Wildcat 88,winter 2010

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What was »common property«?1

Was there a communal property in history that can be seen as a long-lasting moral and antagonistic factor against private property and authority?
Was so-called »common property« a collective or at least cooperative form of production?

Many participants in the discussion around the »commons« try to find an analogy from the past for a different economic model, in order to set a historical continuity of humanity and cooperation against anonymous and destructive market forces. Often these analogies relate to »common property«.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels referred to research by conservative historians, who in the discussion of the final privatisation of agriculture at the end of the 18th century projected written medieval sources into the past to set a »Germanic common property« against »Roman« liberalism. E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class looks at agricultural labourers and the revocation through enclosures of the right to use »common property«, a process which destroyed the »scraped-together subsistence of the poor«. He shows how the village poor appealed to these rights even after they had lost their function in the reality of capitalist agriculture. But he does not look at the way the economy around »common property« actually worked.

To refer to »common property«, as is often done today, isolating one element (the cooperative) from medieval agriculture and reifying it as »common land« or »public forest«, is misleading. The »cooperative« is regarded as the defining moment for the »village community«, suggesting a community opposed to the market or feudal landlords. That comes close to seeing the modern welfare state, public playgrounds or municipal administration as spheres opposed to market and state. Just as there are mechanisms today that grant reproduction via the job market for a part of the workforce, the medieval economy had similar mechanisms. »Common property« must be put into this context.
The word refers to common land, the use of which was organised by the village community. It also refers to certain rights that granted the use of village resources to individual members of the community – to go fishing, hunting, take wood, graze cattle etc. But there were also duties, for example to coordinate agricultural activities that were basically conducted individually (so that compulsory crop rotation had to be accepted along with the right of the poor to collect ears of corn after the harvest).

»Common Property« was not a relic of an old-fashioned communal mode of production, as 19th century myths have proposed; the »real« feudalism of the early middle ages was based on the claim of the authority establishing itself at the time to appropriate part of the product of the individual farmsteads working for their own subsistence – ideally as a trade-off for the provision of seed, breeding animals and military protection. The productive kernels of the feudal economy were manors run by landlords and monasteries using their subjects‘ corvée labour. The subjects not only worked for their own subsistence, but supported the centres with their surplus product.
From the 9th century onwards this economic system entered a crisis, and the land was increasingly taken over by peasants as the landlords‘ own production dissolved. Feudal rent that used to consist of personally rendered goods and services began to be replaced by monetary rent (and where the duty to work still existed, it could be substituted with money to pay workers or the provision of work by people dependent on the peasant). Social differentiation was driven forward by a mixture of force and incentives; the opportunity to produce successfully and self-reliantly was offset by the burden of being obliged to use the watermill for horrendous fees instead of grinding one‘s own flour, for example. »Property« was defined even more strongly than today, through rights of use: the peasants were given land for a certain use by the landlord – if they did not conform, their right to the land went back to the owner.
There was a homogenisation of the various parts of the peasantry; in addition to a »broad peasant middle class«, there appeared a broad stratum of rural population with little or no land: this group was no longer able to live off its land and was forced to do additional wage work.

A monetary economy went along with a change in the mode of production: while the self-reliant peasants of the early middle ages had still been living on extensive cattle and ley farming, cattle farming was abandoned as far as possible and grain production was intensified; iron ploughs and other new appliances could not be produced by the peasants themselves any longer and had to be bought – so they needed capital that had to be earned back. Therefore the peasants were forced to cooperate and to live in villages instead of individual farms, so that cattle grazing could fertilize the fallow ground in the new three-field crop rotation, and to keep the amount of unused agricultural land low.

The reason for the cooperative constitution of agriculture and cattle farming was no communal morality, but the necessity of intensified grain cultivation. In addition to the landowners‘ cooperation, at certain times (harvest and threshing) the work of many people was needed, and they could not be employed by an individual peasant all year through. Rural wage work developed in this context – pure wage work, but mostly mixed forms: serfs who were obliged to do day labour during the season, or paid corvée work. These people‘s survival could not be provided for by an individual peasant. Church charity, seasonal migration etc. contributed to survival, supplemented by the development of a form of communal organisation: »common property rights« for the poor - the right to collect ears of corn after harvest, the right to graze small cattle on the village green etc.
The political institution that had to mediate different interests was the village with its village assembly. It was created as a counterweight to the town. The village assembly coordinated what was produced and had limited rights of jurisdiction. Who had how many votes there was repeatedly contested; generally ownership of land was a prerequisite, but the larger it was the more votes the peasant had. But how should landowners who mainly traded in town be handled, or noblemen who cultivated land far away? Should those who only owned a shed on somebody else‘s piece of land have the right to vote? As far as court records give evidence on conflicts around »common property«, they show that in most cases the economic interests of those involved were central: landlords who increasingly wanted all the wood for themselves to sell it for industrial purposes such as mining and salt production; peasants who sold wood in the cities, or those who acted only as proxies for burghers, allowing the latter to graze their cattle on the »common land«. The village administered the workforce: positively by granting certain rights; negatively by banning people from settling, by enforcing the duty to do seasonal work, by imposing wage limits etc.

