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Noam Chomsky, the Magna Carta and the Commons

| Written by David Morris | No Comments | Updated on Jul 23, 2012 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

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.


About David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its initiative on The Public Good. He is the author of the New City States, Seeing the Light, and three other non-fiction books. His essays on public policy are regularly published by On the Commons, Alternet, Common Dreams and the Huffington Post.

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