Language Theft and the Enclosure of the Commons (2)

This is the second in a series of posts on “Language Theft and the Enclosure of the Commons.”

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 [T]he commons is not a natural resource exclusive of human relations with it. Like language itself, the commons increases in wealth by use. 

                                                                                    —Peter Linebaugh*

Historically, the process of “enclosure” was the process whereby the commons was taken away from the people of a community, fenced in, and claimed as private property. It was a process of expropriation—in common terms, a process of theft.

It was also a process of exploitation, and of the impoverishment that always goes with it.

The word enclose, with the meaning  “surround, confine, contain,” that is “to close within,” dates from the early 14th century. The historically specific sense of the fencing in of common lands for private ownership and private use arouse around the beginning of the 16th century. That is when the fencing off or enclosure of lands theretofore held in common began to become widespread in England.

That process peaked in the 19th century, having by then uprooted a massive portion of the population. That portion itself thereby became available for direct exploitation as wage-earners not only in the growing agricultural business but also, and especially, in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, to become the wage-slaves of capitalism. The masses so made available for such a purpose constituted the “proletariat” of classic Marxist theory: the class of the population assigned no more of the wealth of the society that what was required to keep on reproducing itself, so that it could keep feeding the machine that was long ago dishonestly mislabeled  “free enterprise.”

However, it was not only the masses fenced out of their common land that were exploited and impoverished. It was above all the once common land itself, that land stolen from the people by the enclosure process and turned over to an elite to be used for their own selfish profit. It was first and above all the land itself that was, eventually, the most savagely and severely impoverished through exploitive enclosure. That enclosing, impoverishing exploitation of the land itself grew ever worse as the elite who profited from it grew ever smaller—and exponentially richer, of course.

There are two fundamentally different senses of what can be called “land-use.” In one of those senses, to use the land is precisely to exploit it.  The enclosure process delivered the land over to exploitation for maximum crop-yield. Modern industrialized agribusiness is the maximization of such exploitation.

The produce of crops thus forced forth from the land is then itself delivered up to be used in the same way again in turn. It is exchanged on the market in one form or another to generate, through such exchange, the maximum possible financial profit to the corporate owners of those very “cash-crops”—as they are accurately and revealingly called—that have been forcibly extracted from the land itself. The land from which such crops have been expropriated is thereby reduced to no more than another “natural resource” available for exploitation, to be used and progressively depleted until finally drained of all its own genuine wealth, in the etymologically original sense of that word, which comes from Old English wele, meaning “well-being.”

Use that exploits land for profit does not cultivate or preserve the land. It has no concern for the well-being of the land itself. Instead of opening up the land to set its free in its full power, it encloses the land, confining and holding that power in, so that it can be converted for maximum cash-crop yield.

The appropriation of the land for and in such a manner is coercive land use—to use in a non-appropriative way, an appropriate word that derives from Latin com-, “together,” plus arcere, “enclose, confine, contain.”  Such coercive “use,” more clearly named, is nothing but ab-use. The land that once was there in its own richness—available in all its wealth for common use to bring forth produce for the common weal, the health and well-being of the entire “commonwealth,” as it is aptly called—becomes no more another stretch of the vast wasteland that, as Nietzsche taught, just keeps growing.

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In contrast to the use that exploits what it uses, depleting what is used of all its own wealth, there is another sort of use that increases the wealth of what it uses. Use of this second sort increases, by very use, the richness and well-being of what it uses—and not just the profits that accrue to the user through using it. Far from depleting what it uses, such usage adds to it. Instead of laying waste what it uses, this second sort of use protects it. It keeps what is used “safe and sound,” to use those two words in a way that itself guards and protects—keeps safe and sound—the origins of the two words themselves.**

Such preserving usage does not exploit what it uses, but rather cultivates it, to use, in turn again, a word that derives (as does our English word cult, it is worth noting) from Latin cultus, “care, labor, culture” (and also “reverance,” hence “worship,” which, after all, is the “cult” of keeping safe and sound the human connection to the divine). Cultus itself is the past participle of colere, “to till or furrow,” as a farmer behind his plow draws furrows through the land.  It is to just such cultivating usage of the commons by common use itself that Peter Linebaugh calls our attention in the quotation with which I began today’s post, and by referring the reader back to which I will now end it.

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To be continued


* Peter Linebaugh, Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), chapter 6, “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12.”

** Safe derives eventually from Latin salvus, which means “health, good condition.” Sound comes from Old English gesund, itself from a Teutonic root meaning basically the same as the Latin-derived safe. Thus, heard with an ear tuned to cultivate language, rather than to exploit it, the expression “safe and sound” becomes resolutely and resoundingly redundant.