Contrary to the widespread belief in an »organic« development, the formation of »common property« was marked by breaks and discontinuities. One cannot even speak of a continuity of settlement, which really happened in large waves instead: the period when the German Reich expanded (clearing of and settlement in regions on the coast and in the central German uplands), settlement in the regions East of the river Elbe in the 13th and early 14th century, resettlement of deserted land in the late middle ages. The process of settlement was neither spontaneous nor self-organised – it was organised by the landlords, who decided on the structure and legal constitution. »An example of a planned connection between town and countryside is the foundation of Leipzig. It was granted town privilege rights when the wildly grown villages brought in their first harvest. There is a causal relation between the foundation of towns and clearings for the foundation of villages […] town and village seem to have been planned as a natural unit.« (Wilhelm Abel quoting H. Quirin).

The great agrarian depression, i.e. the social crisis of the late middle ages, was not a crisis of feudalism, but already one of the market economy; it cannot be explained solely by short-term changes in climate in the first half of the 14th century, nor by the monetary crisis triggered by the inflow of silver and the consequent inflation, as some historians are trying to do. The fact that climate changes could destroy complete harvests and lead to famines accompanied by devastating epidemics was due to the almost exclusively grain-based nutrition, which is very dependent on the weather. The fact that the famines led to a shortage of workers and that rising wages led to a social crisis was caused by the specific mode of producing grain. The fact that the social division of work and the need for resources for non-agrarian production led to struggles around the distribution of these resources (e.g. wood – the landless rural population lost out) had nothing to do with the insufficiency of these people‘s cooperative production, as the thesis of the »tragedy of the ’commons‘« puts it, but with the fact that a certain mode of production had reached internal and external limits.
Due to the agrarian depression grain cultivation was abandoned in some regions in favour of a return to cattle production; but market relations to towns were not interrupted. Cattle production was also determined in large part by commercial interests and was based on a changing diet and prosperity in the towns. A quarter of all villages and land was deserted.

From about 1450 grain prices rose, and there was a new wave of settlements, but with a changed structure. They were denser and land ownership was more concentrated. At that time many »old German scattered villages with the open-field-system and common property« came into existence. The use of common property also changed. The detachment of agricultural land that was formerly »common property« and its division between village assembly members coincided with an expansion of common land for extensive cattle grazing. At the end of the depression, many peasants and landlords were hopelessly indebted – these high debts of the generally well-off peasants in Southern Germany were one of the reasons for the peasant upheaval of 1525. Despite military defeat the rural and urban elite there achieved a relative improvement. East of the river Elbe and in Schleswig-Holstein, only the introduction and implementation of serfdom made it possible to solve the crisis at the peasants‘ expense. Within the new European division of labour, the East turned into a granary, whose products were shipped to all continental ports, while in Southern Germany and the Rhineland there was increasing production of wine and for example dyeing plants for the textile industry.

The final crisis of »common property« came with the introduction of crop rotation, new crops (potatoes), stall feeding of cattle and a further capitalisation of agricultural production in the first half of the 19th century. The appearance of rural Raiffeisen-cooperatives around 1850 can be seen as a development of »common property« in the age of the industrialisation of agriculture.
In all its different forms, »common property« never has been communist, but the cooperative production of market-oriented landowners as well as a rudimentary means of subsistence for fully or semi-proletarianised agricultural workers who were needed for grain cultivation. There was no moral reason in facilitating their survival, it was determined by the need to have sufficient workers in the main season.

In the face of a very much advanced global division of labour, the question today is not how individual subjects cooperate on the market, but one of social property!

[1] There is no English word for the German »Allmende«, the historical phenomenon described in the article. Lacking a more neutral expression, the translation »common property« is not quite satisfactory, as it implies the very mystification criticised in the text. It is justifiable, however, as the etymological meaning is similar.

[go to series on Commons, Common Wealth, Commonism…]

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