Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

by Peter Linebaugh


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In bold and intelligently written essays, historian Peter Linebaugh takes aim at the thieves of land, the polluters of the seas, the ravagers of the forests, the despoilers of rivers, and the removers of mountaintops. From Thomas Paine to the Luddites and from Karl Marx—who concluded his great study of capitalism with the enclosure of commons—to the practical dreamer William Morris who made communism into a verb and advocated communizing industry and agriculture, to the 20th-century communist historian E. P. Thompson, Linebaugh brings to life the vital commonist tradition. He traces the red thread from the great revolt of commoners in 1381 to the enclosures of Ireland, and the American commons, where European immigrants who had been expelled from their commons met the immense commons of the native peoples and the underground African American urban commons, and all the while urges the ancient spark of resistance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604867473
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Series: Spectre Series
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 836,834
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter Linebaugh is a historian, a professor at the University of Toledo, the coauthor of Albion’s Fatal Tree and The Many Headed Hydra, and the author of The London Hanged and The Magna Carta Manifesto. His articles have appeared in publications that include CounterPunch, the New Left Review, New York University Law Review, Radical History Review, and Social History. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Stop, Thief!

The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

By Peter Linebaugh

PM Press

Copyright © 2014 Peter Linebaugh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-901-9


Some Principles of the Commons

HUMAN SOLIDARITY AS EXPRESSED IN THE SLOGAN "ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL" is the foundation of commoning. In capitalist society this principle is permitted in childhood games or in military combat. Otherwise, when it is not honored in hypocrisy, it appears in the struggle contra capitalism or, as Rebecca Solnit shows, in the disasters of fire, flood, or earthquake.

The activity of commoning is conducted through labor with other resources; it does not make a division between "labor" and "natural resources." On the contrary, it is labor which creates something as a resource, and it is by resources that the collectivity of labor comes to pass. As an action it is thus best understood as a verb rather than as a "common pool resource." Both James Lovelock's "Gaia Hypothesis" and the environmentalism of Rachel Carson were attempts to restore this perspective.

Commoning is primary to human life. Scholars used to write of "primitive communism." "The primary commons" renders the experience more clearly. Scarcely a society has existed on the face of the earth which has not had at its heart the commons; the commodity with its individualism and privatization was strictly confined to the margins of the community where severe regulations punished violators.

Commoning begins in the family. The kitchen is where production and reproduction meet, and the energies of the day between genders and between generations are negotiated. The momentous decisions in the sharing of tasks, in the distribution of product, in the creation of desire, and in sustaining health are first made here.

Commoning is historic. The "village commons" of English heritage or the "French commune" of the revolutionary past are remnants from this history, reminding us that despite stages of destruction parts have survived, though often in distorted fashion as in welfare systems, or even as their opposite as in the realtor's gated community or the retailer's mall.

Commoning has always had a spiritual significance expressed as sharing a meal or a drink, in archaic uses derived from monastic practices, in recognition of the sacred habitus. Theophany, or the appearance of the divine principle, is apprehended in the physical world and its creatures. In North America ("Turtle Island") this principle is maintained by indigenous people.

Commons is antithetical to capital. Commoners are quarrelsome (no doubt), yet the commons is without class struggle. To be sure, capital can arise from the commons, as part is sequestrated off and used against the rest. This begins with inegalitarian relations, among the Have Lesses and the Have Mores. The means of production become the way of destruction, and expropriation leads to exploitation, the Haves and Have Nots. Capital derides commoning by ideological uses of philosophy, logic, and economics which say the commons is impossible or tragic. The figures of speech in these arguments depend on fantasies of destruction — the desert, the life-boat, the prison. They always assume as axiomatic that concept expressive of capital's bid for eternity, the ahistorical "Human Nature."

Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously. The ancient court leet resolved quarrels of overuse; the panchayat in India did the same, like the way a factory grievance committee is supposed to be; the jury of peers is a vestigial remnant which determines what a crime is as well as who's a criminal. The "neighbor" must be put back into the "hood," as they say in Detroit, like the people's assemblies in Oaxaca.

Commoning has always been local. It depends on custom, memory, and oral transmission for the maintenance of its norms rather than law, police, and media. Closely associated with this is the independence of the commons from government or state authority. The centralized state was built upon it. It is, as it were, "the preexisting condition." Therefore, commoning is not the same as the communism of the USSR.

The commons is invisible until it is lost. Water, air, earth, fire — these were the historic substances of subsistence. They were the archaic physics upon which metaphysics was built. Even after land began to be commodified during English Middle Ages it was written,

But to buy water or wind or wit or fire the fourth,
These four the Father of Heaven formed for this earth
in common;
These are Truth's treasures to help true folk

We distinguish "the common" from "the public." We understand the public in contrast to the private, and we understand common solidarity in contrast to individual egotism. The commons has always been an element in human production even when capitalism acquired the hoard or laid down the law. The boss might "mean business" but nothing gets done without respect. Otherwise, sabotage and the shoddy result.

