[diggers350] Property & Freedom

David Bangs dave.bangs at virgin.net
Wed Jan 20 20:48:51 GMT 2010

Andro Linklater's long piece is full of juicy nuggets like a fruit cake. It deserves a much fuller response than my couple of comments, but I'll make them quickly anyway.

In truth the implantation of the ideology of private property is very deep. Roughly 90% of all British law is property law, I believe - sharply highlighting the marxist/bolshevik insight that the state is not neutral, but is, to the contrary, a tool of the ruling/owning class. It was created to defend, and is itself 'owned' by, the owning class. Their hegemony does indeed seem immutable and eternal...If someone is sitting on your head the only sky you see is the seat of their pants...but every day and everywhere acts of resistance show that not to be the case.

Andro's view that Lenin's policy towards the peasants can be conflated with that of Stalin made me wince...Stalin the author of the genocidal atrocities of forced collectivisation, whose mad purges and economic chaos left the Soviet Union deeply vulnerable just as Nazi power was growing to its west. Lenin, to the contrary, unleashed peasant entrepreneurialism after the winding up of the rigours of  'war communism' of the period of the wars of imperialist intervention and the civil war. Still, though, Lenin, Trotsky and others of the Bolshevik leadership saw the full dangers of the resurgence of the richer peasants (the kulaks), but their policy was not to wipe them out but to encourage an ongoing class war of attrition against them and on behalf of the poor and middle peasants. This rational and sensible policy, if it had won, would have saved the Soviet Union from 60 years of a crushed and broken countryside...and from many genocidal criminalities.

Lastly, Andro's interesting observations about chimneys, equity and enclosure ring only half true...My countryside of the Sussex Weald hadn't been and was not - at the time of the replacement of the central hearth and hall and the growth of separate kitchens, side hearths and bedrooms - a countryside of the collective agriculture of the open field and the common, but one of the small individual and separate peasant holding, often held on much more individualistic tenures than the old manorial and open field holdings. The growth of the 'modern' private family house doesn't chime quite so neatly with the end of commoned agriculture and the triumph of private property. 

good stuff

Dave Bangs  

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Mark Barrett 
  To: project2012 at googlegroups.com ; diggers350 at yahoogroups.com 
  Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 2:26 PM
  Subject: [diggers350] Property & Freedom


  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/12/a-place-of-ones-own/ (worth clicking here to see picture)
  A place of one’s own
  The idea of “equity” in property emerged in 16th-century England and spread like a virus. It lies behind democracy and the credit crunch and will determine China’s future 

  Andro Linklater
  16th December 2009

  I live in an ancient farmhouse in Kent that boasts a cat slide roof, a chimney stack leaning like the tower of Pisa, and a living room whose ceiling is supported by an immense wooden beam low enough to stun anyone taller than a jockey. In other words, it looks like a quintessential English country cottage.

  But quaint though the roof, chimney and beam now seem, these three elements are evidence of a revolution in human affairs. Looking at them, I can recreate the events of almost 500 years ago, like a detective surveying a murder scene.

  For sometime in the early 16th century, my predecessor in the house was infected by a radical new idea, one that changed him so profoundly that he altered the shape of the building to reflect the new way he thought about himself and his neighbours. And like a mental epidemic, this idea then spread from southeast England and gradually extended across the country. Two generations later colonists carried it to North America. From there the contagion spread to the Pacific, and around the globe from Nova Scotia to New Zealand. It is now so deeply embedded in our psyches that it is hard to recognise the pervasiveness of its influence.

  The new idea was easily described—that land itself could be an individually owned, tradeable commodity—but its origins were old and complex. Land ownership rights began to be recognised under the common law as early as the 12th century; a market for land existed in the 14th century, and in some exchanges cash payments were involved; and the practice of fencing off individual parcels of ground, the enclosure movement, began in the 1480s. During the course of the 16th century, however, one crucial element was created that linked all these elements together in a single financial nexus. An almost imperceptible change in mortgage law introduced the principle of fairness, or equity, to deals that involved lending money against the collateral value of a chunk of earth. Today, anyone who has a mortgage is aware of the concept, if only through the small-print warning on the agreement that begins: “Your property may be at risk…” But that phrase encapsulates a near 500-year-old principle of momentous significance. It not only underpins the modern mortgage market, it shapes societies around the world—from the abandoned sub-prime mansions of Arizona at the heart of our current economic crisis, to the aspirant property owners of Shanghai who may yet bring us out of it.


  The most obvious indication that change was underway came in an unexpected form: the construction of chimneys. In 1577 the commentator William Harrison picked out one thing that the old men in his Essex village thought to be “marvellously altered in England within their sound remembrance… the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young days there were not above two or three if so many, but each made his fire against a reredos [the back wall of an open hearth] in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.”

  The chimneys signalled the arrival of fireplaces, which in turn showed that small farmers were dividing up homes that once consisted of a single-roomed hall used by family, friends and labourers for meeting, eating, cooking and sleeping. Thus my predecessor constructed an inglenook fireplace for cooking on one side of the hall, and an area for eating on the other. Outside, he extended the roof almost to the ground to keep the heat from the fireplace in. Then he ran a 30ft oak beam along the length of the hall to support the floor of the new-fangled bedchamber above.
  By the time he finished, the common space was enclosed, private and specialised.

  This transformation reflected what the 16th-century farmer had done to his land. To profit from rising wool prices he enclosed parts of the grassy hillside. He planted hedges to demarcate his portion, dug ditches to drain the soil, manured it to improve the grass for grazing sheep. Enclosure was an innovation, but even the most conservative farmer could see the advantage. “The poor man who is monarch of but one enclosed acre,” the 17th-century observer Thomas Fuller wrote, “will receive more profit from it than from his share of many acres in common with others.”

  What made my predecessor’s activities truly revolutionary was the legal innovation that allowed him for the first time to claim “equity” in his newly profitable land. Under the medieval notion of a mortgage, or “dead pledge,” a landholder borrowing money effectively promised to let his title to the land die, should he not redeem the loan in full at an exact place and time specified by the lender. This practice was so unfairly tipped in the lender’s favour that, as a matter of equity, chancery law in the 15th-century developed the novel concept that the borrower possessed a residual
  ownership to the land that even a mortgage could not extinguish. In effect, the courts allowed a landowner to redeem the loan at any date (even years after the period specified) and to regain his property. To be sure of recovering his debt promptly, therefore, a lender now had to issue a writ of foreclosure forcing sale of the land. Once the debt was redeemed, however, the borrower kept any money left over. This was his “equity.” As the principle of “the equity of redemption” became accepted in 16th-century England, ownership acquired a monetary value separate from the land itself. Equity morphed into capital, and the modern world began.


  By the late 17th century John Locke had decided that property was the contractual basis of a democratic society, but the idea of land as commodity that underpinned his argument didn’t take hold in western Europe until a century later. As late as 1800, two thirds of the world’s agricultural land was held communally. Across the North American prairies, South American pampas, Asian steppes, Australian outback and African savannah, shared possession dominated. The remaining third of the arable earth—eastern Europe, Russia and China—was worked by peasants, slaves and serfs. Yet by the end of the 20th century, the practice of treating land as private property was fundamental to a modern, democratic community. Some regions resisted the idea, but none remained untouched by it. Wherever private property was introduced it drove out aboriginal ownership, and the communal values went with it.

  As early as 1789, Henry Knox, secretary of war in the newly independent US, expressed his regret “that all the Indian tribes once existing in those States, now the best cultivated and most populous, have become extinct.” That tragedy would be repeated elsewhere—sometimes, as in Canada and New Zealand, in less extreme fashion; occasionally, as in Patagonia, more savagely. But its cause was always the same. Knox insisted that Native Americans had to develop “a love for exclusive property”; a century later, Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes said that the Cherokees had
  to learn “selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation.” Both were expressing an individualist outlook inseparable from the concept of private property. But the idea that the earth could be owned was incompatible with the aboriginal belief that people belonged to the place they lived in, that they were, as the Maori put it, tangata whenua (people of the land). In these cultures, animals and crops could be owned, occupancy might be bought and sold, but the Earth, the source of life itself, belonged to no one.

  Behind this conflict lay a larger phenomenon: the influence that possession of the land has upon the way that people think. Thomas Jefferson recognised this, declaring in his 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia that republican government depended upon as many people as possible owning land, because “cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.” In keeping with that goal, the United States Public Lands Survey divided up the wilderness from the Appalachians to the Pacific Ocean into 40-acre plots for sale at $2 an acre. Successive administrations encouraged the westward movement of pioneers, a policy culminating in Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862, which enabled a settler to claim 160 acres of wilderness as property by building a cabin and ploughing a few acres. By the end of the 20th century, about 70 per cent of US families owned their homes.

