At the end of my last post I floated some questions about property rights and resource use, which I aim to address here – albeit obliquely – with a look at an old book about an old subject, but one that’s highly relevant to present day issues: historian J.M.Neeson’s Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. I’ll follow it up with another post or two about the concept of the commons and its relevance today.
Neeson effectively dispels, if indeed it still needs dispelling, Garrett Hardin’s misleading concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Instead she finds in England up to the 1750s and persisting beyond, a village-based common-field, common-pasture and woodland/wasteland peasant agriculture which she describes as “an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture” in which “the common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.” (p.156). I’ve written before about rural romanticism: it’s a trap that Neeson most certainly doesn’t fall into. She has no illusions about the tough and deeply inegalitarian realities of peasant life in 18th century England. But she’s alive to the complexities of the peasant commons and their importance to people who vigorously defended their way of life against the ultimately victorious encroachments of the enclosers. Indeed, she shows how the damaged trope of the ‘rural idyll’ still with us today has in some ways come down to us from the propaganda of the 18th century enclosers in their attempts to discredit the commons.
The level of detail in Neeson’s book probably goes beyond what most people lacking a specific interest in the period can easily stomach – so here I’m just going to paint in very broad brush a few things I learned from it that I think are relevant to contemporary issues around agriculture, environment and society.
1. The Commoning Ecology. In a society where access to land and its resources for ordinary people was relatively scarce (mostly because landownership was heavily concentrated), by partitioning usufruct rights out across the community commoning created numerous ways in which people could at least partially self-provision with food, fuel and other necessities through mechanisms such as gleaning in the fields, taking snapwood from the forests and grazing livestock on the commons. Put another way: in a society where energy was scarce and everyday needs had to be provided from local resources with few imports, the commons maximised sustainable resource use by partitioning out access to various local resources, albeit without challenging the basic pattern of resource ownership. I’ll come back to this point in an upcoming post.
2. The Commoning Economy. Notwithstanding the inequality, commoning included fine-grained ecological complementarity between economic classes in situations of energy/fertility scarcity: for example, the right of commoners to graze livestock on the headlands of ploughed land, thus making best use of available grazing while adding fertility to the fields. Commoners spanned a range of economic standings, from the near destitute to the comfortably off within the village economy. One argument in favour of commoning was that, by allowing the poor to raise livestock they couldn’t otherwise have afforded, it provided them with an income that kept them off the poor rate and enabled them to spend money in the village economy to the benefit of other local economic agents such as shopkeepers, blacksmiths etc.
Nevertheless, in 18th century England there were plenty of (wealthier) people who had reason to oppose the commons – usually on the basis of one of two somewhat contradictory positions. The first was that the commoners were mired in poverty, and it would be better for them to work as labourers for others where they would likely earn more as wageworkers than they would as independent proprietors. The second was that commoners weren’t poor enough – their access to the commons enabled them to live a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, making them reluctant recruits to the proletarian labouring that many of their social superiors desired for them. “The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence” in the words of one 18th century report, but after enclosure would follow a “subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted” (Neeson, p.284). Not much wanted by the commoners themselves, though: a Northamptonshire petition, for example, lamented the “small but comfortable Subsistence” that would be lost with the enclosure of the commons. Other contemporaries argued that enclosure “impoverished twenty small farmers to enrich one” (Neeson, p.22) and that it would “tend to ruin ye nation”. The evidence marshalled by Neeson indeed suggests that enclosure typically brought further concentration of landownership and greater poverty to erstwhile commoners.
Herein lie two different economic models. There’s the model of the enclosers, the nationalists, and the modernists – a model of the lowly worker integrated into a large industrious society, a cog in the machine who, though subordinate, can expect a little of the largesse to come their way. And then there’s the model of the peasant or the commoner, a proprietor, thrifty, frugal, and not well off – but independent, and beholden to few. It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson; Marxism versus populism; or, as I’ve framed it elsewhere Kshatriya (king) versus Vaishya (farmer) values. In the 18th century, arguments raged not only over the morality of turning commoners into proletarians by fiat, but also over the respective agricultural productivities of the two models. That argument still continues.
