The Theft of the Commons
June 18, 2022 6:09 AM   Subscribe

The Theft of the Commons by Eula Biss.
posted by latkes (26 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
European Colonialism didn't start in "elsewhere" it started in Europe. The early oligarchs, monarchs, and capitalists did to the native people of Europe first what they would later do to people elsewhere.

The enclosure movement was absolutely brutal, with pogroms in Germany/Ireland/elsewhere killing hundreds of thousands. It took several hundred years to brutally murder non-capitalistic ideas out of the populace of Europe. The indigenous people of Europe didn't like it, and it took a long long time to beat it into them.

The "tragedy of the commons" has become like "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" what started as a critique of capitalism, has become a defense of it.

It's high time we re-inject the idea of a commons into the cultural blood stream, its going to be a vital principle to solve most of our current pressing existential problems.
posted by stilgar at 6:50 AM on June 18 [32 favorites]


European Colonialism didn't start in "elsewhere" it started in Europe. The early oligarchs, monarchs, and capitalists did to the native people of Europe first what they would later do to people elsewhere.


It's not like it has ended. The ever so progressive Norwegians and Swedes are blocking the Sami people's use of the tundra.

And I believe we should see the whole climate change discussion in this light. We need a common landscape that stores CO2, and at the same time can be useful for other activities, depending on where it is.
posted by mumimor at 10:17 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]


I highly recommend this book which has a chapter about the enclosures...

The Invention of Caplitalism (archive.org link).
posted by symbioid at 1:56 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


Erm, the Garrett Hardin essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons is a racist argument that the poors should not be allowed to reproduce with a side of “it’s human nature to be greedy, so Somebody enlightened has to control all natural resources and keep the rabble in line.” It’s worse than pull yourself up by the bootstraps. The commons need not be tragic. (Now I should go RTFA…)
posted by zenzenobia at 3:21 PM on June 18 [5 favorites]


Hardin was a racist misanthrope and also didn’t do much research on common management of finite resources.

However, one of the fundamental commonalities that Lin Ostrom found when she did study them was being able to limit use by limiting users. There was always population control with respect to the resource. It’s usually a tragedy for somebody: marriage forgone, or a family that has only one household share to hand on and several children.
posted by clew at 4:08 PM on June 18 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of great elements from this article. So many good things have been taken away, but you can never just "fix them" or go back to the way things were, and the article is very cognizent of that.

Commons have to be managed, and management is always problematic. Soviet communism collapsed at least partly because they could never get that right. Local control is going to understand the issues better, but localities are always going to have to interact, and centralization can be so much more efficient (when it works). And of course corruption is always there waiting to jump in. Whenever people are making the call about who needs what, some people are going to get excluded for crappy reasons. There are a million reasons why this can never work.

But capitalism is a world-ending disaster, so we have to try. Let's avoid widespread famine, and I'd appreciate not having to subsistence farm to not starve, too. But I'd give up a lot to end the billionaire boot on all our necks.
posted by rikschell at 4:54 PM on June 18


It took several hundred years to brutally murder non-capitalistic ideas out of the populace of Europe.

This is kind of my response when people talk about how it’s time to start seriously discussing UBI. I mean, yes, I completely agree, it’s past that time. There is only so much work that actually needs doing, there is so much pain and suffering that are literally essential to the systems we labor in (examples are needed of what happens to people who can’t or don’t work in order to keep precarious workers compliant: study after study shows providing homes for the unhoused is cheaper than nearly every other policy). The problem is, the system we live in was created through blood and murder, actual murder. The wealthy were ready to kill to create this world, and the world as it is exists to serve them. They are not likely to give over their hold on the grist for their mills.

Any form of concession is only won through concerted action. Change on the level that would create a UBI, or any true return to the concept of the commons, will require more. It won’t just be granted to people, as the wealthy who’ve created enclosure will hold onto it for as long as they can. If automation could bring about a world with a UBI, it could, and more likely will bring about a world that makes this one seem pleasant.

We’ve already been shown as a society to have little to no empathy or concern for the unhoused and for the desperately working poor. To keep their wealth and status, and their control based on exploitation, the wealthy will fight any measure that brings about the ability to live a life without participating in the system.

I’d love to believe a UBI is possible without it, but I don’t: you can’t end a system built on murder, that using murder to perpetuate itself without it lashing out to protect itself. Any return of the commons will be fought against, and there will be blood over it.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:58 PM on June 18 [10 favorites]


FYI the quickly article also clarifies that Hardin was a eugenicist.
posted by latkes at 6:05 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


The wealthy were ready to kill to create this world, and the world as it is exists to serve them.

I find it emotionally satisfying to blame our societal problems on "the wealthy", and I don't disagree that whomever that is deserves such blame. Yet I feel the need to point out that our societal structure provides for structures that isolate decision-making over large pools of resources from responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. In other words, our societies (every form that provides "incorporation" or other redirections of liability) are frameworks for engineering systems of oppression. Oppression happens whenever empowerment is divorced from responsibility.

In my view we should divest from systems of oppression, and instead support, invest in, and participate with systems of emancipation, ones that support healthy relation of empowerment and responsibility. No doubt you who read this can think of examples on your own. If not, maybe an AskMe is in order?

You don't have to let "the wealthy" dictate to you. You can join with your neighbors and peers to get what you need. Compliance with authority does not stop the abuse, so why comply?

Or, I guess, keep going to work. Keep spending money. Buy more gasoline. Eat cheeseburgers. Pity "those people" as you drive by. Is this the party to whom I am speaking?
posted by Rev. Irreverent Revenant at 7:21 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


However, one of the fundamental commonalities that Lin Ostrom found when she did study them was being able to limit use by limiting users. There was always population control with respect to the resource. It’s usually a tragedy for somebody: marriage forgone, or a family that has only one household share to hand on and several children.

Recent research - well, 20+ years old now, but much more recent than E.P. Thompson - by Leigh Shaw Taylor and others has found that in most parts of England, Parliamentary enclosure was really the last step in a long process of the extinction of common rights. By the time the official enclosures happened, most labouring and landless people had no common rights; due to population growth and more demand on the commons, the use-rights for common pasturage had been increasingly restricted to those who owned or rented land in the common fields (which were managed commonly but never actually commonly used - you got the produce of your strips).

In my own research on a region with massive common pastures (the fens of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Ely), the right to pasture cattle in the fens was increasingly restricted over the course of the 17th century, 100+ years before official Parliamentary enclosure happened. Part of this was due to the draining and enclosure of part of the fens (about 50% of the wetlands) and part due to population growth. But the rights to pasture animals that had been attached to residence at the beginning of the seventeenth century was increasingly attached to residence only in certain older houses ("commonable messuages"), and rights that had originally been unlimited (as many cows as you like) became limited (e.g., only 5 cows per house) - and landlords also started claiming those rights for all of the houses that they owned. But even earlier - long before the drainage and enclosure in the 17th century - there had been fights over who had the use-rights in the fens between villages and groups of people (as described by N. Neilson in her work on A terrier of Fleet, Lincolnshire (1920 - Internet Archive), and over time, intercommoning and open use became more and more restricted.

It may only be available at a university library, but I really recommend the book The Management of Common Land in North-West Europe, c.1500-1850 (which obviously has an awesome and exciting title). It covers several regions of Europe within concise chapters and thus is an excellent introduction to the issue - and which shows the same pattern repeated: as populations went up, access to common resources was restricted and (eventually) eliminated.

Obviously, Ostrom's Governing the Commons is a super-important book - but I'm ashamed to admit that I was so head-down into the world of early modern Europe in the early 2000s that I completely missed it before she won the Economics prize. (Also, maybe my mentors could be faulted as well, since they were guiding me in my reading. But disciplinary boundaries can be seriously hard to cross, sometimes).
posted by jb at 9:59 PM on June 18 [14 favorites]


European Colonialism didn't start in "elsewhere" it started in Europe. The early oligarchs, monarchs, and capitalists did to the native people of Europe first what they would later do to people elsewhere.

Slightly as an aside, but England was invaded and occupied by the Normans over 1000 years ago. Their descendants are probably still about 10% richer and live three years longer than descendants of the Anglo-Saxons.
posted by plonkee at 1:36 AM on June 19 [7 favorites]


This article brings together many things I've been mulling over the past few years and adds some more. Thanks for posting it. Linebaugh's book will go on my reading list. It's so interesting - though not at all surprising - that people with a share in a commons, commoners, were attacked with the same sort of rhetoric used to justify the destruction of Irish and First Nations people and ways of life.

clew: There was always population control with respect to the resource. It’s usually a tragedy for somebody: marriage forgone, or a family that has only one household share to hand on and several children.

I read Mann's Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas recently, after seeing it extensively referenced in Graeber and Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything. The Iroquois managed many of their resources in common. The population limitation needed for successful management of commons doesn't need to be tied up in tragedy. Instead, most of it can be accomplished simply by giving women control over their reproductive choices. As Mann put it:
Most appalling to European observers was Iroquoian women's absolute control over their own bodies, and in particular, their right to choose when, if, and with whom they bore children. So scandalous was this to Europeans, that it led to the stereotype of the Alley-Cat "Sq***," featuring free-wheeling sex on the one hand and an inhumanly low birth rate on the other. Colonists noticed early on that, for all the sex going on, Iroquoian women seemed to cheat nature out of the frequent pregnancies experienced by European women. So great a departure was this from the European norm that "abnormal" sexuality became the defining characteristic of the "sq***" stereotype.

Much hot air was expelled over the rumored inability of Native women to produce viable off-spring on the nearly annual basis extracted of European, and especially slave, women. Benjamin Franklin was not alone in having had sixteen siblings (or in having them reduced to fifteen, one drowning in his bath when his exhausted mother lost track of her nose counts). Colonial Christians took their scriptural commandment to populate the earth quite literally. Thus, when they saw Iroquoian women with only one or two children, they rummaged around in racist science to find the reason.
She goes on to discuss a "defense" of Indigenous Americans by Jefferson, which mostly boiled down to "I bet we could get them to have enough children to be a viable slave population." They never did, though, and Mann goes on to discuss some of the effects of women's control over their own reproduction combined with a social prejudice against large families, effects which we're beginning to see in our own society as Iroquoian seeds planted with Enlightenment figures and early American feminists begin to bear fruit:
One of the side effects of controlled fertility was that every child was wanted and well looked after. It is traditional that families have no more than three or four children, and not that many, if they cannot support them comfortably. There are very good reasons behind this restriction. Iroquoian theory held (and still holds) that every child should be the undivided center of its elders' attentions until the child is able to walk about and provide itself with rudimentary care. Not only does this promote self-confidence and a sense of worth in the child, but it ensures that all children receive the concentrated adult notice necessary to inculcating self-control and a sense of responsibility. Furthermore, too many children born too quickly (in multiple births, as well as one by one) not only endanger the life of the mother - one of the lessons of the Lynx's premature death from giving birth to her oversized family - but, in historical times, they also endangered the entire community during raids, as adults had to scurry after uncounted little ones instead of raising a defense.

The age of basic self-sufficiency for children was fixed at about five. An Iroquoian mother simply did not give birth to another child during the formative years of a child already in existence. Traditionally, large broods of children were frowned upon as showing the irresponsibility of the parents towards the community. In some instances, if a woman seemed overburdened by a superfluity of children, she would be relieved of the care of some of them by her Clan Mother, who placed spare children in the custody of a childless female relative.
It seems like "have as many kids as possible" and "make as much stuff as possible" (and "accumulate stuff just for yourself") were part of the same broad social movement in Europe that swallowed up pre-enclosure European populations before swallowing up the world.

It makes me wonder if breaking the bonds of the commons led directly to those gigantic European families. When you all depend on a commons, too many kids is "frowned upon as showing the irresponsibility of the parents toward the community." But when you switch to system of private responsibility, sixteen kids is only wrong if you can't work hard enough and get rich enough to support them.

One thing that I keep bumping into lately is the fact that very few people seemed to have joined that social movement by choice. Most people were forced into it by enclosure, colonization, or enslavement. (After those disruptions, the wealthy capitalist centre becomes much more attractive than the exploited capitalist periphery, but a migration from periphery to centre is not the same as a choice between capitalism and commons.) In the rare cases that people did have a choice, they chose to opt for societies with commons. From Graeber and Wengrow:
The colonial history of North and South America is full of accounts of settlers, captured or adopted by indigenous societies, being given the choice of where they wished to stay and almost invariably choosing to stay with the latter. This even applied to abducted children. Confronted again with their biological parents, most would run back to their adoptive kin for protection. By contrast, Amerindians incorporated into European society by adoption or marriage, including those who - unlike the unfortunate Helena Valero - enjoyed considerable wealth and schooling, almost invariably did just the opposite: either escaping at the earliest opportunity, or - having tried their best to adjust, and ultimately failed - returning to indigenous society to live out their last days.