  Communist leaders were aware of the influence that landownership could exercise on social values, too. Lenin knew that poorer Russian peasants wanted to emulate the richer by employing labour to help them work the land. So not only was private ownership abolished after the 1917 revolution, but Lenin also attacked any farmers who behaved as if it still existed. “Ruthless war must be waged on the kulaks! Death to them!” he ranted in 1918. To create the conditions for a socialist consciousness, he and Stalin killed or starved to death some 20m peasants in the 1920s and 1930s. Aiming at the same goal in China 30 years later, Mao accounted for 30m more.

  In the last half of the 20th century, the cold war brought private and communist property into competition. Though it was partially hidden by rhetoric and nuclear brinkmanship, the cold war was really a battle to create either socialist or capitalist societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America by redistribution of land. The most notable communist success came in Cuba, where Castro nationalised all private property. But capitalists could point to Japan and Taiwan, where American agricultural economist Wolf Ladejinsky expropriated farmland from feudal landlords and transferred it as property to peasants. That radical creation of a landowning class is often cited as the foundation of the subsequent industrial boom in the far east. Not only did the programme spread wealth and self-reliance among the new owners, but their children became the entrepreneurs of the Asian tiger economies.

  In 1979, Iran became the first important country to withdraw from the east-west property struggle. After the Islamic revolution the new government nationalised its dry, semi-
  desert land but, unlike the Soviet Union and China, allowed those who worked the soil to own the produce. This was the classic pattern of peasant farming: to have property in what was produced, even to own occupancy of the soil, but not to own the land itself. Throughout history it is a pattern of landholding associated with conservative values.

  Nonetheless, throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century Marxists and capitalists remained convinced that the right pattern of ownership could provide the basis for their ideal societies. It was a line of reasoning that led Michael Heseltine to describe the Conservatives’ “right to buy” policy in 1980—which transferred an estimated 2m homes from public to private ownership-—as “one of the most important social revolutions of the century.” And by the end of the 20th century, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union seemed to prove the superiority of individual ownership. The World Trade Organisation carried the sanctity of the right of private ownership—even in areas such as knowledge, music and images—into the deepest forests and remotest deserts where custom still obliged people to share useful information. The very universality of private property made it difficult to imagine a superior alternative—until economies exploded under the impulse of irrational exuberance.


  On 1st October 2008, a sheriff arrived at the door of 90-year-old widow Addie Polk of Akron, Ohio. He was there to serve a foreclosure writ on her home. Addie and her late husband, a worker in a tyre factory, had bought their white clapboard house in the 1970s. But a succession of brokers later persuaded her that she could pay for healthcare by taking out mortgages on the property. The last of these loans, for $45,620, was repayable in 2034, when she would be 116 years old. But Addie Polk had found herself unable to keep up the payments and, despairing at the arrival of the sheriff, tried to kill herself with a handgun. (She survived, only to die later of unrelated causes.)

  She was not alone in her desperation. Hundreds of thousands of US homeowners (and millions across the world) faced the same threat of losing the roof over their heads. But Polk fell victim not just to mortgage sharks, but to her government’s policies. By lifting financial regulations on home loans, the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush wanted to make homeownership available to people on low incomes. The seemingly endless rise in the value of their homes was meant to eventually pay off their mortgages.

  But few people appreciated that the global boom was built upon a fundamental disparity: between the way land was owned in the west on the one hand, and in China on the other. Rising property values in the capitalist societies powered expansion in their consumer economies. US GDP alone ballooned from $960bn in 1970 to $8.7 trillion in 2005, a staggering $6 trillion added in the last decade alone. Yet in China, the lack of individual property rights drove as many as 100m peasants to work in urban factories, producing consumer goods for western markets. Since their savings could not be invested in property at home, they had to be placed abroad.

  Out of this disparity grew the edifice of global finance—around $2 trillion in Chinese savings invested in US treasury bonds, which in turn kept interest rates low, mortgage lending high, and economies growing. In 2007, the growth in derivative securities (both in foreign exchange and mortgages) topped out above $600 trillion. The very size of this financial colossus almost obscured the fact that it depended on property. Only when the subprime mortgage market began to disintegrate in summer 2007 did the basis of the boom become apparent. In 1929, the collapse of Wall Street triggered the crash. In 2008, it was the collapse of property markets, and it is there that the most serious consequences are felt.

