On Enclosure and Its New Frontiers
Is There a Limit to What Can Be Privatised?
I have a “big picture” brain. I’m unsatisfied with superficial explanations of current events and political trends, and only understand them once I’ve placed them in the context of deeper historic trajectories, social patterns and human drives. Without these explanations, I remain unsatisfied and questioning (and can’t be sold on false solutions either).
Transgenderism is one contemporary political trend that requires big picture thinking to comprehend—because there are no casual explanations for why, in less than a decade, people all over the world have started to accept a set of bizarre and contradictory ideas: that sex is a spectrum, that sex can be changed, and/or that sex is not real at all, only gender identity is—all to justify the political mantra, “transwomen are women.” This mantra is simply an assertion of male privilege, that men should be able to claim female identity if they want to, without needing sound justification. How did it spread so fast?
I have just finished writing a series of books called the Brief, Complete Herstory (2021) which offers a continuous narrative of history from the Big Bang to neoliberalism. It discusses pre-patriarchal cultures around the world, and the creation of patriarchy, church and state, capitalism, and neoliberalism. Only the last volume mentions transgenderism, but writing these books has helped me put the transgender trend, among others, in context.
One thing that is clear to me is that the idea that men can become women is not new—it began when patriarchal religions insisted that God, the creator of life, is male. Before this, if “god” had a sex, it was commonly female: she who birthed the world. The idea of god as male-produced all sorts of weird stories and myths to capture the imagination: like the one about Aphrodite being born out of Zeus’ head, and Jesus being born after an “immaculate conception” involving a male sky god and Mary, a sexless virgin (trans activists might call her an “incubator”).
Another thing that strikes me, taking this long view of history, is a succession of waves of “enclosure” or colonisation that cause enough social and economic fallout to prepare the ground for the next, more intimate, “enclosure.” The pattern begins earlier, but if we start with the enclosure movement of the 15th and 16th centuries, also called the “privatisation of the commons,” it is easy to place transgenderism in the context of a historic trajectory. I’ve discussed this before, in a talk on YouTube, but here I want to cast a wider net.
The 16th century saw the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern capitalism while the Tudors reigned in England. The Tudors used the Reformation as a way of breaking from the Catholic church in order to act without, or against, the pope’s approval. After breaking from Rome, they seized church property, privatised the commons, and colonised Ireland. For centuries, peasants had used common lands to graze milk cows and gather water, edible and medicinal plants, and wood for construction and making fires.
The simultaneous confiscation of the commons and church property cast many people into poverty because the lands were a source of sustenance and, under feudalism, it was the church that had given aid and shelter to the poor. Women were especially affected by the double whammy of enclosure and lack of poverty alleviation. In her biography My Own Story, British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst traces her feminist awakening to witnessing women in the homeless shelters and workhouses that queen Elizabeth I eventually established to address the crisis.
Looking back, we can see that the enclosure movement provided the preconditions for Britain’s industrialisation. When common lands were privatised, they largely became lands for grazing sheep used for wool in the textile industry, the biggest industry of the early industrial revolution; and it created a class of people desperate enough to work up to 18 hours a day for a pittance in dismal conditions, in the factories or “satanic mills,” as the poet William Blake called them. Most textile workers were women. Urbanisation also took place in tandem with the rise of prostitution, with many women forced to choose between that, factory work or domesticity.
In her book, Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women(2018), Silvia Federici connects the 16th- and 17th-century witch hunts in England with the rise of capitalism and the privatisation of the commons. She writes that “women were the most likely to be victimised” by enclosure, pauperisation, and the “disintegration of communal forms of agriculture that had prevailed in feudal Europe,” because they were “the most disempowered by these changes, especially older women, who often rebelled against their impoverishment and social exclusion.” She notes that some women participated in protests, pulling up fences enclosing the commons, and explains:
[W]omen were charged with witchcraft because the restructuring of rural Europe at the dawn of capitalism destroyed the means of livelihood and the basis of their social power, leaving them with no resort but dependence on the charity of the better off, at a time when communal bonds were disintegrating, a new morality was taking hold that criminalised begging and looked down upon charity.
The premise of Federici’s book is that this very same correlation between privatisation and “witch” hunting can be seen with neoliberal privatisation. She shows how witch hunts have escalated dramatically following the neoliberalisation (or “re-colonisation”) of the African continent and the privatisation of lands there, for instance in Tanzania, where more than 5,000 women per year are murdered as witches and in the Central African Republic, where “prisons are full of accused witches.” In Indian tribal lands, “where large scale processes of land privatisation are underway,” witch hunts are also increasing, as they are in Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Saudi Arabia. Describing the way witch-hunting frames the female sex, Federici argues that, “we have to think of the enclosures as a broader phenomenon than simply the fencing off of land. We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people, and nature.”
Federici considers her analysis of the correlation between privatisation and witch-hunting to be ongoing, a work in progress—but I think her project is hamstrung. Her conclusions will remain sorely limited as long as she maintains the position that there is such a thing as a “sex worker” and a “transwoman,” because these ideas are central to the neoliberal “enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people, and nature” today. The term “sex worker” was coined by the global sex trade lobby on the back of women’s poverty and the normalisation of prostitution under neoliberalism.
In his book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (2010), human trafficking expert Siddharth Kara shows that neoliberalisation leaves indigenous women especially vulnerable. He unveils a pattern of neoliberal government reform followed by land confiscation, leading to domestic poverty, and then prostitution in Asia, Europe and the United States. His book covers the period of the 1980s and 90s when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were handing out “structural adjustment packages” all over the world. These are financial loans conditional on land and infrastructure privatisation, cutbacks to health and welfare spending, and removal of legislation protecting workers and obstructing profit.
In The Shock Doctrine(2007), Naomi Klein argues that this neoliberalisation requires disaster to disorient people and render them sufficiently immobilised to have their rights stripped. Once implemented, just like enclosure and colonisation, neoliberalism creates its own fallout. As Klein explains, neoliberalism began to enter more intimate territory after September 11, 2001, when surveillance culture began to “enclose” our privacy in unprecedented ways. This led to an age where internet companies, which are best positioned to track and collect data, reign.
History shows us a continuous pattern that goes all the way back to the Tudors and before: disaster followed by enclosure creates more disaster that allows for further, more intimate, enclosure. This is precisely why Federici’s argument that we need to define enclosure more deeply and broadly, is so important: otherwise we cannot properly track the pattern and we will fail to notice when neoliberalisation starts claiming new frontiers.
Combine the internet age with prostitution and you have today’s growing porn industry—and porn creates its own fallout. As feminist author Gail Dines points out in Pornland(2010), the average age boys start watching pornography is at eleven years, and porn brainwashes them into objectifying women by linking the image of rape to orgasm. There is hardly a more efficient way to condition somebody than through orgasm. Social conditioning normally involves a system of punishment and reward by some external body—but when men learn to objectify women by watching porn, their own penises dispense the rewards. After that, nobody needs to offer them any other incentives to keep repeating the behaviour.
The fact that porn not only depicts rape but drives it is well established. We can see the link in high profile rape cases like those involving Brock Turner and Larry Nassar. Turner took photos during his assault, and shared them with friends; Nassar was found to be in possession of at least 37,000 child pornography videos and images. New Zealand women’s organisation the Backbone Collective’s report on child abuse "Seen and Not Heard" shows that for 54% of abusive fathers, pornography is a factor in the abuse of their children.
The fallout from rape is dissociation. The human stress response is designed to allow us to run from predators, or to overpower them if we judge ourselves as capable. It is not designed to deal with entrapment and cruelty, and when faced with these situations, women often freeze, our minds shutting off conscious awareness of what is happening, whilst the subconscious absorbs it for dealing with later. This mind/body split is at the root of patriarchy and patriarchal religion because patriarchy relies on it: it requires men to detach from their own humanity and cultivate the dissociation, body hatred and dysphoria that rape culture fosters.
The commodification of women and “enclosure” of sexuality through prostitution, widespread porn and the resulting fallout led to the next frontier: biology itself, womanhood itself. Transgenderism leverages the mind/body split that rape culture promotes by introducing a new form of biological enclosure. With transgenderism, the reality of sex is no longer something natural that we simply share in common, but a place for Big Pharma to set up shop in the name of “identity.”
Trans activists assist this commodification of sex by excitedly censoring, blacklisting, firing, harassing and abusing women as “TERFs” (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”). “TERF” is a now well-known misnomer for feminists who have not forgotten what sex is, and, whilst trying to tear down the fences transgenderism erects around it, get in the way of the rollout of this new form of enclosure. With respect to her work, it is almost mind-boggling that Federici does not take into account this neoliberal “witch-hunting” that trans activists participate in.
If this terrifying trend exists as part of a broader trajectory—how far can it go?
The first volume in my Brief Complete Herstory argues that the most basic quality of life is sensitivity. Water has a miraculous capacity for storing information, for picking up the qualities of all it encounters. Even the smallest, single-celled organisms share with human beings the capacity to sense and respond to light, movement, and other environmental patterns and changes. Yet the more people are tethered to our phones and smart devices, our behaviour mined as “data” and sold to those who profit from predicting and manipulating our movements, the more numb and desensitised we become. I sometimes worry that as privatisation and dispossession advance in what Shoshana Zuboff calls the Age of Surveillance Capitalism(2019), this is the current frontier: our very sensitivity.
If we listen to spiritual teachers and visionaries throughout the ages, the seat of human sensitivity is the heart. Indigenous cultures have always recognised this, and herbalist Stephen Buhner taught me that this is not a metaphor: our bodies are surrounded by an electromagnetic field generated by the heart, and this field is five thousand times more powerful than that created by the brain. In The Secret Teachings of Plants(2004), Buhner writes that this means that the “[a]nalysis of information flow into the human body has shown that much of it impacts the heart first, flowing to the brain only after it has been perceived by the heart.”
If this is true, then in an era of desensitisation, the heart is the new frontier of enclosure. Can it be captured and domesticated? Or is there a freedom in the heart that simply cannot be enclosed?
One thing the long view of history shows us is that freedom does not exist in the hands of politicians who will deliver it after they tidy up the aftermath of the latest crisis, as they like to promise. I would also suggest it shows us that not only is the very idea of a patriarchal state incompatible with human freedom by definition—the tactic of negotiating with governments to have our “rights” and freedoms delivered has proven ineffective through centuries of trial and error. History shows us that governments are irredeemably deaf to the voices of women, and when they appear not to be, it is short-lived. Between the era of enclosure and the present day, women won the right to vote. Today, we may officially still have that right, but as womanhood is redefined beyond meaning, so has the relevance of the vote to our lives.
I am not saying that people should not lobby governments to promote the recognition of their rights, or that changes in the law have never benefited those who fought for them. I am also not suggesting that you can save the world by sitting under a tree and searching your heart. What I am saying is that in an era characterised by noise and desensitisation, there is no better time to tune out for long enough to discover whether you do carry within you a freedom immune to enclosure—because if you do, if this is part of our make up, surely there could be no better advisor in the decisions you, and we, need to make from here. There cannot be a better guide in the defence of freedom than freedom itself.
nice use of Federici (as well as acknowledging her shortcoming) and Klein in summarizing our dilemma