Sunday, February 12, 2012
Martin Durkin: The Greens - A Warning from History
In his Deep Economy, green writer Bill McKibben demands ‘Peasant farms, not Cargill [modern commercial] farms.’ He grieves over the decline of ‘common pastures, forests and ponds’ in places like India, and is distressed by the private ownership of land, ‘We can hear the echo of the enclosures that fenced off the fields and forests of Britain two hundred years ago.’
David Boyle (the green author of Authenticity and The Tyranny of Numbers) tells us: ‘many of the fiercest critics of amoral economics [he means free-market economics], back to William Cobbett, John Ruskin and William Morris, have looked to the medieval period as inspiration.’ Boyle tells us we should not ‘dismiss the medieval centuries as dark periods of brutality, lawlessness and poverty.’ He says, ‘the average English peasant in 1485 needed to work fifteen weeks a year to earn the money they needed to survive for the year.’
Few greens would argue, as Boyle absurdly tries to, that ordinary folk were actually better off as feudal peasants. Instead they argue that, in contrast to today’s over-consuming and ecologically sinful masses, the peasants enjoyed a deeper kind of happiness – a happiness which sprang, not from shallow materialism, but from the stability and orderliness and coherence of their traditional, pre-capitalist lives. Structure and stability in society is a constant theme throughout green literature.
In his Small is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher worries, ‘Everything in this world has to have structure, otherwise it is chaos. Before the advent of mass transport and mass communications, the structure was simply there, because people were relatively immobile … Now a great deal of the structure has collapsed, and a country is like a big cargo ship in which the load is in no way secured.’
‘The maintenance of social cohesion and stability is much more important,’ says Edward Goldsmith, than the foolish desire for material riches through trade and commerce.
In traditional, pre-capitalist societies, skills, homesteads, the working of plots of land was handed down from generation to generation. The division of society into occupations and social groups was as old as the hills. And that’s what made life so stable. The ‘social relationships’ in such societies, say the greens, flowed from the original dispositions of nature. Rene Dubos tells us that since humans evolved, ‘the immense majority of them have spent their entire life as members of very small groups … rarely of more than a few hundred persons. The genetic determinants of behaviour, and especially of social relationships, have thus evolved in small groups during several thousand generations.’
What natural ‘social relationships’ are we talking about here? Well of course pre-capitalist societies were composed, not just of frolicking peasants, but also of squires and knights and lords and kings and such. This hierarchical division of traditional society into orders or estates does not seem to upset the greens. On the contrary, Edward Goldsmith tells us, ‘Traditional man knew that the world was one, that it is alive, hierarchically organized and that all the diverse living things that inhabit it are closely interrelated, and co-operate in maintaining its integrity and stability.’ He says, 'This hierarchy is of immense importance in avoiding strife and in ensuring a socially acceptable division of labour among the members of the society. If there is no hierarchy there will be constant bickering and fighting. There will be no mechanism for ensuring the perpetuation of those qualities required if the society is to survive. Hierarchy is another word for organisation.’
But, say the greens, the stable way of life of the peasants, which hitherto had been blissfully free of the corrupting influence of money and commodity relations, was destroyed by the emergence of capitalism. Into the self-sufficient Garden of Eden, slithered the serpent of commodity exchange. Goldsmith’s account of this sad transformation is typical: ‘Once markets became more than incidental to the economic life, the societies in which they operated, together with the ecosystems in which the society existed, were condemned to rapid disintegration. During the Middle Ages in Europe, only resources of secondary importance - spices, candle-wax, oriental silks and luxury articles primarily of interest to the Church and the aristocracy –were traded via the market and annual fairs, held at a few major European cities. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, an economic revolution occurred: the market expanded rapidly until it came to dominate the economic life of many European societies. Essential to this revolution was this transformation of the key resources – labour and land – into commodities.’
The land, say the greens, was not there simply to be bought and sold! It was tied organically to the families and communities which, from time immemorial, had worked it. This was ‘Blood and Soil’ as the Nazis, approvingly, used to call it. The peasants should not have started producing commercially for the market, but self-sufficiently for themselves and their ‘communities’.
At this point, you might think, it’s time to turn the tables on the greens to show what a bunch of silly asses they are. How mistaken they are in their diseased worldview. But in the spirit of open-minded enquiry, let us be generous and try hard to do the opposite. Let us strain every muscle to find what is true in what they say. Here goes.
We might start, for example, with Goldsmith’s point that pre-capitalist societies were ‘hierarchically organised’. He is dead right. We can turn for confirmation of this to Professor Rodney Hilton, famous among medieval historians as an authority in the history and social status of peasants (author of The Decline of Serfdom in Medieval Europe and Bondmen Made Free). As Professor Hilton observes, ‘a society composed of nothing but peasants is, if not inconceivable, absent from the historical record.’ As well as the peasants there were always pharaohs, kings, warrior nobles, lords and their retinues, bishops, sheriffs and such – the ruling classes or estates - whom the peasants were obliged to support.
Of course there were peasantries everywhere, he says. And everywhere they were treated much the same, ‘Peasantries formed the basis of every ancient civilisation. Peasants were the primary producers in ancient and medieval societies. In fact, viewed from the perspective of the peasants, there was far less difference than we sometimes imagine between the various pre-capitalist civilisations, like the Chinese, the Egyptian and early medieval. Whatever the political changes up above, the one droning constant was the great mass of oppressed toilers down below.’
What’s more, Professor Hilton observes, ‘the relationship between peasants and lords, though they vary in details, from place to place and from one period to another, show a remarkable continuity from the bronze age until, in some parts of Europe, the 18th and 19th centuries.’
Let us turn to another point the greens are keen to emphasise. The economic existence of these wretched toilers in pre-capitalist society was not based primarily on exchange. Once again, they are spot on. The peasants did not freely exchange their produce with the lords they served. They got nothing in return for their labours. What they produced was expropriated by force. They were coerced. And as Professor Hilton says, ‘No attempt was made to disguise the fact that there was a ruling class which possessed the means of coercion and which depended for its existence on the labours of the classes it ruled, primarily the peasants.’
This exploitation and coercion of peasants was not sporadic. It was systematic and codified, reducing the peasant class to an enduring and unquestioning servility which is shocking to modern eyes, ‘In the long history of pre-industrial societies one of the constant features has been the existence of social groups whose members were unfree.’ And by ‘unfree’ Professor Hilton means legally unfree, ‘Even if we ignore the limitations of freedom resulting from the poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of influence and lack of power which has always been the lot of most men and women, we could not ignore the fact that, in medieval as well as in ancient societies, these practical limits on freedom were openly institutionalised as hereditary juridical servitude.’
In Europe the ‘hereditary juridical servitude’ described by Professor Hilton, varied slightly in form from place to place. Different local customs and laws imposed different obligations on the serfs or villeins as they were called. But as the great medievalist Marc Bloch observes, ‘Though infinitely varied in their details according to the customs of the group, they were at one in their broad lines, which were everywhere almost alike’.
Let's quickly review those obligations. Professor Hilton begins the list: ‘a restriction on marriage outside the lordship, other than with the lord’s permission; the right to take part or the whole of the tenant’s chattels at death, thus emphasizing that an unfree person had no rights of ownership in property; and the payment of an annual tax, the captigaium or chevage, as a recognition of the tenant’s perpetual subordination to the lord.’
These societies, as Marc Bloch reminds us, were defined by ‘the subordination of one individual to another … the principle of this human nexus permeated the whole of society.’
The peasants were forced to pay ‘rent’ in kind for the land they were forced to occupy – this rent took the form of food, grown by them, and also labour services on the lord’s demesne (the main estate), like ploughing, harrowing, threshing, haymaking, harvesting, carting, fencing, thatching, ditching and so on.
But alongside this basic exploitation, came a range of other degrading impositions. The children of villeins were taken, and sold, and forced to farm vacant plots of land elsewhere. Lords had the right to arrange the marriages of female heirs, or to sell that right. There were fines like merchet (paid by peasant fathers to the lord to marry off their daughters), and, if they failed to marry, leywrite (paid by peasants to the lord if their daughters were deemed to be acting immorally).
So, typically, peasants worked land which they did not own and were not allowed to leave. They were bound by laws which restricted or denied their freedom of movement, their freedom to marry, to own or leave any property to their spouses or children, to buy and sell land and goods, to dispose as they wished of their own labour.
In short, the lack of property, advertised by the greens as a kind of liberation, was anything but. For the peasants it was a mark of the most terrible humiliating servitude.
But land, as the greens rightly say, was not bought and sold as it is today. In fact the power of the lords, far, far exceeded mere ownership of land. In fact, as Marc Bloch tells us, ‘It is very rare, during the whole of the feudal era, for anyone to speak of ownership … the word ‘ownership’, as applied to landed property, would have been almost meaningless’. The lords were in control of the land and the people who worked it to a degree we moderns find completely alien and shocking. Americans are sometimes surprised at the fact that the nobles in Europe are named after land ... the Duke of Orleans, the Earl of Northumberland and so on. In Shakespeare plays the English king will call for his barons, Essex, Warwick, Norfolk and so on. These are place names. They were lords of the land, and the peasant serfs were tied to them, and to the land. The ruling elite were landlords in the full, terrifying, original sense.
