Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Peter Linebaugh's Magna Carta Manifesto

I find it difficult to read a book by Peter Linebaugh without it conjuring the memories of doing my Master's Degree at the University of Toledo. Not that I did my MA in Toledo's history department; I did it in philosophy. But in the two years I lived in Toledo I got to know many of his graduate students; a few of us held a weekly reading group focused on the Grundrisse and Capital, and eventually through this group, as we became good friends, I met Peter, who, I recall, teased me mercilessly about working (at the time) on Heidegger and Jean-Luc Nancy. Attribute it to being a philosophy grad at a history party (in this case a barbecue at his place). Not that it was all fun and games; I also recall a fairly intensive discussion with him on the merits of Foucault for historical study.

No matter the personal details, working through Marx with his students and reading the work of Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (the co-authored Many-Headed Hydra, and Rediker's Villains of All Nations and The Slave Ship) re-introduced me to 'history from below.' Years before I had already read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but it was through the more recent work of Linebaugh (who was a student of E.P. Thompson), Rediker and company that I could see how well the approach was flourishing. Even if it is hard to reconcile this approach of the history from below with the 'history of ideas' approach to philosophy, I still find both useful for animating the questions I ask of my own work and the work of the students whom I teach.

Linebaugh's latest book is The Magna Carta Manifesto, which follows the use and abuse of the Magna Carta, and the practical erasure of its companion-charter, the Charter of the Forests, from their declaration in 13th century England to our contemporary times. The two charters address what may be artificially divided into formal rights and economic justice. I say 'artificially' because Linebaugh's entire argument-- and a forceful and correct one at that-- is that what we now call formal rights cannot be guaranteed without the accompanying rights of economic justice, the latter of which require transforming the relationships between people and the means of production.

Linebaugh follows the history of Magna Carta as it is by turns interpreted as a testimony to the 'superiority' of Anglo-Saxon heritage by the ruling class, and as it returns in social struggle as the "emergency brake on accelerating state despotism." He shows that the power of the Magna Carta is at its strongest when it is utilized to curb despotism, and that this power is not derived from an exegetical fetishism of hallowed documents, but through the struggle of the oppressed.

This struggle, in the Magna Carta Manifesto, has a specific name: commoning, taken in a verbal sense-- a practice or activity-- and not in a substantive sense. The emphasis on commoning is underlined by Linebaugh's attention to that other charter, the Charter of the Forests. That this document has been forgotten over time is no overstatement. It is to Linebaugh's great credit that he revives the material aspect of these charters by showing that when the king's power was curtailed that this included documenting the rights of the peasants to commoning. That is, people had right to the forest to provide for their livelihood, not as individuals, but as a community. The book focuses less on the actual charter (which fell out of legal and intellectual debates after the 17th century) in order to underline the fact that the expansion of imperialism relied (and still relies) on destroying, in each successive conquest, the commoning of those colonialized.

The importance of showing the predominance of commoning before capitalist imperialism is to show that a world outside of the commodity form is neither 'primative,' nor lost somewhere in the 'state of nature,' nor utopian. Up until recently, it was still a well-recognized practice. The memory of commoning, which Linebaugh also excavates, can be traced in various locations until sometime in the late 19th century (when in terms of land), and in terms of 'ideas', I would say is alive and well today in recent uses of the internet to establish intellectual commons (including calls for net neutrality, shareware, and the reduction of the duration of intellectual property rights and patents). For Linebaugh it is time to put the end to two "intellectual tics" that have hampered discussions of the commons:
One goes back to the 1790s and arose against the romantic movement; the other developed against the communist movement of the twentieth century. The first scorned utopia and the second denounced totalitarianism; one became the condescending term for all that is foolish, the other the pompous designation for all that is hideous. Yet under the circumstances of actually existing commons, they were irrelevant (273).
While Linebaugh emphasizes the character of commoning as 'local' and the fact that it "expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature" (279), I would also stress the intellectual character of these relationships. This aspect is already prepared in The Magna Carta Manifesto when he discusses the British expropriation of local knowledge of flora of fauna in the colonization of India, or when he notes the false conception that corn, tomatoes or the forest were the 'bounty of nature' when they were products of Native American culture (244). This theft is not of yesteryear, it continues to this day as multinational corporations patent customary knowledge stolen from the Global South. The fight against intellectual theft is just as important to anti-capitalist struggle as the redistribution of land and practices oriented toward sustainable ecology. At a time when both sustainability and self-determination remain precarious, the Magna Carta Manifesto is a sharp reminder that guarantees of civil rights are only as strong as guarantees of economic justice.

No comments: