The Communist Commons

There is a nexus of issues: property and ownership, land and Lockean rights, the Commons and enclosure, free range and fences. This has been a longtime interest of mine. It goes back to the enclosure movement in England. It led to tumultuous conflict in England and Ireland. This then set the stage for the issues in the American colonies that brought on revolution. The issues remain unsettled going into the 19th century.

There are many angles to this, but I would first offer some background. Traditional European society, as with other traditional societies, was built on various notions of shared land and shared rights. This was well established in the land known as the Commons and guaranteed as part of common law and the rights of commoners (what in the colonies came to be thought of as the rights of Englishmen), established by precedent which is to say centuries old tradition involving centuries of legal cases, going back to the early history of the “Charter of the Forest” and Quo Warranto.

In writing about Thomas Paine’s ‘radicalism’, I noted that it particularly “took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.” From another post that was even more scathing, it is made clear what are the consequences of the true radicalism of early capitalism in privatizing what was public: “The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few.”

This is how millions of English and Irish serfs were made landless and impoverished. In droves, they headed for the cities where many of them died of sickness and starvation. Others were imprisoned, hung, put into workhouses, or sent overseas as indentured servants. Yet more died along the way. Once they were inseparable from the land they lived on, but now their lives were cheapened and so their lives became brutal and short. The earliest indentured servants rarely lived long enough to see the end of their indenture. Those like Thomas Paine saw all of this firsthand and experienced some of it on a personal level.

This is the world out of which the American Revolution was fomented and a new nation founded. The issues themselves, however, remained unresolved. This should be unsurprising, considering Europeans had been fighting over these issues for millennia. Still, for most of history, there was a shared worldview. John Locke wrote about the right of land being based on who used it and improved upon it, but this was simply what most people took as common sense going back into the mists of the ancient world. Feudal serfs thought they had a right to the land that they and their ancestors had lived and worked on for centuries. Native Americans assumed the same thing. Yet Lockean land rights, without any sense of irony, was implemented as rhetoric to justify the theft of land.

Even so, the old worldview died slowly. The notion of private property is a modern invention. It remained a rather fuzzy social construct in the centuries immediately following the Enlightenment thinkers. This was particularly true in the American colonies and later on the frontier of the United States, as claims of land ownership were an endless point of contention. The same land might get sold multiple times. Plus, squatter’s rights had a Lockean basis. Use was the primary justification of ownership, not a legal document.

In early America, there was such vast tracts of uninhabited land. It was assumed that land was open to anyone’s use, unless clearly fenced in. Even if it was known who owned land, law initially made clear that others were free to hunt and forage on any land that wasn’t enclosed by a fence. Both humans and livestock ranged freely. It was the responsibility of owners to protect their property and crops from harm: “Livestock could range freely, and it was a farmer’s responsibility to fence in his crops and to fence out other people’s animals!” This was the origin of the open range for cattle that later on caused violent conflict in the Wild West when, like the wealthy elite back in England, ranchers enclosed public land with claims of private ownership. Barbed wire became the greatest weapon ever devised for use against the commons.

This struggle over land and rights was an issue early on. But the ancient context was already being forgotten. The traditional social order was meaningless in this modern liberal society where claims to rights were individualistic, not communal. Not long after the American Revolution, James Fenimore Cooper had inherited much family land. It apparently wasn’t being used by the property owner and, according to custom, the locals treated it as a public park. Cooper was offended at this act of trespass defended in the his neighbors making a Lockean-like claim of their use of the land. It wasn’t fenced in, as law required, to deny use by the public.

There was a simple reason for this early attitude toward land. It was an anti-aristocratic response to land accumulation. The purpose was to guarantee that no one could deny use of land that they weren’t using. This meant someone couldn’t buy up all the land in monopolistic fashion. Land had one purpose only in this worldview, in terms of its usefulness to humans. Basically, use it or lose it. And many people did lose their land according to such claims of use. That remains true to this day in US law. If a neighbor or the public uses your land for a certain period of time without your challenging their use, a legal claim can be made on it by those who have been using it. In many states, a squatter in a building can go through a legal process to make a claim of ownership.

The conflict involving Cooper and his neighbors was a minor skirmish in a larger battle. It only became a central concern with the large numbers of immigrants putting greater pressure on land ownership. This was exacerbated by conflicts with Native Americans, such as President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of multiple tribes that had sought to gain legitimacy of legal rights to their land such as building houses and farming, along with assimilating to American culture. This act was the blatant betrayal of Lockean land rights and of the entire justification of law. These tribal members were free citizens of the United States who had both legal title and Lockean claim.

Tensions grew even worse after the Civil War. That was when settlers claiming land ownership came into conflict with both Native Americans and open range cowboys. Then as the railroads encroached, many squatters were kicked off their land, Lockean land rights be damned once again. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer worked for the railroad companies in kicking these poor people off their own land. As president, Lincoln wasn’t any kinder to the Native Americans, for the progress of capitalism superseded all quaint notions of rights and ownership.

Another point of conflict was Emancipation (see Ballots and Fence Rails by William McKee Evans). All of the freed blacks became a major problem for the racial order, not unlike how feudal serfs had to be dealt with when feudalism ended. Emancipation also caused disarray in relation to land and property. The Civil War decimated the South. In the process, a large number of Southerners were killed or displaced. There was no one to tell blacks what to do and so they went about living their own lives, squatting wherever they so pleased as long as it wasn’t occupied by anyone else. There was plenty of land for the taking.

This was intolerable to the white ruling class, despite it being entirely within the law. Fraudulent charges were brought against blacks with accusations of trespass, theft, and poaching. It was assumed that anything a black had couldn’t rightfully be theirs and so everything was taken from them, even property they had bought with money made with their own labor. Blacks were often forced off their land and made to return to their former plantations, now as sharecroppers… or else made into forced prison labor, since the law only made private and not public slavery illegal.

All of this led to property laws becoming more narrow and legalistic. Over time, further restrictions were placed on the public use of lands. The Depression Era was the last time when large numbers of Americans were able to live off of the commons. My mother’s family survived the Depression by hunting and foraging on public land and on open private land, as did millions of other Americans at that time. Yet conflicts still happen, such as the Bundy standoff where ranchers thinking they were cowboys in the Wild West pointed guns at federal agents over a disagreement about grazing rights on public lands. It’s amusing that these right-wingers, however misguided in their understanding of the situation, were fighting for the public right to the commons.

27 thoughts on “The Communist Commons

    • Thomas Paine warned against that. He saw the writing on the wall centuries ago. This is the reason he advocated for land taxes to support a basic income, in order to compensate the public for what had been stolen from the commons.

      There was vast public land that wasn’t owned, i.e., the commons. But Paine saw how quickly the population was growing and how quickly the land was being bought up. Those with the most wealth bought the most land. And in consolidating the best land in the possession of fewer owners, wealth and so power would become further concentrated. Paine understood that, no matter how vast the land may seem, it was a finite resource.

      It has gotten worse than even that, though. As the federal government controls most of the natural resources and as the plutocrats control the government, even the remaining commons serve private interests. It is the greatest theft of public wealth in world history.

      If all of the natural resources had been sold at the highest prices they would go for on the open market, every American today would be a millionaire. That is what has happened in Iceland where the government has used public natural resources to create a massive budget surplus that, by law, must be used for the public good. When Americans see the lavish lifestyle of the plutocrats, they should understand that was bought with their public wealth.

      Most wealth in the US is inherited. And most of this inherited wealth has come from crony corporatism, making the benefits private while making the costs public. We have had generations of capitalism for the masses and socialism for the plutocracy.

      Of course, the two party system is simply a choice between two evils, as even the ruling elite and their lackeys now admit. But if they were even more honest, they would have to admit that it really is just a single evil, two heads of the same beast.

    • The other big problem is that the American people are facing some very real declines in their standard of living.

      If the private sector was so “innovative” the US would have taken away from other nations. Instead it seems the opposite. While there are a few parts the private sector does well, overall a strong public sector is needed.

      • When most of the wealth is going to the elite, that doesn’t leave much left over for everyone else. This at the same time that upward mobility is decreasing and the middle class shrinking while job security, good benefits, and pensions are disappearing. On top of that, costs of healthcare, higher education, etc is skyrocketing.

        In functioning social democracies, they ensure that everyone benefited from the wealth taken from and produced within society. All the US has is simply authoritarianism hidden behind libertarian rhetoric. This has created dysfunction where the so-called American Dream is more likely to be found in Nordic countries than in the US.

        In the Nordic Theory of Everything, Partanen explains why Nordic countries are even more individualistic, despite the American pretense of being an individualistic society. Nordic countries give greater freedom, independence, opportunity, resources, and support to individuals. But what Americans don’t understand is that this focus on individuality can only happen in a society that collectively focuses on the public good.

  1. This is just a messed up world is what it is.

    The US is increasingly becoming a developing nation for all but the rich.

    • I looked at the comments in the spam box. I didn’t notice any of your comments there. The internet apparently ate them before they were even acknowledged by WordPress. I’ve gotten in the habit of always copying longer comments before posting them, just in case.

  2. Didn’t know this was a thing:

    Crazy. They need to provide free lunches at schools. Good on New Mexico for banning it, but they need to provide free lunches.

