By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Features  | 

The Enclosure of Modern American Industry: The Death of the Yeoman Worker

Over the past few decades we have witnessed dramatic events in global and domestic politics, economics and society. We have experienced the dramatic growth of tech, information technologies and the painful reminders that we still share a finite, limited world. The average global temperature has increased as much as our financial anxieties. We have seen runs on the market, downturns that left people poor and un/underemployed; bubbles form and pop and swindlers rob us (even YU!) of our billions. Politicians have privatized away much of our common resources, and the cost of living has climbed.

Though we live in a time of plenty, the middle class struggles to survive making less, working harder, and in constant battle with the headwinds of a ‘freer’ and ‘liberated’ marketplace. The middle class suffers: it has lost much of its say in politics, seen its unions disbanded and underfunded, and, though workers produce much more than their counterparts in the 1980s, their pay, accounting for inflation, has stagnated for decades. That, coupled with increased costs associated with healthcare, education and home-ownership which have outpaced inflation and increasing job insecurity has made it difficult for the average American family to get ahead in this tough-but-‘booming’ economy.

These facts underlie many of the great social issues our generation faces, but, without a better understanding over how we got here, we won’t be able to solve anything. To answer that question, we should begin where this country started: the yeoman farmer.

The yeoman farmer, or an independent self-sustaining individual in Elizabethan (17th century) England, became the emblem of the young British colonies in North America. These farmers, who came over as indentured servants from the U.K., colonized much of what we regard as the original thirteen colonies. They did not employ slave labor, nor could they rely on government assistance. They acted alone, succeeded alone, and if it they could not avoid it, failed and died alone. They came alone on a mission to find freedom and self-sufficiency in the newly-discovered Americas, but they did so out of desperation and with the will to restore what they had lost back home.

Life in 16th and 17th century England had become quite difficult for the middle class. Freed of feudal constraints, the English middle class grew and began to develop industries of its own. Guilds formed and strengthened, and farmers and artisans, bolstered by common ownership of arable land, began to grow self-sufficient. However, the country began to suffer economically from inflation instigated by wars, debt and intentional debasement by the royal treasury. In an attempt to slow the inflation, caps were instituted on maximum pay for artisans and most of the market became regulated and highly competitive. The Statute of Artificers (1563) restricted the movement and employment of most artisans and marks one of the first times a government actively and directly intervened in purely economic affairs. By setting a maximum pay, the king had thought to fight inflation, however, the inflation continued, leaving the growing middle class unable to demand higher compensation.

Additionally, upon recognizing the government’s inability to fight inflation, the government began to seize and sell plots of state land, previously ‘common’ or shared, public land, and sell them to private entities. This, it claimed, would encourage more efficient farming/grazing practices and, of course, relieve the government of some of its debts. However, on account of the inability of the middle class to solidify as a powerful economic force, and as a result of corrupt political negotiations and unequal leverage, most of the public lands seized did not sell for a proper price and it became still harder for the now-impoverished to keep up.

Over 150 years, much of the once-common land had been repurposed for industrial farming or grazing, or turned over for recreational activities such as deer-hunting, while masses of poor, thoroughly expropriated and ever multiplying, made their way to the major cities in search of food and lodging (sometimes even their houses were destroyed in land takeovers). Through these numerous Acts of Enclosure (or fencing off), the middle class was destroyed, and from its ashes sprung the despaired masses of the English working industrial class and the Industrial Revolution.

During the messy transition, and on account of the appalling conditions of the expropriated masses, many sought a way out. Those who had the courage signed up for indentured life in the colonies and left their brethren to struggle with an infantile welfare state. Extreme poverty gave way to pervasive crime and dangerous streets and, in response to an increasingly worried constituency, Queen Elizabeth I instituted the Poor Laws (1601). These laws, an expansion of previously-limited legislation, defined and categorized poverty and provided aid to those destitute enough to earn the court’s sympathy. If one had just cause to be poor (i.e. injury, disease etc.), he would get some help. On the other hand, one who dared be destitute without cause would be arrested, enslaved, shipped abroad or even executed. Thus, having been previously expropriated, the poor of England could now be held accountable for their poverty. Since, as we all know, the good Lord hath commanded “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”

While this may all seem very distant to us all, we should not turn away from the stark similarities we encounter in both our contemporary world and pre-Industrial England. I do not claim scientific accuracy in my analysis, but perhaps a basic understanding of historical phenomena.

