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October 25, 2019

Plundering the Commons

There seems to be a growing awareness of something called the ‘commons’ and in particular how these collectively ‘owned’ resources have been appropriated by various corporate interests and/or the state and subsequently lost from public view. There’s also a growing interest in rethinking how these assets that we have in common could be put to better use for the common good. A new book by Prof Guy Standing reviews how the commons have been plundered through the ages and takes a sweeping definition to include everything from our cultural commons to the air we breathe.

Andrew Anthony, The Guardian

Last year, I accompanied the former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey as he walked along the River Lea, one of England’s many chalk streams. He told me about the deliberate neglect, commercial exploitation and pollution of these natural resources and painted a picture of a joint bureaucratic-corporate carve-up and then cover-up that has resulted in only 14% of England’s rivers reaching good ecological standards.

How that situation came to be is a story in one sense of private commercial interests seeking profit from public need. What’s often negated in that process is the longstanding relationship between personal use and public responsibility. After all, how many of us think about the communal impact of flushing the loo and allowing the tap to run while we brush our teeth?

We are a country with an abundant water supply that nonetheless suffers flooding, shortages and recurring flouting of regulations, while private water companies walk off with massive dividends. For the economist Guy Standing, who popularised the term “the precariat”, this is a classic example of plundering the “commons” – ie our natural shared wealth.

In his new book, Plunder of the Commons, he examines the concept of the commons, tracing it back to its recognition in Magna Carta and the lesser known but arguably just as significant Charter of the Forest, which dates from 1217. These documents provided legal protection for commoners to gain access and use of common land and, at least in theory, prevented medieval barons from expropriating the land.

In practice, laws were bent or changed and land that was once open to all locals was progressively swallowed up by the powerful aristocracy. A succession of royal land raids, peaking with Henry VIII, followed by a prolonged campaign of enclosures, meant that the roughly 50% of land that was held to be commons at the time of the Charter of the Forest has dwindled to just 5% today.

Of course, a huge growth in population is one significant factor in this change, but it remains perverse that vast tracts of stolen land remain the bedrock of enormous private wealth for the lauded and romanticised heirs of the robber barons. Yet the issue, Standing argues, is much larger than that. If perhaps the most important, land is only one element of the commons.

The Soas professor is concerned to take in as much as possible under that definition – from the air we breathe to the ideas we think to the internet we all use – all of which is under threat of commodification. His book is subtitled A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, and, like the original Charter of the Forest, it contains a series of numbered articles, detailing provisions and prohibitions to maximise the size and sustainability of the commons.

Still, the arguments that we might apply to land, rivers and oil reserves are different, for example, to those relating to open access of the internet or intellectual property rights. There was a strong movement in the pioneering days of the web whose rallying cry was “information wants to be free”. We soon discovered that, by and large, information-gatherers want to be paid. A suitable model has yet to be worked out, though few now are suggesting that the answer is to abolish copyright.

In the media, the BBC works, as Standing acknowledges, as a kind of commons, though he criticises its “patrician” view. The licence fee, however, is not a system of funding that could be rolled out across the borderless internet. Strangely, he berates the government for forcing the partly publicly funded Channel 4 to move large parts of its business out of London on the grounds that it will inhibit the channel’s business viability. Surely distributing the cultural commons around the country, rather than concentrating them in the capital, is a progressive step?

One can quibble with these inconsistencies but what remains constant throughout is Standing’s clear prose and elegant arguments. There seems little doubt that we need to rethink how we evaluate our national wealth. The crude metric of GDP contrives to miss vital aspects of our wellbeing. We need to radically expand our sense of public space, from cityscapes through to the countryside, not just in terms of utility but also ownership and civic responsibility.

Standing raises the familiar spectre of neoliberalism as the guilty culprit, particularly in the post-Thatcher years. There are many examples to back up this thesis and, despite the inevitable simplifications, it’s one that deserves to be reheard. However, implicit in that critique is a sense of the halcyon communal days of the pre-Thatcher era, when the commons were a dreamy idyll to which we yearn to return. The reality is that public services were often very poor and public spaces underfunded and neglected.

That old Oscar Wilde line about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing will never lose relevance. But the removal of price does not necessitate the appreciation of value. Standing has produced a significant contribution to a debate that is going to become increasingly critical as resources dwindle and consumption grows.