Culture of Resistance: Ecofascism and Lessons from the German Experience

Culture of Resistance: Ecofascism and Lessons from the German Experience

This excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet was written by Lierre Keith. Click the link above to purchase the book or read online for free.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver, poet

The culture of the left needs a serious overhaul. At our best and bravest moments, we are the people who believe in a just world; who fight the power with all the courage and commitment that women and men can possess; who refuse to be bought or beaten into submission, and refuse equally to sell each other out. The history of struggles for justice is inspiring, ennobling even, and it should encourage us to redouble our efforts now when the entire world is at stake. Instead, our leadership is leading us astray. There are historic reasons for the misdirection of many of our movements, and we would do well to understand those reasons before it’s too late.1

The history of misdirection starts in the Middle Ages when various alternative sects arose across Europe, some more strictly religious, some more politically utopian. The Adamites, for instance, originated in North Africa in the second century, and the last of the Neo-Adamites were forcibly suppressed in Bohemia in 1849.2 They wanted to achieve a state of primeval innocence from sin. They practiced nudism and ecstatic rituals of rebirth in caves, rejected marriage, and held property communally. Groups such as the Diggers (True Levelers) were more political. They argued for an egalitarian social structure based on small agrarian communities that embraced ecological principles. Writes one historian, “They contended that if only the common people of England would form themselves into self-supporting communes, there would be no place in such a society for the ruling classes.”3

Not all dissenting groups had a political agenda. Many alternative sects rejected material accumulation and social status but lacked any clear political analysis or egalitarian program. Such subcultures have repeatedly arisen across Europe, coalescing around a common constellation of themes:

■ A critique of the dogma, hierarchy, and corruption of organized religion;

■ A rejection of the moral decay of urban life and a belief in the superiority of rural life;

■ A romantic or even sentimental appeal to the past: Eden, the Golden Age, pre-Norman England;

■ A millenialist bent;

■ A spiritual practice based on mysticism; a direct rather than mediated experience of the sacred. Sometimes this is inside a Christian framework; other examples involve rejection of Christianity. Often the spiritual practices include ecstatic and altered states;

■ Pantheism and nature worship, often concurrent with ecological principles, and leading to the formation of agrarian communities;

■ Rejection of marriage. Sometimes sects practice celibacy; others embrace polygamy, free love, or group marriage.

Within these dissenting groups, there has long been a tension between identifying the larger society as corrupt and naming it unjust. This tension has been present for over 1,000 years. Groups that critique society as degenerate or immoral have mainly responded by withdrawing from society. They want to make heaven on Earth in the here and now, abandoning the outside world. “In the world but not of it,” the Shakers said. Many of these groups were and are deeply pacifistic, in part because the outside world and all things political are seen as corrupting, and in part for strongly held moral reasons. “Corruption groups” are not always leftist or progressive. Indeed, many right-wing and reactionary elements have formed sects and founded communities. In these groups, the sin in urban or modern life is hedonism, not hierarchy. In fact, these groups tend to enforce strict hierarchy: older men over younger men, men over women. Often they have a charismatic leader and the millenialist bent is quite marked.

“Justice groups,” on the other hand, name society as inequitable rather than corrupt, and usually see organized religion as one more hierarchy that needs to be dismantled. They express broad political goals such as land reform, pluralistic democracy, and equality between the sexes. These more politically oriented spiritual groups walk the tension between withdrawal and engagement. They attempt to create communities that support a daily spiritual practice, allow for the withdrawal of material participation in unjust systems of power, and encourage political activism to bring their New Jerusalem into being. Contemporary groups like the Catholic Workers are attempts at such a project.

This perennial trend of critique and utopian vision was bolstered by Romanticism, a cultural and artistic movement that began in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Western Europe. It was at least partly a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, which valued rationality and science. The image of the Enlightenment was the machine, with the living cosmos reduced to clockwork. As the industrial revolution gained strength, rural lifeways were destroyed while urban areas swelled with suffering and squalor. Blake’s dark, Satanic mills destroyed rivers, the commons of wetlands and forests fell to the highest bidder, and coal dust was so thick in London that the era could easily be deemed the Age of Tuberculosis. In Germany, the Rhine and the Elbe were killed by dye works and other industrial processes. And along with natural communities, human communities were devastated as well.

Romanticism revolved around three main themes: longing for the past, upholding nature as pure and authentic, and idealizing the heroic and alienated individual. Germany, where elements of an older pagan folk culture still carried on, was in many ways the center of the Romantic movement.

How much of this Teutonic nature worship was really drawn from surviving pre-Christian elements, and how much was simply a Romantic recreation—the Renaissance Faire of the nineteenth century—is beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say, there were enough cultural elements for the Romantics to build on.

In 1774, German writer Goethe penned the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story of a young man who visits an enchanting peasant village, falls in love with an unattainable young woman, and suffers to the point of committing suicide. The book struck an oversensitive nerve, and, overnight, young men across Europe began modeling themselves on the protagonist, a depressive and passionate artist. Add to this the supernatural and occult elements of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, and, by the nineteenth century, the Romantics of that day resembled modern Goths. A friend of mine likes to say that history is same characters, different costumes—and in this case the costumes haven’t even changed much.4

Another current of Romanticism that eventually influenced our current situation was bolstered by philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau,5 who described a “state of nature” in which humans lived before society developed. He was not the creator of the image of the noble savage—that dubious honor falls to John Dryden, in his 1672 play The Conquest of Granada. Rousseau did, however, popularize one of the core components that would coalesce into the cliché, arguing that there was a fundamental rupture between human nature and human society. The concept of such a divide is deeply problematical, as by definition it leaves cultures that aren’t civilizations out of the circle of human society. Whether the argument is for the bloodthirsty savage or the noble savage, the underlying concept of a “state of nature” places hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic pastoralists, and even some agriculturalists outside the most basic human activity of creating culture. All culture is a human undertaking: there are no humans living in a “state of nature.”6 With the idea of a state of nature, vastly different societies are collapsed into an image of the “primitive,” which exists unchanging outside of history and human endeavor.

Indeed, one offshoot of Romanticism was an artistic movement called Primitivism that inspired its own music, literature, and art. Romanticism in general and Primitivism in particular saw European culture as overly rational and repressive of natural impulses. So-called primitive cultures, in contrast, were cast as emotional, innocent and childlike, sexually uninhibited, and at one with the natural world. The Romantics embraced the belief that “primitives” were naturally peaceful; the Primitivists tended to believe in their proclivity to violence. Either cliché could be made to work because the entire image is a construct bearing no relation to the vast variety of forms that indigenous human cultures have taken. Culture is a series of choices—political choices made by a social animal with moral agency. Both the noble savage and the bloodthirsty savage are objectifying, condescending, and racist constructs.

Romanticism tapped into some very legitimate grievances. Urbanism is alienating and isolating. Industrialization destroys communities, both human and biotic. The conformist demands of hierarchical societies leave our emotional lives inauthentic and numb, and a culture that hates the animality of our bodies drives us into exile from our only homes. The realization that none of these conditions are inherent to human existence or to human society can be a profound relief. Further, the existence of cultures that respect the earth, that give children kindness instead of public school, that share food and joy in equal measure, that might even have mystical technologies of ecstasy, can serve as both an inspiration and as evidence of the crimes committed against our hearts, our culture, and our planet. But the places where Romanticism failed still haunt the culture of the left today and must serve as a warning if we are to build a culture of resistance that can support a true resistance movement.

In Germany, the combination of Romanticism and nationalism created an upswell of interest in myths. They spurred a widespread longing for an ancient or even primordial connection with the German landscape. Youth are the perennially disaffected and rebellious, and German youth in the late nineteenth century coalesced into their own counterculture. They were called Wandervogel or wandering spirits. They rejected the rigid moral code and work ethic of their bourgeois parents, romanticized the image of the peasant, and wandered the countryside with guitars and rough-spun tunics. The Wandervogel started with urban teachers taking their students for hikes in the country as part of the Lebensreform (life reform) movement. This social movement emphasized physical fitness and natural health, experimenting with a range of alternative modalities like homeopathy, natural food, herbalism, and meditation. The Lebensreform created its own clinics, schools, and intentional communities, all variations on a theme of reestablishing a connection with nature. The short hikes became weekends; the weekends became a lifestyle. The Wandervogel embraced the natural in opposition to the artificial: rural over urban, emotion over rationality, sunshine and diet over medicine, spontaneity over control. The youth set up “nests” and “antihomes” in their towns and occupied abandoned castles in the forests. The Wandervogel was the origin of the youth hostel movement. They sang folk songs; experimented with fasting, raw foods, and vegetarianism; and embraced ecological ideas—all before the year 1900. They were the anarchist vegan squatters of the age.

Environmental ideas were a fundamental part of these movements. Nature as a spiritual source was fundamental to the Romantics and a guiding principle of Lebensreform. Adolph Just and Benedict Lust were a pair of doctors who wrote a foundational Lebensreform text, Return to Nature, in 1896. In it, they decried,

Man in his misguidance has powerfully interfered with nature. He has devastated the forests, and thereby even changed the atmospheric conditions and the climate. Some species of plants and animals have become entirely extinct through man, although they were essential in the economy of Nature. Everywhere the purity of the air is affected by smoke and the like, and the rivers are defiled. These and other things are serious encroachments upon Nature, which men nowadays entirely overlook but which are of the greatest importance, and at once show their evil effect not only upon plants but upon animals as well, the latter not having the endurance and power of resistance of man.7

Alternative communities soon sprang up all over Europe. The small village of Ascona, Switzerland, became a countercultural center between 1900 and 1920. Experiments involved “surrealism, modern dance, dada, Paganism, feminism, pacifism, psychoanalysis and nature cure.”8 Some of the figures who passed through Ascona included Carl Jung, Isadora Duncan, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and an alcoholic Herman Hesse seeking a cure. Clearly, social change—indeed, revolution—was one of the ideas on the table at Ascona. This chaos of alternative spiritual, cultural, and political trends began to make its way to the US. On August 20, 1903, for instance, an anarchist newspaper in San Francisco published a long article describing the experiments underway at Ascona.

As we will see, the connections between the Lebensreform, Wandervogel youth, and the 1960s counterculture in the US are startlingly direct. German Eduard Baltzer wrote a lengthy explication of naturliche lebensweise (natural lifestyle) and founded a vegetarian community. Baltzer-inspired painter Karl Wihelm Diefenbach, who also started a number of alternative communities and workshops dedicated to religion, art, and science, all based on Lebensreform ideas. Artists Gusto Graser and Fidus pretty well created the artistic style of the German counterculture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Viewers of their work would be forgiven for thinking that their paintings of psychedelic colors, swirling floraforms, and naked bodies embracing were album covers circa 1968. Fidus even used the iconic peace sign in his art.

Graser was a teacher and mentor to Herman Hesse, who was taken up by the Beatniks. Siddhartha and Steppenwolf were written in the 1920s but sold by the millions in the US in the 1960s. Declares one historian, “Legitimate history will always recount Hesse as the most important link between the European counter-culture of his [Hesse’s] youth and their latter-day descendants in America.”9

Along with a few million other Europeans, some of the proponents of the Wandervogel and Lebensreform movements immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. The most famous of these Lebensreform immigrants was Dr. Benjamin Lust, deemed the Father of Naturopathy, quoted previously. Write Gordon Kennedy and Kody Ryan, “Everything from massage, herbology, raw foods, anti-vivisection and hydro-therapy to Eastern influences like Ayurveda and Yoga found their way to an American audience through Lust.”10 In Return To Nature, he railed against water and air pollution, vivisection, vaccination, meat, smoking, alcohol, coffee, and public schooling. Any of this sound a wee bit familiar? Gandhi, a fan, was inspired by Lust’s principles to open a Nature Cure clinic in India.

The emphasis on sunshine and naturism led many of these Lebensreform immigrants to move to warm, sunny California and Florida. Sun worship was embraced as equal parts ancient Teutonic religion, health-restoring palliative, and body acceptance. It was much easier to live outdoors and scrounge for food where the weather never dropped below freezing. Called Nature Boys, naturemensch, and modern primitives, they set up camp and began attracting followers and disciples. German immigrant Arnold Ehret, for instance, wrote a number of books on fasting, raw foods, and the health benefits of nude sunbathing, books that would become standard texts for the San Francisco hippies. Gypsy Boots was another direct link from the Lebensreform to the hippies. Born in San Francisco, he was a follower of German immigrant Maximillian Sikinger. After the usual fasting, hiking, yoga, and sleeping in caves, he opened his “Health Hut” in Los Angeles, which was surprisingly successful. He was also a paid performer at music festivals like Monterey and Newport in 1967 and 1968, appearing beside Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. Carolyn Garcia, Jerry’s wife, was apparently a big admirer. Boots was also in the cult film Mondo Hollywood with Frank Zappa.

The list of personal connections between the Wandervogel Nature Boys and the hippies is substantial, and makes for an unbroken line of cultural continuity. But before we turn to the 1960s, it’s important to examine what happened to the Lebensreform and Wandervogel in Germany with the rise of Nazism.

This is not easy to do. Fin de siècle Germany was a tumult of change and ideas, pulling in all directions. There was a huge and politically powerful socialist party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany), or SPD, which one historian called “the pride of the Second International.”11 In 1880, it garnered more votes than any other party in Germany, and, in 1912, it had more seats in Parliament than any other party. It helped usher in the first parliamentary democracy, including universal suffrage, and brought a shorter workday, legal workers’ councils in industry, and a social safety net. To these serious activists, the Wandervogel and Lebensreform, especially “the more manifestly idiotic of these cults,”12 were fringe movements. To state the obvious, the constituents of SPD were working-class and poor people concerned with survival and justice, while the Lebensreform, with their yoga, spiritualism, and dietary silliness, were almost entirely middle class.

Here we begin to see these utopian ideas take a sinister turn. The seeds of contradiction are easy to spot in the völkisch movement entry on Wikipedia, which states, “The völkisch movement is the German interpretation of the populist movement, with a romantic focus on folklore and the ‘organic.’ . . . In a narrow definition it can be used to designate only groups that consider human beings essentially preformed by blood, i.e. inherited character.”

Immediately, there are problems. The völkisch is marked with a Nazi tag. One Wikipedian writes, “Personally I consider it offensive to claim that an ethnic definition of ‘Folk’ equals Nationalism and/or Racism.” Another Wikipedian points out that the founders of the völkisch concept were leftist thinkers. Another argues, “With regard to its origins . . . the völkisch idea is wholeheartedly non-racist, and people like Landauer and Mühsam (the leading German anarchists of their time) represented a continuing current of völkisch anti-racism. It’s understandable if the German page focuses on the racist version—a culture of guilt towards Romanticism seems to be one of Hitler’s legacies—but these other aspects need to be looked at too.”13

Who is correct? Culture, ethnicity, folklore, and nationalism are all strands that history has woven into the word. But völk does have a first philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder, who founded the whole idea of folklore, of a culture of the common people that should be valued, not despised. He urged Germans to take pride in their language, stories, art, and history. The populist appeal in his ideas—indeed, their necessity to any popular movement—may seem obvious to us 200 years later, but at the time this valuing of a people’s culture was new and radical. His personal collection of folk poetry inspired a national hunger for folklore; the brothers Grimm were one direct result of Herder’s work. He also argued that everyone from the king to the peasants belonged to the völk, a serious break with the ruling notion that only the nobility were the inheritors of culture and that that culture should emulate classical Greece. He believed that his conception of the völk would lead to democracy and was a supporter of the French Revolution.

Herder was very aware of where the extremes of nationalism could lead and argued for the full rights of Jews in Germany. He rejected racial concepts, saying that language and culture were the distinctions that mattered, not race, and asserted that humans were all one species. He wrote, “No nationality has been solely designated by God as the chosen people of the earth; above all we must seek the truth and cultivate the garden of the common good.”14

Another major proponent of leftist communitarianism was Gustav Landauer, a Jewish German. He was one of the leading anarchists through the Wilhelmine era until his death in 1919 when he was arrested by the Freikorps and stoned to death. He was a mystic as well as being a political writer and activist. His biographer, Eugene Lunn, describes Landauer’s ideas as a “synthesis of völkisch romanticism and libertarian socialism,” hence, “romantic socialism.”15 He was also a pacifist, rejecting violence as a means to revolution both individually and collectively. His belief was that the creation of libertarian communities would “gradually release men and women from their childlike dependence upon authority,” the state, organized religion, and other forms of hierarchy.16 His goal was to build “radically democratic, participatory communities.”17

Landauer spoke to the leftist writers, artists, intellectuals, and youths who felt alienated by modernity and urbanism and expressed a very real need—emotional, political, and spiritual—for community renewal. He had a full program for the revolutionary transformation of society. Rural communes were the first practical step toward the end of capitalism and exploitation. These communities would form federations and work together to create the infrastructure of a new society based on egalitarian principles. It was an A to B plan that never lost sight of the real conditions of oppression under which people were living. After World War I, roughly one hundred communes were formed in Germany, and, of those, thirty were politically leftist, formed by anarchists or communists. There was also a fledgling women’s commune movement whose goal was an autonomous feminist culture, similar to the contemporary lesbian land movement in the US.

Where did this utopian resistance movement go wrong? The problem was that it was, as historian Peter Weindling puts it, “politically ambivalent.”18 Writes Weindling, “The outburst of utopian social protest took contradictory artistic, Germanic volkish, or technocratic directions.”19 Some of these directions, unhitched from a framework of social justice, were harnessed by the right, and ultimately incorporated into Nazi ideology. Lebensreform activities like hiking and eating whole-grain bread were seen as strengthening the political body and were promoted by the Nazis. “A racial concept of health was central to National Socialism,” writes Weindling. Meanwhile, Jews, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill, and anarchists were seen as “diseases” that weakened the Germanic race as a whole.

Ecological ideas were likewise embraced by the Nazis. The health and fitness of the German people—a primary fixation of Nazi culture—depended on their connection to the health of the land, a connection that was both physical and spiritual. The Nazis were a peculiar combination of the Romantic and the Modern, and the backward-looking traditionalist and the futuristic technotopians were both attracted to their ideology. The Nazi program was as much science as it was emotionality. Writes historian David Blackborn,

National socialism managed to reconcile, at least theoretically, two powerful and conflicting impulses of the later nineteenth century, and to benefit from each. One was the infatuation with the modern and the technocratic, where there is evident continuity from Wilhelmine Germany to Nazi eugenicists and Autobahn builders; the other was the “cultural revolt” against modernity and machine-civilization, pressed into use by the Nazis as part of their appeal to educated élites and provincial philistines alike.20

Let’s look at another activist of the time, one who was political. Erich Mühsam, a German Jewish anarchist, was a writer, poet, dramatist, and cabaret performer. He was a leading radical thinker and agitator during the Weimar Republic, and won international acclaim for his dramatic work satirizing Hitler. He had a keen interest in combining anarchism with theology and communal living, and spent time in the alternative community of Ascona. Along with many leftists, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps in Sonnenburg, Brandenburg, and finally Oranienburg. Intellectuals around the world protested and demanded Mühsam’s release, to no avail. When his wife Zenzl was allowed to visit him, his face was so bruised she didn’t recognize him. The guards beat and tortured him for seventeen months. They made him dig his own grave. They broke his teeth and burned a swastika into his scalp. Yet when they tried to make him sing the Nazi anthem, he would sing the International instead. At his last torture session, they smashed in his skull and then killed him by lethal injection. They finished by hanging his body in a latrine.

The intransigent aimlessness and anemic narcissism of so much of the contemporary counterculture had no place beside the unassailable courage and sheer stamina of this man. Sifting through this material, I will admit to a certain amount of despair: between the feckless and the fascist, will there ever be any hope for this movement? The existence of Erich Mühsam is an answer to embrace. Likewise, reading history backwards, so that Nazis are preordained in the völkish idea, is insulting to the inheritors of this idea who resisted Fascism with Mühsam’s fortitude. There were German leftists who fought for radical democracy and justice, not despite their communitarianism, but with it.

Our contemporary environmental movement has much to learn from this history. Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, in their book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience,21 explore the idea that fascism or other reactionary politics are “perhaps the unavoidable trajectory of any movement which acknowledges and opposes social and ecological problems but does not recognize their systemic roots or actively resist the political and economic structures which generate them. Eschewing societal transformation in favor of personal change, an ostensibly apolitical disaffection can, in times of crisis, yield barbaric results.”22

The contemporary alterna-culture won’t result in anything more sinister than silliness; fascism in the US is most likely to come from actual right-wing ideologues mobilizing the resentments of the disaffected and economically stretched mainstream, not from New Age workshop hoppers. And friends of Mary Jane aren’t known for their virulence against anything besides regular bathing. German immigrants brought the Lebensreform and Wandervogel to the US, and it didn’t seed a fascist movement here. None of this leads inexorably to fascism. But we need to take seriously the history of how ideas which we think of as innately progressive, like ecology and animal rights, became intertwined with a fascist movement.

An alternative culture built around the project of an individualistic and interior experience, whether spiritual or psychological, cannot create a resistance movement, no matter how many societal conventions it trespasses. Indeed, the Wandervogel manifesto stated, “We regard with contempt all who call us political,”23 and their most repeated motto was “Our lack of purpose is our strength.” But as Laqueur points out,

Lack of interest in public affairs is not civic virtue, and . . . an inability to think in political categories does not prevent people from getting involved in political disaster . . . The Wandervogel . . . completely failed. They did not prepare their members for active citizenship. . . . Both the socialist youth and the Catholics had firmer ground under their feet; each had a set of values to which they adhered. But in the education of the free youth movement there was a dangerous vacuum all too ready to be filled by moral relativisim and nihilism.24

We are facing another disaster, and if we fail there will be no future to learn from our mistakes. That same “lack of interest”—often a stance of smug alienation—is killing our last chance of resistance. We are not preparing a movement for active citizenship and all that implies—the commitment, courage, and sacrifice that real resistance demands. There is no firm moral ground under the feet of those who can only counsel withdrawal and personal comfort in the face of atrocity. And the current Wandervogel end in nihilism as well, repeating that it’s over, we can do nothing, the human race has run its course and the bacteria will inherit the earth. The parallels are exact. And the outcome?

The Wandervogel marched off to World War I, where they “perished in Flanders and Verdun.”25 Of those who returned from the war, a small, vocal minority became communists. A larger group embraced right-wing protofascist groups. But the largest segment was apolitical and apathetic. “This was no accidental development,” writes Laqueur.26

The living world is now perishing in its own Flanders and Verdun, a bloody, senseless pile of daily species. Today there are still wood thrushes, small brown angels of the deep woods. Today there are northern leopard frogs, but only barely. There may not be Burmese star tortoises, with their shells like golden poinsettias; the last time anyone looked—for 400 hours with trained dogs—they only found five. If the largest segment of us remains apolitical and apathetic, they we’ll all surely die.

Part II will be published next week. For references, visit this link to read the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet online or to purchase a copy.

How Do We Destroy Capitalism?

How Do We Destroy Capitalism?

Editor’s note: this is an edited transcript of a talk at the 2014 Earth at Risk capitalism and sociopathy panel.  View the video here.

     by Stephanie McMillan, Derrick Jensen, and Charles Derber

Stephanie McMillan:
Thank you for being determined to investigate and understand the different aspects of this catastrophic situation that we are facing. Especially I want to thank those of you here who are doing something about it, or thinking about doing something about it. It is very important that we do. I am going to get into some of the more structural aspects.

Want to join a movement fighting capitalism?

Deep Green Resistance is recruiting. We are a political movement for liberation and revolution. We aim for nothing less than total liberation from capitalism, extractive economics, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, industrialism, and the culture of empire that we call civilization.

Join Us

We all know that capitalism is killing the world. In order to stop it, we can’t just keep resisting its effects. Capitalism doesn’t care if we protest on street corners a thousand times. That just proves how democratic they are. The solutions are not to be found within its framework. And they are even less to be found at the individual level. We don‘t actually have any power as consumers, I‘m sure most of you here already know. They would like us to think we do, but we can‘t buy or refrain from buying our way out of this. It‘s a social system, a class system, and it can only be addressed at a level of collective organized class struggle.

We need to understand capital, how it works, the mechanisms that keep it in place and are at the core of its functioning.

Capitalism is a mode of production, based on the exploitation of labor and the generation of surplus value. This means that workers are paid a certain amount of wages for a day‘s work. But what they produce is worth more than that. The extra value is called surplus value, and the capitalist just steals it. This is what all profit is based on. This is what private property is all about. It is considered normal for the social means of production, the factories, land, everything that produces all the things that we all use, that these are privately owned, and for those owners to simply take whatever is produced in them.

Understanding capitalism.

Capitalism is not just an economic process, but the whole way that our society is arranged.  It’s an ensemble or matrix of social relations, and these comprise three main fields: the economic, the political and the ideological. The economic field is determinate, profit is the point, and everything else is set up to solidify the relations of production that keep it coming. Capitalist ideology, centered on competition and individualism, is designed to make the way we live seem normal and inevitable. It‘s forced on us by its institutions, school, the church, the nuclear family, media and culture. Why would we need advertising for example, if they didn‘t need to convince us to participate? Ideological domination is unrelenting conditioning and indoctrination to naturalize capitalism, to make us compliant, passive, greedy and self-centered. To make us identify with it, instead of understanding it as the enemy that it really is.