To start with, we could go back to the 1960s. The middle class, sustained by the post-war boom of the 50s had come great strides since the turmoil of the 30s. The average American worker made significantly more than his parents’ generation, and, on average, Americans were living better, longer and healthier lives. The wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold-War preoccupation put some strain on the American psyche, but wreaked havoc on the government economic interests. The U.S., unable to pay back investors and lenders, decided in 1972, under the auspices of President Nixon, to debase the monetary supply (by taking us off the gold standard), effectively defaulting on billions of dollars of debt and thus lending a tail-wind to the hyperinflation crisis of the 70s and early 80s. Pension funds and middle-class savings were hit the most, and by the time the government had come around to fixing what they had done by re-evaluating the currency through the economic reforms of the 80’s (e.g. raising interest rates to +20%), the middle class had suffered an insurmountable setback.

Instead of letting the working population nurse its wounds, the government, intent on restructuring government policy and fearful of its own irresponsibility, began to privatize major industries and actively joined hands with private enterprise. The banks got bailouts, the interest rate was reduced dramatically when recession hit in the late 80’s, and the middle class was then left to suffer with recession, and, of course, now with less stock in the collectively-built, industrial prowess of the American economy.

American industry rebounded, though with the promise of further automation and higher efficiency. Large, private conglomerates assimilated many smaller industries, technology and robotics improved, and, as a result, industry employs less and less of the working population.

Many of America’s battered workers then turned to the ‘services’ sector of the economy. Instead of pure manufacturing, American workers began providing an array of different services. We no longer focused on producing cars, but rather information, hospitality, food services and more. The strong, unionized, and proud industrial worker gave way to the overworked, downtrodden, paper-pushing wage-worker (see David Graeber’s book, “Bullshit Jobs”), unable to find either a proper income, nor a reliable safety net in the post-Industrial economy.

America expanded its social services to assist those who could not succeed in the new jungle of an economy, but these came with expectations, requirements and bureaucratic condescension. The proud middle-class American could still survive, but only as a humble servant of political and economic interests. The days of self-sufficient unionization and proud workmanship had passed. Instead, poverty again began to anger those in power.

Debtors’ prisons reopened under the guise of myriad antiquated laws, the War on Drugs took on racial and social prerogatives to rid the streets of previously misdemeanor crimes and impoverished criminals, and mass-incarceration started to make its way into lower-income American society. Poor states languished from reduced federal spending, schools became re-segregated as a result of unequal economic development, and politicians happily relinquished control over major industries and interests in favor of their friends in the private sector. Taxes were cut, ‘entitlements’ reduced, and the American work ethic, once a mutually-accepted value, became the mantra of an increasingly polemic aristocracy, eager to establish moral domination over the nouveau-pauvre.

One can see that, America, and with it much of Western society, repeated the same mistakes and iniquities that had once produced poverty in pre-Industrial England. Eager to control the market, the government limited the economic prospects for a large segment of its population (raising interest rates). It then proceeded to unfairly redistribute previously state-held resources in an effort to still reassert itself. Upon its predictable failure, the government adapted to the interests of the new elites, and doubled-down on its anti-worker agenda.

In historic England, food was kept expensive by politically motivated tariffs, while in modern America, monopolistic private policy, unbridled/protected by regulation, has made basic goods and necessities more and more expensive, and public bailouts of private banks have erased the limits of government intervention. In England, the poor concentrated in the cities and set in motion the Industrial Revolution. In our times the poor learned to forego stable industrial jobs in favor of new ‘services’, undefined and unstable. Education has become a commodity, individual responsibility an oft-repeated but misunderstood trope, and the middle-class’s hopes to resurface have been beaten back after multiple economic shocks.

The American worker, having suffered much in the last few decades has become accustomed to his new situation. He is a servant of the financial interests of the market. The government, on the other hand, by virtue of its incessant violation of laissez-faire and its heavy-handed approach towards systemic poverty, has become what it once acutely feared: a corrupt, cruel, totalitarian, communist entity.

We will not find a solution to this tragedy of the commons easily. As time goes on and the market continues to distribute unequal gains to the rich, the American worker will continue in his despairing tumble into the void of interminable subjugation. He cannot escape to a new world of opportunity, no new frontier awaits his manly courage and steadfast determination. We must make do with what remains for us workers and hope to see change in our times. We must also demand change and take back what is ours.

The great English author George Orwell, famous for his anti-communist satires (e.g. 1984, Animal Farm), once wrote (Tribune 8/1944):

"If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground-landlord…has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher…that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income. If that [redistribution] is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft."

Photo Caption: Political cartoon

Photo Credit: Miami Herald