Tag Archives: Industrial Revolution

I.   The Rise of the Bourgeois Work Ethic

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first World Fair where Britain showed its industrial might and astute culture.

The Victorian Era was a strange time of mystic sexual morality, distinct fashion, industrialization, and — above all — imperial conquest. It was Britain’s century, their colonialist high-point, and they likewise influenced lands far beyond their water-locked country. The “Victorian morality” was a strange development in the emergence of bourgeois society. It was hypocritical as much as it was limiting; the mantra was to better the human condition, while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the plight of the child worker and the general laborer (There were exceptions, of course. A spare few were in fact unsettled by the plight of these poor folk, one of them being Karl Marx).

With the rise of industrialization in the British mainland came a downplaying of hedonism. Pleasure was seen as seemingly antithetical to the ideal Victorian, where hard-work was cherished as a means to religious salvation [1]. Max Weber spoke of this in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that the rise of Protestantism gave headway to new laborious expectations and allowed for further divisions of labor. In the Calvinist view, Martin Luther’s, and others of the Reformation, it was not enough to be devoted to supernatural salvation; one had to also be devoted to earthly labor and his craft. Because of the inability of individuals to influence God’s grace, given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, they struggled to find signs of their destiny — which was either eternal damnation or salvation. A rigorous work ethic was preached as being a sign of “God’s grace,” and it became the epitome of the Calvinist tradition. Although only Scotland of Great Britain was largely Calvinist, due to the teachings of John Knox, the rest of the industrializing island also exemplified a similar outlook on labor. Religious individualism was crucial in any Protestant tradition that broke from the Catholic Church, even in the Anglican Church of England. In contrast, places such as Ireland (predominately Catholic), according to Weber, lacked this attitude due to the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church and its overreaching doctrine, which limited individualism [2]. Coupled with the fact that “sloth” was considered a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, the development of bourgeois society fall hand-in-hand with the development of this new robust industrial individualism and the facilitation of Protestantism.

II.    Demonizing Lust 

Because of the development of a new work ethic, sexuality became an impediment to such ends. Such relations were relegated to private rooms, away from public sight. The majority of children, even among the poor, were sent to Sunday school where they were inculcated in a belief that one must abstain from sexual perversion. It was seen as an obstacle to God’s grace (let us not forget, “lust” is yet another deadly sin) [3]. Pleasure, as told by religious dogma, was merely a test of faith and should not be responded in kind. In part by this, sexuality become externalized — it became part of the object, rather than the self — and became regarded, seemingly, as a necessary evil.

Sexuality become a construct of public attention and scrutiny even in common language. It became impolite to bring up such topics in company and euphemisms emerged to describe them, need it be brought up [4]. Nearly every part of the body had a corresponding euphemism, with even the term “leg” being impolite and being replaced with “limb.’ The entire concept of procreation was made into fables that were nicely-worded to be avoided with children; such as the famous story of the “white stork” being the harbinger of small children that became popularized with the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Storks [5].  Equally absurd, genitalia were seen as too explicit to be shown in any context, even in artistry, during Victorian times. Expurgation, the censorship of the “offensive,” become common. Perhaps the best known example is one of the “fig-leaf,” where Queen Victoria, as the story goes, was repulsed to see the genitalia of Michelangelo’s statue David. A proportional fig leaf was then made to cover the obscenity, so the figure could be tolerated [6]. Even classical literature was found guilty of obscenity — Dr. Thomas Bowdler omitted and rewrote Shakespearean plays to make it more “accessible to children and wives.” Called The Family Shakespeare,  minor expletives were omitted and death was made gentler, among other things. With the gentry holding morality of society by the handles, these such moral impositions pervaded all facets of British life, from the top down. Consequently, these norms were brought to all dominions of British rule and, given its vast empire, its sexually-repressive influence was vast and lasting.

III.   The Patriarchal Family

The standard Victorian family had many children.

Perhaps most striking, in contrast with late developments of the family, is the role of women in society. The structure was overtly patriarchal. In Victorian society, the woman was servile and sexually docile. She was bound to her domestic life, despite having some political and civil autonomy, and was given the unspoken task of functioning as the moral instruction for servants and children. Women were expected to give birth to many children and the standard was set by the Queen Victoria and her husband — i.e. the “Royal Family” — who, in total, had nine children. Standards of femininity were established in the higher rungs of Victorian society and were expressed actively in the arts. The great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson espoused such repressive virtues in his poem The Princess: 

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion [6].

One of the reasons for this gender polarity and rigidity is the development of the bourgeois middle-class during the Victorian era. The average Victorian male worked, unlike the gentry, and was able to afford at least three servants [7]. The household became a symbol of the male’s moral character and was regarded as a reflection of social class.. Thereby, it did not matter if the working man had to face obscene conditions and do monotonous labor to earn his living; as long as he had a respectable house to come back to, his social class was maintained. The paradox of experiencing a inferiority in the workplace induced a need to establish a superiority in the household, ultimately giving rise to patriarchal sentiments and female submission. This dynamic would establish two separate spheres of control in Victorian society — the private and the public, the workplace and the home, and the domestic and the business.

IV.   Sexuality as an Object

The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

In 1976, philosopher Michael Foucault published one of the first volumes to a three-volume series that would come to be known as one of his seminal works. His book, The History of Sexuality, analyzed the role of human sexuality in the Western world and its development. It aimed at questioning the presupposed “repression hypothesis” — that the current repressive elements of sexuality are a symptom of the Victorian era, which is when rigid restrictive norms were put in place. Although Foucault does not outright reject repressive Victorian morality as a major factor in the rise of modern Western sexuality, he turns the mainstream thesis on its head in arguing that sexuality was more discussed than ever before during the Victorian era.

The long rule of Queen Victoria has been characterized by sexual repression, censorship of the obscene, and domestication of the female; however, is there more to Victorian culture than merely superficial restrictions on discourse? Although there was relative silence on the topic between child and parent, teacher and pupil, or even master and house servant — was there not also, perhaps, a growing fascination with sexuality as a human condition? In 1841, the British state, for the first time, became instituting a full census of their population. This expansionary measure would include statistics on marriage, birth rates, and death rates [8]. The family was promoted as the building block of British life and marriage was superimposed as a guiding force in establishing such social harmony. Prostitution became an epidemic  as poor female laborers struggled to find an income and were economically coerced to sell their bodies to usually wealthy upper-class gentry [9].  Priests became more interested in “confessions on the flesh” during the Christian practice of Penance, where individuals would confess to the priest their supposed “impurities.” Foucault writes:

But while language may have been refined, the scope of the confession — the confession of the flesh — continually increased. This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance — and perhaps at the expense of other since — to all insinuations of flesh: thoughts, desire, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth, all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

He goes on to argue how the establishment of Penance in Protestant (and Catholic) nations began deviating from actual confession of sins and became obsessed with the smallest of pleasures.

According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but all its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

Likewise, the Victorian era and the few decades prior to its development set a standard: Now, not only did one need to confess to acts that were against the law, they also had to tell all their pleasures and desires in church discourse, under the watchful eyes of the priest or minister. This set a new tone to sexuality in the Western world previously unheard of — it gave rise to innumerable euphemisms to describe acts or body parts previously taken as merely “being,” in an effort to describe this new sexual fascination. Sexuality was now externalized, treated as undesirable pleasure, and was to be repressed in public. And henceforth, the repression in Western culture took on a two-faced form; on the one hand, sexuality was to be beaten down from the public eye, but, on the other hand, was to be properly dissected under the guise of an authority that demands it.

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886).

