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Guy Standing, Plunder of the Commons: A manifesto for sharing public wealth

Pelican, 2019; 432pp; £9.99

ImageThey hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose
– 17th-century English protest rhyme against enclosure

Our family lost our small farm when I was eight. Ever since, I have been fascinated with the idea of common land.

I marvelled at all the fields surrounded by drystone walls, hedges or fences. They are memorials to the enclosure movements by which the rich and powerful, with access to legal services and parliament, were able to steal the commons from the poor family’s goose.

Guy Standing, former university professor, has written a wonderful book on the commons, their relevance and how we can change things.

Land is not the only possible form of commons. Forests, rivers, coasts and the air we breathe are also part of the commons. So are the National Health Service, the BBC, schools and universities, libraries, galleries, museums, parks and allotments.

Today, the ‘knowledge commons’ (including Wikipedia and data collected by the government for public use) is being threatened by the dominance of internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon who pay little tax and who use our data (which they have, in effect, enclosed) to manipulate us.

The commons are massively threatened by neoliberalism, a resurgent form of 19th century, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalist economics, that first became government policy under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

In Britain, this has led to the privatisation of water, British Gas, British Telecom and the Royal Mail, and the sale of council housing, as well as austerity .

Where does Standing begin in his resistance to this theft of the commons?

He draws moral inspiration from the Charter of the Forest, a document momentously ‘signed’ (sealed) on behalf of young king Henry III, along with a revised version of Magna Carta, in November 1217.

Among other things the charter guaranteed freemen ‘the right to the means of subsistence, the right to raw materials and, to a limited but substantive extent, a right to the means of production’, while also placing ‘implicit limits on the exploitation of natural resources’ and attending to ‘the need to reproduce and preserve those resources’.

Standing seeks to create a new Charter of the Commons, whose 44 articles are a manifesto for sharing public wealth equitably.

How can we implement this manifesto? Use progressive taxation to compensate both today’s commoners and future generations. Tax the rich on land, wealth, and income. Ensure corporations pay fair taxes. Remove tax havens.

We should also implement the Hartwick Rule: that ‘society should invest enough of the rental income from extraction and use of exhaustible, and thus naturally scarce, resources [such as oil and minerals] so that future generations would benefit as much as today’s’. Norway provides a great example: they have invested their North Sea oil wealth to benefit all in a sustainable way.

There is no peace without fair economics or ecological justice. Defend the commons!