The Anti-Democratic Origins Of Capitalism: Enclosure

Read The Anti-Democratic Origins Of Capitalism: The Tragedy Of The Commons II

The commons had been an effective way communities managed land among themselves. It had proven to be an effective means of social relations for centuries, but it was entirely incompatible with the new form of profit and private property emanating from an new emergent ruling class.

This new system was unsuited to the commons on three major counts: 1) while the lord may have set the general terms for the commons, they were largely self-managed endeavors of the communities, 2) the subjects therein supposedly had inviolable rights that tied them to the land but also gave them security (the property comes with baggage), and 3) the commons did not evolve to maximize profit, but to sustain the community (which brings up the question of how necessary maximum efficiency is, especially with modern technology).

Nevertheless, as Professor Susan Cox writes, “[I]n 1977 Hardin used allusions to the Enclosure Acts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to explain how the tragedy might be cured.” We will consider enclosure as it was in capitalism’s more formative years.

Enclosure, of course, was the practice of closing off land by fence, wall or ditch and calling it your property. The spirit of the feudal community — from which the lower orders derived considerable rights and security — was being torn apart by the spirit of private property and profit that would eventually become the latest ruling class overlord: capitalism and the Supreme Executive.

There are various factors that propelled the enclosure movement forward. Chief among them was the incentive to profits. In England that meant wool. Wool and therefore sheep, morphed into valuable profit-making inputs, a driving force for the emergent ruling class. Communities were displaced to provide enclosures for sheep. Today, we call this type of tragedy an “externality“, something peripheral to the central concern. Enclosure had become enough of a problem that Thomas More wrote in Utopia of sheep being “devowerers” of “the very men them selfes”. The profit motive and its accompanying profit logic shattered much of traditional community life.

Professor Fazer (cited below) quotes historian Andrew McRae on the changing attitudes toward profit and “gain”:

The motive of gain changed from being ‘a lamentable human tendency,’ to become ‘the major cure for idleness, the most accurate guide to market decisions, and the unseen regulator of the body of commerce.’ The concept of property shifted towards its modern sense, as ‘a private rather than a public resource,’ in a movement propelled by legal and economic changes in relation to feudal dues and common rights.

Not terribly democratic, but at least the profit craze was catching on. Barrington Moore, Jr. wrote in the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World :

Men ceased to see the agrarian problem as a question of finding the best method of supporting people on the land and began to perceive it as the best way of investing capital in the land. They began to treat land more and more as something that could be bought and sold, used and abused, in a word like modern capitalist private property. Under feudalism too there had been, of course, private property in land. But in all parts of the world where feudalism grew up, the ownership of land was burdened and hedged with a great variety of obligations to other persons.

Everywhere, well-positioned individuals were feeling the restrictions of these old “obligations”. They complained of the need to reform obsolete laws and customs. They wanted their “rights”.

Other nascent capitalists went into commercial agriculture, or renting to tenant farmers. Was this the birth of “modern capitalist democracy” and “freedom” or the ascendance of a new ruling click donning these very threads of “democracy” and “freedom”? Both We say.

Enclosure in Castleton

The following information about the case of Castleton is taken from an study written by Prof Bill Frazer in 1999 called Common Recollections: Resisting Enclosure “by Agreement” in Seventeenth-century England. It was published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

Castleton’s landscape was well preserved for archaeological studies. But Castleton is also important because, “the survival of a seventeenth-century enclosure ‘agreement’ for part of Castleton’s upland common wastelands means it is possible to discern a more nuanced picture of local involvement in enclosure than is typically visible to historians of England.”

The township provides an excellent study

for reflecting upon broader comparisons with other landscapes undergoing analogous changes. They also make it a worthwhile landscape for problematizing some of the questionable generalizations that have been made both about emergent agrarian capitalism and the nature of the early modern peasantry in England.

The modern individual was emerging who would use what would become the ideology of individualism to espouse an extremist position that decimated communities. The balance of society between individual and community, had once emphasized the individual’s place in it. Now the pendulum had begun to swing toward the other extreme. The well-positioned individual used this breakaway nascent individualism to claim a portion of the community to be his sole property, to the exclusion of the rest of society who lost their rights to a significant part of their community, and who were forced to share less among themselves.

In 1635, in the township of Castleton, England, many well-positioned landowners, the gentry and rich peasants, petitioned Charles I for the right to enclose the commons as their own “private property”. They felt entitled to monopolize the land as their rightful property and for their own profit. It was their “right” as individuals to do with “their” land as they wished. On the other hand:

The evidence suggests that many of the husbandmen in Castleton increasingly adopted pragmatic agrarian capitalist attitudes in order to survive. Nevertheless, the prohibitive amount of capital needed in advance and the potential risks during bad years were significant deterrents, making it even more practical for most folk to continue as much as possible with diverse mixed-farming regimes (including the mining of lead) that insulated them from starvation. It is unsurprising, therefore, that elsewhere in the local landscape, on the common wastes, we see poor, small holding husbandmen resisting an enclosure agreement that made this difficult.

Encroachment on common lands had already begun by the time the petition was presented. Many of the petitioners were motivated, no doubt, to avoid fines and violations of the forest commons. Others sought to justify further encroachment as “legal”.