    • I came across that recently. But I hadn’t heard of lunch shaming before. It pisses me off. In some of the well functioning social democracies, all kids get fed at lunch.

      For God’s sake, it’s a freaking public school. It would be like shaming poor kids at public school if their parents don’t make enough money to pay the taxes for public education. That is why it’s called public. It’s about a collective, not a mere personal, good.

      Some Americans don’t seem to understand the concept of ‘public’.

  3. It says a lot about the state of the US though. Apparently there is money for bailing out Goldman Sachs, but nothing for the common citizen.

    • Predictions feel particularly futile at the moment. There is so much going on that it is impossible to keep track of, specifically considering how little we the public know about what is actually going on.

      The next election will be determined by the levers of power and the strings of the puppet masters, not by voting citizens in a supposed democracy. If the ruling elite of the deep state decide Trump is useful as a pawn, a distraction, or a fall guy, they will keep him in place for a while longer. If not, then not.

      The point is that Trump could be taken out of power in an instant. It’s easy to do so, if those with power decided it was important enough. I’m sure he could be impeached at this very moment, for he is being protected from consequences and that protection could be lifted. Or he could be blackmailed. Or assassinated. Or simply bribed. Trump might step down from power and we’d never know the reason.

      That is less likely because it would risk the power brokers showing their hand. But eventually they will show their hand, at a time when it is likely to late to do anything about it. Those in power are patient in their scheming.

    • This is a good thing. We’ve been taught that politics is spectacle with no real consequences. That it is is just a game of elections like watching spectator sports where it doesn’t really matter which side wins, even as you cheer for your team.

      The GOP in particular has been ranting about ideology for decades because they saw it useful but now the radicals have taken over the party and they genuinely believe in that ideology. Most of the public never wanted what the GOP was selling, not even most conservatives, but most Americans had grown too comfortable with the idea that Republicans were mostly harmless blowhards. Now we are seeing how serious they can be.

      It’s not that most Americans don’t want to pay taxes. Most Americans, in fact, would love to have good jobs to pay taxes and to know that their taxes are going to pay for the public good, instead of being used for plutocratic self-interest. It’s not taxes people are against, not even during the American Revolution. What people want is a representative government, a functioning democracy, a political system that won’t constantly fuck them over.

    • Maybe if the libertarian types start facing the consequences of their actions, we will start seeing some hard lessons being learned. I kind of doubt it though – they may rationalize it away.

      It’s important because the libertarians often are independent of the mainstream GOP – they need to be shown as a non-solution to society’s problems too.

      I suspect this will get worse in many GOP controlled areas.

      • I’d make a similar argument about libertarians. Most people aren’t ideologues, even those claiming identification with an ideology. The average libertarian isn’t an anti-government anarchist, any more than other Americans.

        When you listen to even the most radical libertarians, they will make arguments where government is needed. And the fact of the matter is that most Americans who might be persuaded by libertarian rhetoric don’t find it appealing because of hatred of government but because of a simple desire for basic rights and freedoms.

        The problem libertarian and libertarian-leaning Americans have faced is basically the same as for progressives, socialists, etc. There are no good choices. The two parties are two greater evils. And any genuine public good is made impossible or impotent.

        Those in power use ideological rhetoric (not just political but race, religion, and class) to keep everyone divided. Most Americans already are in agreement about the basic problems and basic solutions, about the kind of society they’d rather be living in. It’s never been about a specific ideology. Most people would drop their professed ideology in an instant in favor of anyone promising genuine public good.

        The challenge is how to get most Americans to realize their actual situation. We are not alone. We are not a minority. This is our country.

    • My dad mentioned that to me. It’s horrible. And the name makes me want to retch: Onward Together. What bullshit!

      It’s time for any Democrats who actually care about democracy to realize that Clinton is the greatest enemy they face. Trump will go down. The GOP will be split. The right-wing will only have as much power as the Democratic establishment allows them to have because, after all, they are the part of the right-wing that keeps the left-wing in check.

    • This is what I always feared. And it’s what many have predicted.

      Whether or not Democrats are the lesser evil, they are a more powerful evil than the GOP. The Democratic Party can weather this storm, in a way the GOP can’t.

      The Democratic establishment will come out the winners and then they will screw over any progressive reform to a greater degree than Republicans could ever hope for in their wildest dreams. Democrats will be the ruling party and they will continue to push the political system further to the right, as they’ve done for decades.

    • The only hope I see is a new party that combines elements of both progressivism and populism by appealing to the majority of Americans who agree on most major policy issues and who identify with neither party but constantly are being threatened with lesser evilism by both parties. It’s not a matter of having to wait for a majority to form. The majority has been around for a long time, but there has been no party able and willing to represent them.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s