5 threads on feudalism, enclosure and guesting

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

(1) On feudalism.
(2) On enclosure.
(3) On Thomas Paine and Enclosure.
(4) On primitive accumulation, enclosure, and capitalism.
(5) On guest right, mobility, and the freedom to leave.


(1) On feudalism.


I regularly encounter deep misconceptions about feudalism on this hellsite. Mostly from righties, but also sometimes tankies, who celebrate the triumph of modernity over its benighted predecessor.

I wanted to delve into that a bit.

The mythologized version of feudalism goes something like this: serfs were slaves who toiled in abject poverty, living brief lives of brutality, living and dying at the whims of their lords. It’s carefully constructed to be as miserable in comparison to today as possible.

That’s…not quite right. First, to start: feudalism is a controversial term, and plenty of historians reject its usefulness in discussing socioeconomic systems that varied widely between locations and across centuries.

I’m using the term loosely to describe the manorial system that was more prevalent in Western Europe, especially later in the medieval period. And I’m not going to describe it in detail, but discuss some aspects that help contextualize differences—and similarities—to today.

Feudalism was a predominantly agricultural system, and virtually all wealth derived from the ownership of land and control over the peasants who worked it. About 75% of the population fell under the broad category of unfree labor we’ll call “serfs.”

  • On defeats, small people, and the UK election text

Serfdom was exploitive. With some exceptions, serfs were bound to land—and not owned as chattel slaves who could be bought and sold. They could not leave or marry without permission. And, critically, they owed labor and agricultural products to their lords.

But contrary to common conception, those feudal dues were not cripplingly onerous. From Kenneth Jupp’s “European Feudalism from Its Emergence to Its Decline”:

Just as today, these payments—in labor and in kind—were rents due to a landlord. (Modern landlording is, of course, a direct holdover from feudal land tenure systems.) And the typical serf worked fewer hours each year than we do today to pay their rents.

In England, at least, feudal serfs worked fewer hours and performed less strenuous work than their successors did in the Industrial Revolution—which also drove higher mortality and malnutrition rates than under feudalism

-Highs and lows of an Englishman’s average height over 2000 years 2017 text

Importantly, those rents were fixed according to custom and tradition. In the later medieval period, there was a phenomenon called the Price Revolution, a period of rapid price inflation driven in part by massive Spanish imports of gold and silver from the Americas

When prices inflated, those fixed rents declined in value to nominal amounts, undermining the power of the nobility and enriching the peasants—who could spend the bulk of their time producing for themselves, rather than their lords.

They were able to do so because the land of the manner was apportioned to the peasants themselves to work as they pleased once they paid their rents, including large portions designated as waste or commons, open to use by anyone living on the manor.

Land tenure under feudalism looked nothing like our modern private property. In England, for example, all land belonged to the monarch but was apportioned out to feudal nobles—enfeoffed—in exchange for military service or, increasingly over time, cash payments.

These lords in turn were owed rents to their tenant serfs, but these serfs in turn held their own rights to use the products of land—usufruct rights.

  • A Short History of Enclosure in Britain text

Here’s a description of the Indian commons system, similar to the European feudal commons, from Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts”:

  • Late Victorian Holocausts : El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World 2002 pdf

The commons provided sustenance independent of either markets or the feudal lord, whose rights to the commons were constrained by customary law. Serfs could farm, graze, collect firewood, raise bees, or build cottages on the commons, only at the price of their own labor.

Especially towards the late medieval period, when the Price Revolution inflated feudal rents to nominal levels, the peasantry grew comfortably prosperous and more independent.

  • When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites text

Indeed, this economic independence was a key driver of the Enclosure Movement, a lengthy process of privatizing land in England both to profit off it—since it wasn’t worth much anymore in feudal dues—and to strip the serfs of their independent sustenance from the commons.

We’ve discussed Enclosures here before, and folks like @JohnRad15 have more resources on them. I’ll save a deeper discussion for another thread, but it’s worth noting that capitalism emerged in part as a reaction to the empowerment of the peasantry as feudalism decayed.

One final note on feudalism before I overrun the twitter thread limit: contra the myth of a “Tragedy of the Commons,” medieval serfs sustainably managed manorial fields, including common land, with no trouble.

More on the sustainability of collectively managed open field farming: pdf

None of this is to cheerlead for feudalism, a coercive and exploitive system that experienced countless peasants’ rebellions seeking to overthrow the nobility.

But it’s desperately important to understand feudalism if we are to put our current system into its proper context, not as an unmitigated triumph of progress over barbarism, but something much more complicated.

More free in some ways, less free in others, and unchanged in some.

But hey, we work more and get less in return for it than feudal serfs did, but at least we get to pick our landlords. Progress or some such, right?


(2) On enclosure.


The Enclosure Movement was a series of British laws that allowed landowners to seize land held communally by peasants and fence it off for their own personal use. It was one of the foundations of capitalism…

…turning public property into private and depriving the rural poor of their independent livelihood, sending them looking for wage work to survive. It also helped usher in homelessness; people were forced off their ancestral land and into vagrancy.

This is important: homelessness is a phenomenon of modern capitalism. In traditional societies, you lived with your extended family, or you built your own home on communal land, or you were guaranteed housing by a community leader.

Not anymore: we have to buy our housing on the market, using the proceeds of labor we sell on the market. If either of those things don’t work out, tough! We’re free to be homeless and die of exposure.

But this “free” market only operates if the state constantly, coercively intervenes. Land became a commodity, bought and sold on the market, during the Enclosure Movement. That commodification has to be constantly recreated.

In 1950, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission published “Washington, Present and Future,” in which it declared large sections of DC “obsolete.” By this, it meant too many people lived too densely, in multi-family homes it considered slums.

No surprise, many of these neighborhoods were majority black. The plan was to destroy these neighborhoods and replace them with the “towers in a park” model of low density at inhuman scales.

Fortunately, many of these neighborhoods, like Shaw and Capital Hill, escaped the butcher’s knife. Unfortunately, Southwest was completely destroyed and replaced by a series of Brutalist monstrosities. It’s one of the least-welcoming parts of the city.

  • These historic aerials show the disappearance of Southwest 2020 Dan Malouff

This was one of the “slums” they sought to destroy. Not lovely, but that’s not the point: these were homes, neighborhoods, and communities. People lived together in multi-family homes, pooling their resources and living in extended kin groups like our ancestors.

“Former residents talked with pride about a tight-knit community that resembled a small town. On Saturday nights the sounds of people drinking and blues music filled the alleys. It was a close neighborhood, and ‘no one’ locked their doors.”

  • Life in the Alleyways of Southwest D.C. Almost 70 Years Ago 2012 Benjamin R. Freed text

The NCPPC also pushed for restrictive zoning laws, banning multi-family homes and accessory buildings to block these neighborhoods from reforming.

  • Was your neighborhood “obsolete” in 1950? 2012 David Alpert text

So, to sum up: poor people had homes. They lived in communities and neighborhoods made up of extended families. And then powerful, wealthy elites literally destroyed those neighborhoods and made it illegal to build them again, driving thousands from their homes.

This is the foundation of the “free” market in housing. Taking a place that benefits many and turning into a place that benefits a few. The state literally demolished their homes and then promised to use the full force of its coercive apparatus to stop them from rebuilding.

The Enclosure movement never really ended. The free market only works when supported by government force. And property only becomes private when it is taken away from the public.


(3) On Thomas Paine and Enclosure.


Thomas Paine had many fans among the rah-rah capitalism crowd, so I thought it would be worth considering one of his later works, Agrarian Justice, to see what that tells us about our current situation. text

Paine published Agrarian Justice in 1797, though he held off publication for more than a year because he was afraid it was too radical. In it, he elaborates on a key accusation against the crown he made earlier in “Common Sense”: “engrossing the commons.”

“Engrossing” was the Medieval English crime of monopolizing a commodity and driving up prices, that it, collecting monopoly rents. (Engrossing, along with forestalling and regrating, were collectively known as Badger Laws and were typically associated with food sales.)

The commons were, of course, the lands which were effectively owned by the public, open to use by anyone at the cost only of their labor. While they were formally owned by feudal landlords, the public owned use or “usufruct” rights. (see chapter 1)

Paine’s critique, then, was of the Enclosure movement which was still ongoing, though winding down, at the time of his writing. Enclosing land entailed the forcible privatization of the commons by the state—the expulsion of its inhabitants and its sale to private owners. (chapter 2)

Paine was not a revolutionary; his ideal was not a social revolution, an erasure of the class system. But Paine did recognize that the class system was the product of arbitrary relations to the means of production, not a divinely imposed order.

Here’s the meat of his argument: land was not a commodity, but rather the natural, shared inheritance of every person:

To Paine, the privatization of land was an injustice that warped society and the economy, and he proposed a system of taxing the wealthy to fund a universal basic income to compensate people for the loss of their natural rights:

Paine did not challenge Enclosure; he recognized that ship had sailed. But he did seek to reverse those effects by taxing the few who had benefited from Enclosure to compensate the many who had lost. Most of the pamphlet is given over to specifically calculating the payments.

If you can’t return to people their direct land rights, the argument goes, then you can indirectly return to them their usufruct rights through annual, freehold payments. In this, Paine anticipated modern UBI arguments.

Paine was hardly alone in this understanding of the effects of Enclosure. His contemporary, Adam Smith, devoted chapter 11 of Wealth of Nations to the same concept, that the privatization of land inevitably drove inefficient monopoly rents.

That is, if you privatize something people need to live, then the price will naturally reflect the maximum people can afford to pay before they start dying, not an efficient equilibrium point. twitter

Yet to the extent that we consider these men in common discourse, it’s to remember Paine as the author of Common Sense, an intellectual father of American independence and libertarian ideals, and Adam Smith as the intellectual father of capitalism. Why is that?

The easy explanation is that these facets of their work have simply been memory-holed by our ideological state apparatuses, a selective editing of history to preserve a dominant ideology. That is, our society just ignores the parts that don’t fit what we want to believe.

But I think it’s both deeper and subtler than that—I think the Enclosure movement and the reaction to it have been so successfully erased from our collective memory that these discussions simply don’t register to most modern readers.

For example, in Nancy Isenberg‘s otherwise brilliant history of class in America, “White Trash,” she interprets Paine’s “engrossing the commons” solely in the context of the monarchy infringing on the rights of the House of Commons, with no mention of its other meaning.

For the intellectuals of the time like Paine and Smith, enclosing land was as controversial as privatizing the air we breathe would be today. Remember the pushback when Bush II tried to privatize social security? It was like that.

But we’ve collectively lost any sense of that context, of the salience of that issue, and so we struggle to understand what we’re reading. For many, it simply does not compute.

It reminds me of Michael Hudson’s description of the difficulty modern scholars have in understanding ancient Mesopotamian texts. Hudson identified regular debt forgiveness as a central pillar of Mesopotamian economies and societies…

…but modern scholars tended to reject this at first, because they’re so embedded in the ideology of capitalism that regular debt erasures simply did not compute. They refused to believe what they were reading actually meant what the authors wrote.

  • The Land Belongs to God Michael Hudson text

The Enclosure Movement and the privatization of common land was a radical departure from everything that came before it, a revolution of the rich against the poor in the last days of feudalism, which ultimately birthed modern capitalism.

Writers like Paine genuinely struggled with how to manage the effects of this revolution, what Polanyi called the Great Transformation. But we lack the context for this, which is how we end up with exchanges like this:

Paine might not have been a socialist, but he certainly argued for policies to address the worst effects of capitalism that he’d be considered a communist—if people could actually read and contextualize his work.


(4) On primitive accumulation, enclosure, and capitalism.


Central to Marx’s critique of capitalism was his history of “primitive accumulation,” the process of concentrating control over means of production that gave birth to both the capital class and a landless proletariat that had only the sale of labor by which to survive.

Marx’s history, in ch. 26-33 of Capital, retells story of the Enclosure Movement, a multi-century project by English and later British elites to centralize land ownership in fewer and fewer hands, transforming complex feudal land rights into simple private property.

Deprived of shared access to the commons by elites and their state servants, peasants had no choice but to abandon (meager but independent) subsistence, selling their labor for less than its worth in order to access sustenance they used to produce for themselves.

Or so the story goes, in really broad strokes. Some scholars, such as @jasonhickel, have argued for understanding the British Enclosures as part of a global movement of dispossession and coerced proletarianization.

  • Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong 2019 Hickel text

In this telling, Enclosure is translated from its specifically British economic, social, and legal context into a metaphor for a much broader, global process that includes everything from the South African Land Act to the Highland Clearances to the seizure of Indian commons.

But this view has its critics. Leigh Shaw-Taylor argued in the piece below that, insofar as we can measure these things, few people had access to the commons and they weren’t worth much, and so couldn’t have to payed the role Marx, et al, assign them.

  • Parliamentary Enclosure and the Emergence of an English Agricultural Proletariat pdf

But this raises all sorts of questions: if the commons were so unproductive that access to them could not stop proletarianization, why bother privatizing them? Why did so many people violently resist their Enclosure?

Jane Humphries tried to calculate the value of the commons as a supplement to wage labor, a way of avoiding full proletarianization, and argues that classic studies of the commons undervalue women’s labor and the testimony of actual laborers.

Not so fast, says @gabriel_mathy, who argues that wage labor was already widespread during the Enclosure period and that estimates of real wages show no decline that would indicate inmiseration. twitter

  • The long march of history : Farm wages, population, and economic growth, England 1209–1869†
    Gregory Clark pdf

(I believe the argument is that people were already so immiserated, and had so little access to useful land, that they were already proletarian, and industrial capitalism drove higher living standards from an already awful baseline.)

But Comrade Mathy’s chart raises some interesting questions when you compare it to historical height data in England.

  • Heights across the last 2000 years in England pdf

Like Mathy’s wage data suggest, there was a rise in wages following the medieval Black Death which is mirrored in rising heights. But Mathy’s wage data show declines in the 1500s and stagnation in the 1600s, which depart from the height data.

The authors of the height study found an increase in heights, suggesting better nutrition and matching longer life expectancies, in the 1500s and early 1600s. Then, when Mathy’s wage data stagnate, we see declining heights and shorter life expectancies (despite less plague).

What happened? Maybe the wage or height data are bad, or the caloric demands of labor somehow dropped in the 1500-1600s, or something else. But what if, as Humphries argued, the wage data fail to capture actual economic well being?

There’s an intriguing clue in the study on height data. Many scholars attribute the post-plague well-being on England escaping a Malthusian trap, with more land available per capita to the survivors to farm. Except the average days worked dropped as low as 100 hours/year.

So laborers were better fed, better paid, AND worked less? Sounds like the key issue wasn’t land availability but rather bargaining power, that labor was able to capture a larger share of economic production and force elites to accept a smaller share.

This tracks with English elites’ centuries-long project to coerce labor through law, which began in the wake of the Black Death and which is what you’d expect to see if the issue were one of capture rather than just productivity.

On coerced labor. twitter

I’m reminded of Pierre Clastres’ work in “Society Against the State”—their numbers shrunk by plague, English laborers seem to have deliberately bargained for less work, producing enough to meet their needs, with just a bit left over for elites.

  • On Subsistence & Slavery 2017 Fera Sylvain text
  • Society Against the State 1989 Pierre Clastres pdf audio

So do the wage labor fail to capture a non-wage rise in living standards (reflected in the height data) as feudalism decayed, and then a fall in living standards as Enclosure drove people into exclusive dependence on wage labor?

Robert Allen, in his work on historical consumption (rather than production), also notes that English laborers also received “rations” from their employers and enjoyed relatively frequent feasts that don’t seem to have been captured in wage data.

  • Poverty and the Labor Market: Today and Yesterday text

Allen argues that estimates of consumption, rather than production, in the US, UK, and India suggest there was considerably less extreme poverty in world history than we commonly imagine, and that poverty worsened a few centuries ago.

I’m not pretending this is a comprehensive survey, or that I am an economist by training—rather, consider me an enthusiastic amateur dipping my toes into this debate. But I have my suspicions, and I’ve made no bones about which side of this debate I come down on.

11.5.TASCH109 1-038


(5) On guest right, mobility, and the freedom to leave.


The ancient Greeks had “xenia.” The Romans called it “hospitium.” The Pashtun call theirs “nanawatai.” corr. to “panah” In Australia, it’s called “wunan.” Societies all over the world, for thousands of years, have featured some variation of “sacred hospitality.”

These cultural constructs, though separated by time and distance, all combine concepts of sanctuary, or protection from danger, and hospitality, or provision and care.

There were, of course, local variations; the Greek concept only applied to “foreigners,” by which they meant only Greek citizens of other poleis and not slaves, barbarians, etc. But all of them share some notion of sacred obligation to anyone who invokes it.

Guest rights are typically seen as sacred obligations, transcending any mortal legal or personal obligation. The Trojan War began not just because Paris absconded with Menelaus’ wife Helen, but because Paris was Menelaus’ guest who violated his obligations as a guest.

The Greeks went to war against Troy out of duty to Zeus Xenios in his capacity as guarantor of guests and guest rights. In many cultures, guest rights extend even to criminals who invoke them, obligating people to protect and care even for enemies: text

Why are these traditions of hospitality so universal and so sacred? Because they help mitigate risk in a dangerous, unpredictable world filled with potentially dangerous strangers.

It is, in Alexander Wendt’s terminology, an institution of cooperation that evolves in anarchy to reduce risk of conflict, in place of self-help and the security dilemma.

I got to thinking about this when I came across this idea of mobility as one of the core freedoms of human societies (which we’ve lost, naturally). Not just the negative right to leave, but the positive right to hospitality when you get somewhere else.

We have a popular concept of the past in which “exile” from a “tribe” meant certain death, because the only alternative to life within the group you were born into was dangerous and vulnerable isolation.

While no historic system of hospitality was perfect or universal, of course, but they were far more common and pervasive than most people realize. pdf

And this pervasive hospitality enabled a fundamental freedom that we lack: a freedom to leave a community with a reasonable expectation that you might find a place in another.

Consider the way in which James Scott identifies freedom of movement as the antithesis of state control in his brilliant “Against the Grain”: pdf

Early states were obsessed with sedentism and sedentary agriculture because it was regular, legible, and taxable. Those walls that mark the emergence of the first city states were likely as much about keeping workers in as they were about keeping enemies out.

In contrast, freedom entailed being able to leave, gaining (or resuming) mobility, by joining the community of non-state “barbarians” living beyond the margins of the state.

Norms of hospitality might have been costly for hosts, but they also enabled a (theoretically) universal mobility and, with it, the possibility of freedom from one’s own community if things turned sour at home.

In contrast, we live in a world of heavily policed borders, bureaucratized and often militarized immigration, onerous customs checks, and, to the extent that we can move about, commodified hospitality accessible only to those with the money to buy it in markets.

Thanks to capitalism’s totalizing capacity, there’s virtually nowhere left that’s both accessible and not governed by regimes of state borders and private property. From Ester Boserup’s “The Conditions of Agricultural Growth”:

The freedom of mobility is not to simply move from one place to another like place—from frying pan to fire, as it were—or to leave a community and lose all social support. It’s to be able to leave one mode of living for an entirely different way.

As per Scott, mobility might be the difference between sedentary toil in an early state for the freedom of “barbarian” life. It’s the freedom to choose or construct an entirely different community or even way of life.

So let’s keep that in mind for our communities now as we think about ways of building free communities in the future: for immigrants, as a society, and for guests, as individuals. Keep a chair open for Elijah, as they might say.

PS: as a quick addendum, I’d like to link this to another “positive” right, the traditional human right to housing, that enables far greater human freedom than our modern obsession with negative rights: twitter

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