This might be called “channeling greed into productive use” — that is, a crime transformed into a legal enterprise by virtue of what came to be known as capitalism. It is like a frog being transformed into a prince by virtue of a princess’s kiss. It’s not illegal, it’s capitalism — a crime transformed into “responsible productive use”.

Thus, tension emerged between the subsistence survival and community interests of poorer members of the peasant lower orders and the burgeoning improvement orthodoxy of the more literate, middling peasant yeomanry and the local gentry.

The King duly appointed a commission to inquire after the petition of these gentlemen’s “just concerns”. He created two juries to take on the task. The jurists were composed exclusively of regional gentry. Not terribly democratic, but the king was courteous enough to appoint a surveyor to assist them in making appropriations “honest”, “fair” and “official” — very important principles to capitalist democracy (or constitutional republic for you sticklers).

As coincidence would have it, these undemocratically selected juries tended to benefit the king and gentry most. One of the juries appointed by the king looked at the forest and adjacent semiprivate lands. It “recommended” that the king keep half of the land to “improve” and “enclose”, and the other half would go to the residents. The other jury looked at the town and surrounds, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, “recommended” that the king “improve” and “enclose” “one-third of the common uplands of purlieu townships Chelmorton, Flagg, Taddington, and Priestcliffe and allow the freeholders and commoners” the remaining two thirds. By profit logic, this is equal division of the land. The more powerful naturally get more.

In considering Charles’s royal commission, the Preservation society is reminded of the advice offered by railroad attorney and Grover Cleveland attorney general, Richard Olney on the subject of government commissions and regulatory agencies. Debating whether the first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, threatened railroad autonomy, he said:

The Commission . . . is, or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of the railroads, at the same time that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things. . . . The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it.

And utilize the commission they did. The recommendations of Charles’s commission naturally favored the better off. “Ostensibly, the ‘agreement’ is ‘among the free holders & copy holders of the fair Towne & Liberties of Castleton,’” quotes Professor Frazer, “but the realities of the actual land partitions clearly favor certain prominent names … all gentlemen or wealthy yeomen.”

Today one sees all manner of official and quasi-official agencies and commissions legitimizing pro-ruling class decisions. Today day We use Eminent Domain to appropriate land for stadiums. From approving deadly pharmaceuticals to protecting government and corporate corruption, to rigging employment numbers, commissions and agencies have played an integral part in ruling class democracy from the beginning.

Back in Castleton, a further stacking-of-the-deck against the capital-challenged laborer, landless peasant and the struggling small holder, was that these “agreements” increasingly took the form of written documents. These documents

occurred because written records at this time — like enclosure agreements — were essential to the strategies of upwardly mobile yeomen and local gentlemen. They were directed largely at an audience of social peers. Conspicuously excluded from this audience were not only most women of their own social location, but also the largely illiterate township lower orders, who garnered symbolic power through customary rights and vernacular oral traditions.

In 1677 legislation was passed that made a written title to land a requirement. With an optimistic 40% literacy rate, and much of that no doubt among the higher classes and urban centers, one might call this a “literacy test” for property ownership. It also made learning to read maps vital to capitalist property enclosure.

Prof Frazer notes that in “Castleton, there is no record of a formal school (schoolteachers were required to register) until the mid-eighteenth century.” And while literacy has greatly benefited the masses, it has also been a traditional weapon of ruling classes, no less in democracies than in monarchies. “Here the map may be regarded as a means by which either the state or individual landlords could more effectively control a tenant or peasant population,” said geographer J.B. Harley.

In keeping with anti-democratic procedures of capitalist enclosure, the worst land to be had naturally went to the smallholders. The best pieces invariably went to the wealthiest. This was enclosure by “agreement”.

Enclosure would also have destroyed a network of relations that then truly isolated and alienated the individual from their society:

Recent studies of rural societies have demonstrated that noncapitalist systems of exchange, based upon labor exchange and the barter of agricultural supplies, have persisted in rural England at least up until the beginning of the twentieth century … In many instances, it appears to have been socially advantageous to accrue “credit” debts of this sort. Debts were repaid without interest in order to build up “symbolic capital” … and the social status and power within the local rural community that the reciprocal obligations of such tradition-influenced interactions engendered ….  The widespread use of the complimentary early modern phrase “men of credit,” used to describe parish officers and other middling locals of moderate means, indicates the significance of such credit relations to parochial economies and collective township (or parish) identities. Moreover, township members who established a degree of such symbolic capital among “neighbors” of a similar social location were more likely to receive reciprocal aid in times of duress. Therefore, it seems reasonable to infer that the needier members of a community would be more reluctant to see these relations disappear. The reciprocal obligations served as a kind of safety net and helped to foster some degree of trust among neighbors, but this did not mean that township folk involved in such relations were oblivious to any sort of personal gain in these matters.

Many of the lower order masses understood what they lost — if they couldn’t make out the written contracts. Enclosure led to massive resistance well before the enclosure agreement of 1691.

… there are indications that, as with the acts of 1646, when the revocation of copyhold was set aside, this had much to do with enlisting popular support and avoiding the more tangible threat of organized mass action during “troublous times” of particular political upheaval.

A whole way of doing things was being destroyed, it would seem from a lower order point of view, in favor of uncertainty, insecurity and alienated labor. It sparked resistance among the masses, and fear among the ruling class. Today’s masses don’t know that world of alienation is their world, nor do they know what they are missing. That is Our achievement and suicide by success.


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