Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Capital I, Chapter 27 - Part 1

Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land

“In England, serfdom had practically disappeared in the last part of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.” (p 671)

This make up of society, with a majority of peasant producers, each self-sufficient, not just for food, but each with their own means of production for spinning and weaving, is what characterises feudal production. It is also what creates the form of farming known as “strip farming” or “open field system”, with use of common land used for cattle grazing, and hunting of rabbits etc.

The might of the feudal lord, like that of the sovereign, depended not on the length of his rent roll, but on the number of his subjects, and the latter depended on the number of peasant proprietors. Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.” (p 672)

There were a number of factors that played into the preliminary stages of this process. Firstly, there had always been a certain number of wage workers employed as retainers by feudal lords. Wars between them led to some of these retainers being displaced and moving into the towns. But, economic changes played an even bigger role.

“Although the royal power, itself a product of bourgeois development, in its strife after absolute sovereignty forcibly hastened on the dissolution of these bands of retainers, it was by no means the sole cause of it. In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.” (p 672)

This process had nothing to do with the laziness of these peasant farmers, who for centuries had been self-sufficient, and everything to do with the greed of the landlords, who forced them from their land.

In a similar way to the introduction of legislation to curtail the worst excesses of capital, so earlier, legislation is introduced against the excesses of feudal thefts of land. Legislation is introduced from the time of Henry VII onwards to limit enclosures and depopulation of villages.

“As late as Charles I.’s reign, 1638, a royal commission was appointed to enforce the carrying out of the old laws, especially that referring to the 4 acres of land. Even in Cromwell’s time, the building of a house within 4 miles of London was forbidden unless it was endowed with 4 acres of land. As late as the first half of the 18th century complaint is made if the cottage of the agricultural labourer has not an adjunct of one or two acres of land.” (p 674)

But, such access, even to these meagre means of production, would prevent the development of capitalism. Marx quotes Dr. Hunter,

“'Landlords and farmers,' says Dr. Hunter, 'work here hand in hand. A few acres to the cottage would make the labourers too independent.'” (p 674)

“Dr. Hunter, l. c., p. 134. “The quantity of land assigned (in the old laws) would now be judged too great for labourers, and rather as likely to convert them into small farmers.” (George Roberts: “The Social History of the People of the Southern Counties of England in Past Centuries.” Lond., 1856, pp. 184-185.)” (Note 2, p 674)

A further contributor to the formation of a working class came with the Reformation, and the suppression of the monasteries.

“The estates of the church were to a large extent given away to rapacious royal favourites, or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who drove out, en masse, the hereditary sub-tenants and threw their holdings into one. The legally guaranteed property of the poorer folk in a part of the church’s tithes was tacitly confiscated. “Pauper ubique jacet,” cried Queen Elizabeth, after a journey through England. In the 43rd year of her reign the nation was obliged to recognise pauperism officially by the introduction of a poor-rate.” (p 675)
But, even by the end of the 17th Century the yeomanry, the free, independent peasants, who made up the backbone of Cromwell's army, were more numerous than the farmers who rented larger farms and employed labourers.

“About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer.” (p 677)

Economic forces such as those described by Marx in relation to wool were at work in encouraging the clearing of the land. At the same time, the increase in trade, and of the Merchant Class, consequent upon opening up of markets in Asia, Africa and the Americas was making available a wider range of goods that could be purchased with money, and which, therefore, encouraged replacement of payment of rent in kind with payment in money.

This in itself creates the economic conditions for a conversion of small inefficient farms. But, as Marx says, he is concerned here with the actual forceful means used to bring that about.

“After the restoration of the Stuarts, the landed proprietors carried, by legal means, an act of usurpation, effected everywhere on the Continent without any legal formality. They abolished the feudal tenure of land, i.e., they got rid of all its obligations to the State, “indemnified” the State by taxes on the peasantry and the rest of the mass of the people, vindicated for themselves the rights of modern private property in estates to which they had only a feudal title, and, finally, passed those laws of settlement, which, mutatis mutandis, had the same effect on the English agricultural labourer, as the edict of the Tartar Boris Godunof on the Russian peasantry.

The “Glorious Revolution” brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus-value. They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of state lands, thefts that had been hitherto managed more modestly. These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure. All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette. The Crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the robbery of the Church estates, as far as these had not been lost again during the republican revolution, form the basis of the today princely domains of the English oligarchy.” (p 676-7)

Back To Chapter 26

Forward To Part 2

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