Skip to content

Political Geography of Community – Part 4: Dispossession, Dislocation and the Invention of the Neighbour

With a title like this, the only sensible thing is to begin by talking about wool.

Wool has a lot to do with the way that English-speaking who can trace their lineages to Great Britain seem to have got a pretty good deal this past half-millennium or so. Wool, strangely enough, was crucially helpful in teaching the English people how to make selves that are especially well-adapted to capitalist relations between human beings.

This remaking of the self in capitalist terms, and its sweeping political implications can be found in Thomas More’s Utopia in which the author comments on a process called “Enclosure,” whereby collectively-owned shared lands on which peasants raised crops were privatized and fenced through a series of acts by the English state. Instead of people eating sheep, More observed, with Enclosure, now, “sheep eat men.” Land used by humans to raise food to feed themselves became land that was converted to range land for sheep.

It was not enough to dispossess peasants, More went on to observe; they were then criminalized, as they are today, for their dispossession through laws against begging, brigandage, vagrancy and debt. This process, which had begun nearly a century before More wrote, only escalated over the next two centuries and more and more English commoners were dispossessed for a wider and wider range of land uses as the English state financed itself through privatization.

Once they were dispossessed, powerful forces set to work on those who had lost their lands to encourage relocation. People moved to find work; and if they couldn’t find work, the state and its agents would find it for them by converting them into convict labourers, indentured servants or pressganged members of the armed forces. For the most part, people were eager to find work and moved considerable distances – down brigand- and beggar-infested toll-roads to find somewhere to work.

These people were no different from the economic migrants of any era; their choices were conditioned by familiar factors. Is there work where I’m going? How can I persuade people to let me do the work when I get there? Are there people I know there? If I get there and something happens to me, will there be someone to bail me out? England’s market towns, which had begun their demographic rebound in the 1400s, were often the destination but many people urbanized into London and many still simply moved from one rural area to the next, often in short-term work directly associated with the wool industry. As Britain’s sheep population grew, so did the ranks of the dispossessed and dislocated.

Because these mass economic migrations were not actually associated with new technologies as much as new market conditions, the English people had the curious honour to being in the vanguard of a process that would reshape even the rest of Western Europe decades or centuries later. While processes like this had taken place at many other places and times, the sheer scale and duration of Enclosure created a critical mass of a certain kind of unstable, disconnected migrant consciousness. By the seventeenth century, common English folk thought about their relationships to their place, family and job differently than others on such a large scale that a whole new discourse emerged, a discourse that the state intervened to help shape.

We know this because of the King James Version of the Bible, a very expensive state-sponsored project to produce a text around which a new, Protestant, capitalist English identity was to be built. The KJV provided a dislocated, increasingly socially literate populace with popular, universal words to help them make new selves and new worldviews for the strangely kinetic, insecure people into which they were being transformed by the privatization of indivisible collectivities, like families and family. It did that by replacing the word “brother” with “neighbour” hundreds upon hundreds of times.

Let us be clear that English neighbours centuries ago were like our neighbours now: people you don’t really know who might or might not stick around. Now, as then, we have words for the relationships that can develop out of neighbourliness: friend, spouse, co-worker, cousin, brother-in-law, etc. Medieval English people had other words too from before the era of the neighbour like “gossip,” from the compound word “god-sib” – someone connected through a god-parent, a ubiquitous institution that linked huge portions of the population together.

But, in the world of Enclosure, new ideas of “neighbourliness” became crucial new forms of solidarity. The English people had a shared imperative, whether working as translators for one of the greatest state-directed propaganda campaigns of all time or simply trying to survive a move to a new town, where they had heard there might be some shepherding work, without first starving to death, to idealize a new form of community, neighbourliness. Neighbours were a new kind of person: a person forced into physical proximity with you by economic exigency.

As the Nobel Committee has recently recognized, one of the most effective means of surviving large-scale market-driven and state-supported dispossession, dislocation and social service downloading is through the mobilization of private micro-credit. The ideals of neighbourliness as propounded by popular early modern English writers like Thomas Tusser were, first and foremost, means of mobilizing micro-credit within a marginalized population. A cup of sugar or flour lent by one’s neighbour remains, to the present day, our idealized image of what neighbourliness ultimately means. A few pence, a little flour, an egg – in Jacobean England, the ability of the dispossessed and marginally employed to rely on new acquaintances for sustenance was crucial for the success of the first socially capitalist society.

This new social ideal and associated practices were, at once, forms of solidarity amongst the dispossessed and marginalized, crucial for the generation of the minimum material and political security needed to survive and a means of pacifying a populace in the face of oppression while concurrently reducing the material obligations of the rulers to the ruled.

What neighbourliness was not and is not is a natural form of social organization – it is necessarily a social response to the prolonged, systematic physical dislocation and atomization of a populace due to economic exigencies. It is no coincidence that the labour movement sought to undo the great intentional translation errors of the KJV. It was not simply that labour discourse in the past two centuries has sought – almost unconsciously –to restore the meaning “peoples” in place of the KJV’s “nations,” as the translation for εθνη; it has been even more invested in changing “neighbour” back to “brother.”

While leftist thought has grappled seriously with the ways in which discourses of “nation” have reinforced racism and imperialism, the response to the other great KJV linguistic reordering has received short shrift. While a handful of important scholars have recognized the ways in which neighbourliness serves to inhibit class consciousness in that it is locates identity formation – and hence, solidarity – in residential rather than work spaces, this only scratches the surface of the problem of neighbourliness.

People imagine, incorrectly, that neighbours, neighbourhoods and the neighbourly ethic are timeless, pre-capitalist things. And while we can trace the word to the time before Enclosure, its universalization in the sixteenth century was part and parcel with it coming to refer to a probably impermanent, quasi-stranger. To be neighbourly was to engage in reciprocity as an act of faith – to enact solidarity in the absence of the trust or knowledge one might expect in the world before Enclosure.

What are the implications of this to the Jane Jacobs urbanism that has come to be so uncritically embraced by self-identified leftists and progressives? Let us historicize neighbourliness and see its fetishization as an ideal as a reasonable proxy for instability, atomization and dislocation. And let us consider the implications of understanding the neighbourhood as a form of defensive solidarity that emerges when more genuine and complete forms of community in place are under constant attack.

Of course, today’s neighbourliness is not identical to the kind developed in the sixteenth century. In Vancouver and many other major cities, neighbours are, more often than not, families forced by the housing affordability crisis to move farther from work, to suburbanize, or, conversely, childless people who work longer, more irregular hours in order to stay close to work and reduce their commuting time.

What does it mean when friends, relatives and coworkers have been evacuated from your physical locale and you are surrounded by strangers? Or, worse yet, what if you are one of the new strangers, desperately trying to narrate your relevance to a series of closed doors and impersonal shops? Faced with these socially fraught circumstances, some of us lean on the idea of neighbourliness to fight back. We know those people – they are the elderly people on your doorstep with a petition for something, the odd cadre of corduroy and tweed-wearers who attend the annual general meeting of your community centre, the acquaintances who cold-call you to ask your feelings about the decline in parking spaces and, increasingly under Vision Vancouver, the people eating finger sandwiches and writing on white boards at some kind of city-financed meeting that always seems to be taking place in Multipurpose Room C, next to the swimming pool.

Those people are very much doing what self-defined neighbours have done for centuries: using a concept that is being actively popularized by the state as a means of social control and service downloading to attempt to organize against state-supported economic development and community reorganization projects. This minority of actively-neighbourly neighbours think they are part of a big, fictive community that contains you and everybody who lives near them, with whom they hang out at the Canada Day block party that never quite gets around to happening. As I have argued elsewhere, these people are actually quite unlike most people they live near; the people they are like are the neighbourhood activists who live in other parts of the city.

Neighbourhood activists often see the majority who never seem to be around for the public meeting about the development permit application as, in some way, deficient in civic virtue. As in most discourses of civic virtue, dating back to Ancient Athens, those most lacking in civic virtue are typically the most economically dislocated, those whose time is most occupied by working, commuting and fundamental household tasks like child-rearing. Or, as conversely put by Marianna Valverde, “The local champion role is one that can be played private citizens as well as politicians… playing the role of micro-local champion is time-consuming, which may be a reason this role is generally played by people with few work and childcare responsibilities.”

Ironically, those who represent neighbours are those least like them. Those able to engage in acts of representation and advocacy are situated at the polarities of economic security with their ample time arising either from considerable familial wealth or from self-inflicted poverty in order to remain in their chosen geographic area. This mirrors the situation at the inception of neighbourliness where those most active in the civic life of the neighbourhood. Early modern England’s most active neighbours were epitomized in the figure of the neighbourhood patron, an aspiring gentleman and town notable, or the disrespectable scold, the “crazy cat lady” of her day.

Furthermore, those who use their limited time to, in preference, associate with lovers, friends, coworkers, teammates or relatives, who congregate around activities like sports, co-parenting, drinking or gambling in preference to micro-governance are understood to, in some way, be quasi-citizens, people who have lost their full franchise. Maybe that is why neighbourhood activists are so comfortable in asserting what “the community,” or “the neighbourhood” really wants in these public processes—they have annexed their neighbours’ citizenship to themselves.
I write this not because I prefer the agenda of Vision Vancouver to that of the party that came fifth in the last election, Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver. By and large, I find their policies preferable to Vision’s on nearly every front, despite the party’s stated purpose being the governance of the city by the very people I just disparaged.

I offer this harsh critique not because what groups like COPE, NSV or the Green Party are doing is wrong but because it is inherently insufficient. The conservative fantasy of the neighbourly past that these groups evoke when they point to the Greenwich Village of Jane Jacobs becomes a more entrancing mirage each year precisely because the real bonds between people are being destroyed through dislocation and replaced with neighbourliness, a state-sponsored fiction designed, from its inception, at the height of Enclosure, to pacify the populace by substituting a counterfeit for real community.

More in the next part on alternatives based on organic experiences of community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.