Political domination.

Political domination, the job of the state, has two main aims: the first, performed by the government and its laws, is to regulate  within and between classes, to keep the flow of capital smooth and free of obstacles. The second is for when ideological domination fails. When we can no longer accept living this way, the state turns to cohesion through terrorism. This function is performed by the state’s armed forces, its military and police. If we don‘t comply, that’s when the guns come out. We saw that with the Occupy movement. The entire purpose of this setup is economic, the accumulation of wealth for a small minority of people–those who own the means of production, namely the factories, tools, land.

Ownership and control.

This ownership was not ordained by a God, nor is it because capitalists are smarter or worked harder than anyone else and earned that right. It‘s because they took it. They started with trading, which many societies considered and understood as thievery, since it‘s the exchange of unequal values. This is still the way that mercantile capitalists accumulate wealth. They continued with land theft, backed up by war and genocide, which is still going on today as we all know. I just got back from Haiti a few days ago and saw huge areas of land that have been stolen from small farmers and towns people, their houses just bulldozed over without warning, so that the government could bring in foreign investors to build industrial parks and tourist resorts. They justified this by saying that the people will get jobs. They‘d be able to work in the new factories and hotels. That‘s the standard way that capitalists have been getting their workforce for the past 250 years.

Oppression and control.

The fundamental contradiction of capitalism, reproducing it and driving it forward, is capital versus labor and the production of surplus value for private accumulation. This process is what produces class divisions, class domination and class struggle. Classes are groups of people, defined by their role in social production. There are those who own and control it, and those are usually not the same people who are exploited in the process. Besides exploitation, capitalism also uses oppressive practices like racism and patriarchy, and has terrible effects like ecocides and war, which we all have to deal with. It‘s a social system that dominates all of social life, and all the dominated classes and social groups struggle against this in their own ways. But the core of it is embodied in the struggle of workers against exploitation.

Value and ethics.

Workers are the ones who face capital in their daily struggle for existence, in an inherently antagonistic relationship. They are the only ones able to offer an alternative to capitalism. Other classes can resist, but can‘t break the framework. So, if we‘re to actually destroy capitalism, the working class needs to lead all the dominated classes in a revolution to overthrow the capitalist class. We are all social agents, born into a structure that we didn‘t create. We are inserted into the existing relations of production, funneled into particular social slots, serving the various requirements of capital. Capital confines our relationships within a framework of relations between things. And it treats living beings, including humans, as objects. It has no moral or ethical framework, because it‘s not alive.

Nevertheless, it does have a motion, drive and imperative of its own. Its only aim is self-expansion. Even capitalists are merely stewards of capital and have no control over it. If they have an attack of conscience, an attempt to moderate it, then they are replaced. Sociopaths are drawn to this role; in fact a higher percentage are found in this class than in the general population. Because to serve capital in this way requires a lack, or total suppression, of empathy. Capital has no subjectivity and it doesn’t recognize it in others. But it is animate, thorough and embodied in its representatives. It has imbued them with its own sociopathy.

Value and growth.

Surplus value is generated only in industrial production, when labor power is exploited in the process of converting raw materials, otherwise known as the living world, into commodities. And that‘s why it‘s ecocidal. Other forms of capital expansion, such as mercantile and finance, create inflated bubbles of fictitious value through unequal trade and speculation. All that must be based on the production of physical goods. For example, China builds twelve to twenty-four ghost-cities every year, mile after mile of malls with no businesses in them and houses with no people living in them. And those empty buildings serve as repositories for capital investment, objects to hold value and to speculate on. Surplus value must be re-invested as new capital, or it will degrade, it will lose value.

We have a choice.

Capital will do whatever it takes to prevent its own devaluation, including all forms of brutal oppression, endless wars, total disregard for the needs of any living beings, stripping us of subjectivity, and turning us into functions for its own reproduction, even up to annihilation of all life on earth. This would of course mean its own destruction as well. Marx understood this when he said that class struggle will lead to either the overthrow of capitalism and the elimination of class domination in general, or the common ruin of contending classes. We still may have this choice to make, but that window is closing. We each need to make our choice now, and do the work required of us in this very intense and pivotal historical period.

The work of understanding the structural crisis and vulnerabilities of the system that we‘re facing, plus the work of organizing our forces so that we can become strong enough to weaken and ultimately destroy it.

Derrick Jensen:
For eight years, Stephanie and I have had a bitter, bitter ideological battle. It‘s so bitter that we‘ve written a couple of books together and have become very dear friends. The question, that Stephanie and I have been having a great time slightly disagreeing on, is whether capitalism creates sociopathological behavior, or whether it took sociopaths to create a rationalization for their pre-existing issues, and to create a system that rewards this terrible behavior. And I don‘t really have an answer and I think the truth is, that they are mutually reinforcing, that once you get a system in place that starts creating sociopaths, then they will create additional rationalizations for their sociopathological behavior and additional ways to reward themselves. Especially when those in power are those who make the rules for those in power, then of course they‘re going to codify their pre-existing issues.

The tragedy of the commons.

I want to say one more thing. The tragedy of the commons just pisses me off. That essay by Garrett Hardin in 1968, it’s such a lie. He basically says that the tragedy of the commons is that if you have a common area, that it will eventually be destroyed. He says this is because if you have a community area where the village is allowed to, say, run a hundred sheep, ten families and every family can run ten sheep.  Then what‘s going to happen is that one family is going to run eleven sheep, and then another is gonna run eleven sheep, and then eventually the commons will be destroyed. But this is complete bullshit. What that is, is a tragedy of the failure of community.

If you have a community, and everybody knows that they can run ten sheep, if somebody runs eleven sheep, the other members of the community come to them and say: Dude, that is not a good idea. And if the person does it again, they’d say: Dude, that‘s a really bad idea. And if they did it again, they‘d burn down their house. So, what he is describing is a situation in which your community has already been destroyed.

No matter how talented he was, if Jimi Hendrix would have been playing his music in the 1920s he would not have found an audience. You have to have a receptive audience in order to have something become popular. So if you have a purely functioning community in the first place, and somebody says “Hey, I‘ve got this great idea! Everybody acting selfishly will create a greater good for our entire community!” they would say “You are nuts.” The only way you can have people go “wow, that’s a great idea!” is if they are primed for it.

Spreading ideas/propaganda.

In 1992, the year that Clinton was elected, he did this one speech that had this great moment where he said “I want to try to show that Adam Smith‘s invisible hand has a green thumb.” It was great, because the entire audience was silent. And then he said: “I thought that was a really good line,” and everybody is like “Oh, yeah!“ This is just one of the ways that propaganda works. First, and everybody knows this, is: “Adam Smith‘s invisible hand? A green thumb? You‘re fucking nuts!” But then when it‘s repeated, and of course if you have the NY Times take it up, and then if you have the neo-environmentalists take it up, and then if you have all these other groups take it up, twenty years later, everybody‘s like “Oh yeah, of course green capitalism will solve everything.”
That‘s all.

Charles Derber:
95% of environmentalists in America believe that the solution to the environmental crisis is more capitalism. I had the quote from Tom Friedman, who made that argument very powerfully. He said there is “father capital and mother earth.” The two most powerful forces in the world to be married together will solve all our problems. Why this text is super important is that you‘re going up against a myth, a deeply embedded myth in the society. That the solution to climate change is more capitalism.

Derrick Jensen:
I would actually agree, that there is father capitalism and mother earth, and it‘s a deeply abusive relationship in which he is beating the shit out of her and raping her on a daily basis, and what she needs to do is put a gun to his fucking head and kill him.

Stephanie McMillan:
There is really no way to reform it or fix it. It is not a system that has gone too far or that has run off the rails. The rails are constructed that way, the whole system is born that way. It’s not something that can be restrained or reformed or fixed. It is not broken. It‘s doing exactly what has been predicted for the last 200 years.

The accumulation of capital is an inevitable process.

The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the monopolization of production, that‘s all part of how it works. And the only way that it can be gotten rid off is if we organize and become a powerful social force, more powerful than the lies, wealth and arms of our enemy. We have to first recognize it as our enemy. A lot of people don’t, because we are ideologically very dominated, and we’ve been conditioned for generations to accept this as normal.

Working together.

The propaganda that there is no alternative, that everything else has failed, that nothing else will work, this is our only choice—we have to break out of that. Yes, there have been attempts at other systems that have failed. But these were babies, trying to learn how to walk. And if they fell down, are we going to say “this baby is never gonna grow up and learn how to walk?” We have to learn from the mistakes of people who have tried different things, modify that according to our current situation, and collectively figure out a different way to live. We evolved as collective beings. We are not like this. This capitalist society has turned us into unsocial creatures, but we are social creatures, we are cooperative. This is our nature.


We have to organize and collectively build a movement, a mass movement that is strong enough, that is led by a politicized, revolutionary working class, and overthrow them. Take over. Take over the political system, get rid of it and institute our own, which is going to be built in the process of the revolutionary struggle; and we need to take over the means of production and convert it to—instead of profit—human needs that are in line with the requirements of the natural world. That is not an impossible dream. That is something that we would naturally do, if we weren’t being prevented by a class of people who controls everything and enforces that control with their armed might. If we can be strong enough, organize enough to break through that arms might and control society ourselves, we can do a lot better.

It is not going to be utopia, of course. There is going to be a lot to work through in the process and afterward a lot of conflict among the people. But that’s not an antagonistic conflict; we can work it out. The real antagonism is between all of us and those few at the top, who are preventing a decent society from coming into being and who are killing us all.

Charles Derber:
The conversation we‘re having is not a conversation that‘s on the plate in the United States. You tell me, how often you have seen in the New York Times or CNN or even MSNBC, any of the mainstream media, a conversation about whether we should have or get rid of capitalism? You‘re seen as freaking crazy if you raise this question. The idea is not only that capitalism is the only good, it’s the only possible way of organizing society. That‘s the bad news. And it’s really bad, because the ideological forces of control have consolidated around this idea. It’s only in very small niches and communities where this kind of question would get on the table without being laughed off.

Community is important.

When you actually question people about what they believe, it turns out they believe that capitalism is pretty fucked up. They think that capitalism is putting money into Washington and into political processes in a way that is pretty sociopathic, they are pissed off about the bailing out of the banks, they believe that people who work in McDonalds or in nursing homes deserve a living wage, they believe that unions are good things and that community is important, and they believe in the essential need to protect the environment. So, there is a resonance. When do people become receptive to ideas?

There is a counter-culture.

The contradiction that we‘re dealing with is, on the one hand you can‘t even talk about what we‘re talking about today. Capitalism is the only reality that the ideological apparatus of the country will accept as a dialog. And in a sense, there is a resonance to that. There aren’t masses out in San Francisco even who are saying “We want to talk about class revolution or about capitalism,” who would embrace what Stephanie just said. On the other hand, when you carefully interrogate people about what it is they believe on real issues, they want healthcare, good education for their kids, to save the environment for future generations. There is a counter-resonance, a counter-culture, but it operates under the formal mechanism of politics which has become spectacle- and money-driven.

The practice of resistance.

Somehow the practice of resistance and social change has to be diving under the surface of that resonant, controlling ideology, and finding the way to speak to the parts of people’s lives that are telling them everything is wrong in the society, that we need drastic change. We have to be really smart, and I mean that in an emotional way. We have to find a way to viscerally hook into the deep discontents that people are experiencing about their lives, and about their communities, about their kids’ prospects, about their own prospects. It‘s a little bit like an abused child.

You take an abused child, and you try to pull them away from their parents, and they will run to the parent who has been kicking them, and hold on to their knees and say “Don‘t take me away!” I think the body politic in the United States is operating a little bit like that. They know that they’re being abused, and they’re holding on for dear life to the abuser. And what a resistance movement has to do is to provide a source of safety and community that will allow people to realize I can let go of that and actually get rid of it, because it has been destroying my life.

Derrick Jensen:
A lot of environmentalists begin by wanting to protect a specific piece of ground, and they end up questioning the foundation of western civilization. And that‘s because they start by asking “Why is this land being destroyed?” and then they start asking “Why would any land be destroyed?” and then they hear that the needs of the economy are in opposition to the needs of the environment and they ask “Why would you have an economic system that is in opposition to the environment?” There is that huge split between grassroots environmental activists and mainstream activists. And the split is where their fundamental loyalty is.

Grassroots Activism.

With the grassroots environmental activists, the ones that I knew and grew up with is, their emphasis is always biocentric. And the loyalty of Tom Friedman is to capitalism. I keep thinking about the line by Harriet Tubman: “I freed hundreds of slaves, but I could have freed hundreds more if only they had known they were slaves.” It‘s the same thing with capitalism. One of our jobs in this pre-revolutionary phase is to help people to articulate the understanding that they already have, that they are enslaved by the system but they don‘t yet know it, just like the slaves Harriet Tubman tried to free didn’t know it.


Charles Derber:
The young people in the country have a feeling like what Derrick is talking about, that their connection to their world is being destroyed. At some level it is translating to an understanding, that this is a symptom of something fundamentally wrong in their way of life. That the environmental destruction and climate change, as terrible as it is, is a symptom of something even deeper. Which is the way we’ve constructed our civilization and our way of life. This is the realm of possibility. But they have to go a long way in their movement, from that very gut-level understanding to being able to articulate the connections that at some level they feel.

Stephanie McMillan:
I agree that people are discontented. They understand that something is wrong. We can‘t go out and just talk about capitalism in abstract concepts at the start. I go out a lot and talk with people, pass out flyers and stuff like that, trying to organize. I start out by saying “It’s really difficult to survive under this system, where a few people take everything and we can’t even make a living,” and everybody is like “Yeah, it‘s horrible!” And I say, “We have to organize to do something about it. We have to fight back against this!”

Building connection.

“Yeah we do!” is a very common response. How do we crush it? I talked about it in very general terms, but a lot of people really want something more concrete. There is no easy formula for it. In order to make a political change—and a revolution is a political change—we need the ideological change first. In order to have a revolution in reality, we need to be able to imagine it in our minds. Organizing people means building relationships. If you can‘t find an organization that you agree with just start one. A conversation with one person, that’s how it starts. And then you find another person, and if you can’t find one or you don’t know one, then go out in the street and start talking to people. You don’t have to have all the answers, you need to open the conversation and you need to have regular meetings.

I know people don‘t like that, but you really need them. And you need to have study, and you need to have action. And that action is widely varied. Even going out and talking to people, that‘s an action. That’s how we start. There is no easy way to do it, there is no way around the tedious work of putting yourself out there. There is no other way to do it.

Derrick Jensen:
How do we crush the system? The North won the civil war before it started. Germany lost WWII before it started. The way you win war is by destroying the enemy’s capacity to wage war. That‘s the point of war. And one of the things we need to do—well, we need to recruit first, there is like fifteen of us—but one of the things we need to do is to destroy capitalism’s ability to wage war on us and on the world. We‘re not quite there yet.

Resisting change.

One of the really big barriers to recruitment is a wonderful metaphor that somebody told me. I was asking a fisheries biologist about blowing up dams, and the fisheries biologist was saying that a flood is a natural process. Every time a river floods, it changes course. It breaks her heart, because all these fish, the frogs and the trees who were in the old channel die. But she said that‘s what rivers do, they change course all the time.

There is a phrase that just stuck with me so hard—every time a river floods there is short term habitat loss and long term habitat gain. And as soon as she said that to me I got chills, thinking Why do we stay in bad relationships? Because we are afraid of the short term loss for long term gain. Why do we stay in bad jobs? Because we are afraid of the short term loss for long term gain. I am not in any way attempting to dismiss the terror involved in the collapse of any system, which is completely dreadful. But that’s one of the biggest things that is holding us all back, because of the very real prospect of terrible short term loss in exchange for the very obvious long term gain that will be gained by getting rid of capitalism.

This is a huge, very real barrier that we face.

The Enclosure Movement

The Enclosure Movement

Editor’s note: This piece details the history of the enclosure movement, focusing on western civilization. Enclosure is an ongoing process by which land that was previously seen as collective, belonging to everyone or purely to nature, is privatized. Enclosure has long been a tenet of capitalism, and more broadly of civilization. Exploitation and destruction of land follows.

by Ian Angus

In 1542, Henry VIII gave his friend and privy councilor Sir William Herbert a gift: the buildings and lands of a dissolved monastery, Wilton Abbey near Salisbury. Herbert didn’t need farmland, so he had the buildings torn down, expelled the monastery’s tenants, and physically destroyed an entire village. In their place he built a large mansion, and fenced off the surrounding lands as a private park for hunting.

In May 1549, officials reported that people who had long used that land as common pasture were tearing down Herbert’s fences.

“There is a great number of the commons up about Salisbury in Wiltshire, and they have plucked down Sir William Herbert’s park that is about his new house, and diverse other parks and commons that be enclosed in that county, but harm they do to [nobody]. They say they will obey the King’s master and my lord Protector with all the counsel, but they say they will not have their commons and their grounds to be enclosed and so taken from them.”

Herbert responded by organizing an armed gang of 200 men, “who by his order attacked the commons and slaughtered them like wolves among sheep.”[1]

The attack on Wilton Abbey was one of many enclosure riots in the late 1540s that culminated in the mass uprising known as Kett’s Rebellion, discussed in Part Two. There had been peasant rebellions in England in the Middle Ages, most notably in 1381, but they were rare. As Engels wrote of the German peasantry, their conditions of life militated against rebellion. “They were scattered over large areas, and this made every agreement between them extremely difficult; the old habit of submission inherited by generation from generation, lack of practice In the use of arms in many regions, and the varying degree of exploitation depending on the personality of the lord, all combined to keep the peasant quiet.”[2]

Enclosure, a direct assault on the peasants’ centuries-old way of life, upset the old habit of submission. Protests against enclosure were reported as early as 1480, and became frequent after 1530. “Hundreds of riots protesting enclosures of commons and wastes, drainage of fens and disafforestation … reverberated across the century or so between 1530 and 1640.”[3]

Elizabethan authorities used the word “riot” for any public protest, and the label is often misleading. Most were actually disciplined community actions to prevent or reverse enclosure, often by pulling down fences or uprooting the hawthorn hedges that landlords planted to separate enclosed land.

“The point in breaking hedges was to allow cattle to graze on the land, but by filling in the ditches and digging up roots those involved in enclosure protest made it difficult and costly for enclosers to re-enclose quickly. That hedges were not only dug up but also burnt and buried draws attention to both the considerable time and effort which was invested in hedge-breaking and to the symbolic or ritualistic aspects of enclosure opposition. … Other forms of direct action against enclosure included impounding or rescuing livestock, the continued gathering of previously common resources such as firewood, trespassing in parks and warrens, and even ploughing up land which had been converted to pasture or warrens.”[4]

The forms of anti-enclosure action varied, from midnight raids to public confrontations “with the participants, often including a high proportion of women, marching to drums, singing, parading or burning effigies of their enemies, and celebrating with cakes and ale.”[5] (I’m reminded of Lenin’s description of revolutions as festivals of the oppressed and exploited.) Villagers were very aware of their rights — it was joked that some farmers read Thomas de Lyttleton’s Treatise on Tenures while ploughing — so physical assaults on fences and hedges were often accompanied by petitions and legal action.

Many accounts of what’s called the enclosure movement focus on the consolidation of dispersed strips of leased land into compact farms, but most enclosure riots actually targeted the privatization of the unallocated land that provided pasture, wood, peat, game and more. For cottagers who had no more than a small house and an acre or two of poor quality land, access to those resources was a matter of life and death. “Commons and common rights, so far from being merely a luxury or a convenience, were really an integral and indispensable part of the system of agriculture, a lynch pin, the removal of which brought the whole structure of village society tumbling down.”[6]

Coal wars

In the last decades of the 1500s, farmers in northern England faced a new threat to their livelihoods, the rapid expansion of coal mining, which many landlords found was more profitable than renting farmland. Thousands who were made landless by enclosure ultimately found work in the new mines, but the very creation of those mines required the dispossession of farmers and farmworkers. The search for coal seams left pits and waste that endangered livestock; actual mines destroyed pasture and arable land and polluted streams, making farming impossible.

The prospect of mining profits produced a new kind of enclosure — expropriation of mineral rights under common land. “Wherever coal-mining became important, it stimulated the movement towards curtailing the rights of customary tenants and even of small freeholders, and towards the enclosure of portions of the wastes.” In the landlords’ view, it wasn’t enough just to fence off the mining area, “not only must the tenants be prevented from digging themselves, they must be stripped of their power to refuse access to minerals under their holdings, or to demand excessive compensation.”[7]

As a result, historian John Nef writes, tenant farmers “lived in constant fear of the discovery of coal under their land,” and attempts to establish new mines were often met by sabotage and violence. “Many were the obscure battles fought with pitchfork against pick and shovel to prevent what all tenants united in branding as a mighty abuse.” Fences were torn down, pits filled in, buildings burned, and coal was carried off. In Lancashire, the enclosures surrounding one large mine were torn down sixteen times by freeholders who claimed “freedom of pasture.” In Derbyshire in 1606, a landlord complained that twenty-three men “armed with pitchforks, bows and arrows, guns and other weapons,” had threatened to kill everyone involved if mining continued on the manor.[8]

In these and many other battles, commoners heroically fought to preserve their land and rights, but they were unable to stop the growth of a highly-profitable industry that was supported physically by the state and legally by the courts. As elsewhere, capital defeated the commons.

Turning point

In the early 1500s, capitalist agriculture was new, and the landowning classes were generally critical of the minority who enclosed common land and evicted tenants. The commonwealth men whose sermons defended traditional village society and condemned enclosure were expressing, in somewhat exaggerated form, views that were widely held in the aristocracy and gentry. While anti-enclosure laws were drafted and introduced by the royal government, they were invariably approved by the House of Commons, which “almost by definition, represented the prospering section of the gentry.”[9]

As the century progressed, however, growing numbers of landowners sought to break free from customary and state restrictions in order to “improve” their holdings. In 1601, when Sir Walter Raleigh argued that the government should “let every man use his ground to that which it is most fit for, and therein use his own discretion,”[10] a large minority in the House of Commons agreed.

As Christopher Hill writes, “we can trace the triumph of capitalism in agriculture by following the Commons’ attitude towards enclosure.”

“The famine year 1597 saw the last acts against depopulation; 1608 the first (limited) pro-enclosure act. … In 1621, in the depths of the depression, came the first general enclosure bill — opposed by some M.P.s who feared agrarian disturbances. In 1624 the statutes against enclosure were repealed. … the Long Parliament was a turning point. No government after 1640 seriously tried either to prevent enclosures, or even to make money by fining enclosers.”[11]

The early Stuart kings — James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) — played a contradictory role, reflecting their position as feudal monarchs in an increasingly capitalist country. They revived feudal taxes and prosecuted enclosing landlords in the name of preventing depopulation, but at the same time they raised their tenants’ rents and initiated large enclosure projects that dispossessed thousands of commoners.

Enclosure accelerated in the first half of the 1600s — to cite just three examples, 40% of Leicestershire manors, 18% of Durham’s land area, and 90% of the Welsh lowlands were enclosed in those decades.[12] Even without formal enclosure, many small farmers lost their farms because they couldn’t pay fast rising rents. “Rent rolls on estate after estate doubled, trebled, and quadrupled in a matter of decades,” contributing to “a massive redistribution of income in favour of the landed class.”

It was a golden age for landowners, but for small farmers and cottagers, “the third, fourth, and fifth decades of the seventeenth century witnessed extreme hardship in England, and were probably among the most terrible years through which the country has ever passed.[13]

Fighting back

Increased enclosure was met by increased resistance. Seventeenth century enclosure riots were generally larger, more frequent, and more organized than in previous years. Most were local and lasted only a few days, but several were large enough to be considered regional uprisings — “the result of social and economic grievances of such intensity that they took expression in violent outbreaks of what can only be called class hatred for the wealthy.”[14]

The Midland Revolt broke out in April 1607 and continued into June. The rebels described themselves as “diggers” and “levelers,” labels later used by radicals during the civil war, and they claimed to be led by “Captain Pouch,” a probably mythical figure whose magical powers would protect them.[15] Martin Empson describes the revolt in his history of rural class struggle, Kill all the Gentlemen:

“Events in 1607 involved thousands of peasants beginning in Northamptonshire at the very start of May and spreading to Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Mass protests took place, involving 3,000 at Hilmorton in Warwickshire and 5,000 at Cotesback in Leicestershire. In a declaration produced during the revolt, The Diggers of Warwickshire to all other Diggers, the authors write that they would prefer to ‘manfully die, then hereafter to be pined to death for want of that which those devouring, encroachers do serve their fat hogs and sheep withal.’”[16]

These were well-planned actions, not spontaneous riots. Cottagers from multiple villages met in advance to discuss where and when to assemble, arranged transportation, and provided tools, meals and places to sleep for the rebels who would spend days tearing down fences, uprooting hedges and filling in ditches. Local militias could not stop them — indeed, “many members of the militia themselves became involved in the rising, either actively or by voting with their feet and failing to attend the muster.”[17]

The movement was only stopped when mounted vigilantes, hired by local landlords, attacked protestors near the town of Newton, massacring more than 50 and injuring many more. The supposed leaders of the rising were publicly hanged and quartered, and their bodies were displayed in towns throughout the region.

