Modern Day Enclosure

Enclosure, beyond its historical specificities as a means of enclosing common land, has a wider implication of enclosing autonomy itself in various forms. “The enclosure of common land ran alongside the decline of communal systems of agriculture and the marginalisation of other forms of communal entitlement”[1]. The specific aspect of the community is the maintained functioning of established lifeways and relations between groups/classes. Enclosure in a wider sense is the closing off of means of independence, in the form of freehold land, unclaimed commons or specific relations that entail duties between groups. Through a combination of structural imperatives and negotiated choices both rapid and extended declines of established modes of existence are curtailed and destroyed in favour of new methods and relations which close off autonomy.

The Highland clearances present an obvious example of the revolutionary nature of enclosure and its inexorable imperatives. Devine notes that the beginning of land clearances in Scotland started in the Lowlands, particularly the border region[2]. Military reasoning started this as the border region was known for smuggling, banditry and a general lack of law and order. As these regions became progressively controlled and integrated into estates, enclosure and clearances became economically necessitated as large tracts of farmland were more profitably used for sheep and cattle grazing rather than mixed agriculture with a large class of farming tenantry providing both agricultural labour for estates as well as smallholdings for themselves. In the Lowlands though clearances were a slow, evolutionary process. Tenant farmers and sub-tenant cottars were not quickly moved on or dislocated, but integrated into “rationalised” agriculture through the requirement of new occupational niches of joinery, smithing and infrastructure building that larger farms required. Larger acreage of arable land and new sheep runs needed both more smiths, more ploughmen and more building trades.

At the same time new industrial ventures concentrated in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh but with considerable sprawl across the countryside presented other opportunities for farmworkers and cottars to earn more and become less reliant on the land they farmed. The incentive structure changed so that relations of duty between clan chiefs, tackmen and tenants were replaced with wage contracts. The nature of these classes changed fundamentally. The clan chief with its associated autonomy was first integrated into the royal courts and parliaments of Edinburgh and London, eventually becoming indebted in status and wealth to their patronage. As this indebtedness grew, estates were sold to faraway landlords with the chief becoming just another landowner, competing for labour and capital. The tackmen became the estate manager. And the peasant became landless and waged.

The more brutal clearances of the Highlands, both in the post-Jacobite 18th century and the growing rationalisation of land in the 19th century, were fundamentally symbiotic with the slower evolution of land clearance in the Lowlands, where landed tenants slowly bled out of agriculture and into industrial class structures and urban environs.

Rationalisation is the key term in regard to enclosure. Rationalisation is neither inevitable nor a simple choice. It is representative of growing ideological currents among elite factions, particularly those of the Enlightenment and the economic doctrines of Smith and Locke. The market became the central nexus of economic relations in this theory, and competition the means through which rational outcomes were arrived at. Compared to relations of in-kind benefits and communal storage, market relations break the link of patronage, instead favouring indirect relations of employment and the payment of wage rather than resource provision. As urbanism grew in Scotland market relations diffused across class relations, particularly as landed tenants became day labourers and tradesmen.

Through rationalisation the double movement of historical progress is revealed. Autonomy is foreclosed as tenants’ rights to land ingrained in systems of patronage and inheritance are steadily or brutally removed, thereby eliminating the communal relations between tenants and with the landed classes. At the same time, new forms of autonomy through emigration and greater independence of wage are introduced, no longer relying for subsistence on arable land that requires substantial agricultural labours. This double movement also shows the reliance of relations between elites and commoners. Rationalisation wended its way through the Scottish estates, transforming the imperatives of them from communal holdings linked through military and tenurial obligations (i.e. the provision of service for estate protection and warring in return for long-term leases and the passing of these in inheritances) into agro-industrial vectors for growing wool, linen and timber industries where the primary concern is profit rather than community.