Of course, these ways of life were connected to wider economic currents. In Neeson’s analysis, the relationship between the peasant commoning economy and the emerging wageworker capitalist economy in 18th century England is complex – indeed, the relationship between peasantries and capitalisms historically throughout the world has been highly complex, and in a future post I’ll be looking at Giovanni Arrighi’s fascinating analyses of this. But by century’s end, commoners in England were in retreat: widespread enclosure had led to a further concentration of landownership, and an increase in indigence and proletarianization. It’s worth noting in this connection the arguments of historian Emma Griffin, whose book Liberty’s Dawn, I reviewed in an earlier post: according to Griffin, few industrial labourers in early 19th century England expressed any nostalgia for the rural, agricultural life they’d left behind. Well, maybe Neeson helps us understand why: their forebears had mostly been shunted off the land a generation or two earlier. If you’re already a landless proletarian, you might as well be an industrial landless proletarian – the pay’s better (at least while the industrial economy is growing), and it’s easier to organise with your fellows. But, as Neeson amply demonstrates, the enclosures of 18th century England were fiercely resisted by those who stood to lose out from them.
3. Agricultural ‘Improvement’: I doubt the resonance of the 18th century enclosure debates in England with earlier and later incarnations of agricultural ‘improvement’ need much spelling out from me. John Locke justified the European expropriation of America from its indigenous inhabitants with a proto-encloser argument about the idleness and unproductiveness of the Indians. And today it’s not hard to find people urging the demise of a putatively unproductive and inefficient peasant agriculture – send them to the cities, where they can get proper paid work! Nowadays, the anti-peasant tone is paternalistic rather than critical: nobody wants to be a peasant anyway – it’s a “poverty trap and an environmental disaster” (Stewart Brand). Or “urbanization is often the only way out of the drudgery and insecurity of subsistence agriculture on the land. No doubt, many have been forced to the city as a result of corporate land-grabs, but many more make their way there in search of a better life not available in the parochial traditional village” (Graham Strouts).
An anonymous defender of the commons writing in 1780 suggested that an encloser had first to deceive himself about the value of commons: he must “bring himself to believe an absurdity, before he can induce himself to do a cruelty” (Neeson, p.38). The absurdity is the belief that because peasants or commoners can fall on hard times, this is a chronic and intrinsic limitation of small-scale proprietorship (another one I’d add is the apparent belief that small farm expropriation is a good remedy for small farm poverty). The cruelty is the expropriation. There’s a lot more that needs saying about the concept of “the parochial traditional village” and the voluntaristic, Dick Whittington image conjured by the neo-improvers of peasants lighting out for the city in search of a better life. But for now I’ll just say that the 18th century encloser/improver discourse in general and the absurdity/cruelty couplet in particular neatly captures the putatively anti-poverty and complacently anti-peasant language of the contemporary neo-improvers. I’m unsure as to whether their get ye to the city schtick represents a genuine belief in the enriching power of the city (for which there’s not a great deal of evidence) or is merely a (cynical?) ploy in favour of proletarianization and the disciplining of labour. Perhaps both: doubtless 18th century enclosers genuinely believed that their programme would uplift the rural poor by incorporating them as dependents into a hierarchical national and international economy. Doubtless 21st century enclosers believe the same.
I’m not myself an admirer of agricultural ‘improvement’ generally. I’m not convinced that enclosure actually did improve agriculture in late 18th century England, and I’m not convinced that the proposals of the latter day improvers to replace peasant agriculture with giant mechanised arable production will improve 21st century agriculture. But that doesn’t mean I think a commoning agricultural economy of the 18th century sort is appropriate today. I’ll turn to the contemporary commons in my next post.
PS: apologies for the advertising hyperlinks that seem to have appeared in this post. Looks like there’s some kind of security/hacking problem that I’ll have to try to figure out – in the mean time, the irony of writing a post about the commons which gets subverted by others for private gain is quite amusing, no?