In academia, sexuality began to be added to the scientific lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary began to add specific terms to their newly-printed releases;  “sexual intercourse” (1799), “sexual function” (1803), “sexual organs” (1828), “sexual desire” (1836), “sexual instinct” (1861), “sexual impulse” (1863), “sexual act” (1888), and “sexual immorality” (1911). Moreover, sexual behavior became robustly studied as a field worthy of attention [10]. Sexuality was seen, in scientific circles, as a proper way to assess one’s personality and behavior. Who you slept with became, peculiarly, also an identity in the Western mindset. This became especially prevalent in psychiatry, before the Freudian revolution of thought, where sexual deviancy was seen as particularly problematic. And this phenomenon was present far beyond the bounds of Victorian England, since talks on sexuality were rising in the confession booths all across Christian Europe. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing published his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 in which he outlined four sexual categories of, what he considered to be, symptoms of neurosis. They were titled: paradoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time), anesthesia (not enough sexual desire), hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire), and paraesthesia (sexual deviancy, i.e. queer and fetishism). He goes on to discuss the sexual “impassivity” of the female compared to the male, describing the male as having a “stronger sexual appetite” — only reaffirming the hypocritical sexual expectations of the male and female which is pervasive in Western culture to this very day.

V. Modern Victorian Sexuality 

The ramifications of such repression, and private sexual objectification, has reared its ugly face even in contemporary society. The hysteria over discussion on sexuality is still pervasive and shied away in any public discourse. Archaic conceptions of sexual “immorality” are still being tossed around in the public arena and are commonly told to children. Rigid notions of femininity and masculinity are institutionally enforced and kept in check by popular disapproval once one steps outside the preconceived bounds. Perhaps, what is seen more vividly, is the persistent caricature that one’s sexuality is an indicator of one’s personality. The marginalization of sexuality continues to plague the Western mindset, always thrown to the back-burner of our minds, too frightening to be discussed. Such are the chains that have to be properly broken if we wish to actually articulate real “sexual liberation’ or any humanization of what, should be considered, natural human urges. To put it most bluntly, perhaps it is time to bring, first and foremost, such topics of sexuality to light. And all the while, let us give those that decry its discussion the proper response — ignore and pressure them to change their repressive ideas of sexuality, which have been shamefully penning individuals in a sexually-normative box ever since its adoption as a Western moral imperative. It is about time the discussion has been opened, rather than have sexuality continue to be an object of scrutiny.


The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality 

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History to a gathering of academics at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Turner, in his thesis, argued that the unique American frontier experience shaped the United States’ development and created a distinct culture and political condition. In essence, the frontier was responsible for molding the American character into what it is.

While his thesis certainly stands true, the “Old West” also brought with it an economic anomaly — a differentiating aspect that made the United States’ economic upbringing particularly strange. From its colonial origins and throughout the 1800s, the U.S economy was consistently plagued with shortages of labor. These shortages would influence the development of slavery in the South, where plantation owners find it necessary to import more slaves to sustain their agricultural output. These shortages would also be the reason for the influx of immigrants throughout the 1800s, who where subject to extreme prejudice from nativists once some forms of unemployment actually became evident.

The above graph depicts estimates made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, they are relatively high due to the impossibility of knowing the actual levels of unemployment. Little surveying was done, regional statistics were not kept, and much of the American population was self-employed. This makes assessing the unemployment rate during this period of exceptional American growth difficult. And further complications arise when youth employment is added into the calculations —  which customarily started the from age of 10 in most areas. Since not all households required their children to work, making fully accurate estimates is nearly impossible.

However, given the growth of American industry during the 1800s, basic assumptions can be made. For one, the inventiveness of the U.S industrial economy can be properly explained if the labor shortages are taken into account. Because of the lack of labor in the United States, industrial capitalists had to rely on new technology to be able to increase their output and balance the lack of laborers. From this predicament, the American System of Manufacturing, as it was called, was developed. Because of its efficiency, it was revered amongst industrialists in Europe. The most important contribution being — the creation of interchangeable parts. This allowed industry to drastically increase their output and keep costs to a minimum. This also coincided with the high degree of mechanization that was starting to take root in the United States with the beginnings of the first Industrial Revolution.

