In Background, Documents, Imperialism, Issues, Justice

By hand, land, prison and sea, enclosure preceded the industrial revolution, leading Karl Marx to describe it as the original form of accumulation, “written in letters of blood and fire” that gave birth to capitalism.

This is an edited extract from Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard, which has recently been published by the University of California Press.

By Peter Linebaugh

Published on NewFrame, Jul 5, 2019

Global phenomena of resistance to enclosures have been led by the Zapatistas in Mexico (1994), the anti-globalisers of intellectual property at the “battle of Seattle” (1999), the women of the Via Campesino against the corporate seizure of the planetary germplasm, the shack dwellers from Durban to Cape Town, the women of the Niger River delta protesting naked against the oil spillers, the indigenous peoples of the Andes Mountains against the water takers, the seed preservers of Bangladesh, the tree huggers of the Himalayas, the movement of “the circles and the squares” in the hundreds of municipal Occupys (2011) and the thousands of water protectors at Standing Rock (2017). Inspired by these phenomena, revisions of the meaning of “the commons”, and its relationship to communism, socialism, anarchism and utopianism, have become part of the worldwide discourse against the effort to shut it down or enclose it. In general the story is a couple hundred years old.

In 1793, William Blake, the London artist, poet and prophet, came to the conclusion that Enclosure = Death.

This is what Blake wrote:

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased. 

Blake had the prophetic power to imagine a different world, and a different heart. That single phrase, “a red round globe hot burning”, might refer to the war between England and France, or to the struggle for freedom among the Haitian slaves, or to the fires making steam for the new engines of the time – war, revolution and work – but it is even deeper than that. It concerns the planet itself. Blake’s geology anticipates the planetary Anthropocene, the “red round globe hot burning”. As for the five senses that close up his heart and brain, they refer to the dominant philosophy of the time – secular, empirical, utilitarian – and the resulting political economy. How else might knowledge be obtained?

War between France and England began in 1793 and did not conclude until 1815. There is a story of possible republics – France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Haiti and the United States – but each fell short of equality or of any real notion of commonwealth. France became an empire under Napoleon. England became an empire as the United Kingdom. One island disappeared as an independent polity (Ireland), while another’s independence actually began to appear (Haiti). The United States consolidated itself as a white, settler-property regime with Jefferson’s election (1800) and more than tripled its size with the Louisiana Purchase (1803).

The North American continent was taken, surveyed into squares and sold. In England, thousands of individual parliamentary acts of enclosure closed the country, parish by parish. The United States (1789) and the United Kingdom (1801) were new political entities devoted to the enclosure of the commons. They became deeply entangled as plantation production shifted from Caribbean sugar to mainland cotton, destroying cotton production in India and the Ottoman Empire. Cotton imports rose from £32 million in 1798 to £60.5 million in 1802, while the value of exported English manufactures went from £2 million in 1792 to £7.8 million in 1802. Edmund Cartwright’s steam-powered loom was adopted in 1801. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was at work by 1793, and cotton production had tripled by 1800. It was the machine, particularly the steam engine and the cotton gin, that economically connected the other two structures, Enclosure and Slavery. The ship connected them geographically.

Enclosure refers to land, where most people worked. Its enclosure was their loss. No longer able to subsist on land, people were dispossessed, and in a literal painful way they became rootless. Arnold Toynbee, the originator of the phrase “industrial revolution”, in his lectures of 1888 showed that it was preceded by the enclosures of the commons. Karl Marx understood this, making it the theme of the origin of capitalism.

Besides land, enclosure may refer to the hand. Handicrafts and manufactures were enclosed into factories, where entrance and egress were closely watched, and women and children replaced adult men. Allied with enclosure in the factory was the enclosure of punishment in the prison or penitentiary.

Besides land, hand and prison, enclosure may refer to the sea. Those who have read Marcus Rediker’s book The Slave Ship or have acquainted themselves with the infamous “Middle Passage” by reading early abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson or Olaudah Equiano, or by visiting the museums in Detroit; Washington, DC; Liverpool or Elmina that are devoted to the African American experience, will at once be overcome by the stench, cruelty, claustrophobia and attempted dehumanisation enclosed within “the wooden walls”.

For Marx, capitalism’s “original sin” was written “in letters of blood and fire”. The dwellings of Armagh, the slave quarters of the Caribbean plantations, the longhouses of the Iroquois, the giant prison of Newgate and the Albion mill in London were set on fire. Coal replaced wood as fuel for fires, the fires burned to produce steam and the steam-powered machines spelled the ruin of a whole mode of life. This occurred during war, when the ground of Europe was drenched in blood, and the blood of the chained bodies of the slaves coloured the Atlantic crimson. The blood has not ceased to flow nor the fire to burn, red round globe hot burning.

The commons

The commons is an omnibus term carrying a lot of freight and covering a lot of territory. The commons refers both to an idea and to a practice. As a general idea the commons means equality of economic conditions. As a particular practice the commons refers to forms of both collective labour and communal distribution. Historically, the commons has been friendlier to women (and children) than the factory, mine or plantation.