Among the most eloquent commentaries on this whole phenomenon is to be found in a private letter written by Benjamin Franklin to a friend:
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them there is no persuading him ever to return, and that this is not natural merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when whiter persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. One instance I remember to have heard, where the person was to be brought home to possess a good Estate; but finding some care necessary to keep it together, he relinquished it to a younger brother, reserving to himself nothing but a gun and a match-Coat, with which he took his way again to the Wilderness.
Many who found themselves embroiled in such contests of civilization, if we may call them that, were able to offer clear reasons for their decisions to stay with their erstwhile captors. Some emphasized the virtues of freedom they found in Native American societies, including sexual freedom, but also freedom from the expectation of constant toil in pursuit of land and wealth. Others noted the 'Indian's' reluctance ever to let anyone fall into a condition of poverty, hunger or destitution.
What with the world being swallowed up, hardly anybody does or even can have that choice anymore. I have no idea what it would take to create a choice like that within an industrial civilization.
posted by clawsoon at 3:07 AM on June 19 [23 favorites]


stilgar: European Colonialism didn't start in "elsewhere" it started in Europe. The early oligarchs, monarchs, and capitalists did to the native people of Europe first what they would later do to people elsewhere.

I've gotten the impression somewhere (though I forget where) that some of the final, most brutal stages were brought back to Europe from the colonies. If I've got my timelines right (and someone please correct me if I don't), you don't get second serfdom in Europe until after sugar plantation slavery. You don't get full, nakedly brutal enclosure in England until after the Irish were dispossessed. You don't get the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews until after the attempt to exterminate the Herero.

It's like the initial attitudes were created in Europe, then developed to an extreme in the colonies, then reimported to Europe.
posted by clawsoon at 3:27 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]


plonkee: Slightly as an aside, but England was invaded and occupied by the Normans over 1000 years ago. Their descendants are probably still about 10% richer and live three years longer than descendants of the Anglo-Saxons.

Reminds me of another quote from Mann:
Greed may appear inborn to a materialistic culture, with its created scarcities and carefully crafted inequities, but only because bully-boy economics are allowed to ride roughshod over all else. It is not incidental that the roots of European economics stretch back to a warlord system of plunder run by heavily armed young men whose levels of testosterone vastly exceeded their levels of maturity. In the final analysis, capitalism is nothing more than a sophisticated expression of a pubescent boy's explanation of the universe: Mine's bigger; I get yours.
posted by clawsoon at 3:32 AM on June 19 [6 favorites]


I also have thoughts about Winnie-the-Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood as likely the result of a brutal enclosure, a la the creation of the Pembroke family's park as recounted in Nicolson's Quarrel with the King (not something I bring up with my daughter when she wants me to read the story again before bedtime of how Piglet couldn't sleep because he was scared of heffalumps), and the telling of another colonial enclosure in El Salvador in Sedgewick's Coffeeland ("They credited themselves, in advance, with all the promise of the future, and moved to 'cut... with a firm hand, the chains that enslave agriculture'"), but perhaps I've already written enough.
posted by clawsoon at 3:35 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


jb: and which shows the same pattern repeated: as populations went up, access to common resources was restricted and (eventually) eliminated.

What do you think of my half-baked idea from one of my comments above that the causal arrow went in the other direction, that it was the loss of the attitudes needed to maintain common resources that led to populations going up?
posted by clawsoon at 4:11 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


jb interesting stuff in your comment! The article does mention that enclosure law followed enclosure practice, not the other way around, but perhaps where you may differ is on the Why. I am pretty ideologically married to the belief that humans can make choices to do things more and less justly, we have agency, and human choices got us to the shit hole we're in now, but I do think there are structural forces that exert enormous pressure on what choices we make. So I am pretty convinced that population pressures created conditions where enclosure happened.. although people have always also offered resistance to their oppressive circumstances as well. Not the feudal system was a good one either! I think this stuff gets at a pretty fundamental set of questions about how much agency we have, or for me, how to exert our power when large social & environmental pressures limit our options.
posted by latkes at 6:30 AM on June 19


jb: It may only be available at a university library, but I really recommend the book The Management of Common Land in North-West Europe, c.1500-1850

