The Making of Capitalism

Against the Current No. 227, November/December 2023

Mike McCallister

The War Against the Commons:
Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism
By Ian Angus
Monthly Review, 2023, 246 pages, $26 paper.

IN THE WAR Against the Commons, Ian Angus reviews 400 years of English history to uncover the origin story of English capitalism. He suggests that if more working people learn about how capitalism was born, perhaps there are lessons to learn about taking its power away.

Angus is the editor of the online ecosocialist journal Climate and Capitalism (where much of the research for this book was originally presented) and author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (2016).

In this new book, Angus describes in vivid and readable terms how the countryside and peasants’ lives were changed. More importantly, he describes how they resisted these changes. Landlords and capitalists used the state to take away the commoners’ rights and turn them into urban wage workers by 1860.

We can see an analogous process today. More family farmers in the United States and elsewhere get pushed out of farming by industrial agriculture. They wind up forced to take jobs in the cities to keep paying off their growing debts.

In early human civilization, people were “self-provisioning,” Angus explains in the book’s introduction. “Together with our neighbors, we lived and worked on the land, obtained and prepared our own food, and made our own homes, tools, and clothing. After our ancestors invented agriculture, most of us lived in small communities where the land was held and farmed in common, and most production was consumed locally.”

In medieval England, the king granted land to various landlords. The landlords rented some of their land to peasants who would work the land, raising crops, keeping cattle, sheep, or other animals. In this pre-capitalist system, peasants had to give a portion of their crop to the landlord and use the rest for their own needs.

The Commons and its Destruction

If some land in the grant area was not rented, the peasants worked together to use these patches in common and collectively oversee their management. Commoners decided what crops to raise there, and what family would use what part of the land. These rights were lifelong for the peasants who worked the land.

Over a few centuries, the landlords seized (“enclosed”) the common lands on their property. Later, capitalists seeking to stop self-sufficient food production enclosed more land. Instead of growing food to feed people, agriculture became a method of producing wealth.

Privatization of common land was a frequent reason for enclosure. As this common land was a source of sustenance (pasture, wood, game) for the peasants who lived there, access to these resources was a life-and-death question.

When landlords wanted to enlarge their estates, they sought to run their tenants off the land with raised rents or adjusted lease terms. If the peasants resisted, they’d resort to forcibly evicting the tenants. Upon gaining control, they would then “enclose” the parcel for their own purposes.

Often, the landlord would turn enclosed land into a “deer park.” Peasants couldn’t farm this land, but deer could roam free, at least until the gentry organized hunts to kill them.

Eventually, hungry farmers aimed to stay alive by killing deer and other game animals. Landlords responded by criminalizing the taking of game by anyone other than property-holders.

Between 1703 and 1830, Parliament passed 45 separate statutes against “poaching” deer, rabbits and other game. This “Bloody Code” intended to stop the killing of animals by the wrong sort of people.

Angus explains that “Depending on which law was used, for the same offense, a convicted poacher might be fined, whipped, pilloried, imprisoned at hard labor, transported (sent to Australia), or executed.” You might gather how successful these laws were by counting the number of them.

Organized Resistance and Rebellion

Angus’ main theme is how commoners resisted the taking of their land, using a variety of methods. “Enclosure of common land, a direct assault on the peasants’ centuries-old way of life,” he writes, “upset the old habit of submission.”

Protests against enclosure began as far back as 1450, when “tens of thousands of English peasants fought, and thousands died, to halt the spread of capitalist farming that was destroying their way of life.”

Kett’s Rebellion, just one part of this uprising, is considered by some to be “the greatest anticapitalist rising in English history.”

Up to 16,000 rebels fought off royal soldiers in Norwich, then the second-largest city in England for six weeks in the summer of 1450. When 4000 German and Italian mercenaries arrived to quell the rebellion, 3500 rebels were killed and their leaders tortured and beheaded.

Similar episodes appear in various sizes, scale, and degrees of success throughout the text; the chronology of events in the back is very helpful. Landlords battle peasants to enclose land hosting coal deposits for powering machinery. Peasants also fight privatization of royal “forests,” many of which have no trees. Some of the biggest fights occur in defense of common use of “fens (wetlands).”

The most significant of these happened during the English Revolution and in the years of enclosing the Scottish Highlands, called the Clearances. Each of these get a chapter of their own.

The English Revolution spawned the Diggers movement, led by Gerrard Winstanley.

On April 1, 1649, the Diggers seized undeveloped common land on St. George’s Hill, southwest of London, intending to “lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all.” They were driven out by August. Angus writes that they thought they could win mass support, but didn’t realize how determined the landlords were.

