In this post and the next, I aim to lay out some issues about property relations by sketching how they might work in a semi-autarkic rural community or region within a small farm future. My focus is a temperate lowland zone like my home in southwest England, although the general issues apply more widely. Maybe we’re in the territory of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex once again.

What I’m going to sketch is so different from how things presently work in my home patch that no doubt it can easily be dismissed as the kind of idle fancy best left to a post-apocalyptic novel. So the other side of this I want to explore is the forces and the politics that might deliver such an outcome sooner than some might think. But that’s for a couple of posts down the line. First, the sketch.

Some grounding assumptions. In this sketch, we’re in largely post fossil fuel times and easy energy is scarce (in other words, low carbon energy has not seamlessly replaced the world’s present vast reliance on cheap and abundant fossil fuels). Also, the global political economy we know today is on its knees or in the morgue, liquid global capital is scarce and the centralized state is in retreat (see Part IV of my book).

But our region remains reasonably well suited for agriculture, or at least for horticulture. This implies that population pressure on land is high, and a large part of people’s needs – water, food, fibre (for clothing, cordage, firewood and timber), motive energy, medicines and minerals – must be met from local land. In this situation, unlike today, economic activities like food production will seek to squeeze the most they can out of the available water, land and motive energy. And probably out of the available capital too, but there will not be much of that. Squeezing the most out of labour will not be a priority – finding honest work for the multitudes of people locally probably will be.

Another assumption – most people will live in households oriented to meeting most of their own needs. I’m not really concerned for present purposes with the size and composition of these households, though it’s something I’ve previously discussed and hope to reprise again soon. It does seem likely that households will generally be small and comprise close kin, though not always. This has been a really widespread form of household organization worldwide through history. So in my mind’s eye I’m thinking about a society with a lot of small, kin-based households. But the key point for now is that households, whatever their size and composition, are farming mostly to take care of their own needs.

Final assumption – there are exchange relations between households and other local economic actors, but in this sketch we’re going to be agnostic about how they’re mediated. I think it might be through money, either the remnants of the old state currency or some new local contrivance. And there are advantages to that, because moneyless societies can more easily fall prey to status hierarchies, caste systems and the like. Of course, money can also be a dangerous foe to a convivial local economy. But money is not the same as capital, and capital is not the same as capitalism. Let’s recall a piece of Biblical wisdom: it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money. More on that another time.

As per this earlier post, productive property can broadly be classified as:

  1. Distributed private property
  2. Monopoly private property
  3. Common property
  4. Public property

These distinctions can be a bit fuzzy in practice, and there are likely to be all sorts of hybrid complexities. But as a rough approximation, I think (1) and (3) will be emphasized and (2) and (4) will be de-emphasized in the society I’m envisaging – pretty much the opposite of the situation that you find in modern capitalist societies. So there will be a lot of upheaval to get from here to there. The extent of the upheaval will depend on cultural and social factors that will vary from place to place, but will also be driven by more invariant factors associated with human ecology in the new circumstances people will be facing.

Controversial opinion though it seems to be in some quarters, in this setup I think a lot – probably most – food production is going to be done by household labour for household needs on small plots that will be de facto or de jure privately owned: gardens, homesteads, smallholdings, micro farms.

There are some economic-y reasons for this. Where energy is cheap, labour is dear, land is abundant and farmers are producing crops for commodity markets (in other words, where the situation is like the North American prairie farming I mentioned in my last post) there are economies of large scale that generate the gigantic, mechanized mega-farms familiar to us today. But where, as in our situation, energy is dear, labour is abundant, land is scarce and farmers are producing crops for their own households there are diseconomies of large scale, or economies of small scale. Labour is highly productive of food/fibre, but adding more labour is not disproportionately more productive. So plots and households are relatively small.

Free riding and transaction costs will also be at play in this society, because they’re at play in every society even if they sound like specifically modern economic jargon best fitted to our selfish, individualistic modern ways. Of course, the manifestations vary culturally, but in every culture there are people who will try to get one over you somehow, and the more people you work with the more time or other resources you have to devote to hammering out arrangements with them. Sometimes you might consider the hammering out to be worthwhile, for any number of reasons that go beyond your immediate needs for food and other goods. But those needs will be quite pressing in the society I’m talking about, so you’ll probably be judicious about your involvement in these extra-curricular activities. Community gardens are a great idea in places where there’s not much community and not much gardening, but you don’t find them so much among communities that garden.

All the same, you’ll probably get involved in some inter-household economic activities. You might, for example, share raising a pig or two with one or more neighbours, because there are often economies of slightly larger scale here (diseconomies of very large scale remain). And the transaction costs and free rider problems of neighbourhood scale are usually not that great. But here we’re still within the realm of private property and private arrangements.