It turns out that the individual chapters of this book are available, uh, communally, so I've started reading. The first chapter is talking about how the people who dismantled commons which had been in use for centuries argued (apparently without irony) that the commons were simultaneously under-exploited (which is why capitalists need to take them over, so they could produce more) and over-exploited (because, tragedy-of-the-commons style, they were being forced to produce too much).
These considerations also make clearer why it was possible for long-lived and apparently effective modes of exploitation to become the subject of condemnation in the second half of the eighteenth century, leading to the widespread dissolution of the commons. A 'stable' product from a given area ofland or could have become much less acceptable as the agrarian system shifted towards higher levels of productivity through new technologies such as the introduction of sown fallows, new fodder crops and yearround stall-feeding. This altered the structure of opportunity costs, making the old regime appear as a case of under-exploitation, and at the same time could prove an incentive to disregard the old regulatory order and hence lead to an increased level of transgressions. This could be regarded as instigating over-exploitation relative to the previous criteria of management, but in fact was the end result of the idea that commons were being under-used. Indeed, in the agronomists' critique of the commons, it often not clear whether the commons are being condemned for under- or over-exploitation of their resources. The double standard of assessment, by which the commons could appear simultaneously under- and over-exploited as a result of the same process, may have been one reason for this. Equally some critics were happy to employ any kind of argument against the commons as it suited them, whether logically consistent with their previous statements or not.
The book is being more balanced and scholarly than I am here. I'm cherrypicking the bits, like this one, that I like.
posted by clawsoon at 7:21 AM on June 19


Side note: I was really looking forward to reading plonkee’s link, but found when I clicked on it what appears to be an anti-equality screed? Maybe it gets around to the cited point eventually, but it certainly didn’t look like it was headed in that direction.
posted by eviemath at 7:38 AM on June 19


Side note: I was really looking forward to reading plonkee’s link, but found when I clicked on it what appears to be an anti-equality screed?

Looking at the publication's About page, it appears to be run by a bunch of Lords and associated hangers-on, so I suppose it's not surprising that the article teases "superior genetics" as a likely cause of inequality.
posted by clawsoon at 7:48 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Today I think it is common knowledge within development organisations that empowering women, and not least giving them control over their own bodies and reproductive rights, is the primary key to healthy and sustainable development.
But even today, it seems very ingrained in economic thinking that population growth and economic growth are intertwined, and that both are positives. Except if the population growing is brown or black. I don't know, it confuses me. The planet is burning and we should add gasoline?

Back to the commons. Here in Copenhagen the commons are very much still there/here, and the fight over their ownership is alive.

Also, less than a century after something similar but not identical to enclosure happened in Denmark, the andelsbevægelse began, a cooperative movement that created a new "commons", more suited for modern society, that includes food production, housing, banking and back in the day every other sector of society. Healthcare began that way. This is not socialist, contrariwise, the founders of this movement are part of the right wing's heritage.

That means we have a model for maintaining the commons that largely works. Sometimes it doesn't.
posted by mumimor at 8:57 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


It is traditional that families have no more than three or four children, and not that many, if they cannot support them comfortably.

That is, poor women can’t have as many children as they like (or the matriarch will take them away). I can believe this was mostly tolerable and hope we can get there fast enough, but it’s still population control including coercion.
posted by clew at 10:30 AM on June 19


That is, poor women can’t have as many children as they like (or the matriarch will take them away). I can believe this was mostly tolerable and hope we can get there fast enough, but it’s still population control including coercion.

It turns out that if they have a choice, most women prefer to have at most four children. Humans are human, you can't say all women. Obviously some people love having tons of kids -- hugs to them. But the thing is, pregnancy and caring for babies is really harsh on most people's bodies, after two or three most don't want to do it again (but then twins can happen and suddenly what looked to be three became four).

Also, I suspect that historically in cultures where women were allowed to control their own reproduction, they have known very well how to have an active and joyful sex life and not get pregnant. This knowledge is repressed in patriarchal societies, but it is not really secret or difficult to deal with. Patriarchy is rape culture, which is why access to abortion is so important.
posted by mumimor at 11:01 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


clew: That is, poor women can’t have as many children as they like (or the matriarch will take them away). I can believe this was mostly tolerable and hope we can get there fast enough, but it’s still population control including coercion.

