Diggers, Levellers and Agrarian Capitalism: an excerpt

The development of agrarian capitalism therefore entails the reconfiguration of class relations in the English countryside. As we have seen, the development of agrarian capitalism gave rise to the differentiation of the peasantry out of which emerged a class of capitalist tenant-farmers and a class of semi-proletarianized cottagers, smallholders and property-less wage-laborers. Atop this class structure sits the “improving” landlord in place of the feudal landlord who based his powers of exploitation upon extra-economic forms of surplus extraction. Together, each class constitutes the famous “trinity formula” of landlord, capitalist tenant-farmer and rural wage-laborer upon which Marx placed so much significance for the development of agrarian capitalism. What is significant about this specific form of class structure is the way in which the relationships between each class are reconfigured to express different forms of social power or disempowerment. Under capitalism, the older feudal forms of surplus extraction and appropriation, as well as the social functions of production and distribution are “privatized” in the sense that all of these relations of power lose their formally political character. The moment of political domination becomes detached from the moment of economic appropriation, resulting in the formal separation of the political and the economic “spheres” of social life.

The Diggers on St. George Hill
In capitalism, as we have seen, the extra-economic forms of surplus extraction that are bound to politically constituted forms of private property are dissolved and replaced by purely economic forms of surplus extraction. What this means is that the appropriation of surplus labor occurs in the “economic” sphere by purely “economic” means, as opposed to the extra-economic forms of surplus extraction that occur under politically constituted forms of private property characteristic of pre-capitalist societies; the landlord no longer appropriates the surplus produce of the direct producers through the use of his political rights as a lord; for example, in the form of imposing feudal exactions such as entry fines, merchet, forced labor, etc. The capitalist does not appropriate the surplus labor of the worker by virtue his political power, as the feudal lord did by means of his political and juridical rights of lordship, but rather by virtue of the fact that he has purchased the labor power of the worker for a given period of time. This can happen because the direct producer and the appropriator of surplus labor are separated from the non-market access to the means of their own subsistence. Appropriation now occurs through the imposition of competitive rents through the form of the commercial lease. The significance of this is that “the social allocation of resources and labor does not, on the whole, take place by means of political direction, communal deliberation, hereditary duty, custom or religious obligation, but rather through the mechanisms of commodity exchange.” On the one hand, therefore, the worker is no longer tied to the land, as is the peasantry; and on the other hand, the capitalist possesses no political powers of social exploitation, as did the feudal lord. Exploitation, therefore, does not occur through direct forms of political coercion, but rather, through the compulsive mediations of the market:
“The differentiation of the economic sphere in capitalism, then, can be summed up like this: the social functions of production and distribution, surplus extraction and appropriation, and the allocation of social labour are, so to speak, privatized and they are achieved by non-authoritative, non-political means. In other words, the social allocation of resources and labour does not, on the whole, take place by means of political direction, communal deliberation, hereditary duty, custom, or religious obligation, but rather through the mechanisms of commodity exchange. The powers of surplus appropriation and exploitation do not rest directly on relations of juridical or political dependence but are based on a contractual relation between “free” producers—juridically free and free from the means of production—and an appropriator who has absolute private property in the means of production.” 
This separation of political forms of extra-economic surplus extraction from purely economic forms of surplus extraction has a significant impact on the social basis of power of the landed classes (which, as we will see, transforms their relationship to the state) and alters the nature of conflict and struggle between the lords of manors and the direct producers—in this case, small peasants undergoing a process of proletarianization. The social power of the landlord is now predicated upon his ability to compel tenant farmers to compete with one another through the form of competitive rents. Such compulsion, due to the market dependence of tenant-farmers, represents an imperative to increase agricultural productivity. The logic is simple: in a market of competitive leases, tenant farmers are compelled to increase their productivity in order to meet the demands of rent increases or face the prospects of eviction from the leasehold. The corollary of this form of market dependence and productive imperative is that both the tenant-farmer and the landlord develop an interest in the “improvement” (i.e., productive development) of agricultural practices. Thus, a new social dynamic of agricultural improvement emerges under the social relations of agrarian capitalism:
“This unique system of market dependence entails specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit maximisation. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can and must constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form. It can and must constantly accumulate, constantly search out new markets, constantly impose its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on all human beings and the natural environment.”
Thus, capitalist tenant-farmers exist in a relationship of competition with each other over the very inputs that they need to reproduce themselves as individuals and as a class. Given the “free” nature of labor, the only way to appropriate a greater surplus is to intensify labor productivity by increasing control over the labor process and increase the concentration of estates into fewer hands.
Agrarian capitalism is therefore characterized by a new constellation of class relations, in which landlords and direct producers are both subjected to the imperatives of the market. This new constellation of class relations brings with it new forms of social power and domination, as well as a new social dynamic of improvement and the expansion of capitalist-social property relations:
“Agrarian capitalism involved the unique triad of economic agents—landlords, “capitalist” tenant-farmers, and rural wage labourers—familiar to any reader of Adam Smith. These agents operated in relations to one another according to the “rules” of a new economic logic, which, over time, rendered the various agents increasingly dependent upon markets in order to maintain and reproduce their position in the economy. This increasing market-dependence eventually drew the whole of the production process into the circuit of market exchange, thus commodifying all the factors of production. The fact that this triad is only evidenced in England strongly suggests the uniqueness of agrarian capitalism as a social system distinct from pre-capitalist agrarian, or later industrial capitalist, social logics.” 