The Western Rising was less organized, but it lasted much longer, from 1626 to 1632. Here the focus was “disafforestation” — Charles I’s privatization of the extensive royal forests in which thousands of farmers and cottagers had long exercised common rights. The government appointed commissions to survey the land, propose how to divide it up, and negotiate compensation for tenants. The largest portions were leased to investors, mainly the king’s friends and supporters, who in turn rented enclosed parcels to large farmers.”[18]

Generally speaking, the forest enclosures seem to have been fair to freeholders and copyholders who could prove that they had common rights, but not to those who had never had formal leases, or couldn’t prove that they had. The formally landless were excluded from the negotiations and from the land they had worked on all their lives.

For at least six years, landless workers and cottagers fought to prevent or reverse enclosures in Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and other areas where the crown was selling off public forests.

“The response of the inhabitants of each forest was to riot almost as soon as the post-disafforestation enclosure had begun. These riots were broadly similar in aim and character, directed toward the restoration of the open forest and involving destruction of the enclosing hedges, ditches, and fences and, in a few cases, pulling down houses inhabited by the agents of the enclosers, and assaults on their workmen.”[19]

Declaring “here were we born and here we will die,” as many as 3,000 men and women took part in each action against forest enclosures. Buchanan Sharp’s study of court records shows that the majority of those arrested for anti-enclosure rioting identified themselves not as husbandmen (farmers) but as artisans, particularly weavers and other clothworkers, who depended on the commons to supplement their wages. “It could be argued that there were two types of forest inhabitants, those with land who went to law to protect their rights, and those with little or no land who rioted to protect their interests.”[20]

The longest continuing fight against enclosure took place in eastern England, in the fens. From the 1620s to the end to the century, thousands of farmers and cottagers resisted large-scale projects to drain and enclose the vast wetlands that covered over 1400 square miles in Lincolnshire and adjacent counties. Aiming to create “new land” that could be sold to investors and rented to large tenant farmers, the drainage projects would dispossess thousands of peasants whose lives depended on the region’s rich natural resources.

The result was almost constant conflict. Historian James Boyce describes what happened in 1632, when constables tried to arrest opponents of draining a 10,000 acre common marsh, in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham:

“The constables charged with arresting the four Soham resistance leaders so delayed entering the village that they were later charged for not putting the warrant into effect. When they finally sought to do so, an estimated 200 people poured onto the streets armed with forks, staves and stones. The next day a justice ordered 60 men to support the constables in executing the warrant but over 100 townspeople still stood defiant, warning ‘that if any laid hands of any of them, they would kill or be killed’. When one of the four was finally arrested, the constables were attacked and several people were injured. A justice arrived in Soham on 11 June with about 120 men and made a further arrest before the justice’s men were again ‘beaten off, the rest never offering to aid them’. Another of the four leaders, Anne Dobbs, was eventually caught and imprisoned in Cambridge Castle but on 14 June 1633, the fight was resumed when about 70 people filled in six division ditches meant to form part of an enclosure. Twenty offenders were identified, of whom fourteen were women.”[21]

Militant and often violent protests challenged every drainage project. As elsewhere in England, fenland rioters uprooted hedges, filled ditches and destroyed fences, but here they also destroyed pumping equipment, broke open dykes, and attacked drainage workers, many of whom had been brought from the Netherlands. “By the time of the civil war the whole fenland was in a state of open rebellion.”[22]

Revolution in the revolution

For eleven years, from 1629 to 1640, Charles I tried to rule as an absolute monarch, refusing to call Parliament and unilaterally imposing taxes that were widely viewed as oppressive and illegal. When his need for more money finally forced him to call Parliament, the House of Commons refused to approve new taxes unless he agreed to restrictions on his powers. The king refused and civil war broke out in 1642, leading to Charles’s defeat and execution in 1649. From then until 1660, England was a republic.

Many histories of the civil was treat it as purely a conflict within the ruling elite: it often seems, Brian Manning writes, “as if the other 97 per cent of the population did not exist or did not matter.”[23] In fact, as Manning shows in The English People and the English Revolution, poor peasants, wage laborers and small producers were not just followers and foot soldiers — they were conscious participants whose actions influenced and often determined the course of events. The fight for the commons was an important part of the English Revolution.

“Between the assembling of the Long Parliament in·1640 and the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 there was a rising tide of protest and riot in the countryside. This was directed chiefly against the enclosures of commons, wastes and fens, and the invasions of common rights by the king, members of the royal family, courtiers, bishops and great aristocrats.”[24]

Between 1640 and 1644 there were anti-enclosure riots in more than half of England’s counties, especially in the midlands and north: “in some cases not only the fences but the houses of the gentry were attacked.”[25]

The wealthiest landowners were outraged. In July 1641, the House of Lords complained that “violent breaking into Possessions and Inclosures, in riotous and tumultuous Manner, in several Parts of this Kingdom,” was happening “more frequently … since this Parliament began than formerly.” They ordered local authorities to ensure “that no Inclosure or Possession shall be violently, and in a tumultuous Manner, disturbed or taken away from any Man,”[26] but their orders had little effect. “Constables not only repeatedly failed to perform their duties against neighbours engaged in the forcible recovery of their commons, but were also sometimes to be found in the ranks of the rioters themselves.”[27]

The rioters hated the landowners’ government and weren’t reluctant to say so. When an order against anti-enclosure riots was read in a church in Wiltshire in April 1643, for example, one parishioner stood and “most contemptuously and in dishonor of the Parliament and their authority said that he cared not for their orders and the Parliament might have kept them and wiped their arses with them.”[28]

In 1645, anti-enclosure protestors in Epworth, Lincolnshire, replied to a similar order that ‘”They did not care a Fart for the Order which was made by the Lords in Parliament and published in the Churches, and, that notwithstanding that Order, they would pull down all the rest of the Houses in the Level that were built upon those Improvements which were drained, and destroy all the Enclosures.”[29]

The most intense conflicts took place in the fens. To cite just one case, in February 1643, in Axholme, Lincolnshire, commoners armed with muskets opened floodgates at high tide, drowning over six thousand acres of recently drained and enclosed land, and then closed the gates to prevent the water from flowing out at low tide. Armed guards then held the position for ten weeks, threatening to shoot anyone who attempted to let the water out.[30]

Many more examples could be cited. The years 1640 to 1660 weren’t just a time of revolutionary civil war, they were decades of anti-enclosure rebellion.


Two centuries later, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that “all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities.” That was certainly true of the English Revolution — Parliament could not have overthrown the monarchy without the support of small producers, peasants and wage-workers, but the plebeians got little from the victory. As Digger leader Gerard Winstanley wrote to the “powers of England” in 1649: “though thou hast promised to make this people a free people, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, that thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us.”[31]

Since the king was one of the largest and most hated enclosers, many anti-enclosure protesters expected Parliament to support their cause, but their hopes were disappointed — no surprise, since almost all MPs were substantial landowners. Both houses of Parliament repeatedly condemned anti-enclosure riots, and no anti-enclosure measures were adopted during the civil war or by the republican regime in the 1650s. The last attempt to regulate (not prevent) enclosure occurred in 1656, when a Bill to do that was rejected on first reading: the Speaker said “he never liked any Bill that touched upon property,” and another MP called it “the most mischievous Bill that ever was offered to this House.”[32]

Like the royal government it replaced, the republican government in the 1650s raised revenue by selling off royal forests and supported the drainage and enclosure of the fens. It passed laws that eliminated all remaining feudal restrictions and charges on landowners, but made no changes to the tenures of farmers and cottagers. “Thus landlords secured their own estates in absolute ownership, and ensured that copyholders remained evictable.”[33]

In Christopher Hill’s words, in the seventeenth century struggle for land, “the common people were defeated no less decisively than the crown.”[34]

The last wave

There were sporadic anti-enclosure protests in the last years of the seventeenth century, especially in the fens, but for all practical purposes, the uprisings of 1640 to 1660 were the last of their kind. In the early 1700s, peasant resistance mostly involved illegally hunting deer or gathering wood on enclosed land, not tearing down fences. Long memories of brutal defeats, reinforced by fear of ruling class forces that were now even stronger, discouraged any return to mass action.

Until the mid-1700s, the large landlords who owned most of English farmland seem to have been more interested in reaping the rewards of previous victories than in enclosing the remaining open fields and commons. About a quarter of the country’s farmland was still worked in open fields in 1700, but so long as rents covered costs, with a substantial surplus, few landlords chose to make changes.

When a new wave of enclosures began about 1755, spurred first by falling grain prices and then by rising prices during Napoleonic wars, the social and economic context was very different. English capitalist society, we might say, had become more “civilized.” In place of the rough methods of earlier years, enclosure became a structured bureaucratic process, subject to political oversight and regulation. Enclosure required detailed surveys and plans prepared by lawyers and professional enclosure commissioners, all accepted by the owners and tenants of three-quarters of the land involved (which was often a small minority of the people affected), then written into a Bill which had to be approved by a Parliamentary committee and both houses of Parliament.

Marx referred to the resulting Enclosure Acts as “decrees by which the landowners grant themselves the peoples’ land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people.”[35]

Most Parliamentary enclosures seem to have carefully followed the law, including fairly allocating land or compensation to leaseholders large and small, but the law did not recognize customary common rights. Just as with the cruder methods of previous centuries, Parliamentary enclosure didn’t just consolidate land: it eliminated common rights and dispossessed the landless commoners who depended on them. When a 20th century historian called this “perfectly proper,” because the law was obeyed and property rights protected, Edward Thompson replied:

“Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers. …

“What was ‘perfectly proper’ in terms of capitalist property-relations involved, none the less, a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right: and the social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions.”[36]

There were some local riots after enclosure was approved, often in the form of stealing or burning fence posts and rails, but as J.M. Neeson has shown, most resistance took the form of “stubborn non-compliance, foot-dragging and mischief,” before an enclosure Bill went to London. Villagers refused to speak to surveyors or gave them inaccurate information, sent threatening letters, stole record books and field plans, and in general tried to force delays or drive up the landlords’ costs. In some cases, villagers petitioned Parliament to reject the proposed bill, but that was expensive and rarely successful.[37]

Ultimately, however, the game was rigged. Sabotage might slow things down or win better terms, but landlords and large tenants who wanted to impose enclosure could always do so, and there was no right of appeal. Between 1750 and 1820 nearly 4,000 Enclosure Acts were passed, affecting roughly 6.8 million acres. Only a handful of open-field villages remained. Despite centuries of resistance, the power of capital prevailed: “the commons in England were gradually driven out of existence, the small farms engrossed, the land enclosed, and the commoners forcibly removed.”[38]

Continuing enclosure

As Marx wrote, “the expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production.” People who can produce all or most of their own subsistence are independent in ways that are alien to capitalism — they are under no economic compulsion to work for wages. As an advocate of enclosure wrote in 1800, “when a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings … the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work.”[39]

This series of articles has focused on England, where the expropriation involved a centuries-long war against the commons. It was the classic case of primitive accumulation, the “two transformations” by which “the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers,”[40] but of course this is not the whole story. In other places, capitalism’s growth by dispossession occurred at different speeds and in different ways.

In Scotland, for example, enclosure didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, but then the drive to catch up with England ensured that it was much faster and particularly brutal. As Neil Davidson writes, the horrendous 19th century Highland Clearances that Marx so eloquently condemned in Capital involved not primitive accumulation by new capitalists, but the consolidation of “an existing, and thoroughly rapacious, capitalist landowning class … whose disregard for human life (and, indeed, ‘development’) marked it as having long passed the stage of contributing to social progress.”[41]

And, of course, the growth of the British Empire, from Ireland to the Americas to India and Africa, was predicated on enclosure of colonized land and dispossession of indigenous peoples. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, extending the “blight of capitalist civilization” required

“the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development .… Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives, who are also forcibly robbed of their means of production and labour power.”[42]

That remains true today, when one percent of the world’s population has 45% of all personal wealth and nearly three billion people own nothing at all. Every year, the rich enclose ever more of the world’s riches, and their corporations destroy more of the life support systems that should be our common heritage. Enclosures continue, strengthening an ever-richer ruling class and an ever-larger global working class.

