[T]he chief matter . . . being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest.John Locke, Two Treatises
Inclosure came and trampled on the graveJohn Clare, The Mores
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave …
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
I sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.
Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.Sitting Bull
The early modern period saw the legal push for land enclosure, privatization, and consolidation. It became a powerful force in the 18th century, which destroyed the ancien regime, destabilized the social order, and precipitated revolts and eventually revolution. This was central to Enlightenment thought in the creation or exacerbation of Jaynesian consciousness, post-bicameral nostalgia, Platonic/Cartesian anxiety, atomistic individualism, capitalist realism, social Darwinism, and WEIRD culture. In a short period of time, land reform, agricultural improvements, and technological advancements led to the first dependable grain surpluses, particularly the increase of wheat production, the sudden availability and affordability of white flour, and the industrial development of the high-carb standard American diet (SAD). Also, with colonial trade, tobacco, tea and sugar replaced local smoking herbs and herb-infused beer. Heading into the 19th century and continuing into the next, all of this combined might have contributed to the disappearance of the fairies and the emergence of a crisis of identity, followed by moral panic along with the rise of widespread mental illness and drug addiction and other diseases of civilization, which continues to worsen, not to mention increasing rates of such things as autism — all of it central to what one could call the agricultural mind, exacerbated by mass urbanization, industrialization, and big ag.
This is an ongoing line of speculation, but the land enclosure angle is somewhat new. We’ve previously written about the enclosure movement, privatization and the loss of the Commons, as it obviously is one of the most central changes in recent history, arguably key to understanding nearly all other changes in modernity. It coincided not only with capitalism, corporatism, and industrialization but also colonial imperialism and its vast trade network. There really is no way of comphrehending what all the fuss was about, from the English Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War to the American Revolution, without knowing how feudalism was forcefully and violently dismantled not by the peasants and serfs but by aristocrats and monarchs. Other economic practices and systems were seen as more profitable or otherwse attractive. Eliminating the feudal system of parishes and commons, for example, eliminated all of the inconvenient social obligations and traditional roles of noblesse oblige that constrained power according to the authorizng precedence of living tradition and custom. Part of the complaint of some aristocrats, including the more radical-minded like Thomas Jefferson, was that the ancien regime was perceived as oppressively confining to everyone, including the aristocracy. But to destroy that old order meant creating something radically new in its place, which would involve new subjectivities, identities, and roles.
That was the self-enforced task set before the Enlightenment thinkers and later reformers. Individuality and independence was praised, but some at the time admitted to or hinted at the fact that these were not natural law and human birthright. They had to be artificially created. First off, let’s set down a distinction: “Like social constructionism, social constructivism states that people work together to construct artifacts. While social constructionism focuses on the artifacts that are created through the social interactions of a group, social constructivism focuses on an individual’s learning that takes place because of his or her interactions in a group” (Wikipedia). Another way of thinking about this was described by Richard M. Doyle: “The philosopher Louis Althusser used the language of “interpellation” to describe the function of ideology and its purchase on an individual subject to it, and he treats interpellation as precisely such a “calling out.” Rather than a vague overall system involving the repression of content or the production of illusion, ideology for Althusser functions through its ability to become an “interior” rhetorical force that is the very stuff of identity, at least any identity subject to being “hailed” by any authority it finds itself response-able to” (Darwin’s Pharmacy). A social artifact, once socially constructed, offers an affordance that unconsciously enforces the authorization of social constructivism through the interpellation of calling out a particular behavioral subjectivity we become identified with in responding. So, to give a concrete example, we are enacting the propertied self when, after seeing a no trespassing sign, we don’t cross a fence. We’ve been hailed by the authorization of an implicit ideological realism that makes a claim over us, constraining not only our behavior but more importantly our identity. But that response has to be taught, modeled, and internalized — fences and walls, like roads and sidewalks, become the infrastructure emblazoned upon the mind.
This civilizing process was more starkly apparent at the beginning of modernity because so much of what we take for granted, within this dominant ideological realism, did not yet exist. To establish private landholdings was necessary to form the structure for the propertied self, far beyond mere self-ownership in not being a slave (i.e., liberty). The danger, to the emerging capitalist class, was that there were competing structures of identity with the communal self and bundled mind that continued to assert itself. Consider the elite intellectual William Godwin (1756–1836) who saw “associations as constructing their members’ subjectivities, not merely directing their energies incorrectly,” writes Robert Anderson. “In this sense, then, associations are analagous to what Louis Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses which provide material rituals and practice, which subjects recognize themselves. Unlike Althusser’s state apparatuses, which hail subjects as individuals, political associations, in Godwin’s view, construct a “common mass” subject, in which subjects are undifferentiated one from another. Since, as Sayer and Corrigan argue, the construction of subjectivity is central to the success of a nation-state, this function of political associations is no trivial matter” (“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self). Those like Godwin thought collectivities were a bad thing, since individualistic propertied elites such as himself represented the ideal in his utopian ideology. During this same era, George Washington warned of the threat of politcal parties and one wonders if he had similar worries on his mind, considering his treatment of the collective action of Shays’ Rebellion. Robert Anderson explains what this entails:
“The Enclosure Movement, which yokes the realms of the subject and of property, gives some historical grounding for Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, which describes the psychic imperatives that drive the subject to distinguish itself from a “common mass.” This force, I am suggesting, determines the movement towards the enclosure of both the commons and the “self.” It concerns an anxiety about the “clean and proper” (“le propre”) boundaries of the self (“le propre”). The subject is constructed through a process of exclusion and boudnary-defense which involves an attempt ot ensure the singularity and integrity of the self within its boundaries, and an attempt to protect those boundaries of the self—not merely the self, but the boundaries themselves. Abjection names the proces of “exclusion” through wich “‘I’ expell myself” from indifferentiation and wildness/animality. The abject, then, threatens to “engulf” the subject because it is a reminder of what it must push aside in order to live. We can se this at work in Young’s claim that enclosure transformed the country from “boundless wilds and uncultivated wastes” into “well-peopled” “inclosures . . . cultivated in a most husband-like manner . . . and yielding an hundred times times the produce.” It is to guard against the “ruinous Effects of a Mixture of opposite Interests” and the “untidiness” of common and use-rights, that enclosure takes place. It cleans and distinguishes le propre—the self, the property—from the “improper.” In his chapter on “The Principles of Property,” Godwin argues that property performs this very function. In spite of the great injustices it causes, the right to property is so “sacred” that no exertion or sacrifice to protect it can be too great (2.440-50). It creates an “essential” “sphere” which protects man from outside intervention, thereby freeing up a space for the operation of “private judgment,” which is necessary for the improvement of man” (2.433). This improvement is threatened if the self is not protected from being “resolve[d] . . . into one common mass” (1.289). Abjection, then, is the psychological engine for improvement.
“The history of enclosure bears out Kristeva’s argument that abjection is ultimately a reliance on the law, which “shapes the body into a territory protected by the “differentiations of proper-clean and improper-dirty” (72). Thompson reveals the extent to which “reasons of improvement” had acquired the status of legal terminology, in particular as a justification for the enclosure of the commons (“Custom” 134-60 passim). A. W. B. Simpson’s A History of Land Law articulates the historical change from “communal rights” of the commons to individual rights, which both made possible and were produced by the enclosure: “[t]he tenurial system converted the villagers [who used the land as common village property] into tenants, and the theory of the law placed the freehold of most of the lands of the manor in the lord. . . . Thus a theory of individual ownership supplants earlier more egalitarian notions” of property. And with this change, common rights came to be seen as having originated “in the grant of the lord,” rather than as a “customary rights associated with the communal system of agriculture practiced in primitive village communities.” In cases where enclosure was contested, however, court rulings often reversed the implicit chronology of “improvement” to suggest that enclosure was the natural state of property rather than an innovation.”
This demonstrates how the conservative authority of hierarchical individualism usurped the role of traditional authority of the ancestral commons, the latter a vestige of archaic authorization of the bicameral mind. The historical revisionism of the conservative project of individualistic privatization hints at the underlying reactionary mind that fuels the radical transformation through the invented tradition of ideological realism dressed up in robes from the wardrobe of moral imagination, proclaiming it has always been this way and putting a narratized spell of historical amnesia upon Jaynesian consciousness — and so individuality erases the evidence of its own origins, like the scaffolding removed from a cathedral after being built by thousands of laboerers over centuries. The threat of collective action of worker associations, labor unions, etc is not that they represent something radically and entirely new but that they are old impulses/habits carried over from the lingering habitus of the ancien regime and traditional communities that keep challenging the radical modernity of reactionary conservatism. The conservative counterrevolution is itself revolutionary, as it is also authoritarian. As noted many times before, the ideology of independence of hyper-individualism is inseparable from dependence of authoritarianism (as violently oppressive militarism, totalitarianism, imperialism, and statism) — concentrated and centralized power, concentrated and centralized land ownership, concentrated and centralized psychic energy (withdrawn form the common world-self and enclosed). It requires concerted political effort and monopolization of violence to break apart communal land and identity. The capitalist self of hyper-individualism began with the wealthy elite precisely because they were the initial beneficiaries of the enclosure movement. They were enclosing not only land but their own minds and selves from the ancient common mass of the lingering traces of the bicameral mind. Many were thinking about these issues.
Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine’s land reform proposals are as much, if not more, about selfhood and social identity as they are about economics (the elimination of entail and primogeniture was intended as a direct attack on aristocracy). Neither trusted an elite to control all land and all benefits from land but they (fatalistically?) accepted that the enclosure movement was irreversible or necessary for the society that was being created, even as they acknowledged the loss of freedom as demonstrated by Native Americans who could act freely precisely because they were acting within a commons (Benjamin Franklin also made such observations about the greater indigenous freedom and its attraction). These specific founders wanted to make all individuals either land owners (Jefferson’s yeoman farmers as republican citizens) or beneficiaries of land ownership (Paines’s citizens dividend), in both cases a response to the enclosure movement as it encroached in on the New World through land consolidation. Self-development had been limited to the elite, but what if self-development could be made available to all. The most radical challenge of Enlightenment thought was that all of humanity, even women and the poor and non-Europeans, shared a common human nature and that self-cultivated individuality was a universal potential, while others saw it as a necessary demand and obligation (develop an individual self or be punished). Like these two, Adam Smith thought inequality opposed a free society of individual citizens. And for this reason, Smith worried that, as opposed to agriculture, the new industrial labor might dumb down the population and so public education was necessary. Without land to cultivate as part of Jeffersonian republicanism, society would have to teach other methods of self-cultivation. Godwin likewise was concerned with education motivated by a belief that every individual should independently research, analyze, and assess everything for themselves; such deification of individualism being an impossible ideal, of course; but that apparently was of no great concern to him beause he was of a less practical bent, as opposed to Jefferson and Paine’s aspirations to offer real world solutions. From Godwin’s perspective, the point was to create and enforce individualism, including actively destroying collectivities, and then everything else would presumably fall into place.
Godwin opposed the commoners re-creating the ancient practice of the commons for the very reason it was such a natural and deeply entrenched impulse within the shared psyche. Later on, it would be the same reason collective adoptions had to be illegalized to destroy Shaker communities, collective land ownership had to be constrained to weaken Hutterite communities, and collective labor unions had to be busted to shatter working class communites. Individualism isn’t created only one time in the past but must be constantly re-created through the policies and actions of government, the punishment and coercion of law, and the encouragement of incentives and subsidies. Individualism is such a weak, unstable, and unnatural state that it would break apart without constantly being shored up and defended. The modern psyche is ever seeking to return to its origins in the bundled mind of bicameralism, animism, or some other variant. The inherent failure of individualism is regularly affirmed by how individualist realism is entirely dependent on collectivist institutions of state governments, state-created corporate charters, etc — such as giving greater rights, privileges, benefits, power, autonomy, and representation to corporate persons than to most individual humans. We are suffused with an authoritarian collectivism that is the actual system behind the charade of individualism. As with Edmund Burke, Godwin’s fear of combinations, mixings, and associations — the undifferentiated masses — expressed a fear of the impure and disorderly; like an obsessive-compulsive child forever lining up her toys and panicking whenever anyone touches them. This is the demand for principled consistency in the WEIRD mind, but the only principle is order for the sake of order, as demonstration of hierarchical power to assert the authority that authorizes ideological realism. It must be an enforced order because the ancient organic orders of tribe, kinship, village, commons, etc or the grassroots organizing of communities and workers can’t be trusted because it can’t be controlled hierarchically through centralized authority and concentrated power. When the last traces of bicameral voices have been silenced, conservatives see hierarchy as the only authority left to command authorization, be it the hierarchy of Klan, church, military, or something similar.
Hierarchy, though, can only accomplish this if it has been narratized and internalized, by way of the interpellation of symbolic conflation where an ideological realism recedes from consciousness in becoming the calcified frame of thought and perception. This was what made the enclosure movement essential in reifying an abstract ideology. It had to be imprinted upon not only the human psyche but the land itself, the literal ground of psyche as our embodied sense of place. The early land reforms rigidified boundaries, regimented land ownership, and systematized infrastructure — roads were straightened and waterways channelized. As the echoes of the living bicameral voices of ancestral spirits were transformed into the written word as the “dead hand” of corpses (i.e., widespread literacy), the soil became mere dust and land mere property with the earth being mapped and bounded. Some traditions such as Quaker living constitutionalism sought to hold onto the remnants, as part of the memory of a former British communalism. The living landscape invoked by Australian Aborigines maybe was not so different than the English practice of beating the bounds and wassailing that reinforced a collective enclosure of a shared subjectivity. Once the commons were gone, there were no bounds of the commons left to be ritually beat as a community nor communal lands inabited by spirits to be wassailed. Land reform was social reform and moral reform. Godwin’s described education of the mind like the cultivation of enclosed land, which reminds one that Lockean land rights were defined not merely by use but by cultivation or improvement of enclosed land (including John Locke’s consitutional defense of slavery; propertied self going hand in hand with the embodied self literally being property to be owned; though Locked suggested a vague qualification about how much could be enclosed, which meant the rich could accumulate vast tracts of land as long as theoretically somewhere there is still land available for others), wherease the pre-Lockean land rights of Roger Williams acknowledged that any use of even non-enclosed land proved (demonstrated and expressed) ownership, which might simply have been an invocation of the old Charter of the Forest, “guaranteeing the right to commoning (recovered in 1217), which in turn recognized subsistence rights, e.g., the right to widow’s estovers (wood needed for housing repairs, implements, etc.), and to subsistence usufructs (the temporary use of another person’s land)” (Carolyn Lesjak, 1750 to the Present: Acts of Enclosure and Their Afterlife); some of the practices continuing into 19th cenury American property law and still barely hanging on today in certain Western countries.
It is intriguing to think about how recent this happened, but first consider where it began. “In the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody,” says Mark Vernon (Spiritual Commons). Then the enclosures began. “Overall, the pace of enclosure rose dramatically after the 1760s as landowners turned to parliament for the legitimization of their claims,” writes Nina Mcquown. “Michael Turner estimates that more than twenty percent of the area of England was enclosed by act of parliament between 1750 and 1819, the vast majority of these acts occurring after 1760 (32). A high concentration—twenty-one percent of the whole of acreage enclosed by parliament—was enclosed in the decades between 1770 and 1780 and in the years of high grain prices during the Napoleonic wars (Yelling 16).11 Although enclosure continued until the end of the nineteenth century, by 1815 only small and discontinuous patches of common fields remained” (“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations). Then some further details from Gary Snyder: “between 1709 and 1869 almost five million acres were transferred to private ownership, one acre in every seven. After 1869 there was a sudden reversal of sentiment called the ‘open space movement’ which ultimately halted enclosures and managed to preserve, via a spectacular lawsuit against the lords of fourteen manors, the Epping Forest.” To put that in context, following the Englsh Civil War, the Glorious Revoluion reinstated the monarchy in 1688, but there now was a powerful Parliament. That Parliament would be the agent of change, beginning to take strong actions in that next century. Not only were the commons privatized for the colonies were legally constructed as for-profit corporations, along with the creation of quasi-governmental corporations like the East India Company. This led to the complaints by the colonists in demanding the king stand up to Parliament, but the monarchy no longer held the reigns of power. Capitalism was now running the show.
Even then the Charter of the Forest as the founding document of the Commons, having been established in 1217, didn’t officially end until 1971. It almost made it to the end of the Cold War and a new millennia. One might suspect the Commons seemed too communist to be allowed to survive. If it had been maintained, the people might have gotten the wrong idea about who the country belonged to. Even as the politics of it is more than relevant, what made the enclosure movement a revolutionary moment was the transformation of the Western mind. The real issue was the enclosure of the common identity and moral imagination. That is why, as colonial imperialism took hold and expanded, the rhetoric so heavily focused on the symbolic ‘wilderness’ left remaining. Though the “percentage of wastelands—forests, fens, sheep walks, and moors—enclosed and improved during the period of parliamentary enclosure was relatively small,” writes Nina McQuown, they “loomed large in the imaginations of the propagandists responsible for encouraging the expansion of both enclosure and the innovative agricultural practice that it was thought to support.” Carolyn Lesjak writes that, “If enclosure in the 16th century was largely “by agreement” and, in fact, condemned by both the church and the government, who sided with the commoners’ claims regarding “common rights,” by the 1750s the government had taken the lead and over the course of the period from 1750-1830 passed over 4000 Acts of Enclosure, resulting in over 21% of the land (approximately 6.8 million acres) being enclosed (see Ellen Rosenman’s BRANCH essay on “Enclosure Acts and the Commons”). By the end of the century, virtually all the open fields in Britain were gone.” Everything had to be cultivated, even what was deemed useless. All material was to be fodder for improvement and progress, at least in the new mythos. “After the 1760s,” McQuown explains, as the “British improvers turned the logic and language of colonialism inward, towards the wastes,” they also turned inward to colonizing the uncultivated mind.
This makes one realize how false it is to blame everything on the later political revolutions and freethinking radicals. The enclosure movement actually began much earlier around the 14th century, around the time of the English Peasants’ Revolt. Even Parliaments’ legal justifications and enforcement happened generations before the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. This reform of land, self, and mind unsurprisingly preceded and then overlapped with the early modern revolutions. John Adams famously wrote that, “What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.” His only error was limiting his scope to the colonies and not pushing it further back. Enclosure of land became reform of mind became revolution of society became rupture of history. The cultivation of farming that once followed astrological cycles of return (i.e., revolution) had ground down the bones of the dead into dust. Humanity was uprooted from the past and temporally dislocated in an abstract narrative, as cyclical time became linear and nostalgia became a disease. The colonists surely experienced this most clearly in how the early waves of colonists largely consisted of the most destitute landless peaseants, many recently evicted from the commons and feudal villages, often arriving as slave-like indentured servants and convict labor — one can imagine the desperation and despair they felt, as being sent to the early colonies was practically a death sentence.
The colonial era may seem like a distant time from the present, but we can sense how the world we now live in was shaped then. Most Westerners remain landless peasants. The commons that once defined a communal experience of reality only remain like the shadows of a nuclear blast, the traces of a living world that remains our ancient inheritance, however cut off we have become. It may seem the egoic boundaries of our individualism have toughened into place like scars, like the crust of parched earth. We feel tired and anxious from the constant effort of mainaintiaing the walls of our mind, to keep the self separate from the world. It takes only a moment’s lapse when our guard is let down before we begin to sense what we have lost. An aching tenderness remains below. We are so hungry for connection that simply stepping into the commons of a forested park can feel like a spiritual experience for many people today. Yet such moments are mere glimpses too often quickly forgotten again. We have no shared experience, no living memory to draw from. We have no solid ground to stand upon. And the path to a different world that existed in the past has been gated shut. Or so it seems. But is that true? Where else could we be but in the world? Nature knows no boundaries nor does the human psyche, if we root down deep enough into our own soil. There is no sense of self without a sense of place for we mould ourselves out of the clay, as we breathe the dust of our ancestors.
Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place
Ever place has its own… proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place… Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects… haunted places are the only ones people can live in.Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
* * *
“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self
by Robert Anderson
In this argument, I turn on its head Godwin’s claim that the right to private property “flows from the very nature of man.” While Godwin argues that the right to property is “founded” on the “right of private judgment” which “flows from the very nature of man” (2.169-70), I will argue that this argument runs counter to his notion that private property “unavoidably suggests some species of law” to guarantee it (2.439). To be more specific, I argue that Godwin’s defense of the “sacred” and “essential” “sphere” surrounding the self (1.1.70, 1.257), which is necessary to potect it from being “resolved . . . into the common mass” (1.289), draws upon the conceptual framework which informs the rhetoric of the Enclosure Movement. In particular, I note his argument that cutting off the individual from the “common mass” is necessary for “improvement”—another term for enclosure. [….]
Part of his “extensive plan of freedom” involved the socialization of the self and (ideally) property and the rejection of all restraints on individual liberty; his “reprobation,” I argue, stems from this same defense of private judgment, which can be said to serve the conservative interests of the powers that be.
- The Subject of the Commons
Political associatons came of age in the latter part of the eighteenth century in response to the upheavals wrought by the industrial revoltion. Associations were contesting the state’s efforts to regulate subjectivites. Albert Goodwin recounts that in 1790 in the industrial center of Sheffeld, for example, “the master scissorsmiths,” apprehensive of the collective power of striking scissor grinders, “called a general meeting of the town’s merchants and manufacturers ‘to ooppose the unlawful combinations of the scissor grinders and the combinations of all other workmen.'” The same anxiety about the collective strength of the poor which led the Sheffield city leaders to oppose combinations also led to attempts to eradicate collective landholding arrangements by enclosing the commons. Following the passage of the Private Enclosure Act of 6 June 1791, in whch 6,000 acres of commons were redistrbuted among the wealthy “local land-holders, tithe-owners and large freeholders,” an angry mob, comprising both peasants and industrial laborers, rioted, threatening to destroy “the lives and properties of the freeholders who had approved the enclosure” (165-67). The fact that the mob opposing enclosure included industrial laborers as well as peasant farmers whose land was being appropriated reveals the close connections between enclosure and industrial capitalism. Sayer and Corrigan make the connecton between enclosure, capitalism, and subjectivity in this period more explicit.
“But the great catastrophe which above all pervades the eighteenth century is the acceleration of the great “freeing” of labour (and thus making labour-power) that divides wage-labouring from generalized poverty; the long movement from service to employment, from provision to production/consumption, from political theatre to the individualism . . . of the vote: enclosures.” (96)
As Marx argues, enclosure ensures that workers, expropriated from their means of subsistence, are thrust into relations of dependence on the capitalists.
Goodwin goes on to relate that the response of the commoners and laborers also took forms more organized and intellectual than rioting. “When ‘5 or 6 Mechanicks’ began to meet . . . to discuss ‘the enormous high prices of Provisions,'” they initiated the creation of political societies, associatons, for the (self-) education of the working classes (166). They attempted, in the words of one charter, “to persuade their benighted brethren to defend themselves against private and publiic exploitation by the assertion of their natural rights” (qtd. in Goodwin 167). Political societes provided laborers with an organized forum—an institution—to exert influence on the opinions of their fellow laborers, and by extension, on society at large. Godwin opposes political associations on just this account. The “interference of an organized society” to influence “opinion” is “pernicious” (2.2280. “[E]ach man must be taught to enquire and think for himself,” uninfluenced by either “sympahy or coercion,” guided only by “reason.” The “creeds” of politcal associations, on the other hand, encourage “each man to identify his creed with that of his neighbour” (1.288). He goes on to argue that sympathy, like a disease, is especially contagious among undisciplined laborers: “While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgment, actns may be determined upon, which the solitary reflections of all would have rejected” (1.294). Like the unenclosed commons, sympathy threatens the distinctions upone which general improvements is predicated: the “mind of one man is essentally diistinct from the mind of another. If each do not preserve his individuality, the judgment of all will be feeble, and the progress of our common understandng inexpressibly retarded” (1.236).
1790, the year the Sheffeld master scissorsmiths moved to oulaw the combinations of “grinders” and “workmen,” was also the year in which Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke reserved his greates hostility—and fear—for the “confusion” of the “swinish multitdude” (314). Reflections reveals the extent to which concerns about the collective power of the masses, the upheavals of the industrial revolution, and anxiety about the French Revolution are intertwined. The “French Revolution,” he argues, was brought about “by the most absurd and ridiculous . . . by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.” And further, it is a “monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeeded, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.” Burke’s concern about the inappropriate mixture driving the French Revolution invokes a common rhetoric for disparaging forms of life among peasants and the laboring population. It appears, as I will argue, in condemnations of the “waste” and the “ruinous . . . Mixture of opposite Interests” in the subsistence economy of the commons, and in Godwin’s critique of the tumult of political associations—both of which are seen as threats to individual integrity and “progress.” It also appears in his analysis of the “mechanism of the human mind.”
“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations
by Nina Patricia Budabin McQuown
The teleology of improvement could even stretch towards man’s transcendence of matter itself. This idea is amply represented in a notorious reverie from Godwin’s first edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), where Godwin projects the complete domination of matter—not only the matter of the soil, but also and especially the matter of the body—as the eventual outcome of human progress, beginning with its progress in agriculture. His logic traces a line from improved agriculture to a human transcendence of appetite, illness, and death: “[t]hree fourths of the habitable globe is now uncultivated. The parts already cultivated are capable of immeasurable improvements” (2: 861), he offers, and if we can gain control “over all other matter,” Godwin suggests,
“why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which . . . we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man one day be immortal?” (2: 862)
Godwin’s questions are only the most succinct statement of the radical hope that is at the center of late eighteenth-century bourgeois liberalism, which, as Kramnick has argued, linked agricultural improvement to “middle-class disdain for the past, for history, and for custom” (Kramnick, “Eighteenth-Century Science” 9). For reformist thinkers, in all areas of human ambition, improvement was articulated as a break with the past and an optimistic orientation towards the future.
Even so, reformers relied on an analogy between human self-ownership and landownership that draws on inherited parallels between human bodily-economy and the social system.5 Reformers saw an obvious parallel between agriculturally improved land and the human subject, who, cut off by self-reliance from the prejudice of contemporaries as well as the inherited prejudices of the past, could “cultivate” himself towards perfection, so that, as Robert Anderson puts it, “[t]he moral economy and political economy merge in the social and semantic fields covered by ‘improvement’” (630). In the works of both Godwin and Priestley, both subjectivity and soil are divided into discrete properties whose content is to be determined by one and only one owner, protected by the integrity of the individual conscience from absorption into the “common mass” of human thought and opinion (620).6 Enclosure of both self and soil meant divestment from the influence of history—those ancient patriarchs and their prejudices—as much as from the influence of the rights of commonage. If earlier authors imagined the soil as disseminating ownership of England’s past, bearing it physically into the bodies of nationals, later eighteenth-century reformist authors often render the soil as a failed medium for the transmission of historical experience and lingering subjectivities. Such failure is, paradoxically, reinscribed as improvement. Priestley destroys the “foundation” for the prejudicial thought of the past, and Charlotte Smith, as we will see in the conclusion to this chapter, insists on a failure of communication between the present and an incomprehensible past that is buried well below reach of the ploughshare, and is in any case unworthy of transmission. Smith and Priestley deny the relevance of the past to the present because both prefer to build on a different foundation.
This chapter examines late eighteenth-century reformist representations of the soil primarily in the field of agricultural writing. It offers an analysis, first, of Arthur Young’s writing in support of the enclosure of waste soils in several works of the 1770s and 1780s. In contrast to the revolutionary rhetoric of Priestley, Godwin, and Smith, Arthur Young is usually thought of as a political conservative for his response to the French Revolution.7 Yet to call Young a conservative is to fail to appreciate common ground he shared with the likes of progressives such as Godwin and Priestley in his advocacy for enclosure and against tithes and poor rates. Moreover, in the field of agriculture at least, Young was hardly an advocate for the careful and conservative restoration of the edifice of the past. For Young, the waste spaces of Britain must be rendered into an inviting blankness empty and available enough to rival the magnetism of America’s putatively untouched interior. We start by acknowledging the ways that his arguments for the enclosure of wastelands require the figuration of Britain as Locke’s tabula rasa, ripe for human improvement, and move on to a specific discussion of Young’s descriptions of moor soils as the prototypical waste, where we find him forcibly unearthing and dispersing the evidence of other histories and interests in the soil in order to make the past available for improvement towards a progressively more fertile future. In Young’s improvement and enclosure propaganda, we can see that eighteenth-century agricultural writing does not, like Dryden’s translation of the Georgics and Defoe’s Tour in this dissertation’s chapter two, simply mediate, reframe, or cover up relics that it cannot fit into an acceptable narrative of British history, or, like Powell and Philips, allow the concept of recirculation through the soil to provide an alternative, inarticulate, and immediate relation to the past. Nor does Young, like Smollett or Tull, suggest sequestration from the violating agency of decay. Instead, Young offers an improvement that actively un-earths the past. The coherence of Young’s improved Britain is based not on a hermeneutics of repression, where fragmented and conflicting histories are buried out of sight, but on the agricultural improver’s active recycling of the past into fertile soil that will produce a better future. His texts acknowledge the tangles of historical and legal relics and material and customary restraints in and on the soil in order to enact their exhumation and dispersal. By claiming and controlling the power of putrefaction to break down and disseminate relics, Young’s improver takes over the soil’s work of decay. He releases the value of the past for the production of future goods.
In fact, Young’s program—which became the program of the new Royal Agricultural Society in 1793—was so successful that by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape of Britain was entirely changed. With private enclosures replacing open fields formerly held in common, it was divided into subdivisions set apart by hedgerows, ditches, walls, and straight(er) roads. Where Godwin imagined a mind that could be enclosed and cultivated like soil through improvements, the poet John Clare asserted that by the first decades of the nineteenth century, that the British landscape had indeed come to imitate the private boundaries of the individual conscience. In this poem on the enclosure of his native village in Northhamptonshire, “The Moors,” for example, Clare shows,
“Fence meeting fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.” (46-49)
For Clare as for others, the consonance of a private landscape and a private subjectivity came with a sense of loss, both of individual rights, and of continuity with the past, whose paths “are stopt—the rude philistine’s thrall / Is laid upon them and destroyed them all” (64-5). The sense that improvement had turned out to mean the parceling up of experience into discrete and discontinuous blocks led, for Godwin, to his eventual anxiety that the possibility of future progress had also been lost. How can men whose lives are so strongly separated engage in the communication that leads to human perfection? This anxiety motivates Godwin’s An Essay on Sepulchres (1809), a text in which Godwin ultimately abandons his advocacy for a historical soil, and proposes that dirt—literally the dust of the buried corpses of great men—could be the foundation of improvement by materializing cultural and historical continuity. Godwin’s Essay proposes a different kind of soil-fertility, land that fruits out in knowledge, experience, and sentiment instead of only food. Yet Godwin’s essay is unable to imagine an immediate and therefore openended relation between human bodies and the dust of the dead. He strives to secure stable access to corpses that are also subjects, with particular memories and ideas to represent to their living interlocutors. Intent on controlling the legacy that the past leaves for the future, Godwin can only approach the dead through the medium of their representations—both the texts they leave behind and the monuments he wants to erect at their gravesites. Ultimately, his Essay offers less a plan for the stable continuity of experience across generations, than a revelation of the limits of what representations and mediums can accomplish when they refuse the immediate agency of soil.
