Noam Chomsky, the Magna Carta and the Commons

Date: 23 Jul 2012 | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

When Noam Chomsky speaks, we should all listen.  In a recent speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland he examines the history of that hallowed document, the Magna Carta in a way your history classes probably did not.  Chomsky begins by noting there were two Charters.  One dealt with defending the people from a tyrannical and arbitrary monarch.  That is widely recognized as laying the groundwork for democratic government.  Chomsky’s focus, however, is on the second, virtually overlooked Charter.

“The significance of the companion charter, the Charter of the Forest, is no less profound and perhaps even more pertinent today — as explored in depth by Peter Linebaugh in his richly documented and stimulating history of Magna Carta and its later trajectory.

The Charter of the Forest demanded protection of the commons from external power.  The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life.  The forest was no primitive wilderness.  It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations — practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world.

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization.  The Robin Hood myths capture the essence of its concerns (and it is not too surprising that the popular TV series of the 1950s, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” was written anonymously by Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for leftist convictions).  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.”

If this whets your appetite, read the full piece here.


David Morris
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.