The Enduring Land Question

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In 1881, Henry George, already famous for his most well-known work, Progress and Poverty, published The Irish Land Question.

In the book, he argued that if all people have “the same equal right to life, it follows that they must all have the same equal right to the land.” For George, the liberal notions of individual liberty and equal rights for all were worthless unless they meant the end of land theft and land monopoly, the return of the land to its proper status as the inheritance of all mankind. He observed a great disconnect: while we all need the land and its products to survive, only a small handful of landlords own it, thus allowing them to dictate the terms under which most of us live out our days.

That disconnect has defined the modern age, and while it remains with us, it has been notoriously difficult to quantify its social, economic, and environmental impacts. In particular, the causal relationship between land monopoly and present-day environmental conditions has not been sufficiently studied. Exploring this relationship reveals that a comprehensive critique of land monopoly entails a program for the more responsible and sustainable use of land and natural resources.[1] In order to make those who use the land accountable, planning strategically for the long term and internalizing their costs to the extent possible, it must be owned by small groups of people who live on it. When decisions are made by large, distant corporate bodies that are not answerable in any robust way to local communities, we cannot be surprised to find them depleting and draining the life from the land.

The ability of the land to sustain life begins with the soil, which, when it is strong and healthy, is a world of irreducible beauty and complexity. This world is full of life forms and the relationships between them, from bacteria and fungi, to plants and animals, both living and dead, of various sizes and scales. Soil is a living thing—an infinitely complex network of them, more precisely—and human civilization has been phenomenally good at killing it, at making dead, dry deserts of dynamic living networks. As observed from space, we might regard humans as a desert-making species.

It is important to point out that the current environmental and ecological crisis is not entirely a product of the industrial age, but begins thousands of years ago, as human civilization’s agricultural endeavors became progressively (perhaps regressively) more widespread and intensive. It is not enough to point the way to organic farming, as such practices were all that was available to previous agricultural civilizations, which likewise pushed their natural environments beyond sustainable limits. The introduction and successive redoublings of modern, industrial techniques, particularly the indiscriminate, irresponsible use of “fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and whatever other chemicals are at hand,” have aggravated the soil crisis to such a degree that many of the world’s formerly rich soils are now almost completely bereft of organic matter. This is a direct consequence of the fact that although our farms have grown larger, they are owned and operated by comparatively fewer and fewer people, through corporate operations with short-sighted business strategies and goals.

Empirical findings on the death of Earth’s soil paint a startling picture. Research published earlier this year in Earth’s Future estimated that we have lost billions of metric tons of topsoil in the Midwest over the past 160 or so years. Given current rates of topsoil depletion and population growth, humanity will face a very serious food crisis regardless of the choices we make from here onward, with perhaps a half-century of topsoil left.

The delusional gospel of infinite growth and productivity has put the world’s soil, and thus its people, in extraordinary danger of relatively near-term mass starvation events, which, of course, will be concentrated among the people of the global South.

Capitalism’s ill-considered and short-sighted agricultural practices are, as a historical matter, intimately connected with land theft and land monopoly. The notion that we are living in a post-colonial age would be hilarious were it not so harmful. In the land monopoly and soil crisis, we can see the direct continuity between colonialism and the global system created by the United States in the post-war period. Today, only the most committed partisans of capitalism see the prevailing economic order as a free and competitive market, rather than the system of coercive monopoly that it is.[2] Within the social and political framework created by modernity, violence becomes administrative violence, distant, anonymous, sanitized. This violence came home to the European continent with the social conflagrations of the twentieth century, but not before the global South had been subdued and stripped of its resources, its land most important among them.[3] As Clarence Darrow observed, it is not necessary to own the people themselves in order to effect the desired outcome—slavery. All that is necessary is to steal and hold in monopoly the “things from which man must live.”

   South Africa and Namibia Landreform - Meeting

This is the true story of civilization, growth, and progress—the progressive accumulation of wealth, the gradual gathering of power in the hands of the very few, the shameful domination of the masses and their dirty, malnourished children. So few neoliberal economists seem to take their own ideas seriously[4], perhaps because, as soon as they are taken seriously, it becomes clear that historical globalization has been a story of violence and theft rather than freedom and trade. But liberal economic theory does in fact provide an explanation for the current land crisis, both its social and political component and its environmental and ecological one: because the legal owners of the land are disconnected from the social and environmental costs of their irresponsible, abusive practices, these practices can continue unchecked, with profits concentrated in giant, Western multinationals and costs shifted onto the hapless masses of the global South. In making local ruling classes junior partners in their criminal enterprises, Western elites have managed to continue them. These basic historical and empirical facts have eluded most Western free-market libertarians, and in their defense, the corporate media has made such facts almost invisible to anyone who has not made it a point to actively search for them. Coupled with the understandable desire to accept the religion of progress, growth, and prosperity, we have a Western professional-managerial class that is almost completely ignorant of the theft and subsequent destruction of the land people need to survive.

A free society can never become possible in a world where a privileged, connected few own the land, the means of survival. Better than almost anyone, Thomas Hodgskin explained the relationship between landowners and the state: “In fact, the landed aristocracy and the government are one—the latter being nothing more than the organized means of preserving the power and privileges of the former.”

There are fundamentally two ways of thinking about what’s (confusingly, equivocally) called private property: one is the “libertarian” way, defending (or at least taking for granted the legitimacy of) massive-scale land theft, which is a central and defining feature of capitalism as it has always existed. The other is the libertarian way, which means understanding history and thus understanding that virtually any principled defense of private property would totally upend the existing order and distribution of property.

Restoring life to the soil will require the socio-political balance created by distributed, small-scale land tenure practices—the abolition of a global system founded on land theft and monopoly.