DKW: John and the Great Charter
King John died on this day in 1216, which I reckon makes this the 789th anniversary of his death.
There is quite a lot one could say about King John, but I want to focus on the time he attempted to break out of the feudal contract that previously existed, before being forced by the barons to sign Magna Carta in 1215. The Magna Carta did not make England into a democratic country - far from it. As A.L. Morton noted in A People's History of England:
'it was not a constitutional document. It did not embody the principle of no taxation without representation. It did not guarantee parliamentary government, since Parliament did not then exist. It did not establish the right to trial by jury, since, in fact, the jury was a piece of royal machinery to which the barons had the strongest objections...while its most famous clause declared that "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or dissesised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him or send upon him except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land", the second word excluded from any possible benefit the overwhelming mass of the people who were still in villeinage.'
However, that said, what it did do was 'to set out in detail the ways in which John had gone beyond his rights as a feudal overlord and to demand that his unlawful practises should stop. It marked the alliance between the barons and the citizens of London by insisting on the rights of merchants from arbitrary taxation'. The establishment of a permanent committee of barons to hold the King to account was the 'greatest victory' of the barons but it only came 'at the price of acting in a way which was not strictly feudal, of forming new kinds of combinations both among themselves and with other classes'.
Moreover, rather than Magna Carta passing down the generations of concerned English democrats, 'as feudalism declined it ceased to have any clear practical application and passed out of memory. The Tudor bourgeoisie were too closely allied to the monarchy to wish to place any check upon it, while the power of the nobles was broken in the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare, writing his play King John, never mentions Magna Carta and quite possibly had never heard of it.' Only later was it dressed up and misinterpreted and seen as some great founding document of Democracy - before it was critically reinterpreted again as a document of feudalism.
Yet why does this matter? Apparently there are some in the anti-capitalist movement today who manage to see the Charter as particularly inspiring. As Alex Callinicos reported, in 2004, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, authors of Empire, one of the most influential texts of the anti-capitalist movement, called for "a new global Magna Carta" to reign back US Power. In an article published in the journal of the big business World Economic Forum, they argued that the US, as the "global monarch", should "abandon a strictly unilateralist position and collaborate actively with the aristocracy". By this they mean "the multinational corporations, the supranational institutions and the other dominant nation-states".
While they do not think the anti-capitalist movement should join up with the "imperial aristocracies", they note that "it might be in the aristocracies’ interest, however, to consider the movements as potential allies and resources for formulating today’s global policies. Some version of the reforms that these movements demand, and some means to incorporate the global multitudes as active forces, are undeniably indispensable for the production of wealth and security."
As Callinicos notes, 'Hardt has responded to criticisms of this article by comparing it to Machiavelli's famous handbook for princes. But the world's ruling classes have their own Machiavellis when they need advice on how to exploit us better. There's no need for Hardt and Negri to volunteer for this role.' Indeed not.
However, there is something about the Magna Carta that does still carry down the centuries today. Out of its feudal context, the clause that "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or dissesised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him or send upon him except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land" strikes a timely note in a world run by barbarians like Bush and Blair. For them, tearing up ancient civil liberties such as the prohibition of torture, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law are part and parcel of the 'New World Order'. Anyone who disagrees can be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
After the Magna Carta was passed, King John 'denounced the Charter and gathered an army,' plunging the country into civil war. It is not too hard to see which side the Bush and Blairs of this world would have taken in that struggle.
For those who want something slightly more inspiring to read about than dead Kings and ancient Charters, might like to read more about someone who also tends to come to mind when thinking of 'bad' King John - Robin Hood. Judy Cox has written about the legend who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and why he makes an excellent icon for the modern anti-capitalist movement today.
Labels: Dead King