A Brief History of Mass Theft

‘There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.’
Thomas Jefferson

Our institutionalised brand of democracy goes by the name of capitalism. In such a system the word democracy, as Noam Chomsky points out actually means, run by the business classes. If it’s not run by business, it simply doesn’t count as democratic.

Capitalist democracy is one in which all capital is privately, albeit indirectly, owned by a tiny club of psychologically stunted monsters. It is a democracy that asks us to vote, every four or five years, for people who have almost zero influence over the totalitarian corporate structures that actually run the planet and in which we spend most of our actual lives; a democracy that can only survive by making its members as stupid, anxious, greedy and hateful as possible so that they continue to vote for the owners and managers who sit at the bottom of the democratic money-funnel with their golden buckets, laughing like this:

Iain Duncan Smith, a beautiful, beautiful man.

It’s worth asking, I think, how we could get to such a state.

Ask yourself this; what do these six things have in common?

  • Democracy.
  • A ‘Level Playing Field’.
  • Peace and Quiet.
  • The Rule of Law.
  • Free Markets.
  • Freedom of Opportunity.

Well, one answer is that we have all of them, more or less. As man-of-joy Rutgar Bregman points out, Western Europe is democratic, fair, peaceful and lawful. It’s just lovely.

Another answer is that they are a cigarette paper meniscus stretched over seven hells of boredom, waste, inequality, insensitivity, meaningless, mediocrity and misery.

And yet a third answer is that this clean, lawful Arcadia was created through a millennial process of theft, subjugation, deception on a unspeakable scale and mass-murder; infamies too extensive to catalogue and, for many, to even consider.

Let’s take one example of millions, this guy:

This is a picture of the 6th Duke of Sutherland, John Egerton and Mertoun House, where he lives. He’s dead now — can’t find a photograph of the 7th Duke, Francis Egerton, for some reason — but anyway the Sutherlands are worth £30 million and his assets include a billion pounds in fine art treasures. Where did they get their money? If you’re Scottish I probably don’t need to tell you who the first Duke of Sutherland was — it was this guy, pictured here with his wife:

Note the look in their eyes — captured very well, I think.

These two obtained their power by clearing vast areas of Scottish highland of their inhabitants. Here is Marx’s account of what happened:

All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned to pasturage. British soldiers enforced this mass of evictions, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of her hut she refused to leave. It was in this manner that this fine lady (Lady Sutherland) appropriated 794,000 acres of land which belonged to the clan since time immemorial… By 1825, the 15,000 Gaels had been replaced by 131,000 sheep.

This was itself the culminating event of centuries of confiscation of land and forced evictions.

Sutherland now finds itself a perfectly democratic county, in a perfectly peaceful, lawful land of freedom; one in which, it just so happens, all the land and resources are owned by a handful of people, such as Frankie Sutherland and the various billionaires and multinationals that his ancestors sold their land to.

If you’re not familiar with classical economics and the ideas of Mr. K. Marx, the process by which communal land and resources are appropriated by private wealth (or capital), and people are robbed of their self-sufficiency and thereby forced into a position where they have to sell their labour in order to survive, is called Primitive Accumulation. Today we might call this Privatisation, or in plain-speaking, Mass-Theft.

The classic, and in some senses original, case of mass-theft was enclosure, the lawful practice, which began in the fifteenth century, of amalgamating common land into a single property and handing it over to private interest. George Orwell summarises:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

Half of the land in Britain is currently owned by 36,000 people. One man, the Duke of Westminster, owns 133,000 acres (similar statistics — often much more severe — hold for most of the rest of the world) and most of these rights can be traced back to one form of enclosure or another.

For the most part then primitive accumulation has been a straightforward case of Sutherland-style theft and concomitant murder; simply stealing or enclosing land and / or killing everyone on it — what we might call Direct Mass-Theft. The earliest ancestors of the noble families of Europe initially gained their power in this way, taking the land of their own country’s peoples, and then, during ‘the great work of subjugation and conquest,’ taking that of other peoples, a practice which continues today (in Brazil, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere).

Marx summarises:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c. The different moments of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

None of this is to say that feudalism was a bed of roses — in many ways, of course, it was gruesome; worse than the market system which followed. It is true that peasants have often left the land to gain one of the Great Gods of capitalism, ‘a higher standard of living’ — more comfort, more luxury or more independence, and it is also true that capitalism, through the need of finance capital for ‘stability’ can often hold large areas of the world in a state of ‘peace’. Defenders of the modern world naturally make much of these things, and use them to gloss over, firstly, the tides of blood that flow alongside the ‘peaceful’ river of ‘progress’, secondly all that was good in feudal systems (see here for a sketch), thirdly that, in many cases, it was not feudalism that capitalism replaced but older and fairer ‘systems’, and finally, the intense psychological misery (alienation, domestication, addiction, etc.) of the relatively wealthy urban wage-slave and the ‘peaceful’ modern state.

Direct mass-theft is then, wherever possible, avoided. It’s unpleasant work, exhausting and it’s just not good for business to have blood dripping from your hands. In the early days, at the dawn of capitalism, such crude tactics were necessary, as they still are in many parts of the world, in order to gain monopolistic control of the source of wealth; land. But mass-thieves have always understood that to gain the second vital component of their wealth, labour, it is vital, not to mention easier, to also use Indirect Mass-Theftimpoverishment (the stick) and addiction (the carrot).

Techniques of pre-modern impoverishment included (and still include), usury, taxation, raising prices on food, capitalising on disasters and enacting laws that curtail self-sufficiency (that make it illegal for people to collect firewood, hunt (‘poach’), mill their own flower, etc) and vagrancy (along with concomitant taboos against ‘lolling’, ‘idling’ and so on), all of which combine to force people into a state of dependency on the owners of capital and the issuers of money. With no land or access to it, unable to buy the necessities of life, or make them, forced into debt and compelled to give away what little they do have, men and women become poor and hungry, the prerequisites for wage slavery and indentured servitude.

The influential writer and political theorist of early capitalism, Arthur Young, explained;

…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.

Another influential writer of the eighteenth century, Joseph Townsend, put it this way;

[Direct] legal constraint [to labor]… is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise… whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.… Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.

Michael Perelmen, in The Invention of Capitalism (from which these two quotes are taken) points out that nearly all of the political theorists of the time, above all Adam Smith, were silent or circumspect about the need and the reality of primitive accumulation, although…

…on reviewing the major figures in the pantheon of political economy, an unremitting hostility toward self-provisioning of all kinds emerges — at least insofar as it interferes with the recruitment of wage labor.


…almost all representatives of early political economy agreed on the beneficial effects of high food prices in forcing wage labor to work harder (see Furniss 1965; Wermel 1939, 1–14, 17, 24). In this vein, Sir William Temple (1758, 30) suggested that the community would be well served if food were taxed when harvests were plentiful lest the working class sink into sloth and debauchery. David Hume (1752c, 344), for his part, asserted that such policies would even be in the interests of the poor: ‘‘’Tis always observed, in years of scarcity, if it be not extreme, that the poor labour more, and really live better.’’

Impoverishment did not end with the pre-modern techniques of land-theft and economic deprivation. As capitalism got underway new methods of crippling people became available. Sophisticated forms of speculation and legal market transactions could — and can — reduce entire countries to penury at a stroke. Self-sufficiency and traditional networks of mutual aid could also be hobbled or broken up by forcing people to be dependent on the technology, energy, transport-systems, bureaucratic credentials (aka qualifications), channels of information and ‘consumer goods’ of the market. While the impoverished pre-modern or third-world worker cannot grow food on his own land, raise his family in his own home or make his own clothes and furniture, the impoverished modern worker cannot use his feet to go where he needs to go — he needs a car — use his mouth to communicate with his fellows — he needs a phone — or use his own intelligence and experience to propagate knowledge — he needs the correct qualification (or ‘a proven track-record’ in communications). Now it is not just land that is owned by the wealthy, but every conceivable form of human capital. Every move we attempt to make outside the market forces us against the point of a spear which forces back into it.

In addition to wholesale appropriation of the necessities of life, capital also developed sophisticated forms of propaganda and indoctrination which, through advertising, film, music, journalism and art, compelled people to put their faith in capitalism, to spurn ‘old-fashioned’ values, to ignore mass-theft and to embrace the work ethic. These had their roots in the earliest religion of Capitalism, Protestantism, but reached new heights of psychological potency with techniques of persuasion developed by the new profession of journalism, designed to manufacture consent, and the new science of psychology, designed to tap into our deepest desires.

For we are not just compelled into the market by external pressures, but internal addictions. The stick of planned obsolescence (soap that wears out in three days, washing machines that break ten minutes after the warranty runs out, operating systems that must be updated every year) drives us from behind and the carrot of perceived obsolescence beckons us forward (the ‘need’ to have the latest version, the newest style). From the beads, buckets, calico prints, firearms and hooch sold to pre-conquest people to tempt them into producing for the market, to the smartphones, luxury cars, electric blankets and box-sets that compel modern people into a need to earn more; every step the market digs deeper into our addictive fears and desires; every conceivable weakness is exploited by capital, to draw us into the market. Whiskey-addicted speed-freak and closet psychopath? We’ve got just the thing, sir! Loquacious, luxury-addicted bimbo, who needs the constant validation of yearning stares from men? Step this way, madam!

We are now well out of primitive accumulation and into the ‘silent hand’ (in Adam Smith’s rather creepy imagery) that forces or compels us to consume the products of the market and sell our labour power to it for the credits to do so. Perelman again:

…wage labor appeared to be a voluntary affair. Once capital no longer had to rely as extensively on the initial extramarket compulsion to create wage labor… contrived measures to undermine the self-sufficient household were unnecessary. With the establishment of an epoch in which ‘‘the silent compulsion of economic relations’’ had become more effective (Marx 1977, 899), capital could pretend that workers were willing partners in a mutually rewarding transaction.

There is no need for violence or compulsion by nobles. The impersonal market does it all automatically. There are no need for Orwellian techniques of control to keep us in place; the Huxleyan market forces us to keep ourselves in place. The explicit orders of the slave-owner have been replaced by the implicit compulsions of the contract ‘freely made’ between the worker and the employer. You are free to start your own company, grow your own food, walk to work, educate yourself, create free communities of mutual aid, work the land, do whatever you please. You’re free to do all these things! Go on — what’s stopping you?

The entire process of mass-theft took centuries to carry out in Western Europe and is often difficult to grasp in its entirety. It is instructive to study it though, particularly in England, which, as Marx pointed out, served as something of a model for the rest of the world;

England developed its strong industrial base precisely because it was so successful in carrying out the process of primitive accumulation. With so many people left dependent on the market for their basic needs, British industry had a far greater mass market at hand than any other country. This advantage was crucial for the success of the Industrial Revolution in England.

Nowadays of course it all happens much more quickly and efficiently;

  1. Attack a resource-rich country with a level of violence they are unable to comprehend or repel. Decimate the community and establish through ‘foreign aid,’ a westernised elite sufficiently violent and power-hungry to crush resistance.
  2. Force states into massive debt (through warfare, taking advantage of catastrophe, etc.) which are paid to infrastructure-building, resource-depleting corporations and their local clients (dictators, generals, etc.) but paid by the state.
  3. Force states, in order to pay these debts, to privatise all resources and remove all laws that protect local labour, local capital and the local environment, or that tax corporate profit flood local markets with cheap, massively over-subsidised corporate goods, (ruining local producers) steal (i.e. buy up) local resources and local capital, employ locals at the lowest possible rates and turn the local environment into an uninhabitable wasteland
  4. Finally, after the tax payers at home have helped create an ‘economic miracle,’ and the owners have become hugely rich, level the playing field, which is to say introduce ‘free-trade’ in which the pauper majority are unable to compete, and complain violently when they try to subsidise independent or locally run endeavours.
  5. All the time ensure, at home, that outrage at this approach is pacified. Use the media to avoid all critical issues, to structure those critical issues that do emerge within an acceptable framework, and, for the less educated, whip up a jingoistic sense of moral and racial superiority. As constant plunder results in an unnecessarily large quantity of products, the media must also be used to manufacture desire as well as consent.

And there you have it, here we all are, living on the free, lawful, peaceful, quiet, level-playing field of global democracy; and who but a communist, or a terrorist, or an enemy of democracy, could possibly challenge this? Who but a madman even?

For sure there’s always the threat that someone like Corbyn, Iglesias or Sanders make it on to the ballot paper, a prospect which make elites, and their professional lackeys, sick with fear; not just because they know that healthy proles and nationalised public services do not a soaring share-dividend make, but also because socialism gives off a whiff of the most intense source of dread that, as a class, they ever experience; fear of the mass.

But the owners and managers of capital also know full well that, come what may, even a ‘crisis of democracy’ cannot meaningfully threaten the market system.

Only nature can do that.


A few sources:
The Invention of Capitalism: Michael Perelman
Captains of Consciousness: Stuart Ewen
The Racket: Matt Kennard
As I Please: George Orwell
Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism: David Harvey
Capital: Karl Marx (or Harvey’s Companion to Capital, if you actually want to understand it)
Year 501: Noam Chomsky


See also, for some examples of mass-theft abroad: Three Crimes of the British Empire
And for how the system works these days: The 5 System Filters
And for the wider context in which this little story is but a chapter: A Truish and Actual History of the World
Finally, a few notes on the inherently flawed system of Democracy.

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