Land as Commons

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See also: Land Commons


Land as a Commons in the Cooperative Tradition

Pat Conaty:

"Land is part of the global commons like water, air, language, knowledge and culture. The loss of commons land continues to increase with the demise of county farms and the growing sales of public sector land to raise money to close the fiscal deficit. Today two thirds of the UK’s 60 million acres is owned by just 158,000 families or 0.36% of the population according to Kevin Cahill (2001) in Who Owns Britain.

With eye-watering housing costs and a growing ‘generation rent’ living in overcrowded conditions, it is about time that practical land reform was put on the public policy agenda in the UK. It is not well remembered that land reform was at the heart of the vision of early co-operative movement but has faded unfortunately from view since the 1920s.

The development in recent years of Community Land Trusts and community-supported agriculture is reviving on the margins a steadily growing awareness of the land question. It is hard to imagine today that a century ago, after decades of struggle, the ambitious vision of the Garden City movement was for the development of entire towns and cities built upon land owned mutually by the citizens. The value and economic rent of this land was designed under Garden City plans from 1903 to be captured as co-operative commonwealth for all residents.

Can we go back to the future? History indicates an affirmative answer. Here are some highlights of the historic connection between the fight to reclaim the commons and the practical vision of a Co-operative Commonwealth.

Land became a growing political issue in the 16th and 17th centuries in the face of the first major wave of enclosures. Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers were early prophets of democratic land ownership in the mid 17th century. Their efforts were defeated and the loss of the commons intensified in the late 18th century as thousands of parliamentary acts of enclosure gathered pace.

In 1775 Thomas Spence, the son of a shoemaker from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, proposed a practical solution in a pamphlet: ‘Property in Land, Every One’s Right’. Spence argued that local parishes should own all land democratically and that rents collected should be used first to provide support for those unable to work and second to be shared to meet the needs of children and local residents equally. Spence called his solution the Parish Land Trust and this reform became known in the nineteenth century as Spence’s Plan. Both advocacy and pioneering spread and inspired other land reform thinkers like Thomas Paine.

Interest in land reform grew and was at the heart of the principles and practices of the founders of the Co-operative movement. Indeed the mission of the first Co-op shops was to use surpluses to buy land to meet member needs affordably. Land reform experiments led by Robert Owen and his followers spread far and wide from the 1820s. The Chartist Land Company grew out of this co-operative activity and in middle of the nineteenth century raised share capital from trade unionists to build over 250 homes plus schools, community halls and half a dozen co-operative villages.

Thereafter local co-operative societies used their surpluses to acquire sites that were used to develop the first housing co-ops in the late nineteenth century.

American land reformer Henry George was active in the co-operative movement and he had a huge following in Great Britain and Ireland. His proposal for land taxation through a Single Tax was aimed at encouraging the steady and peaceful transfer of private land ownership for securing the substantial economic benefit and social security of the vast majority of households and businesses.

Along with Spence, the Co-ops, the early building societies, the Chartists and the followers of Henry George pioneered a growing movement of land reform practice and stewardship. All these precedents gave Ebenezer Howard the confidence to develop the Garden City model and with important support from those active in the co-operative movement to develop Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities.

The potential for positive land reform to underpin a ‘share the wealth’ national plan rubbed off on national government a century ago. Indeed just six years after the founding of Letchworth Garden City on ‘co-operatively owned land’, Lloyd George as Chancellor with the active backing of Winston Churchill as trade minister introduced the famous People’s Budget of 1909 that included a land value tax inspired by Henry George and set at 20% on any increases in value when land changed hands. This attempt by a Government to redistribute wealth to the people through land reform led to a twelve-month battle in Parliament. In April 1910 the land tax was dropped after the first House of Lords veto of a Government budget in two hundred years.

Land Value Taxation is now being talked about seriously once more by a number of politicians in diverse parties. There are today more than 50 Community Land Trusts operating in rural areas of England and Scotland. In Wales they are part of a wider strategy to develop a new co-operative housing sector with pioneering projects being supported by the Welsh Government in 8-10 local authority areas. In England and Wales urban Community Land Trusts are emerging in a growing number of cities and towns including East London, Bristol, Liverpool and Rhyl.

