Simon Fairlie describes how the progressive enclosure of commons over several centuries has deprived most of the British people of access to agricultural land. The historical process bears little relationship to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, the theory which ideologues in the neoliberal era adopted as part of a smear campaign against common property institutions.
Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our “property-owning democracy”, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population,1 while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.
There are many factors that have led to such extreme levels of land concentration, but the most blatant and the most contentious has been enclosure — the subdivision and fencing of common land into individual plots which were allocated to those people deemed to have held rights to the land enclosed. For over 500 years, pamphleteers, politicians and historians have argued about enclosure, those in favour (including the beneficiaries) insisting that it was necessary for economic development or “improvement”, and those against (including the dispossessed) claiming that it deprived the poor of their livelihoods and led to rural depopulation. Reams of evidence derived from manorial rolls, tax returns, field orders and so on have been painstakingly unearthed to support either side. Anyone concocting a resumé of enclosure such as the one I present here cannot ignore E P Thompson’s warning: “A novice in agricultural history caught loitering in those areas with intent would quickly be despatched.”2
But over the last three decades, the enclosure debate has been swept up in a broader discourse on the nature of common property of any kind. The overgrazing of English common land has been held up as the archetypal example of the “tragedy of the commons” — the fatal deficiency that a neoliberal intelligentsia holds to be inherent in all forms of common property. Attitudes towards enclosures in the past were always ideologically charged, but now any stance taken towards them betrays a parallel approach to the crucial issues of our time: the management of global commons and the conflict between the global and the local, between development and diversity.
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