Chomsky on the Commons

Noam Chomsky recent gave a meaty talk, “Destroying the Commons:  On Shredding the Magna Carta” that shows how fragile the rights of commoners truly are. Achieved after enormous civil strife, the Magna Carta supposedly guaranteed commoners certain civic and procedural rights.  A companion document, the Charter of the Forest later incorporated into the Magna Carta, expressly guarantees commoners stipulated rights to access and use forests, land, water, game and other natural resources for their subsistence. 

Both documents are now being shredded today with barely a peep of acknowledgment that centuries-old principles of human rights are being swept aside.  Much of Chomsky’s talk is dedicated to his familiar critiques of US geopolitics and corporate globalization.  But he has a few illuminating passages about the Charter of the Forest and modern-day enclosures, especially in the global South.  Chomsky gave the speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Citing Linebaugh’s book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, Chomsky writes:

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization…. By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.  

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world….

A few pages later, Chomsky discusses the fate of the Charter of the Forest:

Its goal was to protect the source of sustenance for the population, the commons, from external power -- in the early days, royalty; over the years, enclosures and other forms of privatization by predatory corporations and the state authorities who cooperate with them, have only accelerated and are properly rewarded.  The damage is very broad.

If we listen to voices from the South today we can learn that “the conversion of public goods into private property through the privatization of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one way neoliberal institutions remove the fragile threads that hold African nations together.  Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities, and a nation.  This is one of the benefits that structural adjustment programmes inflicted on the continent -- the enthronement of corruption.” I’m quoting Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in his searing expose of the ravaging of Africa’s wealth, To Cook a Continent, the latest phase of the Western torture of Africa.

While the mainstream likes to dismiss Chomsky as an out-of-touch lefty with a cult following, who else is pointing out that the Magna Carta’s basic guarantees are indeed being shredded?  The American Bar Association took so much pride in the Magna Carta that iin the 1950s it erected a monument in Runnymede (mentioned in one of my blog posts a few days ago) in honor of the rule of law.  Funny, I can’t recall the ABA recently checking in with any objections to the shredding of rights supposedly guaranteed by the Magna Carta (and incorporated into the US Constitution and Bill of Rights).  Chomsky writes:

The concept of due process has been extended under the Obama administration’s international assassination campaign in a way that renders this core element of the Charter of Liberties (and the Constitution) null and void.  The Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch alone.  The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed.  King John might have nodded with satisfaction.

History is our ally if we take care to remember it.  Too bad so many people have forgotten the history of the commons or merely find it inconvenient to recall.