Stand from betwixt me and the Sun…Thoughts on Enclosure

The Fence, 1872, oil on canvas by Camille Pissarro The Fence, 1872, oil on canvas by Camille Pissarro

The Fence, 1872, oil on canvas by Camille Pissarro

I’m working on a longer piece intended to be about parallels between eighteenth century land enclosures in England as they became legalized via Parliamentary Acts at the behest of vested private interests and the current private interest in turning our local, common, public learning institutions into “educational enclosures” benefiting the propertied classes.  Now it’s likely very true that our educational institutions already do a fine job of encouraging and enforcing social class hierarchies but we might at least contend that those involved in teaching and the public served by this institution have always believed in the beneficence of opportunity that might be opened up to any student; they might at least learn enough to have an insubordinate opinion of the state.

This is of course the paradox of teaching: the mark of independent thought works against the grain of the very idea of state institutions and so we tend, via institutional processes, discourage this.

What we teach and how we teach it has great meaning; the way we institutionalize that process has great meaning.  I would not contend we’ve done the best we could do regarding these two points.

But I would further contend that the push to “privatize” and capture a “market” of “learners” by continuing to fragment our communities will only yield a student with a narrowed mind taught content to meet bureaucratically designed and testable goals.  The “efficiency” model of digital learning–less cost with demonstrable success on these standardized tests–does not teach human being; rather it teaches a very limited way of social being.

This is a simple and complex argument at the same time.  It is simple because most of us understand that Facebook, television sitcoms and reality shows, and blog bloviators (yes, yes), are not very real, not true to the act of fulfilled living, not human, not physical, not tangible and so on–in other words that technologies continue to narrow our existence.

The phrase that the world is shrinking is true, but only in the sense that our inventions stress a bland commonality of uselessness.  There are only so many ways to shop; only so many ways to say Subject X sucks or rocks (I guess that’s only two ways).

It is complex to imagine how we can truly shrink our world, that is make our concerns local and human, within our current practice of caring about how the management of the world can “entertain” our concerns.  We are given large problems on a large stage with which we are utterly at a loss to engage and all we can do is “consume” the problems and opine on them; all the while forgetting that we must be engaged in actually making the world we want to live in right now, right here, in our front and back yards.

But, that’s for the longer work.  What struck me recently is how investigating the loss of the English commons leads me to see that the same practices (the taking of our commons) are really at work in all of our modern “global” and “national” affairs.  The interests of the few with power and property always take away our shared heritage and common practices in order to narrow the world to fit the funnel of narrow benefit.  We are siphoned.  And always by the same folks using the same arguments.

From the Introduction to J. M. Neeson’s book  Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (1993):

The historian’s excuse [arguing and believing that enclosure was proper and inevitable and indeed good] is distance, coupled with too great a respect for the achievements of modern agriculture and English landlords.  The eighteenth century enclosers’ excuse was the national interest.  In its name they deplored the insubordination of commoners, the unimprovability of their pastures, and the brake on production represented by shared property.  In the end they won the argument: they identified parliamentary enclosure with the national interest.

The historian (not all of course) looks backward from a perspective of “progress”–look what hath been wrought in furtherance of technological advance–and must concluded that if a way of life was lost, if land was lost, if some people were hurt, in the end we have become more advanced and because of this “better.”

Chains of “change” in how we live and work are hard to trace and reduce to a “cause,” but we can perhaps agree that changes in the balance of natural “exchange” requires the balance be righted again.  And once the levers being pulled are technological and somewhat facile to implement we tend to simply apply more technology which at first alleviates but then exacerbates and once again prompts more application of technology.

Further, one great issue mentioned above is a “common” insubordination.  The commoners who lived and worked via land use rights tended to not be “manageable” by state fiat.  One reason being they worked the land as required to produce the food that would sustain them.  That meant they worked as the land and their individual and family necessities required and no more.  They had time to be insubordinate!  They had time to disagree with the propertied idea of “progress.”   This was one reason for enclosure and possibly one of the most important losses to us.

We could use some insubordinate commoners these days.  And that is in fact what seems to me the idea behind the Occupy Movement.

Note too that shared property requires that any action taken within the ken of those involved had to be discussed and debated at great length.  As we know, this keeps things from happening.  That is not what the priests of progress want.  We must always be in a hurry to advance so that we can be better.  In reality we make things more complicated and often much worse…but then we hurry up to fix that.

We would not be in such a hurry if we had not been required to be in a hurry by those who wanted the amassing of property to be the key to human civil power.

There’s much more here.  But you can see the way that this single, and to my mind devastating, loss is really multiple in effect.  We no longer even entertain the idea that life should be lived “in common” as we, at least in the modernized post-industrial nations, live our own lives of enclosure.

We are not better for it.

Neeson opens her book with this quote from Thomas Andrews, author of An Enquiry into the Encrease and Miseries of the Poor in England (1738) and it seems to me about the best argument against technological advance:

“Stand (says the Philosopher) from betwixt me and the Sun, lest thou take away, what though can’st not give me.”

*photo by cliff1066

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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  1. The Tragedy of Influential (White Supremacist) Liars: Distorting the Commons (Against Fair Housing and Civil Rights) - October 5, 2015

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