Land and freedom

Issue: 144

Martin Empson

Andro Linklater, Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury, 2014), £20

Throughout our history humans have had many different ways of using land. Alongside this, the question of ownership has also changed dramatically. For the vast majority of human history humans lived as hunter-gatherers—ownership of land was a transient concept which meant nothing when the group moved on elsewhere. A lingering sense of this can be seen in feudal times, when land was measured very differently from today. In 1602 William Shakespeare paid £320 to purchase four “yardlands of arable land and 20 acres more of meadow”. A yardland was an area “large enough to support a family”. On good arable land, this might be 25 acres but the same measure of poorer quality “rough pasture” could be more than 40 acres.

Andro Linklater notes that wherever “individually owned landed property” has become the dominant form of land ownership it has been associated with new ways of measuring land. Parcelling up land into exact physical sizes meant that owners could sell it to a buyer “without local knowledge”. This systematic approach to carving up the land can be seen in the way that every major city founded in the 19th century, from North America to South Africa and Australia, uses the British Empire’s unit of measurement, the chain, as the basis for everything from street widths to the area of public squares. Alongside this, Linklater argues, comes a change to mortgage law. Instead of a borrower losing everything if they failed to keep up repayments, they now had “equity in the land”. This meant that should land be foreclosed on they still retained some value once the debt had been paid off.

From the mid-1500s onwards a raft of new rules were introduced helping to undermine the old feudal relationships. In 1450 some 60 percent of England’s 12 million acres of farmland was held by the crown, the church or the nobility. By 1700 their share had fallen to less than 30 percent. The rise of a new group of landowning families came to dominate the political scene. Linklater argues that the adult males of 200,000 landowning families now decided who went to parliament and who enforced the rules. While Linklater sees this as a “land revolution” in terms of the changing ownership of land, he fails to identify that what has taken place is a revolution in property relations that has helped end the old feudal order.

Linklater discusses how the English Civil War gave rise to new—revolutionary—ideas. Groups like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers who argued that “the Earth with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde”. Linklater points to the

Putney debates and scores of Leveller-inspired pamphlets [that] not only imagined the possibility of the king being subject to the will of the people, but made the breathtaking claim that every free person was entitled to the unique array of privileges won by property owners (p53).

But having mobilised a parliamentary army against the king on the basis of challenging the old order, victory in the civil war meant that Oliver Cromwell also turned on the radical elements on his own side.

Linklater fails to understand the revolutionary dynamic that takes place over the course of the civil war. He argues that:

as the landowners monopolised power and entrenched their privileges after 1653, the balance of opinion would tip away from the Levellers and towards Cromwell, so that by the end of the century English freedom was once more seen to be a privilege of property (p54).

When Cromwell’s son in law, General Ireton, argued at the Putney debates that only those “with a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom” could have a say in how it was run he was declaring the limits of the political and economic change that his class was prepared to condone.

By only seeing the outcome of the civil war in terms of the question of private property and its relationship to political freedom, Linklater misses the revolutionary nature of the transformation that has taken place. Parliamentary victory in the English Civil War was simultaneously a defeat for the old feudal order and, at least temporarily, for any dream of radical agrarian change. It opened England up to a new capitalist order.

Karl Marx argued that for capitalism to become the dominant form of production required “divorcing the producer from the means of production” by turning “the immediate producers into wage labourers”. This meant forcefully evicting the majority of the rural population from the land.

The process of enclosures that resulted from this need allowed landowners to massively improve their wealth. “The reason whereof is that in pasture he [the landlord] hath the whole profit, there being required neither men nor charge worth speaking of”, explained one 17th century historian.

While similar processes took place in a number of places in Europe, Linklater argues that “only in England and North America did 17th century land become capital”. In other countries private ownership of land did not pass “outside the nobility”, which in Poland, for instance, “made it impossible to use the land as security to raise loans from the wealthy city burghers”. This had the effect of entrenching serfdom throughout most of Europe. Linklater suggests that this is why societies governed by property relations introduced from Britain came to dominate the world.

