Fire in a Box

Britain’s protest movements have emerged in response to the enclosure of the land, the mind and political power. They are seeking to recover the freedom all of us have lost

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd June 1994.

Long ago, before we bought our entertainment, people sat around the fire and told each other stories. The listeners stared not at the speaker but into the flames. There they could picture the people and the places the story-teller brought to mind.

Everyone could tell a story: in oral cultures today it remains a universal art. Even those who listened had an active role, as they would be called upon to respond at a certain point of a ritualized tale.

Today we sit around a boxed fire, staring into the flickering light, and listen to the stories of strangers. We are spared not only the trouble of making the fire and telling the story, but also the effort of imagining the people and the places it describes, for the flames have been resolved into unequivocal images. What we did for ourselves is now done for us by outsiders. We have ceased to be participants and are now merely onlookers.

The progression from sitting around a fire to sitting in front of the television is best described as enclosure. Resources in which we all had a stake – in this case fire and imagination – have been successfully annexed, or enclosed, by a much smaller group of people. The rest of us – those who are not programme makers or millionaires – are kept out. We can buy the products but, as individuals, can do little to influence the way they are produced. It is this process that propels our environmental crisis.

“Enclosure” was first used to describe the seizure of land. Before the Norman Conquest, most of the land in Britain belonged not to individuals but to communities. Everyone in the community had a stake in its management, and an interest in preventing its over-exploitation by the other members. Because the people depended on this land alone, they required a great diversity of habitats – woodland, scrub, marsh, pasture and arable fields – to keep themselves alive.

The gradual dispossession of commoners by landlords that began before the Normans accelerated until, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the parliamentary enclosures brought it near to completion. Today 75 per cent of the land in Britain is owned by one per cent of the population.

The same enclosure is taking place, on a much shorter timescale, in north-eastern Brazil today. The changes taking place there show how the concentration of land in Britain led to the replacement of a great diversity of habitats with wheat prairies and uniform pastures.

For the last couple of centuries the region’s peasant communities have treated the land gently. They protect their environment not because they are unlike other human beings, but because they restrain each other from over-exploiting their common resources. They intend to pass the land on to their descendants, so anyone threatening its long-term viability threatens their own bloodline.

When landlords employ hired gunmen to dispossess the peasants, the relationship between the land and its beneficiaries changes. The land becomes a commodity, worth only as much as it will yield in the few years before it is sold. The forests are cleared, the streams dry up and the entire property is turned into a cattle ranch or a soya farm. If this is unsustainable, it is not the landlord’s problem, but that of the man who buys it from him.

With this change in ownership comes a complete loss of accountability to the community. The Brazilian landlords’ justification – it’s my land and I can do what I want with it – is echoed by landowners all over the world. Not only is the landowner above the community’s law, but the local people now have no incentive to restrain him: the land no longer has anything to do with them. If, as has recently been happening all over Europe, the market decrees that the owner should grub up his water meadows or olive groves and replace them with wheat fields, he will do so, whatever local people say: and they will probably say very little.

The dispossessed commoners end up in the cities, where they lose their understanding of the land. They also lose their self-sufficiency. In Britain – where 92 per cent of people now live in towns – the dispossessed became dependent for their raw materials on colonization and international trade, exerting massive environmental destruction abroad.

Three processes have taken place here, all of which are disastrous for the environment. Long-term planning has given way to short-termism; there has been a loss of accountability; and ordinary people have been so far removed from the places in which their resources are found, processed and disposed of that they can forget the environmental effects of the decisions they make. The same problems attend the enclosure of almost any asset, but never more urgently than in the case of political power.

Among peoples such as the Turkana of Kenya or the Dani of Irian Jaya, the only decisions that affect a community are those it makes itself. Elders representing almost every family gather, in some cases daily, discuss the needs of the community and decide how they should best be met. A man is only as good as his oratory: no one can impose his will on others. The decisions they make take into account not only the interests of all their families but also the survival of their descendants.

The enclosure of this sort of power in Britain began even before the enclosure of land, as a few members of the community, or well-armed people from other communities, forced others to conform to their will. Power was consolidated until its brokers achieved the definitive enclosure: the nine-inch girdle of a crown. Today, confined within the walls of Westminster, it is scarcely more accessible to ordinary people.