In the seventeenth century, an unknown poet summarized the hypocrisy and brutality of enclosure in four brief lines:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

We should also recall the fourth verse of that poem, which urges us to move from indignation to action.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Editor’s note: The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism.

Articles in this series:

Commons and classes before capitalism
‘Systematic theft of communal property’
Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class
Against Enclosure: The Commoners Fight Back


[1] Quotations in Andy Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 49.

[2] Frederick Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany” (1850) in Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 10 (International Publishers, 1978), 410.

[3] Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Clarendon Press, 1988), 3.

[4] Briony Mcdonagh and Stephen Daniels, “Enclosure Stories: Narratives from Northamptonshire,” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 1 (January 2012), 113.

[5] Norah Carlin, The Causes of the English Civil War (Blackwell, 1999), 129.

[6] R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 76.

[7] John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Frank Cass, 1966), 342-3, 310.

[8] John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Frank Cass, 1966), 312, 316-7, 291-2. See also Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), 320-24.

[9] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.

[10] Proceedings in the Commons, 1601: November 2–5.

[11] Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, 51.

[12] Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 162.

[13] Peter Bowden, “Agricultural Prices, Farm Profits, and Rents,” in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, ed. Joan Thirsk, vol. IV (Cambridge University Press, 1967), 695, 690, 621.

[14] Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (University of California, 1980), 264.

[15] Such figures appeared frequently in rural uprisings in England: later examples included Lady Skimmington, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing.

[16] Martin Empson, ‘Kill All the Gentlemen’: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018), 165.

[17] John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Macmillan, 1986), 173.

[18] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 84-5.

[19] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 86.

[20] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 144.

[21] James Boyce, Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens (Icon Books, 2021), Kindle edition, loc. 840.

[22] Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1991), 194.

[23] Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 1.

[24] Manning, English People, 195.

[25] John S. Morrill, The Revolt of the Provinces: Conservatives And Radicals In The English Civil War, 1630 1650 (Longman, 1987) 34.

[26] “General Order for Possessions, to secure them from Riots and Tumults,” House of Lords Journal vol. 4, July 13, 1641.

[27] Lindley, Fenland Riots, 68.

[28] Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 228.

[29] Quoted in Lindley, Fenland Riots, 149.

[30] Lindley, Fenland Riots, 147.

[31] Gerard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, and Other Writings, ed. Christopher Hill (Penguin Books, 1973), 82.

[32] Christopher Hill and Edmund Dell, eds., The Good Old Cause, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2012), 424.

[33] Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (Schocken Books, 1964), 191.

[34] Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Harper, 1972), 260.

[35] Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 885.

[36] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1991), 237-8.

[37] The best account of resistance to enclosure in the 18th century is chapter 9 of J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[38] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Commons,” Social Research (Spring 2021), 5.

[39] Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800, quoted in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1991), 243.

[40] Karl Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 874.

[41] Neil Davidson, “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 1,” Journal of Agrarian Change (July 2004), 229.

[42] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, (Routledge, 2003), 352, 350.

Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class

Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class

This story first appeared in Climate & Capitalism

Deprived of land and common rights, the English poor were forced into wage-labor

Articles in this series:

  1. Commons and classes before capitalism
  2. ‘Systematic theft of communal property’
  3. Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
  4. Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class

by Ian Angus

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
—Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History”

Much academic debate about the origin of capitalism has actually been about the origin of capitalists. Were they originally aristocrats, or gentry, or merchants, or successful farmers? Far less attention has been paid to Brecht’s penetrating question: who did the actual work?

The answer is simple and of world-historic importance. Capitalism depends on the availability of large numbers of non-capitalists, people who are, as Marx said, “free in the double sense.” Free to work for others because they are not legally tied to a landlord or master, and free to starve if they don’t sell their labor-power, because they own no land or other means of production. “The possessor of labor-power, instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labor has been objectified … [is] compelled to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power which exists only in his living body.”[1]

This article outlines some key experiences of the first great wave of commoners who were separated from the land in England in the 1500s and 1600s.

Some commoners went directly from following a plough to full-time wage-labor, but many, perhaps most, tried to avoid proletarianization. Christopher Hill has shown that “acceptance of wage labor was the last resort open to those who had lost their land, but many regarded it as little better than slavery.”[2] Not only were wages low and working conditions abysmal, but the very idea of being subject to a boss and working under wage-discipline was universally detested. “Wage-laborers were deemed inferior in status to those who held the most minute fragment of land to farm for themselves,” so “men fought desperately to avoid the abyss of wage-labor. … The apotheosis of freedom was the stultifying drudgery of those who had become cogs in someone else’s machine.”[3]

The social order that capital’s apologists defend as inevitable and eternal is “the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.”[4] Acceptance of the wages-system as a natural way to live and work did not happen easily.

The Dispossessed

Some people worked for wages in feudal society, but it wasn’t until feudalism disintegrated that the long-term growth of a proletarian class began. It developed, directly and indirectly, from the destruction of the commons.

As we saw in Part One, there was significant economic differentiation in English villages long before the rise of capitalism. By the 1400s, in most communities there was a clear division between those whose farms were large enough to sustain their families and produce a surplus for the market, and the smallholders and cottagers who had to work full- or part-time for their better-off neighbors or the landlord.

Between the two groups was a surprisingly large category known as servants in husbandry — young people who lived with farm families to gain experience, until they could save enough to rent land and marry. They lived and ate with the farmer’s family, often had the right to keep a few sheep or other animals, and usually received a small annual cash payment. “Between one-third and one-half of hired labor in early modern agriculture was supplied by servants in husbandry, and most early modern youths in rural England were servants in husbandry.” At any time until about 1800, some 60 percent of men and women aged 15 to 24 were living-in as farm servants.[5]

In class terms, servants in husbandry were a transitional and temporary category, similar to apprentices or college students today. “Servants did not understand themselves, and were not understood by early modern society, to be part of a laboring class, youthful proletarians.”[6] I stress that because many authors have interpreted a late seventeenth century estimate that more than half the population were servants to mean that most people were wage-laborers. In fact, most servants could best be described as peasants-in-training. A substantial layer of people who had to sell their labor-power existed in the late 1600s, but they were still a minority of the population.

In the 1400s and early 1500s, most enclosures involved the physical eviction of many tenants, often entire villages. After about 1550, it was more usual for landlords to negotiate with their larger tenants to create bigger farms by dividing up the commons and undeveloped land. “It became typical for wealthier tenants to be offered compensation for the loss of common rights, while the landless poor, whose common rights were often much harder to sustain at law, gained little or nothing in return.”[7]

Loss of common rights was catastrophic for smallholders and cottagers. The milk and cheese from two cows could generate as much income as full-time farm labor, and their manure was fuel for the cottage or fertilizer for a garden. None of that was possible without access to pasture. Jane Humphries has shown that, before enclosure, in families where the men worked as day-laborers, the women and children worked on the commons, caring for animals, cutting turf and gathering wood for fuel and building, gathering berries, nuts and other wild foods, and gleaning leftover grain after harvest. “Since women and children were the primary exploiters of common rights, their loss led to changes in women’s economic position within the family and more generally to increased dependence of whole families on wages and wage earners.”[8]

At the same time, England was experiencing a baby boom — between 1520 and 1640, the population more than doubled, from about 2.4 million to over 5 million. That was still about a million fewer people than in the 1300s, before the Black Death, but the system that formerly fed 6 million people no longer existed. Population growth, rising rents, and the trend towards much larger farms were making it impossible for the poor to live on the land. It’s estimated that the proportion of agriculture laborers who had no more than a cottage and garden jumped from 11 percent in 1560 to 40 percent after 1620.[9]

Forced Labor

Turning the dispossessed peasants of Tudor and Stuart England into reliable wage workers required not just economic pressure but state compulsion. “Throughout this period compulsion to labor stood in the background of the labor market. Tudor legislation provided compulsory work for the unemployed as well as making unemployment an offence punishable with characteristic brutality.”[10]

The most comprehensive of those laws was the 1563 Statute of Artificers. Among its provisions:

  • Unemployed men and women from 12 to 60 years old could be compelled to work on any farm that would hire them.
  • Wages and hours for all types of work were set by local justices, who were drawn from the employing class. Anyone who offered or accepted higher wages was imprisoned.
  • No one could leave a job without written permission from the employer; an unemployed worker without the required letter could be imprisoned and whipped.

The pioneering economic historian Thorold Rogers described the 1563 Statute as “the most powerful instrument ever devised for degrading and impoverishing the English worker.”[11] R.H. Tawney compared its provisions to serfdom: “the wage-laborer … can hardly have seen much difference between the restrictions on his movement imposed by the Justices of the Peace and those laid on him by the manorial authorities, except indeed that the latter, being limited to the area of a single village, had been more easy to evade.”[12]

But no matter what the law said, there were often more workers than paying jobs, so many hit the roads in search of work. Such “masterless men” frightened the country’s rulers even more than the unemployed who stayed home. Tudor authorities didn’t recognize any such thing as structural unemployment — able-bodied people without land or masters were obviously lazy idlers who had chosen not to work and were a threat to social peace. Like most governments then and now, they attacked symptoms, not causes, passing law after law to force “vagrants, vagabonds, beggars and rogues” to return to their home parishes and work.

A particularly vicious law, enacted in 1547, ordered that any vagrant who refused to accept any work offered be branded with a red-hot iron and literally enslaved for two years. His master was authorized to feed him on bread and water, put iron rings around his neck and legs, and “cause the said slave to work by beating, chaining or otherwise in such work and labor how vile so ever it be.”[13] Vagabonds’ children could be taken from their parents and apprenticed to anyone who would have them until they were 20 (girls) or 24 (boys).

Other vagrancy laws prescribed whipping through the streets until bloody and death for repeat offenders. In 1576, every county was ordered to build houses of correction and incarcerate anyone who refused to work at whatever wages and conditions were offered.

As Marx wrote in Capital, “Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage labor.”[14]

Migration and emigration

Much of England was still unenclosed and sparsely populated, so rather than live as landless laborers, many families travelled in search of available farm land.

“This surplus population moved from the more overcrowded areas to the regions of fen and marsh, heath and forest; moor and mountain, where there were extensive commons still, on which a cottager with a little or no land could make a living from the rights of common, by which he could pasture some animals on the common and take fuel and building materials; where there were still unoccupied waste lands, on which the poor could squat in little cabins and carve out small farms for themselves; and where there were industrial by-employments by which a cottager or small farmer could supplement his income. By this migration and from these resources of common rights, wastelands and industry, the small peasant survived and poor or landless peasants were saved from. decline into wage-laborers or paupers.”[15]

But the largest number of migrants left England entirely, mostly for North America, or the Caribbean. Net emigration in the century before 1640 was close to 600,000, and another 400,000 left by the end of the century — extraordinarily large numbers from a country whose mid-1600s population was barely 5 million. What’s more, those are net figures — many more left, but their numbers were partially offset by immigrants from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and continental Europe.[16]

Most of the emigrants were young men, and about half paid for the dangerous ocean crossing by agreeing to be indentured servants for four or more years. That was a high price, but hundreds of thousands of landless peasants were willing to pay it. (For some it was not a choice: English courts frequently sentenced vagrants and other criminals to overseas indentured servitude.)

Labor in the Metropolis

For many of the dispossessed, establishing new farms in England or overseas was not possible or, perhaps, desirable. The alternative was paid employment, and that was most easily found — they hoped — in London.

“Whereas the population of England less than doubled from 3.0 million to 5.1 million between 1550 and 1700, London quadrupled from 120,000 to 490,000” — making it home to nearly 10% of the national population.[17]London normally had a high mortality rate, and repeated outbreaks of plague killed tens of thousands, so that growth could only have occurred if about 10,000 people moved there every year. Living conditions were terrible, but wages were higher than anywhere else, and hundreds of thousands of landless workers saw it as their best hope.

Most histories of the city emphasize its role as a hub of global trade and empire. As Brian Dietz comments, “historians by and large hesitate to associate London with manufacturing. An industrial image somehow seems inappropriate.”[18]

That’s understandable if “London” means only the walled capital-c City and the immediately surrounding parishes, where rich merchants lived and worked, and where guilds formed in medieval times still controlled most economic activity, but London was more than that. Most migrants lived in the eastern suburbs, which grew an astonishing 1400 percent between 1560 and 1680. In those suburbs, and south of the Thames, there were so many industrial operations that historian A.L. Beier describes the metropolis as an “engine of manufacture.” There were “water and corn mills on the rivers Lea and Thames; wharves and docks for repairing and fitting out ships between Shadwell and Limehouse; as well as lime-burning, brewing, bell-founding, brick and tile manufacture, wood- and metal-working.”[19]

In the metropolis as a whole, industry was more important than commerce. Few records of the size and organization of industries have survived, but it appears from burial records that in the 1600s, about 40 percent of the people in the metropolis worked mainly in manufacturing, particularly clothing, building, metalwork and leather work. Another 36 percent worked primarily in retail.[20]

Despite the growth of industry, few workers in London or elsewhere found long-term or secure jobs. Most wage-workers never experienced steady work or earned predictable incomes.

