On this day in 1845, Westminster, the UK Parliament passed the 1845 enclosure act. Although not the first step in the enclosure of the commons, this act created enclosure commissioners who were given the authority to enclose land without prior parliamentary approval. In total, over the course of 300 years, the British government enclosed nearly 7 million acres of the commons in Britain alone. In doing so they created the ‘working class’ and systematic private property in one fell swoop. This model became a worldwide blueprint that has led us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. Enclosure of the commons, coupled with imperialism has ensured that hundreds of millions of people are unable to access agricultural land and billions more live in abject poverty, despite living in regions of abundance.
If you read or engage with opponents of a commons approach to land management, you will notice, that they invariably cite Garret Hardins 1968’s “Tragedy of the Commons” as the basis of their argument. Unfortunately, in academic circles at least, the title of Hardin’s article has become somewhat of a handy convey-all catchphrase used to shut down constructive conversation about the benefits of a commons approach. Fortunately, Hardin’s argument is not particularly well constructed as he confuses the commons with a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, where life is so fraught with risk and fear that it is almost too horrible to contemplate. In the state of nature there are no rules, and each person must be constantly vigilant in fending for themselves. As a result, in the state of nature, all resources would be depleted in a free-for-all type situation, and everybody would lose.
Of course, in reality, the commons are in no way a free-for-all, they are regulated by internal and often customary rules to steward, rather than exploit. The enclosure of the commons has proven to be the true tragedy that has resulted in the unfathomable transfer of wealth, land, and power from the many to the few, and the alienation of generations of farmers from the land. Although today marks a point in history that was another step towards that alienation, times are changing and we are making our way back to the land.
To read a more comprehensive history of the enclosure of the commons in the UK, click HERE.