December 18, 2017 Alex Blumentals

Our Magna Carta

Wealthmaking is the process of discovery of what could Your group and community become and what could emerge from a collaborative approach. Commoning is the process of enriching the whole matrix from where we draw private and public benefit.

Between job losses to globalization, to software and to automation, and the constant development of forms to extract private value disregarding the commons, is easily leading the degradation of ecosystems, the loss of natural services, but also to low productivity and depression in society. In this brilliant piece by David Bollier,  Who May Use the King’s Forest? The Meaning of Magna Carta, Commons and Law in Our Time, which is a must read for all crafting the future, we read:

Reinventing Law for the Commons

In the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta this is a companion piece for the Future City (reconstruction of Alexandria).  This anniversary is essentially about the signing of peace treaty on the fields of Runnymede, England, in 1215. The treaty settled a bloody civil war between the much-despised King John and his rebellious barons eight centuries ago. What was intended as an armistice was soon regarded as a larger canonical statement about the proper structure of governance.

Amidst a lot of archaic language about medieval ways of life, Magna Carta is now seen as a landmark statement about the limited powers of the sovereign, and the rights and liberties of ordinary people. But here’s the challenge that I think Magna Carta leaves us with: How to re-integrate legality with legitimacy? How do we get the sovereigns of our time, the market/state, to recognize the rights of commoners?

We think the answer has to do with re-integrating the idea of written law with the vernacular law of living, communities of commoners. If we wish to take Magna Carta seriously, we need to reinvent its legal structures by which we seek to fulfill Magna Carta in the modern age. We need to reinvent a new Law for the Commons. We must draw upon the traditions of Magna Carta and state law, but deliberately carve out spaces for people to craft their own rules, rules that seem fair and appropriate to them – and yet also subject to larger principles of the polity.

I submit that we need to reinvent a new Law for the Commons. We must draw upon the traditions of Magna Carta and state law, but deliberately carve out spaces for people to craft their own rules, rules that seem fair and appropriate to them – and yet also subject to larger principles of the polity.

In other words, people must be allowed to engage in commoning. They must be able to play significant roles in managing “their forests” themselves, and in so doing, become devoted stewards of those forests. They must be able to draw upon their own insights and imagination, and on customary social practice. They must be able to develop a sense of shared community and develop their own rituals and traditions in managing things.

Law must begin to honor people’s “affective labor,” as geographer Neera Singh puts it – the subjective feelings and emotions and pride and pleasure that comes with managing one’s own commons. This will of course require that we move away from the worldview of standard economics, that human beings are simply rational materialists who are always calculating to maximize their utilitarian self-interests.

The beauty of commoning is that it is a type of law that goes beyond formal legalisms. Rather, it emerges from the commoners themselves as they grapple with their evolving local circumstances. Commons-based law is an immanent practical reality, not a fixed and eternal transcendental ideal. As Linebaugh writes:

Commoners think first not of title deeds, but of human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. You might call it a natural attitude.…Commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor.

This is a very different ontological understanding of law itself. Law for the Commons doesn’t start with glittering abstractions and written documents. It starts with gritty, particular realities as they are experienced by commoners, and it emerges from those experiences as commoners devise systems of self-governance. In making the jump to formal, written law, Magna Carta may have enshrined certain principles into the memory of civilization, and that is no small achievement. But this leap forward came at a cost: the gradual loss of the memory and practice of commoning.”


Commoning is an ancient social form that is constantly renewing itself, and is increasingly rich and robust. It is exploding around the world. In fact, commoning and laws to enable it have a bright future. Commons can meet people’s needs in fair, open and effective ways, and provide a dignity, respect and equality that the market/state order has trouble achieving. By cultivating more direct engagement with people, and demanding that they step up to responsibilities, commons also have great promise in improving ecological, social and sustainable economic stewardship.

THE BEGINNING EVENT IS NOVEMBER 27-29, 2017

Stay tuned!


This is part four of S2S Reactor’s six part series — Toward Building the City of 2050 that we all want to Live in that will be available on Medium within the next two weeks. If you’d like to get them early, sent to your inbox, sign up for Beginnings.

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