Content Block


"The Magna Carta is a declaration of economic rights"


A transcript of Paul Mason's keynote speech at the Alternative Magna Carta festival, from 13 June 2015

So Magna Carta is one of the founding documents of British liberty, and a precursor to the concept of human rights?

I don’t think that’s mainly what it is. It’s what the English revolutionaries of the 17th century wanted to make it.

But you actually read it, it’s a declaration of economic rights.

It curtails the right of the king to levy arbitrary taxes; it removes royal fish farms from strategic rivers; it constrains the claims of Jewish moneylenders to the property of their defaulted clients.

Where it speaks of the courts, limiting the King’s power to arrive with a mobile and friendly judge, again the motivation is economic — because John had taken to using the recently strenghthened judicial system as a way of extracting super-profits from his noblemen.

The three overtly poltical rights are also economic, for the simple reason that feudalism was a power economy, built on obligations instead of rights.

The right to habeas corpus is the right to the rule of law; the duty on the King to obey the law is part of an attempt by the barons to restore order to a feudal system John had disrupted. The right of London and the major cities to their ancient customs and freedoms is again economic — though as we will see it is the precursor of something new.

It is signed. And then it’s systematically flouted. And then John gets the Pope to cancel it.

But it is what it is: a statement of economic rights that, to be upheld, demand certain political freedoms.

Now — a statement of economic rights, to modern ears, sounds strange. In a capitalist, market economy we dont have specific economic rights — only the rights to property and to trade that property fairly under the law.

So we need, first, to understand Magna Carta as a product of feudalism; as the product of a specific economic system and a conflict within it. As a document trying to impose rules on a system whose rules were purposely confusing, and where the system was actually a combinaton of offical and unofficial.

Once we do that it poses a very interesting question.

What would a modern Magna Carta look like? Not as a bill of human rights but as a statement of economic rights, imposed on the rulers of the system?

Before trying answer that question I think it’s worth attempting to close-read a few bits of Magna Carta.

What kind of society does it reveal? What are their obsessions?

Inheritance rights among the nobility — the whole first bit is designed to prevent arbitrary political power intervening in the all important passage of wealth from one generation to anther, through arranged marriage; Ditto the prevention of arbirary royal power in disrupting the rights of widows holding feudal property

Second: the maintentance of the feudal system of landownership as separate and superior to the proto-capitalist system of usury, reliant on Jewish moneylenders. Chapter 9 and 10 deal with this explicitly — the rights of the lender are limited compared to the rights of inheritance.

Third, the assertion that the essential feudal activity — war — is superior to trade. Merchants can come and go but only if their countries are not at war with england — then all their property becomes forfeit

That the feudal system must work normally, not through arbitrary claims. The duties of feudal lords — to pay tax and provide military service — are not to be meddled with and imposed arbitrarily, disrupting the normal workign of the system

Forests and fisheries. The forests in medieval england were quasi commons — theyd been created and tended for centuries and were synoymous wiht common property and freedom. John had enclosed htem, and on top of that enclosed the rivers with royal fisheries. So the barons were asserting the right of their own people to use commons, and removing the right of the king to turn Feudalism into an absolutist profit machine for the crown alone.

An yes on top of that there are all the legal rights… habeas corpus, fair trial, rule of law applies to sherrifs and bailiffs.

And the rights of cities. It's just one clause but the barons wanted John to recognise that the economy for the cities was valuable and exceptional, and that the freedoms the tiny medieval bourgeoisie had won were economically important to the largely rural economy they controled.

To me, the psychological subtext is, we’re a group of people with a bunch of rights defined by custom, and we’re obsessed with them at the minute level because within these rights — to fish here, to pay only so much of our debts to Jews etc, to raise armies and ride horses to war — an entire bigger concept is implied.

The bigger concept is the ideal of feudalism.

Feudalism, these barons understood, is a mode of extracting a surplus — and we are the ones who extract it by tending the land, managing the farmers, raising armies to go and get more land, and the king and the church are important capstones but the actions of both of them are ruining the perfect order.

Now if we add 13th century context. We know John was a useless king. He’d lost most of the empire these very Angevin nobles felt was part of their identity, and then he began plundering his own country  —  executing opponents, buying and selling women, using the courts and sheriffs to extract the economic surplus he needed to fight more wars.

But to defend their own system, to normalise it, the barons also have to defend the rights of commoners to graze forests and fish rivers, and of free men to habeas corpus and the rule of law. And though they curtail the rights of Jewish moneylenders they actually recognise them in law. And they recognise the rights of cities.

And this leads to another interesting qustion: why is feudalism so confusing?

Why, as a system, are the rules so complex; so ridiculous when written down?

There are two parts to the answer.

First, the core of the feudal mode of production — the levy of taxes related to land and the obligation to perform military service — is always about power: it’s an economic system always based on obligation, not value, so its never in equilibrium with itself. So what the nobles are projecting — this myth of the well designed stable feudalism — is just ideology.

Second, it is always in disequilibrium with money.

