The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twelve
Let's pick up the thread we began in part eleven, before it became a horse of a different color.
In part eleven I created two terms with regard to national politics: "exterior" and "interior." What I mean by exterior politics, is the stuff that the world sees from the outside looking in. Exterior politics are all that stuff that seems to radiate out majestically from a nation's capital, the seat of its "federal" or national central government.
Interior politics are not as "sexy" as the exterior, in that they are not as prominent, because they are not as readily visible to the world, on the outside looking in. That is to say, interior politics because of their localized nature, do not radiate out majestically from a nation's capital city and seat of its federal government. Does that make sense?
We are talking about the local, the atomic subdivisions of a nation's political and governmental authority. As we will see in a moment, the exterior and interior politics of a country are not necessarily the same, and are, in fact, often very different from each other. One can get a distorted impression of a country by focusing on either the interior or the exterior to the exclusion of the other.
This, of course, has implications for how we, in the United States, process international news about other countries.
For example, perhaps most people would say that the United States is, in its "exterior" aspect, one of perhaps the five most democratic countries in the world.
And yet it is also very well known that the United States, in one of its, shall we say, "interior" aspects, imprisons more of its citizens and a greater proportion of its minorities than any other country in the world, even those countries we in the west, generally consider to be "repressive," or at least "authoritarian," such as China or Iran (1).
Of course, when "we" talk about China, Iran being "repressive" or "authoritarian," we are talking about the dimension of politics that we, the public news consumers and others, can most readily see from the outside looking in; that is to say, their "exterior" politics.
Since our focus, as ever in this series, is England, let us once again turn to an essay by Simon Fairlie: A Short History of Enclosure in Britain.
If I asked you ("When did England become democratic?"), you would probably give an answer that falls in the nineteenth century somewhere; and you would probably look for evidence of the first wave of voting in elections. The modern conception of democracy has voting and free and fair elections at its center.
You would say that in all periods prior to the nineteenth century and voting, were not democratic.
Let's turn now to Mr. Failie's article.
As you know, a major stumbling block, to say the least, in terms of relations between settlers on the North American mainland and the indigenous peoples was the idea of land. The indigenous people, ultimately, could not agree with the then European notion that mere mortals could actually "own" land.
Here's the thing. There had been a time when Europeans, regardless of social class, were not so far removed philosophically from the position of the indigenous folks of the North American mainland.
In Mr. Fairlie's article we read:
"Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old. 'The idea that one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everybody else' was outside the comprehension of most tribespeople, or indeed of medieval peasants. The king, or Lord of the Manor, might have owned an estate in one sense of the word, but the peasant enjoyed all sorts of so-called 'usufructory' rights which enabled him, or her, to graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops, on various plots of land at specified times of the year" (2).
Now then, we don't think of England as being "democratic" at this time, do we (certainly not in the exterior sense)?
Simon Fairlie quotes an anthropologist called Arthur McEvoy, whose assessment is as follows:
'English farmers met twice a year at manor court to plan production for the coming months. On those occasions they certainly would have exchanged information about the state of their lands and sanctioned those who took more than their fair share from the common pool' (3).
Let's remember something here. We are talking about a time when what most people in Europe "did for a living" was farm. That means that what we are looking at--- at a time centuries before England was considered to have become "democratic" (in its exterior sense)---is a situation in which these "workers" had full democratic consultative control over the work they did and its goals.
As you all know, this kind of "democracy in the workplace" is the very stuff of the dreams of socialists, anarchists, communists, and Marxists today.
Let's keep going. Simon Fairlie continues:
"The open field system of farming, which dominated the flatter more arable central counties of England throughout the later medieval and into the modern period, is a classic common property system which can be seen in many parts of the world. The structure of the open fields system was influenced by the introduction of the caruca a large wheeled plough, developed by the Gauls, which was much more capable of dealing with heavy English clay soils than the lightweight Roman aratrum (Fr. araire)" (3).