The land revolution that linked property interests to capital creation brought into being a modern system which archaic societies organised on half-feudal, half-tribal lines were powerless to resist. The disparity was apparent in Ireland where Cromwell and Ireton could keep a professional army in the field for four years and finance the £10 million cost of the campaign with London loans, fully covered by the sale of Irish land. The history of the next two centuries would make it universally obvious that a private property society could harness resources that were not available to societies organised in other ways (p108).

Later he continues:

The difference between peasant Europe and capitalist Britain was not one of production but of ownership. While the common law concentrated ownership of land and produce in one person, peasant ownership was always held by the family, and however clearly its use belonged to the peasant, the land itself ultimately belonged to a lord. This divided ownership gave peasant society a particular quality that prized endurance over enterprise (p127).

Capitalism did transform land ownership and much else. This is clearest in the Americas, where Senator Henry Dawes could say in 1877 that the problem with the Cherokee practice of owning land in common was that there was “no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbour’s. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation.”

The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke had a different view of the New World. Linklater writes that Locke saw America as a place of “limitless possibility where people lived in perfect freedom surrounded by empty land”. From this state, “private property spontaneously, naturally and inevitably occurred”. Linklater is taken by Locke’s approach, continuing that while the land had been held in common ownership before government, “By working a piece of the earth and improving it…a person separated it from what had been shared and thereby acquired exclusive ownership.” Thus the “natural rights of ownership” come from the labour expended in working the land.

For Linklater this is a key part of the development of property relations under capitalism. But it can only work if those that don’t have property are looked after, either through the provision of common land or other social assistance. But this approach comes unstuck when he tries to understand later developments. For instance, writing about the history of Germany he suggests that:

The failure of Prussia’s landowners to force property rights onto the political agenda of the united Germany…was exacerbated by the simultaneous absence of any statement of innate human rights… The lack of any concept of natural rights for individuals, either through their possession of property or by being built into the constitutional foundation of the state, proved to be of fatal significance (pp303-304).

This leads, in Linklater’s view, to a weak German legal constitution. The landowning Junker class lacked authority and any philosophy of individual rights and thus failed to gain popular appeal. To deal with this, they founded the Agrarian League which resorted to scapegoating the Jews. So for Linklater, “Germany’s democracy failed [with the rise of the Nazis] because no system of individual rights was established before the country was industrialised” (p305).

But this is to ignore the fact that fascism could have been triumphant in countries that did develop individual rights. The success of Hitler had less to do with Germany’s legal framework than with the failure of the left to defeat the Nazis. By ignoring the revolutionary struggles of the period after the First World War, and the failings of the anti-fascist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, Linklater ignores the real forces that shape history.

This is also a failing when Linklater discusses the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks put enormous emphasis on the importance of redistributing land in order to build an alliance of the peasantry and the working class. Linklater ignores this, instead focusing on Stalin’s forced collectivisation, which he sees as a direct continuation of Lenin’s policies, rather than as a consequence of the defeat of the revolution.

Consequently Linklater develops a critique of capitalism and how land is owned and used, but cannot see any alternative. Linklater gives a potted history of attempts to redistribute land from the top down. But as he points out, no government that represents those who benefit from an unequal distribution of land would seriously consider altering the status quo in the interest of “fairness”.

Despite this, Linklater hopes that corporate interests will solve the problem:

Most corporate investors will sooner or later realise that property based on state-enforced law looks less secure than the kind based on natural right. The basic Lockean premise is that such a right arises out of an innate sense of justice. On that basis a corporate owner’s claim to property in land must ultimately depend on finding a way to make good the loss to those deprived of its use (p397).

Capitalism doesn’t have any such innate sense of justice. But Linklater himself shows that those who work the land tend to create more communal communities. A strength of this book is the sweeping discussion of how the question of land has been central to how different societies have organised themselves through time. The question of how we use land today and in the future will remain an important issue. But because Linklater ends up concluding that “how the land is owned” is the “key to solving” all these problems he fails to systematically challenge the real barrier to “feeding nine billion people”.

The problem is the existence of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, Linklater does not examine any of the contemporary movements that fight to redistribute land and organise for the rights of landless workers and peasants. It is these people, together with the working class, who have the potential to transform society and solve the question of land ownership in the interest of everyone. But because Linklater dismisses the revolutionary transformation of society, he ends up putting faith in a system that has failed those that work the land for 400 years.