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Chomsky: The Most Powerful Country in History Is Destroying the Earth and Human Rights as We Know Them

"Sophisticated westerners" are currently standing in the way of trying to find a sustainable and humane approach to organizing human life.

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The Second Charter and the Commons

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.  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, some involving extreme violence, as in the Eastern Congo, where millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cell phones and other uses, and of course ample profits.

The rise of capitalist practice and morality brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are treated, and also of how they are conceived.  The prevailing view today is captured by Garrett Hardin’s  influential argument that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all,” the famous “tragedy of the commons”: what is not owned will be destroyed by individual avarice. 

An international counterpart was the concept of  terra nullius, employed to justify the expulsion of indigenous populations in the settler-colonial societies of the Anglosphere, or their “extermination,” as the founding fathers of the American Republic described what they were doing, sometimes with remorse, after the fact.  According to this useful doctrine, the Indians had no property rights since they were just wanderers in an untamed wilderness.  And the hard-working colonists could create value where there was none by turning that same wilderness to commercial use. 

In reality, the colonists knew better and there were elaborate procedures of purchase and ratification by crown and parliament, later annulled by force when the evil creatures resisted extermination.  The doctrine is often attributed to John Locke, but that is dubious.  As a colonial administrator, he understood what was happening, and there is no basis for the attribution in his writings, as contemporary scholarship has shown convincingly, notably the work of the Australian scholar Paul Corcoran.  (It was in Australia, in fact, that the doctrine has been most brutally employed.)