Tuesday, June 19, 2012

from the common good to private goods: race, class and property


Given the ambiguity of the concept of Salus - in which it designates both the forces of Health/Liberating Power, as well as the forces of Dominating Power – the preceding should come as no surprise.

What deserves to be noted here is that throughout this period, beginning in the 12th century in England, but occurring mostly between 1750 and 1850, much of the common good,[1] that is, the land that had been historically held in common, was enclosed by numerous Enclosure Acts and parceled off, turned into commodities and sold. In other words, the common good was turned into the private good – and the maxim salus populi was generally invoked purely ideologically, in order to serve the interests of the rising merchant class. In many respects it was their health, rather than the health of people in general – with which their health was, in actuality, in conflict – that was invoked as the supreme law.

While it has come to be regarded as natural, and inevitable, the entire institution of private property is merely an arbitrary historical development - one constructed out of the purely abstract notion that pieces of land can be construed of as commodities. Laws then cement this idea into place.

When people compare present conditions with those of the Feudal Era, they must not neglect to consider the fact that as abject as conditions were for the peasantry, the Feudal peasant had just as much of a ‘right’ to live on the land s/he inhabited as did her overlord - their rights inhering in the very same title. As such, in the Middle Ages there was no homelessness as we understand it modernly. It was only once land was commodified and subjected to the demands of the market that the practice of renting properties for habitation became widespread. Before this time, people maintained a subsistence economy, only going to market to trade their surplus, or to acquire luxury items. The ‘compulsion’ of going to market (the compulsion of Ananke) was a result of this great dispossession of what had always been held in common. As Marx writes, “By the nineteenth century, the very memory of the connection between the agricultural laborer and community property has, of course, vanished. To say nothing of more recent times.”[2]

As George Orwell writes apropos the distinction between public and private property: "Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force… In the case of the enclosure of the common lands… the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”[3]

“The Parliamentary form of the robbery is that of ‘Bills for Inclosure of Commons’. In other words decrees by which the landowners grant themselves the people’s land as private property.”[4]

As the commons was enclosed, deforming the public good into a private good, we see here at work the invocation of Salus by the courts; but it is the invocation of that form of salus that Machiavelli refers to, that is in opposition to the conditions for health. As such, it is a type of Dis-ease. This is not an un-literal description of the conditions that befell the former possessors of the commons.

“It is no uncommon thing for four or five wealthy graziers to engross a large enclosed lordship which was before in the hands of twenty of thirty farmers, and as many smaller tenants and proprietors. All these are hereby thrown out of their living with their families and many other families who were chiefly employed an supported by them.”[5]

Deprived of their former resources, many could only offset starvation by theft. Herein lies the origin of the term villain as a designation for a criminal. Until this time, the term villein and villeiny referred to a peasant, and the peasantry. That these became synonymous with, respectively, criminals and criminality is illustrative of the extent to which the peasantry was uprooted by the enclosures of and alienation from their land.

Expelled from their ancestral homes, this freshly created class of poor people were treated with extreme harshness. From the reign of Henry VIII and well into the eighteenth century, any person caught begging would be deemed a vagabond and sentenced to six months imprisonment. A second violation received a two-year prison sentence. A third violation earned its perpetrator a sentence of death.[6] Theft, as well, was punished with death, and to such an extent that in the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) alone “72,000 great and petty thieves were put to death.”[7] Prison and poorhouse populations exploded. Multitudes were sent off to the colonies. Resistance to this Disease was met with swift and violent punishment.

As Foucault writes, “it is perfectly obvious that from the end of the Middle Ages up until the eighteenth century, all the laws against beggars and vagabonds and the idle, all the police organizations designed to catch them, forced them – and this was of course their role – to accept… the conditions imposed on them, which were extremely bad. If they rejected these conditions, if they went away, if they took to begging or ‘to doing nothing’, then it was prison and often forced labor.”[8]

During this period of history the people subjugated to this Dominating Power were divided into three main groups. The first was put to work in the service of this new economy directly. Another group, though not a member of the Power group, policed their neighbors in the service of the Power group,[9] thereby serving the new economy indirectly. The third group was comprised of undesirables: criminals, the insane, the sick, beggars, vagabonds, etc. To this end, the concept of Salus as justification for Dominating Power was also directed. Those that resisted the new arrangement were branded (often literally) as criminals. And it would not be long before a pseudo-science sought to explain this criminality - deflecting peoples' attention from the actual causes of these conditions of disease.[10]  To be sure, in the 19th century in French studies of the social origins of disease, the poor were identified as “a race apart,” a barbarian, uncivilized multitude.[11]

One of the founding studies of what came to be known as Criminal Anthropology, the Swiss deacon Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente zur Bef√∂rderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), presented arguments linking physical characteristics to crime at the very same time that the pseudo-scientific concept of Race was being constructed, further allowing those in Power to maintain their position of dominance. That is to say, salus/power’s ascendancy during this period is intertwined with salus/health’s subordination.

When one considers the history of the deformation of the ‘common good’ into the ‘private good’, which rapidly accelerated with mechanized forms of production during the Industrial Revolution, one is confronted by not only the enclosures and the privatization of one major type of commons, land (and its products), one recognizes that privatization would also extend to include even the human person. For what was the slave if not a formerly free entity that was deformed into a ‘good’, that is, a piece of property, or the ‘private good’? Etymologically similar to the word ‘cattle’, which itself derives from the middle Latin capitale, a chattel is a piece of property, and it was this status as property that distinguished 18th and 19th century chattel slavery, from earlier, as well as subsequent, forms of the practice.

It is important to bear in mind that the first African slaves to arrive in North America in 1619 were not regarded nor treated as chattels. In the early years of the North American colonies the status of slave did not demarcate a permanent condition of bondage, nor was it based on the newly developed concept of “race.” Rather, it was used interchangeably with the term ‘indentured servant.’ Differentiated from the European indentured servants, if at all, along on the lines of their status as Christians, the African indentured servants and the European servants, dispossessed of their ancestral lands, for the most part found themselves in the New World in similar straits. To be sure, in 1676 black and white indentured servants fought together against the ruling elites in Bacon’s Rebellion. It was in large part due to this threat of revolution by a united underclass that the ruling elites adopted divisive racist policies.[12]

While physical differences were recognized, these were not tremendously important in the early years of the 17th century. One’s status as a Christian was a far more important determinate of one’s opportunities. By the end of the 18th century, however, when the slave trade was at its apex, the new system based on race was firmly entrenched and powerfully divided the masses of people in the newly formed United States. Now encoded in the law, ‘race’ – as a subspecies of dominating power – successfully set at odds the great majority of people to toil all their lives for practically the sole benefit of an elite minority of wealthy landowners, industrialists and bankers.

This category of race is by no means natural. To be sure, when Carolus Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae, the “founding document of taxonomy,” in 1758, for example, it contained no notion of racial superiority. Human beings were divided into four groups, based on geography. By the time his student, J.F. Blumenbach prepared the third edition of his own work, his De Generis Humane Varietate Nativa in 1795, however, he had made one significant alteration of his mentor’s system.

“By moving from the Linnaean four-race system to his own five-race scheme, Blumenbach radically changed the geometry of human order from a geographically based model without explicit ranking to a hierarchy of worth, oddly based upon perceived beauty.”[13]

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the concrete supports of health, the conditions for health, as imperfect as they were, were being dismantled and privatized.[14] During the period leading up to the Glorious Revolution, and through the French Revolution, the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto was cited repeatedly in support of this aim. While it invoked the public health and the public good as synonyms for freedom and as the rationale for political freedom, there was wrapped within this a narrowly economic notion of salus populi. That is, the liberatory form of health, health as something supportive of freedom, came into opposition with an economic understanding of health – the health of the owners’ resources: the population, the worker, and the slave. Among other things, health was, from the point of view of the owners of capital, conceived of as part of an investment, as a production cost, while the notion of ‘population,’ created at this time, came to designate an economic resource that is in need of maintenance and regulation.[15] Health in this sense is merely instrumental to the economic advancement of the business class.

People were regarded as tools of the owners of the economic system. As such, it is not health at all, but its mere semblance that was under consideration. The converse of this understanding of population as a tool of the economy is the notion that the economy is a tool of its people. In the former sense, where health is equivalent to dominating power, health is but a justification for a type of order. In the latter, where health is equivalent to liberating power, health is regarded as an end in itself, to which economics must be subjugated.

The Enlightenment view of health, however, was not entirely black and white. While economic forces were dominant, and imperialistic, real improvements were achieved in sanitation and public health in general and significant advances were made in the field of science. Alongside the economic changes fueling, among other things, the slave trade, there was a genuine Enlightenment concern with what came to be known at the time as ‘civilization.’ However, while, for example, Cesare Beccaria, and Thomas Jefferson, among others, took an interest in reforming the colonial era’s legal codes, eschewing the harsher forms of punishment such as the cutting off of ears, and ending the death penalty for all but murder,[16] subtending this seemingly sincere desire for reform lay the fact that the disciplinary system was only able to be reformed because it was in the nascent state’s interest to reform it. It made greater economic sense to lock people up in penitentiaries and to extract their labor from them than to spend energy mutilating them, destroying this free source of labor power.

So, while potentially liberatory, the advances in science and public health that were implemented were done so in a generally one-sided, dominating manner, only blending further the dual meaning of Salus (health and power/ the good and the necessary/the good and utility). In the 19th century in the United States, for example, the maxim salus populi appealed to the primacy of the public health in order to remove slaughterhouses, tanneries and other offensive businesses and practices from city centers, among other things. And these removals, in the name of the health of the people, were in fact accomplished. Yet, at the same time that this notion of the health of the people is apparently exerting its authority, there is also widespread, institutional slavery. That these could exist side by side does not reflect any inconsistency. On the contrary, it is consistent with the owners’ notion of health – their health and the health of an economy that is designed to further aggrandize their health. Aside from a few people outside the ‘mainstream,’ even the term society had nothing to do with the universal humankind of the stoics, but meant a particular type of society, benefiting only a thin slice of the “populi” – that is, not the “populi” at all.


[1]  The commons, pasturing land that was held in common for centuries, was made alienable beginning in England in the Middle Ages…
[2]  Karl Marx, Capital, p. 889
[3]  George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August, 1944.
[4]  Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 885
[5]  Rev. Addington, Inquiry into the Reasons for or against Inclosing Open Fields, London, 1772, pp. 37-43 passim.
[6]  Karl Marx, Capital, p. 896-901.
[7]  William Harrison, Description of England, Ch. 11, Of Sundry Kinds of Punishments Appointed for Malefactors, p. 193.
[8]  Michel Foucault, On Popular Justice, Power/Knowledge, p. 15-16.
[9]  Ibid.
[10]  In his Utopia (1516), Sir Thomas More attributes the rise in crime to the enclosure of common lands: “…the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.”
[11]  Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization and the State, p. 69
[12]  Cooper, William J, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Univ of South Carolina Press, 2001, p. 9.
[13]  Stephen Jay Gould, The Geometer of Race, p. 2.
[14]  Michel Foucault, The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century, p. 169.
[15]  Ibid.
[16]  Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 193.

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