The World Turned Upside-Down… Again

Over the past months, I have been following the Occupy Movement with great interest. It was while reading a piece addressing the occupiers by Vinay Gupta that a particular line caught my eye. While advocating a tactical retreat for the winter and a return to action come the Spring, Vinay writes:

‘Here’s my vision: in Spring, take-and-hold land and plant a hundred thousand wild flowers. In areas with bare earth, turn up with spades and grow food. Grow-occupy (#groccupy?) But work with the forces of nature, with the cycles of the earth, and cultivate a culture of growth, expansion, beauty and harmony’

Hmm…. I’d heard that sentiment somewhere before. I soon realized that he was advocating action very similar to that attempted by groups of political pioneers during the English Civil Wars in the mid 17th century. So I started digging (pun only partly intended, you’ll understand once you read on) and found that there were many parallels that could be drawn between this current movement and those English trail-blazers, some of which could prove insightful for this current generation of activists.

A bit of background

The English Civil Wars (c.1642-51) up-ended things in England, Scotland and Ireland politically, culturally, and in people’s daily lives in some rather extreme ways. Civil wars are never pretty. If a large portion of your country is busy fighting another large portion of your country, work doesn’t get done, food doesn’t get grown, and infrastructure is not maintained. Nobody really wins a civil war, because either side’s victory leaves their own back yard a wasteland to clean up for years after the actual fighting has finished. The ECW was this and more. In addition to the devastating blow to the living conditions of the people, the very institution of the monarchy was questioned and subsequently overthrown. The order of society that had been in place for 600 years was gone. So it’s not surprising that, at times like that, all sorts of new ideas for living and governing should start to spring up. When everything you’ve known is gone or uncertain, all bets are off and the sky’s the limit.

One such group was the ‘Levellers’ . The movement emerged between 1645 and 1648 through the ideas of such men as John Lilburne and Robert Everard.. The term ‘Leveller’, which referred to some members’ acts of removing or leveling hedges around enclosures of land, began as a derogatory one used by their opponents. Eventually it became commonly used by members themselves to represent their wish to see all people treated equally. In their unofficial manifesto, An agreement of the people, published in 1647, they desired

‘That in all laws made or to be made, ever person may be bound alike; and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected’

The Levellers were not so much a political party as an ideological movement, albeit a very well-organized one. Local branches, even down to the parish level, were found all over England and were funded by members’ dues. Although there was never a complete unified agenda across all branches, generally Levellers stood against political corruption, religious intolerance, and restriction of the political power of the common people. Central to their philosophy was the idea of natural rights, that people

‘are, and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty – none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power, one over or above another. Neither have they or can they exercise any but merely by institution or consent – given, derived, or assumed by mutual consent and agreement – for the good benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt, or damage of any: it being unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked and unjust for any man or men whatsoever to part with so much of their power as shall enable any of their parliament-men, commissioners, trustees, deputies, viceroys, ministers, officers or servants to destroy and undo them therewith.’ – John Lilburnel, The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated, 1646

Their actions were primarily directed toward pariliament, whom they accused of indifference towards the people and inaction when they had the power to institute substantial change in a post-war, post-monarchy England. They urged Members of Parliament to cease being influenced by the gentry, who

‘had hopes to work and pervert you to forsake the common interest of those that chose and trusted you, to promote their unjust design to enslave us – wherein they have prevailed too, too much… Ye are rich and abound in goods and have need of nothing; but the afflictions of the poor – your hunger-starved brethren – ye have no compassion of.’   – Richard Overton and William Walwyn, A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens,  1646

The Levellers enjoyed a fair amount of public support, both in the general citizenry and in the Army, which had become a substantial political force at the time. Leveller activists, known as Agitators, were elected in each regiment to speak for the soldiers. Their ideas were formally debated with the top brass at the time, General Lord Fairfax and Cromwell, and several petitions made their way to Parliament.

In short, the movement was given due consideration by the authorities until, abruptly, it wasn’t. In the wake of government refusals to implement their policies, those who maintained Leveller ideas in defiance to official policies were subject to increasingly harsh treatment. After most of the leadership had been imprisoned or executed, the movement faded into obscurity by around 1649 or 1650.

As one movement declined, another could be said to have risen from its ashes. Led primarily by Gerrard Winstanley, the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ also held that the Commons were being abused by the gentry and other power-brokers in the nation.

‘We see one great man favour another, and the poor oppressed have no relief… “Now,” saith the whisperings of the people, “the inferior tenants and labourers bears [sic] all the burdens, in labouring the earth, in paying taxes… beyond their strength, and in furnishing the armies with soldiers, who bear the greatest burden of the war; and yet the gentry, wh oppress them and that live idle upon their labours, carry away all the comfortable livelihood of the earth…” We daily see many actions done by state officers, which they have no law to justify but their prerogative will.’ – Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1652

But Winstanley felt that petitioning to Parliament for change was not enough. If people truly held natural rights to self-determination and to the land on which they live, then what need was there to seek permission to exercise them?

‘That Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.’ – Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649

To demonstrate their freedom, groups all over England took to common lands and wastelands, portions of land granted for all to share and make use of equally. They erected shelters, formed small communities, and began to grow crops. They invited the people to join them, promising that all would have a share of the food grown by their joint efforts.

Needless to say, the landowners were scared shitless.

Although technically what they were doing was permissible under the allowed uses of common land, landowners feared that such a precedent could lead to further expansions, possibly into their own holdings. After initially appealing to the government, Fairfax himself came to George’s Hill in Surrey, the encampment where Winstanley himself resided, to investigate for himself. While he dismissed their efforts as madness, Fairfax concluded they were doing no real harm and told the local authorities to use the courts if they wanted to do anything about the situation.

Unsurprisingly, the local authorities, pressured by the gentry, acted quickly and decisively. Court rulings were handed down forcing the Diggers to dismantle their communities, facing arrest and violence if they refused. At the same time, groups of thugs hired by landowners and bands of unsympathetic locals attacked the camps, assaulting those living there and destroying property. Faced with such harsh opposition, and the fact that the movement never grew beyond a couple of hundred individuals nation-wide, by around 1652-3 the Diggers were largely finsished.

(Here’s a folk song about the Diggers, one of my favourite songs of all time. )

The moral of the story

Having taken a brief glance at these two movements (and I encourage you to explore them further yourself), what can the Occupiers and their supporters learn from them?

The first and most important lesson is that you are not, and never have been, alone. The struggle for the common good against the interests of the powerful few has been going on in one form or another throughout human history. It has taken many forms; however, that of the Levellers and the Diggers are perhaps the most similar to what you are attempting to do now, if only in ideology. Study them, read their writings, and you may find useful allies to draw upon in the pursuit of your goals.

 A powerful example that Occupiers can take from both of these movements is the importance and effectiveness of print. Both produced volumes of pamphlets to circulate their ideas to the wider public. You want your ideas to reach the 99%? Publish. Publish online, in magazines, newspapers, distribute home-made leaflets and pamphlets. The Levellers did not need a unified agenda to be prolific writers about the ideas that guided their actions. Likewise, do not worry about the calls from the media or the public for a mission statement or manifesto. Write what you’re doing, what you want to do, and what you want others to do, and throw it out there for the consideration of the public

The extent to which you choose to learn from or emulate the Diggers depends on how far down the rabbit hole you wish to go. Attempting to establish micro swadeshi-style villages in parks and public spaces around the world may be either impractical or undesirable (although it would certainly be an interesting experiment). But perhaps one can learn from their efforts without having to duplicate them. In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, when Sam Lowry asks guerilla engineer Harry Tuttle ‘Can you fix it?’, Tuttle replies ‘No, but I can bypass it.’ Perhaps, as the Diggers did, the best way to oppose an injustice, rather than fighting it head on, is to demonstrate a better alternative. Rather than fighting the system that favours the 1%, perhaps imagine and demonstrate a system that favours everyone equally. Show people what that looks like, and perhaps they will join in your efforts.

The final lesson is sobering but necessary. If the stories of the Levellers and the Diggers are any indication of the way these movements all too frequently go, then History is not on your side when it comes to achieving victory. Both were tolerated until they became too much of a nuisance to those in power, after which they were crushed decisively. If you are to persevere, it will not be easy (but chances are you knew that already). The Powers That Be have demonstrated over the centuries a willingness to utilise every tool at their disposal, lawful and unlawful, to oppose something that is viewed as a serious threat.

But above all, amidst your struggle, take comfort in the fact that you are the current carriers of a banner that has been raised for centuries in the interest of the common good. Many who bore it before you have fallen in pursuit of their goals, but the idea is such that it always seems to return one way or another. Do that banner proud while you bear it.


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