  In 2004, just about when Addie Polk’s last mortgage was being issued, Yang Wu, an excitable, stubborn restaurant owner living in central China’s megacity, Chonqing, began to build a redbrick house in the Hexing Road. It replaced the family’s dilapidated wooden home, and according to its owner was as smart as any in Shanghai or Beijing. Three years later, a semi-official development company, Chongqing Shengbo Real Estate, with plans for a shopping mall, slapped a compulsory purchase order on Yang Wu’s house and demanded he move out. His neighbours accepted compensation and left, but in March 2007 Yang Wu refused to go, even when diggers gouged out a 30ft-deep trench around his house.


  The image of Yang Wu’s home precariously perched on a pillar of earth (see p59) attracted media coverage across the world and widespread sympathy. But his demonstration had a broader resonance. Although China’s land is nationalised, as a city dweller he owned a 40-year leasehold on his home, the norm in urban China. Indeed, the real purpose of his protest was probably to secure greater compensation, but the timing offered an unexpected glimpse into what may be China’s future.

  Just weeks earlier, the National People’s Congress had voted to extend similar property rights to the country’s 750m peasants. The new proposals were prompted by the need to keep China’s huge population employed, and the economy growing at above 9 per cent a year. Even before the crash it was obvious that foreign demand for Chinese goods was not sufficient to keep the factories working. Giving the rural population property rights would create capital value in the land they farmed, and in turn stimulate the country’s own consumer economy. “China must increase domestic demand and not just depend on foreign trade,” Wen Tiejun of the People’s University in Beijing argued at the time. “If you can invest in rural areas and increase the cash income of people, you can increase domestic demand.” As Zhu Keliang of the Rural Development Institute in Seattle pointed out in April 2009: “Imagine what an increase in income for 750m people, when given secure land rights, would mean for the global economy.”

  Yet despite the endorsement of President Hu Jintao, the property rights policy has triggered deep ideological opposition within the Communist party. A China of 750m stroppy Yang Wus would overturn the basis on which Mao Zedong built the 1949 revolution. And so, for the time being, the plan remains sidelined. Instead, China has relied on an aggressive course of capital investment and the extension of personal credit to reflate its economy. But with demand in the west stagnant for the foreseeable future, the case for reform will remain. In practice, it may already have succeeded.

  The example of Israel suggests that China is on a course from which there is no retreat. Israel nationalised nearly all its territory at its foundation in 1948, following the socialist instincts of David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, and an injunction in Leviticus (“The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me”). Since then, the land has been owned on 49-year leases, and theoretically reverts to the state at their expiry. Once the first leases began to run out in the late 1990s, however, the practice proved very different. So entrenched had the sense of individual ownership become during the interval that the state has had no option but to renew leases for another 49 years. As Joshua Weisman, professor of property law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, points out, leasehold over 98 years becomes almost indistinguishable from outright ownership.

  Given human nature, a similar pattern may be expected among China’s urban dwellers in the next decade, when leases issued since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1970s come up for renewal. Once that pattern of leasehold merging into freehold spreads to the countryside, it will in the long term not only create an unprecedented amount of capital, but a new social consciousness and the need for political structures sympathetic to property-owning interests.

  Similar pressures will operate in the west. It is probably too late to reverse the decision to put the needs of the financial sector before those of a property-owning society, but it represents an error of historic proportions. Indeed, meeting the bill for the staggering infusion of credit to our financial institutions will see much of the wiser social engineering of the past 30 years reversed in the next decade. In England, the number of people who own their own homes has fallen, according to statistics published in September by the department of communities and local government. This put homeownership at 68.3 per cent in 2008, down from 70.9 per cent in 2003. On present trends, homeownership rates in Britain could drop significantly within ten years.

  Yet if we learn anything from our history, it is that our social order follows the way we govern our property. Whatever the demands of the City, a future David Cameron government would be wise to find ways to support property owners against their mortgage-lenders, and favour both ahead of the financiers who lent to them in the first place. Just as the government of China is waking up to the social power of property, it would be tragic if the British government forgot how the long-term social gains of protecting ownership far outweigh the short-term financial cost. For good and ill, Britain’s society and its economy have formed themselves around the concept of private, exclusive property. The new slogan must be this: “It’s the property, stupid.” The rest will follow.


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