The Enclosure of the Commons

The great landlords destroyed deliberately and of set purpose and to their own advantage the common rights over common land. The small plutocracy with which they were knit up, and with whose mercantile elements they were now fused, directed everything to its own ends. That strong central government which should protect the community against the rapacity of a few had gone generations before. Capitalism triumphant wielded all the mechanism of legislation and of information too.

—Hillaire Belloc, The Servile State, page 57

During the Middle Ages, peasants in England had access to common land, which was an essential part of village life. In the earliest days of capitalism, the monarchy and wealthy landlords conspired to steal the commons from the peasantry, paving the way for wage slavery and absolute private property.

Enclosure [was] the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plots of modern times. Before enclosure, much farmland existed in the form of numerous, dispersed strips under the control of individual cultivators only during the growing season and until harvesting was completed for a given year. Thereafter, and until the next growing season, the land was at the disposal of the community for grazing by the village livestock and for other purposes. To enclose land was to put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Enclosure”)

The enclosure movement in England proceeded rapidly after King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries beginning in 1536. (Saint Thomas More critiqued the enclosure in his book Utopia.) After the Reformation, “Puritans emerged as the avant-garde of capitalism, archangels of divinely commanded ‘improvement’—the use of land for the profitable production of commodities” (The Enchantments of Mammon, page 32). This drive for “efficiency” continued throughout the industrial revolution, until the English commons had been almost entirely abolished by the end of the 19th century. Without the commons, homestead farming became difficult to sustain, leading many former peasants to move to the cities (“urbanization”) and find work as wage laborers (“proletarianization”). 

The enclosure of common land occurred at a different pace throughout most of Europe and was pursued on a vast scale during the conquest and colonization of the New World, Africa, and India. Alongside usury and unjust wages, enclosure or ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is another essential part of capitalist growth. It is a form of theft from families and local communities, supported by the bourgeois state. In response, there has been a long history of radical peasant movements such as the Diggers (in England), the Zapatistas (in Mexico), the Green armies (in Russia), and the Landless Workers’ Movement (in Brazil).

Early on, enclosure was primarily for the purpose of capitalist farming and gold-mining. However, since the industrial revolution, enclosure also takes place for the purpose of extracting coal, oil, and rare-earth metals. Through the unchecked growth of these intensive forms of production, capitalists have dispossessed mankind by polluting our environments. Now, the climate of the entire earth—the last commons we have left—is being enclosed and auctioned off to the highest bidder, as the air, the oceans, and the biodiversity of Creation is contaminated and destroyed. 

The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low.

Laudato Si’ § 21

Featured Image: Naboth refuses to sell his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16