“Continuity in employment was not to be expected save among a minority of exceptionally skilled and valued employees. Most workers were engaged for the duration of a particular job, or in the case of seamen for a ‘run’ or voyage, while general labor was usually hired on a daily basis. The bulk of the laboring population, both male and female, therefore constituted a large pool of partially employed labor, which was drawn upon selectively as need arose. … For some, periods of fairly regular employment were punctuated by lengthy bouts of idleness. For others, days of work were scattered intermittently across the year. …[21]

London was by far the largest manufacturing center in England, but migrant workers played key roles in industrial growth in smaller cities as well. Among others, Coventry (population 7,000) attracted spinners, weavers, and cloth finishers, and Birmingham (population 5,000) was an important center for cutlery and nail manufacture.[22]

Working at Sea

In previous articles I discussed the Fishing Revolution — “the development and growth of intensive fishing in the North Sea and northwestern Atlantic Ocean in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” Thousands of workers travelled to distant fishing grounds, where they worked for six or more months a year, catching, processing and preserving herring and cod. The Newfoundland fishery alone used more ships and required more workers than the more famous Spanish treasure fleet that carried silver from Central and South America. The offshore bank-ships and onshore fishing-rooms were factories, long before the industrial revolution, and the men who worked in them were among the first proletarians of the capitalist epoch.

In the 1600s, English ships and fishworkers became a dominant force in North Atlantic fishing. “The success of the North Sea and Newfoundland fisheries depended on merchants who had capital to invest in ships and other means of production, fishworkers who had to sell their labor power in order to live, and a production system based on a planned division of labor.”[23]

The growth of long-distance fishing prefigured and contributed to the growth of a larger maritime working class. Mainstream economic histories of 16th and 17th century England usually discuss the merchant companies that organized trade with Russia, Scandinavia, the Ottoman Empire, India and Africa, but few have much to say about the seamen whose labor made their trading voyages possible.

Fortunately, historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have been remedying that neglect. In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and The Many-Headed Hydra, they document the growth of a working class on merchant and naval ships — “a setting in which large numbers of workers cooperated on complex and synchronized tasks, under slavish, hierarchical discipline in which human will was subordinated to mechanical equipment, all for a money wage. The work, cooperation and discipline of the ship made it a prototype of the factory.”[24]

The capital that merchants invested in long-distance trade “necessarily set massive amounts of free wage labor in motion.”

“In the mid-sixteenth century, between 3,000 and 5,000 Englishmen plied the waves. But by 1750, after two centuries of intensive development, their number had ballooned to more than 60,000. Merchant shipping mobilized huge masses of men for shipboard labor. These workers entered new relationships both to capital — as one of the first generations of free waged laborers — and to each other — as collective laborers. … These cooperating hands did not own the tools or materials of production, and consequently they sold their skill and muscle in an international market for monetary wages. They were an absolutely indispensable part of the rise and growth of North Atlantic capitalism.”[25]

The Elizabethan Leap

Despite migration and emigration, England’s rural population grew substantially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The growth was accompanied by restructuring — the beginning of a long-term economic transition, away from farming to rural industry.

“The rural population wholly engaged in agriculture fell from 76 per cent in 1520 to 70 per cent in 1600, and 60.5 per cent in·1670. The ‘rural non-agricultural population,’ a category which includes the inhabitants of small towns a well as those of industrial villages, rose from 18.5 per cent in 1520 to 22 per cent in 1600, and 26 per cent by 1670.”[26]

Old rural industries prospered and new ones emerged as a result of what Marxist historian Andreas Malm calls the Elizabethan leap — the spectacular growth in the production of coal for both industrial and domestic use, replacing wood and charcoal. “The years around 1560 marked the onset of a virtual coal fever, all major fields soon undergoing extensive development; over the coming century and a half, national output probably soared more than tenfold.”[27]There were substantial coal mines in south Wales and Scotland, but the largest collieries were financed by groups of merchants and landowners in northeast England. Shipments down the east coast, from Newcastle to the fast-growing London market, rose from 50,000 tons a year in 1580 to 300,000 tons in 1640.

“Large specialist workforces with an elaborate division of labor were employed in sinking, timbering and draining pits, the hewing, dragging, winding and sorting of coal and its transportation to riverside staithes, where it was stored ready for shipment downriver in keelboats to meet the collier fleets at the mouths of the Tyne and Wear. …

“The overall growth of the industry meant that by 1650 coal was Britain’s principal source of fuel, not only for domestic heating, but also for the smithies, forges, lime kilns, salt pans, breweries, soapworks, sugar refineries, dyeing vats, brick kilns and numerous other industrial processes which consumed perhaps a third of total output.”[28]

By 1640, the English coal industry was producing three to four times as much coal as all of the rest of Europe combined, and employed more workers than all other kinds of English mining combined.[29] Some 12,000 to 15,000 workers labored directly in coal mining, and more worked in transportation and distribution — “those who produced the coal were greatly outnumbered by the carters, waggonmen, keelmen, seamen, lightermen, heavers, and coalmen who handled it on its way from pithead to hearth.”[30]

Spinners and Weavers

The growth of coal mining and coal-based industries was impressive, but wool was by far the most important raw material, and clothmaking was the largest non-agricultural occupation.[31] Until the late 1400s most raw wool was produced for export, mainly to cloth makers in Flanders, but by the mid-1500s, almost all of it was spun and woven in England. By 1700 English textile production had increased more than 500 percent, and cloth accounted for at least 80 percent of the country’s exports.

For centuries, cloth had been made by individual artisans for family use and for sale in local markets, but in the 1500s production came under the control of clothiers who delivered large quantities of wool to spinners, then collected the thread and delivered it to weavers. They specified what kinds of thread and cloth should be made, and shipped the product to the London merchants who controlled trade with Europe.

Clothmaking involved multiple tasks, including shearing, sorting and cleaning the raw wool, separating and organizing the fibers by combing or carding, dyeing, spinning, and weaving. Spinning, done almost exclusively by women, was the most time-consuming and employed the most workers.

The importance of women in spinning is illustrated by the fact that in the 1500s, the word spinster came to mean a single woman, and distaff (the staff that held wool or flax during spinning) referred to the female side of a family line.

Working backward from the amount of cloth produced for export and domestic use, historian Craig Muldew estimates that at least 225,000 women worked as spinners in 1590, 342,000 in 1640, and 496,000 in 1700. These estimates assume that all the spinning was done by married women, who would have to do other household work as well. Some would have been done by single women, so the actual number of working spinners was probably somewhat smaller, but nevertheless, “spinning was by far the largest industrial occupation in early modern England.”[32]

Roughly speaking, it took ten spinners working full time to produce enough thread to keep one weaver and an assistant working full time. Weavers were almost all men: some were employed in workshops with a few other weavers, but most worked in their homes. By the early 1600s, it was not unusual for a single capitalist to employ hundreds of cottage workers, and some clothiers employed as many as a thousand, all paid on a piece-work basis. For capitalists, putting-out was an effective means of mobilizing many workers in a complex division of labor while retaining effective control and minimizing capital investment. Cottagers were a wonderfully flexible workforce, easily discarded when the market contracted, which it often did.

Some spinners and weavers were successful peasants who supplemented their income with part-time wage-labor, but a growing number received most of their income in wages, and topped that up with the produce of small plots of land and the commons. As Marxist historian Brian Manning points out, in the seventeenth century increasing numbers had no land — they were “were very poor at the best of times, but during the periodic depressions of trade and mass unemployment they came close to starving.”[33] A class division was developing, between the peasantry and a rural proletariat.

“The critical divide lay in the borderland in which small holders or ‘cottage-famers’ with a little land and common rights, but partly dependent on wages earned in agriculture or industry, shaded into landless cottagers wholly dependent on wages. In the background to the revolution the number of the latter was growing.”[34]

In traditional handicraft production, the artisan purchased wool or flax from a farmer, decided what to make, and sold the finished product in a market or to an itinerant merchant. In the putting out system, a capitalist provided the raw material, dictated the type, quantity and quality of product to be produced, owned the product from beginning to end, and controlled payment. The producers were no longer independent artisans engaged in petty commodity production, they were employees in a system of capitalist manufacture.

A new class

As Marx wrote, a new class of wage-laborers was born in England when “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”[35]

With those words, and in his entire account of “so-called primitive accumulation,” Marx was describing the long arc of capitalist development, not an overnight change. It was sudden for those who lost their land, but the social transformation took centuries. In the early 1700s, two hundred years after Thomas More condemned enclosures and depopulation in Utopia, about a third of English farmland was still unenclosed, and most people still lived and worked on the land. It took another great wave of assaults on commons and commoners, after 1750, to complete the transition to industrial capitalism.

The century before the English revolution was a time of transition, a time when, to paraphrase Gramsci, the old order was dying while the new order was struggling to be born. An important part of that transition, as I have tried to show in this article, was the exclusion of uncounted commoners from the land, and the consequent birth of a new class of wage-laborers. None of the industries described here could have survived a day without them.

Over time, and with many detours and reverses, the dispossessed became proletarians.

Looking back, that transition appears inevitable, but it did not seem so to commoners at the time. They furiously resisted the privatizations that forced them off the land and into wage-labor. Mass opposition to the destruction of the commons was widespread, and some argued eloquently for a commons-based alternative to both feudalism and capitalism.

To be continued …

Banner image: Building and clothmaking were among the largest industrial occupations in the 17th century.


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1, (Penguin, 1976), 272-3.

[2] Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Verso, 2020), 66.

[3] Christopher Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 221, 237.

[4] Marx, Capital v.1, 273.

[5] Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 3, 4.

[6] Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, 9.

[7] Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 83.

[8] Jane Humphries, “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Economic History, (March 1990), 21. Humphries’ research focused on the 1700s, but her remarks apply with equal force to earlier years.

[9] Jeremy Boulton, “The ‘Meaner Sort’: Laboring People and the Poor,” in A Social History of England, 1500-1750, ed. Keith Wrightson (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 310-30.

[10] Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, Revised ed. (International Publishers, 1963), 233.

[11] Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, vol. 5 (Clarendon Press, 1887), 628.

[12] R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 33.

[13] Quoted in C.S.L. Davies, “Slavery and Protector Somerset; The Vagrancy Act of 1547.” Economic History Review 19, no. 3 (1966), 534.

[14] Marx, Capital: v.1, 899.

[15] Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1991), 187-8.

[16] No one knows exactly how many people immigrated and emigrated, because no one kept records. These figures are from the most authoritative study: E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (Edward Arnold, 1981), 219-228.

[17] Roger Finlay and Beatrice Shearer, “Population Growth and Suburban Expansion,” in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (Longman, 1986), 38. Other estimates of London’s 1700 population range as high as 575,000.

[18] Brian Dietz, “Overseas Trade and Metropolitan Growth,” in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (Longman, 1986), 129.

[19] A. L. Beier, “Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London,” in London 1500-1700, ed. Beier and Finlay, 163.

[20] Beier, “Engine of Manufacture,” 148.

[21] Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 313.

[22] Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.

[23] Ian Angus, “Intensive Fishing and the Birth of Capitalism,” Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourClimate & Capitalism, February-April, 2021.

[24] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2013), 150.

[25] Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 290.

[26] Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 172.

[27] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016), 48.

[28] Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 170-71. A staithe was a wharf built specifically for transshipping coal.

[29] J. U. Nef, “The Progress of Technology and the Growth of Large-Scale Industry in Great Britain, 1540-1640,” Economic History Review 5, no. 1 (October 1934), 14.

[30] John Hatcher, The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Clarendon Press: 1993), 350.

[31] Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge, 2010 [1962]), xv; B. E. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change in England 1600-1642 (Cambridge University Press, 1959), 6.

[32] Craig Muldew, “‘Th’ancient Distaff’ and ‘Whirling Spindle’”. Economic History Review 65, no. 2 (2012), 518, 523.

[33] Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.

[34] Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1992), 71-2.

[35] Marx, Capital v1, 876.

Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men

Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men

This article originally appeared in Climate&Capitalism.

Editor’s note: We are no Marxists, but we find it important to look at history from the perspective of the usual people, the peasants, and the poor, since liberal historians tend to follow the narrative of endless progress and neglect all the violence and injustice this “progress” was and is based on.

