Book of the Month: ‘Common Wealth’ by Martin Large

January 29, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

This book is a valuable contribution to the discussion around the crisis of capitalism and the necessity of sustainable development if our planet is to survive. Martin Large is an experienced facilitator in the field of community, individual and organisational development, and he also has a wealth of experience working with and advising local community projects in his home town of Stroud in Gloucestershire. He argues forcefully for a view of the world which sees land and resources as ‘common wealth’. He says we have recently seen a new wave of ‘enclosures of common land’ in the sense that public property, water and energy and land, as well as rights to the human genome and life-saving drugs have all been handed over to private, profit-making companies. His book, he notes, ‘is about reclaiming our common wealth in order to help bring about a more free, peaceful, equitable, mutual and sustainable society’.

He is particularly informative when he writes about land ownership, arguing for a Community Land Trusteeship to overcome land speculation and housing shortages. In this wide-ranging volume, he also covers education, culture,the arms industry, the state and the key role of civil society. Much weight is given to local and community initiatives -where he has much first hand experience – and the potential of individual creativity.

Large clearly articulates the immense damage rampant neo-liberalism has done to the world, as well as the supporting role the media have played in ignoring the many positive examples of people taking their own initiatives to counter this domination and centralisation.

He likens society to a three-legged stool, whose legs are government,business and civil society. His main thesis is that ‘civil society’ should become a leading motor for change, challenging the over-domination of business interests and excessive and authoritarian government. However, what constitutes this ‘civil society’ is unclear (how, for instance, is it different from society as a whole?). The key role of economic class interests receives scant attention.

He fails to appreciate that capitalism (in his tri-polar metaphor referred to as ‘business’), whose very essence is profit-making, will always be antagonistic to the long-term public interest. And, as Marx and Engels so clearly articulated it, ‘contains within itself the seeds of its own
destruction’. Tragically, today, we now have to recognise that ‘its own destruction’ undoubtedly means that of the planet too, unless we are able to act fast and decisively.

I am also surprised that the ideas of Britain’s most celebrated democrat, Tom Paine, receive no mention. Nor does Large see any mileage in evaluating the experience, both negative and positive, of ‘real existing’ socialism – which represented, after all, the first attempt at creating a ‘Common Wealth’ since the early communistic communities were destroyed by feudalism and later capitalism. Nor does he look at the newly emerging versions of socialism in Latin America.

Despite the above cavils, Common Wealth is a very useful, provocative and imaginative contribution to the central debate of our generation.

Common Wealth by Martin Large is published by Hawthorn Press.

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This post was written by John Green

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