Enclosure: The Death of Subsistence Farming


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Enclosure: The Death of Subsistence Farming

At the heart of the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution was an almost unbelievable advancement in the tools and machines of industrial production.

For centuries the standard farming practice was to leave a field fallow for two or three years after growing such crops as wheat and corn. Viscount Charles Townshend discovered that the solution for this problem was to rotate different crops in the field because one crop would “wear out” the soil the other would rebuild the soil. For example clover or turnips would rebuild land that had been planted in corn or wheat.

Jethro Tull invented in 1701 the seed drill, which sowed seeds in well-spaced furrows rather than using the then common practice of broadcasting seed. Broadcasting was very wasteful of both seed and land.

Suddenly new and more abundant crops were being planted and harvested. Cotton was an important new crop. This fabric was used for such divergent applications as clothing and ship sails.

In 1733 the flying shuttle followed the seed drill, which allowed weavers to increase production by double.

Small and large farmers in the 17th century raised crops and grazed sheep and cattle on open fields for centuries, from the beginning of agriculture. In the late 17th century English landowners began buying up land in the area and fencing them in. They then were able to control access to that land and to charge rental for its use. This was known as enclosure.

This enclosure raised havoc for the masses of families who depended upon these lands for their subsistence; it marked the beginning of the end of subsistence farming and the beginning of the beginning of the market economy.

In the 1830s, Townsend with other landowners demonstrated that by enclosing their land with fencing of various kinds they could make farming a much more efficient operation. With the new machinery and tools combined with the large enclosed land agriculture was set for a great leap forward in efficiency of production.

Some estate owners were able to convince some small tenants to agree to exchange their narrow strip of land for other things of value.

The success of these large landowners led to an Act of Parliament that applied to one-quarter of the land in England.

This period of great change is useful in its ability to help us to comprehend the nature of the problems inherent in change. “Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever that might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten.”

In this age of industrial upheaval of the nineteenth century we experienced a crude resurgence of utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing nature of unconscious growth.

Quotes from The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi