29 April 2009

The Peasants are Revolting

Simon Fairlie wrote an excellent article in The Land a couple of issues back. His focus was the need for a rehabilitation of manual labour. Heinberg's concept of the 'energy slave' makes it clear how much harder we are all going to have to work as oil supplies dwindle. We can gain a similar sense from thinking about the horsepower of machinery that supports our decadent existence. Fairlie's argument was about the nature of the lives we will be living, which he ascertained from considering production, and particularly food production, before the countryside was overrun with machinery. This was the life of the peasant, a person who is also in need of rehabilitation.

A few concepts from our shared past can help to inform the future we are going to build together. One is the concept of the cottage economy. The label 'cottager' did not relate to the bijoux design of your Cotswold-stone residence but was rather about your rights to use common land and therefore to be able to subsist without selling your labour. Cottage industry, by extension, was work that you engaged in to generate surplus cash, not for your bare subsistence.

J. M. Neeson provides a fascinating account of the liberated existence of Britain's peasantry and how they fought to maintain it as landed interests used their political power to force through the theft of shared land via enclosure acts. She estimates that up to a third of the land of the country was either owned by commoners or was itself common which they had rights to use. The destruction of this ancient social system led to an imbalance between people's work and their needs. It led to explosive population growth, as mouths to feed needed to be outstripped by hands that could be sold to work for others rather than to produce their own food.

It also led to a changed attitude to consumption, a loss of the sense of satiety and sufficiency, and the substitution of greed and excess:

'Perhaps having "enough" was unimaginable to men who wrote about crop yields, rents, improvements, productivity, economic growth, always more, as it has been incomprehensible to twentieth-century historians living in constantly expanding market economies, albeit on a finite planet.' (p. 41)

The commons represented a system for sharing a large proportion of the land of this country, even after the advent of fedualism. Their loss was a financial disaster for commoners and the end of a sustainable socio-economic system. Their revival will be a fundamental foundation for land planning within a bioregional economy.

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