Editor’s note: Luddism is often dismissed as “backwardness,” but it is actually a more advanced, considered, and wise position on technology. To be a Luddite is to stand with workers and the natural world against the death march of technology. This essay is a general introduction to the Luddites.
However, we disagree with the author when he argues that modern technology is neutral and that “it’s how such technology is used” that determines its moral character. This view is fundamentally anthropocentric; it’s only possible when you discount the natural world and believe humans are more important than other species. For a more deeply developed critique of technological escalation (we do not refer to this phenomenon as “progress”), we recommend exploring the work of Lewis Mumford, Vine Deloria Jr., Derrick Jensen, Vandana Shiva, Chellis Glendinning, Ivan Illich, Jack D. Forbes, Langdon Winner, and other critics of technology and civilization.
Here at Deep Green Resistance, we use the tools of industrial civilization (such as computers and the internet) to oppose it. Some accuse us of hypocrisy. But did Crazy Horse and Tecumseh not use firearms to fight European colonization? As Arundhati Roy has said, “Fighting people will choose their own weapons.” We see a place in our movement for both principled rejection of technology and the establishment of counter-cultural spaces and organizations, and for the principled use of the products of empire to dismantle empire. These efforts may seem contradictory, but they are not — they are complementary, and in Deep Green Resistance, many of us practice both at the same time.
By Jathan Sadowski / Originally published in The Conversation
I’m a Luddite. This is not a hesitant confession, but a proud proclamation. I’m also a social scientist who studies how new technologies affect politics, economics and society. For me, Luddism is not a naive feeling, but a considered position.
And once you know what Luddism actually stands for, I’m willing to bet you will be one too — or at least much more sympathetic to the Luddite cause than you think.
Today the term is mostly lobbed as an insult. Take this example from a recent report by global consulting firm Accenture on why the health-care industry should enthusiastically embrace artificial intelligence:
Excessive caution can be detrimental, creating a luddite culture of following the herd instead of forging forward.
To be a Luddite is seen as synonymous with being primitive — backwards in your outlook, ignorant of innovation’s wonders, and fearful of modern society. This all-or-nothing approach to debates about technology and society is based on severe misconceptions of the real history and politics of the original Luddites: English textile workers in the early 19th century who, under the cover of night, destroyed weaving machines in protest to changes in their working conditions.
Our circumstances today are more similar to theirs than it might seem, as new technologies are being used to transform our own working and social conditions — think increases in employee surveillance during lockdowns, or exploitation by gig labour platforms. It’s time we reconsider the lessons of Luddism.
A brief — and accurate — history of Luddism
Even among other social scientists who study these kinds of critical questions about technology, the label of “Luddite” is still largely an ironic one. It’s the kind of self-effacing thing you say when fumbling with screen-sharing on Zoom during a presentation: “Sorry, I’m such a Luddite!”
It wasn’t until I learned the true origins of Luddism that I began sincerely to regard myself as one of them.
The Luddites were a secret organisation of workers who smashed machines in the textile factories of England in the early 1800s, a period of increasing industrialisation, economic hardship due to expensive conflicts with France and the United States, and widespread unrest among the working class. They took their name from the apocryphal tale of Ned Ludd, a weaver’s apprentice who supposedly smashed two knitting machines in a fit of rage.
The contemporary usage of Luddite has the machine-smashing part correct — but that’s about all it gets right.
First, the Luddites were not indiscriminate. They were intentional and purposeful about which machines they smashed. They targeted those owned by manufacturers who were known to pay low wages, disregard workers’ safety, and/or speed up the pace of work. Even within a single factory — which would contain machines owned by different capitalists — some machines were destroyed and others pardoned depending on the business practices of their owners.
Second, the Luddites were not ignorant. Smashing machines was not a kneejerk reaction to new technology, but a tactical response by workers based on their understanding of how owners were using those machines to make labour conditions more exploitative. As historian David Noble puts it, they understood “technology in the present tense”, by analysing its immediate, material impacts and acting accordingly.
Luddism was a working-class movement opposed to the political consequences of industrial capitalism. The Luddites wanted technology to be deployed in ways that made work more humane and gave workers more autonomy. The bosses, on the other hand, wanted to drive down costs and increase productivity.
Third, the Luddites were not against innovation. Many of the technologies they destroyed weren’t even new inventions. As historian Adrian Randall points out, one machine they targeted, the gig mill, had been used for more than a century in textile manufacturing. Similarly, the power loom had been used for decades before the Luddite uprisings.
It wasn’t the invention of these machines that provoked the Luddites to action. They only banded together once factory owners began using these machines to displace and disempower workers.
The factory owners won in the end: they succeeded in convincing the state to make “frame breaking” a treasonous crime punishable by hanging. The army was sent in to break up and hunt down the Luddites.
The Luddite rebellion lasted from 1811 to 1816, and today (as Randall puts it), it has become “a cautionary moral tale”. The story is told to discourage workers from resisting the march of capitalist progress, lest they too end up like the Luddites.
Today, new technologies are being used to alter our lives, societies and working conditions no less profoundly than mechanical looms were used to transform those of the original Luddites. The excesses of big tech companies – Amazon’s inhumane exploitation of workers in warehouses driven by automation and machine vision, Uber’s gig-economy lobbying and disregard for labour law, Facebook’s unchecked extraction of unprecedented amounts of user data – are driving a public backlash that may contain the seeds of a neo-Luddite movement.
As Gavin Mueller writes in his new book on Luddism, our goal in taking up the Luddite banner should be “to study and learn from the history of past struggles, to recover the voices from past movements so that they might inform current ones”.
What would Luddism look like today? It won’t necessarily (or only) be a movement that takes up hammers against smart fridges, data servers and e-commerce warehouses. Instead, it would treat technology as a political and economic phenomenon that deserves to be critically scrutinised and democratically governed, rather than a grab bag of neat apps and gadgets.
In a recent article in Nature, my colleagues and I argued that data must be reclaimed from corporate gatekeepers and managed as a collective good by public institutions. This kind of argument is deeply informed by the Luddite ethos, calling for the hammer of antitrust to break up the tech oligopoly that currently controls how data is created, accessed, and used.
A neo-Luddite movement would understand no technology is sacred in itself, but is only worthwhile insofar as it benefits society. It would confront the harms done by digital capitalism and seek to address them by giving people more power over the technological systems that structure their lives.
This is what it means to be a Luddite today. Two centuries ago, Luddism was a rallying call used by the working class to build solidarity in the battle for their livelihoods and autonomy.
And so too should neo-Luddism be a banner that brings workers together in today’s fight for those same rights. Join me in reclaiming the name of Ludd!
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:
- Commons and classes before capitalism
- ‘Systematic theft of communal property’
- Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
- 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” Acceptance of the wages-system as a natural way to live and work did not happen easily.
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.
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
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.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.”
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.”
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.
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. …
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”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.”
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. 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.”
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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1, (Penguin, 1976), 272-3.
 Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Verso, 2020), 66.
 Christopher Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 221, 237.
 Marx, Capital v.1, 273.
 Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 3, 4.
 Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry, 9.
 Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 83.
 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.
 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.
 Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, Revised ed. (International Publishers, 1963), 233.
 Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, vol. 5 (Clarendon Press, 1887), 628.
 R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 ), 33.
 Quoted in C.S.L. Davies, “Slavery and Protector Somerset; The Vagrancy Act of 1547.” Economic History Review 19, no. 3 (1966), 534.
 Marx, Capital: v.1, 899.
 Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1991), 187-8.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 A. L. Beier, “Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London,” in London 1500-1700, ed. Beier and Finlay, 163.
 Beier, “Engine of Manufacture,” 148.
 Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 313.
 Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.
 Ian Angus, “Intensive Fishing and the Birth of Capitalism,” Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Climate & Capitalism, February-April, 2021.
 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2013), 150.
 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.
 Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 172.
 Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016), 48.
 Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 170-71. A staithe was a wharf built specifically for transshipping coal.
 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.
 John Hatcher, The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 1 (Clarendon Press: 1993), 350.
 Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge, 2010 ), xv; B. E. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change in England 1600-1642 (Cambridge University Press, 1959), 6.
 Craig Muldew, “‘Th’ancient Distaff’ and ‘Whirling Spindle’”. Economic History Review 65, no. 2 (2012), 518, 523.
 Brian Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660 (Pluto Press, 1996), 62.
 Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (Bookmarks, 1992), 71-2.
 Marx, Capital v1, 876.
“You Can Kill a Man, but You Can’t Kill an Idea” – Medgar Evers
This article first appeared in Common Dreams.
“After a year of strikes—and having faced brutal repression that claimed some 700 lives—India’s farmers are victorious in their struggle.”
By KENNY STANCIL
Workers’ rights activists around the globe rejoiced on Friday after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government will repeal three corporate-friendly agricultural laws that the nation’s farmers have steadfastly resisted for more than a year.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over 40 farmers’ unions that led the protests, called the development a “historic victory” for those “who struggled resolutely, unitedly, continuously, and peacefully for one year so far in the historic farmers’ struggle,” India Today reported, citing a statement from SKM.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to repeal three farm laws is a welcome step in the right direction,” said SKM, though the organized labor coalition did not commit to ending its mobilization. “SKM hopes that the government of India will go the full length to fulfill all the legitimate demands of protesting farmers, including statutory legislation to guarantee a remunerative MSP [Minimum Support Price].”
Rakesh Tikait, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, welcomed Modi’s announcement but said that “we will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament,” where the winter session starts on November 29. He added that in addition to the MSP demand, “the government should talk to farmers on other issues.”
Modi’s announcement—and the sustained resistance of India’s farmers—were celebrated by progressives worldwide.
“We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament.”
Al Jazeera reported that Modi’s “sudden concession comes ahead of elections early next year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and two other northern states with large rural populations.” Opposition parties attributed the prime minister’s move to sinking poll numbers, characterizing it as part of an effort to appeal to voters who support or sympathize with the nation’s struggling farmers.
According to CNN, “Farmers are the biggest voting bloc in the country, and the agricultural sector sustains about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. Angering farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.”
As India Today noted, “Hundreds of farmers have been camping at three places on the Delhi border since November 2020, demanding the repeal of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.”
For over a year, CNN reported, “Indian farmers have fought the three laws, which they said leave them open to exploitation by large corporations and could destroy their livelihoods.”
Al Jazeera explained that “the legislation the farmers object to,” passed last September, “deregulates the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price.”
Modi’s cabinet said the laws are “aimed at giving farmers the freedom to sell directly to institutional buyers such as big trading houses, large retailers, and food processors,” Reuters reported. While Modi claimed the legislation “will ‘unshackle’ millions of farmers and help them get better prices,” opposition parties said that “farmers’ bargaining power will be diminished.”
Small farmers expressed alarm about the legislation, saying that “the changes make them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice,” Al Jazeera reported.
Beginning last September, farmers from regions of India that are major producers of wheat and rice blocked railway tracks, which was followed by larger, nationwide protests, including some that used trucks, tractors, and combine harvesters to block highways leading to New Dehli, the nation’s capital.
By last December, “protests spread across India, as farm organizations call[ed] for a nationwide strike after inconclusive talks with the government,” Reuters reported, adding that demonstrations also took place throughout the Sikh diaspora.
In January, “India’s Supreme Court order[ed] an indefinite stay on the implementation of the new agricultural laws, saying it wanted to protect farmers and would hear their objections,” the news outlet noted.
Over the course of several months, which included a brutal winter and a devastating Covid-19 surge, farmers continued to agitate for full repeal of the three laws. Repression from Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party resulted in hundreds of deaths.
At the largest rally to date, more than half a million farmers gathered in Uttar Pradesh on September 5, roughly 10 weeks before Modi announced that he will repeal the laws.
In response to Modi’s decision on Friday, “farmers at [the] protest sites of Ghazipur, Tikri, and Singhu borders celebrated by bursting crackers, distributing sweets, and welcoming the [government’s] move,” India Today reported.
The Transnational Institute praised “the resilience, courage, and determination of India’s farmers who succeeded in overturning the pernicious farm laws,” calling it “the power of movements.”
“The repeal of the three farm laws… is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement.”
That sentiment was shared by numerous other observers.
“The repeal of the three farm laws—unconstitutional, with no demonstrable benefits, and aimed to expand corporate control over agriculture—is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement,” said R. Ramakumar, an economics professor in the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “Their resolute struggle has shown and amplified the power of dissent in our democracy.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, placed the overturning of Modi’s unpopular reforms in a broader context, arguing that “the victory of farmers in North India is not a local matter.”
“This is a victory of global significance,” she added. “Immense class and oppressed caste solidarity, fierce determination, [and] deep courage defeated the combine of chauvinist authoritarianism and corporate greed—our common enemy.”
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
“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”—Karl Marx, 1867
The privatization of land has been justly described as “perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
In the 1500s, Tawney wrote, “the new economic realities came into sharp collision with the social theory inherited from the Middle Ages.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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.”
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.”
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.
 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.
 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 742.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 2001), 178.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), xiii.
 Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Angelico Press, 2021 ), 140-41.
 Hugh Latimer, “The First Sermon Preached before King Edward, March 8, 1549,” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
 Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 ), 81-2.
 Robert Crowley, “The Way to Wealth,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 132-3.
 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.
 Catharine Davies, A Religion of the Word: The Defence of the Reformation in the Reign of Edward VI (Manchester Univ. Press, 2002), 159.
 Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 192, 193
 Hugh Latimer, “The Fourth Sermon upon the Lord’s Prayer (1552)” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) https://ccel.org/ccel/latimer/sermons/
 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, (International Publishers, 1976) 494, 355.
 M. L. Bush, The Government Policy of Protector Somerset (Edward Arnold, 1975), 61.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), 248.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 135.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 146-7.
 Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 202.
 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford University Press, 1965), 188, 189-90.
 C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford University Press, 1962).
 Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 67.
 Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.
Written by Manu Moudgil – India’s historic farmers movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to challenge corporate influence on government.
By Manu Moudgil/Waging Non Violence
On Feb. 6, protesters blocked roads at an estimated 10,000 spots across India as part of the ongoing movement against the new farm laws enacted by the national government last year. For over two months, the most populous democracy in the world has witnessed what is being called one of the biggest protests in human history.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been rallying against three new laws that have thrown open the agriculture sector to private players. Protesters feel the legislation will allow a corporate takeover of crop production and trading, which would eventually impact their earnings and land ownership. They are camping on the roads connecting the national capital with major north Indian cities, braving harsh winters and smear campaigns from the mainstream media and ruling party supporters. Over 224 protesters have already lost their lives for various reasons, chief among them camping outdoors in the frigid weather.
The movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to build pressure.
Leftist farm unions, religious organizations and traditional caste-based brotherhoods called khaps, which make pronouncements on social issues, are working in tandem through resolute sit-ins and an aggressive boycott of politicians.
“We believe the laws have been framed at the direction of the private sector to directly benefit them. So, the protests have to target big businesses along with the government,”
said Jagmohan Singh, president of one of the farm unions representing protesting farmers. India’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, pushed the laws through the parliament in September, despite lacking a majority in the upper house and agriculture being in the jurisdiction of state governments. The protest is a response to the lack of respect for parliamentary democracy and federalism, but its main focus is the pervasive corporate influence on governance.
After limits on corporate contributions were removed and allowed to be made anonymously, $8.2 billion was spent on Indian parliamentary elections in 2019, which exceeded how much was spent on the U.S. election in 2016 by 26 percent. Most of this money came from corporations and the BJP was the primary recipient.
The political-corporate influence is also jeopardizing media’s independence in the country. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Mainstream TV news channels often eulogize the government and Hindu right-wing ideology and smear voices of dissent and minorities. Farmers and their supporters have responded by boycotting media outlets, starting their own newsletters and promoting independent journalism. The movement has already received global attention on social media, with climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihana recently extending support to the protesters.
Farm crisis is the fuel
Farmers are a large electoral block in India, with half the population being engaged in agriculture. No political party can afford to offend them publicly even though policy makers have done little to increase farm incomes and address their indebtedness. Around 300,000 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2013, mostly due to financial stress. In 2019, another 10,281 farmers took their lives.
The Modi government came to power in 2014 on the promise of doubling farmer’s income. It claims the new laws will help fulfill that pledge by allowing for the sale of produce and contract farming outside the purview of state governments and remove of cap on stockholding of food items. Farmers, however, are not buying these arguments.
“The laws are tilted against the farmers and give a free hand to private companies by removing the safeguard of state market committees, which usually intervene in case of disputes with traders,” said Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Punjab. “The committee members are easily accessible even to small farmers, compared to the courts or district officials, which the new laws propose as regulatory authorities.”
Indian farms are mostly family-owned and land is a source of subsistence for millions. Around 86 percent of farmers, however, till less than five acres while the other 14 percent, mostly upper castes, own over half of the country’s 388 million acres of arable land.
Now they fear that the new laws will dismantle the government support system as well and further push them into poverty. “Laws are just the imminent trigger. The protest is actually a manifestation of anger about the constant decline in farming as a profitable occupation over the last few decades,” Singh said. “We have mostly been handed short term relief around election times.”Farmers in a few north Indian states were able to consolidate their holdings through increased incomes with the introduction of irrigation, modern seeds, fertilizers, machines, market infrastructure and guaranteed price support from the government during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But rising input costs and climate crisis have adversely impacted the profits there as well. In Punjab, the most agriculturally-developed state, for instance, the input costs of electric motors, labor, fertilizer and fuel rose by 100 to 290 percent from 2000 to 2013, but the support price of wheat and rice rose by only 122 to 137 percent in the same period, according to a government report. Heavy use of chemicals, mono-cropping and farm mechanization have damaged the soil, affecting productivity and forcing farmers into debt.
The new farm laws were enacted at a time when India had yet to recover from one of the most punitive lockdowns in the world imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented large gatherings. However, the government lost the battle of perceptions from the very start. Since farming is the largest avenue of self-employment and subsistence in India, throwing the sector open to private players was bound to kindle fears that owners would lose autonomy over their lands.
Strength and strategy
Punjab saw widespread protests as soon as the laws were enacted. Farmers occupied railway tracks and toll plazas on major roads besides corporate-owned thermal plants, gas stations and shopping malls. Scores of subscribers left Jio, the telecom service owned by the top Indian businessman perceived to be close to Prime Minister Modi.
Farm unions also held regular sit-ins in front of the houses of prominent political leaders forcing an important regional party to leave the national government alliance. Several state leaders of the ruling party resigned from their posts as well. Similar scenes played out in the neighboring state of Haryana, where leaders were publicly shamed and the helicopter of the elected head of the government was prevented from landing for a public meeting after farmers dug up the helipad area.
In November, thousands of farmers drove their tractor trolleys towards the national capital as they played protest songs by celebrity singers. Stocked with rations, clothing, water and wood for months, they braved tear gas shells and water cannons used by the police along the way. Powerful tractors pushed heavy transport vehicles, concrete slabs and barbed wires that the administration had placed en route out of their way.
Stopping at the northern and western borders of New Delhi, the long cavalcades of tractor trolleys turned into encampments, and numerous community kitchens sprang up. Residents of nearby villages and towns chipped in by supplying milk and vegetables, and offering bathrooms in their houses, shops, gas stations and offices for use by protesters.
Open libraries and medical camps were set up and volunteers offered their skills, ranging from tailoring to tutoring children. Besides speeches by the farm leaders, cultural performances, film screenings and wrestling bouts became a regular feature. More farmers poured in with each passing day. Indians in the diaspora gave donations to farm unions and village councils, which offered money for fuel and other expenses to villagers who could not afford to visit the protest sites on their own. The resistance to the corporatization of agriculture has penetrated deep.
“These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament or assert dissent. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle,”
wrote Aditya Bahl, a doctoral scholar at the John Hopkins University who is archiving the peasants’ revolts that took place in Punjab in the 1960s and ’70s.
The protests are not only targeting domestic companies and political figures.
Farmers have also burnt effigies of Uncle Sam, the World Trade Organization and IMF, signifying the influence of global trade over domestic agricultural policies. Developed countries have been pressuring India for last three decades to open up its agriculture sector to multinational players by slashing subsidies and reducing public procurement and distribution of food grains to the poor.The Indian Supreme Court suspended the implementation of laws and formed a four-member expert committee on Jan. 13 to look into the issue. Farmers have, however, refused to meet the committee members, alleging that many of them have already written or spoken in favor of the laws.
“Agricultural reforms and free markets have failed to help American farmers who are dying by suicide due to heavy debts,” explained food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma. “Their farm incomes are in the negative, even though they have big landholdings and billions of dollars of income support from the government. How can the same model work for India, especially when it’s not even designed for our domestic conditions?”
Protesters are also seeking a legal right to sell their produce at a guaranteed price. The Indian government usually declares a minimum support price on various crops based on costs of their production, but only a fraction of the produce is procured at that rate. In the absence of government procurement facilities in their areas, most farmers have to settle for a lower price offered by private traders. A law would make it mandatory for private players to buy the produce at a declared price.
“If Indian farmers are able to get the law on guaranteed price passed through their current agitation, they will become a role model for farmers across the world living under heavy debts,” Sharma continued. “India should put its foot down at the WTO and create much-needed disruption in the world food trade policy for the benefit of the global agriculture sector.”
The movement grows
The BJP-led national government has faced numerous protests over the last six years of its rule, including by university students, workers and caste and religious minorities. With the help of media and security agencies, however, the government has always been able to frame dissent as being unpatriotic. The country has dropped 26 places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking since 2014 due to “erosion of civil liberties.”
This is the first time peasants have been galvanized in such large numbers against the government. The government has already held 11 rounds of negotiations with farmers’ representatives and offered to suspend the laws for one and a half years on Jan. 20. But farmers are not budging from their demand of the complete repeal of the laws and legal cover for the selling of their crops at a guaranteed price. The movement, initiated by Punjab’s farmers, has taken on a national character. On Jan. 26, which marks India’s Republic Day, 19 out of 28 states witnessed protests against the farm laws.
In Delhi, however, a plan to organize a farmers’ tractor march parallel to the official Republic Day function, went awry. A group of protesters clashed with police at multiple spots and stormed the iconic Red Fort, a traditional seat of power for the Mughals, where the colonial British and independent India’s prime ministers have also raised their flags.
The rural-urban divide became starker on the night of Jan. 27. While TV anchors and their captive urban audience smirked at visuals of a leader of the farmers’ movement crying as he faced imminent arrest, villages erupted in anger. Temple priests gave calls over public address systems, nightly meetings were arranged and thousands drove hundreds of miles through a foggy winter night to reach the protest site on eastern fringe of national capital New Delhi, compelling the administration to pull the police back and restart the water and power supply to the protest site.The protesters unfurled banners of the farm unions and Sikhs — one of the minority religious groups and the most prominent face of the protests. Mainstream media and ruling party supporters used the opportunity to blame the movement for desecration and religious terrorism. Security forces charged sleeping farmers with batons at one location, filed cases against movement leaders, allowed opponents to pelt campaigners with stones, arrested journalists and shut down the Internet.
The attacks, therefore, ended up lifting the flagging morale of the farmers and helped the movement gain even more supporters, who shunned the government and media narrative. Massive community gatherings of khaps were organized at multiple places over next few days, extending their support to the protests and issuing a boycott call for the BJP and its political allies.
Smear campaigns to depict Sikh farmers as terrorists, a reference to an armed movement in the 1980s and ’90s for a separate homeland, found no resonance beyond the right-wing echo chamber. Sikh protesters draw inspiration from the religious tenets of community service, equality and the fight against injustice. Community kitchens run by Sikh organizations have served through many humanitarian crisis, like the ongoing civil war in Syria and movements like Black Lives Matter. Sikhs in India have remained steadfastly egalitarian, ready to support other religious minorities in times of need.
Mending fault lines
The movement has also been able to overcome regional and gender divisions, and is trying to address caste divides. The states of Haryana and Punjab are often at loggerheads on the issue of sharing of river waters. Haryana was carved out of Punjab on linguistic lines in 1966, but most of the rivers flow through the current Punjab state. Haryana has been seeking a greater amount of water for use by its farmers, while Punjab’s farmers oppose the demand, citing reduced water flow in the rivers over the years. The current protests have united farmers for a common cause, helping them understand each other even though opponents have made attempts revive the water issue.
Women have also been participating in the protests in large numbers. They are either occupying roads on Delhi’s borders or managing homes and farms in the absence of men, while taking part in protest marches in villages.
“Earlier, we were able to rally only 8,000-10,000 women for a protest. Today that number has swelled to 25,000-30,000, as they recognized the threats posed by the new laws to the livelihoods of their families,” said Harinder Bindu, who leads the women’s wing of the largest farm union in Punjab. “For many women this is the first time they are participating in a protest, which is a big change because they were earlier confined to household work. Men are getting used to seeing women participate and recognizing the value they bring to a movement.”
The union first encouraged the male leaders to include the women in their families with the cause to set an example for other members as well. “This helped inculcate the habit of sharing responsibilities,” Bindu said. “When women members participate in sit-ins, men manage the house. I feel this movement will bring greater focus on women’s issues within the farming community — one of which is the need to support widows of farmers who died by suicide due to financial constraints.”
In Punjab, less than four percent of private farm land belongs to Dalits, the lowest caste in the traditional social hierarchy of India, even though they constitute 32 percent of the state’s population. They often earn their livelihoods through farm work or daily wage labor. Even though Dalits have a legal right to till village common land, attempts to assert that right often lead to violent clashes with upper caste landlords who want to keep it for themselves.
“It’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”
Dalits are waging similar battles across India. Researchers recorded 31 land conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits in 2019. A few of the farmers’ unions have supported and raised funds for Dalit agitations in the past. This has ensured the participation of farm workers in the current movement, but it has largely remained a farmers’ campaign.
“Dalits do understand that the new laws will impact them. Initially some of the workers did join the protests but they can’t afford to lose daily wages and also lack resources to travel long distance,” said Gurmukh Singh, a social activist working with Dalits to claim their right to cultivate village common land in Punjab. “But it’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”
The movement is gradually encompassing other rural issues beyond the farm laws. In the state of Maharashtra, for instance, thousands of tribal people traveled to the capital Mumbai on Jan. 23 to extend support to the farmers. They also asserted their own long pending demand for land titles under the Forest Rights Act, which recognizes traditional rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers on the use of land and other forest resources.
Starting from Punjab, the epicenter of protests has now extended to Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, and leaders are planning to muster more support from central India.
The persistent protests also forced the government to hold an extensive debate on the issue in the parliament at the beginning of February, even though it did not lead to any resolution. The UK parliament may also consider debating the farmers’ protests and press freedom in India after an online petition on its website gathered the required number of signatures. Farmers’ leaders, meanwhile, have reaffirmed their stand to stay put on the roads for the long haul and have now decided to block railway tracks across the country for four hours on Feb. 18.
This article was first published in wagingnonviolence.org on February 16, 2021, you can read the original here
Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist based in India. He tweets at @manumoudgil
Editor’s note: DGR strongly opposes the three new farm laws that have inspired the farmer’s protests in India. However, we do not necessarily agree with all of the demands of the protestors.
This article original appeared on the People’s Archive of Rural India on January 28, 2021. Written By Shraddha Agarwal.
Featured image by the Author
“We borrowed a 1,000 rupees from the seths [farm owners] to come here. In return, we will work in their fields for 4-5 days,” said Vijaybai Gangorde, 45.
She arrived in Nashik on January 23 at noon, in a tempo painted blue and orange – one of the first to reach the Golf Club Maidan in the city, to join the vehicle jatha (march) to Mumbai.
Vijaybai’s 41-year cousin, Tarabai Jadhav, was also travelling with her from Mohadi, their village in Nashik district’s Dindori taluka. They both work as farm labourers there for a daily wage of Rs. 200-250. The cousins came to Nashik to join other farmers – about 15,000 from mainly Nanded, Nandurbar, Nashik and Palghar districts of Maharashtra – going to Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, about 180 kilometres away, to protest against the new farm laws.
“We are marching for our upajivika [livelihood],” said Tarabai.
A sit-in and a march to Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s residence, in south Mumbai have been organised by the Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha on January 25-26, to express solidarity with the protesting farmers at Delhi’s borders. Farmers from 21 districts of Maharashtra, assembled together by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), are gathering in Mumbai for these protests.
For over two months, lakhs of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, have been staging protests at five sites on the borders of Delhi. They have been protesting against three farm laws that the central government first issued as ordinances on June 5, 2020, then introduced as farm bills in Parliament on September 14 and hastened to become Acts by the 20th of that month.
The laws are: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
The farmers see this legislation as devastating for their livelihoods by expanding the space for large corporate to exercise even greater power over farming. They also undermine the main forms of support to the cultivator, including the minimum support price (MSP), the agricultural produce marketing committees (APMCs), state procurement and more. The laws have also been criticised as affecting every Indian as they disable the right to legal recourse of all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Indian Constitution.
Vijaybai and Tarabai, who belong to the Koli Malhar Adivasi community, a Scheduled Tribe, paid Rs. 1,000 each for a seat in the hired tempo to Mumbai and back. They borrowed the amount because they had no savings. “We had no work during the [Covid-19] lockdown,” said Tarabai. “The state government had promised 20 kilos of wheat free for each family, but only 10 kilos was distributed.”
This is not the first time that Vijaybai and Tarabai are marching in protest.
“We had come on both the marches – in 2018 and 2019,”
they say, referring to the Kisan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018, and the follow-up rally in February 2019, when farmers voiced their demand for land rights, remunerative prices for produce, loan waivers and drought relief. It is also not the first jatha from Nashik to protest against the new farm laws. On December 21, 2020, around 2,000 farmers had collected in Nashik, of which 1,000 set out to join their northern counterparts on the outskirts of Delhi.
“The only way we Adivasis can be heard is by marching [for our rights]. This time, too, we will make our voices heard,”
said Vijaybai, making her way with Tarabai to the centre of Golf Club Maidan, to listen to the speeches of AIKS leaders. After all the vehicles had assembled, the convoy left Nashik at 6 p.m. that evening. At Ghatandevi temple in Igatpuri taluka, Nashik district, the marchers halted for the night. Many of them had packed a simple meal – bajra rotis and garlic chutney – from home. After dinner, they spread out thick blankets over tarpaulin sheets on the ground beside the temple and fell sleep.
The next day, the plan was to walk down the Kasara ghat near Igatpuri and reach the Mumbai-Nashik highway.
As they prepared to leave at 8 a.m., a group of farm labourers discussed their children’s future in the agriculture sector. “Even though my son and daughter have both completed their degrees, they’re working on farms for a meagre income of Rs. 100-150 [per day],” said 48-year-old Mukunda Kongil, from Nandurkipada village in Trimbakeshwar taluka, Nashik district. Mukunda’s son has a BCom degree, and his daughter has done a BEd, but they both work as farm labourers now. “The jobs go only to non-Adivasis,” says Mukunda, who belongs to the Warli (or Varli) Adivasi community, a Scheduled Tribe.
“My son worked so hard in his college and now he works on farms every day,” said 47-year-old Janibai Dhangare, also a Warli Adivasi from Nandurkipada. “My daughter finished her pandhravi [Class 15, that is, a BA degree]. She tried to get a job in Trimbakeshwar, but there was no work for her. She did not want to leave me and go to Mumbai. That city is too far and she will miss home-cooked meals,” she said, packing away her leftover bhakris and loading her bag into the tempo.
The farmers and farm labourers walked for 12 kilometres from the ghat to highway with their flags, raising slogans against the new farm laws.
Their demand is for a repeal of the three laws as well as of the new labour codes, while also seeking a law to guarantee remunerative minimum support prices (MSP) and countrywide procurement facilities, said AKIS president, Ashok Dhawale. “This march is an important contribution to the historic nationwide struggle of lakhs of farmers in Delhi and all over the country against the neoliberal and pro-corporate policies of the central government,” said Dhawale, who is travelling with the group.
Upon reaching the highway, the farmers took their places in the vehicles and proceeded towards Thane. Along the way, various organisations supplied them with water bottles, snacks and biscuits. They stopped for lunch at a gurudwara in Thane. It was 7 p.m. on January 24 when the jatha reached Azad Maidan in south Mumbai. Tired, but with their spirits intact, some farmers from Palghar district entered the ground singing and dancing to the tune of the tarpa, a traditional Adivasi wind instrument.
“I am hungry. My whole body is hurting, but I’ll be fine after some food and rest,” said Vijaybai, after settling down with her group of farm labourers. “This is not new for us,” she said. “We have marched before and we will march again.”