Occupations Past and Present
It is nice to notice these spiritual-mystical-historical connections. It is not always welcome to make them publically. Witness the BBC reaction to Darkus Howe’s claim, much replayed on Youtube, that the riots in London were part of a world-wide spirit of “insurrection of the masses of the people”. They must be seen purely as isolated incidents of wanton criminality and disconnected from their historical precedents and resonances.
So now, as people occupy’ places all over the world, (951 cities in 82 countries according to Wikipedia), it seems to be the unwritten rule of public figures to avoid as much as possible making the link between the Greek uprisings of 2008-2009, the subsequent insurrections in North Africa and the Middle East and the current Occupation movement. It is difficult to avoid, however, not least because of the obvious link in tactics between the current wave and January’s occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Beautifully, and perhaps totally coincidentally, the idea of occupation in England brings us back to the occupation of St. George’s Hill, Cobham in Surrey (and subsequent other less documented places) by the Diggers or True Levellers in 1649. In a global movement, it is nice to consider the nuances of the local links.
Then, as now, the ruling class were in crisis. The fighting of the Civil War ended with the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Cromwell’s republic, but many people were not satisfied with the new order and even less willing to put up with it than they were the old one. Hard times were harder than now, with starvation level famine, and, perhaps even more urgently than now when we wish some return for the trillions of public money given to the banks, the people of the English Revolution wanted something back for the lives and money sacrificed in defeating the King’s Army.
The Diggers started a commune on an uncultivated piece of common land at St. George’s Hill. Gerrard Winstanley, a failed London merchant and son of a Wigan manufacturer, heard the voice of God telling him to “work together, eat bread together, declare all this abroad.”(The New Law of Righteousness, January 1649)
His God was Reason: when a person is tempted “to oppress or deceive his neighbours or to take away his rights and liberties, to beat or abuse him in any kind, Reason moderates this wicked flesh and speaks within, ‘wouldst thou be dealt with so thyself?’” (The Soul’s Paradise; summer 1648). This repositioning of God as a spirit that lives in all of us was part of a radical stream at the time, shared by diverse groups who all rejected the established Church and its priests.
But, it is Winstanley’s social and political observations that are most relevant to us now, and, perhaps even more so, his deeds. The Diggers’ Occupation lasted between April 1649 and April 1650. They attempted to create a self-sufficient community of equals, living on some uncultivated land south of London. The idea spread around the country and became a movement. Moderate ‘levellers’ distanced themselves from it. Propaganda, arrests, fines, imprisonments, as well as beatings (one fatal), the uprooting of their crops, smashing of their houses and eventually the burning of their belongings and the cordoning off of the little heath that they had been forced onto (with the threat of death and hired goons as 24 hour security guards to prevent their return), ended the occupation.
After the original Diggers’ first arrest, for trespass, in July 1649 and a trial in which they were not told the charge and not allowed to defend themselves, because they refused to (nor could afford to) engage a lawyer, Winstanley wrote ‘An Appeal to the House of Commons, Desiring their Answer; Whether the Common-People shall have the quiet enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Lands: or whether they shall be under the will of Lords of Manors still.’
In it, he asks them to consider “the equity or not equity of our cause”. The question for Winstanley is not just about their innocence or guilt in their trespass trial but “whether the common people, after all their taxes, free-quarter and loss of blood to recover England from under the Norman yoke, shall have the freedom to improve the commons and waste lands free to themselves, as freely their own as the enclosures are the property of the elder brother.” The issues were property, equality and freedom.
Their aim, he assured parliament, was “not to meddle with any man’s enclosure or property, till it be freely given to us by themselves, but only to improve the commons and waste lands to our best advantage, for the relief of ourselves and others.” The idea that the rich would “freely” give over their land to the poor is perhaps deliberately ridiculous, but Winstanley is simultaneously emphasising both the non-violence, and the revolutionary and global aims of their movement. For the Diggers, England was to “be the first of nations that shall begin to give up their crown and sceptre, their dominion and government into the hands of Jesus Christ”. They argued for a world where authority (sceptre/government) would be removed from any person’s hands, private property (crown/dominion) would be abolished and only Jesus-Reason would rule.
The principle he stood by, was that “all of us by the righteous law of our creation ought to have food and raiment freely by our righteous labouring of the earth, without working for hire or paying rent one to another.” (113) It is employment and property ownership that distorts natural equality.
Parliament had an obligation to assist them. The common people joined parliament to fight “the bad government and burdening laws under the late King Charles, who was the last successor of William the Conqueror”. That war was fought “between the King that represented William the Conqueror, and the body of English people that were enslaved” (114). Just as now we can use the elite’s rhetoric of ‘democracy’ against them, Winstanley could point out Parliament’s hypocrisy in freeing themselves from arbitrary royal rule, while leaving the people enslaved. Mirroring Parliament’s justification of their military coup, Winstanley emphasised the people’s right of conquest: “we have given plate, free-quarter and our persons – now unless you and we be besotted with covetousness, pride and slavish fear of men, it is and will be our wisdom to cast out all these enslaving laws” (114). A 17th century Parliament elected only by ‘freeholders’ had used the people to fight a freeholders’ war; in the 21st century, the people’s representatives have use the people’s money to pay off the debts of the financial establishment
Winstanley has no illusions about parliament. He knows that “you were summoned by the King’s writ, and chosen by the freeholders, that are the successors of William the Conqueror’s soldiers” (114). He asks them to see the truth of how wealth, property and land should be shared and managed, because, if not, God may “be offended and … and work a deliverance for his waiting people some other way than by you” (115). Come quietly or be ready for worse.
Like Winstanley addressing Cromwell, today we ask the institutions of government and finance to “dispute no further when the truth appears, but be silent and practise it”. All of us who voted for green or left-wing parties or who chose not to vote at all seeing no one standing who could represent us, remain unrepresented. Here we are now, joining together, occupying land, discussing alternatives and asking our government and the corporations whose practices they supposedly govern, to whom we have given our taxes, and sooner or later if not already, large chunks of our wages and our pensions, to listen to the voice of the 99%: Winstanley’s “common people”.
There are still lessons to learn from our past. It is always a little embarrassing for those who want to use the Diggers as revolutionary heroes that their programme failed and they only lasted a year. Now that we are trying it ourselves, 12 months seems a good effort. Their cultivation of land and building of homes made their community a more sustainable one than ours that lives under canvas and relies on food donations. They lived their alternative. Perhaps we should also be putting more emphasis on the inequity of property ownership. We would do well to find spokespeople who can present non-violence as eloquently, persuasively and as threateningly as Winstanley manages.
How will our occupation end? Propaganda and occasional arrests are the first tactic. Will the rich “lords of the manor” pay for violence to have us removed?
 ‘The unpopular practice of placing soldiers in civilian households to be supplied with shelter, bed and board in exchange for a ticket that in theory could be redeemed for money later’ – British Civil Wars, Military Glossary.