There is an interesting piece by David Horspool in the Times today, seeing resonances between some of the G20 protests, notably the G20 Meltdown on Wednesday 1 April, and the Diggers, whose commune on St. George’s Hill, Surrey was established on the same day 360 years ago.
Of course, some of these protesters had already been very consciously linking their actions back to an earlier tradition of protest – if not quite back to the mid-seventeenth century – see Climate Rush‘s appropriating of suffragette style, slogans and tactics in opposing Heathrow expansion.
Horspool’s argument also involves an artificial division between Leveller ‘democrats’ and Digger ‘communists’ (with a small c.) But even Winstanley’s supposedly neo-Stalinist last political tract The Law of Freedom in a Platform envisaged a democratic state built upon a clear notion of a social contract, while the Levellers were a lot more interested in the defence of individual liberty against tyranny than they were in securing the vote for adult males. Back in the mid-17th century, the Levellers had already recognised that voting rights alone could not reverse political inequalities. For that reason, not only did government have to be clearly founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, by the actual act of subscribing to the Leveller proto-constitutions, the Agreements of the People, but once elected, the power of the new ‘representative’ (Parliament) and the executive had to be hemmed in by a series of ‘reserves’, rights which no power in the land could abrogate.
More interesting is Horspool’s suggestion that the Diggers’ vision was more global than the Levellers. That is largely a consequence of the wedding of the plan for Digger communes with Winstanley’s vision of the new millennium, an event that obviously was not going to be confined just to England. Even so, the Levellers, again, get a bit hard done by. Didn’t Edward Sexby try, albeit with limited success, to sell Leveller ideas (via a French translation of the Agreement of the People, ‘L’Accord du peuple’) to the Frondeurs? And see also Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s excellent treatment of the wider implications of Leveller rhetoric in The Many Headed Hydra.
But certainly, the largely peaceful, carnivalesque nature of the G20 demonstrations this week has clear affinities with many British popular movements that successfully combined sociability with solidarity, like the orderly processions that marched to Peterloo in 1819, indebted to the Lancashire tradition of ‘rush-bearing’
Even Winstanley is at last getting a party in his honour, with a festival commemorating the Digger settlements to be held in Cobham in September this year.