We see it every day and don’t notice it.
In our digital lives, where Twitter Blue offers to artificially inflate your reach, for a monthly fee. On vacation with our families, where theme parks allow you to skip long lines, for a price. In our political lives, where bad faith politicians undermine our public institutions and offer a private alternative, for those who can afford it. It’s not just a product of corporate greed. It is a dynamic essential to both capitalism’s formation and continuing existence. I’m talking about enclosure.
Enclosure has its roots in 16th Century proto-capitalist England, a revolution of the rich against the poor. The previous century saw an unrivaled rise in peasant’s rights following the Black Death, which wiped out millions and made workers more scarce. Feudal lords, desperate to claw back some of their lost power following the plague, decided one way to squash Labor’s power was the enclosure of the commons, or public land. Land that was once used by everyone for grazing livestock, hunting, or foraging was now enclosed into plantations for cash crops or private hunting grounds for noblemen. Yeoman peasants whose families lived in a certain spot for hundreds of years now found themselves violently evicted, sometimes whole villages at a time.
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Capitalists have never grasped this, but when you evict people they don't just disappear. These formerly self-sustaining farmers were forced to find a new way to survive. Some went to the New World, where promises of “free'' real estate would allow them to escape their landlords. The potential of escaping the enclosure of England was so enticing some men sold themselves into indentured servitude. Most, however, stayed in England and sold the one thing of value they had: their labor. This gave people with access to capital -- the landed gentry of the countryside and the newly rich-merchant class -- an entire new pool of humans from whose labor they could extract even more value.
Why am I telling you this? What does anachronistic land reform have to do with your life today? Well, because capitalists never stopped enclosing. Enclosure took on new and inventive forms, and continues today. Capitalism is like a pyramid scheme. It needs constant expansion to survive (which is why capitalism has embraced so-called wokeism). It must absorb parts of human existence, which were once free, and offer access at a price.
For a few centuries, this enclosure was kept to land. Whether it was in the form of North American settlers and the United States government pillaging native land for settlement and privatization or the never ending colonization of the British empire. Once the “free” real estate dried up, or outright conquering became less politically palatable, enclosure had to take on hidden and more subversive forms.
I already mentioned theme parks’ so-called fast passes as one of the ways enclosure infects our lives, but it is hardly the worst. After all, this is more the commodification of convenience, allowing certain classes to bypass something everyone once had to deal with. A far more predatory example is the rise of micro-transactions in gaming. For those unfamiliar, micro-transactions are in-game purchases made after you’ve purchased the initial game. These purchases are often used to entice gamers into buying the most coveted items rather than earning them through skill or dedication. This may seem rather innocuous at first glance but the effect on the gaming industry and gamers has been noxious. It doesn't matter if it goes against the intent of competitive games or causes players to become addicted, if a video game company can make a quick buck off it, they will.
The most glaring case of modern capitalist enclosure can be found in the digital space. Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation once said the “architecture of the internet is an open Commons." For around 15 years, 1995-2010, this was mostly true. Cross-platform software was much more common. You were free to have your own site and server for whatever you wanted, whether it be business, art, or just to be seen. Most of that began to change with the rise of smartphones and social media.
Apple, funnily enough, was only able to escape Microsoft's iron grip due to free and easy access to the digital commons and the prevalence of cross-platform software. They then used their dominant smartphone position, and the public's transition from personal computers to smartphones, to undermine and eliminate that free access. Apple replaced it with a fully enclosed system under which anyone wanting to access the former commons must now pay rent to their digital landlords. If you’re an app developer who doesn't want to pay for that access, your company will die the same as the peasants of old who refused to work for their masters.
Facebook began its rise under the guise of expanding our connections. By enclosing the once expansive, loosely connected web of social spaces it was able to grow exponentially and demand more and more of our attention. There isn't profit in connection, but there is in attention. The need to commodify our attention led Facebook to turn the greatest communication device ever invented into an ad company. Their need to constantly grow has resulted in algorithms that amplify fear and anger and undermine democracy in both the US and abroad. Often with violent results.
As Facebook has seemingly hit a wall in attention growth, it is looking to adopt a monthly subscription model similar to Twitter Blue. Soon after buying Twitter, Elon Musk discovered a problem with the ad-based attention monetization system; what if your site becomes so toxic that companies refuse to advertise? His answer: Monetize people’s voices. Yes, noted free speech absolutist – the epitome of bad faith – believes you should pay to be heard. No longer do ”blue checks” carry any authority or authenticity outside of conveying your desire to pay, or your allegiance to Musk and his far-right politics. Instead of gaining followers via off-Twitter accomplishments or by being a good and interesting poster, for $8 a month Elon will force people to listen to you. This makes sense for a man who has never accomplished anything by himself. Elon has successfully enclosed your ability to preach from your high horse.
Perhaps the most destructive way capitalist enclosure infects modern life is through the privatization of our public institutions. Since the expansion of the New Deal social state, capitalists have tried to get their greedy hands on our public goods. Unfortunately, they've been successful – the attacks on our public school system being one of the most glaring examples. As with most things in the United States, private schools have their origin in racism. After Brown v. Board of Education said schools could no longer segregate, private schools found a robust market for alternatives to public education. This helped uncouple a certain, mostly white, class from investment in the performance of U.S. public schools. Then bad-faith politicians were free to attack our education system, and use them as examples of failing public institutions to promote further privatization.
The goal is a tiered education system, where those who can pay will get a quality education and those who can't are given a bare minimum education needed to contribute to a capitalist’s business.
Our government is riddled with examples like this. From Donald Rumsfeld demonizing Department of Defense civil servants, privatizing large functions of our military and turning it into what Naomi Klein calls a “hollow shell”; to companies like FedEx and UPS siphoning off the profitable parts of the U.S. Post Office, which is then demonized for not earning a profit; to the failed, but not forgotten, push to privatize Social Security. This enclosure of public goods doesn't just enrich capitalists, it removes public goods from democratic control and into authoritarian control.
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So what can we do? How can we fight this constant enclosure before capitalists find a way to privatize and commodify air? There are some ways we can help. Use more platforms to access the internet than the tech giants, where possible. Maybe spend less time online in general, as difficult as that may be. Don't feel pressured to make your hobby into a “side hustle.” Do things because you enjoy them, regardless of your ability to monetize it. Send your kids to public school, use the post office, and don't take our public institutions for granted.
Will Americans wake up to the drastic changes in American life? Unfortunately, enclosure is baked into the capitalist system in which we live. So systemic problems require systemic solutions. Vote for politicians who will fight this enclosure, and organize to hold them accountable once they are in office. Write your politicians and tell them to regulate the gaming industry to end micro-transactions. Support appointments to governmental branches like Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission, who is primed to fight Big Tech monopolies. Most of all, fight against the enclosure of unfettered capitalism and reject the harmful idea of constant growth.
We are not bystanders of history, we are actors within it. We have the same ability to affect change as the people who put these terrible systems in place. Only from learning and understanding our past can we hope to change our future, and to stop enclosure before it takes everything and everyone.