Enclosing England

Enclosing England April 23, 2012

In an earlier post, I quoted Robert Nisbet’s suggestion that the capitalist system was the result of state intervention in and even destruction of earlier economic arrangements. No movement illustrates the point better than the enclosure movement, the subject of JM Neeson’s Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Past and Present Publications) .

Neeson concludes that “Parliamentary enclosure marked a turning-point in the social history of many English villages. It struck at the roots of the economy of multiple occupations and it taught the small peasantry the new reality of class relations.” He admits that the separation of classes might have already existed, but the enforcement of enclosures stripped away the veil that masked the new social arrangement:

“The organization of work in the common-field system encouraged co-operation; and defence of common rights required the protection of lesser rights as well as greater. Enclosure tore away this mask not only to reveal more clearly than before the different interests of small, middling and large landowners but also to profit one at the expense of the other. It did so in a remarkably public way. In one ten-year period of village life, access to cheap land was at an end (rents commonly doubled or tripled at enclosure), lands were sold or mortgaged and wastes were fenced” (p. 290).

Neeson argues that not only the enclosures themselves but the hostility that was generated by the enclosures corroded social relations that lasted long after the peasants stopped their protests and Parliamentary petitions. Outrage at an injustice, outrage at being robbed, continued to mark relations within the villages he studied. He includes this small village rhyme to illustrate: “The fault is great in man or woman / Who steals a goose from off a common; / But what can plead that man’s excuse / Who steals a common from a goose?”

Enclosures were defended for their economic benefits, which were considerable. And the economic benefits were, it was argued, in the national interest. I make no judgment on those points. But it is indisputable that this move toward “capitalist” agriculture was enforced by the state and that this state enforcement obliterated an earlier system of property ownership.


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