Stories of custom-in-common: history, power and the internet

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 12 July 2011

Brian Lamb has highlighted two quotes that made me think about politics, power, consensus and the web, and most importantly, about History.

David Eaves, Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

Charges of “frivolousness” or a desire to ensure data is only released “in context” are code to obstruct or shape data portals to ensure that they only support what public institutions or politicians deem “acceptable”. Again, we need a flood of data, not only because it is good for democracy and government, but because it increases the likelihood of more people taking interest and becoming literate.

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

Paul Mason, Murdoch: the network defeats the hierarchy:

Six months ago, in the context of Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote that the social media networks had made “all propaganda instantly flammable”. It was an understatement: complex and multifaceted media empires that do much more than propaganda, and which command the respect and loyalty of millions of readers, are now also flammable.

Where all this leaves Noam Chomsky’s theory I will rely on the inevitable wave of comments from its supporters to flesh out.

But the most important fact is: not for the first time in 2011, the network has defeated the hierarchy.

These two quotes have emphasized some questions for me.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

Over a period of six years I wrote about property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire. Revisiting that helps me to identify struggle-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held in common. In the early eighteenth century county elections were an important means by which the political stability and legitimacy of the Augustan and Hanoverian political structures could be ensured. The significance of voters in County [as opposed to Borough] elections in the political system was recognised by contemporaries who saw these ‘forty shilling freeholders’ as the guardian of the nation’s liberty.

To the historian, the importance of the voters hinges upon whether they had any measure of independent political action and power, and how they struggled for their collective rights. Analysis shows that a substantial subset of the electorate had the socio-economic standing, individually or in common, to show a great degree of political independence. Thus, once the politicians forced an election they became involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities which gave the forty shilling freeholders a measure of political power.

Power in networks: a note on shire elections and political power in early-modern England

Notionally the enfranchised county freeholder was a man who voted by right of freehold property that was worth forty shillings per annum clear of all taxes. This also encompassed the possession of a particular office, for example a clerical benefice, as well as annuities, leases for lives, or the control of a mortgage. These men were the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. The marquis of Halifax stated that ‘the interest of the county is best placed in the hands of such as have some share in it’. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. The importance of shire elections in giving property the opportunity to legitimise or oppose a political outlook meant that any shire election became crucial to the political nation.

The importance of the voters in the political system hinges upon whether they had any independent political action or impact. Were they relatively free to vote as they wanted, or were they subservient to the needs of their social superiors? These issues depend upon the amount of pressure which could be placed upon an individual voter. Investigations related to power and agency help to rescue the voters and the unenfranchised from an impotent limbo, to stress their importance in the political process, and to emphasise the view held by many among the eighteenth century political nation that the ‘forty-shilling freeholder’ was the guardian of the nation’s liberty against over-bearing hegemonies.

A story of struggle in common: power, agency and networked resistance

The importance of local cultural considerations was nowhere stronger than at Hatfield, a lowland agricultural township eight miles north-east of Doncaster. It bordered on Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and had a large area of common land which had been drained by Dutch immigrants in the seventeenth century. The town numbered between 20 and 31 voters at each election in the early eighteenth century. Whilst the Hearth Tax records of 1672 noted 211 households, there were 350 families in Archbishop Herring’s visitation returns of 1743. Thus, a crude approximation gives Hatfield 1 voter for every 22 families at the 1742 county by-election.

The lords of the manor of Hatfield, which included 8 other townships, were the viscounts Irwin and the manorial framework was important to the functioning of local society. These men were strong in the Whig cause throughout the period and were active at every election except that of 1708 when the new lord was a minor. However, only in 1742 did the Government Whig party achieve a majority of votes in the township. [N.B. at each election there were generally 2 parties with 2 candidates for the 2 shire MPs. Each voter had 2 votes at each election.]

This fractured voting may have had much to do with the franchise in this town which developed through common right. The independence which this gave bolstered the widespread antipathy in the area towards the interference of Irwin in social and economic matters. Prior to the 1695 election Abraham de la Pryme noted that the common at Hatfield ‘is freehold unto us, and the Lord has nothing to do with it’. Moreover, ‘the common-free inhabitants that made above forty shillings a year of their common did, according as formerly, swear themselves worth above forty shillings a year freehold and accordingly polled.’ In a case of trespass which occurred in 1737 it was noted that ‘time out of mind [there] hath been an antient custom to wit that the respective Tenants and occupiers in west field…have inclosed and separated such of their part of the s[ai]d common field…and to hold and enjoy the same…free from any common of pasture.’ In their eyes it gave them rights in common and as political actors.

Local electoral right had emerged from resistance and struggle, and had its basis in the drainage of the area in the late 1620s and early 1630s. In May 1626 the crown and Cornelius Vermuyden came to an agreement about draining the level. By 1629, after a series of disputes and riots, which indicate that the area had a history of direct action against and opposition towards the local landlord, Vermuyden covenanted ‘that he will convey to the tenants of the said manors such portions of the recovered lands as had been assigned to them in respect of their common’.

This acrimonious history of fighting for common rights continued in the eighteenth century. In an argument running from 1726 until 1758, which focused upon the common land, Irwin questioned the landholding rights of the inhabitants. He had a turnpike erected on the common at Stainforth, which provoked a riot and subsequent prosecution that exacerbated the splits within the township. Thomas Perkins after certain inhabitants of the manor signed a submission to Irwin. He wrote, ‘What power he may now have I can’t tell…His Majesty K[ing]: Charles ye 1st w[oul]d not at least…have done a contrary thing.’ This was a powerful analogy to make in comparing the major local landowner to a perceived tyrant.

The very fact that the commons were crucial to the economies of the small farmer, and the feeling that the local balance of power lay with the community rather than the lord, fostered a strong sense of community action and local loyalty. In 1739, Jonathan Parish, who hoped to be made the local schoolmaster, had written to Irwin asking for his favour. Parish reported that ‘by making Lord Irwin my friend [I] had made all my Neighbours my enemies’. Concerning the schoolmaster’s appointment, the local curate Marmaduke Drake, hoped that ‘they were wiser than to be led by ye nose by a Lord’. These men seemed unlikely to defer to any man shy of the monarch; thus, political control may have been illusory at best for a man like Irwin.

This confident air was induced by the strength of the community’s common right. One seventeenth-century commentator noted, ‘by often iteration and multiplication of the Act, it becomes a custom: and being continued without interruption time out of mind, it obtaineth the force of a law’. Similarly, one agrarian historian has written that common field government ‘held the village together’, so that the support for local common rights gave the community a sense of security. In the case of Hatfield this common usage was a form of social, and potentially political cement. Agrarian usage impinged upon the shire franchise and would have added to the difficulties and differences of political control. This would have been more so if those who enjoyed the vote by common right saw a landowner’s actions as an attempt to impoverish them.

The commons were crucial for rearing sheep, oxen horse and pigs, as well as providing thatch, bricks, and sundry extras which bolstered the local economy. Neeson has written that ‘at the local level, custom had the force of the law’. Moreover, if the commons were crucial to the psychological and personal well-being of the individual and the community, then its defence was all-important no matter whom the attacker. The commons gave the individual and the community a chance to live of their own and to survive a dearth. They also gave the chance to have an economic independence that may have fed political autonomy. All this stemmed from what appeared to be enclosure and enfranchisement by consent. There was the strength of custom and usage in terms of the variations in the franchise. As Langford has pointed out ‘faith in local procedures was deeply entrenched’.

Struggle for the common in cyberspace

Which brings me back to my third question:

How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

In Eighteenth century Hatfield, that so many political voters (agents) owned their own lands, and that landownership was so fractured made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat a majority of men to the polls. The relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that the politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election and maintain some form of control.

I am wondering what this offers in terms of the institutionalisation/enclosure of the internet and the web as a subset of it.

  • How do we struggle to acknowledge and nurture the disparate local contexts and activities born of custom that exist online?
  • How do we recognise power and privilege in networked communities? How does one avoid the real subsumption of the individual within common spaces?

One Response to Stories of custom-in-common: history, power and the internet

  1. Pingback: Forking the University: legitimising deliberation in physical and virtual space | Richard Hall's Space

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