Forgotten History: the Theft of the Commons

stop thief

Stop Thief: the Commons Enclosures and Resistance

by Peter Linebaugh (2014)

Book Review

Free download at https://libcom.org/library/stop-thief-commons-enclosures-resistances

Occasionally you come across a book that totally turns your worldview on its head. This book is definitely one of them.

Stop Thief is about the loss of the Commons through enclosures,* which author Peter Linebaugh maintains is the essence of capitalism. Until 200 years ago, communally owned moors and forests were fundamental to all human civilization. In Europe, the Commons included specific customary rights, including gleaning, grazing rights, and access to the forest for medicines and wood for fuel, housing and tools. These rights had been guaranteed for thousands of years (they’re mentioned in both the Old and New Testament) and were codified in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Thanks to the Commons, which provided for the basic subsistence needs of the population, there was virtually no crime as we know it and no extreme poverty.

In the essays in Stop Thief, Linebaugh details 800 years of enclosures, as well as the popular riots and rebellions that have resisted them. In doing so, he establishes a clear continuity between the organized resistance against European enclosure and the work of great revolutionary thinkers, such as Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, William Morris and Edward Thompson

According to Linebaugh, the European enclosure acts didn’t just enclose (privatize) moors and forests, but they enclosed handicrafts as factories, community markets as shops and women as units of reproduction who ceased to have a legal persona (women who resisted enclosure were burned and/or tortured as witches).

Enclosure: A Global Phenomenon

Enclosures, which occurred worldwide thanks to European colonization, began in the 13th century with peaks in the 15-16th century, the 18th-19th century and the 21th century. The latter have resulted in the theft of pensions and homes by banks, the privatization (and destruction) of the environment, the capture of health care by insurance companies and current attempts to privatize (enclose) the Internet. In other words, the essence of capitalism is dispossession, ie theft.

In Europe, enclosure mainly took the form of imprisonment and the privatization of communal land. In the 18th century, enclosure was accompanied by a prison building spree and the creation of a “civilian” police force, as well as massive emigration to European colonies. Commoners who persisted in claiming their customary rights were criminalized and either hanged (for minor crimes such as stealing firewood or a loaf of bread) or imprisoned.

Resistance to Enclosure Has Been Continuous

The resistance to enclosures, especially in England and Germany, was more or less continuous. Over 800 years, peasants blocked privatization of their communal land by petitioning, fence breaking, stoning officials for posting enclosure notices, riots and organized rebellion. Despite continuousl military occupation, it took 17 years to drive the peasants out and fully privatize Otmoor.

The Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Ketts Rebellion of 1549, the formation of Levellers, Ranters and Diggers movements that would culminate in the English Civil War in 1649, and the formation of the Luddites in the late 18th century were all part of the popular resistance to enclosures.

Marx and the Theft of Wood

Marx refers to the process by which the ruling elite encloses the Commons, depriving common people of the means of subsistence (aka the means of production), as primitive accumulation. Linebaugh traces how Marx’s interest in political economy was directly influenced by coming of age as the Moselle region in Germany was being enclosed. His very first essays on “Debates of Law and the Theft of Wood” expressed outrage at the appropriation of local forests by rich burgermeisters and the criminalization of customary wood gathering.

I also really enjoyed the essays on Tom Paine, which discuss his upbringing as the Norfolk commons was being enclosed and his critical influence in the Irish and French revolution. His essays and books calling for the restoration of the Commons are rarely discussed in American history textbooks.


*Enclosure is the legal (usually violent) process by which common people are driven off communal land to enable it to be fenced off as private property.
**The Charter of the Forest is a charter originally sealed by King Henry III under the regency of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke. A companion document to the Magna Carta, it re-established rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs.

17 thoughts on “Forgotten History: the Theft of the Commons

  1. A good article, loved reading it. During droughts cattle farmers are allowed to travel with their herds along all road sides and tracks. In Germany road sides are used to install solar panels. Here in Australia the states get revenue from advertsers, the Big ugly golden arched and Colonel chicken hoardings. But since the enclosures and fencing went up, the commons have gone. That and granting title to land and owning it!

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    • It’s time to reclaim the commons – all the commons, land, resources under the land, the public airwaves and the Internet. People have had enough of rich people stealing their stuff out of pure greed.

      Like

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