We’re nowhere near, yet, the great crisis of feudalism in the 14th century, where the Black death causes a labour shortage, and forces the kings and noblemen to enter into cash relationships with their armies and servants. But money is there.

It’s there in the Jewish moneylenders. It’s there in the levies, tolls, taxes and fines the king’s extracting. And it’s there in the cities, which the nobles are so keen to keep on board.

Money represents the seed of the new system, capitalism, which will only begin flowering 300 years later under Henry VIII. But the nobles don't know that.

What they know is there are different and parallel dynamic in the economy, and that it has to be kept subordinate and quarantined, and you have to do that with laws not arbitrary action.

Here’s where I think the contemporary relevance of Magna Carta goes wider than the obvious — the attack on human rights, the surveillance society, privacy, and Guantanamo …

John and his barons lived at the height of feudalism.

We are living at the tail end of capitalism but at the height of an industrial era that has lasted 200 years.

· We live in a disrupted capitalism.

· John created a disrupted feudalism.

Within our system there is an official dynamic  —  the market, property ownership, wages —  and a parallel dynamic, created by the rise of information technology. Information technology erodes the link between work and wages and reduces the need for work; it creates machines that cost nothing to reproduce and which last forever; it dissolves the price mechanism — because it creates in certain parts of the economy abundance.

So in the gaps and niches, the co-operateively owned cafe in Barcelona side street; the sex workers’ open university in Glasgow; the peer-to-peer lender; the online encyclopedia created and maintained by 27,000 volunteers; the combined heat and power project; the transition town; the local currency; the time bank… plus a load of other cultural and behavioural stuff that is essentially non-economic.

We already have the seeds of a different economy where market, hierarchy and ownership do not prevail.

But it doesn’t fit well into capitalism. So in the past 15 years capitalism has reacted by creating the biggest monopolies ever seen. Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Ebay… their market capitalisation massive. In the past we had big fours in each sector: banks, accountancy firms, supermarkets. Now there can only be one dominant player in each sector — search, online buying, onine auction, content…

And each one has to do two things to justify its market capitalisation.

It has to prevent information becoming abundant and therefore free; and it has to capture the free thing that network interaction produces: our personal information, market predictive information. Tesco for example knows more about the social trend of intergenerational family meddling — where grandparents look after toddlers — because it’s seen in the past 10 years data patterns emerge whereby nappies appear in the typical shopping basket of 60 year olds.

The marginal reproduction cost of a track on iTunes is — what? Close to zero. Of course the track cost something to produce and the creators should be rewarded — but Apple’s purpuse is to suppress the market; to suppress price movements according to supply and demand. It’s 99p forever.

If we were to re-state Apple’s mission statemt it is to prevent the abundance of music. Facebook’s is to privatise shared information. Amazon’s is to destroy all other markets for goods. Google’s is to monopolise the advertising market.

These corporations are — like John — on a survival level mission to enclose the commons.

But they’re not the only, nor even the biggest disruption to the world we live in. Because we have two other anomalies sit very disruptively within the system we call capitalism, and are challenging it, and making complex like the feudalism of the 13th century — a system that has to be described in detail, with many exceptions, in order to go on working.

I am speaking of banks and of organised crime.

Banks have, in the space of 25 years, transformed their role within capitalism. They have financialised the world. The history of how they did it is fascinating, and it goes in waves, but what we’re interested in here is the result. A financial system where money dominates over the production of goods and services. Everything is thought of as a rental yeild, not a productive profit: own bonds they yield X, own property it yields Y, own a gym chain, a bunch of franchised McDonalds, a factory in Shenzhen  —  its just a finanical asset.

With the backing of governments, which respond to every crisis by creating money, loosening the relationship between money and economic activity, the banking system has become a high risk no-lose gamble with the state as the ultimate guarantor.

Regulators know this, they hate it, they speak as Andy Haldane did vehemently about enforcing moral hazard onto the banks: withdrawing the implicit guarantee that they can never lose.

But they never actually do it. Quantitative easing is the extended guarantee that the banks can’t lose. Basel III, with its lettuce limp provisions, a retreat from the intent to re-regulate.

So you have a new system, not seen before in capitalism: unlimited money creation, a one-way asset market (interrupted by regular financial collapses), and the banks and hedge funds and investment managers all gaming the system based on the huge asymmetry of informaiton they enjoy compared to their clients, customers, trading partners.

And what is its impact: like the 30 foot iron worm that’s drilling under our feet right now to make Crossrail, the banking system in constant crisis and repeated bust becomes a machine to dig away the foundations of the welfare state.

And then there’s organised crime. Organised crime is not incidental to capitalism. But in the past 25 years its become far more central. Cybercrime alone is worth betewen $200bn and 400bn a year. The criminal economy of Britain is probably as large as the university sector.

The neoliberal era has become the first phase in the 200 year history of captialism where  —  hiding in plain sight — large sections of the capitalist elite actually practice organised crime. The individuals indicted in the FIFA case are innocent until proven or pleaded guilty  —  but the case that FIFA became a corrupted enterprise is presented by the DOJ.

