And so we come to the thorny issue of landownership and property rights in a small farm future, which I discuss in Chapter 13 of my book.
A lot of people I encounter profess complete disdain for the very idea of ‘owning’ land, usually along the lines of the words attributed to Chief Seattle: the earth does not belong to people, people belong to the earth.
Well, I agree. But my interest in landownership is not so cosmological. Less to do with the spirit, and more to do with the stomach. What I want to know is whether it’s OK for me and my folks to fish at this spot in the river, or sow wheat on this patch of land, or take firewood from this part of the woodland. And these are not trivial questions when you need to make a livelihood directly from the land among multitudes of other people, as I believe many or most of us will have to in the future.
It’s this relationship with other people that’s critical, and I believe isn’t as well understood as it should be by critics of the idea of ownership. If I say that I ‘own’ some land, this isn’t fundamentally a claim about my relationship to the land in question. It’s a claim about my relationship to other people in respect of the land – essentially that I have some agreed rights of appropriation in respect of the land that they do not. Fundamentally, property rights are social relations between people. And these relations can be parcelled up in almost endless ways. I may have appropriation rights over fishing a river, but only for certain kinds of fish, or at certain times of year, or if I offer certain gifts to a local dignitary or deity. I may have an exclusive right to plant a field, but not to hunt on it, or dig for minerals on it, or build a house on it, or stop other people from walking over it. In this sense, I think it’s possible to agree with Chief Seattle while still claiming to ‘own’ a piece of land.
So property ownership implies social agreement, even if it’s grudging. If I ask someone not to fish this stretch of river because I own the fishing rights here, I’m implying that both of us are bound by some wider social compact to which we both owe fealty and which by some due process internal to it has accorded me, and not them, the fishing rights. In the absence of that social agreement, ownership means nothing. It’s my word, my fishing rod, or my gun, against theirs.
What is this wider social compact? A word that often springs to the lips is ‘the community’, or some version thereof. In his response to my previous post, Col Gordon discussed the traditional runrig system of Scottish Highland land use in which “the resource base of the land was held communally”. I’m cautious of invoking terms like ‘communal’ or ‘community’ because I think they too often operate as feelgood words that conceal internal politics. Maybe it’s worth substituting a less feelgood word like ‘the government’ to guard against this – “the resource base of the land was held by the government” has a different feel, and in my opinion better captures the messy political realities, even in localized ‘self’-governing situations.
There’s a bad tendency to seek the ‘true’ form of property rights and government by locating it at some historical point of origin. This applies to the founders of modern capitalist ideology like John Locke in their attempts to justify forms of individualism and private property rights. But it also applies to those who justify collectivism as the original human condition. Colonial situations of the kind that concerned both Chief Seattle and Col Gordon are particularly fraught, because the obvious injustice when a private property regime is imposed by force upon a more collectivist one makes the latter seem more original and authentic. This easily obscures the tensions of the prior collectivist system and its own possibly troubled history.
That is not, of course, to say that historical injustices like colonial appropriation of land requires no restitution. But it may mean that achieving the restitution could prove complicated. And this is particularly true if we view property regimes not just as an economic or cultural choice made by given people, but as an ecological strategy followed by people to make a livelihood in the circumstances particular to their time and place. If those circumstances have changed, it may no longer make sense to revert to pre-existing property regimes. This is one of several reasons why I find the idea of solving the problems created by what some call racialized global capitalism by recourse to what some call indigenous land management a bit more problematic than it might appear.
To summarize so far: any claim of ownership or rights to usage over land is a social relation between people which implies a wider political agreement, and it’s probably best not to promote any particular kind of ownership right as inherently superior on the basis of historical origins. Whether we’re talking about fishing a river, the Scottish runrig system and its successors, John Locke’s enthusiasm for private property or Chief Seattle’s scepticism about it, my suggestion is that every possible way that humans have devised to make a livelihood from the land individually or collectively involves problematic inter-human relationships that we can dump in a file called ‘government’. I will try to open up that file in a forthcoming post.
For now, I just want to make a few comments about four broad kinds of property regime around which I’ll organize my discussion in the next few posts.
First, there is distributed private property. In this situation, pretty much everyone has access to an (inevitably small) bit of land that they can call their own. As per my discussion above, their rights of appropriation over it probably won’t be total, but they will have substantial day-to-day autonomy with how they organize their affairs in respect of it.
Second, there is monopoly private property. Here, private landownership is concentrated in few hands, whether a hereditary aristocracy, a moneyed class of more porous membership, or a private collectivity like a business corporation. In this situation, those who aren’t part of the land-monopolizing class may have to rent land or buy its products from the monopolists, probably on unfavourable terms by virtue of the latter’s monopoly. This is called ‘economic rent’ or ‘Ricardian rent’, as discussed at some length in my book – the key point being that monopoly control enables the monopolist to squeeze the unlanded beyond what could be sustained in an evenly distributed land allocation.
