You are an individual. You act on your own, with your own rights and obligations. You can practice any religion you choose, vote for whatever political party you like, do whatever job you are qualified for, marry whom you want. You can keep (after tax) any money you earn. Although there are now many people in the industrial and capitalist parts of the world who are in your position, it is still decidedly unusual.
Most people on the planet cannot do most of these things. They belong to larger groups of the family, caste or village community who regulate what they think and what they do. This was even more so in the past. Two hundred years ago there was nowhere on earth where you could have been an individual in the way I have described above. So how has individualism, a location of economic, religious, political and social power in the hands of each person, emerged so suddenly and so dramatically?
This is a large topic and a full account would take us into the rise of religious freedom, political democracy, modern industrial organization and many other areas. Here I will limit myself to the social and economic side. In particular, I will write about the way in which the individual has become separated out from the wider family group.
This separation of the social world of the family from the economic world of the production of wealth is one of the great changes in history and is described as the ‘rise of capitalism’. It is particularly relevant to you since England has often been described as the first capitalist society. In your own country there emerged a new system of individualistic economic and social relationships which now dominates much of the world. How did this happen?
What happened in England?
In the period between A.D. 700-1200 much of western Europe was uniform. A traveller through northern France, northern Germany, the Low Countries and through England would have felt no real sense of contrasting civilizations. There was a relatively light population, ruled by feudal lords and kings, practising a form of Christianity. The people were partially unified by a Latin language and governed by Barbarian legal codes mixed with bits of Roman law.
The social system was based on the rather individualistic family systems of the Germanic tribes which gave people much the same roles as the family system today. People were struggling to preserve the vestiges of Roman civilization and build up a new world. Language apart, English visitors to Spain or Italy would have felt at home.
The society which grew up in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire was a feudal, not a family-based one. Its primary bonds were contractual, ones of allegiance and power based on choice, rather than on blood. Between the fifth and twelfth centuries, the collapse of a status based civilization gave rise to feudalism.
Yet, from this common base, a curious divergence occurred over the centuries. An almost universal tendency asserted itself. As wealth accumulated, the feudal bonds were loosened and then snapped and what we can roughly call a peasant civilization re-asserted itself. The details of the process are complex and uneven over Europe. They include the increasing power of kings, the re-establishment of a centralizing form of Roman Law, the growing distinction between a literate class of clergy and nobility and an illiterate peasantry who were discouraged from learning to read.
Above all it involved the emergence of a form of ownership and production in which the family line again became dominant. The land was given into the private ownership of families. It was owned by them as a group. Every child had birth-given rights in the family property. The unit which produced and consumed wealth became the family. There were real peasants, who stood in opposition to other orders, that is the town dwellers or bourgeoisie, the nobility and the clergy.
This was reflected in the terminology. In Italy a group known as contadini, in Germany bauern, in France paysans, emerged. Yet there was no such group in England and no native term to describe such a category. There were country men and women, but this only showed where they lived. Instead there were many words, husbandman, artificer, yeoman, labourer, to specify status. None of them fitted with the meaning of the word ‘peasant’.
Why are there so many peasants?
England was clearly the exception. So why is there such a strong tendency for civilizations to move towards a peasant path? The simplest answer seems to be that it is in the interest of both the rulers and the ruled. To this we may add that the family property solution is in many ways a considerable improvement on what usually preceded it. It works better than communal agriculture or even slavery.
A family based peasantry is created when the agricultural population are given inheritance rights so that the family as a unit owns the land. Previously families had usually enjoyed very insecure or shared rights, either as members of a larger village community which re-distributed use-rights from time to time, or holding on an insecure tenure from large land-holders. Both of these other systems have grave disadvantages for the family. They leave it vulnerable to the tendency for any hard-working person to find that he or she is supporting lazier fellow villagers, or at the mercy of the landlord’s whim.
So when the rural dwellers are offered complete ownership of their fields, usually in return for a reasonable tax based on what they can produce, they are hardly likely to refuse the offer. They now own the property and can pass it on safely to their children, who are, in fact, co-owners from birth. They are happy and their children are happy.
The system is often productive and there is likely to be a noticeable improvement in yields. Family members have direct incentives to improve their production which will now benefit themselves and their close relatives. They can invest in the knowledge that they and their heirs will benefit in the longer run. Effort and intelligent planning is rewarded by increased prosperity for his or her loved ones, rather than to the nebulous ‘community’ or a distant landlord.
Meanwhile the ruler is also happy. The production will rise so the taxes will rise. Furthermore, governance will be easier since a mass of peasant families with a deep attachment to the soil can be relatively easily controlled. The family is used as the foundation on which the system works, with the head of the family taking responsibility for the behaviour of his family members.
As in the Confucian or Roman Law system, a form of patriarchal power (the power of the senior male) is encouraged. The head of the family rules the younger brothers, the women and the children. Furthermore, in the perennial contest with over-mighty subjects, a strong peasantry can act as a buffer against the local gentry or lords.
What happens when peasants emerge?
However, there are certain hazards along this usual path. One is that as time passes and the population tends to increase, the position of the peasants deteriorates. The family holding is split between ever increasing numbers of descendants. No-one has to leave the holding, but, in the absence of improvements in yield through new technologies, there is less and less per member of the family. Peasants deteriorate into subsistence farmers where people retreat from the use of money and markets. This is what happened in Ireland in the hundred years before the great famine of the middle of the nineteenth century, or in France in the centuries before the Revolution of 1789.
