Ireland and the Enclosure of the Commons

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This article was originally published on Conor McCarthy’s blog, Reflections from Damaged Life on the 6th of April.

Last January I climbed Djouce Mountain, in Co. Wicklow, with my old friend and comrade Andrew.  We went up by the Barr and White Hill, and on to Djouce summit.  It was a beautiful day of hard frost, and the hills retained a dusting of snow.  It’s a magnificent, easy hike.  Cresting the Barr, where we passed the memorial to JB Malone, the view down to Lough Tay and Luggala, over to Fancy and Knocknaclohoge, and beyond to Lough Dan and Scarr, was superb.  Snows fringed the rim of the great cliffs above the lake, backed by pale azure skies.  Every blade of grass bore its own banner of hoarfrost.

The walk is deceptively easy, as much of it is now ‘boardwalked’.  By this I mean that the path had been becoming severely eroded, and some combination of agencies – the Wicklow National Park, perhaps, and Coillte, and Mountain Meitheal – came together to lay a pathway over the soft heather and bog, made of old CIE railway sleepers bound together, and laid in pairs end to end, in steps or stretching out over the moors.  For once, a decent and environmentally-sound intrusion has been made into the over-pressured Wicklow hills.

But a much bigger problem is in the making, and has been for some time.  Andrew and I parked the car at the entrance and carpark of a state forest on the east side of the Sally Gap-Luggala road, a Coillte forest that drapes the southern flanks of Djouce and White Hill.   These forests, which litter Wicklow, and are present all over Ireland, are mostly composed of fast-growing lodgepole pine and sitka spruce and other unprepossessing conifers, that can cope with rugged or boggy or otherwise marginal land.  They are planted very densely, and in ugly boxed formations that lap up the mountainsides.  They are planted so closely, in fact, that in the resultant darkness there is no undergrowth, and much the ground beneath them becomes sterile.  Very little wildlife can survive in these forests once they are mature, though some species like the plantations when the trees are young.   The pine needles and other detritus from these trees, which are grown mostly for pulp, not  for quality timber, cause acidification of the soils, such as they are.  When Coillte decides to fell a certain crop of trees, the procedures used are extraordinarily destructive and ugly.  ‘Clearfelling’ involves simply smashing down all the trees in a designated area.   They may be felled by axe and chainsaw, or they may be pulled down by some kind of pulley machinery.  Either way, the result is a blasted landscape of grey deadwood, resembling some dismal blend of Flanders in 1916 and Tunguska in 1908.

Be all of this as it may, Coillte has maintained amenity access to these forests for the Irish public, except when felling is taking place.  Coillte forests cover 7% of the land area of Ireland.  Many of them, as in Wicklow, guard the routes onto some of the most dramatic and superb mountain landscapes in Ireland – Glendalough in Wicklow, or Glen Inagh on the eastern rim of the Twelve Bens are two areas I know well, but there are many others.

As part of its suite of ‘austerity’ policies to re-balance the state finances, but also to pay back stupendous debts, under the aegis of the ‘troika’ of the EU, the IMF, and the ECB, the current Fine Gael/Labour coalition government proposes to sell the harvesting rights to these forests.  Not, they say, the land itself, not the forests themselves, but the right to cut trees and sell timber. This idea, which is of questionable constitutionality, has extraordinary implications.

It seems highly unlikely that any corporation that would seriously wish to invest in such ‘harvesting rights’ would not wish also to obtain a large degree of control over the landscapes where those rights would be exercised.  This would mean that any such investor, such as IFS Asset Managers, which the ludicrous and disgraceful Bertie Ahern joined as an executive in 2011, would eventually wish to control access to these forests, would wish to push new roads into the forests, would likely seek to cut off or restrict public amenity access to the forests at certain times, might baulk at issues pertaining to insurance liability, might wish to change species planted, might change the routine of felling, might change methods of felling, might wish to put certain kinds of permanent installations on forest land (buildings, carparks, machinery), might use chemicals or other materials hitherto unused.   Doubtless other problems of this kind would arise, should such a sale go ahead.

The sale is being contemplated under the terms of the bail-out programme organised by the EU, ESB and IMF.  However, it’s important to note that the ‘troika’ does not specify that forestry – as a ‘non-strategic’ state asset – be sold off, in part or in its entirety.  The move towards a  break-up and sale of Coillte comes from our own government and politicians.