The imperative to increase agricultural productivity and the increasing proletarianization of the poorer segments of the peasantry provides the capitalist tenant-farmer and the lord of the manor with the opportunity to exploit wage-labor for the purposes of increased productivity. Given the deterioration and elimination of customary regulations on production and the dominance of absolute rights in property through the common law, tenant-farmers and lords of manors enjoy a new form of market power over wage-labor. Once dispossessed, the only means of subsistence available to the laborer is his or her capacity to sell her labor power to a buyer. The ability to purchase the labor power of another individual gives the buyer control over how that labor is organized. This assumes the form of the intensity of work, the conditions under which that labor is performed, as well as the power to hire and fire; all actions freed from customary regulation. Thus, the old overt coercions of labor control now begin to assume a different form. Rather than assume a form that is either external to the process of production itself, or that is explicitly political in form, the control of labor now assumes the form of total control, within the process of production itself, over wage-laborers who are compelled, by the fact that they have been separated from their non-market access to the means of their own subsistence, to sell their labor power for a wage. In this way, it can be said that “in no other system has social production answered to immediately and universally to the demands of the exploiter.” Far from representing a sphere of opportunity, then, the emergence of the capitalist market represents a new form of coercion; and far from representing a fully capitalist or “possessive” market society, agrarian capitalism merely represents a stage of profound social transformation in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
The separation of the political and the economic under agrarian capitalism also had a significant impact on the relationship between the aristocracy and the Crown. The result of this changing relationship was a transformation of the role of the state. Under capitalism, the political and economic “spheres” of social life are differentiated to the extent that class power becomes something distinct—but not separate—from political and state power. In this sense, then, class power of surplus extraction is said to be differentiated from state power in new ways, which makes capitalism qualitatively different from the pre-capitalist societies that preceded it. This differentiation between the political and the economic, between class power and state power, does not mean, however, that the state is not necessary for the maintenance of capitalism. Indeed, this formal separation of political power from economic exploitation conceals a real inseparability between politics and economics. Even under capitalism, the state is intimately involved in ensuring the existence of these social forms of power and exploitation—through the law, through property relations, etc. The English state became particularly instrumental in securing the creation of a labor market in the early modern period through the extension of enclosure, the establishment of capital crimes against property in order to prevent laborers from finding non-market alternatives to subsistence, and through the transformation of the Poor Laws in order to instill greater market discipline in the emerging workforce. There is, therefore, some relationship between the state and the social dynamic that is created by the antagonistic forms of exploitation that exists between classes even in capitalist society, to the extent that the state may “become directly implicated as the object of struggle between the classes.” The significance here is that because the relationship between class power and state power changes under capitalism—through the differentiation of the “economic” and the “political”—the nature of the state, and therefore the conflicts surrounding the state, assume a different form.
What is significant about the separation of the political and the economic under capitalism and its impact on the role of the state is that, on the one hand, the political, legal and military powers and privileges that are dissolved by capitalist social-property relations are assumed by an increasingly public state apparatus; on the other hand, the powers of surplus appropriation at the hands of a class of private individuals are strengthened and consolidated at the point of production through the power to intensify the productive capacity of labor. In this sense,
“The political sphere in capitalism has a special character because the coercive power supporting capitalist exploitation is not wielded directly by the appropriator and is not based on the producer’s political or juridical subordination to an appropriating master. But a coercive power and a structure of domination remain essential, even if the ostensible freedom and equality of the exchange between capital and labour mean that the “moment” of coercion is separate from the “moment” of appropriation. Absolute private property, the contractual relation that binds producer to appropriator, the process of commodity exchange—all these require the legal forms, the coercive apparatus, the policing functions of the state. Historically, too the state has been essential to the process of expropriation that is the basis of capitalism. In all these sense, despite their differentiation, the economic sphere rests firmly on the political.”