The long-term consequences of these agricultural transformations have been dire. Large-scale sheep runs led to substantial deforestation and the destruction of arable tracts. Large acreage monoculture of crops (particularly wheat and barley) have depleted soil moisture and regeneration, reducing the long-term potential of harvests and making agricultural systems today very fragile in the face shocks or errant weather patterns. Culturally landscapes that have faced enclosure are changed forever as the rise of capital over land as the primary matrix of economic relations means the end of communal relations and the growth of binary class systems and over-enlarged petty elites (i.e. the lairds in 19th century Scotland or the growing managerial class of today). The encouragement of such excess has meant an artificial inflation of a land’s carrying capacity, such that no nation today despite its vast resources and varied climates could reasonably become agriculturally self-sufficient. There is neither the infrastructure nor the maintained practices passed down through apprenticeships and smallholding to enact it.

Enclosure then has a wider historical significance that is still seen today. The double movement of progress’s autonomy for the individual or group is seen in many other contexts. The opening of frontiers in the Americas presented freedom and vitality to European peasants losing their own land at home. However in its wake followed industrial expansion of the railway and telegraph, and the eventual closing of the frontier as governability overtook autonomy. Similarly the story of the automobile presents a similar dynamic. Its expansion and cheapening entailed free movement across a landmass for anyone so long as you can fuel it. But its growth also meant traffic, gridlock and the expansion of corporate and government control as Ford and the DMV became the modern landlords of the road. It is encapsulated in what Del Mastro calls ruralism, a kind of collage of yesteryear America that no longer exists. Only rotting fixtures and pastiche storefronts remain.

“The lonely, isolated, individualist notion of rural life—’I’ll move far away from the city so I can be left alone’—echoes a long tradition in America that’s often said to go back to Thomas Jefferson’s low view of cities. But it’s also quite modern: forgetting that rural life was once far more connected and communitarian than it is, or is perceived as being by suburbanites and urbanites, today” [3].

The fundamental question is if there is anyway of preserving communitarian autonomy in the face of rationalisation. As the imperatives of economic growth change and the importance of technology for every facet of life has developed, we are faced with similar crossroads of the potential autonomy of the network which is itself a product of governance and industrial complexes[4]. Is there any real freedom in the internet, or is it simply a reproduction of the original enclosures, with the promise of autonomy mixed in with immiseration and individuation. The false dawns of the frontier or the rebellion (in the Luddites or anti-enclosure riots) have usually presaged the structural expansion of the very thing they oppose. Through nascent military-industrial complexes the terra firma becomes mapped and garrisoned.

“What happens to a culture whenever social, economic, political, and ecological conditions create a collapse in the general confidence in the sign and a segment of the society bands together to debauch the currency of the symbolic order by creating artifacts to match the times?”[5]. What seemingly happens is the eternal return, the reproduction of the same and the expansion of cultural devastation and economic revolution. The very obsession with change and re-evaluation is the sequelae of the unsettled community, removed from any mooring. Its historical precedents continue to be felt today in a variety of contexts and movements. The instantiation of urbanism through environmental concern, whether in the form of planning laws or rewilding, which limit access and use of land except as a museum attraction, never to be touched. An energy revolution that portends a reduction in autonomy as cars can no longer be driven and we are all connected to a renewable grid that doesn’t produce enough electricity[6].

Is there any escape? Or is the inexorable march of progress itself the means and ends of our capacities? Illich talked of radical monopoly as a monopoly that inheres itself as necessary[7]. Enclosure then is the ultimate radical monopoly. Through it rationalisation destroys settlement, whether in home or in culture. We are now hurtling toward a change with no clear aim, in the form of environmental catastrophe or technological stratification of our movements and thoughts. To disconnect from this sits on the line between extremely brave and perilously stupid. And is disconnection even possible? Maybe in collapse we’ll see, but collapses have come and gone. Maybe in the end the future isn’t human, but simply technical and complex[8].

[1] Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

[2] T.M. Devine, The Scottish Clearances


[4] Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley



[7] Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality


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