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The World Turned Upside Down

by Billy Bragg

This song, originally recorded by Leon Rosselson, is about a revolutionary group called the Diggers. The transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe was marked by the violent theft of land from the masses of common people who lived in rural, self-sustaining village communities with distinct cultures and forms of folk religion from those of the elite. This process created the dependent and exploitable workforce that this new economy required. Resistance to this displacement was widespread throughout the continent. The Diggers were a group of dispossessed English people who believed the world to be a "common treasury for all." In 1649, they led a campaign to "reclaim the commons" and began farming and building homes on St. George's Hill in the district of Surrey.

 

During the same period, tens of thousands of these newly landless English poor were forcibly trafficked or manipulated into coming to the British colonies as indentured servants where, initially, many carried on this legacy of resistance to capitalist exploitation in multi-racial coalitions. Colonial rulers then designed legislation that named them "white," separated them from black and indigenous people, and pushed many of them to become perpetrators of racial violence.

Most of the other ​European immigrant groups that arrived in the U.S. in later centuries came in part because of the suffering that this displacement and exploitation caused them. Yet they arrived still holding distinct ethnic identities that placed high value on the welfare of community and with politics that often led them to fight for this welfare. They too were socialized in often forceful ways to become "white," to adopt the associated culture that prized individualistic wealth accumulation, and to prioritize white racial solidarity over multi-racial class solidarity. 

Side Notes:

  • Though the era of the Diggers was a revolutionary time in which the King of England was beheaded, the Diggers themselves were not involved in this beheading unlike what Bragg says at the beginning of the video.

  • The processes of enclosure and land privatization continued to displace more and more communities in England and Europe through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.