On land

We don’t talk about land much. We don’t talk about it enough.

For the whole of human history and indeed the history of the natural world, land has been fought over, often to the death.

But now, in our world, land is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. For the most part its principal value is monetary value. Any meaning attached to land, place and property is subject to market values.

This way of treating the land is probably unique to our ‘Western’ civilisation that has now gone global and is impinging upon all aspects of life on our planet.

It is often assumed to be a neutral way, but this is not the case. Every way has values, and our way’s principle value is money. This value elbows out other values which attach different meanings to the land, for example those of ‘native’ tribes in the Americas who venerate the earth, in Britain with common land which became subject to ‘Enclosures’, and nowadays with the socialised provision of housing under relentless attack from those who want ‘state’ assets put on the open market as a matter of principle.

This is the way we do things. This is the value which predominates our world, which don’t forget is oriented to continuous ‘growth’, a word that encompasses expansion into new territories but also into unexploited parts of existing territories – think for example the way billboards colonise our public spaces. It also feeds off population growth, for more people means a larger market and potentially greater prices.

The idea that this is a ‘free’ way is true in a limited fashion in terms of individual rights to buy and sell. But throughout human history these rights have been subject to coercion, soft and hard; hard coercion as in the forced appropriation of land as with the Enclosures and the forced removal of Indian tribes in North America to reservations; soft coercion through simple monetary power and ‘incentives’, like for example the right to buy council homes at reduced prices and forcing public bodies to raise money through asset sales as a result of swingeing budget cuts.  

As a culture, we have countered this remorseless pressure of the market on the land in some ways, for example through the creation of National Parks, the initial drive to build council homes and, to give the present government a smidgeon of credit (perhaps the sole remaining legacy of ‘The Big Society’), the right of communities to protect local assets. But the market never stops pressing against these constraints: this is the nature of an economic system that always wants more and is never content with letting things be.

This is a much deeper issue than the boring and unending debate about state versus private ownership however. It is about what land means to us, what values we attach to it, and which of those values prevail.

The economist Karl Polanyi had some interesting thoughts on these issues.

He viewed land, which he said “is only another name for nature”, as one of the ‘fictitious commodities’ along with human labour (people), and money – because none of them had been produced for sale on a market; they each possess a separate existence.

Polanyi said: 
“The crucial point is this: labour, land and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labour, land and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them."

The impact of man’s activity on the land (and indeed the seas and the air) under global capitalism is unprecedented in human history – to the extent that the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen has decided that our present age constitutes a new geological epoch.

Crutzen has said: "I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene [epoch]. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: 'No, we are in the Anthropocene.'

The sociologist and former ‘Third Way’ theorist Anthony Giddens, who has been working on these issues, picks up the thread:

The Anthropocene Age is an age in which human activity has so influenced the physical world around us, the world of nature, and so deeply influenced the world in which we live – the external world, the world of nature as it used to be called – that nature is no longer nature.”

“[Crutzen] argued, I think entirely correctly, that this completely re-orients and re-structures the study of geology and some of the other physical sciences because human beings, as it were, have invaded the natural world around us. A great deal of what used to be natural is natural no longer, and a lot of the ecosystems which quite rightly we worry about are no longer external to human activity; they are ecosystems operating in the context of the gigantic impact which we’ve made on the world around us."

As with most important things and big changes taking place in our hyper-globalised and economically maximised world, we have not been given any choice about this one.

Both democratic cultures and dictatorships have failed to address or respond to these bigger themes in any meaningful way. In Britain the major political parties (including my own Labour Party) are not interested for the most part. They are fixated on maximising economic performance (which many political experts decree as the only issue that matters), and of course maximising votes in marginal constituencies to get elected.

This is understandable, but it shows a desperate lack of awareness and ability to confront the really big issues.

The Indians of North America traditionally view the land as their mother, and therefore took care to look after it. 

Our way is different, and it is not all bad. But I think with the huge changes we are pressing on ourselves and the world around us that it is about time that we consider in a meaningful way whether we are happy with what we are doing, and made a decision about it as a political community - beyond the dynamics of our party political knockabout. 

It seems to me that this is precisely what democracy should be for.


  1. Land is a very political issue - or at least should be. On the left there has been the argument for centuries that the land should be "a common treasury for all". There has also be a campaign for taxing land values (either as a single tax or as a way of shifting taxes from labour) backed by those on the left, centre and right - especially those influenced by liberalism. The case for land value tax is strengthened by our era of austerity.

    I'd recommend you have a look at Labour Land Campaign website.

    1. Thanks Bob, yes I agree on land value taxes for example. I like the idea of the Labour Land Campaign, but given that I've never heard of it before despite paying quite a lot of attention to things, it doesn't seem like much of a campaign (though I guess it's not really practicable to make a lot of noise about such a nerdy - but crucially important - issue).


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