Enclosure, inequality and the tediousness of Malthusianism

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This is a very short entry, but should provide food for thought about the misleading rhetoric derived from Malthusian thought, when put in the context of enclosure and the consequent extreme inequalities. Be warned, the following quotes from E. P. Thompson’s  “The making of the English working class” document what must have been a tremendous trauma:

“[We] should remember that the spirit of agricultural improvement in the 18th century was impelled less by altruistic desires to banish ugly wastes or – as the tedious phrase goes – to “feed a growing population” than by the desire for fatter rent-rools and larger profits” (Thompson 1963/1966: 217).

“The arguments of the enclosure propagandists were commonly phrased in terms of higher rental values and higher yield per acre. In village after village, enclosure destroyed the … subsistence economy of the poor – the cow or geese, fuel from the commons, gleanings, and all the rest. The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure costs: (Thompson 1963/1966: 217)

“For example, in the enclosure of Barton-on-Humber, where attention was paid to common rights, we find that out of nearly 6,000 acres, 63% (3,733 acres) was divided between three people, while fifty-one people were awarded between one and three acres: or, broken down another way, ten owners accounted for 81% of the land enclosed, while the reamining 19% was divided between 116 people. The average rental value of the arable land enclosed rose in five years (1794-9) from 6s. 6d. To 20s. an acre; and average rentals in the parish were more than trebled” (Thompson 1963/1966: 217; my italics)

That resistance fomented, riots broke out and uprisings were attempted repeatedly throughout the realm is hardly of surprise. Neither is it very surprising that consequently the systematic repression intensified and society became very polarised. “The profession of a soldier was held to be dishonourable” (Thompson 1963/1966: 81), the police was instituted as a preventative force of control and survelliance, deterrence and threat – although “[r]esistance to an effective police force continued well into the 19th century (ibid.) – and a very wide range of new “thanatocratic” laws to manage the effects of enclosure – vagrancy, poverty, despair, homelessness, hunger – were enacted. These processes have been covered in Peter Linebaugh’s “The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (Linebaugh 2003/2006; particularly 42-73). In very brief, these draconian laws to keep the poor in check well define what capitalist democracy looks like:

“The year 1661 saw the promulgation of the first slave code in English history, enacting that human beings become “real chattels” … Also in 1661 the thirty-six Articles of War were promulgated … twenty-two of which provide the death penalty … Besdies that thanatocratic code, discipline in the navy was maintained by “customs of the sea” [including]: the spead eagle, ducking, mastheading, keelhauling, marrying the gunner’s daughter, and the cat-of-nine-tails. In addition to the slave codes, the military codes and the Irish penal code, the criminal code with its “new” capital offences formed the characteristics of this era of substantive British law” (Linebaugh 2003/2006: 53).

Welcome to capitalist democracy – this is what its roots look like!

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