Aye, which is why I use the qualifier "most". It would be interesting to know how the coercion worked out in practise. One thing that the French hated about the Iroquois was that they never followed anybody's orders. Apparently this even applied to Iroquoian military commanders; they weren't commanders so much as they were leaders. If you wanted to get someone to do something, you had to convince them. The requirement to convince started young:
Father Le Jeune... explained the remarkable behavior of the Wyandots to his French audience by stating that none of the "Savage tribes of these quarters" could "chastise a child, nor see one chastised." Far from appreciating this enlightened approach to child rearing, Le Jeune only bemoaned the "trouble this will give us in carrying out our plans" for giving Native youths a Christian education... Unused to seeing their authority thwarted, the Jesuits fumed over having to bribe the children into coming to catechism.
I'm sure that the social pressure could get very heavy, though. Mann mentions a couple of people who lived outside the clans, seen as dangerous weirdos by those inside. I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up outside because their social lives inside had been made intolerable. That training started early, too:
Like Lafitau, Sagard put all this disorderly conduct down to a "failure to punish." "Punishment" to Europeans meant brutal beatings which, by modern lights, amounted to criminal battery.

Lafitau, Sagard, and Champlain were all wrong, however, for Iroquoian women did punish their children, in ways understood and even dreaded within Iroquoian culture. In stark contrast to European methods, Iroquoian mothers used verbal prompts and community pressure on their children, publicly praising desirable behavior and, conversely, publicly condemning undesirable behavior. In a communal world, public opinion matters very much.
As I'm reading jb's recommendation of The Management of Common Land..., the immediate contrast I'm feeling between Iroquoian communal life and European commons is the looming presence of European lords, and the constant pull of a national market that could make you rich (or at least stave off penury) if you cheated and exploited local resources for sale. There were rules against selling certain goods from the commons - personal use only - but obviously those rules were there because the temptation was there.

Well... those two things, plus the fact that food distribution was pretty much always communal among the Iroquois, rather than the feeding of the poor being an act of charity.
posted by clawsoon at 11:27 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Side note: I was really looking forward to reading plonkee’s link, but found when I clicked on it what appears to be an anti-equality screed? Maybe it gets around to the cited point eventually, but it certainly didn’t look like it was headed in that direction.

Sorry, that's what comes from remembering the story but just googling for the link. Here's a blog post on the research from the LSE.
posted by plonkee at 11:44 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


What do you think of my half-baked idea from one of my comments above that the causal arrow went in the other direction, that it was the loss of the attitudes needed to maintain common resources that led to populations going up?

I think I was wrong in my earlier comment to just refer to population growth as the main pressure. I know that there is a pattern I and others have seen of increasing restriction over time, but when I think about exactly when, it doesn't line up well with the population increases. The big population increases in early modern England were 1550-1650, then the population flat-lined, and then started to go up dramatically 1750-1850 (and didn't stop). But what I think of as "the enclosure of common rights" (that is, the restriction of common rights that pre-dates the literal enclosure of common fields or pastures) happened more in the 1600s. Maybe it would be better to talk about increased demands (of markets, changing economic pressures)?

I don't know - it's been too long since I studied this to give it a proper response on the population issue off the top of my head.

It turns out that the individual chapters of this book are available, uh, communally, so I've started reading. The first chapter is talking about how the people who dismantled commons which had been in use for centuries argued (apparently without irony) that the commons were simultaneously under-exploited (which is why capitalists need to take them over, so they could produce more) and over-exploited (because, tragedy-of-the-commons style, they were being forced to produce too much).

Yes, there is some disingenuousness in the pro-enclosure arguments. But when I got deep into them, I also found that it was much murkier. Certainly, when it came to draining wetlands, there were places where the drainage (paid for by enclosure) ended up being more economically productive, as we can see by increases in local population. (In that case, it was the drainage, not the enclosure, that was significant; the population growth didn't last when the drainage failed). A lot of modern historians - especially leftist ones - do have the bias that the powerful were always lying and the weaker always telling the truth. But close analyses of arguments finds that both were spinning for their own (perceived) benefit. Commoners would also lie and overstate the productivity of a commons because it was theirs and they didn't want to lose it, even if it would be more economically productive if managed differently (which is totally understandable, but means that you can't just take their arguments as "truth"). There have been poorly managed commons, especially open-access ones; the significance of Ostrom's work is that she showed that open-access commons are the anomaly and traditionally commons were governed (and some people excluded).