Much of this technological advancement was also a product of the contention between agricultural and industrial regions during the United States’ great economic expansion. Although these clashing interests date far back to colonial times, the creation of the General Land Office  in 1812 was a turning point. This independent federal agency was responsible for distributing and surveying public domain land in the largely unexplored territories of the United States. Two laws in particular addresses the rationing of these lands — the Preemption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act. The former was passed to ration pieces of the uncultivated territory at a price. Up to 160 acres could be purchased at a time, and at very low prices. It was done to encourage those already occupying federal lands to purchase them. The Homestead Act, first enacted in 1862, was similar in its intent. Its aim was giving applicants roughly 160 acres of land free of charge west of the Mississippi River. Now, northern industrialists not only had to deal with labor shortages — they also had to satisfy their workers enough so they would not opportunistically leave and go westward.

The frontier experience did much more than cultivate the unexplored land westward; it intensified the shortages of labor in the United States. This scarcity created an inventive industrial sector that had to compensate by developing new technology, which would ultimately lead the United States to the economic dominance it enjoys today. Economist Richard Wolff, in a few of his lectures and writings, theorizes that it was this remarkable condition that created a very different experience for those living in the United States.

“What distinguishes the United States from almost every other capitalist experiment is that from 1820 to 1970, as best we can tell from the statistics we have, the amount of money an average worker earned kept rising decade after decade. This is measured in “real wages,” which means the money you earn compared to the prices you have to pay. That’s remarkable. There’s probably no other capitalist system that has delivered to its working class that kind of 150-year history. It produced in the U.S. the expectation that every generation would live better than the one before it, that if you worked hard, you could deliver a higher standard of living to your kids.”

Frankly, Wolff’s analysis makes sense. Rising wages kept the worker class’s morale high, and attracted immigrants — it also served as an incentive for working people to stay as laborers rather than receive land and move westward.  So, fundamentally speaking, American employers experienced competition in the labor market for two specific reasons. One, the federal land programs provided incentives for workers to move westward and entrepreneurs had to provide reasons for them to stay and work in the form of higher wages. And second, since the labor supply was constantly in high demand, workers were not easily replaceable. This implicitly forced firms to increase their wages, to attract laborers to their respective industries.

In 2006, Michael Lind published an article in the Financial Times titled “A Labour Shortage Can be a Blessing,” which indirectly supports Wolff’s thesis on wages. He writes:

“In the ageing nations of the first world, the benefits of a labour shortage, in the form of higher productivity growth and higher wages, might outweigh the costs. Where labour is scarce and expensive, businesses have an incentive to invest in labour-saving technology, which boosts productivity growth by enabling fewer workers to produce more. It is no accident that the industrial revolution began in countries where workers were relatively few and had legal rights, rather than in serf societies where people were cheaper than machines.”

In order to validate Lind’s and Wolff’s claims, two specific economic topics must be properly historically analyzed. The first one being — is there evidence for such a labor shortage, and if so, how severe was it? 

Given the estimates made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it would be safe to assume that unemployment was not a major issue during the 1800s. When youth employment is taken into consideration, the estimates become very inflated, since the labor pool was so large. However, beside macroeconomic analysis, there are specific scenarios which shows that such a dilemma in production was indeed persistent in the United States during the 19th century. The PBS television series “American Experience” gives one particular scenario during the construction of railroads in the 1860s that validates this assumption.

“In early 1865 the Central Pacific had work enough for 4,000 men. Yet contractor Charles Crocker barely managed to hold onto 800 laborers at any given time. Most of the early workers were Irish immigrants. Railroad work was hard, and management was chaotic, leading to a high attrition rate. The Central Pacific management puzzled over how it could attract and retain a work force up to the enormous task. In keeping with prejudices of the day, some Central Pacific officials believed that Irishmen were inclined to spend their wages on liquor, and that the Chinese were also unreliable. Yet, due to the critical shortage, Crocker suggested that reconsideration be given to hiring Chinese…”

Historian Rickie Lazzerini portrays a similar issue in Cincinnati, Ohio during the beginning of the 1800s.

“…the busy industries created a constant and chronic labor shortage in Cincinnati during the first half of the 19th century. This labor shortage drew a stream of Irish and German immigrants who provided cheap labor for the growing industries.”

The second question that must be asked is — was there actually a persistent increase in wages during the 1800s? 

