This is a continuation of my article “The Austrian Version of the English Enclosures.” Here I develop arguments I made in Part I in reply to Tom Woods. To recall the context of this discussion, Woods is now publishing a “weekly update” on an endless commentary on The Church and the Libertarian (TCTL) by Tony Flood, aka Anarcho-Catholic. After six months and fifty installments, Flood has reached page 17 of my 383-page book.
As Mr. Flood explains, it is not that he is trying to belabor a point. Oh no. Rather, he is seeking to “discredit the rhetorical performance of a propagandist.” Once I am discredited (so the plan goes) no one will pay any attention to the book’s actual subject: an exposé of the atrocious moral, philosophical and theological errors of the libertarian cult to which Woods and Flood belong and which Woods is relentlessly promoting as “eminently congenial to the Catholic mind.” (Woods, The Church and the Market, p. 217).
Flood’s heroically microscopic hunt for red herrings has taken on a new urgency in light of Piers Shepherd’s prominent, banner-headlined, four-column review of TCTL in the July 15th print edition of The Catholic Herald, England’s largest-circulation Catholic newspaper which is read throughout the U.K. Shepherd describes the book as “a joy to read,” “spirited and well-researched,” “a fine exposition of Catholic social teaching and a convincing refutation of the libertarian position,” and notes the book’s defense of distributism as “[a] remedy to the twin evils of socialism and unrestrained capitalism…” Enraged, Woods has fired off a letter to the editor to which I have responded. As usual, he offers no answer to the numerous issues Shepherd identifies in his review. Instead, he refers readers to Mr. Flood’s perpetual critique-in-progress, calling it a “page-by-page refutation of Ferrara’s lawyer’s brief.” (A demagogue will always mention as often as possible that his opponent in a public disputation is a lawyer, for everyone knows lawyers cannot be trusted, even when they are not practicing law.)
So what is it on page 17 that has Woods and his trusty sidekick so excited that they have lingered there for nearly three weeks? As Woods exulted back on July 18, TCTL presents “long-abandoned myths about the enclosure movement in England [which] have been exploded for more than 40 years.” As I noted in Part I, by “myths” Woods means the historiography of Chesterton, Belloc, the Hammonds, and “nearly all social-democratic historians”—that is, all the historians he does not like. This historiography, he contends, has been superseded by “the scholarship of the past fifty years” and “modern research.”
Thus Woods wrote with his usual apodictic certitude on matters of which he knows not much at all. But now, having been alerted by this site to what was coming, Woods is in retreat.
Clearly in response to my comments here about what Part II of this piece would discuss, Woods is backpedalling furiously from his earlier contention, based principally on a 1997 book by G. E. Mingay, that the treatment of the English enclosures in Chapter 2 of TCTL is nothing but “agitprop.” In an article entitled “Still More on Enclosures” Woods allows that—ahem—one might credibly maintain that the enclosures were a state-imposed collectivization program that victimized the poor, citing what he calls “Joe Stromberg’s Austro-libertarian article against enclosures” as proof that the Mises Institute is not a cult in which only one view is permitted.
Funny, but when it served Woods’s purposes to ridicule my book as “agitprop” reflecting Distributist ignorance, we heard nothing about the Stromberg piece or the big tent over at the Mises Institute. But Stromberg was not affiliated with the Institute when he wrote “English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization: Two Instances of an Anti-Peasant Mode of Development” for the Agorist Quarterly back in 1995. Nor is he affiliated with the Institute today. The article in question appears nowhere on the Institute’s website, including the archive of Stromberg’s articles from his brief time there. The article is not, therefore, an “Austro-libertarian article.” It is a Stromberg article.
At any rate, as Woods now concedes that there is more than “exploded myths” to the view that the English enclosures were state-sponsored oppression of the peasantry for the benefit of the rich, he extinguishes his own criticism of TCTL on this score—criticism based on reports from Flood because Woods hasn’t read the book. Nevertheless, let us proceed.
One Blunder After Another
Now, I did not write a book about the enclosure movement in England, to which I devoted about two pages by way of historical background for the eminently non-debatable proposition that capitalism has never been without its coercive partner, the post-Catholic nation-state. But Flood’s red herring provides an opportunity to examine how “Austrian scholarship” serves the capitalist meta-narrative of Western history.
