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Enclosure: the private appropriation of resources previously held in common, i.e. of the Commons

In a more specific historical definition, it refers to the process of the enclosure of common agricultural land in England between the 15th and 19th centuries.

From 1776 to 1825, the English Parliament passed more than 4,000 Acts that served to appropriate common lands from commoners, chiefly to the benefit of politically connected landowners. These enclosures of the commons seized about 25 percent of all cultivated acreage in England, according to historian Raymond Williams, and concentrated ownership in a small minority of the population. These “lawful” enclosures also dispossessed millions of citizens, eradicated traditional ways of life, and forcibly introduced the new economy of industrialization, featuring occupational specialties and large-scale production. Nowadays we use the term “enclosure” to denounce heinous acts such as the ongoing privatization of intellectual property, the expropriation and massive land grabs occurring in Africa and other continents, the imposition of digital rights management, the patenting of seeds and the human genome, and more. This modern tendency towards enclosures and turning relationships into services and commons into commodities, has been described by Commons scholar David Bollier as “The great invisible tragedy of our time”.

Extracted from 'Commons Transition and P2P: a Primer'.


Poor Richard's Almanac:

"Enclosure (inclosure) is the process which was used to end some traditional rights, such as mowing meadows for hay, or grazing livestock on land which is owned by another person, or a group of people. In England and Wales the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. By the 20th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and in relatively small parts of the lowlands." (http://almanac2010.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/disenclosure-of-the-commons/)


The following is copied from an explanation by Anthony McCann of Beyond the Commons.

(Source archived 2013)

“In simple terms, it can safely be said that study of parliamentary enclosure concerns land, property, and “the commons? . “Enclosure?, in this sense, refers primarily to a series of changes to the English landscape from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It often entailed the changing of agricultural practices from communally administered landholdings, usually in fields without physically defined territorial boundaries, to agricultural holdings which were non-communal. Common lands were “enclosed? by man-made boundaries that separated one farm from another. Slater identifies three generic features of “enclosure"? in this regard:

  1. the laying together of scattered properties and consequent abolition of intermixture of properties and holdings;
  2. the abolition of common rights;
  3. the hedging and ditching of the separate properties.

The third process is the actual “enclosing" which gives its name to a series of processes which it completes (1907:85).

The Enclosures ... were fundamentally about bringing realms that had hitherto been exempted into the new and expanding commercial relationships that marked the growth of capitalism. Former ways of providing food and sustenance - strip farming, labour relationships based on obligation and deference, widespread access to, and availability of, common land for grazing, hunting and collection of fuel - were denuded and done away with in the name of efficiency, progress and private property rights.

There are others, however, for whom “parliamentary enclosure" carries positive connotations. Allen notes that “Few ideas have commanded as much assent amongst historians as the claim that enclosures and large farms were responsible for the growth in productivity. Thirsk, for example, defines enclosure as “a method of increasing the productivity or profitability of land. This definition would apply accurately to all forms of enclosure. (1958:4). In a more recent commentary, Boyle agrees: “The big point about the enclosure movement was that it worked; this innovation in property systems allowed an unparalleled expansion of productive possibilities." ((http://www.beyondthecommons.com/understandingenclosure.html))


"The concept of the commons was legally protected by the Romans who differentiated between private (res privatae), public (res publicae), and common interests (res communes). The law of nature, published in 533 AD as part of the Code of Justinian, stated, “The law of nature is that which she has taught all animals; a law not peculiar to the human race, but shared by all living creatures, whether denizens of the air, the dry land, or the sea.” (Moyle, 1913) In England, two years after King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the Charter of the Forest (Carta de Foresta) was sealed by his son, King Henry III in 1217. It acknowledged the royal forests as common land that could be enjoyed and used by all citizens including serfs and vassals. This law remained in effect for over 750 years until it was superseded by a new statute in 1971. (Wikipedia: Charter of the Forest)

However, even prior to the Industrial Revolution the commons in the United Kingdom were being privatized or “enclosed” for the benefit of the few and to the detriment of the many. Author David Bollier reports that by 1876, after some 4000 acts of Parliament, less than 1% of the population owned over 98% of the agricultural land in England and Wales. (Bollier, 2002) Today we face an unprecedented situation where the private sector is drilling for oil in the oceans, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, patenting the genes necessary to cure diseases, privatizing water, and claiming seeds as its intellectual property. Its long reach now penetrates segments of society previously considered off-limits to commercial interests. This includes public education, scientific research, philanthropy, art, prisoner rehabilitation, roads, bridges, and so on." (http://a-institute.org/global_commons_enclosure.htm)


Enclosure Today

Peter Linebaugh:[1]

Enclosure, like capital, is a term that is physically precise, even technical (hedge,

fence, wall), and expressive of concepts of unfreedom (incarceration, imprisonment, immurement). In our time it has been an important interpretative idea for understanding neoliberalism, the historical suppression of women as in Silvia Federici, the carceral archipelago as in Michel Foucault’s great confinement, or capitalist amassment as in David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.In our time it has also been an important empirical fact. On the one hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the current moment; on the other hand, the vain security fence between Mexico and the United States, and the hideous gigantism of the Israeli wall immuring Palestine, also define the current moment.

