Guy Standing, Plunder of the Commons, Pelican, 2019, 0141990620, xviii + 402 pp, pbk, £9.99.
After years of marginalisation, the question of wealth is finally creeping onto the political agenda. Wealth, and how it’s distributed, matters. Generations of thinkers have argued for the significant common ownership of a nation’s assets. While their advice has rarely been taken, contemporary writers are now resuscitating the call for the greater sharing of the returns from wealth. Guy Standing’s revealing and important new book, Plunder of the Commons, is the latest of these calls.
The book traces the idea of the ‘commons` back to the 1217 ‘Charter of the Forest’, the companion to the better known ‘Magna Carta’. The ‘Charter` laid out a series of rights of commoners, from the right ‘to the means of subsistence’ to access to the land they depended on.
Standing extends the concept of ‘the commons` from land and other natural resources to social, cultural and intellectual infrastructure created over time. While there is room for debate on what a list of a modern commons should contain, most of this ‘created` wealth – from transport systems and hospitals to educational assets – has been inherited from the efforts of our ancestors. ‘Morally`, Standing argues, ‘we should all have a fair share of that collective wealth’.
Despite the 1217 Charter’s aim to prevent land expropriation, the long history of the commons is of how rights of access – via centuries of land ‘enclosure` to the more recent privatisation of public goods and spaces – have been lost through confiscation, encroachment and commercialisation.
Today, Britain’s national wealth mountain – which has grown from three times the size of the economy in the 1960s to over six times today – is overwhelmingly privately owned. The publicly owned share has been cut from around a third in the immediate post-war decades, to a little over a tenth today.
Private wealth is also very narrowly owned. Nearly half the country’s land mass, for example, is owned by 0.06 per cent of the population. The increasing dominance of private ownership has concentrated power, delivered the returns from natural and created assets to the few and depleted the value of non-renewable resources to future generations. Most citizens are being left out of the wealth party, a central driver of near record levels of inequality.
The big question remains: how to reclaim the commons so that they are managed for the benefit of all citizens and generations? Standing proposes a new ‘Charter of the Commons` that would modernise the radical goals of 1217 and build new forms of collective ownership.
Central to the new charter would be the construction of a ‘commons’ fund`. This would ensure that the gains from the use of natural resources and our common heritage would be more equally shared. It would be financed mainly by levies on the commercial use of physical, financial and intellectual property. The fund would be commonly owned with its gains returned to all citizens on an equal basis. This is far from utopian. Existing models of how a fund might work include the oil-financed Alaskan Permanent Fund, which pays an annual dividend to all citizens, and the Shetland Charitable Trust, also funded by oil, and used to finance a pro-equality range of social projects.
The Plunder of the Commons is a compelling contribution to the emerging debate about how to ensure escalating, but largely untapped, wealth pools are managed for the whole of society, both current and future generations. It adds to the existing debate on whether the best way to fund a guaranteed basic income would be through the dividends from a collectively owned capital fund. How to harness ‘the commons` for the public good must, despite the inevitable opposition from those with a vested interest in the status quo, surely be one of the big issues of the decade.
Stewart Lansley is the co-author (with Howard Reed) of A Basic Income for All, From Desirability to Feasibility, Compass, 2019 and author of A Sharing Economy: How Social Wealth Funds Can Reduce Inequality, Policy Press, 2016.