There also were different kinds of enclosures at different times. In about 1500, there were the kind of enclosures that Thomas More would have railed against: the enclosure of common fields and conversion into pasture, especially for sheep, because it made a greater profit for the landowner (maybe linked to growth of international trade in wool? but also a lot of that land was not very good farmland that was only put to growing grain because of the medieval population growth before the Black Death). In c1600-1650, the fashion was for the enclosure of common year-round pastures, like wetlands, intending to drain them and convert them into better pastures or fields growing arable crops - which was easy to justify at that point, since the population had rebounded after the Black Death and policy makers (like William Cecil) were concerned about grain security. Finally, the classic Parliamentary enclosure of c1750-1850 was really about the enclosure and rationalization of the medieval styles open fields (privately owned strips that were commonly managed) into privately managed fields - with the arguments that the private fields would allow individual farmers to put in more innovative systems (like putting land to pasture for several years, then doing arable that was more productive).

There has been a massive debate about whether the increases in productivity in English agriculture in general would have been possible without enclosure, and I couldn't say which was right. The productivity of English agriculture did improve in the 18th and 19th centuries, but was that about about enclosing, or could the techniques (changing fallow patterns, introducing nitrogen-fixing crops like clover, importing fertilizers like guano through the colonial system) have been implemented on open fields? Last I heard (years ago), the debate was out, because it's a bit of a counter-factual. (There are a lot of similarities with modern debates about agricultural development. There are huge problems with modern industrialized farming, but could we feed the world without it? There are a lot more of us now).

But in terms of the social justice side: what Leigh Shaw Taylor's research found was that by the time that Parliamentary enclosure happened, most of the poorer people in the village were already not allowed to use the common pastures in the off season, because those rights had been attached to ownership of land in the common fields and the process of "land engrossment" (the accumulation of land by a smaller percentage of the rural community) had lead to more and more unequal landholding between 1550 and 1750 - and to the gradual "capitalization" of agriculture (a division into landlords, tenant farmers and agricultural labourers - as described by Jane Whittle in The Development of Agrarian Capitalism: Land and Labour in Norfolk 1440-1580).

One huge cultural change did set the stage for land engrossment and capitalization: the drop of labour rents (aka serfdom) in favour of cash rents. Landlords in the 13-15th centuries had an incentive to have lots of small tenants. Once serfdom faded out (due to the Black Death, the movement of labour and also the changing status of who was renting land) and rents were paid as money, not in money + days worked, there was no incentive for landlords to have many smallholders (especially customary holders with fixed rents), and more incentive to have larger tenants on a leasehold (where the rents could be raised every 20 years or so). So instead of 30 families with 15-30 acre farms (what was needed to sustain a family), maybe you have 9 families with 100 acre farms, and the other 21 families work for them (or some mix thereof).

But this wasn't a cultural change directly from an egalitarian, communally-organized economic system to a hierarchical capitalist one. North-west Europe was already a very different and much more hierarchical place than eastern North America in c1000, let alone 1800. Common lands were being used and managed within a very unequal and already market-oriented system; medieval peasants produced grain for markets, not just for their own use.

And it wasn't a strictly top-down phenomenon: while the end of feudal duties certainly had an impact, most of the day-to-day changes like the restriction of common rights were locally driven. It wasn't the lord of the manor who decreed who had a right to put a cow on the open-fields after the harvest, it was the other commoners. They were the ones who would decide that the people living in some new houses didn't have the same rights as people living in old houses, or who decided that only the tenants of the strips (aka themselves) had those rights.

And we have to remember that hierarchical and unequal societies were not uniquely European - they seem to appear along with agriculture, but it takes a while and not on the fringes. The Iroquois were on the far north-east edge of the North American agricultural culture and people had only been farming in that region for several hundred, maybe 1-2 thousand years. In places that were more central and which had a longer farming history (Mexico, Central and South America), there was plenty of hierarchy. Early farmers in the Fertile Crescent seem to have been relatively egalitarian and maybe they organized their land a lot more like the Iroquois, but that would have been in circa 7000 BCE.
posted by jb at 5:02 PM on June 20 [2 favorites]


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