The “commons” expresses first, that which the working class lost when subsistence resources were taken away, and second, “the commons” expresses idealised visions of liberté, égalité and fraternité. As a term, commons is indispensable despite its complex associations with romanticism and communism. We can think of the commons as negation, that is, as the opposite of privatisation, conquest, commodification and individualism. This, however, is to put the cart before the horse. If the commons is too general a category because it is susceptible to idealising misuse, the remedy is not to discard it but rather to begin the analysis by means of historical induction. When Tacitus, the Roman historian of the first century, described it among the Germanic tribes, it became a linguistic and economic puzzle to generations upon generations of scholars of the commons.

We’re inclined to put the commons in the Middle Ages, as a habit of mind or a habit of being – even a longing for habitus or home – that originates in the stages theory of history known as stadialism. For modern history, the antagonistic dynamic between the state and the commons began in the 16th century. In its Renaissance origins, the state was against the commons. On the eve of Henry VIII’s 1536 dissolution of the monasteries, the single largest state land grab in British history, Thomas Elyot, Henry VIII’s advisor, wrote the Book Named the Governor (1531). Elyot begins by distinguishing res publica from res communis, defining the latter as “every thing should be to all men in common”. He asserts it was advocated by the plebeians, and was without order, estate or hierarchy. This distinction between the public, or the realm of the state, and the commons, or the realm of the common people, became the essence of statecraft.

The planetary conception of the commons refers to the idealised one developed in Christianity, the enlightenment and romanticism. The radical Digger of the English Revolution Gerrard Winstanley, for instance, said that the earth is a common treasury for all, while Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosophe, took the commons as his starting point in the story of man. The Romantic poets expanded the notion in the 1790s, helped by Thomas Spence, the humble, tireless advocate of the agrarian commons.

Three kinds of commons appear in this book – subsistence, ideal and American. The subsistence commons embraces mutuality, or working together. You practice the commons, you common: “So much of the land was in some way shared.” Enclosure is a dis-commoning.

Common right is a power of direct, mutual appropriation, in contrast to the exclusivity of private property that goes one way – from “ours” to “mine”. It bypasses the commodity form and commodity exchange by meeting human needs directly, usually in the form of housework or domestic subsistence, as is the case with wood for cooking fuel or pasturage for cow’s milk. The commons as a social relationship is related to the commons as a natural resource, but they are not the same. The two meanings of the commons were suggested in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (1755): 1) “one of the common people; a man [sic!] of low rank; of mean condition”, and 2) “an open ground equally used by many persons”.

The second type is the ideal commons. “The Whole Business of Man is the Arts & All Things in Common,” wrote William Blake, etching in copper. The early Christians were enjoined to have “all things common” (Acts 2:44, 4:32). From “the Golden Age” of Greek and Roman antiquity to the medieval “Land of Cockaigne” (where there are no lice, flies or fleas, and monks actually fly), you read about the ideal commons, or you might dream it. These ideas were not restricted to the commons of property; they described general conditions of mutuality and happiness for all. It is also important to see that these states of perfection arose in historical conditions that were more or less understood but that nevertheless happened in this world and not in the hereafter. These are stirring notions, able to excite the idealism of young and old. Ever since the rainbow sign of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 called for all things in common, omnia sunt communia has been the programme of those opposing state-backed privatisation.

The third type of commons is observed (not dreamt), and it applies to the whole society (not dropouts). I call it the American commons because of a powerful and dangerous ambivalence at its heart: it is neither wholly real nor wholly imaginary. Like “America”, it was a European name whose referent was to the indigenous people in contrast to European settlers. Europeans mixed travellers’ observations with projected fantasies, hopes and fears of their own. The commons became literally utopian, a neologism derived from two Greek words meaning good place or no place and the title of the 1516 book by Thomas More. In Utopia, an island commonwealth off the coast of South America, “all things being there common, every man hath abundance of everything”. This commons could be an aspect of the early days of the settler colony with its theft of indigenous common land.

“In the beginning all the world was America,” wrote John Locke, “and more so than is now; for no such thing as money was any where known.” The ambivalence of the American commons is found in the influential anthropological theory of “primitive communism” developed by Lewis Henry Morgan, whose studies of the Iroquois peoples (and advocacy of their lands) directly influenced Marx and Engels, as well as in the anthropological notion of “primitive communism” – a condition of mutual aid, simplicity of tools and group ownership of resources.

“Haiti” shows that there is no understanding either modern Europe or America unless the Haitian Revolution is placed squarely in the middle. It commenced on a commons, the Bois des Caimen, in August 1791, and lasted until independence was won more than a decade later. Susan Buck-Morss says of 1802 and Hegel’s simultaneous engagement with Adam Smith and the Haitian revolt that “theory and reality converged at this historical moment”.

Contemporary forms of commoning (Zapatistas, Occupy, Standing Rock and their like) inspired the renewed discourse of the commons. The Blakean equation, Enclosure = Death, need not rule.

Peter Linebaugh’s books include The London Hanged, The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and The Magna Carta Manifesto. Robin DG Kelley has written that “Peter Linebaugh is the best, most creative, most original historian living today.”


Related material:

Battle for the commons – from fighting neoliberal privatization to William Blake!


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