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The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All / Edition 1

The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All / Edition 1

by Peter Linebaugh, P. Linebaugh


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520260009
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peter Linebaugh is Professor of History at the University of Toledo. He is the author of The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century and coauthor (with Marcus Rediker) of Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Read an Excerpt

The Magna Carta Manifesto
Liberties and Commons for All

By Peter Linebaugh
Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24726-0

Chapter One

[The bourgeoisie] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom-Free Trade. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

In a communiqué from the Lancandan jungle of Central America Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesman of the revolt of indigenous people that burst upon the world in 1994, referred to Magna Carta. The brilliant postmodern revolt of Mexico cited a tedious premodern source of England in 1215. That reference prompted this book. To be sure its overall genesis lay within the emergency posed by the autocratic aggressions of the Bush regime but what actually prodded me to put pen to paper on this subject was a mistake in translation, or rather an absence of translation altogether, because in Mexico it so happens everybody calls the constitution the magna carta. The semantic error revealed a deeper truth: indeed, the clue to Magna Carta lay upon the two winds Marcos described, the wind from above (these are the forces of the rulers) and the wind from below (these are the forces of the indigenous, the campesinos, and the workers). Marcos explains how the wind from above daily sucks out 92,000 barrels of oil, leaving behind "ecological destruction, agricultural plunder, hyperinflation, alcoholism, prostitution, and poverty," while the wind from below causes the campesinos in Ococingo to cut wood to survive. The ejido, or village commons, was destroyed, and its legal protection, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, repealed.

The story is repeated around the world.

Nigeria: in the summer of 2003 hundreds of women seized the Chevron Escravos Oil Terminal (escravos means slavery in Portuguese). The Americans plan to obtain 25 percent of their oil soon from Africa. Chevron's engineers have widened Escravos River in the Bight of Benin, and this act is destroying the mangrove forest and the village of Ugborodo. Women can no longer hew wood for fuel or draw water for drink. Prostitution is the only "decent-paying job for a woman." Woods, forests, and mangrove are destroyed while propane, gasoline, kerosene are substituted. As a result of this "advance," the people are expropriated.

Vietnam: in the upland hamlets women collect firewood, bamboo shoots, medicinal plants, and vegetables from forest areas. Some of these products are sold locally, most are used directly. Broom grass makes charcoal in Trang Tri. Rice and cassava are food staples and both are obtained by swidden farming (a Yorkshire dialect term for land that has been cleared by slashing and burning the vegetation cover). Free-range domesticated animals provide sources of protein. The forest reserves have recently been enclosed by metal fence. The women of the hamlets suffer especially.

New York: to the communities of Iroquois Indians and French Canadians in the Adirondacks, the conservation movement of the 1880s meant "the transformation of previously acceptable practices into illegal acts: hunting or fishing redefined as poaching, foraging as trespassing, the setting of fires as arson, and the cutting of trees as timber theft." These inhabitants were charged by state officials with looking upon the forests as "a piece of commons," or as "a public crib where all may feed who choose." The Forest Commission "endeavored to strike terror, as it was, into the people who trespassed in that way."

Ireland: following the despoliations of the plantations and the demographic and settlement history of conquest in the seventeenth century, which destroyed the Gaelic order and denuded the landscape, the Irish lamented,

What shall we do without timber The last of our woods is gone?

The woods were the location of visions, or the aisling, and of the fiana, or the defenders of Ireland. Hence the conquerors cut them down. It is a lament of early modern history, partially answered in modern times by the coal mine, then the oil pump, for these were truly the three ages of history, at least if you divide it up according to hydrocarbon energy sources-wood, coal, and oil.

India: Akbar the Great accounted the cutting down of forests a major achievement of his advance into Kashmir. The colonial government of Britain just took over the dharma khandams, or community common lands, and asserted its control over collection of fuel, leaf manures for composting, and wood for agricultural implements. A huge rise in wood thefts preceded the national upsurge of 1919-20. A nationalist song from the time asks,

Three hundred years back Company man descended You have kept quiet He robbed the whole nation He claims all forests are his Did his father come and plant?

The Amazon: from the sixties until today the entire region has been convulsed by an enormous enclosure movement. The bulldozer and the chain saw led the attack. The workers and Indians fought back. In 1976 they came up with the empate, or "standoff." The struggle is old. The teacher of young Chico Mendes of the rubber tappers' union worked with Carlos Prestes, the revolutionary of the 1920s and 1930s. It is old and it is transatlantic: the Forest People's Manifesto of 1985 has been compared to Winstanley and the Diggers, whose defense of the English forest commons we discuss in chapter four.

From such stories three tendencies emerge. First, as an aspect of the recent enclosures, planetary woodlands are being destroyed in favor of commercial profit. Second, petroleum products are substituted as the base commodity of human reproduction and world economic development. Third, indigenous people worldwide-commoners all-are expropriated. Michael Watts has dubbed "petro-violence" the terror, dislocation, separation, poverty, and pollution associated with petroleum extraction. War intensifies these tendencies. In Iraq the petroviolence of the Basra oil field has exterminated the commoning ecology of "the people of the reeds," the so-called Marsh Arabs.

