The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism

The War Against the Commons explores the development of capitalism in Britain—and the resistance to it. As author Ian Angus shows, the dispossession of the peasants from their common land was the basis for agricultural and then industrial to emerge.

The process, which started in England in the 1400s, stripped away rights from the poorest. Peasants didn’t have common ownership over the means of subsistence, but they did have rights to use common land. These rights were removed and they were forcibly separated from the land, “a separation achieved by robbery, violence, fraud and worse”.

By the early 1800s, a three-tier social structure developed with “a few thousand landowners, leasing out their land to some tens of thousands of tenant farmers”. They “in turn operated it with the labour of some hundreds of thousands of farm labourers”.

The rise of capitalism and the authorities’ assault destroyed the old economy. Various changes shifted income from small farmers and farm workers to capitalist farmers, in turn deepening class divisions.

As Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born”. This social transformation took centuries. Destruction of the commons created a new reliance on the property owners. Uprooted peasants became subject to labour laws and forced to find work. In turn, this provided the pool of wage-labour needed for further capitalist development.

The nature of work changed with a huge transition away from farming to rural industry. For example, crops were replaced by great hordes of sheep and their wool fuelled the textile industry. This industry accounted for “at least 80 percent of the country’s exports” by 1700. Spinning employed nearly 500,000 women—by far the largest industrial occupation at the time.

Traditional handicraftsmen too transitioned to “employees in a system of capitalist manufacture”. And “the growth of long-distance fishing prefigured and contributed to the growth of a larger maritime working class”—numbering 60,000 by 1750.

Many of the dispossessed migrated in search of available farmland and means of subsistence. The largest number left England, travelling to North America and the Caribbean. Many were willing to accept indentured servitude to get a place on a ship. 

Internal migration to manufacturing centres such as London was also commonplace as the unemployed sought work. As Karl Marx wrote, the working class are “free in the double sense”. Free from the landlord or master—and free to starve if they didn’t labour for the capitalist.

There was resistance to these changes. As Angus writes, “Mass opposition to the destruction of the commons was widespread, and some argued eloquently for a commons-based alternative to both feudalism and capitalism.”

From as early as 1480, there were protests against enclosure. Direct actions included “pulling down fences and uprooting hedges” used by landlords to enclose lands. In Derbyshire, dozens of men “armed with pitchforks, bows and arrows, guns and other weapons” threatened to kill everyone involved in the mining of common land.

Yet, despite this resistance, Angus writes that “coal capital defeated the commons”. The bosses of this increasingly profitable industry were “supported physically by the state and legally by the courts”.

Other flashpoints of struggle included the Midland Revolt, and the Western Rising against deforestation. The longest-running fight against enclosure, in Eastern England or the Fens, saw wetlands drained and turned into new lands for investors that could be rented to large farmers. Fenland rioters destroyed pumps, dikes, and attacked drainage workers.

During the seven years of the English Civil War, inflation and enclosure led to unrest and rioting in the majority of England’s counties. Rural workers in Northamptonshire believed it better to “die by the sword than by the famine”. In the later stages, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers movement emerged, envisioning an egalitarian society where the people who worked the land would rule.

Winstanley believed “private ownership of land, wage-labour and buying or selling would all be banned”. Numbering only a few hundred participants, the Diggers’ defeat saw them written out of history. Winstanley had naively believed that Oliver Cromwell, leader of the parliamentary forces against King Charles I, would fight for common rights. Instead, he accelerated the transition to capitalism and crushed movements from below.

Enclosure and agricultural improvement happened alongside a period of empire and slavery. Many of those who waged war on the commons gained their wealth from overseas. Enclosure was accelerated by “imperial wealth that slave traders, plantation owners, and colonial profiteers invested in British estates”.

Britain ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen. And by 1801, the total annual transfer of wealth from the colonies “equalled 86 percent of Britain’s” entire domestic capital savings. Human trafficking, slave plantations—which operated like machines—and imperial plunder stimulated economic growth.

Dispossession was a global issue, as once opulent kingdoms were depopulated, fertile fields drained and peoples “expelled or destroyed”. Rice crops in India were replaced by “export crops such as cotton and mulberries” much like in Britain where farmland was replaced by pastures for sheep.

Famine was outsourced to areas such as India and Ireland, which effectively became an agricultural district of England. Angus writes, “It is not surprising that of the first Hindi words to be adopted into English was loot.”

Parliament alongside other state institutions helped to complete the long transition from peasant-based agriculture to agrarian capitalism. It created an unfair system of laws and legal proceedings. For example, it set up “independent” bodies such as commissions to decide who received land—and “the winners were those who already had the most”. The House of Lords dominated parliament and used these state organs for their own private interests.

A new method of “piecemeal enclosure” saw land concentrated more gradually “by refusing to renew leases, foreclosing on tenants who fell behind in their rent, buying out freeholders, or simply by bullying tenants into leaving”.

Court rulings enforced the legal framework. As Marx wrote, the common rights “were simply redefined as crimes: poaching, wood-theft, trespass”. The war against the commons removed the rights for people to hunt, forage, collect firewood and more. Game laws put restrictions on the poor, where you were criminalised even “if you took one hare when your family was starving”. The rich enclosed lands to hunt for sport, while the poor could be sentenced to death for hunting deer.

Hundreds of thousands of people were sentenced to hard labour in the colonies for “no more than hunting rabbits”. The Duke of Wellington’s hunting party of eight people once “killed 1,088 birds in three days” with carcasses left rotting while the poor went hungry. Hunting wasn’t banned but it became an exclusive privilege for the elites.

Gamekeepers acted as rural police officers who answered to the landowner rather than the state. Despite dozens of laws passed to prevent poaching, it continued as “even execution was of less concern than hunger” and many believed they had a natural right to the Earth’s “common treasure”.

In Scotland—one of the most backward countries in Europe—the transition towards capitalism was quick and happened alongside industrialisation. The forces pushing it had learned shortcuts from the already existing English agrarian capitalism.

Large cattle farms developed in the lowlands. In the highlands— driven by fifty Clan Chiefs— peasants were expelled and replaced by sheep. By the 1840s, there were close to one million sheep in the highlands. Cottagers saw their homes burned to the ground, possessions and all.

Patrick Sellar— an agent of the Duchess of Sunderland—who carried out these brutal illegal acts was protected by the corrupt courts. Crofters waged battles against the police and soldiers, they assaulted sheriffs and tore up eviction notices.

Britain’s rulers feared resistance, especially as the French Revolution of 1789 spurred radicalism. But the clearances continued and peaked in the 1850s. As Angus writes, “Like the parliamentary enclosures in England, the Highland Clearances were class robbery plain and simple”. 

Angus later goes on to denounce those who present the agricultural revolution as somehow benefiting the masses of peasants. He dispels the myths that everyone’s living standards were raised, arguing that the poor received less despite improvements in agriculture.

Living conditions began to improve in the late “1800s in northwestern Europe, and in the mid-1900s in the Global South…long after capitalism was entrenched”. Rather than being the fruits of capitalist development, they were won through struggle.

Instead of looking to the land, people sought subsistence at the bakers, coal-merchant and so on—which required a wage. People became “ruled by clocks, time-sheets, and overseers”, rather than the natural cycles of the world.

Angus calls “for restoration of the commons on a higher level”. It would be a world where social property is controlled by workers, and where the rift between humans and the natural world is repaired.

The development of capitalism created a new landless working class—which, as the source of capitalist profits, has immense power.

Today, the struggle over the commons continues with Indigenous peoples fighting on the front line across the world. And those struggles can be fused with the power of the working class. By organising collectively to overthrow the system, workers can win the now 500 year war against the commons.

The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism. Ian Angus (£26). Available from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop.


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