Now pay attention to this part: "The caruca required a larger team of oxen to pull it -- as many as eight on heavy soils -- and was awkward to turn around, so very long strips were ideal. Most peasants could not afford a whole team of oxen, just one or two, so maintaining an ox team had to be a joint enterprise. Peasants would work strips of land, possibly proportionate to their investment in the ox team. The lands were farmed in either a two or three course rotation, with one year being fallow, so each peasant needed an equal number of strips in each section to maintain a constant crop year on year" (4).
Notice: Not only were lands held in common but animals were, effectively, common property as well.
To continue, here's one drawback in terms of "freedom" or "choice," as they say today.
"Furthermore, because the fields were grazed by the village herds when fallow, or after harvest, there was no possibility for the individual to change his style of farming: he had to do what the others were doing, when they did it, otherwise his crops would get grazed by everyone's animals. The livestock were also fed on hay from communal meadows (the distribution of hay was sometimes decided by an annual lottery for different portions of the field) and on communal pastures" (5).
Gosh, look at all the free stuff "workers" got back in the day! These days, as you well know, if you get a job as a security guard, in the United States of America, you have to buy your own uniform!
You know, friends, I---the person writing this---remember a glorious time in the past when the security guard company would issue uniforms to all its employees right down to the shoes.
In any case, the "open fields were by no means restricted to England. Being a natural and reasonably equitable expression of a certain level of technology, the system was and still is found in many regions around the world" (6).
Fairlie gives us an interesting factoid about an area in Ethiopia: Tigray, Irob. It seems that farmers with and without oxen are required to "scratch each other's back," as it were. To avoid ox owners "profiteering" over oxen-less farmers, the oxen owners are obliged to first prepare the lands of the oxen-less landowners, then their own. In return the oxen-less landowners help by supplying feed for the animals which plough the land (7).
What are we looking at?
I won't make this essay overly long, but let me just point out a couple of things.
1. We are, in very general terms, dealing with an age when most Europeans did farming for their livelihood, which is to say their "job." Farming was their "career."
2. We saw how English farmers used to (democratically) meet together twice a year at manor court to discuss the state of their lands and cooperatively plan production for the upcoming months.
3. What we're looking at are folks who have a full democratic consultative voice over their very means of making a living, which, as I said before, is the very stuff of dreams for radical leftists today.
4. We see a system in which even a small farmer could, effectively, and certainly by our standards today, "punch above his weight," as it were through the communal use of land and animals. And, by the way, communal property seems to have been a safeguard preventing the kinds of polarization of society based on wealth that we have today.
5. This was a snapshot at some of the "interior" politics of England from late medieval times into the modern period.
6. As I said before, we don't consider England "democratic" during this period because nobody is voting. But in my opinion, this mass consultative practice over their very livelihoods, is a perfectly valid and legitimate form of democracy. Just imagine workers in the United States of America having a comparable level of "self-determination" in their workplaces as workers in medieval times Europe had---the workplaces where we spend so much of our time. The very thought seems so fantastic as to be almost outrageous.
7. Here's the bottom line---and I'll close with this. The enclosure movement not only redistributed income and wealth upward. In a way it sort of redistributed democracy itself upward; and you could make a case that it was precisely in this way that England became the "exterior" democracy that it is today, by "enclosing" and privatizing interior democracy.
I'm going to pick up on this theme in part thirteen. I'm going to try to make the case that this "interior" land democracy, as one might call it, was transferred to America; and with modifications, became, for a time, the "exterior" politics of colonial America, until a system of "federalism" was imposed upon it. You'll see what I mean.
Thank you so much for reading!
1. Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010. 6
2. Fairlie, S. (2009). A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. Retrieved May 8, 2015. Section: The Open Field System. paragraph 1
3. ibid, section: The Tragedy of the Commons. paragraph 12
4. ibid, section: The Open Field System. paragraph 2
5. ibid, paragraph 3
6. ibid, paragraph 7
More by this Author
This is a commentary of the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959.
We're going to address a question: Why did some blacks fight on the side of the Revolution and others fight for the British?
- 0On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective
What I want to try to do is to help us achieve clarity on just exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was all about.
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