The Persistent Idea of the Commons

Book Review of Peter Linebaugh's Magna Carta Manifesto

by Adam
Published: Updated:

By Andy Lee Roth, Associate Director, Project Censored

Peter Linebaugh’s Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2008) demonstrates the power of long memory.  His aim in providing a historically-grounded interpretation of Magna Carta is to “put the commons back on the agenda” (p. 20).   Contemporary debate on economics and politics tends to treat the commons as an anachronism:  “[M]ost people are unfamiliar with Magna Carta,” in part because, in contemporary context, it “shows up as a whitewash…extolling individualism, private property, laissez-faire and English civilization” (216).   It was not always so.

Linebaugh reminds us that Magna Carta was one of two documents constituting the Great Charters of Liberties of England.  All but unknown today, the Charter of the Forest established commoning.   Whereas Magna Carta provides the basis for due process, trial by jury, and prohibition of torture, for example; the Forest Charter established the commons and defined limits on privatization.  The commons is “the theory that vests all property in the community and organizes labor for the common benefit of all” (p. 6).  Together, then, the Great Charters “stipulated restraints upon the royal realm” and “provided subsistence in the common realm” (242).  The two charters cooperate in that  “political and legal rights can only exist on an economic foundation” (6).  Those familiar with Linebaugh’s prior books will appreciate here how he carries forward the tradition of his teacher, historian E. P. Thompson.

But The Magna Carta Manifesto is no ivory tower exercise.  Linebaugh stresses the liberatory significance of Magna Carta throughout its history.   Thus, he devotes a chapter to the essential role of Magna Carta in the black freedom struggle; across a number of chapters, he shows how enclosure of the commons has contributed to what we understand, today, as the feminization of poverty; and, after 9/11, Linebaugh shows how the U.S. “war on terror” makes even more relevant the Great Charter’s restraints on state power, including of course Habeas corpus.

Fascinating details and original insights enliven The Magna Carta Manifesto.   For example, in a chapter titled “Icon and Idol,” Linebaugh interprets public art depicting Magna Carta, including the architecture of the U.S. Supreme Court and a rotunda at Runnymede (where King John signed the Charter).  An Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Piccirilli, and his sons created the marble frieze of King John in the Supreme Court.  Their Bronx studio was a center of immigrant culture, a gathering place of artists, patrons, educators, and anarchists.  The rotunda at Runnymede, established in 1957 by the American Bar Association, includes the inscription “To commemorate Magna Carta symbol of freedom under law.”  As Linebaugh reveals, this is one of the distortions of Magna Carta, whose original intent was to restrain the King under law (pp. 212-3).

One of Linebaugh’s keenest observations occurs in passing, when he notes that, under constitutional systems, the jury is “the only place where popular sovereignty exists without the intermediation of representatives” (p. 260).  His critical assessment of Tom Paine, and his tract “Common Sense,” will be fresh and bracing for many readers who think of the Declaration of Independence as our nation’s Magna Carta.  (Tom Paine “wrested common sense from the commoners,” Linebaugh argues, and the Declaration justifies powers of the state, whereas Magna Carta curtailed the powers of the sovereign.)

As Linebaugh acknowledges, “The commons is a touchy subject in America” (p. 219), challenging as it does the “dominant institutions” of private property, commerce, and capitalism.  But, in identifying the principles of anti-enclosure, reparations, subsistence, neighborhood, and travel (e.g., p. 245) and reminding us of their rich history, Linebaugh “charts a path” that gives “hope for a better future” (in the apt words of Michael Ratner, past-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights).