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  • Writer's picturej. matthew thomas


Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the concept of the collective use of land and the privatization of land was in a tug-of-war in most of England. But by the end of the 19th century, land as we know it today was enclosed, with just a few pasturelands and village greens left as a commons.

With the open field system strips of land were allocated to people within a village. And ‘common rights’ allowed people the right to graze their animals on common pasture lands. Usually focused within a manor, land was designated for the subsistence of the people.

This system wasn’t so idyllic, there was peasants and surfs living in debt and paying taxes for the use of the land. But most importantly to consider here is that the concept of land was changing

Land for subsistence to land for commerce.

“Both economic and social factors drove the enclosure movement. In particular, the demand for land in the seventeenth century, increasing regional specialization, engrossment in landholding and a shift in beliefs regarding the importance of "common wealth" (usually implying common livelihoods) as opposed to the "public good" (the wealth of the nation or the GDP) all laid the groundwork for a shift of support among elites to favor enclosure. Enclosures were conducted by agreement among the landholders (not necessarily the tenants) throughout the seventeenth century; enclosure by Parliamentary Act began in the eighteenth century. Enclosed lands normally could demand higher rents than unenclosed, and thus landlords had an economic stake in enclosure, even if they did not intend to farm the land directly.”

As Marx puts it, this laid the groundwork for capitalism.

“Karl Marx argued in Capital that enclosure played a constitutive role in the revolutionary transformation of feudalism into capitalism, both by transforming land from a means of subsistence into a means to realize profit on commodity markets (primarily wool in the English case), and by creating the conditions for the modern labor market by transforming small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborer’s, whose opportunities to exit the market declined as the common lands were enclosed.”

We have a change in attitude of the “common wealth and livelihood” of a community to the “wealth of a nation.” This shift in thinking and value of living intrigues me. The ability to based your values on the larger nation-state, as a whole, and not on the immediate collective or community around you. Externalizing one’s sense of self and power within the larger nation, separating oneself from the immediate poverty or otherness that was around you.

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