Article by Christopher A. Ferrara.
The Modern Research Game
Although he is backpedalling now, Woods did not tell us before that Mingay represents a new “anti-catastrophic orthodoxy” that purports to overturn the earlier “catastrophic orthodoxy” concerning the social effects of the enclosures but has since met with counter-revisionist critiques (Thompson 1963, 195). Such is the business of academic historiography: a historian makes his mark with the latest revisionist interpretation, which then comes under attack by counter-revisionists seeking to make their mark in turn. And precisely that has happened here.
We must mention, for example, the 1993 landmark study by J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, winner of the 1994 Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society. In that study Neeson observes: “The optimists’ revisions are now undergoing revisions themselves.” (Neeson 1993, 288, n. 82). See also, Overton 1996 (“This revisionist view [of no harm to small farmers by enclosure] is now undergoing a revision.”) and Thompson 1963, 195-196 (“The new orthodoxy [contra the Hammonds] is now, in its turn, growing old and entrenched in most academic centers, so it becomes open to challenge in its turn…).
Attacking the “new orthodoxy,” Neeson’s acclaimed study, focusing on the Midlands, concludes that “a substantial portion of English society” remained peasants in the 18th century and that parliamentary enclosure between 1750 and 1820 destroyed the rights of common-occupiers and cottagers on some 30 percent of the agricultural land of England.Indeed, she notes:
No other attack on common right succeeded as well as enclosure. No other means could be found to raise rents as far or as fast. Enclosure, sanctioned by law, propagandized by the Board of Agriculture, and profited in by members of Parliament, was the final below to peasants in common-field England. (Neeson 1993, 328-330)
Woods makes a big deal of the fact that the majority of English land had been enclosed before 1760, yet the Hammonds themselves note this. (Hammond, J. L. and Barbara 1920, 42). But they also note that, nonetheless, on the remaining vast open fields “the common-field system was still the normal village life of England” and that the “land which was already enclosed consisted largely of old enclosures or the lords’ demesne land lying side by side with the open fields.” (Ibid.) Somehow, Woods misses this basic historical fact.
Between 1761 and 1800, there were 2,000 parliamentary Acts of enclosure and over 2,000,000 acres enclosed. By 1850, 2,000,000 more acres were enclosed under 2,000 more Enclosure Acts. The result was:
wholesale dispossession of the rural population; for, among the peasantry, even those who were granted some land in compensation for their lost rights were, in very many cases, given it under conditions which they could not fulfil. The land had to be fenced, and often drained; and the peasant, lacking the capital to do this, had often to sell his share to the larger owners for an old song. Moreover, many, who had held no land in the old village, but only common rights attached to a cottage, lost their means of life without any compensation at all. The cow, or the pig, or the geese, could no longer be left to pick up their keep on the common; for the common, as well as the open fields, had passed into unrestricted private ownership and enclosure. (Cole 1927, 28)
Neeson cites the work of K. D. M. Snell, “the broadest study to date of the standard of living of the rural poor during this period,” as one of numerous “revisions of the optimists’ view of enclosure…” (Neeson 1996, 288, 289). A key 100-page chapter in Snell’s study, Annals of the Labouring Poor (Cambridge University Press, 1985), systematically negates the whitewash of parliamentary enclosure Woods advances on the pretense that the entire matter was long ago settled against the “fact-free distributist version.”
Snell reveals what Woods does not: none other than Mingay admitted nearly fifty years ago that the land tax records Woods cites as “proof” that small ownership increased after parliamentary enclosure are not valid evidence. Snell cites Mingay’s recitation in a 1964 study of “a bewilderingly extensive catalogue of intractable difficulties in using the assessments” and his admission that “it might be concluded that detailed investigation of land tax assessments is simply not worth while.” (Snell 1985, 141). Yet, as Snell notes: “This source is the very edifice on which the re-appraisal of the Hammonds has been based,” in addition to which there is “simply the opinion of one or two historians defensive of parliamentary enclosure…” (Ibid., 143)
Note well: the very basis for the re-appraisal of the “exploded” Hammond thesis has itself been exploded. Woods, who claims to be au courant with “modern research” on the enclosures, has somehow overlooked this rather important development.
Moreover, other “modern research” has shown that to the extent any new small owners at all appear in the land tax records post-enclosure, we are dealing with “a statistical illusion,” because while “[a] cottager with a claim to common rights might well not appear in lists of owners in land tax records before enclosure, and might enter the list after being granted a small allotment at enclosure,” the heavy costs of maintaining that small allotment, which had less value than access to the entirety of the former open commons, “were a prelude to sale and decline into the mass of landless labourers.” (Daunton, 1995, 108). This accords with what the “apostate” enclosure advocate Arthur Young reported based on his contemporaneous observations and records. In the few cases where dispossessed cottagers were given a token allotment of land, “the cottagers could not pay the expense of the measure [which included fencing], and were forced to sell their allotments.” (Snell 1985, 190; citing Young, General Report on Enclosures ).
Snell shows how enclosure destroyed the independence of the commoners, whose rights of common allowed them to provide for themselves the most important elements of subsistence for 18th century man—food and shelter—without need of any but casual employment for wages. A repentant Young noted that, standing alone, the right to keep even one cow on the commons could provide the commoner with nearly the weekly equivalent of the wages of a fully employed laborer. (Snell 1985, 177). Loss of that right—and with it the cow or cows—as well as loss of the rights of common to cut turfs for fuel and wood for fuel, housing, implements and fencing, to take fish from a stream or game from a field, and to gather leftover wheat and other gleanings after harvests, were all “fundamental to an appraisal of enclosure’s social effects,” and any alleged increase in the “real wages” of landless laborers did not “compensate the poor for the widespread deprivations on other fronts.” (Ibid. 180).
Likewise, Neeson paints a vivid historical portrait of the commons, even the so-called waste, as an integral part of the life of the rural poor of 18th century England that provided innumerable resources for an ancient “commoning economy” based on mutuality, gift, and a life of “frugality, economy, and thrift,” allowing common field villagers “time to spend doing things other than work, as well as the ability to refuse work.” (Neeson 1993, 177-178 & 158-184.).
In fact, it was precisely the relative freedom from wage-dependency of the rural peasantry, made possible by ancient rights of common, that so irked the wealthy landed advocates of enclosure, who condemned all that “sporting, indolence, laziness, taking time off, enjoying life, [and] lack of ambition” which “had their origin in other things as well as life outside the market economy.” (Neeson 1993, 178) Enclosure advocates pontificated on how full-time wage-earning by the commoners would bring an “improvement in ‘moral’ standing, in turn presented as tantamount to an improved standard of living.” (Snell 1985, 170-171) The morally upright arrangement in the minds of these people was, as one of them put it, “a respectable class” of wage-laborers properly “looking up to the wealthier classes for labour” while the wealthier classes resided peacefully behind the new fences around their vast estates. (Ibid.) Recall here Mingay’s stolid apologetic for the “God-fearing” landowners who were conveniently convinced that what the commoners needed for their moral improvement was full-time jobs for low wages—in order to acquire the same necessities that were already theirs for a day or two of labor a week in the exercise of their ancient rights of common.
On the question of enclosures and poverty, Snell shows statistically a close correlation between loss of the rights of common through enclosure and a rise in the poor rates observed contemporaneously by Arthur Young, noting that “contemporary opinion widely held that enclosure increased poor relief expenditure…” (Ibid., 195-208). Apparently, Woods’s “modern research” has bypassed these facts.
Here I must note something not discussed in TCTL: England’s response to the crisis of poverty among the landless proletariat by way of the famous Speenhamland system of poor relief supplements to meager wages, adopted de facto throughout England (beginning in 1795) in order to insure that families did not starve. The result—yet another State intervention on behalf of capitalism—was a vast, government-subsidized mass of wage-dependent paupers whose capitalist employers, both urban and rural, were freed from the burden of paying even bare subsistence wages.
Hence in 1834 Parliament itself denounced the Speenhamland system as “a universal system of pauperism.” With the new Poor Law, however, Parliament threw the landless proletariat from the frying pan of Speenhamland into the fire of the workhouse—“a place of shelter that was deliberately made into a place of horror” (Polanyi 1944, 106) and which reflected the “imperatives of the market economy with its assumption that poverty is the sole responsibility of the individual” (Overton, 1996, 187). “The traditional unity of a Christian society,” writes Polyani even from his secular Jewish perspective, “was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the condition of their fellows.” (Polyani, ibid.) Or, as the Hammonds had put it: “the spirit of fellowship was dead.” (Hammond 1920, 280).
We can reasonably assume that Woods has not read any of the counter-revisionist studies cited here. And there are more, but the point is made. By his own standard for historical truth—“modern research”—it is Woods who has gotten it “dreadfully wrong” in declaring, with his usual ill-founded self-assurance, that the “fact-free distributist version of the enclosures” is nothing but exploded and abandoned myths.
As for me, apart from refuting Woods’s public attack on my credibility—his umpteenth—I have little interest in the endless back-and-forth of the professional historiographers concerning the English enclosures. The classic sources TCTL cites are sufficient to establish the basic point it makes, and which Woods has suddenly found defensible after all: that the enclosures represent a state-enforced collectivization of the rural poor for the benefit of the rich and powerful. And, again, I did not write a book on the enclosure movement in the first place, as much as Woods and Flood would like everyone to think so. I wrote a book on the errors of the fanatical “free-market” and in defense of the moral principles of Catholic social teaching they oppose all over the world and—with Woods’s crucial assistance—among Catholics.
Nock and Jefferson vs. Woods
As I noted in Part I of this piece, in Our Enemy, the State, which is published on the Mises Institute’s own website, none other than the anarcho-libertarian Albert Jay Nock observed that the victims of the English factory system of the 19th century were delivered into the hands of the factory owners by “the State’s primary intervention whereby the population of England was expropriated from the land.” Here I note another work by Nock to be found at mises.org: his biography of Thomas Jefferson. This is Nock’s account of what Jefferson witnessed when he sojourned in England in 1786, in the midst of the period of parliamentary enclosures on which my brief discussion in TCTL focuses:
A visit to England during this year stiffened his convictions. In February 1786, John Adams sent for him to come over to London to assist in the negotiation of treaties with Portugal and Tripoli. Here he saw a population expropriated from the land, and existing at the mercy of industrial employers, with the enormous exactions of monopoly standing as a fixed charge upon the producer… The British governmental system was steadfastly on the side of the land monopolists who expropriated the people and of the industrialists who exploited them; it was really their agent. (Nock 1926, 103)
Note well: on the Mises Institute’s own website is a work by Nock declaring that the government of England during the period discussed in my book was the agent of both the land monopolists and the industrialists and that the industrialists exploited the landless proletariat. In the same passage from Jefferson, Nock quotes as follows from Jefferson’s correspondence:
The aristocracy of England, which comprehends the nobility, the wealthy commoners, the high grades of priesthood and the officers of government, have the laws and government in their hands [and] have so managed them as to reduce the eleemosynary class, or paupers, below the means of supporting life, even by labour. [They] have forced the laboring class, whether employed in agriculture or the arts, to the maximum of labour which the construction of the human body can endure, and to the minimum of food, and of the meanest kind, which will preserve it in life and in strength sufficient to perform its functions.
Thus, Nock, an early anarcho-libertarian, and Jefferson, the libertarian icon Woods invokes all over the country in his “nullification” stump speech, both corroborate the “exploded myths” of the Hammonds; and they both make the very point TCTL makes in Chapter 2: that early English capitalism was no operation of the “free market” but rather the result of catastrophic state intervention by which land monopolists and factory owners exploited a landless proletariat. Hence Nock’s title: Our Enemy, the State. Not a Catholic state, mind you, but the post-Catholic state that the Hammonds, both Protestants, admitted had arisen after “the mediæval religion… disappeared, good and bad elements alike, at the Reformation…” (Hammond, J. L. and Barbara 1920, 280).
Everybody Else vs. Woods
So, not only the Hammonds, Chesterton, Belloc and the “social democratic historians,” but also Nock and Jefferson agree on the immiseration of the landless proletariat of the Industrial Revolution, even if Nock blames it entirely on the State’s intervention in expropriating the people from the land.
Here we might as well throw in the Pope of Rome, Leo XIII, writing in Rerum Novarum (1891)—the encyclical Woods has attacked repeatedly despite the admonition of Pope St. Pius X (in Singulari Quadam) that its teaching binds the Catholic conscience. In the following passage Leo sketches the process by which State abolition of the guild system (belittled by Woods), State authorization of usury (defended by Woods, who denies there is any such thing as usury), and the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few (called a “myth” by Woods) all worked together for the oppression of the working man.
some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last [the eighteenth] century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
While I am at it, let me note the complete agreement among contemporaneous observers from all camps concerning the moral indefensibility of what the rich and powerful did to the landless poor of England. As Karl Polyani writes in his landmark critique of capitalist social order, The Great Transformation:
This time also, the event was peculiar to England… [T]he laboring people had been crowded together in new places of desolation, the so-called industrial towns of England; the country people had been dehumanized into slum dwellers; the family was on the road to perdition; and large parts of the country were rapidly disappearing under the slack and scrap heaps vomited forth from the “satanic mills.” Writers of all views and parties, conservative and liberals, capitalists and socialists, invariably referred to social conditions under the Industrial Revolution as a veritable abyss of human degradation. (Polyani,  2001, 41)
Everyone from capitalists, to socialists, to anarchists, to Protestants, to distributists, to Roman Pontiffs—not to mention the victims themselves, whose protests and riots litter the historical record—agreed at the time it was happening (or in its immediate aftermath) that the Industrial Revolution was subjecting masses of hapless human beings to forms of exploitation and degradation inconceivable in Catholic social order. But Woods will have none of this. It’s all lies, lies, lies.
Yet it was none other than T.S. Ashton, lauded by Woods as “the great historian of the industrial revolution,” who admits—citing the Hammonds no less—that the owners of the infamous cotton mills got much of their labor from literal human trans-shipments of entire families to the North from many places in England:
But there was, especially in London and the South, a large supply of unskilled, unemployed people who were a charge on the parishes, and in many places the growing burden of the rates [assistance to the poor] led the overseers to offer to transfer batches of children, or whole families, to factories in the North. It was by such means that the cotton masters obtained a large part of their labour. The story of the factory ‘apprentices’ is a depressing one. The children, many of them only seven years of age, had to work twelve, or even fifteen, hours a day, for six days a week. As Mr. and Mrs. Hammond said, ‘their young lives were spent, at best in monotonous toil, at worst in a hell of human cruelty’… [T]he tale is one of neglect, promiscuity, and degradation. (Ashton, 1961, 91)
Woods has been presented again and again with the objection that his consequentialist and utilitarian ethical defense of the Industrial Revolution is contrary to the Faith: the exploitation of men, women and children by factory owners is not morally defensible on the ground that the only alternatives for landless peasants were “beg, steal or starve.” (Nock 1935, 200-201, n. 14) A pimp cannot justify his exploitation of women on the ground that he gives them more money than they could earn by begging or stealing.