The fawning, misty-eyed way the greens speak of the ‘the commons’ would grind the gears of a medieval peasant, for whom being a commoner was an expression of baseness. ‘Common rights in waste and pasture forced community upon them,’ the medieval historians Edward Miller and John Hatcher tell us. ‘Individuals were subjected to common rules and routines … communalism in no sense implied equality … The communities are far more often the bearers of duties rather than rights.’ Men, in Maitland’s words, ‘were drilled and regimented into communities.’
But the greens deserve full marks for their characterisation of pre-capitalist society as stable. Social immobility was enshrined in law. Remember Hilton’s phrase, ‘hereditary juridical servitude’. Serfs remained serfs through the generations. This stifling, inhuman ‘stability’ arose from the inveterate prejudices and habits of servitude. It was the ruling class which enjoyed the benefits of this stability. Venture round a stately home in England and take a look at the portraits hanging on the walls. Observe the inbred imbeciles and half-wits looking down at you, their noble lineage stretching back through the centuries. A few of them look good for hunting and making war, perhaps, but that’s about it. They were there because of who they were, not what they did, or how well they did it.
And this terrifying social stability led the lords to view those in the lower orders almost as animals. Or even worse - a noble might be more concerned with the wellbeing of his horse than of the smelly multitude of mud encrusted serfs, with whom he had no direct contact. As Professor Hilton says, ‘The gentry and the nobility regarded peasants as different creatures from themselves, almost as a different race.’ Marc Bloch too describes ‘the fundamental hostility which separated the classes’ … ‘the knight, proud of his courage and skill, despised the unwarlike (imbellis) people – the villeins who in face of armies scampered away ‘like deer’, and later the townsmen, whose economic power seemed to him so much more hateful in that it was obtained by means which were at once mysterious and directly opposed to his own activities.’
I think I am beginning to see why the likes of Prince Charles, and his aristocratic enviro chums, and all the other posh greens are so nostalgic for this ‘traditional’ kind of society. Why they so despise the democratic levelling of capitalism.
The greens paint a picture of happy, rosy-cheeked peasants, blissfully free of the concerns of modern commercial life, but Marc Bloch, author of perhaps the greatest work on medieval Europe, Feudal Society, observes that the entire history of the middle ages is marked by a ‘long and tragic chain’ of peasant uprisings.
These risings were struggles for survival, to begin with, often sparked by the most obscene and excessive acts of oppression. But towards the end of the middle ages, we see the character of peasants uprisings change. With the famous peasant rebellion in Flanders in 1323-7, the Jacquerie uprising in Paris in 1358, the Tuchin uprisings 1360-1400, the great English Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the peasant wars in Spain during the 1460s and 1480s, we see the first battles in an epic struggle for freedom.
What, we might ask, made the change? Why did the peasants become discontented with their lot? What gave them the idea? Once again, the greens have hit the nail on the head. It was growth of exchange, the money economy, markets and trade, just as they say, which dissolved the old feudal bonds. Let us see precisely what happened.
The lords of medieval Europe were not content with the agricultural produce and the labouring services of muddy peasants. They wanted fine things from far flung places – silk and jewels and spices and such. What Gibbon called the ‘splendid and trifling’ traffic from the Orient. War was an inefficient and unreliable means of acquiring such niceties, so they needed money to buy them. But to get money they needed to allow their peasants to sell some food and other produce at market, to convert the rent they would have paid in kind (basic food and labour) into useful money rents.
Peasants, for their part, were only too pleased to carve out a commercial existence which lifted them above the daily grind of hand-to-mouth subsistence. At first, their commercial activities were extremely limited and usually carried out as an aside. Fish for market came from part-time fishermen, salt from part-time boilers, eels and reeds and turf from fenmen, wood and charcoal from forest dwellers. To begin with, the activity was pathetically small-scale. Historical records show us, for example, two peasants in England trudging miles to Houghton engaged in trying to sell a single sack of wool.
But it grew. Some peasants found that more and more of their time could profitably be devoted to these other activities. Slowly new occupations began to emerge. Local fairs which had been held once or twice a year became more frequent. Regional fairs grew and slowly turned into settled market towns. By 1300 the records show that in Carlisle, for example, a wide variety of goods were traded: grain and malt; horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs; fish of various kinds; wool, hides and skins, including rabbit and squirrel; cloth, linen and leather; iron and copper; woad for the city’s clothworkers and wax for its chandlers; charcoal, turves and wood. In Ipswich at this time we even find imported cloth and linen and canvas and made-up garments; there was a fishmarket and cheese market (where potters also sold their pots), a wood market for timber, domestic utensils made of wood, baskets, spades and cartwheels, a bread market, a fleshmarket (meat) and a market for livestock.
