a noun into a verb is not a little step and requires some daring. Especially if in doing so we do not want to obscure the importance of the noun, but simply ground it on what is, after all, life flow: there are no commons without incessant activities of commoning, of (re)producing in common. But it is through (re)production in common that communities of producers decide for themselves the norms, values and measures of things” (De Angelis 2006).

Moreover, commoning also means a community-based form of ecological sustainability. In practice and political reality, the Great Charters established that “the people”, i.e. the commoners, had a right to farm the land and hunt animals for food, use the forests for fuel, and as such be, largely, self-sustaining and independent of the economy of the nobles. That is how Linebaugh can claim that the Magna Carta, when considered with its companion, the Charter of the Forests, “goes deep into human history” (see below), because the freedom and liberties involved in customary practices of commoning included all aspects of human survival: food, fuel and building materials in an intimate relationship with the land to which they belonged. What concerned commoners were not abstract rights, but practical approaches to life, that nevertheless could be articulated into property relations with regard to land and natural resources. A commoner would not ask “What is my individual right?

Commoners first think not of title deeds, but human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. You might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, being independent of the state, commoning is independent also of the temporality of the law and state. Magna Carta does not list rights, it grants perpetuities. It goes deep into human history” (Linebaugh 2008: 45).

This belonging of commoners to the land stands in sharp contrast to the post-enclosure arrangements where land belongs exclusively to individuals. Nevertheless, they refer to the same organisational questions concerning social relations with regard to things: access and use of resources. And for a long time they co-existed as we shall see. The transition into capitalism, however, spells the end of commoning.

Understanding Linebaugh’s argument is helpful for an understanding of the transition into capitalist democracy and thus sets the scene well for this thesis. In a time where most of Europe was in the thrall of war and conflict the Great Charters articulated peasants’ demand for the right to their custom of control over their own existence; they delimited the brutishness of royal authority: “the sovereign power of the king could be bound and held accountable” by means of the Great Charters. However, Linebaugh makes explicit note of the ways in which the Magna Carta also protected the rights of the rising mercantile classes. Quoting from Chapter 41 of the Magna Carta, he writes that “All merchants shall be able to go out of and return to England safely and securely and stay and travel throughout England, as well by land as by water” to make it clear that the emerging capitalist market also took shape from the charter; and from Chapter 35 to note that in addition to providing freedom to exercise market relations the charter also defined the basic units (or parameters) for commodities, without which the industrial, contractual market relations and the commodity could not be imagined: “Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely ‘the London quarter’; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with heights and measures” (Linebaugh 2008: 30).

There are therefore two different movements emerging from the Great Charter and the transition into capitalism can be understood as en ever narrower interpretation of the charters on a path toward the establishment of exclusive private property rights – privatisation – substituting for collective rights of commoning. While exclusive, private property rights are imposed, collective rights of commoning are emergent properties of the relations between commoners.

The American Declaration of Independence is in part a narrow interpretation of the Magna Carta that neglects “its pastoral and woodlands underpinnings” (Linebaugh 2008: 124), thus making it possible for American independence [to be] conducted in the name of Magna Carta [and to] occur in the midst of Atlantic expropriation of commons lands” (Linebaugh 2008: 135). The Magna Carta was a “document of reparations, returning the forest, whereas the declaration is a document of acquisition” (Linebaugh 2008: 124). In other words, the era between the Magna Carta (1215) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776), can be seen as an important period of the transition into capitalist democracy, where the individual rights to property came to override the customary and collective rights to land and subsistence that in great part had provided the inspiration for the democratic ideals of capitalism. The American Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers made explicit reference to the Magna Carta, but not to the Charter of Forests. Over time the Magna Carta became a document of individual freedom and liberties, while the rights of commoning were conveniently forgotten.

The American Declaration of Independence, therefore, is a milestone in the transition into capitalism, on Linebaugh’s account. That is because the American Declaration of Independence justifies the power of the state and articulates the right of an individual to private property, while the Great Charters put limitations on sovereign powers and articulate collective rights of commoning. It is exactly this development – from an articulation of customary practices of commoning, i.e. collective rights to land access and use, to an abstract articulation of the individual right to private property – that defines the transition into capitalist democracy. It also defines the subjugation of people – thus rendered legal persons, citizens with abstract rights – to the nation state. The commoners’ collective autonomy was lost in this process.”

Find the references and full text here:

One thought on “Sorry, Owen Jones, but your British history is not mine (or anyone else’s)

    […] it was some bloke called OwenJones84 – kids have strange names these days – and today some bloke called Charlie Brooker […]

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