In sum, Woods has not laid a glove on the “fact-free distributist interpretation of enclosures.” By the end of the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the impoverished masses that even Ashton calls “the legion of the lost” became what he describes euphemistically but tellingly as “efficient, if over-regimented, members of an industrial army.” (Ashton 1961, 46). That legion of the lost was a population of landless paupers that had two basic “choices” once it was expropriated from land or common rights to the use of land: hard labor in factories as soldiers in Ashton’s “over-regimented… industrial army” or hard labor as hired farm hands who had to work 60 hours a week year round in a newly industrialized agriculture, enduring “the constant grind, month in and month out, with never an hour to call their own,” as even that redoubtable defender of the wonders of enclosure, W. A. Armstrong, admitted. (Armstrong 1981, 82).
What explains Woods’s attack on the very position his own sources tend to support? Chapter 2 of TCTL provides the answer: the convenient inconsistency of what the anarcho-libertarian Kevin Carson, referring specifically to Woods and his colleagues, calls “vulgar libertarianism.” As Carson explains in a passage I quote at the beginning of the chapter:
Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term “free market” in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because “that’s not how the free market works”—implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of “free market principles.” (TCTL, 13; citing Carson 2007, 115-116)
That is, Woods and his fellow Austrians have been talking out of both sides of their mouths for years: denouncing state intervention on behalf of capitalists whenever it suits their rhetorical purposes, only to defend the very outcome of that state intervention whenever the rhetorical needs of the moment demand it. Hence the dogged defense of the Industrial Revolution and such government-advantaged corporate megaliths as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, with its legions of Chinese wage slaves without which the “unbeatable prices” Austrians celebrate would be very beatable indeed. TCTL demonstrates this duplicity abundantly. In fact, it was Carson’s writings that alerted me to this Janus-faced element of the Austrian polemic and inspired me to investigate it further.
To conclude, for more than year I have watched Woods do everything in his power to portray me as a lone traditionalist extremist driven by spite and envy to write against his views, even though I am a latecomer to the brouhaha Tom Fleming started nine years ago with his ironic characterization of Woods’s position as the “Austrian heresy,” followed by at least a dozen Catholics who have publicly criticized Woods’s opposition to what the Church teaches.
A key tactic of the demagogue is to reduce his entire opposition to one villainous opponent (Cf. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals). But here Woods has a big problem. As I noted in the first installment, there is now a second full-length book critiquing the system of errors Woods is promoting: Angus Sibley’s The Poisoned Spring of Economic Liberalism, which has an entire chapter devoted to Woods, and another devoted to the question “Is Libertarianism a Heresy?” Woods is now attempting to dismiss Sibley’s book, which he hasn’t read, by facilely equating it to mine, which he hasn’t read: “There is a new book, self-published, by a left-Keynesian… that repeats the same nonsense we read in Ferrara, but that left-Keynesian won’t need a Tony Flood. The refutation of Ferrara is quite sufficient.”
This is classic demagoguery: Well, folks, my critic is just some leftwing kook who published his own book. But Woods has not even read as far as the copyright page. Sibley’s book was published by the 120-year-old Pax Romana organization, a prestigious international Catholic think tank with a headquarters in Washington, D.C., official accreditation from the Holy See, and a worldwide network of 240,000 intellectuals, academicians and professionals. The book was introduced at a conference of Catholic intellectuals that included speakers from Duke University and Catholic University of America.
And Sibley is no “left-Keynesian.” He is a retired member of the London Stock Exchange and a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries, now living in Paris. His book says nothing of Keynes; it was written (as mine was) to defend Catholic social teaching against Woods and other “Catholic libertarians,” including Father John Sirico, and Michal Novak, whose infamous rejection of the social teaching is even more audacious (and influential) than Woods’s. (It was Sirico’s Acton Institute—named after the anti-Roman liberal who barely escaped excommunication by Pius IX—that sponsored Woods’s The Church and The Market. TCTL focuses on that book’s frontal attack on the social teaching, which Woods attempts to replace with his and Murray Rothbard’s twisting of Jesuit scholastics.)
