The privatization of the commons

The privatization of the commons

Erik Hallberg & Lars NyströmPer Albin

The privatization of the commons has been widely discussed internationally. For Marx, the process was "the primitive accumulation of capital" that drove the people to the factories. For Hardin, the commons were the epitome of how a joint management of resources results in predation and collapse, the "tragedy of the commons". In Swedish research on enclosure, however, the commons have hardly been examined at all.

This paper discusses the political and economic struggle over the commons from a study of more than 4,000 cadastral maps from the 18th and 19th centuries. The study shows how property formation on the commons throughout the early modern and modern era functioned as an engine in the economic modernization of Sweden, during the growth of mining in eastern and central Sweden in the 17th and 18th centuries; during the expansion of agriculture in the agrarian west after 1750; and during the growth of the lumber industry in northern Sweden in the second half of the 19th century.

On a theoretical level, the article discusses property rights and their social and economic significance. The development analysed in this study differs from Marx’s classical trajectory in important respects. Still, we argue that the enclosures of the commons in Sweden could be understood as a primitive accumulation of capital. Admittedly, enclosure in Sweden hardly pushed people away, but was rather a pull factor as a greater workforce was needed to exploit the resources of former commons. As dormant economic resources were freed up, opportunities in mining, forestry and agriculture grew. Just as in the English case described by Marx, rampant social polarization ensued.

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What is primitive accumulation?