Aug 27, 2008

Book Review: The Magna Carta Manifesto

Linebaugh, Peter

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008

It would be a simple matter - though disingenuous - to dismiss Peter Linebaugh's latest book as a text that creates "Marxist infusions where they are not necessary," in the words of one drive-by critic. After all, the United States won the Cold War, so any political commentary left of, say, Milton Friedman must be the delusional work of a true-believing Communist relic, right?

Or perhaps in the manner of another commenter at the same lnk, we might huff and bluster and rhetorically ask how Linebaugh "would react if I 'commoned' his car or his house or his library."

Yet The Magna Carta Manifesto cannot be flippantly ignored as one might be inclined toward doctrinaire Soviet-era agitprop or the sort of one-dimensional Sixties sloganeering that makes aging hippies get misty-eyed. Linebaugh asks troubling contemporary questions about the concept of the commons, using the history of the usurpation of traditional rights enshrined in documents like the Magna Carta and the lesser known (but supplementary) Charter of the Forest to demonstrate how privatization and globalization have eroded constitutional protections once taken for granted.

Linebaugh's interest in re-examining the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest was heightened in 2003 with what he described as the "assault on Mesopotamia." In the wake of the bloody débâcle that is the Iraq War, Linebaugh reminds us of other disturbing sorties on other freedoms protected by the Magna carta, such as habeus corpus, trial by jury, and due process. Still, ignorance of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, notes Linebaugh, is not the sole province of American war hawks:
President Bush is not the only one who has forgotten his history lessons. We British historians have not done our job. Both neoconservative historians as well as feminists, critical legal theorists, social and economic historians have been derelict, ignoring Magna Carta and thus laying the groundwork of forgetting. As for the commoning provisions in the Charters of Liberties, they have been ignored as out-of-date feudal relics. The argument of this book says their time has come.
While one might debate the specifics of what exactly should constitute the commons, Linebaugh reminds us that devotees of what I like to call The Cult of the Invisible Hand would like to see every last vestige of the commons erased and commoditized, even such formerly sacrosanct items as water access, human knowledge, and public greenspaces. It is because these are powerful tools against tyranny and oppression that we should reclaim and defend these "Charters of Liberties," argues Linebaugh, instead of burying them as archaic footnotes in constitutional law. Read this book and open your mind to the new possibilities inherent in a digitally-connected world in which efforts to destroy human rights and the commons can no longer occur under the cover of information blackouts, corporate propaganda, and police-state thuggery.


microdot said...

I am checking this out right now!
Thanks, Mike!

historymike said...

Yes, I think you'll find it provocative reading, Microdot. While some critics have pointed to Linebaugh's Marxist analysis in a sort of ad hominem attack, the book is too important for readers to get sidetracked by his methodology.

microdot said... has used copies from a UK dealer..I will have it 2 weeks.