The New Economy will come in from the margins
Although the Magna Carta has international renown as one of the earliest legal instruments limiting the absolute power of a monarch, what is less well known is the sister Charter of the Forest sealed on November 6th 1217 at St Paul's Cathedral.
2017 is the 800th anniversary of this Charter and the New Putney Debates organised an inspiring celebration of this key event last week on 17 September 2017, to build awareness of how radical this legal instrument was for the UK constitution as we come closer to its 800th anniversary. I was there to speak about my work on "Community Charters" and my role as legal assistant at the International Rights of Nature Tribunal held in Paris during the Cop21 talks in 2016.
We were a captive audience - literally as we were on a barge! The good ship Fordham Gallery was moored at Windsor and from there, we set off to Runnymede where King
John finally gave way to his Barons in 1215 and gave certain rights and privileges to them through what was first called The Charter of Liberties (the name "Magna Carta"arose only in 1217 when it was amended and sealed as a new legal instrument and called the "Magna Carta" (the greater Charter) to differentiate it from its sister "smaller" Charter, the Charter of the Forest).
It was the first time I had been to Windsor and as I looked at this castle, the ancient seat and symbol of Royal Power, I noticed a statue and, curious to see what it commemorated taking into account all the controversy in the States regarding statues commemorating Confederates and slave owners and what "history" was being told through them, I had a quick look to see what this statue was commemorating. The plaque said it was of an army Captain Christian Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria, "Queen of Great Britain and
Ireland, Empress of India". The posture of the figure said more to me than the words, an ancestral political lineage that perhaps continues in part of today's Brexit politics.
Often neglected, the Charter of the Forests was a parallel legal instrument which was in many ways far more radical than the Magna Carta, so said Keynote speaker Guy Standing, Professorial Research Associate of SOAS who often speaks about the "Precariat" as the contemporary figure of what was in prior times the peasant or commoner. Unlike the Magna Carta which was a re-distribution of power amongst the "already land-possessed" (ownership of land being the sign of power), Guy Standing emphasised that the Charter of the Forest was giving rights to the property-less and, in doing so, was fundamentally re-shaping the legal system. What it brings to my mind is a historical moment in time in which the margins spilled out into the centre.
Although the actual rights granted in the Charter of the Forest often seem antiquarian and irrelevant to modern life (e.g. grazing cows, foraging, coppicing in the King's Royal Forests), Guy Standing pointed out that such rights can actually be reframed as a precursor to Marxist thinking - i.e. the Charter of the Forests granted a right for ordinary people to work and a right for them to claim the production of that work for subsistence.
As I began to think about what Guy Standing was saying and its relevance to my own work to help create a legal framework for a New Economy (through the Community Chartering Network and now through NEL), I felt it was crucial to note that there have been historical times when rights were granted to those who until then had no power, no voice: the marginalised from the corridors of power. A power which often see nothing other than itself reflected back when it gazes out into the world.
In other words, it granted a kind of "Public Subjectivity" to the ordinary person, to not only be able to whisper to him or herself privately in the quiet of the night: "I exist and I too have presence in this world". It gave him or her the right to publicly say it aloud, to say it in public spaces and "beat the bounds" as a ritual and ceremony to ingrain their presence in the world, to hear reflected back in others and in those corridors of powers, "you exist and you too have presence in this world".
We often hear the term "Bottom-Up" as opposed to "Top Down" hierarchies. Perhaps we need to begin to add another term into the lexicon of activism, the "Margins-In", to represent that movement of the voices from the edges bringing back vigour and strength to what has weakened and hollowed itself out over time?
How can we, the marginalised of contemporary society, find a way to assert an ordinary right - "We have a right to be present in our ordinary lives"? And, together with that right, to claim our rightful responsibilities such presence calls forth? This is what we began to explore as we sat at the sculptural artwork of the The Jurors at Runnymede, 12 chairs inviting people to reflect on the historic events and questions which we so urgently need to re-explore for our own contemporary times.
Like other marginalised communities of previous ages who claimed emancipation - women, the colonised, the enslaved, the 99% of the Occupy movement - the marginalised of the world's population are not homogenous. We have differences of culture, skin colour, language and race. But we have this in common - we have been marginalised from our own lives by an extraction of value (financial, cultural, social, ecological) through the creation of a world-wide economic system that served to aggregate wealth in the hands of those who were able to claim the wealth of the plunder of previous ages.
Last week a group of ordinary people continued a journey started during the Occupy LSX movement, to recover the memory of the Charter of the Forests, that radical
document that first gave power to the power-less, the land-less. Part of that memory is somehow in the land of that place, soaked into its soil. We went to the ancient yew tree at Anckerwyke, said to be approximately 1500 years old and so witness to the historic event happening at Runnymede on the other side of the Thames. What memories does it hold in its ancient sinews of wood that we can tap into as we sit and contemplate our contemporary challenges with it?
As I, a second generation Bengali, also try to recover my ancestral memory of colonisation to inform my position on contemporary affairs, then let each of us recover our "Indigenous Memories" from whatever ancestral line we belong to - each place, each city, each region in our mixed intra-cultural communities holds so many indigenous memories lost in an economic narrative that speaks only of "homo economicus" and allows us only to see ourselves reflected in that mirror.