The Plunder of the Commons is the latest in series of works by Guy Standing, touching on the abuses suffered by working people in the globalised economy and the importance of establishing a Universal Basic Income. It is also the conclusion of several years’ worth of lectures and articles that Standing has presented on the topic of The Charter of the Forest, Magna Carta’s socially aware sibling.
The presence of the Charter is felt most in the early chapters where we are treated to an examination of its historical context and revolutionary character for the common folk against the interests of the crown and the aristocracy. Once the Charter’s breadth and significance have been established, the book departs on a whistle stop tour of its gradual and not-so-gradual erosion by moneyed interests at the expense of the common people, culminating in the 1971 abolition and replacement of the (by now deeply dilute) Charter with the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act.
While the history of the Charter of the Forest is fascinating and certainly worthy of its own book, its examination is not where the meat of Standing’s work lies. Instead the Charter acts as framing device for Standing’s own ‘Commons Charter’, a collection of 44 articles aimed at curbing the worst excesses of Neo-liberalism, producing a fairer distribution of national wealth, and saving what remains of the common good from the maws of austerity and complacency. True to the Runnymede spirit of his inspiration, Standing has structured the book as a series of grievances and suggestions for redress akin to a medieval petition. It is in these grievances, this catalogue of abuses, degradations, and exploitations suffered by the commons both physical and intellectual, that the heart of The Plunder of the Commons is found.
Standing’s deconstruction of the Neo-liberal consensus and its effects on the government of Britain treads the line between academia and oratory in well managed fashion. It is full of well-constructed examples, such as the company hired on a 25 year tree-maintenance contract by Sheffield Council that cut down most of the trees it was supposed to tend to reduce costs, that serve both to illustrate underlying points and stay with the reader well after the book has been set aside. Standing’s balance does however occasionally wobble. The accusation that the government had abandoned legal responsibility for most of the NHS, found in the chapter on health, while technically correct it ignores the broader complexities of the issue in favour of shock value. This is not to suggest that The Plunder of the Commons is a piece of political theatre or even that such issues are commonplace in the book. It is simply a product of the broader audience Standing seems to have targeted.
The Commons Charter itself takes something of a back seat throughout the book, with its articles placed at the end of chapters and the Charter itself only found in full on the last few pages. The articles themselves are far from immediately practicable and Standing makes no secret of this. Instead they offer a new way of thinking about society, the first kernels of an idea that if fully developed could be proven revolutionary. But that is not the role of The Plunder of the Commons, it is not a manifesto but a call to action. One of Standing’s strongest themes is the need for communal action to preserve the commons whether that be beating the bounds of a field or green, legally or physically challenging acts of enclosure, or holding politicians to account through political process. The Plunder of the Commons is a wake-up call to a British public that has been asleep behind the wheel for the last forty years. As the Charter of the Forest has made abundantly clear, common rights are hard won but easily lost and we can little afford to lose the few we have left.