An example of this changing nature of the state, and the particular forms of social and political conflict that emerge as a result, can be seen in early modern England. In England, the emergence of agrarian capitalism fundamentally changed the nature of the landed aristocracy and the way they related, socially and politically, to the English Crown. The new relations of power possessed by lords in the form of absolute property rights and the economic powers of surplus extraction did not assume the form of privileged juridical status or the capacity to utilize armed force as it did under feudalism. Rather, as we have seen above, the ability to appropriate the surplus produce of the laboring classes assumed a purely “economic” form, predicated upon the ability to separate the rural producer from the direct non-market access to his or her means of subsistence by mediating it through the market. Thus, the social basis of the power of the English landed classes—both landlord and tenant farmers—took on a specific form that distinguished it from older feudal forms of social power and fundamentally changed the relationship between the aristocracy and the Crown. In effect, the relationship of feudal dependence between the landed aristocracy and the Crown disintegrated. The English aristocracy ceased to rely for their survival on the exercise of extra-economic forms of surplus extraction, such as the direct use of force over the peasantry (as in France), and ceded these powers to an increasingly unified English state in return for the protection of a system of property relations in which landlords relied upon rents accrued from market-dependent commercial tenants. In effect, the reliance on economic forms of income (competitive rents) severed the dependent relationship between the landed classes and the Crown. No longer did the landed classes need to rely on the distribution of political offices and privileges at the hands of the Crown for their source of income. Thus, the English landed classes did not compete with each other for state offices, seeking a “piece” of the state in terms of politically constituted property. Rather than a state that would give them access to private property, what the landed classes needed was a state that protected existing private property rights, and this precluded the development of a continental form of royal absolutism. In relation to its European counterparts, the English state “represented the most unified and solidified institutional system in Western Europe at this date.”
The severing of this dependent relationship between the landed classes and the Crown also had a significant impact on the ability of the Crown to reproduce itself in traditional ways, for the basis of its social power rested in the creation of a patrimonial following—that is, a group of nobles and courtiers dependent upon the King for political privileges essential for their survival. The movement towards landlord dependence on competitive rents rather than politically constituted property (in the form of the coercive extraction of customary and fixed rents among other extra-economic forms of surplus extraction) deprived the Crown of its traditional social basis of political power. The changing nature of the relationship between the aristocracy and the Crown would have its impact on conflicts over the nature of the state itself. Thus, the potential for conflict between the landed classes and the Crown over issues of property increased in the early modern period and assumed the political form of constitutional disputes over prerogative and the nature of the “ancient constitution.” On the one hand, therefore, we have a landed aristocracy that is now dependent upon economically competitive rents for its economic survival as opposed to access to politically constituted forms of private property. On the other hand, we have an English monarchy that is head of an increasingly centralized state, characterized by a universal legal jurisdiction and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, yet at the same time, is losing its access to independent forms of wealth for its economic survival. What exists, therefore, is a new relationship of interdependence: the landed aristocracy is dependent upon the powers of the Crown to maintain the sanctity of private property from those who would challenge it; and the Crown is dependent upon the landed aristocracy’s consent—through parliament—to forms of taxation that would enable it to survive. Constitutionalism is therefore bound up with the need to institutionalize capitalist social property relations, and the specific “problematic” of English constitutionalist thought pertains to the need to keep the state out of the private sphere of capitalist property relations.
The development of capitalist social property relations also transformed the nature of the conflict between the direct producers and the lords of manors. Modes and discourses of resistance underwent a significant transformation from the late medieval period to the early modern period, as peasants and wage-laborers attempted to resist the new forms of exploitation that were emerging in the countryside. In the late medieval period, given the nature of feudal lordship, peasant resistance took the form of either the tax revolt, the rent strike, or, something peculiar to England, the contestation of the nature of peasant status. Notions of “freedom” were derived from these conflicts over the nature of free peasant status. However, as the powers of lordly appropriation became de-politicized, that is, as they began to be shorn of their extra-economic “embellishments,” and assume more economic forms, the nature of peasant struggles and the discourse of resistance by peasants and laborers alike, began to change. From tax revolts and rent strikes we begin to see novel forms of resistance: enclosure riots aimed at reclaiming customary rights and access to the “commons” and, as a semi-proletarianized workforce assumed a more numerous and permanent presence in England, the development of programs—particularly that of the Diggers—to withdraw wage-labor and freely cultivate the wastes and commons. Similarly, the discourse of tyranny are no longer limited to the “political” sphere of arbitrary state and/or lordly power but redefined to describe the despotism of the “economic” under agrarian capitalism, and the new forms of control over the labor of the poor.
Yet, the separation of the economic from the political and the dissolution of extra-economic forms of surplus extraction based on lordly status also opened up possibilities for democratization. As the state became increasingly differentiated from the private powers of surplus extraction, space opened up in the political sphere for experimentation in practical and discursive forms of democracy. Since differential political status was no longer an important aspect of class exploitation, the traditional forms of status based hierarchy that precluded democratic politics began to weaken. Given that the state was no longer viewed as a form of private property—an institution that was directly implicated in the appropriation of the surplus labor of peasants and laborers—and given that a monopoly over political and legal jurisdiction was no longer required to secure the surplus labor of the laboring classes, the potential emerged for radical movements to democratize political life in England. In it is this context that groups and movements like the Levellers—with their ties to the “middling sort of people” and the “London mob”—emerged to challenge the existing distribution of landed property and political power. The development of agrarian capitalism was therefore a contradictory process that brought with it new forms of social power and exploitation, on the one hand, and opened up new avenues of radical politics on the other. It therefore becomes necessary for us to have an understanding of the nature of agrarian capitalism if we are to have a historical understanding of the different forms of lower class radicalism that emerge in early modern England for it is within this context that radical political thought begins to emerge.
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