It is almost impossible for a modern person living in a so-called developed country to imagine growing, hunting and foraging for all the food one’s family eats. Yet, not all that long ago in human history, that’s what most of the people in the world did. Given the current fragility of modern industrial society, we humans may not be so far away from the collapse of that society and a return to an agrarian society that will demand the combined skills of the farmer, the forager, the lumberjack and the hunter. (This is my prognostication, not that of the author mentioned below.)
In historian Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow the author focuses on one particular group of people, settlers in the Appalachian Mountains and the process by which they were forced out of a way of life that provided all their basic foodstuffs and some extra produce and crafts used to trade for tools and what were considered luxuries in the hollows.
Stoll does not ignore the dispossession of Native Americans and other aboriginal peoples whose lands were overrun by Europeans. He recognizes this seizure as part of a worldwide process of enclosure of the commons for the benefit of a few.
For those who don’t know how this works, Stoll provides an explanation. In Great Britain the aristocracy conspired with law courts and Parliament essentially to seize land for its sole use, land that had been held in common by the Crown and was available to peasants to meet their needs through farming, foraging, and hunting.
Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about enclosure is that before it occurred there was no such thing as real estate. This is another almost impossible thing for modern people to imagine, namely, that individuals did not own land, but rather had rights to its use.
The excuse for enclosure was that it would make farming more efficient—which it did at considerable cost to the independence of the peasantry.
Ownership of land from which almost all wealth proceeds became the basis for the modern capitalist system which could not spread if peasant rights of use were not overcome.
Stoll tells us that for many decades land grants made by colonial and early American governments in what we now call Appalachia were largely irrelevant. The putative owners lived far from the land and there was little they could do to develop it even if they lived nearby. It was left to those who inhabited it and enjoyed the freedom of a life Stoll calls “self-provisioning.” Stoll uses this term to distinguish this life from that described by “self-sufficient” and “subsistence.” In truth, these rural peoples did not barely eke out a living, but instead had sufficient food and grew, gathered or made items to trade. They were not outside the market system. But they were never slaves to it because they could provision themselves with their own food.
This is probably the most important takeaway from the book. Once a human loses the ability to grow, hunt and gather the food he or she requires, that person is under the power of a market system manipulated by wealthy bankers, financiers and the government officials who collude with them. Capitalism requires that everyone—yes, everyone—produce to sell, NOT for their own consumption. This makes them dependent on others who control the marketplace that provides all their essentials.
It is true that there were lean years for the denizens of Appalachia. But in those lean years they could rely of extensive kinship networks to see them through the worst. But once the self-provisioning families of Appalachia were thrown off the land they had worked for generations by the coal companies and others claiming ownership, a cruel poverty that denied them the right even to exercise their skills to feed themselves became the norm.
While we should not romanticize the hard work of farming, hunting and foraging, when done successfully to feed oneself, the work has purpose and a direct relationship to the well-being those engaging in it.
Today, this is the picture we have of Appalachia: poor, ignorant, isolated and without hope. Where these conditions exist, they were brought to Appalachia, according to Stoll. They are not inherent in the people or their cultural heritage.
Today, we can see the results of the triumph of this system everywhere. Where there were once people just like those in Appalachia across the several continents, there are now plantations, large corporate-owned monoculture farms, mines and dams. But a system that promised to end all want has instead spread want to billions whose ancestors could fulfill their own wants even if they did not lead luxurious lives. The path of capital is to concentrate it into fewer and fewer hands, and it is doing a marvelous job of that while depriving billions of the necessities of a healthy life.
We have the strange specter of a system that produces more food, more fiber, more minerals, more wood, more energy from fossil fuels, uranium and renewable energy, and more consumer goods than ever before and yet continues to trample on the many in its relentless pursuit of—you guessed it—enclosure of more resources for the benefit of the few. We have already seen how the once chaotic internet has been “enclosed” by technology giants who use it to gather personal information on us that they then sell for trillions to others or use to target us for purchases or even more information. Information about ourselves that should belong to us is simply taken from us, repackaged and used to enrich the few. It’s a form of enclosure all over again.
The tech giants will say that we consented to this. But then they are the ones who write the impenetrable user agreements that say somewhere buried in the final paragraphs of a pages-long document and in ways that few people can understand that we agree to let them spy on us. Sometimes they don’t even bother to get our permission. The barons of England and the coal barons of Appalachia used some of the same tricks. Appalachian farmers who owned their land signed over mineral rights not knowing that they would receive little in return and that they had just given the coal company the right to rip up their land as needed to get the coal.
In 1954 Harrison Brown in The Challenge of Man’s Future contemplated what it would take to create a sustainable industrial future. He said that the path to such a future would be narrow and have to be managed carefully. He concluded that therefore the most likely outcome of industrial society would be a return to agrarian society.
Since Brown gave that advice—when there were only 2.6 billion people Earth—it has been completely ignored. Therefore, I believe that humans can look forward to a return to Ramp Hollow. Given how few of us have the knowledge for that type of life and given how depleted and polluted the land, the forests and the waters have become, the human race can most probably look forward to a tumultuous transition when it comes.
Photo: Painted barn in rural Washburn, in Grainger County, Tennessee (2019). By AppalachianCentrist via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Painted_barn_in_Washburn,_Tennessee.jpg