It’s likely, though, that with changing household needs or priorities, you might want to take on more land, or divest yourself of some. A common way of doing this in small farm societies has been by renting land – in other words, by making yourself a tenant. And where there are tenants, there are landlords. In A Small Farm Future, I argued vigorously against landlordism because it’s a royal road to monopoly property, the expropriation and oppression of the smallholder and the capitalization of the economy. That didn’t stop one pair of reviewers presenting me as an apologist for parasitic landlordism. But the fact is, when you depend upon the land for your living but don’t control your access to it, you’re extremely vulnerable – which is where the parasitism kicks in. This is a strong argument for smallholder possession of secure private property rights. If you have good access to land to meet at least your basic needs, you’re in a much less vulnerable position.

Nevertheless, you may still want to adjust the size of your holding to your passing needs year by year. Buying and selling land may be an option, but perhaps an overly drastic one. So, despite my general strictures against landlordism of the parasitic kind – which remain firm – I think there can be a restricted case for a land rental market. In the words of rural sociologist Francesca Bray, “Tenancy is a means of matching land and labour within a community so that resources are not wasted”1.

The key phrase here is ‘within a community’. We can distinguish between a moral economy where people of broadly similar standing devise arrangements to improve their collective wellbeing locally, and a monopoly economy where a small subset of people improve their wellbeing at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve already said, a local economy comprising distributed small-scale private property as its basic building block potentiates the former and safeguards against the latter. All the same, any kind of landlordism is a potential point of tension and demands vigilance by the tenantry.

One of the problems with rented land is that it easily creates free rider problems (the landlord free rides on the tenant’s improvements, the tenant free rides on the longer term wellbeing of the land) so it works best for modular, short-run uses like grazing or arable crops and not so well for the things that would be emphasized in a more intensive small farm future like orchards, dairies and gardens. So on ecological grounds, in the intensive, populated countrysides of a small farm future it’s likely that private owner-occupation will predominate over landlordism, even of the non-monopolistic kind.

Let’s look at what private ownership means a little more formally. Modern conceptions of it draw largely from Roman law, which distinguished between usus (the right held from the wider community to use the land), fructus (the right to appropriate the products or ‘fruit’ of the land to oneself) and abusus (the right to damage or alienate the land). Community-minded people often endorse the first two of these rights – usufruct – but, perhaps understandably, not the last one. If you damage the land’s long-term capacities, or dump pollution on it that affects downstream neighbours, or sell it speculatively in such a way that it’s removed from long-term availability to the wider local community, that can create problems for the community. So this is another point of tension in the system.

As I see it, people oriented to making a long-term livelihood from the products of the land itself (as opposed to the profits to be made from it) are unlikely to abuse it too egregiously, and there are remedies against abusers that fall short of full expropriation. In A Small Farm Future I argued against mere usufruct rights in favour of more inalienable private property, basically because I see usufruct as a back door to monopoly landlordism. My instincts here are kind of bottom up, grassroots and anarchist. If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you. Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?

Physical escape from community abusus has been one favoured tactic historically to avoid these difficulties. In David Graeber and David Wengrow’s influential recent book I was struck, for example, by their description of scattered homesteading by native peoples in the North American Midwest as a way of avoiding centralizing political power in the immediate precolonial period2, something that their settler colonist successors also tried their hand at. Neither were successful long-term, with the latter arguably being victims of monopoly ownership from the outset.

But where physical escape isn’t possible, people have often sought something like private property rights from the political community as a safeguard against abuse of their capacities for self-creation by the political community. It may seem contradictory, but small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history, suggesting at least that it seemed worthwhile to them. Here we get into some weirder aspects of the moral economy as we orbit close around the mystery of political authority. More on that in another post.

I suppose I could alternatively just stop holding out and throw my lot in with usufruct. If I did, I think it would have to be through a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods. Which is another transaction cost or time sink, best kept limited to what the community really needs to debate. This in turn might point to the benefits of private property as a way of keeping the debate limited, especially when you unite this concern with the notion of self-possession that I emphasized in my last post.

Another possible form of abusus is sale or the handing on of property to another party. I don’t think such abusus is necessarily abusive, but it does run the risk. One possible ‘abuse’ is inheritance by the landholder’s offspring – potentially abusive inasmuch as due to bad luck, bad health or bad choices property has a habit of concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands, taking us back to the problem of monopoly private property or abusive landlordism (this is well demonstrated by playing a game of Monopoly, originally called The Landlord’s Game to illustrate the ideas of Henry George, who’s thinking we’ll get to soon, I hope).

So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community. I don’t want to wade too far into policy wonkery here. In Chapter 13 of my book I suggested a way of doing this to prevent monopoly landlordism, which (sigh) was criticized by the same people who criticized me for supposedly endorsing monopoly landlordism. Anyway, inheritance is certainly another point of tension in the system where use may become abuse, so one way or another this issue requires attention.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of distributed private property, we can say for sure that it’s not an invention of modern capitalism. It recurs in numerous societies, arguably as far back as the Neolithic3. But it usually goes hand in hand with common property, which I’ll turn to in my next post.

Notes

  1. Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies, p.180.
  2. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything, p.471.
  3. See: Robert Netting. 1992. Smallholders, Householders; Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English.