The Levellers, The Diggers, The Hackers, and The Builders

by @edent | # # # # # | 1 comment | Read ~239 times.

My schooling of English history covered the 1066 invasion, then jumped to the Tudors, a smattering of the industrial revolution, a bit of the First World War, then a heavy focus on the Second World War whereupon, it seemed, history stopped.

As far as I can recall, we learned nothing about the English Dissenters – the radical sects which flourished after the English Civil War.


As I’ve continued my informal education, two groups in particular stand out – the Levellers and the Diggers. To grossly oversimplify, the Levellers wanted democracy and religious freedom.

To quote Wikipedia, they wanted…

…extension of suffrage to include almost all the adult male population, electoral reform, for Parliament to be elected every two years, for religious freedom, and for an end to imprisonment for debt. They were committed broadly to the abolition of corruption within the Parliamentary and judicial process, toleration of religious differences, the translation of law into the common tongue and, arguably, something that could be considered democracy in its modern form…

Naturally, the law came down on them. They were harassed, imprisoned, driven from their homes, and executed. Today, they are barely remembered; their activities between 1645 to 1649 merely a historical footnote.

At least, they would have been if not for their writing.

In 1649, John Lilburne published the Agreement of the People – a document which eventually became the basis for the US Bill of Rights and heavily influenced the American Constitution.

After the Levellers came the Diggers. Again, to grossly oversimplify, they wanted the right to farm land in freedom. At a time when the state held unprecedented control over the people, and food prices were at an all time high, they engaged in civil disobedience and used the common land to produce their own food. By 1651 the entire movement was crushed. All that remains is their ideas of communitarian-ism as this rather wonderful song.


As the half the Internet bleeds tears of sorrow over the death of Aaron Swartz, it feels to me like we need to recapture these old ideals.

Our leaders are corrupt, wealthy Barons restrict our access to the commons, the poor suffer while the rich commit crimes with impunity.

The very first domain I registered was called Digital Masons. Not out of any kinship with secret societies – but rather expressing the idea that, like medieval masons, the creators of the new digital economy were builders. A fact perfectly expressed in David Weinberger’s eulogy for Swartz.

The figureheads of this nascent movement are ridiculed, pilloried, persecuted, and imprisoned. A few reach the upper echelons of Government or academia where they can be safely tamed or ignored.

Is it enough to write polemics on the web? No.
Can we educate our politicians? Not without vast sums of cash.
Protests and sit ins? Far too easily marginalised and ignored.
Violence? Bows and arrows against the lightening,

We’re left with building.

Building better tools, fairer protocols, more open systems, and ingraining openness in our personal and work lives.

We need to push our ideas on freedom, openness, and transparency. Push them into the world so they can never be lost. Like the Levellers brought forth the American Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Right, so we have to ensure that our ideas – our memes – endure.

What have you done today to support freedom?

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