After Part I of this article appeared, I obtained the two works of G.E. Mingay on which Woods relied in his 2007 article defending parliamentary enclosure and purporting to debunk the Distributism of the Chesterbelloc. That article, by the way, was co-authored with Woods’s fellow “Senior Scholar” at the Institute, Walter Block, who insists that the unborn child is a “trespasser” in the mother’s womb who may be “evicted” as such, and that “voluntary slave contracts” are morally defensible under the principles of Rothbard’s ridiculous “ethics of liberty.”
Woods’s article cites Mingay’s 1968 work Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of Industrial Revolution and his 1997 work Parliamentary Enclosure in England. According to Woods, discussing the English enclosures without reading Mingay is like “trying to assess war guilt in World War I without… coming to grips with the work of Fritz Fischer.” Upon reviewing these works, especially the 1997 study, I realized that they badly undermine Woods’s position, as shown in detail below. I posted here the following public challenge in anticipation of this Part II:
Public query to Woods (which will appear in my article): What did you read of Mingay and when did you read it? His silence will be our answer.
Well, Woods has not been entirely silent. Without mentioning my challenge, he writes in response as follows:
I read G.E. Mingay’s book [!] Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (1968) at Shenoy’s recommendation when I emailed her for reading suggestions, and I cited it and another work by the same author in a peer-reviewed article I co-authored. Despite later criticisms, it remains indispensable — which is precisely why I compared it to Fritz Fischer’s work on Germany and World War I.
Since Woods is writing about a subject concerning which he really knows next to nothing, this response involves him in several blunders. First, the 1968 work is not a book but a 32-page essay published as a pamphlet. In this essay Mingay admits that his conclusions are “to a large extent… provisional, or expressible only in guarded terms.” (Mingay 1968, 11). As the following discussion shows, Mingay has effectively abandoned the provisional and guarded conclusions of his 1968 essay as the result of modern research by another scholar in 1992. So, the 43-year-old pamphlet that Woods thinks is an indispensable book is neither a book nor indispensable.
Second, in the blog article that prompted Part I of my piece, Woods cited Mingay’s 1968 essay as “more recent research” which “shows that the numbers of small owners tended to rise for much of this period” [i.e., 18th century parliamentary enclosure].” But now Woods says the same work has come in for “later criticisms.” So, the “more recent research” on which Woods first relied has been criticized by more recent research. Woods never revealed this until my comments here brought it to light. He never revealed this because, although he presents himself as au courant on “modern research” concerning the English enclosures, he didn’t know it.
Third, notice that Woods avoids saying whether he has ever read Mingay’s 1997 study, on which his 2007 article placed primary and indeed almost sole reliance. His carefully worded reply is that he read the 1968 work by Mingay—which he mischaracterizes as a book—and that he cited “another work by same author,” meaning Mingay’s 1997 study. Thus Woods attempts to shift his primary reliance to the 1968 pamphlet, calling it a “book” that “remains indispensable,” evidently in the hope that no one will notice he is ducking the question whether he actually read the 1997 book on which he primarily relied.
Before his bicycle went into reverse, Woods declared that I had gotten it “dreadfully wrong” by “adopting the fact-free distributist interpretation of enclosures” while ignoring “modern research” and “the past 50 years of scholarship…”—meaning, essentially, Mingay. According to Woods, the process of parliamentary enclosure did not cause “systematic dispossession, the depopulation of the countryside, or rural poverty.” Further, he maintained, citing only Mingay’s superseded 1968 pamphlet: “the land tax evidence, indeed, shows that the number of small owners tended to rise for much of this period.” (Woods, et al. 2007, 583).
Having examined spurious “Austrian scholarship” on the late Jesuit scholastics, which attempts to characterize these Catholic moral theologians as proto-Austrians and pit them against the popes (cf. TCTL, Ch. 10), I had a reasonable expectation of discovering in Mingay’s works a picture rather different from the one Woods presents. And, sure enough, when read closely Mingay’s 1997 study negates Woods’s pat contentions with numerous telling admissions.
Mingay’s admissions are all the more probative given that, as any careful reader of his book can see, he is a barely disguised partisan of the capitalist narrative. For example, there is his comment on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, which (as I noted in Part I) was a poetic protest inspired by the destruction of entire villages via parliamentary enclosure so that they could be incorporated into private estates. Mingay attempts to minimize the monumental injustices Goldsmith witnessed: “Research of over twenty years ago has shown that, in fact, Goldsmith was not attacking the effects of parliamentary enclosure in general, but rather a separate and somewhat unusual phenomenon of the removal of villages to make way for new seats and parks of large landowners.” (124)
What does Mingay mean by “somewhat unusual”? Was it unusual or not? Evidently, Mingay is reluctant to say. As he does admit, however, the “somewhat unusual” annihilation of villages “was of course an unpleasant manifestation of overbearing local power and wealth, and Goldsmith was voicing justified hostility to this kind of destruction.” (125) Yes, it was most “unpleasant” to see one’s village destroyed to satisfy the vanity of a single rich man. But Mingay is quick to minimize even that outrage: “This hostility was associated with a nostalgia for a remembered more placid past, a nostalgia which was to cling to the wider history of rural change for decades to come.” (Ibid.)
Now, what could be more objective and empirically well-founded than Mingay’s reduction of justified moral outrage over the destruction of entire villages to “hostility” born of “nostalgia” for the pre-capitalist past? Reading blatantly apologetical statements like these, I was tempted to throw Mingay’s book against the wall, but one must press on with gritty work of this kind.
First of all, on the question of systematic dispossession by reason of enclosure—which Woods denies—I give you Mingay, who admits in the very book on which Woods places his heaviest reliance that the parliamentary enclosure process involved secret back room negotiations, that it afforded merely “some limited safeguards” against wrongful deprivations of property rights, and that the parliamentary committees that considered bills for enclosure “could be, and often were, packed with the Bill’s supporters.” Mingay reaches this reluctant conclusion:
A Parliament of landowners was naturally tender of landed property… The landed class, taken as a whole, and Parliament as its legislative body, failed to ensure that the essential modernisation of a large part of English agriculture did not leave in its wake a trail of dispossessed.” (Mingay, 1997, 58, 65)
What’s this? A trail of dispossessed? Resulting from the “modernisation”—that is, enclosure—of “a large part” of English agricultural land by “a Parliament of landowners”? The same land-owning Parliament whose holdings had originated in King Henry’s grand theft from the Catholic Church, which pauperized an entire nation and brought in the centuries-long regime of the Poor Laws? The same land-owning parliament that sanctioned the Poor Laws, the factory system, and the Law of Settlement that created proletarian internment camps for the benefit of industrialists—many of whom received loans from wealthy landowners? But Woods, citing Mingay, claims parliamentary enclosure caused no systematic dispossession. Then again, Woods also claims that the late Scholastics were proto-Austrians.
Mingay reveals that Arthur Young, the famed proponent of parliamentary enclosure who turned against it, spent the later part of his life conducting “an extended attack on the enclosure process” in the course of which he “criticised, in particular, the ‘despotic power’ of the Commissioners, their ‘carelessness and partiality’…” Mingay himself concedes that “in many instances some owners, and notably the owners of common rights,” thought themselves “cheated out of property that perhaps had been in their family for generations. Often the justice of the Commissioners must have been rough justice indeed.” (81). Cheated out of property “perhaps” held for generations? Many instances? Justice often rough indeed? But, citing the same book as his primary authority, Woods tells us that enclosure produced no systematic dispossession.
As for the relation between enclosures and poverty—which Woods, citing Mingay, denies—I give you, again, Mingay. Mingay admits that on the commissions that carried out the enclosures, destroying rights of common and burning cottages to the ground, “There was rarely a commissioner to represent the poor…” (69) He further admits that in the matter of enclosure “there were wider interests which might well receive less consideration or be totally disregarded—the interests of those who owned no land but possessed merely a common right, the well-being of the tenant farmers, of the cottagers and the poor, and the village community as a whole.”
In defense of this trampling on the poor, however, Mingay offers the excuse that “[t]he Commissioners, it has to be remembered, represented property owners… they could not legally go beyond the authority of the Act which empowered them,” (80) and that “rural poverty was a matter for the Justices and the parish authorities operating under the national poor laws…” (82). While acknowledging that “[t]o modern historians the greatest weakness [with the enclosures process] was the infrequent (and often inadequate) provision for the village poor,” he hastens to add that the commissioners “could only execute what was in the Act, and the Act was a creation of local landowners almost always concerned solely with a reorganization of private property and not with the good of the village community at large.” (82)
That is, under the parliamentary enclosure procedure it was the commissioners’ duty to disregard the welfare of the poor and the common good of the village in favor of the private interests of a few landowners. And often the interest of only one landowner was served by enclosure, as the required three-fourths agreement to submit an enclosure bill to Parliament was by value of acreage, not the total number of owners in a parish. Thus—another admission by Mingay—“it was possible for one large owner who dominated the parish to have sufficient support by his land alone, even if a substantial number of smaller owners were opposed.” (60) Hence Goldmsith’s lament in The Deserted Village that “one only master grasps the whole domain…”
For these reasons Mingay must concede: “very often, it was the small men and the commoners who opposed enclosure… The old communal system kept many small men in being, but with the prop of the common removed, numbers must have found it very difficult, and in some instances impossible, to survive.” (120) And it is Mingay who quotes Young after he “apostatized” and became a defender of the poor against enclosure: “Arthur Young in his later years was appalled to find how the loss of access to land had increased poverty and given rise to an outraged sense of dispossession among the village poor.” (154)
Increased poverty? An outraged sense of dispossession among the village poor? But according to Woods, citing Mingay’s book six times in two pages, enclosure had nothing to do with poverty or dispossession.
Concerning the plight of the poor on account of enclosure, Mingay further concedes, however grudgingly, that “landowners in general failed to provide cottagers with land,” that “in carrying out the reforms concern for small occupiers and cottagers was often lacking,” and that “There can be little doubt that for many of the rural poor enclosure enforced an unwelcome transformation of their way of life, in their personal prospects, in their standard of comfort.” (156)
When “many of the rural poor” suffered a diminished “standard of comfort” after enclosure, were they not the poorer for it? Not according to Woods, citing Mingay—who basically admits that they were!
Mingay makes admission after admission on how enclosure harmed the poor, none of them disclosed by Woods. For example, he notes that even when compensation for common rights was paid, it was paid only to the strict legal owners of the rights, often absentee owners, not to “[t]hose cottagers who used the commons as occupiers [tenants], rather than as owners, or merely by custom” and who “usually received nothing by way of compensation and had to give up their cows.” (136) This meant that “those who did not possess the common rights knew that, on enclosure, no allotments would go to them, and so far as they were concerned, ‘cow-keeping amongst the poor will be at an end.’” (137) Mingay quotes Young’s report that “the alarm among them is very great; they hold the idea of an inclosure and the preparatory steps taken with a sort of terror; they know well the fact that they must suffer, and dread it accordingly.” (137)
Nevertheless, Mingay is at pains to add: “this matter should not be judged in the light of twentieth-century morality. There were many honest, God-fearing members of the propertied classes who had come to believe that it was better for the poor themselves to have work in regular employment…” (156) How very convenient that the God-fearing members of the propertied classes had “come to believe” that removal of all those bothersome commoners from the commons, whose ancestors had been there for centuries, was just what their religion required. And no doubt their Calvinist God also told them to put up fences, along with “man traps and trip wire operated swivel guns” (Snell 1985, 179) to maim and kill any of the dispossessed who dared to snatch a piece of wood for the fire or a goose for the pot. And how very convenient indeed that, per Mingay, the God-fearing propertied elites of 18th and 19th century England ought not to be held even to a debased 20th century standard of morality!
I cannot conclude this discussion of the poverty provoked by enclosures without noting the famous assessment by Arthur Young, whose writings Mingay cites repeatedly:
[T]he poor look to facts, not meanings: and the fact is, that by nineteen enclosure bills in twenty they are injured, in some grossly injured…. If enclosures were beneficial to the poor, rates would not rise as in other parishes after an act to enclose. The poor in these parishes may say, and with truth, Parliament may be tender of property; all I know is,—I had a cow, and an act of Parliament has taken it from me. And thousands may make this speech with truth…. (Young 1801, 42)
Finally, it is Mingay himself whose 1997 study abandons Woods’s claim—based entirely on Mingay’s 1968 pamphlet—that land tax records show an increase in small owners after enclosure. Some thirty years after the pamphlet appeared, Mingay, now citing “Professor Donald Ginter’s monumental study of 1992,” concludes that “land tax records cannot be used to analyze with any degree of certainty the changes in numbers of small owners in various acreage categories….” Mingay also observes uncritically that “[h]istorians have long supposed a secular decline in the number of small owners to have occurred in the eighteenth century,” although “[h]ow far enclosure was responsible for a major part of a decline is uncertain…” (Mingay 1997, 121, 122)
Well, that’s a very far cry from Woods’s pat statement based on a 43-year-old pamphlet he describes as an indispensable book. Woods apparently has also never read the “monumental study” by Ginter in 1992. But isn’t discussing this issue without reading Donald Ginter rather like “trying to assess war guilt in World War I without… coming to grips with the work of Fritz Fischer”?
I repeat my earlier query: Has Woods actually read Mingay’s 1997 study?
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