We know what happened to Enron, Worldcom, Parmalat. We know HSBC facilitated moneylaundering.

In fact the longer you stare at the spectacle of modern capitalism the more you wonder why nobody talks about this openly: the official, honest world  —  the institutions, the city livery companies, the top floor piano bar at the Hilton Hotel… is pervated by money and people engaged in organised crime.

And this brings us to the state and the elite. In the ideological model of capitalism the elite are meritocrats  —  the famously aspirational people who’ve achieved their aspirations. They’re there because they’re worth it. And the state is an impartial arbiter of the market, standing above transactions, not caring whether Newscorp gets to buy the remaining portion of BSKYB, impartial as to whether fracking is good or bad.

In fact, just as John’s noblemen found out  —  modern capitalism is not run according to the manual of market forces, state impartiality and meritocracy.

The elite is becoming hereditary, because asset wealth is becoming the primary source of income. And the elite has an iron grip over the state, and will use it to reward its friends and destroy its enemies.

So, what can we do?

Much of capitalist regulation, and reform, and the activity of NGOs, is focused around the same thing the nobles of 1215 were trying to do: make the system work according to its rules.

One version of a modern Magna Carta would say: impose competition law on the banks, supermarkets and onine giants and break them up. Lets have 6 regional banks out of RBS, not one zombie privatised at a loss to the taxpayer.

It would say  —  rematch risk and reward in the finance sector: if banks go bust, socialise them; turn them into low-profit publicly owned utilities; and if big, speculative financial entities cannot be properly insured by the state

It would say  —  let the proceeds of the network economy be destributed according to market forces: so I may choose to sell you my information, and be rewarded with money, but you can’t arbitrarily monopolise the aggregated data I generate by interacting with others.

And it would say: attack organised crime; attack closed, heredetary elite institutions, like the Oxbridge colleges where three As including further maths only get you to the door of an extra exam you didn’t really know about, and where only tutors at private schools really understand it, and “oh, bad luck old chap I hear Sheffield has a good maths department and anyway, wold you have really fitted in?” [I went to Sheffield].

But I have bigger ambitions.

For the feudal barons who confronted John, the commons and the commoners who frequented them, were an allied cause. They needed the poor to be able to use the commons to gather wood, to subsist, because that was part of the time honoured system on which feudal rents depended.

By the time of the 17th century, when Gerard Winstanley invoked Magna Carta in his call for a radical social revolution during the English Civil War, early capitalism was on the way to destroying the commons.

But the commons have re-emerged

We think of them as digital commons but they’re something bigger: there is a dynamic of abundance, of sharing, of non-hierarchical non-market production and thoguh it started in information, it can and will pervade everything.

So I would like to start a debate about what our economic rights should be in transition to something better than this mafia-ridden, ultra-monopolised, financially parasitic capitalism, with its heredetary elite.

The most important right would be to information: if the information is private, I should have the right to keep it private — my communications, texts, WhatsApp tittle tattle.

But if the information is social there should be the right for everybody to have anonymised social use: everybody shoul dhave the right to see Tesco’s customer data; epidemiologists, food scientists, local councils… they should be able to datamine as of right all aggregated social information.

Information asymmetry, which is the bedrock of modern capitalsim, could be criminalised. The intent to create information asymmetry in a business should be outlawed.

Second: because information technology can and should automate most of the activity we currently call work, there should be a right to an income. The state should provide either in goods or cash the means for eveyone to live, so that we can unbloc the automation revoltuion and reduce, collectively, the amount of work humanity has to do to survive to a minimum.

Third  —  the absolute imperative of the rule of law. Here’s how it has to work in a modern, complex, global, financialised society.

That which can be policed, where all market participants have the ability to claim against each other to a fair higher authority, where there is transparency  —  should exist.

All structures that cannot be policed; whose complexity and geographic location is designed to avoid the rule of law. Those strutures should be dismantled. The offshore finance system; the system of front companies used for tax avoidance and moneylaundering.

Globalisation has created a lawless global economy where crooks, shysters and just plain rentseeking parasites can always rip off the unwary just by moving jurisdiction. To the extent that we can re-regulate the globe and impose the rule of law globally  —  good  —  but if it has to be done nationally it must be done.

The King John of our age is not Putin, nor Sepp Blatter, nor JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon  —  it is the vast impersonal global corporate world that refuses to subject itself to law, and spends vast amounts working out how to defy laws and taxation and obligations.

If we did even these basic things we would begin a transition to something. Magna Carta, even though its ambition was only to normalise feudalism, created the legal precedent for the steps that would be needed to replace feudalism with capitalism and the rule of law: that’s why the capitalist revolutionaries of the 17th century loved Magna Carta.

We are much further down the route of transition. But the principle is the same: if we imposed even the most basic rules on capitalism it would begin to transform itself into something better. And even those who only want a better capitalism can join with those who want something else.

Published under a creative commons licence CC BY-ND

Economics editor, Channel 4 News. Exec Producer: “Greece: Dreams Take Revenge”

Related Posts