To properly answer this question is immensely complex, since such little data is available. However, there exists one specific academic paper on the subject that addresses this question and the one posed prior. In 1960, economist Stanley Lebergott authored a chapter addressing wages in 19th century United States in a full volume called “Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century” published by the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth. The chapter itself was titled “Wages Trends, 1800 – 1900.” He writes:

“Associated with the enormous size of these establishments was the
need to draw employees from some distance away. Local labor supplies
were nowhere near adequate. One result was the black “slaver’s wagon”
of New England tradition, recruiting labor for the mills. The other was
the distinctly higher wage rate paid by such mills in order to attract
labor from other towns and states. Humanitarian inclinations and the
requirements of labor supply went hand in hand. Thus while hundreds
of small plants in New York, in Maine, and in Rhode Island paid 30 to
33 cents a day to women and girls, the Lowell mills generally paid
50 cents” [451].

Regions that lacked adequate quantities of labor had to rely on larger wages to attract workers from afar. However, apart from the industrial north of the United States, farm wages also increased — perhaps signifying a competitive rift between the agricultural sectors and the industrial ones.

Professor Lebergott, later in his analysis, then provides the full wage computations that he was able to calculate given individual data and trends recorded by local media. He combined the data he acquired on a state by state basis, starting locally and then branching out to create a national average. Also note, the drop in wages between 1818 – 1830 he attributes to “the close of the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the non-importation agreement.”

Based on economist Stanley Lebergott’s analysis, Richard D. Wolff’s assertions are validated; the United States, for the most part, did enjoy increasing real wages throughout the 19th century. Even more so, it goes further in proving Michael Lind’s claim that shortages of labor can indeed cause wage increases and heighten technological innovation. It is very likely that the combined frontier experience and shortages in the production processes created a unique variant of capitalism that was unique to the United States. It gave American households the confidence that if they worked harder, they would earn a better living. It also gave to them the optimism that their children would enjoy a better standard of living.

This unprecedented century of growth and success also had often overlooked impact on the American psyche. Because of the inflated expectations, it instilled a unique mentality amongst working class Americans. As John Steinbeck put it, the poor don’t see themselves as victims — but rather as “temporarily-embarrassed millionaires.” It is this aspect of the American psyche that has allowed the broken system to flourish in the decades since the persistent stagnation of wages of the 1970s. Admitting the issue is just to difficult, for some; if we believe enough, the American dream just might become real again, as it was for those traveling out West to find riches and fortunes. In retrospect, the sooner working class Americans awake from this fantasy, the sooner they will realize that times have changed — and not in their favor.

– A lecture where Wolff discusses the frontier experience and 19th century wage increases.
– Some statistics and fact on U.S economic growth during this time period.
– A decent article on this topic from the Wall Street Journal (you need a subscription to view it).

Of any movement, of any change, education is vital. It is the beginnings of new ideas, and it must be given special attention to ensure it is doing its proper purpose. However, the initial question is, what is the purpose of education? What does it mean to be educated? 

Today we are in an age where measure of achievement are standardized — a “one size fits all” approach to teaching and assessments. Divergent thinking is disregarded, and replaced with single-solution scenarios that involve little thought outside the limitations that are given to the pupils in the classroom. It turns education into a chore rather than a passion.

Granted, there are many reasons for this, but its primary reasons lie in its creation during the age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Fundamentally speaking, although the Enlightenment was a beautiful period of intellectual growth, it corresponded with the industrialization of much of the, then, “modern world.” Likewise, many of the concepts attributed to the industrial model were applied to education: standardization, divisions, and hierarchy. All of these functioned in the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it. Perhaps the most important externality that was brought the industrialized education, however, was a similar form of alienation. Specifically, the alienation of the pupil from the work he or she was creating in the classroom. It is this dilemma that cripples intuition and advancement, and rather makes students into pawns molded into a pre-manufactured consciousness. It is an impediment to growth. Even worse so, to think outside the realm of normal studies is downgraded and displeasing, because conformity and efficiency are key in an industrial model of practice.