In the same period, another radical movement grew in English cities. Disparaged by conservatives as “Levellers,” they grew into one of the largest radical working-class movements of the period. Angus argues that it blew an opportunity for success when it failed to unite with rural anti-enclosure protesters.

Leveller leader Richard Overton had demanded that “all grounds which anciently lay in common for the poor, and are now impropriate, enclosed, and fenced in, may forthwith (in whose hands so ever they are) be cast out, and laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor.”

Two years later, however, the Leveller manifesto, Agreement of the People, failed to mention enclosures. No evidence exists that the Leveller leadership sought to connect with the anti-enclosure movement.

Winstanley may be little-remembered today (or perhaps just written out of history), but, Angus argues, might just be one of the most significant radical social thinkers ever.

Winstanley’s Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored “is often described as his blueprint for an ideal society,” Angus writes, “but it is better understood as a description of a transitional society in which reconstruction is well underway.”

The fight to defend the Highlands was based on the claim that each Scottish Clan had over parts of the country. When England and Scotland merged into what became Great Britain in 1706, the landlords saw an opening.

The enclosure process in Scotland was better organized and systematic because landlords and capitalists had over a century of experience. Agriculture in the lowlands was organized much closer to the classic feudal model, and adapted to the English class structure.

When Scotland banned the import of Irish cattle in 1667, landlords began evicting small farmers working in potential grazing lands. These lands then became fenced-in “cattle parks.”

Farmers in Galloway resisted by taking down (“levelling”) the fences. Some of these actions were backed by 2000 or more armed men. This uprising required six troops of British dragoons to suppress. We know little of the fate of the Galloway Levellers, but Angus suggests that many of them joined other Scots in North America.

Slavery and Imperialism

Even if you’re not well versed in English history, you probably know two things about this period: Before 1807, the British were very active in the slave trade; and throughout this period of enclosure that we’re discussing here came the expanding British Empire.

Angus reports that “the aristocrats and gentry who waged the war on the commons included many whose wealth originated overseas. The two main sources of that expropriated wealth in the 1700s were the slave trade and plantation slavery in the Caribbean, and colonial plunder in India.”

While it may not surprise you to learn that enclosure is closely connected to these institutions, these statistics might still surprise you:

• In the second half of the 18th century, about 50 members of Parliament had connections to Caribbean plantations. The “West Indian Interest” consistently voted against proposals to weaken or end plantation slavery.

• When Britain abolished slavery in the Empire in 1834, the government paid 20 million pounds to compensate 46,000 West Indian slaveowners — half of them living in Britain.

• In 2020, the National Trust (equivalent to the US National Register of Historic Places) directly connected the owners of 29 of its 200+ historic houses to recipients of slave compensation. About a third of these houses had colonial connections.

• Community Land Scotland discovered that 10% of all of Scotland (and one-half of the Western Highlands and Islands) has been owned by families that benefitted significantly from slavery.

• Meanwhile, as Mike Davis wrote in Late Victorian Holocausts: “If the history of India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947.”

Many of the landlords who benefited from the age of Parliamentary Enclosures from the 17th century forward were employees of the East India Company, whose brutal and rapacious history is also outlined here.

Contemporary Struggles

Angus also takes up one of the most famous essays of the 1960s, Garret Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

In an early ideological salvo against a growing environmental movement, Hardin suggested that humans were too self-interested to cooperate to sustain common resources. Offering no evidence, he tells a “just-so story” about a “rational herdsman” who lays waste to the commons by aiming to maximize his income. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin wrote.

“The very fact that commons-based agriculture lasted for centuries disproves Hardin’s assumptions,” Angus writes. “Where were the gain-maximizing rational herdsman during all those years, and why did communities fiercly resist all attempts to eliminate common rights?”

Angus takes the struggle for land to the Global South in his final chapter, “The Struggle Continues.” The battle between capitalist agribusiness and peasant lives indeed continues. He reprints a manifesto released by the La Via Campesina International Peasants Movement in 2007, pointing the way to the future.

The War Against the Commons lays out in detail how capitalists act as a ruling class by turning to their state to enforce the policies and behavior they require. When piecemeal enclosure wasn’t getting the job done, landlords and capitalists turned to Parliament to pass laws that bent the commonly accepted rules about buying and selling land — and access to the commons.

When peasants had the temerity to kill animals for food, they made hunting only legal for the gentry! And then made killing animals for food subject to the death penalty!

Angus has long been a leader of the ecosocialist movement, and here provides a better way to think about how to seize power.

As Gerrard Winstanley reminds us: “When this universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then none shall lay claim to any creature, and say, this is mine and that is yours, this is my work, that is yours, but every one shall put to their hands to till the earth, and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all, when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next storehouse he meets with. The whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man.”

November-December 2023, ATC 227

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