Liberties and Commons for All

Of the aristocratic and stylish six Mitford sisters, Jessica provides us with the Lazy Interpretation of Magna Carta beloved by sluggards everywhere.  As a lovely communist (two of her sisters were fascists) she was disowned by her family and fell from the social peaks of English aristocracy to the Dickensian depths of the Rotherhithe docks in London in 1939. Unable to pay the rent she and her husband lived in fear of the process-server who they avoided by going in disguises which the process server soon came to recognize. “Esmond had a theory that it was illegal and in some way a violation of Magna Carta to serve process on people in bed.”  So they stayed in bed all day and then all night, and again all the next day, and all the next night under the covers, before deciding to emigrate to America.  (Tom Paine, too, thought that independent America was a realization of Magna Carta).

Once we stop smiling, we see the wisdom of rest. William Morris’s wonderful utopian novel, News from Nowhere, is called in its sub-title “An Epoch of Rest” and the story actually begins in bed!  The Bible solemnly orders that the earth itself be given a rest every seven years.  This of course made sense agronomically at the time to prevent soil exhaustion.  And it makes sense today than ever.  Because earth, air, water, and fire, formerly common, are utterly exhausted by the world’s privatizers who call their exploitation “business.”  But business is the opposite of rest.

The sub-title of this book, Liberties and Commons for All, expresses two aspects of the ancient English Charters of Liberty; first is the restraint on political power of the King, second is the protection of subsistence in the commons. The former are legal issues – rule of law, trial by jury, prohibition of torture, habeas corpus; the latter are economic principles – neighborhood, subsistence, commons, reparations, and travel. How have they fared since the book was published?  A world-wide crushing financial crisis of austerity has been met with new demands in the Occupy Wall Street movement and anti-capitalist mobilizations in Greece, Spain, Egypt, and a renewed push-back against nuclear power.  Can the Magna Carta and its sister companion, the Charter of the Forest, contribute to these discussions?  How to put the commons into the constitution, and the constitution into the commons?  Can the centuries of human wisdom found in these Charters help the people of Jeju Island preserve the last pristine commons on earth from the inevitable destruction entailed by the construction of a U.S. naval base in its bid for Pacific hegemony?

The book was conceived at a time of the systematic devaluation of the working-class of the world.  The U.S.A. gloated in its imagined omnipotence and one after another destroyed the internal restraints on that power, and eliminated the external restraints with endless global wars.  War provided the shock for devaluation and enclosure.  From nurses and doctors health care was turned over to insurance profiteers; from carpenters and masons housing or shelter was turned over to bankers; from gardeners and farmers food was turned over to genetic engineers; and from librarians and scholars knowledge was turned over to machine operators.  Work was as much alienated drudgery as ever, only now as “jobs” became a desperate social desideratum to have one was to be privileged. “Jobbery” once was scorned as corrupt careerism second only to stockbrokers in vile repute, instead it has thoughtlessly become the ultimate good.  Prison has become a mass experience.  They have combined to destroy self-respect, creativity, wellness, clearness of thought, probity of mind, and actual usefulness.  They undermine integrity, and re-enslave mind, body, and soul.

The Gwangju People’s Uprising of May 1980 occupied a central city square renaming it Democracy Square.  Some commentators stress three aspects of that uprising, the struggle for truth, the transcendence of secular life, and the creation of a historical community.  George Katsiaficas compares it to the Paris Commune.  One might also compare it to The Commons Rebellion of 1381 in England both for those three aspects and for the occupation of central urban spaces, and for the miracle of mobilization, accomplished at least in the 13th and 14th centuries by “murmuring.”

Knowledge of previous struggles for justice is transmitted in many ways through the law and extra-legally.  Among the latter are commemorations, such as July Fourth commemorating the declaration of independence of the 13 American colonies in 1776 or Fourteenth of July commemorating the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.  The commemoration itself may become an occasion to renew the struggle of the past in the present of the events it commemorates, though this is dangerous.  Nostalgia or official piety is the safer course.  “All men are created equal” sounds good, as does liberté, égalité, et fraternité though the actual process of equalization, actual real equality, entails a perilous, though necessary, historical course of redistribution, confiscation, and leveling.

The spectre of the commons has haunted the long arch of British history. The leader of the Commons Rebellion of 1381 was Wat Tyler who forced the King to negotiate the return of expropriated commons.  He was massacred on 15 June 1381.  The fact that 15 June was the date when King John was forced by civil war to succumb to limitations on his power in Magna Carta in 1215 was not mentioned by the chroniclers of 1381.  The archive of human knowledge is controlled by the rulers.  This is not to argue that the class war of the Commons Rebellion of 1381 and the civil war leading to the armistice of Magna Carta in 1215 were either the same issues or led by the same social forces.   In the latter the barons and nobility were enjoined to restrain the King, while in the former this was left to the commons.  Yet both acted for the commonweal, or the common good as we might say.