These fairs and towns were exciting places. Little islands of (relative) freedom in a sea of feudal restriction. They grew up under the ‘protection’ of a lord, or the crown, who granted limited freedoms in order for trade to take place. And yet, as Marc Bloch brilliantly describes, the lords despised trade, the townsmen and merchants. It was a kind of economic activity which put people beyond their control.
The Lords still tried to enforce monopolies over key economic activities, such as the right to sell wine or beer, to supply the horses used to tread corn. Peasants were forced to grind their corn at the lord’s mill, bake their bread in his ovens.
But the markets had given peasants the whiff of freedom. When peasants made money from their activities, as weavers or coopers or from selling produce for money, they wanted to hang onto it. They began to resent handing it over to their feudal lord. Taxes like ‘tallage’ were ill-defined. They amounted to lords taking what they wanted. Professor Bloch tells us, ‘Since the peasant taxpayers were not as a rule strong enough to secure a strict definition of their obligations, the tax, which had at first been exceptional, was levied at more frequent intervals as the circulation of money increased’. It was not for nothing that the legend of Robin Hood grow up in the 13th and 14th centuries. The peasants had begun to deeply resent these feudal taxes.
It was towns and trade which rotted the foundations of the feudal edifice. Professor Hilton correctly says, ‘It was due to the early development of production for market by the peasants themselves, which strengthened the sinews of peasant war against such lords as might try to depress their status.’ Behind the rebelliousness of the peasantry, he tells us, was ‘the breakdown of local isolation through the development of communications and trade.’
The Black Death, which wiped out around a third of Europe’s population, only sped up this process. Lords found they had no-one to farm their lands, and so in desperation began to accept, as free farm labourers, runaway serfs. There was a market for farm produce, and now a market for farm labour. And with it came the chance to escape the injustice and humiliation of feudal oppression. In fact it was the attempt, by the English crown, to cap the wages of these new free wage labourers (the ‘Statute of Labourers’) which sparked England’s great Peasant Revolt of 1381.
As the great medievalist Professor May MacKisack says, peasants ‘found themselves united in hostility to a government whose policy offended both those desirous of taking advantage of soaring wages and those who were becoming commodity producers and found themselves impeded by labour rents and by the incidents of servile tenure.’
It is no accident that it was in London and Essex and East Anglia – among the most commercialized parts of England - that the uprising started; where, as Professor Hilton says, relations between peasants and lords were pushed to the limit. It is no accident that it was in Kent, which lay on the trade route between London and the continent, that freedom was first secured.
Hilton points out, ‘the leading social force in medieval peasant movements, even the most radical, seems to have been those elements most in contact with the market, those who in suitable circumstances would become capitalist farmers.’
The English peasants demanded charters of freedom from the king – an end to serfdom. They did not object to paying rent for their land, but they wanted to rent their land as free men. To dispose of its produce as they saw fit. To leave their lord’s land if they wished to, and to sell their labour for whatever amount people were willing to pay. If they did well, they wanted to be free to buy their own land and to own the produce of that land. The English rebels demanded the freedom to buy and sell goods and produce in all cities, boroughs, townships, markets and other places. The feudal order denied many of them legal access to these markets. The prohibition from trade was a mark of their servitude. The freedom to own property and to trade became for them the most basic, tangible expression of freedom itself.
They might have been at the butt end of the ‘natural order’ of society, but these grubby peasants, demanding property rights and freedom to trade, were at the forefront of human progress. As Professor Hilton points out, ‘In fact it might be said that the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord, is one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world.’
He says: ‘A peasant society governed by customs in which serfdom and labour services played an important part was shattered by uncontrollable peasant mobility and the commercialization of all transactions in land.’
It is no accident that the historical progress of commercialisation, which the greens find so repugnant, coincided with the liberation and enrichment of the lower orders, and the loss of status and privileges for the ruling classes.
There are those who believe that green historical nostalgia is misguided but essentially innocent. But I think there is something sinister and unpleasant about their reactionary worldview. No wonder the ‘anti-capitalism’ of the well-to-do greens does not find favour with the masses.
Martin Durkin is a film director and documentary producer who blogs at www.martindurkin.com
at 8:40 AM