The “English enclosure movement” has belonged to that series of concrete universals — l­ike the slave trade, the witch burnings, the Irish famine, or the genocide of Native Americans — ­ that has defined the crime of modernism, limited in time and place but also immanent with the possibility of recurrence. Raj Patel writes, “Over the past thirty years the accelerating pace of enclosures, and the increasing scale of the theft, have brought our planet to the edge of destruction.” Yet enclosure’s antonym — ­ the commons — ­ also carries with it a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative. Philosophically, too, the concept has stood close to the center of our times, as in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s recent book Commonwealth.

Enclosure indicates private property and capital: it seems to promise both individual ownership and social productivity, but in fact the concept of enclosure is inseparable from terror and the destruction of independence and community.


The enclosure of the commons has reappeared in the twenty-first century owing to four developments at the end of the twentieth century. First was the uprising in Chiapas led in 1994 by the Zapatistas in opposition to the repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution that provided for ejido, or common lands, attached to each village. The renewed discourse of the commons formed part of the struggle of indigenous people against the privatization of land. A process of “new enclosures,” however, took place in Africa and Indonesia. If the cowboy novelist implied a relation between the fence and money, Pramoedya Toer draws attention to the relation between crime and the fence, or the criminal and the indigenous, using the example of Buru Island under the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

A second development of the late twentieth century bringing about a discussion of enclosure and the commons was the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web as a knowledge commons. The privatization of intellectual property was challenged at the “battle of Seattle” in 1999. A third process was the pollution of the planet’s waters and the poisoning of its atmosphere. Finally, a fourth factor in this renewed discourse was the collapse of the USSR and of the communist countries of eastern Europe, which made it easier to discuss the commons without automatically being suspected of ideological intercourse with the national enemy.

Source: Radical History Review, Issue 108 (Fall 2010)


Enclosure and the Commons

"Whether people are referring to the parliamentary enclosures in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries or to the more recent critiques of “corporate enclosure", there have tended to be two dominant characterizations of “the commons".

In the first, people have conceived of “the commons" as a particular character of uncommodifying social relations in a localized context of community. It is important to note that, in the literature on the parliamentary enclosures, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons" adopted by critics of the broad social changes that enclosure brought about. This can primarily be characterised as a relationship-centred approach to “the commons", whereby “the commons" is understood to refer to a particular character of social relations that are constituted, at least in part, by an ethic of interdependence and cooperation. The key point has been, however, that the relations in question are of a peculiarly uncommodifying character. As the editors of The Ecologist note: “[The commons] provides sustenance, security and independence, yet … typically does not produce commodities. Unlike most things in modern industrial society, moreover, it is neither private nor public.

The second dominant characterization of “the commons" is as a resource-pool to be managed. Within the literature on parliamentary enclosure, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons" adopted by those very much in favour of enclosure as a means of enacting economic progress and the capitalist ethos. The term “commons", in this sense, refers to resources “held in common" or managed in such a way as to allow common access. Again, “the commons" is often considered within a context of community, but the community does not need to be localized or situated. As there is no necessity for a resource management model of “the commons" to consider experiential or broader social psychological elements, the community in question may have the character of an “imagined community" or a simplistic and reductionist abstraction.

Enclosure Revisited, Without “the Commons" Resource-management understandings of "the commons" have come to assume considerable rhetoric weight (see McCann 2005). Some time ago I would have been very inclined to go along with the persuasiveness of "resource-commons" language. Like most "commons" theorists, I, too, have become, in spite of myself, a theorist and critic of enclosure. However, my analysis of “enclosure" differs in significant ways from that offered by most apologists of the “commons", not least because I seek to extricate my analysis of expansionary social dynamics from notions of “the commons". I have found in my own analysis of the process and practices of enclosure that resource management discourse tends to be both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dynamics of enclosure. This is, of course, quite obvious in the case of the discourses and practices of apologists of parliamentary enclosure. Where it is perhaps not quite as obvious, and where we might indeed think it counterintuitive, is in the discourses and practices of apologists of the “information commons", the "cultural commons", or the "global commons". (http://www.beyondthecommons.com/understandingenclosure.html)

Enclosures and the Market

Ivan Illich:

"Commons is a Middle English word. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. The law of the commons regulates the right of way, the right to fish and to hunt, and the right to collect wood or medicinal plants in the forest.

The enclosure of the commons inaugurates a new ecological order. Enclosure did not just physically transfer the control over grasslands from the peasants to the lord. It marked a radical change in the attitudes of society toward the environment. Before, most of the environment had been considered as commons from which most people could draw most of their sustenance without needing to take recourse to the market. After enclosure, the environment became primarily a resource at the service of “enterprises” which, by organizing wage labor, transformed nature into the goods and services on which the satisfaction of basic needs by consumers depend. primarily a resource at the service of “enterprises” which, by organizing wage labor, transformed nature into the goods and services on which the satisfaction of basic needs by consumers depend.