The concept of the commonweal emerged after the Commons Rebellion of 1381 whose insurgents included craftsmen, proletarians, and vagabonds in addition to the peasants who were the most numerous and fundamental.  Ever since the semantic field of the “commons” includes this association with rebellion.  David Rollison shows that “weale” derives from the Anglo-Saxon term wele itself meaning wellness, welfare, or well-being.  Riches, or the accumulation of commodities, undermines well-being, as all the world’s religions once taught. At best, properties can be instruments for the attainment of wellness; at worst, they impeded it.

The English State in its 16th century depended on the centralized monarchy and established religion to oppose the commons.  Thomas Elyot, Renaissance humanist, clerked for the King’s Council and did business for Star Chamber.  He wrote The Book Named the Governor (1531) and dedicated it to King Henry VIII and it was published by the King’s printer.  It went through eight editions in the 16th century.  Its second paragraph is an argument against communism.

People have mistaken “republic” for a “commonweal.”  The English word, “republic” derives from two Latin words, res publica, which means things belonging to the populous, or the public, which is to be distinguished from the plebeia, or common people.  Plebs is Latin for English commonality and plebeii is commoners.  Res plebeia thus should be translated as the “commonweal.” Those who make this mistake, claims Elyot, do so “that every thing should be to all men in common.” “… if there should be a common weale, either the commoners only must be wealthy and the gentle and noble men needy and miserable, or else excluding gentility, all men must be of one degree and sort, and a new name provided.” He feared the Biblical text requiring Christians “to have all things in common.”

Why was the argument against commons conducted on philological or semantic grounds?  It had to do with the control of language, and thus the control of understanding, as Latin was giving way to the vernacular English during the period of the formation of a national market in commodities (traffic).  The clerical, or priestly, caste was losing its monopoly on political discourse.  It no longer was the exclusive voice of the nation.  Latin was the soft-ware code, as it were, of what they called “the republic of letters.”  Those letters, as Marx wrote, were “letters of blood and fire,” that is the expropriation of the commons.

They did not want the subject to be generalized from local practices, nor did they want the struggles against expropriation to be linked as they had been at the time of the Commons Rebellion of 1381, any more than do the powers-that-be want the struggle at Gwangju or Jeju Island generalized.  Whispering and “murmuring” were means of communication among the people who were wise enough to express themselves just short of the coherent articulation that rulers could understand, and yet all the more ominous for that.  The ruling class wished to exclude such voices and thus to control the human archive upon which the human story is based.

Thomas More, the same King’s loyal servant, was late in delivering the manuscript of Utopia (1516) to his printer and made excuses by blaming his wife, his children, and his servants. Written and published in Latin it was not translated into English until 1551.  The translator, Raphe Robinson, rendered More’s Latin excuse for not having the time for writing, “For when I am come home, I must common with my wife, chat with my children, and talk with my servants … .”  Common with his wife!  Communism was not a dream!  Utopia was not nowhere, it was right here at home!  So much is implied with this translation.  It occurred just after Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk, the largest effort in that century to preserve English commoning.  Three years later (1562) the English monarchy established the famous 39 Articles of the Church of England.  Preached from every pulpit, studied by every child, from that century on, the penultimate, 38th article, flatly stated, “The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common….” The control of the pulpit was as jealously guarded by the state as the internet is against Wikileaks.

In the following century another effort to secure the commons and gain access to the pulpit, led by Levellers and Diggers in the English Revolution, gave the ruling class a lasting fright.  Between 1551 and 1684 commoning had considerably diminished, with the defeat of many rebellions, riots, and revolution.  The patriarchy was unable to common. The domestic system of production was also diminished as the workshop or manufacture advanced as a separate establishment from the family.  The attack on women proceeded with multiple burnings and torture.  So, it should not surprise us that Gilbert Burnet, the complacent defender of the Whig Establishment after the restoration of monarchy should translate Utopia anew in which commoning between husband and wife has disappeared to be replaced by “discourse.”

In the U.S.A. neither aspect of Magna Carta has flourished, despite important attempts.  The Afro-American, T. Thomas Fortune wrote in 1880s in the depths of the Jim Crow segregation of the American south installing slavery under another name, “that land is common property, the property of the whole people.”  He too reached deep into the human past, “The fires of revolution are incorporated into the Magna Carta of our liberties, and no human power can avert the awful eruption which will eventually burst upon us as Mount Vesuvius burst forth upon Herculaneum and Pompeii.  It is too late for America to be wise in time.  ‘The die is cast.’”

