Enclosure Movement and the idea of neoliberal capitalist development

It is found that inherent in the idea of private property, as it was crystallized in England around the 16th and 17th centuries during the Enclosure Movements, is the idea of improvement. Predominantly it was improvement through one’s labour that became the justifying ground for owning land individually and marking it off from the commons. This saw the beginning of owning private property and with it, the inevitable beginning of displacement of people from their lands.

It started originally from the idea that everything on earth was given by God in common for all humankind. God meant for the fruits of nature to be used for our benefit and convenience- to serve our needs. And since it was given to all in common, no one had a right to claim a part of nature as their own and exclude others from claiming it. However, the only inalienable right humans had was the right over themselves. Hence, the way a particular person appropriates the fruits of nature, such as land, is by putting in their labour. In doing so the person added their own property to it, that is, their labour, over which no one else has any right, and hence the land now becomes rightfully their property. This is termed as the original law of nature, which governs how private property comes into existence when everything is held in common. And the predominant idea was that land was given to all in an unimproved state and for it to be of our benefit, humans must labour upon it and improve it. Thus, by cultivating the land, s/he improves the land and can consume the products borne out of it.

Thus, labour and the ideology of improvement becomes central to the idea of claiming something to be ours, and a moral justification for owning something as one’s private property and subsequently, excluding others from using it.

The above grounds formed some of the important basis for the Enclosure Movement to take place in England. The movement sought to systematically end the system of common ownership by fencing off or enclosing common land and individualizing land ownership. The movement gained momentum with a shift in the economic activities. The measure of improvement was no longer the amount of labour put in but the amount of return or profit generated from an economic activity. Thus, when the wool market started to become increasingly lucrative, large agricultural lands were cleared and enclosed, turned into pasturelands for sheep to graze in. And this was justified and considered as an improvement because this generated higher profits.

Thus, enclosures, fencings, and boundaries became the markers of improvement. Improvement became the abstract idea that legitimized owning private property and it was no longer limited to one’s labour or simply cultivation of the land. Conversely then, any unbound land, regardless of whether it was cultivated or not, whether it was useful to its inhabitants or not, was rendered a ‘wasteland’. Hence, a dichotomy was created between collective, common but ‘waste’ property, and individually owned, ‘improved’, private property.

When one improves land s/he gets the right over that particular land, and this ownership of land, in turn, often acts as an incentive to people with ambitions to start improving land in the first place. And with ownership rights came the right to exclusion, which allowed the owner to exclude non-owners from the land. Thus, when the enclosure movement was carried out in a massive scale in England, it witnessed the displacement of a huge number of peasants as agriculture could no longer generate the highest amounts of profit and so these people were seen to be obstacles in the improvement or modernizing process. As a result, they became trespassers in the land that originally belonged to them.

This discourse has continued over the centuries and justifies acquisition of land, the idea of private property, and displacing current owners in the name of modernization or development. Present day neoliberal capitalism utilizes various tools to aid in this process. Three such critical instruments are considered to be maps, legal or property law, and landscape architecture. For example, with the help of maps, certain areas can be tagged as wastelands, which provides the justification to improve and modernize them. Law is often used as a coercive tool to codify and legitimize the transfer of ownership rights from one group to another. And architecture is used to reimagine the landscape by rebuilding it in a certain way which is considered modern and one that portrays the ascendency of the new group of owners, while at the same time erasing the existing structures which are considered as unimproved or waste. Hence, present day markers of improvement can be considered as increasing concretization, urbanization of landscapes, etc.

This process of enclosing land often becomes part of an offensive program to seize control of land for development purposes. The ideas of wasteland and improvement legitimize the process, which sees a complete change in the demographics of the land now improved and creates a repository for the dispossessed, which seldom suffices as compensatory. Thus, what began in the 16th century, the ideology of improvement continues to fuel and justify the majority of development projects around the world that acquire land.

Understanding this underlying discourse also necessitates the importance to distinguish between modernization as a theory and modernity as an idea. Modernization as a theory at the basic level dictates how one must become modern, which mostly includes emulating the West. The ideology of modernization remains very strong as it has built up a consensus and legitimacy around it that remains powerful throughout the world. This becomes problematic because it is fundamentally enmeshed with capitalism, which has the capacity to increase inequality. But one does not necessarily want to let go of ideas of modernity, or better economic opportunities, etc. And within capitalism, there does exist a provision of improvement. Capitalism builds the idea that everyone has an equal opportunity through a trickle down effect and therefore everyone can have a piece of the pie. However, the onus of grasping such opportunities falls on the people. For example, the subaltern and marginalized section, or the caste system may never allow people to gain from a system like this. Thus, capitalism promises better lives for all but may not capable of benefitting everyone equally, especially uplifting the marginalized sections. And hence, the center of the problem in the discourse surrounding land, dispossession, and development remains to be the profit maximization agenda, which is inherent within capitalism and drives it forward. Investment or projects are often not made keeping in mind the needs of the people, and most certainly not what the subaltern may need, but it is made where profit can be maximized.

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