This change of attitudes can be better illustrated if we think about roads rather than about grasslands. What a difference there was between the new and the old parts of Mexico City only twenty years ago. In the old parts of the city, the streets were true commons. Some people sat in the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to drink coffee or tequila. Children played in the gutter, and people walking could still use the road to get from one place to another. Such roads were built for people. Like any true commons, the street itself was the result of people living there and making that space livable. In the new sections of Mexico City, streets are now roadways for automobiles, for buses, for taxis, cars, and trucks. People are barely tolerated on the street. The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple resource for the circulation of vehicles. People can circulate no more on their own. Traffic has displaced their mobility.

Enclosure has denied the people the right to that kind of environment on which—throughout all of history—the moral economy of survival depends. Enclosure undermines the local autonomy of a community. People become economic individuals who depend for their survival on commodities that are produced for them." (http://onthecommons.org/magazine/origins-our-economic-powerlessness)

Against the Enclosure of the Knowledge Commons

Bifo, an Italian radical writer:

“The attempt at coercive privatization of collective knowledge has encountered resistance everywhere. Since intellectual labour is at the center of the productive scene, the merchant no longer possesses the juridical or material means to impose the principle of private property. When immaterial goods can be reproduced at will, the private appropriation of goods make no sense. In the sphere of semiotic capital and cognitive labour, when a product is consumed instead of disappearing, it remains available, while its value increases the more its use is shared" (Bifo, in Neuro, e-newsletter)

John Perry Barlow on the privatization of the Commons

" I'm spending an enormous amount of my time stopping content industries from taking over the world--literally. I feel like we're in a condition where private totalitarianism is not out of the question because of the increasingly thickening matrix of channels of communication owned by the same companies that own content, that own Web properties, that own traditional media. In essence, they're in a position to own the human mind itself. The possibility of getting a dissident voice through their channels is increasingly scarce, and the use of copyright as a means of suppressing freedom of expression is becoming more and more fashionable. You've got these interlocking systems of technology and law, where merely quoting something from a copyrighted piece is enough to bring down the system on you." (http://news.com.com/2008-1082-843349.html)

More Information

  1. Property Taskforce
  2. A Short History of Enclosure in Britain by Simon Fairlie (from Issue 7 in The Land)

James Boyle, on the Public Domain and the Second Enclosure movement

The following are key essays on the topic of the enclosure of the knowledge commons.

The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain

URL = http://www.law.duke.edu/pd/papers/boyle.pdf

The Opposite of Property

URL = http://www.law.duke.edu/boylesite/foreword.pdf

Anthony McCann, on the Enclosure of the Commons

  1. Anthony McCann on the Enclosure of the Information Commons
  2. Enclosure Bibliography
  3. Essai: Enclosure and the Information Commons: 2005, available in the journal Information and Communications Technology Law
  4. Guide to the Study of Enclosure
  5. [http://www.beyondthecommons.com/beyondthecommons.html Anthony McCann's PhD dissertation: "Beyond the Commons: The Expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the Elimination of Uncertainty, and the Politics of Enclosure"


  • the 1993 landmark study by J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, winner of the 1994 Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society.

Recommendations by James Boyle:

"Those seeking to understand the various methods by which different aspects of common land were enclosed over a 400 year history in England should start with J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450–1850 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977). Thomas More, Utopia (New York: W. J. Black, 1947), provides a harsh criticism of the enclosure movement, one that is echoed hundreds of years later by Polanyi: Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957). Economic historians have generally believed that the enclosure movement yielded considerable efficiency gains—bringing under centralized control and management, property that had previously been inefficiently managed under a regime of common access. When efficiency gains mean higher productivity so that fewer people starve, this is no small thing. Donald N. McCloskey, “The Enclosure of Open Fields: Preface to a Study of Its Impact on the Efficiency of English Agriculture in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 15–35; “The Prudent Peasant: New Findings on Open Fields,” Journal of Economic History 51 (1991): 343–355. This argument seems plausible, but it has recently received powerful challenges, for example, that by Robert C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

In the twentieth century, the negative effects of open access or common ownership received an environmental gloss thanks to the work of Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248. However, work by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Carol Rose, “The Comedy of the Commons: Custom, Commerce, and Inherently Public Property,” University of Chicago Law Review 53 (1986): 711–781, have introduced considerable nuance to this idea. Some resources may be more efficiently used if they are held in common. In addition, nonlegal, customary, and norm-based forms of “regulation” often act to mitigate the theoretical dangers of overuse or under-investment.

Beyond the theoretical and historical arguments about the effects of enclosure on real property lie the question of how well those arguments translate to the world of the intangible and intellectual. It is that question which this chapter raises. Christopher May, A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights: The New Enclosures? (London: Routledge, 2000) offers a similar analogy—as do several other articles cited in the text. The key differences obviously lie in the features of intellectual property identified in the earlier chapters—its nonrivalrousness and nonexcludability—and on the ways in which a commons of cultural, scientific, and technical information has been central to the operation of both liberal democracy and capitalist economy. I owe the latter point particularly to Richard Nelson, whose work on the economics of innovation amply repays further study: Richard Nelson, Technology, Institutions, and Economic Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005)." (http://www.thepublicdomain.org/download/further-reading-collected/)