The indigenous voice from the Lancandan rainforest suggests that Magna Carta concerns both juridical rights of the accused and the extraction of hydrocarbon energy resources. How can this be? Marcos is right. There were two charters forced on King John at Runnymede. Beside the great charter with which we are all vaguely familiar, there was a second charter known as the Charter of the Forest. Whereas the first charter concerned, for the most part, political and juridical rights, the second charter dealt with economic survival. Historians have always known the Charter of the Forest existed but many of its terms-for example, estovers, or subsistence wood products-seem strange and archaic, and have prevented the general public from recognizing its existence and understanding its importance. The message of the two charters and the message of this book is plain: political and legal rights can exist only on an economic foundation. To be free citizens we must also be equal producers and consumers. What I shall call the commons-the theory that vests all property in the community and organizes labor for the common benefit of all- must exist in both juridical forms and day-to-day material reality.

In the pages that follow I employ four kinds of interpretation of Magna Carta, documentary, legal, cultural, and constitutional. First, the documentary interpretation introduces significant emendations to the charter of 1215, such as "widow's estovers," along with the entire Charter of the Forest. They lead to the concept of the commons, which is grasped as an anchor of hope in the storm. The recovered charter and its addition was confirmed on 11 September in the year 1217, as chapter two shows.

Second, I trace the legal interpretation largely in chapter eight, in the history of the United States via the interpretations of chapter 39 and habeas corpus, trial by jury, prohibition of torture, and due process of law, which all are derived from it.

The third type of interpretation is cultural. It takes as its evidence music, murals, theater, painting, architecture, and sculpture. Sometimes these representations can be iconic or quasi-sacral. They have easily led to chauvinism and to barely concealed notions of racial superiority whose origins are described in chapters four and five.

Fourth, Magna Carta has a constitutional history, arising from its character as an armistice between belligerent powers, and as a treaty concluding rebellion. Magna Carta expressed a deal between church and state, barons and king, city merchants and royalty, wives and husbands, commoners and nobles. It was the proud product of rebellion. The U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 was the result of Tom Paine's suggestion for an American magna carta. In May 2006 the British people, when polled, preferred that a Magna Carta day become the national day. Chapters eleven and twelve attempt to renew this interpretation.

If Magna Carta is to be recovered in its fullness, we must bring with it all that can be obtained from these interpretations. The first one calls for the abolition of the commodity form of wealth that blocks the way to commoning. The second one gives us protection from intrusions by privatizers, autocrats, and militarists. The third one warns us against false idols. The fourth renews the right of resistance. In the 1620s Edward Coke, Speaker of the House of Commons and attorney general, provided the interpretations of these charters that paved the way for the English revolution of the 1640s. In 1759 William Blackstone, the magisterial Oxford professor of law, provided the scholarship of Magna Carta that helped prepare the mind for the American revolution of the 1770s. To them the "Great Charters of the Liberties of England" formed a unified instrument of law. This book explores that unity. The first three chapters present a problem, the middle six chapters tell the history, and the last three chapters indicate materials for a solution.

Rather than the separation of economic or social rights and civil or political rights that is familiar to us from the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and its Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), in the two charters political rights in restricting autocratic behavior paralleled common rights in restoring subsistence usufructs (goods or usages required for well-being). Thus the charters limited expropriations, as with honey, the common sweetener. The 13th chapter of the Charter of the Forest states, "Every freeman may in his own woods have eyries of hawks, sparrow hawks, falcons, eagles, and herons; and he may also have honey that is found in his woods."

That was the thirteenth century. In the nineteenth century the Forest Bill of India (1878) was objected to because "the powers proposed to be given to the police are arbitrary and dangerous, arrest without warrant of any person suspected of having been concerned at some unknown time of being concerned in a forest offence (taking some wild bee's honey from a tree or skin of any dead animal)." In twentieth-century Kenya, Karai Njama, a peasant in the independence struggles, remembered family expropriations. "One day I was sitting down on our homestead lawn when my grandfather pointed to a small hill in the middle of the forest just above the juncture of the Gura River and the Charangatha River and asked me, 'My grandson, do you see that hill?' 'Yes, grandfather,' I replied. 'That is where I used to hunt before the arrival of the Chomba-the European. That hill is still called Karari's Hill. If you went there, you could see my cooking pots in my cave. I have many beehives on that hill which would yield a lot of honey.... Oh! My beloved beehives will rot there.'"

In the cries of Njama's grandfather we do not hear "the tragedy of the commons," as the title of an influential essay by the American sociobiologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) puts it. His biological and mathematical arguments concluded, "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all" and "injustice is preferable to total ruin." Hardin's premise depends on absolute egoism and denies several millennia of experience in the mutuality and negotiation of commoning. If anything, we hear the cries of the victim of theft.

In 2004 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who led the grassroots Green Belt Movement to plant thirty million trees for subsistence-wood fuel, fencing, and building-to restore a forest ecology, to prevent Kenya from becoming a dried-out desert. The spirit was expressed in the word harambee, meaning "let us all pull together!" At each tree planting the community committed itself to preserving for future generations "the bounty which is the birthright and property of all."