Meanwhile, we have seen more than enough to appreciate the insuperable problem facing Woods, his sidekick, and the group to which they both belong: that they cannot defend actually existing capitalism without ignoring or explaining away its perpetual alliance with the very State they condemn as “anarcho-libertarians.” Unlike Kevin Carson, who is intellectually honest and thus should have our respect even if we disagree with him, the anarcho-libertarians of the Mises Institute expediently drop the “anarcho” part whenever they are defending actually existing capitalism, only to add it back again when they think no one is looking. This is the rhetorical tap dance Carson has so effectively mocked as “vulgar libertarianism.” Hence where the enclosure of the English commons in particular is concerned, Woods must maintain that manifestly oppressive state action redounding to the benefit of land monopolists and industrialists—as even Nock and Jefferson could see—did no great harm to the poor and was even a boon to them. For all his ridicule of distributists as the authors of historical cartoons, it is Woods who writes with a crayon.
To buy the book, click here.
Armstrong, W. A. 1981. The Influence of Demographic Factors on the Position of the Agricultural Labourer in England and Wales, c1750-1914. Agricultural History Review, Vol. 29, 71-82.
Ashton, T.S.  1997. The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Carson, Kevin. 2007. Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.
Cole, G. D. H. 1927. A Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789-1925. London: G. Allen & Unwin.
Daunton, M.J. 1995. An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hammond, J. L. and Barbara.  1995. The Village Labourer: 1760 to 1832. London: Longmans, Green, and Company.
_____.  1968. The Town Labourer. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Mingay, G. E. 1997. Parliamentary Enclosure in England. London: Longman.
_____. 1968. Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of the Industrial Revolution. London: MacMillan.
Neeson, J. M.  1996. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nock, Albert J. 1950. Our Enemy, the State. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd.
____. Jefferson. 1926. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Overton, Mark. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Polyani, Karl.  2001. The Great Transformation: the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.
Snell, K. D. M. 1985. Annals of the Labouring Poor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, Edward Palmer. The Making of the English Working Class. 1963. New York: Pantheon Books.
Young, Arthur. 1801. An Inquiry in to the Propriety of Applying Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor. Angel Hill: R. J. Rackham.
About Christopher A. Ferrara
Christopher A. Ferrara is a Roman Catholic attorney, pro-life activist, and journalist. He is the founder and current president and Chief Council of the American Catholic Lawyers Association. He is also a regular columnist of The Remnant newspaper and author of various books including the provocative and highly acclaimed, The Church and the Libertarian.
the heavy costs of maintaining that small allotment, which had less value than access to the entirety of the former open commons, “were a prelude to sale and decline into the mass of landless labourers.”
So the western tradition of private property may not be as God given and natural as some claim? Rather enclosure was a scheme to redistribute wealth to the rich and powerful via the destruction of common property and access rights. Sounds familiar to me. In Alaska, some of the redistribution of commons went into the public domain, but the effect was the same: it moved control and access of the resources to the state’s cronies. Good article, still reading.
“for, among the peasantry, even those who were granted some land in compensation for their lost rights were, in very many cases, given it under conditions which they could not fulfil. The land had to be fenced, and often drained; and the peasant, lacking the capital to do this, had often to sell his share to the larger owners for an old song.”
Modern day equivalents to this are zoning laws, covenants, set back requirements, etc. that require home owners maintain a lawn (which can cost in the thousands per year,) and restrict them from using the dwelling to make a living and from adding more dwelling space. Add to that “urban planning” that forces automobile dependence (which costs in the thousands per year) and of course urban renewal and accompanying gentrification that systematically destroys cheap housing stock while destroying the social fabric that the poor depend on to survive. All are measures to ensure that there is a dispossessed underclass on the edge of starvation that will scramble at the opportunity to flip burgers for a wage that won’t even support their families. It’s a sick, sick world.