Book Review from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
Plunder of the Commons: a Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth by Guy Standing (Pelican £9.99.)
In a Supreme Court ruling towards the end of last year, an open space in Lancaster lost its status as a village green, on the grounds that the fields might be needed for the expansion of the local school (Guardian online 14 December). One campaigner said, ‘this judgment totally redefines the way we understand land held in the public domain’. This is just one example of the kind of development discussed in Guy Standing’s book, which in some ways complements Brett Christophers’ The New Enclosure, reviewed in the January Socialist Standard. Rather than just looking at the selling-off of state-owned land, it examines many examples of the privatisation or commercialisation of ‘the commons’, described as ‘all our shared natural resources … and all the social, civic and cultural institutions that our ancestors have bequeathed to us’.
As this suggests, different types of commons are identified. The natural commons consists of land, minerals, forests, rivers, sea, air, sky, while the social commons comprises public housing, healthcare, roads, public parks and so on. The civil commons is not so clearly defined, but includes the rule of law, justice and personal freedom. The cultural commons includes libraries, museums, mass media and sport, and the knowledge commons covers information, ideas and learning. In all these areas, there have been many examples of enclosure, such as cuts to the funding of national parks, the privatisation of water supplies and much of the NHS, the selling of allotment sites, the closing of libraries, and the domination of Google in providing information. Much of this material has been written about elsewhere, of course, but it is useful to have it summarised in a single volume.
Standing’s solution to all this is to propose a Charter of the Commons, which, for instance, contains statements such as ‘Farm subsidies based on the amount of land owned should be abolished’ and ‘Local markets selling fresh and local produce should be encouraged and protected’. A Commons Fund would be financed by a levy on all use of the commons, by a tax on wealth, land value taxation and a carbon levy. It should pay Common Dividends to everyone, thus constituting a basic income. But these ideas might equally well be summarised as ‘Capitalism should be run as a nice friendly system’.
One article in the proposed Charter is: ‘Privatized water companies must be restored to common ownership’. This reveals one of the problems with the whole concept of the commons employed here. Ownership and control by the state (whether of water or the railways or whatever) is emphatically not common ownership, as people still need to pay to have access to them. Standing writes: ‘our public wealth has been plundered by encroachment, enclosure, commercialization, privatization and colonization of Britain’s commons’: but it was not public wealth in the sense of being owned by the people. Common ownership implies an end not just to privatisation but to wage labour, production for profit and the class division of capitalism.