The history and forgotten practices of co-operative land reform needs to be recovered and should be at the heart of any Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade." (

Land as Community Property

Gene Callahan:

"Reading James C. Scott's excellent Seeing Like a State. He gives, as an example of how land was traditionally held, the following: "Rural living in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Denmark, for example, was organized by ejerlav, whose members had certain rights for using local arable, waste, and forest land. It would had have been impossible in such a community to associate a household or individual with a particular holding on a cadastral map."

This is just an example of the way land was typically held before the current system of clearly defined freehold of lots was imposed by the state on a reluctant society, and not by any process of "mixing one's labor" with virgin land. Land was owned by communities first.

I fully anticipate the objection, "But communities can't own anything!" Like "Only individuals choose," this is an obvious falsehood which is embraced precisely because it defends radically individualistic property arrangements against the force of historical truths such as those noted by Scott." (

Land is Common Wealth

Rich Nymoen and Jeff Smith:

"In the Progressive Era view, humanity inherited the earth “in common” so its land should – for both moral and economic reasons — be “rented out” to those holding title to it, with society collecting the rent in the form of a tax equal to the land tract’s annual rental value. This fund would then be used to pay for the public goods and services that contribute to land’s value, with surplus funds divided equally as a per capita dividend to the public.

Failing to publicly collect the land value as a form of common wealth by leaving it in private hands has profound environmental and economic consequences. Environmentally, it means that landholders can occupy much more land than they can effectively use, either neglecting it or holding it for speculation, (i.e. waiting for its value to go up before cashing in). Today this means a checkerboard pattern of development with vacant or derelict lots dotting urbanized regions while construction is pushed outward in a sprawl pattern that is environmentally unsustainable.

Currently, the only way one can profit from land is to develop it or sell it. However, if the profit from land were viewed as our common wealth, then we’d benefit to the degree that the land in our region was best used – which includes non-use. To illustrate, consider Central Park in Manhattan. Every time developers go to the city council with proposals to develop within the park, New York rejects the proposals. Not because the Green Party has taken over the Big Apple but because of the bottom line. The city gets more revenue from the surrounding properties with the park kept open than it would if the park were developed from border to border. Open space is profitable to the community, even if not to any individual owner of the open space. Hence, to remove the motive to develop every parcel of land – and to be fair to all owners – it’s necessary to combine the value of all land in a region into a common fund, then share the revenue as an equitable dividend to residents.

Economically, it is land value that drives both the business cycle and long term economic trends. Regarding the business cycle, the “housing bubble bursts” that regularly (on average, every 18 years) crash our economies, as in 2008, are actually land-value bubbles. When people talk about housing’s “property value” or “market value” in terms of how that value fluctuates, they are largely referring to housing’s location, not its building value. Buildings age and wear out; it’s locations that constantly grow in value as a region’s population grows.

Because the price of land – and therefore how much money must be borrowed to buy it – is affected by how much bidders have to pay in taxes for it, whatever value that is not taxed usually gets pledged to banks as a mortgage. In recent years, these mortgages have been in turn packaged into securities that are sold on Wall Street, with all-too familiar results. If instead homeowners in effect rented their home sites from the community and only the costs of buildings were financed, we would remove the economic volatility created when land values and mortgage-financing feed off each other.

Regarding long term trends, as emphasized by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, our society’s increasing inequality damages our economy because it diminishes the middle class purchasing power that keeps our economy humming. But one of the prime causes of increasing inequality is the increasing concentration of ownership and control of land and other natural resources — down to six big lenders after the crash and bailout, and about the same number of oil companies and media conglomerates — all made possible by letting powerful insiders capture the worth of Earth rather than having society share natural values among all its members.

In the Progressive Era, this view was illustrated in the precursor to the board game Monopoly. As typically played, Monopoly ends with a single player eventually owning everything—a reflection of the current economic system. Under rules of the earlier The Landlord’s Game, all land rent was paid into the kitty with the result that gains were spread to all the players instead of concentrating in the hands of a single winner. In Monopoly, the collection of $200 when passing “Go” seems to be a vestige of the land rent dividend paid to players. The older, cooperative rules might not make for such a fun board game, but if the principles were applied to the real economy it would mean a more fun life for the 99%." (



From an essay by Mariarosa Dalla Costa: Reruralizing the World,which discusses four reasons why land should be seen as a commons and how this is expressed by a new generation of agricultural movements.