Paulo Freire addresses these concerns in his masterwork “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and attempts to properly describe the educational system and articulate its flaws. He starts by categorizing the teacher-student relationship in dialectic terms, with a lack of real struggle.

“A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)…. education is suffering from narration sickness” [52].

Most importantly though, is the lack of significance in the teaching itself. The dialogue is hollow, and consists of “alienating verbosity.” It does little to motivate the students, and it furthermore categories them as objects ready to absorb what the instructor is telling them, without fruitful interaction; it teaches them little to nothing on the fluidity of history, making them cautious when witnessing change, and it does little to awaken the aspirations the pupils might have. The language lacks any transforming power, and learning becomes overly-mechanical rather than engaging.

“The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, status, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to th existential experience of the students” [52].

It is based on these observations that Freire theorizes on what he calls “the banking concept of education.”

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” [53]. 

Bearing this mind, education must first solve this crux before it can go any further. The teacher-student contradiction must be properly handled before a true libertarian education can take root, that would eliminate the ignorance and encompass true transformation and radical praxis. Freire than goes on to delve into this contradiction, and I feel the quote deserves to be posted in full:

“The solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices which mirror oppressive society as a whole.  

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing
(c) the teachers thinks and the students are thought about
(d) the teacher talks and the students learn — meekly
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects” [54].

This is the major issue, and the contradiction between the teacher-student relationship. For the commoners, education does little to change the condition which oppresses them, rather it only changes the consciousness of the oppressed. This is why the need for a radical new pedagogy is paramount — one that is free from the alienating aspects of industrialization, horizontal in its power structure, involving in its dialogue, and promoting of inquiry and understanding. In a proper educational setting, it is not only the student that learns; it is both the pupils and the teachers that intellectually grow. They expand on their knowledge through dialogue and conversation, thereby heightening their consciousness and crushing their once-held ignorance. This is the goal of radical education, of revolutionary pedagogy — the humanization and realization of one’s potential.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin posted an article in the magazine Science called “Tragedy of the Commons” and it was an attempt at proving that private property was the most efficient method of rationing goods and maintaining resources efficiently. It is oftentimes used in arguments favoring the privatization of common resources. His theoretical scenario was as follows:

There is a plot of land in the middle of a small peasant town. The plot of land is commonly owned, and is used for grazing; it is open to anybody that wishes to send their cattle there. Each peasant owns livestock and must use that land to feed their livestock. Knowing that each individual wants to maximize what they can get from the fertile acreage, each peasant brings as many animals as they can to the pasture, therefore, ruining the pasture for everyone. This is what Hardin calls ‘the tragedy.’ Each peasant wants to maximize their ‘grazing’ because they knew that if they don’t, somebody else would. Garrett Hardin calls this outcome “inevitable,” which he says makes it all the more tragic. He goes on to say there are two possible solutions to prevent such an outcome: either through regulation by an overseeing government body or through privatization of the common pasture so each peasant is responsible for his or her piece of land.

The original article from 1968 can be found here. And here’s a corresponding video with Garrett Hardin talking about his scenario.

Now, there’s a few issues that arise when Hardin’s scenario is contested in a real world environment. He makes three assumptions that do not stack up to what actually happened in the famous commons of England and elsewhere. They are as follows:

1. Each individual is working to maximize his or her profit.
2. The peasants do not communicate with one another.
3. That the pasture is open for anybody to use freely.

What actually happened in the commons of England, where the peasants lived after being freed from the shackles of feudalistic rule, was very different than Hardin describes. In these small villages, these commoners were very careful not to abuse the land that they had because they knew if they did the entire community would starve. The communicated with one another to prevent such happenings, and overgrazing was for the most part prevented. And since they were not functioning in a money economy, by growing their own food, they had little incentive to grow beyond what they needed – and if more was grown it was for surplus in case of shortages. And finally, these pastures were not open to everyone; it was established by common law, assumed through interaction, that the land was to be used only by those that have agreed to take care of it. Essentially, it was to be used only by the peasants living in the village itself.