Likewise the rulers tend to make the situation worse. As their power and means of control increases, they are tempted (or with the threat of war forced) to extract more and more from a trapped rural population. So taxes and rents increase. After some centuries what started as an extraction of ten percent or so of the crops, may increase to up to half the yield of the family farm. The family is trapped in the system.
Another consequence of moving down the peasant path is that alternative paths, whether towards crafts, trade or urban growth, become less attractive. The response to the shrinking of resources as children divide and sub-divide plots and the lords and rulers press their increasing demands, is not to flee or set up new types of activity. These require capital, which would have to be withdrawn from the farm, and are risky. The way out is thought to be to work ever harder and to cut all costs, for example the cost of keeping animals.
So the peasant path is very attractive to both the rural dwellers and their rulers when it starts. Yet it often becomes more and more bumpy and unsatisfactory over time. It leads, in the end, to a position from which there is little chance of escape. There are no paths down which the densely packed peasantry can now move away from rural misery.
How did the English take another path?
A way out is to move to an even more extreme form of privatization of property, not down to the level of the family as a group, but to an individual within a family. England moved to such a system of single-heir, individually held, property.
In the English case there was no family-owned land, nor was there community held land. Over the centuries an unusual system developed whereby there was a combination of two major landholding methods. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, much of the land was held by individuals, not families. It was held from a manorial lord on a kind of lease but in this system there was considerable security. The land could be inherited by whoever one chose as one’s heirs, or sold to another, as long as the lord was paid a fee and the transaction was recorded in the manor court.
Alongside this there was freehold property, held directly by an individual from the King, but to all intents and purposes privately owned. So there was no family property, children had no automatic rights in a holding by their birth into the family unit, the individuals who held the land could dispose of it as they wished within the constraints of the customs of the manor or the laws of England.
In this system the centre was powerful enough to hold each individual in its grip without having to resort to giving families absolute rights. Yet it was also found to be effective to give considerable security to individuals. The absence of the usual threats and pressures of invasion from landed neighbours, because England was an island, was a key factor.
What happened to our sense of Community?
Most of us believe that in the past there were true communities within which people lived. The community came first, the individual second. There were villages or other physical places where a person was born, married and died. It was a community of residence. Since their forefathers had lived there for generations, many of the villagers were related by kinship and marriage. It was a community of blood. There were village organizations, a council, a headman, village customs and laws and a village sentiment. ‘We’ are of this community, ‘you’ are an outsider from elsewhere. In extreme cases, as in some Chinese villages, everyone even had the same surname, everyone you met was called Chen or Yan or whatever.
I saw many of these features of what we might call natural or real Community with a capital c when I first visited a Nepalese village in 1968. Many people were surrounded by relatives and some of the families stretched back for some generations. Even the women, who often married out, retained strong links with their maita or birth village. Many people lived out almost all of their life in the village into which they were born.
Many believe that almost everyone lived in such natural communities until the nineteenth century. Then a revolutionary change occurred from Community to Association. ‘Association’ describes our modern world where people are constantly on the move, born in one place, educated in another, married in another, moving several more times before dying. We tend to live with very few kin nearby and most of our inter-actions are relatively short-term ones with neighbours or work mates.
Increasingly in large cities or rural commuter villages we do not live in bounded communities. Many people do not feel much about people in their street or neighbourhood. The growth of cities and new patterns of work have created, we believe, the lonely crowd of rootless, drifting, modern individuals.
There is something in this powerful myth of a former close knit world. When I arrived in a fen village near Cambridge thirty years ago most people seemed to know each other and there was a sense of the village as an entity. Some of the families were old and the farming couple who lived next door had been born and were to die in the village. During the next thirty years the village has become a commuter suburb of Cambridge; the blacksmith has gone, the real shop, two pubs and the village school have all vanished. It is no longer even a ghost of a Community except in its cricket and football teams.
I seem to have witnessed the shift from Community to Association, and indeed as one of the first outside academics in the village, to have accelerated it. Yet as I feel this nostalgia I have to remind myself that my historical studies of English villages over the last seven hundred years suggest that there have never been real Communities in the ‘place, blood and sentiment’ sense. Considerable mobility, the fragmented family system and developed economic exchanges have meant that unlike China, India and much of mainland Europe, it is difficult to find ‘natural’ communities in England at any point in its history.
So the rootlessness we see today is a very old phenomenon. It is a peculiar feature of England that people have never been absorbed into a very powerful ‘Community’ which gives security but makes it impossible to be a free individual. We live instead in temporary , constructed, and partial ‘communities’, a group of friends, co-workers, neighbours, club members.
What are the consequences for your life?
So you can begin to understand why, though you live in a country village, grow vegetables and flowers and enjoy the trees and rivers of East Anglia, you are not a peasant and you do not live in a natural village Community. Unlike almost everyone in the world up to about a hundred years ago, you do not belong to a largely illiterate, household-based set of people who pay up to half their income to support a tiny elite who are totally different from you and live in cities and castles. You were not born in the street you live in now, nor will you, in all probability, stay there for more than a few years.
You are not in the absolute control of the dominant male (father, husband, brother) in the household, nor will you ever be under the practical control of the leading female (mother-in-law). You can own property in your own right and sell and give it away as you like. But you cannot automatically expect to inherit from your parents. You will leave home and set up on your own. You are able to make your own way, not tied down within a family or community with all the advantages, but also the disadvantages, that that brings. Indeed, in all true senses of the words, you, dear Lily, are a free spirit.