Owning Earth

November 21, 2022

I’ve always been confused by the idea that there is an economy that is not land-based. Everything comes from the Earth, from the air that we breathe to every single resource we toss into our toolkit. But even a narrow interpretation of the land economy as farming makes no sense. There is no other economy. We all need food. The basis of everything we do and are is farming. Always and without exception. Those who talk of industry as an economy are foolish. Or trying to obscure reality. I think it might be the latter.

The land is the general and equal possession of all humanity, and therefore cannot be the property of individuals.*

The “two economies” idea shows up in the social philosophizing of one of Barbara Kingsolver’s characters in Demon Copperhead (though it could be said that this is a general theme in her writing). I’m fairly certain Kingsolver herself does not believe in any other economy but that which comes from the land and the efforts of those who live embedded in the land. But her creation, Tommy, in struggling to understand why the rest of the country despises his people and their down home ways, hits on a salient point. This contempt of the people comes from contempt for the land itself and and the resentment of our dependence on something that is far outside human cleverness and mastery. Many before Tommy have reached this conclusion: the two — the land and people of the land — are bound by association and equally despicable, because equally beyond control.

Tommy comes to believe that this is because country folk are not living in a money-based culture and therefore not “paying taxes”. Now, we only get to see what Tommy thinks through Demon’s filter, so I’m not sure how far Tommy goes with his theory. Demon is more concerned with the practical applications, the hunger of urban life where not one need can be met without money, and a great deal of it.

My intellect teaches me that land cannot be sold.
— Black Hawk *

I think Tommy might agree with me when I say it’s far deeper than taxes. It’s the whole parasitic class, the managers and kings and owners. Demon says that these parasites hate that you can’t squeeze blood from turnips, and that is, I think, the essence. Those who take care of themselves and only have secondary needs for wages are money poor but with generally full bellies and mostly sufficient shelter for their bodies. The parasite class can’t get anything out of them, not taxes, but also no revenues from the sale of every need. This class knows how fragile their hold is and is terrified that the rest of us might figure that out. So down home ways are mocked relentlessly. The whole system of taking care of your own becomes entwined with filth and foulness. Country folk are bigoted and ignorant deplorables, those people, Other-not-us, heaped with every sort of vile characteristic — and hounded out of their lives with all the copious resources available to the parasite class.

Because if we all take care of ourselves, the parasite class, and all of its trappings, will crash.

For Demon’s world, it was drugs and a health “care” system deviously designed to wrest money from these people. If Demon were to write another tale today, he might talk about housing and land, the parasites coming in and buying up property with the sole intention of making a monetary profit from it. Flipping homes. Dividing structures into multiple rental units, often short term to preclude any obligation toward keeping the structure inhabitable. Buying up farmland and breaking it into hundreds of “improved” parcels that each cost more than the farm’s sale price. It all can be reduced to buying up space and charging exorbitantly for the use of that space, to the extent that there is no space outside that which is owned.

The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.
— Leviticus 25:23 *

Land is more central to our economy than ever. And when we fail to pay the extortion — whether from inability or because we refuse to participate in that culture — the whole economy crashes. There were stresses from energy and industry, to be sure, but note that the root of the 2008 collapse was the toppling of the housing market. A correction. Bringing the extortion back within the means and tolerances of society. Barely. It has soared to new heights since. The plague era has only foregrounded what has been a crisis since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

Yet even this spotlight is confusing the issue. It is being portrayed as a problem of inequity, mostly in income potential. That forcing people to pay to meet their own needs is rather morally and practically questionable is not even whispered. That there should be rental markets, that there should be human habitations in which the ability to meet every need is curtailed, that humans should own land and extract monetary wealth from that ownership, none of that is doubted. That the Earth is beyond human ownership or even management, well, that’s rank heresy. But this is the root.

Because, of course, if there is to be profit in taking money from human needs, then the wages paid to the laborers entailed in that industry, the money available to “earn” from rents and merchandise, will always, necessarily, be less than the price tags on those rents and merchandise. It’s not inequity. It’s how the system is supposed to work, how the system must work. Only those who own the Earth can afford to meet their needs. All others will have less, will have to decide between food and rent, childcare and health care, energy and the tools necessary to take care of a household of humans. Nobody has their needs met in a capitalist culture by design. When we have our needs met, we do not need money. We do not buy. Capital does not accrue.

And the parasites know this. Make no mistake. They are intentionally obscuring the roots. Because they need us. They need our labor and they need our wages. They need us. We need them not at all.

So those who have glimpsed the alternative are painted as grotesques. Every imaginable insult is thrown at those who dare to meet their own needs outside the monetary culture — specifically so that those who have not yet dared are afraid to walk away from the culture of domination. This ridicule is aimed not at the subjects of the ridicule but at those others who would turn away from the chains of capitalism if given half a chance. The parasites need us enchained, they need us to stay put in the market. This portrayal of the paths of escape is created specifically to terrorize, to keep people in their shackles because the alternative is too horrific to contemplate.

All people, from the first, and without any judicial act, should possess the earth. They should be able to live where nature and chance have brought them.— Immanuel Kant *

But there are those who have always been backwoods, and there are those who have always lived in the liminal spaces of the human-mediated world. In fact, this is by design also. Women, non-white people, those who are unable to labor in the ways that earn high wages, children. All these groups of people carry on their lives in the shadow economy, the one that is far older and more durable than capitalism, the one that humans have created to meet their needs, and the one that is required to subsidize capitalism. Without the shadow, capitalism would crash along with much of the human population. Because unmet needs are fatal.

Thus webs of reciprocity and care tie across communities everywhere, from Manhattan to the most remote and “unconnected” corners of the globe. And this is encouraged, though not to the point of replacing the market. Those who care are tolerated but not paid or respected. They suffer opprobrium no matter where they live, though those who live in close contact with the parasites are not as disparaged as those who live Outside. Because the parasites depend on care work as much as any other body. So I am going to tell you that these shadow webs are the real economy. Capitalism is but a canker on human culture. And it will die when we all turn our attention to this reality.

The possession of land as property is one of the most unnatural crimes there is. We cannot see the horror of this crime because in our world it is accepted as law. *

Nobody owns the land. Nobody has title to create scarcity in order to increase personal wealth. Nobody can take without giving back. That is what is happening to this culture now. The bills are coming due to the parasites. The Earth will have balance. And it will scrub away anything that upsets that balance. A true economy — a general caring for our Home — will emerge from the reconciliation. It will be within balance, and it will meet all the needs of all the beings within its web.

The parasites are right to fear.

*All quotes are from the November 12th entry in A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1997, Scribner). The Calendar is a project he worked on throughout his life, with the bulk of the compilation and writing taking place from 1904 to 1910. All quotes are at least translated into Russian by Tolstoy. Most are also paraphrased into his own mode of thinking. So all of these quotes come from his mind, but those above that have no further assignation are purely his own thoughts.


Teaser photo credit: Tolstoy in his study in 1908 (age 80). By Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID prok.01970.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: access to land, critiques of capitalism, self-provisioning