The enclosure of power means that the community MPs are said to represent is too large for the interests of all its members to be taken into account. Being strangers to most of the electorate, ministers are not subject to its constant influence and control. For this reason they will make decisions which reflect their own short-term interests, rather than the interests of the unborn. Exerting power at such a distance, they can forget or deny the consequences of their actions.

So, whatever their effects upon future generations, roads will be built and nuclear power stations commissioned, if the resulting industrial patronage helps MPs to remain in power. Raw sewage turns up on the beach, acid rain descends on Sweden, but the levers of power are so long that the government can disclaim responsibility. The electorate may be outraged by the decision to commission THORP, but cannot exert its influence on a daily basis, so the government need only wait, then sooth away the vestiges of memory with a tax hand-out.

Political enclosure is reinforced by the enclosure of tastes and interests. While a community’s traditional stories tend to refer to its immediate surroundings, television refocusses our interest onto worlds controlled by other people, over whom we have little influence. Thus speculation over a political party’s leadership or the relative merits of two brands of Cola can come to seem more important than the quality of the air we breathe when we step outside our front door.

By enclosing taste, the television imposes an enormous burden on the environment: if everyone wants beefburgers, then beef cattle will be raised all over the world, whatever habitats have to be destroyed to make way for them. Where, by contrast, tastes remain local and traditional, people tend to grow and produce what the environment has proven it can best sustain.

It is often hard to see what is happening, let alone fight it, as we are, of course, all participants in our own enclosure. But ever since enclosure began, there have been attempts to usurp it. The various peasants’ revolts, the Diggers’ and Levellers’ movements, were all responses to the enclosure not only of land, but also of power and culture. So were the intifada and the anti-apartheid movement. I have come to believe that, in our own restrained way, the British have just embarked on another such revolt.

It was, ironically, Michael Portillo who put his finger on our loss of faith in the political process. He rightly pointed out that people are now turning to pressure groups instead of parliament for political change. The reasons are hardly mysterious. Having held onto power for so long, having further enclosed power by reducing the scope of local authorities, the government has so successfully alienated ordinary people from the political process that it has finally alienated itself from ordinary people. Writing to your MP is now considered a joke.

Even in the most genteel parts of Britain, something impressive has begun. While many have simply thrown up their hands and turned their backs on the political process, hitherto passive people of every description are now organizing to reclaim the political initiative.

Significantly, the protests have so far crystallized around the road building programme. This is classical enclosure: new roads take up communal space and drive people out of the surrounding spaces, as noise and pollution make them unbearable. Like the landlords’ fences in Brazil they are a barrier whose transgression may result in immediate death. Once people come out of the woodwork to complain about the road, their other grievances against enclosure immediately begin to surface: anti-roads protestors complain about the disappearance of local shops, their children’s failure to leave the house, or the general unresponsiveness of their MP.

Among them, of course, are the scruffy-looking people so reviled by the government. A few years ago groups such as the Dongas Tribe could have been dismissed as peripheral, but not today. Young people all over the country have picked up elements of their beliefs and their behaviour.

Their movement is attractive because, as well as fighting enclosure, they are simultaneously trying to release themselves from it. Instead of getting their stories or their music out of boxes – the TV or the cassette case – they sit around the fire creating their own.

Insofar as they are able, they make their own decisions, ignoring or avoiding the impositions of government. Even their clothes represent an escape from enclosure, for grunge is the flag of defiance. Perhaps most significantly, they have broken out of the enclosure of the psyche. In their camps you can dance, skip, howl like an animal or cry like a baby, and no one will recommend you for psychotherapy.

The government appreciates the importance of this movement. It has drafted new laws prohibiting its chosen forms of dissent. The Criminal Justice Bill is strikingly similar in intent to the old Riot Act, drafted to control the angry people resisting earlier enclosures.

The Dongas and people like them represent to many young people the freedom we have lost, and exert, as a result, an enormous romantic appeal. We, the social incasts, living under the lock and key of enclosure, are looking to the social outcasts to lead us from our prisons. The fire is out of the box. It will take more than the Criminal Justice Bill to force it back in.