The robbery of the honey and the robbery of our safety, the robbery of commoning and the taking of liberties, have gone hand in hand. How are subsistence rights related to civil rights that protect us against detention without trial?

Subcomandante Marcos asked us to remember the ejido of the Mexican Constitution in the struggle against neoliberalism. This voice from the Lancandan rainforest in Chiapas caused me to ask: what does the Magna Carta actually say? While I was thinking this over in the summer of 2001, the movements summed up by the slogans "The world is not for sale" and "Reparations!" were checked by the police murder of Carlos Giuliani among the demonstrators in Genoa, Italy, and by the withdrawal of the United States from the UN conference on racism convened in Durban, South Africa. A week later hijacked airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. President Bush then announced the endless "war on terror," which he compared to the Second World War, though in summarizing its goals (the four freedoms) he failed to mention freedom from want and freedom from fear.

With the assault on Mesopotamia in 2003 came the imposition of neoliberalism-free trade, unrestricted profiteering, and the infamous Order no. 39 privatizing the public enterprises of Iraq. Parallel to this infamy were the losses of liberties derived from Magna Carta's forgotten chapter 39: habeas corpus has suffered particularly, trial by jury has suffered attack, the prohibition against torture wilts, due process of law is lost in Guantánamo.

President Bush is not the only one who has forgotten his history lessons. We British historians have not done our job. Both neoconservative historians as well as feminists, critical legal theorists, social and economic historians have been derelict, ignoring Magna Carta and thus laying the groundwork of forgetting. As for the commoning provisions in the Charters of Liberties, they have been ignored as out-of-date feudal relics. The argument of this book says their time has come.

Neoliberalism is an economic doctrine of globalization and privatization that depends on police regimes of security and privatization. It came into being as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power, in 1979 and 1980. Accompanying the privatization and marketeering of neoliberalism was its historically inseparable sidekick, neoconservativism, which provided the police and the military. Postmodernism is an aesthetic and cultural style characterized by irony, eclecticism, high speeds, epistemological subjectivity (hence its compatibility with "identity politics"), and the refusal to accept a unity in history. Excluded from both the economic policies of neoliberalism and the cultural politics of postmodernism were the actual planetary shifts of the 1990s-the planetary migrations, the new enclosures, the feminization of poverty, the development of precarious labor, and neoslavery. Margaret Thatcher had said "there is no alternative." Magna Carta seemed nothing more than an archaic element in an obsolete "grand narrative." In 1999 it seemed that postmodernism and neoliberalism reached a turning point in Seattle, where diverse movements challenged the "intellectual property" discussions of the World Trade Organization.


Excerpted from The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


2. Two Charters
3. The Commodity and the Commons
4. Charters Lost and Found
5. The Charters in Blackface and Whiteface
6. 1776 and Runnamede
7. The Law of the Jungle
8. Magna Carta and the U.S. Supreme Court
9. Icon and Idol
10. This Land Was Made by You and Me
11. The Constitution of the Commons
12. Conclusion

1. Magna Carta
2. The Charter of the Forest
Further Reading


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From the Publisher

"With a passion, eloquence and lyrical reverence for the hard-won freedoms of Old England that take the breath away."—The Independent

"The year's most lyrical and necessary book on liberty. The Magna Carta Manifesto is such a pleasure to read."—The Nation

"Shows how restraints against tyranny are being abridged as rights once held inalienable are laid aside."—Times Higher Education

"Linebaugh should be commended for the impressive scope of his analysis."—
Insight Turkey

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Historian Peter Linebaugh, author of The London Hanged and history teacher at the University of Toledo in Ohio, USA, has written a splendid book on Magna Carta. He studies a wide range of references to Magna Carta, particularly the US Supreme Court¿s references. In the early 13th century, Britain¿s landed aristocracy was destroying the woodlands for commercial profit, undermining the wooded basis of material life and expropriating the indigenous people. The people then forced two charters on King John at Runnymede in 1215 ¿ Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. The two charters became the common law of the land. Magna Carta¿s Chapter 39 laid down habeas corpus, trial by jury, a ban on torture, and due process. However, the ruling class has wiped the Charter of the Forest from memory. It has also twisted Magna Carta into a defence of private property, corporations¿ rights and laissez-faire. But the two charters should not be separated. Political and legal rights exist only on an economic basis. To be free citizens, we need to be free producers. What did the Charter of the Forest say? It limited expropriation and upheld the principles of neighbourhood, subsistence, travel, anti-enclosure and reparations. It pointed towards ending the commodity form of wealth, and to protecting the people from privatisers, autocrats and militarists. It was against false idols and for the right of resistance. It defended the commons, maintaining that all property should be vested in the community, and that labour should be organised for the benefit of all. The ruling class has always feared and detested the peoples of the world. Linebaugh cites the 1885 Report of Indian Famine Commission, which blamed the famine on `the ignorance of the people, their obstinacy and their dislike for work¿. Marx described in Das Kapital how the ruling class in Britain stole the common land and transformed it into modern private property, first in Britain, then in the Empire. Now again, we are experiencing the theft of the commons, the privatisation of our energy resources and the destruction of the building societies.