Capitalism as Robbery

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Charles Williams

Stop, Thief!
The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance
By Peter Linebaugh
PM Press, 2014, 304 pages, $21.95 paperback.

PETER LINEBAUGH TAKES the title of his book from a gag used by Wobbly soap-boxers to draw in a crowd. “Stop thief!” the speaker would cry, waiting for the audience to assemble before delivering the punchline: “I’ve been robbed. I’ve been robbed by the capitalist system.” (1)

In that spirit, Stop, Thief! collects 15 essays that range over Linebaugh’s historical scholarship to explore the crimes of enclosure as a form of capitalist property accumulation.

A student of E.P. Thompson and for many years a historian at the University of Toledo, Linebaugh is the author of a number of pathbreaking books, including The London Hanged, on crime, poverty and property rights in 18th century London, and, with Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

While much of the analysis in Stop, Thief! similarly concerns 18th and 19th century struggles to defend the commons against expropriation in Europe (mainly the United Kingdom) and the United States, Linebaugh leaves no doubt of the connection between these historical acts of theft and resistance and our present global crisis.

As he states in the introduction, “I wrote Stop, Thief! to join the alarm against neoliberalism which steals our land, our lives, and the labor of those preceding us.” (1)

The book accordingly begins with two short chapters outlining some principles and practices of the commons and “commoning” as still vibrant possibilities to which we might return in the face of contemporary privatization. This may typically bring to mind shared land resources governed by local community customs and a spirit of mutual well-being.

For Linebaugh the possibilities are much broader, however, and here he includes discussion of the commons as expressed in food (shared meals and customs of hospitality), housing (squatting, intentional communities), knowledge (shared ideas without copyright), public space, and other customs and practices that reveal the human solidarity Linebaugh identifies as “the foundation of commoning.” (13)

Stop, Thief! then turns to recovering historical experiences that might inform a future commons despite the many defeats that make up the (ongoing) story of capitalist “primitive accumulation.” Chapters are typically organized around a broad theme — such as the life and writings of Tom Paine or the relevance of medieval history to our own times — that ties together diverse historical episodes and Linebaugh’s related musings on the commons.

Ludd, Rock and Louisiana

The longest chapter, “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” explores “the several commons” in the years around 1811-12, beginning with Luddite machine-breaking in the textile factories of northern England and extending to a variety of struggles against enclosure around much of the world.

While the Luddites fought under the collective name of Ned Ludd against the destruction of work customs by a factory system “hurtful to commonality,” the similarly mythical figure of Captain Rock was shortly to emerge as the symbolic head of an Irish agrarian rebellion against tithes, rents, and evictions that peaked in the early 1820s.

Writing in the “history from below” tradition of E.P. Thompson, Linebaugh touches on many such acts of popular resistance to the forced separation of workers and communities from their traditional claims on land and other resources. His approach is notable throughout for extending the historical frame beyond Thompson’s largely British emphasis.

As he writes in the same chapter, “I have placed the beginning of the Luddite risings of two hundred years ago in a worldwide perspective by referring to capitalist incursions at the same time upon traditional practices of commoning in Ireland, North Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and North America.” (97)

In the North American case, this entails an analysis of the Louisiana Purchase as an expression of U.S. expansionism in the period between 1803 (the year of the purchase) and 1812 (when Louisiana became a state). Linebaugh’s account begins with Jefferson’s policy “to civilize the wilderness, where ‘civilize’ meant surveyed, saleable public lands — or the treatment of the earth as commodity and constant capital — and where ‘wilderness’ meant the communal possession and use by the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek people.”

By doubling the land area of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase “provided the conditions for a dual economy of sugar in New Orleans and cotton from Georgia to Natchez, Mississippi” and furthered the long process of commodifying what Linebaugh describes as “one of the richest commons of the world, the Mississippi River delta.” (90-91)

Stop, Thief! also highlights the resistance to these developments. Slave rebellions preceded both the Louisiana Purchase and Louisiana statehood, including the largest antebellum slave revolt in U.S. history in 1811 when slaves marched on New Orleans with the aim of creating a Black republic (see the review of American Uprising in ATC 156,

In his discussion of the Creeks, Limbaugh implies a parallel with the Luddites when he notes the division between those who “accepted the loom and the hoe as the technological entrance to a future of assimilation” and the warriors who “opposed the commerce and new forms of property, and destroyed the loom and bolts of cloth of accommodationists.” (91)

The great Shawnee leader Tecumseh appears both as an inspiration to the Creeks and in his 1810 confrontation with Governor Harrison of Indiana Territory (the future president) over the destruction of the Indian commons through corrupt and coercive land purchase treaties. In the wake of this encounter, Tecumseh would travel south in an attempt to forge a federation with the Creeks and other southern tribes, subsequently allying with Britain in the War of 1812.

