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The Means of Subsistence: The Historical Economics of Self-Provisioning

Authors: Eva-Maria Swidler*, Curtis Institute of Music
Topics: Geographic Theory
Keywords: subsistence, political economy, private property, landownership
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

A political economy of the history of capitalism rests on the observation that enclosures, clearances, and evictions from the land had two sides. The private seizure of land was part of the primitive accumulation of capital that formed the capitalist class. But severing the connection of the working classes to the land was equally important as a way of forcibly forming a proletariat that had to work for cash because it no longer had access to the means of subsistence. Fencing out would-be self-provisioners was as important as fencing in the means of production. The bundle of property rights we take largely for granted today as “private property” grew from Europe’s systematic erasure of a long series of customary and legal rights that contemporary Western urban dwellers have lost sight of, such as rights to gleaning, shackage, grazing, or the appropriation of gravel, clay, fruits, wood, mast, fish, thatch, and rushes in addition to the more easily imagined rights to garden or to draw water. Rather than thinking with teleological hindsight in terms of a transition to the institution of private property and what other parallel forms of property might be, what might emerge if we subtly re-frame modern landownership as merely the end result of the elimination of the possibility of subsistence? Can we imagine a future without a private-property-shaped hole to be filled? What future possibilities appear when we shift our dreams to think in terms of restoring the right to self-provision?

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