Owning the Earth

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* Book: Owning the Earth. Transforming history of land ownership. By Andro Linklater. 2013


Antonia Malchik:

"In Russia, since at least the 1400s and continuing in various forms until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, land was managed under the mir system, or ‘joint responsibility’, which ensured that everyone had land and resources enough – including tools – to support themselves and their families. Strips of land were broken up and redistributed every so often to reflect changing family needs. Land belonged to the mir as a whole. It couldn’t be taken away or sold. In Ireland from before the 7th century (when they were first written down) to the 17th, Brehon laws served a similar purpose, with entire septs or clans owning and distributing land until invading English landlords carved up the landscape, stripped its residents of ancestral systems and tenancy rights, and established their estates with suppression and violence. The Scottish historian Andro Linklater examines variations on these collective ownership systems in detail in his 2013 book, Owning the Earth: the adat in Iban, crofting in Scotland, the Maori ways of use in New Zealand, peasant systems in India and China and in several Islamic states, and of course on the North American continent before European invasion and settlement.

But the commons are not relics of dusty history. The Kyrgyz Republic once had a successful system of grazing that benefited both herdsmen and the land. Shattered during Soviet times in favour of intensive production, the grazing commons is slowly being reinstated after passage of a Pasture Law in 2009, replacing a system of private leases with public use rights that revolve around ecological knowledge and are determined by local communities. In Fiji, villages have responded to pressures from overfishing and climate change by adopting an older system of temporary bans on fishing called tabu. An article in the science magazine Nautilus describes the formation of locally managed Marine Protected Areas that use ancient traditions of the commons, and modern scientific understanding, to adapt these communal fishing rights and bans to the changing needs of the ecosystem.

Preservation of the commons has not, then, been completely forgotten. But it has come close. The commons are, essentially, antithetical both to capitalism and to limitless private profit, and have therefore been denigrated and abandoned in many parts of the world for nearly two centuries." (https://aeon.co/essays/is-it-time-to-upend-the-idea-that-land-is-private-property?)


PD Smith:

"Historian Andro Linklater, who died in 2013, was inspired to write what became his last book by the economic crisis of 2008. Inequality was rising and social mobility falling: the top 3% of British taxpayers owned almost 80% of the country’s wealth. For Linklater, the question of ownership lay at the heart of the boom and subsequent crash. Owning the Earth is a remarkably wide-ranging and erudite study that explores the global history of possessing land. Thought-provoking and original, it is packed with insights into the history and politics of ownership. Beginning in the 16th century with the carving up of the New World, he traces the emergence in England of the idea that one person could exclusively own a piece of the Earth. He argues that this idea has destroyed traditional systems of rights and responsibilities binding communities to the land, promoting instead an individualistic culture of “greed and selfishness”. He concludes that “the private property society” is “a bizarre mutation alien to most of humanity” and a “monstrous method of owning the earth”." (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/23/owning-the-earth-the-transforming-history-of-land-ownership-by-andro-linklater)


Pat Conaty:

"This his last book covers some 500 years since the emergence of private property rights under Queen Elizabeth 1, but covers so much stuff and in so many different countries and continents. He explores communal property systems, the land reform struggles in Latin America, the Mexican ejidos, the reasons why serfdom collapsed under its own contradictions in Russia when the serfs were then liberated in the 1860s to access basically finance to pay off their insolvent landlords.

He also delves into the different philosophical perspectives of property rights and shows how these have trumped human rights again and again. Hence the perversity of their sanctity if private property excludes other human and social rights. The views of Austrian economists like Von Mises and Hayek is the worst on this score and extreme compared to Locke (which is bad enough)

His analysis of financialisation is interesting and spans the twist and turns of the 100 years up to 2008. He shows how housing finance underpins the entire money system and this was the antidote to a perspective like that of Keynes.

What is very revealing in his analysis is the reasons why private property does make sense up to certain very constrained limits (to meet household or personal needs). This was implicit in the thinking of Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality. But also post World War 2 to eradicate feudalism and limit a return to fascism in Japan, US policy was to instigate a Land to the Tiller programme that broke up the feudal estates still strong in order to provide small plots to farmers who were heavily oppressed by the residual power of the samurai. But also in Taiwan and South Korea the same Land to the Tiller reforms were introduced then. As a consequence what this led to was the Asian Tiger levels of productivity that could feed cities and a form of republicanism that forged democracy.

However this was at risk of gaining in popularity more widely. Indeed the land reform in Guatemala in 1954 and the threat this posed to US interests led to a super fast curtailment of Land to the Tiller programmes support by US foreign policy and a repression of anything like this again.

The data Linklater provides shows the sound economics of systems where land can be managed in both mutual or commons ways with leases to small producers. So very much a Community Land Trust approach. This partially happened in late 19th century Russia under the Mir system and before the Lenin and Stalin fully nationalised land. But what seems crucial is the balance between limited private property rights under a leasehold system and broader stewardship/commons rights.

What Linklater argues is that the ownership question viz. land and intellectual property is key as this is where the politics reside, not in the economics and markets as is standard but the wrong-headed view.

He touches on a clear understanding of the commons here and there. This is implicit but it does not take away from what a fabulous book this is." (email, August 2017)