Economic Growth

The plunder of the commons

The world's first environmental charter aimed to protect the forests

Guy Standing
Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London
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Eight hundred years ago, on November 6, 1217, a ten-year-old king, Henry III, watched as his Regent set his seal (he was too young to have one of his own) to a document that was to become a foundation of the British and later the US constitutions, as well as those of other countries. Alongside what became that day the Magna Carta, it was called the Charter of the Forest.

Often called the world’s first environmental charter, seeking to balance the need to preserve natural resources with human needs, it was remarkable for reversing 150 years of enclosure of land, returning it to the commons. It was also the first time that the state recognised that all free men had a right to subsistence and the right to make a home in the commons. It also marked a first modest advance for feminism, granting widows the right to refuse to be remarried and a right to subsistence – the right to ‘reasonable estovars’ (necessities) in the commons.

The Charter had another distinction, of staying on the statute books for longer than any other piece of legislation, 754 years. Yet while all schoolchildren are taught about the Magna Carta, few hear of the Charter.

It is not hard to explain why.

Systematic abuse

The Charter’s fundamental principles, that the commons should be preserved along with commoners’ rights, have been abused systematically in the evolution of capitalism, to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful.

Yet a vibrant commons is required for a healthy market economy. It is a source of subsistence, a source of social income, providing resources for direct use by ordinary people at no or little cost, or offering something far below what it would cost if obtained through the market. A rich and diverse commons lowers the cost of living for those who use it. And throughout history it has been those on low incomes who gain most from the commons.

Think of a village green, park, or a community garden or allotment (Schrebergarten in Germany). All are valuable for those who cannot afford properties with gardens. Think of a public library, worth more for those who cannot afford numerous books. Think of a public waterway, or fishing ground. All types of commons have imputed monetary value that together comprise a source of social income. As such, the commons reduces economic inequality and insecurity in society. So, shrinking the commons increases inequality.

The situation is made worse by what is known as the Lauderdale Paradox, first enunciated by the 7th Earl of Lauderdale in 1804. He observed that rising private riches was associated with declining public wealth, including a shrinking commons. In modern terms, as the riches of a minority elite grow, their ability to deprive the majority of the commons is strengthened.

Contrived scarcity

This arises from ‘contrived scarcity’. Using political power, the elite can induce local authorities to facilitate enclosure and privatisation of land, water and other hitherto public amenities. And they can pressurise public administrations to cut taxes, reducing financial resources for maintaining the remaining commons. Both these trends have been rife, and both make conventional measures of growing income inequality an understatement of the real growth.

Historically, the main means by which the commons has been depleted is via enclosure, converting it into private property for commercial use. A modern phenomenon has been commercialisation of a commons, partially or wholly, for instance, by charging fees for using a park or turning it into an area for commercial ‘events’. A third means has been shrinkage by deliberate neglect, often a prelude to privatisation, and so eroding appreciation and use of a commons until there is weakened interest in preserving it. Neglect has been widespread in the austerity era; public spending cuts have left the commons exposed to hasty privatisation, to raise funds needed to fill fiscal holes left by tax cuts for the wealthy.

Privately owned public spaces

Another peculiarly modern way of depleting the commons is the creation of what are known as POPS – Privately Owned Public Spaces. The citizenry is usually unaware that many of what appear to be public open spaces in our towns and cities are in fact owned and controlled by private property developers or corporations.

Who would know, for instance, that Paternoster Square in central London, home to the London Stock Exchange and a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral, is owned by a Japanese motor corporation, Mitsubishi? POPS have been spreading across the world, imposing private restrictions on public access. Areas of repose and leisure become only available on sufferance.

A related practice might be called CORPS – Commercially-Operated Rural Public Spaces. This is where no change in ownership takes place, but where governance changes allow a commercial interest to predominate over other customary uses.

Lost biodiversity

For instance, the Lake District in northern England has been one of the great commons, preserving biodiversity and multiple uses over the centuries. But in recent years, it has been steadily converted into a vast area for commercial sheep farming; large-scale sheep farmers have managed to obtain almost exclusive use of land, which in turn has lost its biodiversity.

The predominant attitude to the commons in the globalisation era was ideologically shaped by an infamous article by Garrett Hardin in 1968, entitled ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It asserted that a commons would always be over-exploited to the point of ruin. Neo-liberal economists eagerly concluded that this showed that private property rights were superior, and that privatisation should be maximised.

This corresponded to a tenet of the Austrian school of economics that underpinned the model associated with Friedrich Hayek (Thatcher and Reagan’s favoured economist and a Nobel Prize winner in 1976), by which something that had no price could not have any value.

What distinguishes a commons is that it is not private property, does not have a price, and is oriented towards ‘use value’ rather than ‘exchange value’. It does not exist to generate profits. Since the essence of a commons is that it is not for sale, it obviously has no ‘price’. For neo-liberals it could be given away or sold off at knockdown prices.


Towards the end of his life, Hardin confessed he should have called his article, ‘The tragedy of the unmanaged commons’. That was no excuse, since he and his supporters should have acknowledged from the outset that the commons had often been managed diligently and successfully throughout history. Indeed, the principle for which Elinor Ostrom was to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 was actually embedded in the Charter of the Forest. The commons requires stewardship and organised limitations on access, use and alienation of what is produced in the commons.

The real tragedy of the commons is that elites act to deplete it through encroachment, enclosure, neglect and commercialisation. This has turned into a plunder of the commons.

Think of President Donald Trump’s lifting protection from 2 million acres of federal national park land. Think of privatisation of water, a natural public good. Think of losing public beaches, or quiet parks, or libraries, or ancient trees adorning public roads.

Primary losers

The primary losers in the plunder of the commons are future generations. Sadly, perhaps enough of today’s voters could be compensated sufficiently to blunt their opposition. But the tragedy is accentuated by today’s grotesque inequality. This has tilted political power decisively in favour of elites who gain most from privatisation and enclosure of the commons, and who least need it. Those who lose most and need it most – the precariat who depend on a commons to give them a tolerable standard of living – are least able to contest their loss.

We need a global information and education campaign on the many use values of the commons, plus a new calculus that gives a proper, full economic value to all parts of the commons, one that respects what is known as the Hartwick rule of inter-generational equity. These changes are vital. They will not come about without concerted public pressure, for which resources and courageous backing are needed. If the plunder is allowed to continue, Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip that ‘there is no such thing as society’ could come dangerously close to reality. There is no time to lose.

This article draws in part from a recent book, The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers thrive and work does not pay (London, Biteback, 2017)

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