Third, there is public property. In this situation, property rights are invested in a corporate body that exercises them exclusively, typically nowadays in the form of a state that claims to do so legitimately because of a sovereignty that derives ultimately from the people it rules over.
Finally, there is common property (or ‘commons’). Here the land is owned by no single person or body, nor by a centralized state claiming sovereignty. Instead, appropriation rights are owned by a specific group of people who in theory have equal rights over it, as determined by protocols agreed among themselves (see A Small Farm Future pp.177-8).
Many of our standard political doctrines pin their colours largely to just one of these four forms of property. So for example, neoliberal capitalism favours monopoly private property, socialism in its various forms favours public property, while quite a bit of Chief Seattle inflected contemporary alternative economics thirsts for commons.
I’m going to look in more detail at each of the four types in forthcoming posts, but I’ll say right now that each of them has some obvious drawbacks, and I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about any single one of them as a fundamental basis for organizing society. One drawback shared by most of them is the tendency for control to fall into the hands of a few relatively unaccountable people at the expense of the many, and to operate at an inappropriately large and unresponsive scale.
So I don’t personally favour any single one of these forms of property. But I do have my preferences. Whereas modern capitalist countries like Britain are typically a mix of monopoly private property and public ownership, with a small serving of distributed private property and the tiniest sliver of common property, I favour on the contrary a small farm future comprising a lot of distributed private property, quite a bit of common property, a small serving of public property and barely a sliver of monopoly private property. So pretty much a reversal of the status quo.
When people profess their opposition to ‘private property’ they rarely seem to grasp how utterly different societies of distributed private property are from ones of monopoly private property, nor – given the separability of different kinds of property rights – how extraordinarily totalitarian are societies lacking de facto private property rights in anything.
There’s also considerable contemporary ignorance about the fact that a century or so ago there were powerful currents of political thought opposing the erosion of distributed private property rights through wage labour, industrial work discipline and monopoly capital. In the event, monopoly capital and collective labour politics prevailed during the 20th century, and these older currents of thought faded. But though they lost the political battle in the short-term, they weren’t necessarily wrong. The disasters of 20th century capitalism and communism have delivered us into a historical moment when those older arguments may have some currency again.
The distributists were proponents of one such strand of argument, and Sean Domencic has persuaded me that I’m (more or less) a latter-day distributist inasmuch as I think that widespread ownership of farmland for the production of food and fibre primarily for household and then for wider local use is desirable.
One advantage of distributed farmsteading is that it has a self-limiting orientation towards household need satisfaction rather than an expansionary orientation towards profit or productivity increase. But this requires strong (private) property rights of appropriation, to prevent external pressures for increase.
There’s a second and related advantage that I don’t think is talked about nearly enough nowadays, although it’s a familiar theme on this blog. This is the personal satisfaction of competently furnishing one’s own livelihood through skilled farming, gardening, foraging and craft skills. It’s possible to overdo this point and succumb to questionable ideologies of the rugged individualist sort. But so many people in the world today lack the opportunity, knowledge and skill to provide even the most basic perquisites of daily life, and I believe this is a silent pathology that eats at contemporary society.
Another advantage of local, small-scale, self-provisioning farm tenure is that it makes the ecological harms of one’s farming practices obvious and incentivizes people to avoid them. At the same time, it enables people to tap the economies of small, non-commercialized scale that I mentioned in a recent post.
Finally, as discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of A Small Farm Future, an advantage of distributed property ownership and personal livelihood production is that it reduces the need for thrashing out agreements with other people over exactly how to go about one’s business. People in the alternative agriculture/alternative economics movements often say that we’re too individualist nowadays and we need to create more collective working structures. This is no doubt true in some ways, but it’s complicated. The more people you have to negotiate work routines with, the more time is sucked into the process and the more precious livelihood autonomy you lose. A nodding acquaintance with the agrarian structures of many non-capitalist and non-modern societies should be enough to show that selfishness, free-riding and general human orneriness are not limited to modern capitalist societies and need to be carefully managed everywhere. One of the easiest ways to do this involves the subsidiarity of undertaking everything that you realistically can yourself.
The main disadvantages of distributed private property are, as I see it, threefold. First there’s the flipside of the point I just made – the danger of an anomic individualism, lack of community feeling or hidden exploitation within the household. We’ve already discussed this at some length here, but no doubt we’ll return to it again.
The second disadvantage is that restricted divisions of labour and value extraction in a distributed small farm society may limit its technological possibilities. There won’t be Boeing 747s, Android Smartphones or even Massey Ferguson 135s in a genuinely distributed small farm society. There may, however, be blacksmiths who can keep a lot of useful local tech going. Given the urgent need to decarbonize, decapitalize and relocalize our political economies in view of present crises, I see this as probably an advantage rather than a disadvantage. But it involves a huge and perhaps impossible readjustment of contemporary horizons.
Finally, a disadvantage of distributed private property societies is that it’s pretty difficult to stop them from becoming monopoly private property societies, thereby losing all of the advantages that I’ve mentioned. I’ll talk more about this in a later post. The ghost of Henry George is stirring.