A World Enclosed

For Linebaugh, the unifying thread in all of this is the struggle to preserve or gain access to the commons in a period when “the world was being enclosed, life was being closed off, people shut in.” (80) Returning to England, he introduces a further cultural layer to his analysis by finding expression of these impulses in the early poetry of Shelley, who published Queen Mab in 1813 as a critique of war and commerce (among other targets) and a utopian vision of another social order.

Throughout the book, the historical connections established by Linebaugh are often briefly observed and suggestive rather than fully developed. Tying together such a variety of struggles also risks obscuring the distinctive aspects of particular conflicts.

The relationship between textile workers and factory owners, for instance, was fundamentally different from that between Creeks and Shawnees and the U.S. settlers engaged in taking their land. But the overall effect of Linebaugh’s approach is nonetheless exhilarating. Incidents are layered one upon another, deeper historical patterns rise to the surface, and we come away with a powerful sense of both the richness of the commons and the destructive force of an ascendant capitalism.

Marx too can be approached from this angle, as Stop, Thief! demonstrates in several chapters exploring his political evolution and the “crossroads of communism and the commons.” The obvious point of reference is Marx’s account of primitive accumulation in volume one of Capital. But Linebaugh’s now-classic essay, “Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood, and Working-Class Composition” (first published in 1976), takes us back to a much earlier point in Marx’s career.

In 1842, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx responded to recent debates in the Rhineland Assembly on a law making it illegal to gather fallen wood from the forests. As timber prices rose alongside industrial development, the traditional forest rights of the poor were criminalized (through a series of laws over an extended period of time) and forest owners gained further state-sanctioned control over the woodlands.
Linebaugh draws on Engels to note the significance of this struggle over property rights for Marx’s own development:

“Engels had always understood Marx to say that it was the study of the law on the theft of wood and the situation of the Moselle peasantry that led him to pass from a purely political viewpoint to the study of economics and from that to socialism.” Or, as Linebaugh expresses his own view, “it would not be much of an exaggeration to say…that class struggle first presented itself to Marx’s serious attention as a form of crime.” (45)

The practice of commoning, taken to a general level, also defines Linebaugh’s aspiration for a (rightly understood) communist future. As he puts it in his 2008 book The Magna Carta Manifesto, “to be free citizens we must also be equal producers and consumers. What I shall call the commons — the theory that vests all property in the community and organizes labor for the benefit of all — must exist in both juridical form and day-to-day material reality.” (6)

This signals the political project Line­baugh aims to advance in Stop, Thief! If the idea of the commons once conjured up a past that was in many ways obliterated by capitalism, and “communism” was “the new name to express the revolutionary aspirations of proletarians,” for Linebaugh “the semantics of the two terms [now] seem to be reversed.” Communism is attached to the “past of Stalinism, industrialization of agriculture, and militarism, while the commons belongs to an international debate about the planetary future of land, water, and subsistence for all.” (212)

Looking Backward and Forward

There is nonetheless a notably melancholy aspect to Stop, Thief! Broadly speaking, the rise of the city marks the loss of many historically significant expressions of the commons. Surveying developments across England, and particularly in London, around 1800, Linebaugh brings together an array of repressive practices entailed in urban, industrial rationality:

“(O)pen fields were enclosed. Factories began to enclose handicrafts. Markets were replaced by shops. The penitentiary replaced outdoor punishments. Even the gallows on Tyburn Road was enclosed and reopened inside Newgate prison. Sexuality was repressed. The mind-forged manacles locked shut but not without help from the mind manaclers who forge ruling ideas still.” (36)

An even stronger sense of the rupture separating us from the commoning of old comes through in the chapter on Tom Paine (an introduction to the Verso edition of Rights of Man and Common Sense): “The only thing in the passage [from Rights of Man] that might give us pause — it is two centuries old — is that we live in post-enclosure time: our country, our world, is closed, shut up. His had not yet been, or not completely.” (200)

This is not at all to say that Linebaugh embraces a disabling form of romanticism in his appreciation for the collective practices and local community of the pre-industrial order.  His approach is both resolutely forward looking and entirely aware that custom “may be another guise of patriarchy and privilege.” (19)

Yet in light of the sense of cultural and political loss attached to the rise of capitalism, it is not always clear where we might look to recuperate the commons in the face of the neoliberal transformation that marks a global extension of urban, capitalist enclosure (a process Linebaugh notes with reference to David Harvey’s notion of accumulation by dispossession).

“Since the city, in the sense of law, force, and commodity, has abolished the countryside commons,” writes Linebaugh, “and the ‘bourgeois’ nations destroyed the ‘barbarian’  ones, the commoners of the world can no longer retire to the forest or run to the hills.” Taking inspiration from Occupy and the Arab Spring, however, Linebaugh affirms his faith in the self-organizing capacities and rejection of commodity exchange visible in recent municipal occupations and urban encampments (we might also look to the “recovered factories” in Argentina and elsewhere): “Unprecedented as the task may historically be,” he concludes, “the city itself must be commonized.” (40)

May/June 2015, ATC 176