Common grazing areas for livestock were a commonplace from the Middle Ages until the beginnings of the modern era. Farms were oftentimes broken up into three sections; one for wheat, one for barley, and one for grazing. This three-section open field was popular even after feudalism collapsed, until the advent of a market economy which specifically required the enclosure of common pastures. So the tragedy Garrett Hardin actually describes was seemingly backwards; rather than privatization of the commons being the solution to overgrazing, it became the tragedy itself.
Gilbert Slater, a British economist and social reformer, wrote a book in 1907 titled “The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields.” He describes the coercive methods of enclosure:

Enclosure of the common fields, meadows and pastures, of

any particular village may have taken place in the following
ways : —

(1) By Act of Parliament, viz., (a) by a private Act, (b) under
the authority of the General Enclosure Acts of 1830 and 1836,
(c) by the Enclosure Commissioners and their successors, the
Board of Agriculture, under the General Enclosure Act of 1845
and its amending Acts.
(2) By common agreement of all the collective owners.
(3) By the purchase on the part of one owner of all conflicting
(4) By special licence of the Tudor monarchs.
(5) By various forms of force and fraud.

Commonable waste may have been enclosed in any of the
above ways, and also under the Statutes of Merton and Win-
chester (1235 and 1285), which give Lords of the Manor the right
of enclosing commons provided proof is given that the tenants of
the manor are left sufficient pasture.

Specifically speaking, the most devastating were the Inclosure Acts passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom that stripped away the rights of common ownership from the local peoples by government force. This completely replaced the common law once understood by the peasant class, and put in its place a codified method of enclosure that many of the poor farmers did not agree to – this was mostly because many were illiterate and did not understand (for the most part only the nobles were educated).

A 17th century poem fully describes the real tragedy this caused to the local folk:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

William Cobbett, an notable English pamphleteer and journalist, recorded what he saw after the land on the Isle of Thanet was appropriated by the wealthy:

“In this beautiful island every inch of land is appropriated by the rich. No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farm-house. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched labourer has not a stick of wood, and has no place for a pig or cow to graze, or even to lie down upon. The rabbit countries are the countries for labouring men. There the ground is not so valuable. There it is not so easily appropriated by the few. Here, in this island, the work is almost all done by the horses. The horses plough the ground; they sow the ground; they hoe the ground; they carry the corn home; they thresh it out; and they carry it to market: nay, in this island, they rake the ground; they rake up the straggling straws and ears; so that they do the whole, except the reaping and the mowing. It is impossible to have an idea of anything more miserable than the state of the labourers in this part of the country.” [1823]

Enclosure did much more than take away common land from the peasants; it was much more elaborate of a scheme. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the newly emergent capitalist class in North Britain found a new labour supply – the landless disfranchised peasant class that was distraught from centuries of enclosures. The self-sufficient yeomen was crushed, and what was created was a class dependent on wage labour for which they had to relinquish their self-autonomy to feed their families; they had no choice, they had to work. It was this phenomenon that soon followed suit in much of the rest of the world, for England was a colonial power and its influence was global.

One of the leading forces during the Industrial Revolution were textile mills and these required wool to function. The dilemma was, however, that it required taking away common land from the peasants to raise more sheep. The nobles of Britain than turned to Parliament, because they knew if the government forced the peasants to enclose, they would have no choice. Their lobbying and influence ultimately succeeded, and the majority of the Inclosure Acts were actually passed between 1750 and 1860, involuntarily taking away the land of the commoners.

Many of the emerging industrialists and its supporters called the peasants lazy, and they used such justification in advocating for their usage as labourers. Many Quakers and English Protestants also found laziness, which they saw as sloth (one of the Seven Deadly Sins), to be repugnant to a moral English society. John Bellers, a Quaker himself and an educator, tells of such things in his book ‘About the Improvement of the Physick’ and his other writings and expressed his contempt for such idleness:

“Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence.” [1714]

Thomas Pennet, a noted Enlgish botanist, antiquarian, and noble, wrote of the peasants in his journal in 1772 while in Edinburgh, England and denounced them in the same fashion:

“I was informed that the labor is dear here… the common people not being yet got into a method of working, so do very little for wages.”