The Early Modern 99%
by Harry C. Merritt
Reverberations of battle are the soundtrack to developments in England at the time, where King Charles I would be executed the following year and his kingdom transformed into a commonwealth. During the course of the film, the educated and principled Whitehead is forced into labor together with the alcoholic Jacob and the simpleton Friend by O’Neill, a rogue Irishman seeking self-enrichment. […]
Not just England was in turmoil at this time — much of Europe and the growing number of territories it ruled across the globe experienced extraordinary upheaval during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Though the “General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” thesis originally developed by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has since been challenged and amended, a number of broad themes can still be distilled. Religious dissent and political radicalism challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and monarchs who ruled by the grace of God. Conflicts like the Thirty Years War descended into endless nihilistic pillage and slaughter before lending themselves to the creation of the modern state system. The ruthless quest for precious metals and profits fueled the conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.
Perhaps one of the most powerful conceptualizations of this period can be found in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s book The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, the ruling classes imagined themselves to be the latter-day incarnation of Hercules, laboring to bring order to a chaotic world. The embodiment of their enemy was the mythological Hydra, whose many heads represented its multifarious elements: religious dissenters, radical commoners, rebellious African slaves, fiercely independent Native Americans, and freethinking women.
In the Americas and on the Atlantic, “the plebian commonism of the Old [World]” encountered “the primitive communism of the New World” and formed a hybrid, alternative vision that set itself against the emergent order of modernity. Late in A Field in England, a hallucinating Whitehead declares, “I am my own master”; this realization is precisely what the ruling classes feared most in the Hydra.
Despite its multitudes, the Hydra was ultimately unsuccessful at challenging the emerging capitalist, colonialist order of modernity. In the centuries since, it would be difficult to imagine a group that parallels the Hydra in its diversity, utopianism, and in the threat it poses to the ruling classes — that is, until today. The emergence of the 99% as a social grouping that has come to be dreaded and despised by members of the 1% reproduces the dynamics and the discourse of that era.
While a new era of globalization erodes the economic security of the vast majority of the US, the 1% and their political supporters insist that they work harder than the rest of us and thus their ownership of nearly half of the world’s wealth is for the greater good. Recently, we have been treated to numerous declarations from members of the 1% suggesting that they are under threat from the 99%.
These shrill cries about impending repression — invoking Nazism seems popular — reveal the degree to which the 1% identify with one another and fear the masses. Like the Hydra, the 99% is a rhetorical construction rather than a social formation with clear class consciousness. Its very diversity constitutes its greatest weakness. The repeated spread, defeat, and resurrection of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s indignados resemble the scattered but persistent revolts of the Hydra. Today’s Occupy activists should recall that a revolutionary conspiracy by a group of New York City laborers — black and white, slave and free — emerged in 1741 out of a waterfront tavern just blocks from today’s Zuccotti Park. With goals that are simultaneously utopian and practical, these movements appeal to both the basic needs and the deepest desires of common people around the globe. […]
Alain Badiou sees “the invariant features of every real mass movement: egalitarianism, mass democracy, the invention of slogans, bravery, the speed of reactions” embodied in both Thomas Müntzer’s movement of the 1500s and in Tahrir Square of the 2010s. As disparate groups occupy public spaces from Cairo to Madrid to New York, asserting their rights and presenting an alternative vision of their societies, we should not forget the members of the Hydra who fought against the exploitation of the ruling classes in favor of another world during the early modern period.
Some will argue that our present time is too distant to draw many practical lessons from this period. But that does not mean we cannot look to its events, personages, and symbols for inspiration. By coincidence, the rainbow flag used by today’s LGBT and peace activists bears a striking resemblance to the rainbow flag Thomas Müntzer once used to rally the German peasantry — a fitting symbol in any period for uniting a diverse coalition and insisting that another world is possible.