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In 1649 at St. George’s Hill in England, as recounted in the revolutionary anthem “The World Turned Upside Down,” a band of landless peasants who called themselves the Diggers tore down enclosures, built themselves cottages, and began spading up land to grow food. Their goal was to set an example for the people of England, to throw off their chains and reclaim their ancient birthright. They were eventually driven off by the local Lord of the Manor, but they survive in memory as heroes in the bloody five thousand year war between those who claim to own the Earth and those who live and work in it.
Thus it always has been, in this age-old war, going back to the time when the first landed aristocracies, by supposed right of conquest, forced those working the land to pay rent on it. We saw it reenacted throughout the twentieth century. Whenever the people of a Third World country like Guatemala or El Salvador tried to restore the land to its rightful owners, the cultivators, the United States would openly invade or secretly train and arm death squads to leave “disappeared” activists in ditches with their faces hacked off. Most starvation in the world today results not from insufficient production of food, but from enclosure of land that previously fed the people working it — by landed oligarchs in collusion with Western agribusiness — to raise cash crops for export.
Today another groups of heroes, of whom the Diggers at St. George’s Hill would be proud, are making their own stand for justice. Thousands of villagers at Wukan, in China’s Guangdong province, are protesting the theft of their communal land by a corrupt local government in collusion with developers. In its own reenactment of the Enclosures, the Wukan Party Committee decided to sell off most of the village’s common land to a factory pig farming operation owned by a former local official.
The immediate trigger of the uprising was not the land seizure itself. The village had already had altercations with the authorities over that, and retaken the land, back in September. The government invited the village to appoint negotiators — a ploy, as you might guess, to identify the ringleaders. And sure enough, the government then arrested the representatives. It was the death of the chief representative, Xue Jianwan, in police custody — you folks living in Mississippi know what that’s all about — that led to the massive outpouring of protest.
The Chinese state has reacted with exactly the sort of panic you’d expect, attempting to cut off Wukan from the outside world and starve the rebellious villagers into submission.
But it’s a lot harder to keep things secret these days than in the days of the Diggers four hundred years ago. Sympathy for the embattled peasants of Wukan has spread throughout the working population of China — and of the world. Police have had to suppress pro-Wukan demonstrations by migrant factory workers in the provincial capital of Guangzhou.
The mutual sympathy between migrant workers and peasants is understandable. As sweatshop workers told Naomi Klein when she was researching No Logo, many of them would prefer to work their own land in their home villages, among their families — but there’s no land for them to work. Can you guess why? The Chinese working population, like the population of England before it, has been driven off the land and into the factories like cattle.
The villagers’ heroic stand at Wukan, unlike that of the Diggers at St. George’s Hill, is being tweeted and blogged all over the world.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Occupy movement has undertaken the Occupy Our Homes campaign — like the Diggers on the Hill — as an example to be propagated, and imitated, far and wide. There are millions of homeless, and millions of vacant homes and commercial buildings in the banksters’ possession — and not enough sheriffs’ deputies and cops in creation to keep the two apart. When homeless people squat a foreclosed home, and later get evicted, they’re ahead by the amount of time they were housed. And every eviction puts the recorded brutality of the black-uniformed thugs front and center in the court of public opinion.
Thanks to the power of networked communications, the Wobbly slogan “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” has never been closer to realization. Injustice can no longer be carried out under cover of darkness. You hirelings of the ruling class, you who repress our brothers and sisters wherever in the world they may be, always keep in mind that the days of the powers you serve are numbered. Take care lest you one day fall into the hands of our justice.
Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.