Resurgance of agricultural movements

"It can therefore be said that, in the decade that just ended, yet with its roots in the struggles for bread, land and water of the eighties, a planetary movement for the defense of the access to land, for the preservation of its reproductive powers, for access to fresh and genuine food, has been formed. I encountered the Via Campesina in 1996 in Rome when, with Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, Farida Akter and people of other circuits we put together the first alternative convention to that of the Food and Agriculture Organization, a convention in which that same network had a vital role in its ability to mobilize, to organize, and to fine-tune the themes that were brought to everyone’s attention. It was also a crucial moment of the Zapatista insurrection, which had at its heart as with all indigenous struggles the issue of the land/Earth as a common good. In my view, given the resonance with which it came to the fore and the response and support that it enjoyed on the part of the most diverse sectors within developed countries, that rebellion had built an ideal bridge, which for the first time had joined the struggle over the question of land expropriation with that of the post-Fordist expropriation of labour. Emblematic of this was the fact that at one pole there were the rebelling indigenous of Chiapas and on the other the workers/unemployed of developed Europe protesting in the streets carrying the banner of Zapata. In 1996 however agricultural issues were still paid scarce attention by rebel forms of activism in Italy. I still remember sensing a certain surprise surrounding the subject within a movement meeting I raised it at in March of that year. The attention paid to such themes today offers us a measure of the progress made since.

The networks that have been constructing themselves from the various global Souths and the Zapatista insurrection, as I was saying, returned to the developed world the concept of the land/Earth as a common good, and a many-sided concept at that." (

Why Land is a Common Good

Let us consider the primary facets:

a) The land/Earth above all as a source of life, of nourishment and therefore of plenty if preserved as a system capable of reproducing itself. Therefore the right of access to the land and to the resources it contains, above all water and seeds, against their continual privatization. The right of access to and the economic possibility of farming the land according to organic techniques, using all of the biodiversity that place can offer. Therefore a right to the variety of food as a universal right, not only for elites, and as a guarantee of better nutrition and greater health. The right to food freedom as the other face of food democracy. Food democracy as the basis for a different project of life, where farming, production and commercialization practices are sustainable from an economic, social, and environmental point of view. This against farming choices that condemn us to nutritional homogeneity (that is also the bearer of low nutrition and poor health), to the solely industrial production of food (possibly for import or export, but for many impossible to purchase), and to the specialization of crop cultivation imposed geographical areas within the neoliberal internationalization of markets;

b) The land/Earth as the source of natural evolution. Therefore the right to protect the diversity and integrity of the different varieties against their destruction and genetic manipulation and the resulting immiseration and risks for the population. Networks that oppose themselves not only to the expropriation of the land but to its violation and to the commodification of its reproductive powers which constitute the crucial terrain of the current capitalist strategy of hunger, itself functional to stratifying labour and holding it ransom. On the other hand this terrain is crucial for the possibility, quality, and freedom of human reproduction. Therefore on such issues the political positions that are the bearers of the project of a different life, the most revolutionary ones, appear to be the most conservative.

c) The land/Earth as territory on which to live against the continual eradication brought about by the industrial concept of agriculture and by war operations. Both of these take away land, polluting it in the former case with chemical products, and in the latter with explosives. War increasingly provokes via such pollution with lethal new explosives and toxic substances an infinite damage and an expulsion without a possibility of return.

d) The land/Earth as a public space against its continual fencing off and privatization. From the increasingly numerous refugee camps to the increasingly numerous golf courses that alter the environment, taking away fields for farming or rice fields or public parkland. Already there have been bloody struggles around such elite projects from Vietnam to Mexico." (

The revival of agricultural movements in the West

Yet even the construction of community that these networks represent, beginning from the land as a primary common good - in that they understand this to be the foundation of a different social construction - is articulated within a multifaceted approach.

