Sunday, January 26, 2014

This land is your land, this land is my land...

'How much land does a man need?" Leo Tolstoy asked in his jewel of a story. Never quite satisfied with the plots of land allocated by the local commune, or mir, the peasant Pahom sets out to acquire ever more and is finally faced with the opportunity to buy cheap land from the nomad Bashkirs, a people "as simple as sheep." The going rate on a piece of Bashkir steppe is "one thousand rubles a day"—1,000 rubles, that is, for as much acreage as Pahom can walk around in one day.

Quite apart from its literary qualities, the fable of Pahom's temptation and greed was highly topical when published in 1886. Tolstoy, himself owner of the 4,000-acre Yasnaya Polyana estate, worked by 350 peasants, had once bought land off the Bashkirs. Yet his story shows that Tolstoy despised the attitudes that went with private property and nostalgically favored the old order of the mir and its communal control of arable land. Two decades before writing "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy, with the rest of Russia, had experienced a great historical change in liberty and ownership, as all serfs were freed in the Emancipation Reform of 1861. At one time people had belonged to the land—and its self-appointed owners—but possessed the right to occupy it. Now they were free to fend for themselves, but could no longer rely on support and protection in times of shortage and conflict.

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Present-day distinctions among governments and societies across the globe, Linklater argues, are the result of land ownership evolving along different lines. In one of these lines, the history of the modern Western world takes as its starting point a novel concept introduced in 16th-century England, toward the end of medieval feudalism: the idea that land could be owned individually, without obligations to earthly or heavenly lords and masters or to communities, tribes and families. This was a gradual process but well-developed by the 1540s, when Henry VIII sold off half of the land that he had confiscated from the monasteries, mainly to well-positioned courtiers. Within two generations some of this land had already changed hands as a new class of moneyed men—London merchants, sheep farmers and government officials—entered the property market.

The idea of individual, exclusive land ownership has affected modern history more than any other—in Linklater's words, it has proved to be "the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history." He later refers to individual ownership as a paradox. On the one hand, it shattered traditional civilizations, robbing communities of their land and thus of their sense of themselves in the world. On the other hand, individual ownership freed the English peasants as they emerged out of the Middle Ages and, slowly but steadily, led to revolutions that demanded liberty and equality for all, to the end of serfdom and the abolition of slavery and to representational government and democracy.

Views on how individual rights to land are achieved or granted—and how they may be controlled—vary over time and across continents. When the Earl of Carlisle was granted Barbados by charter of King Charles I in 1627, the charter stated that the king had officially made the grant "by our special grace, certain knowledge, and mere motion." For the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, rights to the land required more than a "mere motion" or a flick of the hand. Ownership, like their Puritan faith, relied on hard work and self-reliance. This argument for the concept of property as a natural right settled their consciences in regard to the native population, who were not tilling the land or building permanent homesteads.

A century later John Locke would argue, in a similar fashion, that the earth was common to all men but that "every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his." His labor could give him claim to land once thought communal. Locke's argument for natural, embodied rights to private property is neatly counterpointed by Hobbes's claim that ownership of the earth must be a creation of civil law enforced by a Leviathan-style state. Both ideas of private property, though, merged seamlessly from an agrarian to an industrial society. The structure of landowner-tenant-laborer was translated into shareholder-manager-worker, and the ideas behind the common law of property could easily encompass intellectual property as the fruits of (mental) labor.
Book Review: 'Owning the Earth' by Andro Linklater (Wall Street Journal) A novel idea sprang up in 16th-century England: that an individual could own land outright, without obligation to earthly or heavenly masters or to tribes and families.
Barely two centuries ago, most of the world’s productive land still belonged either communally to traditional societies or to the higher powers of monarch or church. But that pattern, and the ways of life that went with it, were consigned to history by, Andro Linklater persuasively argues, the most creative and at the same time destructive cultural force in the modern era—the idea of individual, exclusive ownership of land.

Spreading from both shores of the north Atlantic, it laid waste to traditional communal civilizations, displacing entire peoples from their homelands, but at the same time brought into being a unique concept of individual freedom and a distinct form of representative government and democratic institutions. By contrast, as Linklater demonstrates, other great civilizations, in Russia, China, and the Islamic world, evolved very different structures of land ownership and thus very different forms of government and social responsibility.

The history and evolution of landownership is a fascinating chronicle in the history of civilization, offering unexpected insights about how various forms of democracy and capitalism developed, as well as a revealing analysis of a future where the Earth must sustain nine billion lives. Seen through the eyes of remarkable individuals—Chinese emperors; German peasants; the seventeenth century English surveyor William Petty, who first saw the connection between private property and free-market capitalism; the American radical Wolf Ladejinsky, whose land redistribution in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea after WWII made possible the emergence of Asian tiger economies—Owning the Earth presents a radically new view of mankind’s place on the planet.
Owning the Earth (Bloomsbury Publishing)

1 comment:

  1. Will read. What is not much talked about is that land, even if owned, need not be owned "American style." American style ownership is the most toxic I have yet encountered. In Europe, rights to land remain for everyone; for example, in Sweden, a person can hike anywhere except for several hundred meters around a dwelling. This facilitates an ongoing connection to the land.

    In America, in the western states, connection with the land is still possible due to the large swaths of land sequestered as national forests and BLM land. The hapless folks living in the rest of the country mostly contend with inaccessible land, and with so called "country living" where the only "country" you readily encounter is the small parcel you own. Crossing a No Trespassing sign can get you killed. There is no bloody reason for this. But Americans, as usual, put up and shut up.

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