Franklin Roosevelt sought to be wise in the crisis of capitalism during the 1930s, and to cast the dice again.  At his 3rd inauguration as President in January 1941 he reminded America that “the democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history … it blazed anew in the Middle Ages.  It was written in Magna Carta.”  In the context of the Four Freedoms, and the explanation of Freedom from Want was provided by the commoner and proletarian, Carlos Bulosan.  Bulosan had worked the succulent cornucopia of mother earth:  in the orange groves, flower fields, asparagus rows, winter peas, vineyards, Wyoming beets, plant cauliflower, picked hops, lemon farms – but working as a proletarian he suffered beatings, gambling, prostitution, drugs, homelessness.  As for the commons, this became a memory of family life in the Philippines.

We are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,

Who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth

With a gleaming florescence; we are the new thoughts

And the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;

We are the new hope new joy life everywhere

If you want to know what we are –


Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma dust-bowl balladeer, worked his whole life for that time “when there shall be no want among you, because you’ll own everything in common….  That’s what the Bible says.  Common means all of us.  This is old Commonism.”

Magna Carta continues to play a part in litigation.  For example, Michael O’Shea, a glass-cutter in Waterford, Ireland, went fishing in the River Blackwater. The 12th duke of Devonshire, owner of Lismore Castle, convicted him of trespassing and illegal fishing.  O’Shea defended himself citing Magna Carta which permitted common fishing on navigable, tidal rivers.  Another example occurred on December 2007 when with the encouragement of the Bristol Radical History Group the local Commoners Association of the Forest of Dean, in England, cited the Charter of the Forest to support their claim to graze sheep in the forest.  Three years later the Tory government introduced the Public Bodies Bill to the House of Lords which would have allowed the government to sell the British forests. A local newspaper, The Forester, sprang into action October 2010.  An organization was formed, Hands Off Our Forest. The local conservative Member of Parliament, Mark Harper, was mobbed at the Forest of Dean and had to be rescued by the police. He escaped the fury of the commoners with egg on his face. Hundreds of thousands protested, and prevented the sales.  The Tory government in a humiliating climb-down withdrew the legislation three months later.

In October 2009 Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics, the first woman to have received the award.  She showed that people can manage common resources like forests, fisheries, or pastures without allocation by market pricing or government direction.  She did this at a time when mathematical modeling dominated the methodology of economics.  Her methodology instead required talking directly to the producers such as the Indonesian fisherman or the Maine lobsterman.

The commons is both a social relationship and a material thing; it is neither a commodity nor exclusively a “resource”.  This double meaning was expressed clearly in the two definitions provided in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s English Dictionary of 1755.  A commons might refer to “an open ground equally used by many persons,” or to “one of the common people, a man of low rank, of mean condition.” The commons belongs in an actual landscape, then the two meanings become clear.

In April 2010 the World People’s Conference on Climate Change published the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.  It was issued from Cochabamba, Bolivia, a significant location for two reasons because first, led by the indigenous people, the international effort to privatize its water, was roundly defeated, and second these were the Aymara and Quechua people whose labors at the silver mountain at Potosí produced the silver of the monetary system at the birth of capitalism, basically turning the mountain of silver into a monumental genocidal coffin.  What was ripped out of the earth became fetishized tokens organizing the global division of labor and the exploitation and oppression of peoples.  People with such a history know what it means to declare “we are all part of Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny.” The Cochabamba declaration includes for all beings rights of life, respect, water, air, health, and in a remarkable unintended hearkening to the past, “every being has the right to wellbeing….” “The pursuit of human wellbeing contributes to the well being of Mother Earth, now and in the future.”  The common wele again.

Christopher Caudwell, the English intellectual who died fighting fascists in Spain, and Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish communist from the same era, both liked to quote, “Communism becomes an empty phrase, a mere façade, and the Communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the whole inheritance of human knowledge.”  Wow!  Unless we continually make this part of our life’s practice, this working over in our consciousness of the whole inheritance of human knowledge, we easily become dupes of the façade of the public relations industry which hides its cynical malevolence, or we are duped by the emptiness of corporate media with its charming spectacles, or we are conned by the basic bluffing of privatized commercial schooling which passes technique as wisdom.  If we are to re-work the whole inheritance of human knowledge, and give the world a rest and ourselves a break, we must do so east and west, north and south, commoning.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached


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Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: