In Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance (PM Press/Spectre, 2014), Peter Linebaugh looks at past ways of living, and their relevance now. His collection of 15 essays broadens and deepens our discussion of pre-capitalist life: commons and commoning.
Crucially, he urges us to think of commoning as a verb. Commoning is basic to life: people cooperatively creating the world around them, cooking, eating, and working.
This mode of production is collective, with guidelines of common agreement. Linebaugh demolishes the facile argument of Garret Hardin, whose The Tragedy of the Commons falsely blames commoning for private property’s crimes of power and wealth against people and the planet.
One could say that the enslaving of Africans was the ultimate theft of the commons. This thievery delivered the genesis of capitalism.
Linebaugh holds firm to the view that private property relations are primary to capitalist production. His second section on Karl Marx fleshes out the German’s life and work of radical political economy based on class antagonism.
As a lad, Marx knew commoning in the Moselle River valley by Trier, Germany. There, commoners battled “to maintain and increase” their way of life such a gathering forest wood, Linebaugh writes.
German capitalists sought to end that practice of commoning. Why did they do this?
People who can self-provision do not need employers. This is the pre-history of capitalism, as Linebaugh details.
His history of the commons and enclosures of them reveal people seeking to remain on their land by any means necessary, from English peasants to indigenous people of North America and the African continent.
The class struggle over commoning spurred Marx to take the political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and develop an analysis of the working-class, Linebaugh details. Marx the commoner, indeed.
The process of dispossessing people of their land held in common remains fundamental to the capitalist order today. Examples of “accumulation by dispossession,” David Harvey’s term, are taking place in China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, and in Mexico, where a Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has been going strong for 20 years.
Our common humanity of living on the land, collectively, free from private property relations, animates Linebaugh’s scholarship. He opens vital points of resistance during a shift from feudalism to capitalism in the old and new worlds.
On this note, E.P. Thompson, the famed English historian of that nation’s working class, taught Linebaugh. The influence from this pedagogical union sparkles in Stop, Thief!
The connective threads of people resisting expropriation, plunder of land theft, precede their exploitation. This is a fundamental principle of Linebaugh’s history.
Thanks to his scholarship, we read about the Luddite characters Ned Ludd and Queen Mab resisting capitalist industrialization in England. An essay on Wat Tyler Day commemorates and historicizes the Anglo commons when peasants rose up against a lordship class in 1381.
Phase one of the enclosure of Britain’s common agricultural fields occurred under the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century, Linebaugh writes. Marx also examines this period of privatization in part eight of Capital, volume one.
Further, Linebaugh writes of the several commons of 1811, spanning continents. This history reveals shared interests of autonomy and democracy among people tied to the land.
Linebaugh contextualizes the rebel spirit of Thomas Paine. He sought to decriminalize commoning, a state-reliant approach an armed minority few used to take the majority’s land.
“Paine guides us; he helps us think,” according to Linebaugh. “But we do the thinking.”
The fourth and last section of Linebaugh’s book, “First Nations,” is a gem. Readers will draw much here on the dynamics of enclosing the commons from 1798 to 1803. His narrative ranges from Haiti to Ireland, France and North America.
Linebaugh’s essay on George Orwell, William Wordsworth and C.L.R James is intriguing. James, for instance, was unable to see the struggles of indigenous people in Nevada as he wrote there, according to Linebaugh.
He, at the end of the day, is a fellow student and teacher on a journey to a future world of cooperation that negates competition and privatization. For Linebaugh, progress is imagining a return to a society of caring and sharing, while laboring to build a deep democracy: commoning.
Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014
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