The sale of harvesting rights may turn out to  be highly unwise, in market-capitalist terms.  Economist Peter Bacon – he of the famous reports on the coming crisis in the Irish housing market of 1998 and 1999 which were ignored – has argued that the sale of Coillte harvesting rights ‘cannot be justified’  in economic terms.  In a report commissioned by the Coillte branch of IMPACT and published  on January 28, 2013, Bacon and his colleagues have declared that the sale of harvesting rights as currently planned would leave the state with costs of up to 1.3 billion euros, or, to put it otherwise, the sale of harvesting assets would have to be made at prices very substantially higher than can be supported by the market.   Bacon says that the current proposals would effectively destroy Coillte as a viable commercial entity, stripping it of its valuable features, and leaving it to maintain and run assets of lower value – the classic risk of privatisation of state assets.  Bacon’s report also deals with the risks to amenity access and thereby to the tourist economy – such risks are hard to quantify,  but very real nevertheless.

The Assistant Secretary-General of IMPACT, Johnny Fox responded to the release of the Bacon report thus: ‘IMPACT and many other organisations have expressed concerns that the sale of Coillte harvesting rights would drastically limit public access to the countryside, undermine the quality and character of our woods, and damage our world-class forestry and environmental standards.  In response we were told that the policy is necessary on economic grounds. Peter Bacon’s report has now fundamentally undermined the only rationale the Government has put forward for this reckless and damaging policy’.

The reader of this blog might then ask, Is there any connection between this argument about public forestry in Ireland, and the Israel/Palestine question?  Well, in fact there is a strong connection.  To understand it, we need to go back to Marx.

At the conclusion of the first volume of Capital, Marx discusses the point of initiation of capitalism.  For capital to be accumulated, a pool must be created of workers that lack capital, that lack control of the means of production, and that can only sell their labour-power.  So he describes how, in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance era, the process of enclosure  began, whereby small peasant proprietors were flung – frequently with violence – off their land, and the great estates of modern England began to appear.  The former small farmers were now available as a rural proletariat, and the process of capital accumulation could move ahead.   The great Welsh cultural and literary critic Raymond Williams wrote about this process – which went on for hundreds of years – and its literary representations, even in writers as apparently apolitical as Jane Austen, in his masterpiece The Country and the City (1973).

The privatisation of state assets represents but the latest stage of this long and grim story.   The geographer David Harvey summarises Marx’s arguments on this as follows:  the process requires the commodification and privatisation of land and the expulsion by force of peasant populations; the conversion into exclusive private property rights of various ownership rights (common, state, collective); the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative modes of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation.  The state, with its monopoly of legitimate violence and of legality has a crucial role in backing and promoting this process.

Harvey’s treatment of this issue comes as part of his argument in The New Imperialism (2003) that the term ‘primitive accumulation’ is, in fact, a misnomer, in that it suggests that what Marx calls the ‘original sin’ of capitalism only took place deep in the historical past, and has nothing to do with the processes of neoliberal capitalism today.  But the American war in Iraq suggests otherwise, suggests that we should really refer to ‘accumulation by dispossession’, and that the American interventions in the Middle East, which are concerned principally with influencing the control, regulation and monetization of oil resources, should be seen as part of the wider history of the privatisation of the commons.  The Israeli occupation of the West Bank can be seen as part of the same process.  Over the last 46 years, the occupation has shifted from  being primarily a military operation, justified in strategic terms, to something broader, involving a substantial part of the Israeli economy, the state-sponsored theft and control of crucial resources (land and water), and the proletarianisation of the Palestinian population.  The threatened privatisation of Irish forestry, of a major national material and cultural asset, held by the state in trust for the Irish people, is a seemingly undramatic outrider of the same process.

Arundhati Roy tells us, in her Power Politics (2001), that privatisation is essentially ‘the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies.  Productive assets include natural resources.  Earth, forest, water, air.  These are the assets that the state holds in trust for the people it represents … To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history’.

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One Response

  1. Blackberry

    April 17, 2013 8:11 pm

    completely out of my depth here; but just had to say, – a great article.
    The sterility of those pine forests, the trees so tightly packed, are not life
    whatsoever to be seen there,is humiliating and depressing. You feel you
    are from a very mean country and society.
    So interesting – the part that differentiates between “private” property rights and
    various ‘ownership’ rights (common, state, collective). This ‘ownership’ is a
    tremendous concept;- that should be broadcast more.
    Have only read one, obscure, Jane Austen novel (and seen some movies) – but
    yep, could sense the political about her; it was something to do with ‘the sister
    and father abandoning the country (home), (a kind of abandoning of their ‘commons’?)
    and going to live in a small, (but financially), more desirable, house.