Commoning is exclusive inasmuch as it requires participation. It must be entered into. Whether on the high pastures for the flock or the light of the computer screen for the data, the wealth of knowledge, or the real good of hand and brain, requires the posture and attitude of working alongside, shoulder to shoulder. This is why we speak neither of rights nor obligations separately.

Human thought cannot flourish without the intercourse of the commons. Hence, the first amendment linking the rights of speech, assembly, and petition. A moment's thought reveals the interaction among these three activities which proceed from lonely muttering to poetic eloquence to world changing, or

Bing! Bing! the light bulb of an idea
Buzz! Buzz! talking it over with neighbors or co-workers
Pow! Pow! telling truth to power.

Ann Arbor

January 2010


Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning

WE'RE LOSING THE GROUND OF OUR SUBSISTENCE TO THE PRIVILEGED AND THE mighty. With the theft of our pensions, houses, universities, and land, people all over the world cry, "Stop, thief!" and start to think about the commons and act in its name. But what is the commons? Its twenty-first-century meaning is emerging from the darkness of centuries past.

Primers were once prayer books for the laity. Usually "primer" refers to the elementary book used to teach children to read. In another meaning of the word the primer is that which ignites the blasting powder in the old, revolutionary flintlock rifles.

So here is a primer on the commons and commoning. It does not contain prayers, though the matter here is solemn enough. It also has a list of books from the simple to the complex. Finally, if this primer leads to action, detonating greater energy or exploding for the common good, so much the better.

This short primer notes eighteen of the common places in this discussion (food, health, etc.) and sixteen books.

Food: The potluck, the principle of BYO, the CSA (community supported agriculture), the kitchen, are the profoundest human expressions of commoning. The extra seat at the table, the principle of hospitality, are inseparable from human community. The meal is at the heart of every religion. Our daily bread. Food was "rations" on the unhappy ship, on the happy one food was the sailor's commons.

Health: Public health, exercise, sports, prevention of accidents and disease, access to hospitals are dire needs. There was a time when hospitals were places of reception for guests, for strangers, for travelers. The practice of the hospital was the embodiment of the principle of hospitality. Salus publica populi romani referred to the goddess of health and well-being, "the public health of the Roman people." Surely, her worship in our day has fallen on evil times, as medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance companies in league with government strangle her in their coils. Once the woodlands were a common pharmacopeia not the private property of Big Pharma.

Security: Militarism and money do not safeguard us. On 9/11 the most expensive military in the world failed to protect the American people or even its own HQ. Instead, citizen passengers after twenty-three minutes of deliberation and voting were able collectively to disarm United Airlines flight 93. A sacrificial collective was formed for the common good. As for the Pentagon, the conclusion is obvious. Our protection is our mutuality.

Housing: Squatting, the group house, intentional communities, the hobo's jungle, the boarding house, the homeless camps are rarely anyone's idea of utopia yet they meet real needs, they arise from direct actions, they are actual mutualism, they enliven dead spaces, they are cooperative.

Gender: Birth, nurturance, neighborhood, and love are the beginnings of social life. The commons of the past has not been an exclusively male place. In fact, it is one very often where the needs of women and children come first. And not "needs" only but decision-making and responsibility have belonged to women from the neighborhoods of industrial "slums" to the matriarchy of the Iroquois confederation to the African village.

Ecology: Look! Look at Tahrir Square. Look at the young and old people in Athens. Look at the popular mobilizations in Spain. People are creating spaces in the urban environment where it becomes possible to engage in the conversation and debate that is essential to commoning. The barber shop, the corner grocery, the church basement, the ice-cream parlor, the local co-op may not be available. The town hall has gone and the town square has become a parking lot. So the first step in commoning is to find a locale, a place, and if one is not easily to hand, then to create one. The emerging geography of the future requires us actively to common spaces in our factories and offices.

Knowledge: The commons grows without copyright; lighting your candle from mine does not diminish me or put my candle out. As Thomas Jefferson said, "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." Conversation and just talk, or rapping, was once the people's internet. Common sense arises from the web of family and neighborhood relationships. But we need a place to meet! How about the school? Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Semantics: The gigantic Oxford English Dictionary has four to five pages on the word "common," beginning with, "belonging equally to more than one." We get some of our most powerful words from the commons, such as community, communal, commonage, commonality, commune, communion with their social, political, and spiritual overtones and histories. Etymologically, these words are the offspring, so to speak, of two Latin parents, com meaning together, and munis meaning some kind of obligation. Of course we don't need to stay with English and Latin. In the Andes mountain range, for instance, the allyus is the key word; in Mexico the ejido was the key word. The word "commons" can be tricky, subject to double-talk or the forked tongue, as when it is used for its opposite as in the privatized housing tract (gated community) or the privatized market (the mall) which will call themselves "the common" but which are actually based on exclusivity unless you possess the do re mi!

Working class: The Supreme Court has ruled against class action by women workers. Let us, the entire working class, employed and unemployed, men and women, rise from our slumbers and show that we do not wait on the Supreme Court for permission to act as a class!

Some say the precariat has replaced the proletariat. This simply means that life for us, the common people, has become more insecure, more uncertain, and more precarious. Whether we are old or whether we are young, whether we are poor or getting by, the institutions that used to help us have disappeared and their names have become bad words, like "welfare" or "social security." As we have learned from our experience of Katrina or the mortgage crisis, neither government nor corporations are able to abate the situation. As the disasters accumulate we are left more and more to our own devices and find we must dig deeper. The remembered commons of old as well as the spontaneous commons of now need to be available when need arises. Who runs the workplaces anyway?

Being: The commons refers neither to resources alone nor to people alone but to an intermixture of them both. The commons is not only "common pool resources" nor is the commons purely "the people." In other words it is not a thing but a relationship. In medieval Europe the forests, the hills, the coasts, the estuaries were locations of commoners who were respectively foresters, shepherds, fishers, and reed people. The commoner was the person who commoned in such lands, and one parish to another parish intercommoned, and the bullying giants of legend, the lords and ladies, discommoned. In this struggle our landscapes were formed, even our human "nature," as well as Nature herself.

Knowing: Often you don't know of the commons until it is taken away. The neighborhood without sidewalks, the water fountain that has gone dry, the land that once your family could use, the fresh air that used to renew your spirit — gone! They are taking liberties with what we took for granted. No more! Stop, thief!

Politics: The commons is outside the government. Commons provides its own security. Custom, or habit and socialization, rather than police force, regulate relations, as anyone knows who has organized a neighborhood softball game or football in the street. In English history, politics began as a negotiation between lords and commoners. This is why there is a House of Lords and a House of Commons.

Law: Generally custom, rather than law, safeguards and defines commons. Custom is local, it is held in memory, and the elders are the keepers of community memory. From Africa and Latin America we learn that this may be another guise of patriarchy and privilege. Thus while we respect custom, we do not romanticize it.

Economy: The commons is often outside of the realm of buying and selling or the realm of the commodity; it is where life is conducted face to face. The commons is neither a gift economy nor potlatch. No, not everything is free, but yes, everything may be shared. It is a place of reciprocities. This economy is not grounded in those triplets of evil named by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., namely, militarism, racism, and consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was neither. Quite the contrary. In England mechanization was actually counter-revolutionary and what it produced, besides soot and grime, was the opposite of industry: misery for workers and idleness for the rulers. Talk about oxymorons!

History: The commons is old and it is all over, from Iraq to Indiana, from Afghanistan to Arizona, it is associated with indigenous people and it has many recent modifications. History is not a story of simple progress along a straight line of stages or up the rungs of a ladder. There have been many stages, overlapping, returning, leap-frogging, if never actually disappearing. Beneath the radar there have been many communities, commoning along. Besides, progress for whom?

Religion: The good Samaritan, the principle of all things in common. The Franciscans say juri divino omni sunt communia, or by divine law all things are common. The Christian New Testament reports that the early Christians held all things in common. Marie Chauvet, the Haitian novelist and observer of voudou, writes, "Someone touched the calabash tree, my Lord God! ... Someone touched the calabash tree ... someone touched the calabash tree. ... You cut down all the trees, and the earth is no longer protected. Look, she's going away and shows you her teeth in revenge."

Poets and Writers: our poets and theorists, our revolutionaries and reformers, have dreamt of it. Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, Claude McKay, Tom McGrath, Marge Piercy ... oh, the list goes on and on, from the mystics to the romantics to the transcendentalists, from the democrats to the anarchists, from the socialists to the communitarians, from the Wobblies to the reds, from the folkies to the rockers.


Excerpted from Stop, Thief! by Peter Linebaugh. Copyright © 2014 Peter Linebaugh. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

The Commons

Chapter 1 Some Principles of the Commons 13

Chapter 2 Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning 16

Chapter 3 The City and the Commons; A Story for Our Times 24

"Charles Marks"

Chapter 4 Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood, and Working-Class Composition: A Contribution to the Current Debate 43

Chapter 5 Frau Gertrude Kugelmann and the Five Gates of Marxism 65

The "UK"

Chapter 6 Ned Ludd Qc Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12 77

Chapter 7 Foreword to E.P. Thompson's William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 108

Chapter 8 Preface to the Korean Edition of The Magna Carta Manifesto 135

Chapter 9 Enclosures from the Bottom Up 142

Chapter 10 Wat Tyler Day: The Anglo Juneteenth 159

The "USA"

Chapter 11 Introduction to Thomas Paine 177

Chapter 12 Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons 201

"First Nations"

Chapter 13 "The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck"-A Story of 1802: Historical Materialism, Indigenous People, and the Failed Republic 217

Chapter 14 The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx 237

Chapter 15 The Invisibility of the Commons 249

Notes 257

Index 274

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