How 16th century reformers fought privatization of land and capitalist agriculture

Featured image: A 16th Century printing press. Commonwealth views were widely disseminated in books, pamphlets and broadsides.

Capital versus Commons is a series of articles on early capitalism and agriculture in England. It was previously titled ‘Robbing the Soil.’ 

PART ONE discussed the central role of shared property and common rights to resources in pre-capitalist agriculture. In the 1400s that system began to break down, beginning the transition from feudalism to capitalism

PART TWO discussed the processes known as ‘enclosure.’ In the late 1400s, landlords began evicting small tenant farmers to increase profits, often by creating large sheep farms. In the 1530s that change was intensified when Henry VIII seized the church’s vast lands and sold them to investors who raised rents and imposed shorter leases. The twin transformations that Marx called primitive accumulation — stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers — were well underway when thousands of peasants rebelled against the changes in 1549.

PART THREE discusses the protestant reformers who opposed the growing drive for privatization of land in the mid-1500s.

by Ian Angus

“I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to purchase and inhabit the earth.”—Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1550[1]

“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”—Karl Marx, 1867[2]

The privatization of land has been justly described as “perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.”[3]

Enclosure — the transformation of common resources into private property — was a fundamental feature of the rise of capitalism in early modern England. It involved not only new ways of using the land, but also, as both cause and effect, new ways of thinking about it.

The idea that individuals could claim exclusive ownership of parts of nature on which all humans depend was very weird indeed. Contrary to the oft-expressed view that greed is inherent in human nature, the shift from commons-based to private-profit-based farming was not accepted easily — in fact, it was denounced and resisted as an assault of the laws of God and the needs of humanity.

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Henry VIII died in 1547, succeeded as king by Edward VI, then only nine years old. For the next six years, actual political power rested with a regency council, headed by the Duke of Somerset until 1549, and by the Duke of Northumberland from late 1549 until Edward’s death in 1553.

Somerset and Northumberland were strong protestants who wanted the English church to move farther from catholic doctrine and practices than Henry had allowed. To promote that, the law outlawing heresy was repealed and censorship was relaxed, beginning a period that has been called “the first great era in the history of English public discussion.”[4]

Liberal protestants took advantage of that opening to campaign vigorously, not just for religious reform, but against sin and corruption in society at large, particularly the erosion of traditional economic values. Their powerful condemnations of greedy landlords and merchants circulated both as books and sermons addressed to the wealthy, and as inexpensive pamphlets and broadsides that were sold in city streets.

They don’t seem to have acted as an organized group, but their speeches and writings clearly reveal the presence of a strong current of anti-capitalist opinion in England in the mid-1500s. Because they focused on the common weal — common good — historians have labelled them the commonwealth men.

Cormorants and greedy gulls

R.H. Tawney’s 1926 book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism remains the best account of the complex connections between social and religious criticism in Tudor England.

“It was an age in which the popular hatred of the encloser and the engrosser found a natural ally in religious sentiment, schooled, as it was, in a tradition which had taught that the greed of gain was a deadly sin, and that the plea of economic self-interest did not mitigate the verdict, but aggravated the offence.

“In England, as on the Continent, doctrinal radicalism marched hand in hand with social conservatism. The most scathing attack on social disorders came, not from the partisans of the old religion, but from divines on the left wing of the Protestant party, who saw in economic individualism but another expression of the laxity and licence which had degraded the purity of religion, and who understood by reformation a return to the moral austerity of the primitive Church, no less than to its government and doctrine.”[5]

The great sin they condemned was covetousness — the desire to accumulate ever more wealth. Hugh Latimer, the most popular preacher of the day, condemned landlords’ greed in general, and enclosure in particular, in a sermon preached before the King and other worthies.

“You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you step-lords, you unnatural lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much. For what here before went for twenty or forty pound by year, (which is an honest portion to be had gratis in one lordship of another man’s sweat and labour) now is let for fifty or an hundred pound by year. … Too much, which these rich men have, causes such dearth, that poor men, which live of their labour, cannot with the sweat of their face have a living …

“These graziers, enclosers and rent-raisers, are hinderers of the King’s honour. For where as have been a great many householders and inhabitants there is now but a shepherd and his dog.”[6]

Those views found support in the country’s top ruling circles. The Book of Private Prayer, prepared by Archbishop Cranmer and other officials of the established church in 1553, included a prayer “For Landlords.”

“We heartily pray Thee to send Thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of those that possess the grounds and pastures of the earth, that they remembering themselves to be Thy tenants may not rack nor stretch out the rents of their lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines. … Give them grace also … that they … may be content with that which is sufficient and not join house to house and land to land, to the impoverishment of others, but so behave themselves in letting out their lands, tenements and pastures that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places.”[7]

One of the most vehement critics of greed and exploitation was the London-based printer and poet Robert Crowley, who offered this explanation for the 1549 peasant rebellions.

“If I should demand of the poor man of the country what thing he thinks to be the cause of Sedition, I know his answer. He would tell me that the great farmers, the graziers, the rich butchers, the men of law, the merchants, the gentlemen, the knights, the lords, and I can not tell who; men that have no name because they are doers of all things that any gain hangs upon. Men without conscience. Men utterly devoid of God’s fear. Yea, men that live as though there were no God at all! Men that would have all in their own hands; men that would leave nothing for others; men that would be alone on the earth; men that be never satisfied.

“Cormorants, greedy gulls; yea, men that would eat up men, women, & children, are the causes of Sedition! They take our houses over our heads, they buy our lands out of our hands, they raise our rents, they levy great (yea unreasonable) fines, they enclose our commons! No custom, no law or statute can keep them from oppressing us in such sort, that we know not which way to turn so as to live.”[8]

Condemning “lease mongers that cancel leases on land in order to lease it again for double or triple the rent,” Crowley argued that landlords should “consider themselves to be but stewards, and not Lords over their possessions.”

“But so long as this persuasion sticks in their minds — ‘It is my own; who shall stop me from doing as I like with my own as I wish?’ — it shall not be possible to have any redress at all. For if I may do with my own as I wish, then I may suffer my brother, his wife, and his children toil in the street, unless he will give me more rent for my house than he shall ever be able to pay. Then may I take his goods for that he owes me, and keep his body in prison, turning out his wife and children to perish, if God will not move some man’s heart to pity them, and yet keep my coffers full of gold and silver.”[9]

Back to the feudal

While no one can doubt the sincerity of their criticism of the rich, the commonwealth men were also “united in denouncing the rebels, whose sin could never be justified even if their grievances could.”[10]

The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose denunciation of wealth accumulation is quoted at the beginning of this article, also, in the same sermon, condemned “unlawful assemblies and tumults,” and people who “confound all things upsy down with seditious uproars and unquietness.” “God in his scriptures expressly forbids all private revenging, and had made this order in commonwealths, that there should be kings and governors to whom he has willed all men to be subject and obedient.”[11]

Speaking of the 1549 rebellions, Latimer declared that “all ireful, rebellious persons, all quarrelers and wranglers, all blood-shedders, do the will of the devil, and not God’s will.” Disobedience to one’s superiors was a major sin, even if the superiors were themselves violating God’s laws. “What laws soever they make as concerning outward things we ought to obey, and in no wise to rebel, although they be never so hard, noisome and hurtful.”[12]

Immediately after condemning landlords as cormorants and greedy gulls, Crowley told the 1549 rebels that they had been misled by the devil: “to revenge wrongs is, in a subject, to take an usurp the office of a king, and, consequently, the office of God.” The poor should suffer in silence, awaiting royal or divine intervention.

Like the nineteenth century “feudal socialists” who Marx and Engels criticized three centuries later, the commonwealth men were literally reactionary — they wanted “to roll back the wheel of history.” “From the ills of present-day society this group draws the conclusion that feudal and patriarchal society should be restored because it was free from these ills.”[13]

As historian Michael Bush says, the commonwealth men “showed concern for the poor, but accepted the need for poverty.”

“Without exception they subscribed to the traditional ideal of the state as a body politic in which every social group had its place, function and desert. … They pleaded with rulers to reform society, and proposed various means, but not by changing its structure. Their thinking was paternalistic and conservative. Although they censured the nobility, it was for malpractices, not for being ruling class.”[14]

English protestant reformers in the mid-1500s “inherited the social idea of medieval Christianity pretty much in its entirety,” so their views were “especially antithetical to the acquisitive spirit that animated the emerging society of capitalism.”[15]

In the 1500s, Tawney wrote, “the new economic realities came into sharp collision with the social theory inherited from the Middle Ages.”[16] What shocked and frightened the commonwealth men was not just poverty, but the growth of a worldview that repudiated “the principles by which alone, as it seemed, human society is distinguished from a pack of wolves.”

“That creed was that the individual is absolute master of his own, and, within the limits set by positive law, may exploit it with a single eye to his pecuniary advantage, unrestrained by any obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbours, or to give account of his actions to a higher authority.”

The wolf-pack creed they were fighting, Tawney commented ironically, was “the theory of property which was later to be accepted by all civilized communities.”[17]

A Losing Battle

The commonwealth men were eloquent and persuasive, but they were fighting a losing battle. The aristocrats who owned most of England’s farmland and controlled the government could tolerate public criticism and ineffective laws, but not anything that actually threatened their wealth and power. They blamed the 1549 rebellions on the critics, and quickly ousted the Duke of Somerset, the only member of the regency council who seemed to favor enforcing the anti-enclosure laws.

What remained of the commonwealth campaign collapsed after 1553, when the catholic Mary Tudor became queen and launched a vicious reign  of terror against protestants. Some 300 “heretics,” including Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake, and hundreds more fled to protestant countries on the continent.

Capitalist practices already had a strong foothold in the countryside in the 1540s, and they spread rapidly in the rest of the century, without regard to what Christian preachers might say. “Forms of economic behavior which had appeared novel and aberrant in the 1540s were becoming normalized virtually to the point of being taken for granted.”[18]

For landowners who wanted to preserve their estates, that shift wasn’t a choice. It was forced on them by changes beyond their control.

“Between the beginning of the sixteenth century and 1640 prices, particularly of foodstuffs, rose approximately sixfold. … [This] put an unusual premium energy and adaptability and turned conservatism from a force making for stability into a quick way to economic disaster. Landed families which stuck to the old ways, left rents as they were, and continued to grant long leases soon found themselves trapped between static incomes and rising prices.”[19]

As a result, the trends that Latimer and his co-thinkers opposed actually accelerated, and their vision of a reborn feudal paternalism was replaced in ruling class thought by what historian C.B. MacPherson calls “possessive individualism” — the view that society is a collection of market relations between people who have an absolute right to do as they wish with their property.[20] That view has remained central to all variants of capitalist ideology, down to the present.

Parliament never passed another anti-enclosure bill after 1597, and the Stuart kings who succeeded the Tudors in 1603 only gave lip-service to protecting the poor from enclosure. “Commissions were issued from time to time for the discovery of offenders, but their crimes were pardoned on payment of a money fine. The punishment of enclosers had degenerated into a revenue-raising device and little else.”[21]

As Christopher Hill writes, in the century before the English Revolution, ruling class attitudes toward the land changed radically. “No government after 1640 seriously tried either to prevent enclosures, or even to make money by fining enclosers.”[22]

But only the rich had decided that land privatization was a good idea. The poor continued to resist that weird undertaking, and for some, the objective now was communism.

To be continued …


I have modernized spelling, and occasionally grammar and vocabulary, in quotations from 16th and 17th century authors.

[1] Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 196. The date 1550 is approximate.

[2] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 742.

[3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 2001), 178.

[4] Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), xiii.

[5] Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Angelico Press, 2021 [1926]), 140-41.

[6] Hugh Latimer, “The First Sermon Preached before King Edward, March 8, 1549,” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

[7] Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 [1887]), 81-2.

[8] Robert Crowley, “The Way to Wealth,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 132-3.

[9] Robert Crowley, “An information and petition against the oppressors of the poor commons of this realm,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 162, 157.

[10] Catharine Davies, A Religion of the Word: The Defence of the Reformation in the Reign of Edward VI (Manchester Univ. Press, 2002), 159.

[11] Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 192, 193

[12] Hugh Latimer, “The Fourth Sermon upon the Lord’s Prayer (1552)” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

[13] Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, (International Publishers, 1976) 494, 355.

[14] M. L. Bush, The Government Policy of Protector Somerset (Edward Arnold, 1975), 61.

[15] Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), 248.

[16] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 135.

[17] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 146-7.

[18] Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 202.

[19] Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford University Press, 1965), 188, 189-90.

[20] C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford University Press, 1962).

[21] Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 67.

[22] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.