Another equally significant fact is that networks for the recuperation of a different relationship with the earth, for the spread of organic agriculture, for access to fresh and genuine food, are being organized in the more developed capitalist countries. In the United States as far back as 1986 farmers resisting the dominant agricultural model founded the National Family Farm Coalition. Other examples, and significant ones, were created in the nineties in that country as well as in Canada, and of course in France there emerged the experience of “peasant-based farming” with José Bové. The Community Food Security Coalition formed in the United States in the past decade, involving producers, consumers and various other subjects, joined under the slogan of “food security for the community”, a notion that gathered steam simultaneously from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. The latter not only put in place an organic agriculture, but it assured the distribution of its products at a local level allowing for access, through various types of arrangements, to low-income citizens, building distribution points at low cost and providing the necessary transportation to reach them. Declaring their intent to install a “more democratic nutritional system,” it gathers 125 groups that connect food banks, networks of family farms, anti-poverty organizations which rarely collaborated on such network’s programs in the past, and obviously operates on the basis of the push tying people together, putting in contact small urban or rural farmers, food banks, and soup kitchens for the poor and low-income communities. Similarly, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, which self-organized around the same problem, then became key organizers in the struggle for more decent conditions for reproduction, from housing to public parks, by making available for the community capacities, work skills and knowledges generated at a local level.

The first thing to note here is that a different will regarding the relationship to the earth, one that plays itself out through farming, is in these examples the first step towards a different will regarding modalities of life in their entirety, a different food project for a different social project. This is particularly evident if we look at that broad movement of initiatives that goes by the name of “social ecology” or “bio-regionalism” or “community economic development” which tend to re-localize development in the sense of developing, alongside a different form of managing the land (for nutrition, for housing, for public space), a different management of work skills, professional abilities and knowledges geared towards the strengthening and defence of the roots of a social context against its destitution and the eradication of its citizen inhabitants decreed by the global economy.

In the same way, the fact that the earth can represent housing stability, beyond being a source of nutrition, has led to the development in the United States of Public Land Trusts, which are conceived also as a means by which to safeguard the environment.

With such initiatives people put together funds to purchase land. The goal is to preserve it as a piece of untouched nature or to build housing upon it: the latter can be sold but not the land upon which they are built. In this way the price of the home is kept low and therefore accessible for low-income segments of the population.

Even in the French case of peasant-based agriculture the plan for a different social project, beginning from its declared principles, is abundantly obvious. Above all that of international farmer solidarity against the harshest and most destructive competition which neoliberal globalization wants to impose, and beyond this are the principles of the social and economic significance of labour and human activity; of the refusal of productivism that is clearly expressed by Bové when he says: our goal and our work are not those of production: we occupy a space, we manage it and participate in the social bond with the countryside”; of a management of the countryside that is respectful of people, of the environment and of animals that translates itself in not wanting to increase excessively one’s farm because the countryside must represent jobs for many people, in not wanting to have more animals than those which the earth can sustain, in assuming responsibility of the maintenance of vegetable and livestock varieties that characterize that area, and much more. Similarly, the fundamental theme of nutrition and of not wanting to run risks with respect to this has been key in allowing the political position and commitment to grow and envelop the commodification of health, education, and culture.

In sum we can say today that the land, farming and nutrition constitute the emerging theme of the self-organized networks that developed in particular in the nineties and which, with the global movement of farmers, has vigorously come to the fore as the missing subject, upon whose labour we all depend every day in the reproduction of our lives. If re-localizing development is particularly significant with respect to the agricultural question this only fuels the re-localization of other aspects of development and life. Global is the movement, global are the rights, and global are the struggles, above all for the universal right to a healthy diet, a varied one and not a standardized and not an estranged one with respect to one’s own cultural traditions and the specificities that the land, worked by men and women rather than raped by humans, can generate. And if it is true that, as Columbian farmers that have self-organized around the cultivation of varieties at risk of extinction say, the spirit is within the nature surrounding us, in the trees and in the rivers, then reruralizing the world is necessary to recuperate the spirit as well as life." (

More Information

Two other essays by Mariarosa Dalla Costa: