Capitalism requires the enclosure of the commons.
The reasons are twofold. The first is straightforward primitive accumulation, whereby the commons (land, and natural resources) are seized through force. This process is essential to the creation of capitalist surplus, or profit because capitalism always needs an outside, external to itself, from which it can draw uncompensated value.
But there is also something even more important. The enormous productive capacity that defines capitalism depended in the first instance on subjecting humans to artificial scarcity. Scarcity and the threat of hunger, driven by enclosure of the commons, creates the surplus value of labor that’s essential to capitalism
To understand this relationship it helps to synthesize the basic economic equation. Less public wealth means more private wealth and vice versa. Examining the history of capitalism reveals that growth has always depended on enclosure, or taking the public wealth and making it private. In fact capitalism owes it’s beginning to the primitive accumulation made possible by the enclosure movement in England, during which wealthy elites–“empowered by the Statute of Merton of 1235–fenced off commons and systematically forced peasants off the land in a violent, centuries-long campaign of dispossession.”
The enclosure of the commons led to scarcity and hunger which made people willing to labor in the “Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution. The historical record is full of commentary by British landowners and elites celebrating enclosure as a tool for enhancing the “industry” of peasants whose access to abundant commons rendered them given to leisure and “insolence”. The agriculturalist Arthur Young (1771) noted that “everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”.
I’ve come to believe that the New Deal and progressive reforms culminating in the Great Society programs of Medicare and Medicaid was the attempt to create a government established “commons” and to “promote the general Welfare“ of the American people. Neoliberalism has thus been the capitalist counterattack to enclose this new commons.
Remember, less public wealth means more private wealth.
Coincidentally there’s a new study out that shows the dollar amount of the modern day enclosure. A remarkable report has been released that documents the $50 trillion in earnings that’s been transferred to our feral elite from the bottom 90% of American households in the past 45 years. The RAND report makes clear that this upward redistribution of income, wealth, and power wasn’t inevitable; it was a choice–a direct result of the policies we chose to implement since 1975.
We chose to cut taxes on billionaires and to deregulate the financial industry. We chose to allow CEOs to manipulate share prices through stock buybacks, and to lavishly reward themselves with the proceeds. We chose to permit giant corporations, through mergers and acquisitions, to accumulate the vast monopoly power necessary to dictate both prices charged and wages paid. We chose to erode the minimum wage and the overtime threshold and the bargaining power of labor. For four decades, we chose to elect political leaders who put the material interests of the rich and powerful above those of the American people.
Moreover we chose to re-enclose the commons.
We can observe this process with the endless waves of privatization that have been unleashed all over the world since 1980, of education, healthcare, transportation, libraries, parks, swimming pools, water, even social security. Indeed, the push to privatize the public space is part of a larger ideological project to erode faith in the commons.
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic people continue to feel the force of scarcity in the constant threat of unemployment. Workers must become ever-more disciplined and productive at work or else lose their jobs to someone who will be more productive still –usually someone poorer and more desperate. Meanwhile, Congress fails to provide aid to states, counties and cities ravaged by the economic downturn.
But, of course, there’s plenty of money to shower Wall Street with cash.
What does that say about the power relations in this country? And, if this isn’t a political question, no, the ultimate political question, I don’t know what is. Politics, after all is about who get what and who pays the costs, or to take it further, who owns what and who should control our commonwealth.