Landlessness: A History of Direct Action

Picture: Millet (PD)

Dr. John J. Gurney, via Energy Bulletin, discusses the history of the landless Digger movement in England, and how we can apply their tactics to our contemporary social and economic crises. Thanks to Anarchy Pony for the link.

The Runneymede Eco Village has, at the time of writing, continued in being for seven weeks, despite the bad summer weather and the frequent and inevitable attempts by the authorities to move the Diggers on. The action began on 9 June, with a march from Syon Lane Community Allotment towards Windsor, where activists aimed to set up a self-sustaining community on disused land belonging to the Crown Estate. Eventually they settled on land surrounding the former Cooper’s Hill campus of Shoreditch College of Education and Brunel University, and it was here that they began building a long house, complete with wattle and daub and cob. The published demands of the participants in the venture were simple and direct. Everyone should have the right to live on disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter: ‘no country’, they claimed, ‘can be considered free, until this right is available to all’. As so often in the past, the question of access to land, shelter and livelihood had led people to articulate demands for a radical shift in society’s attitudes, and to engage in constructive and imaginative direct action to advance their cause.

The Runneymede activists’ demands might, at first sight, appear to present something of a paradox. On the one hand, they address very real twenty-first-century problems, among them today’s serious housing shortages and the reluctance of politicians of all major parties to take action to bring rents and house prices down to affordable levels. Allied to this is the issue of how best to promote viable strategies for sustainable living on an increasingly crowded planet. On the other hand, the activists’ demands very deliberately invoke those of the original, mid-seventeenth-century Diggers, a group of activists whose world was very different from the one we now inhabit. What possible relevance could the example of seventeenth-century Diggers have for activists today?

It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

Continue reading at Energy Bulletin

9 Comments on "Landlessness: A History of Direct Action"

  1. Jaybee83 | Sep 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm |

    We don’t have a housing shortage, we have a price crisis.  Unused houses outnumber homeless people 25 to 1, but the median household makes $44k/year and the average house still costs over $150k.  If none of your customers can buy your product without going into decades of debt, then your profit margin is too damn high.

    • Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |

      It’s about more than houses and housing prices. Way to think outside the box. 

  2. Auto5734955 | Sep 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm |

    ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.  sounds kind of like Edmund Burkes’,  “The only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

  3. Handful of Soil | Sep 6, 2012 at 7:31 pm |

    Born. Divorced from the land. With middle men in between me and the life giving soil. They can’t keep me sanitised any longer, I will marry the dirt of Buckingham Palace!

  4. Brilliant idea.
    When the fecal matter really hits the air cooling device
    the knowledge and ability to enable everyone to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’
    will be the most important skill-set available. 

    “Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and
    refusing to work for hire.”
    Most enslaved people aren’t mentally ready for this action… yet.
    The reason the American Indian was exterminated instead of enslaved
    was because they had a habit of killing and rebelling against their masters.

  5. Shame we don’t have any kind of folk-socialism such as this anymore.

    The Cultural Marxist left ditched the labour movement decades ago, and 90% of the OWSers were middle class subculturalists, putting on their show together and shitting on police cars.

    Not one of them had the guts, despite the opportunity, to try anything a little more direct (nudge wink). That should be the difference between a subculture and a rebel movement.

  6. Friedrichssmith | Sep 7, 2012 at 4:25 am |

    What does it explain the main action of direct action ?

  7. I’d like to see expansion of squatter’s rights legislation so a property owner who permits his property to decay in the middle of a neighborhood can wake up and find that somebody else who is willing to do the paperwork to register occupancy and fix it has moved in. I live in an area where a property owner let a small apartment building stand empty for several years … fires set by vandals endangered the neighbors, and the place was a festering eyesore. Better to let someone take the place over with a path to legal ownership than for a municipality to have to eventually exercise eminent domain and tear the place down.

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