“…The manners of the native Highlanders may be expressed in these words: indolent to a high degree, unless roused to war, or any animating amusement.”

He goes on to describe their physique:

“The inhabitant live very poorly… The man are thin, but strong; idle and lazy… they are content with their hard fare, and will not exert themselves father than what they deem necessaries.”

The general attitude of the landowners was much the same. A snippet from Commercial, Agricultural, and Manufactures’ Magazine in 1800 read as follows:

“When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings… the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work…”

This type of mentality was common amongst the industrialists at the time; if the poor were given enough land to be self-sufficient and independent, than they would not be forced to work in the factories. They would be given a choice which would ultimately hurt the industrial North of Britain.

After an analysis of the commons of England, it is apparent that the”Tragedy of the Commons” does not hold up to historical scrutiny. The reality is that peasants lived in the commons for centuries, and it was not until the emergence of a market economy do we see the dismantling of such a system. The ‘inevitability of a tragedy’ that Garrett Hardin theorizes is set in his own limited scenario; one that does not correlate with actual common ownership. The real tragedy here, it seems, is the exploitation of the peasant class from their land and state coercion that was involved in making them work as wage labourers. It is this state-market cooperative dynamic that will become a staple in the capitalist economy in the centuries ahead, and it is even more apparent in today’s globalized economic system – albiet it’s inherent problems are bit more subtle, but all the more the same just on a larger scale.
John Beller’s book: Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry (1696)
Gilbert Slater’s book: The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields (1907)
A short history of enclosure in Britain can be found here.
An article on how the English people became landless.
These enclosures did not come without backlash. Some info can be found here and here.



A Blog about Propaganda

Journey to Russia

Embracing the cold, the beautiful, and the mysterious, Mother Russia

YesterYear Once More

Life as it was reported back then

Victor Serge's Ghost

"One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him"

Collecting Russian Art

20th century Russian art and its uniqueness

Communist League Tampa

proletarians of the world, unite!

Mosul Eye

To Put Mosul on the Global Map


Thai politics

Fractal Ontology

refracting theory: politics, cybernetics, philosophy

Russia Without BS

How am I still doing this?

The Disorder Of Things

For the Relentless Criticism of All Existing Conditions Since 2010

United States Hypocrisy

A critical analysis of the American empire's high-minded rhetoric, and the ways in which it fails to square with reality.

Valentino's blog

A blog about visual arts (well, mostly...)


e*leu`ther*o*ma"ni*a | noun | a mania or frantic zeal for freedom. | [R.] Carlyle.

synthetic zerø

aequilibrium movere


..............................the research base of jon goodbun

Paths to Utopia

scattered reflections on politics for our time


It's Evelyn, It's Ecology, all in one convenient package

John Riddell


Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

All that is Solid for Glenn Rikowski

All that is Solid ... is a radical blog that seeks to promote a future beyond capital's social universe. "All that is solid melts into air" (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'The Communist Manifesto', 1848).

Symptomatic Commentary

Notes, Interviews, and Commentary on Art, Education, Poetics, and Culture

The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.


Russia, the West, and the world

Uneven And Combined Development

theorising the international

Bezbozhnik - безбожник

On anti-religious propaganda in the early USSR, with some disgressions on the Russian Soul.

Nationalism Studies

Monitoring the Changing World

Old Woman on a Bicycle

My Art & Photography Mostly, but Maybe Other Things

Sráid Marx

An Irish Marxist Blog


Historian and geographer, writer and researcher

Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

Pedagogic nihilism fights a windmill battle against international capital

Peter Marcuse's Blog

Critical planning and other thoughts

communists in situ

leberwurst proletariat

People and Nature

Some socialist ideas about society, the earth and their interaction

Clio Ancient Art & Antiquities

Exploring the world of antiquities dealing, collecting, heritage issues and a bit of archaeological travel


Something always escapes!

New Historical Express

(Formerly Hatful of History)