Morning Star: Understanding the property game

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Dec 15 19:34:59 GMT 2012

Understanding the property game
Tuesday 11 December 2012 -  by Derek Wall

  Direct action by UK Uncut has been brilliantly effective at putting 
the spotlight on tax-evading corporations.

  The group's recent occupation of Starbucks branches up and down 
Britain has embarrassed the company into admitting that it pays 
virtually no tax and even volunteering a token sum.

  Of course, the Con-Dems love corporations. Chancellor George 
Osborne's Autumn Statement included a promise to cut corporation tax 
even further.

  So drawing attention to rampant tax avoidance exposes the 
coalition's disastrous austerity agenda - it's increasingly clear 
that if large companies paid their tax bills we could halt the cuts 
and find new ways of meeting our country's needs, such as expanding 
the NHS, raising pensions and building new homes.

  Raising taxes from fat-cat firms is important, but there hasn't 
been much discussion of the deeper cause of economic pain and 
widening inequality.

  Politicians, think tanks and the media tend to ignore the issue of 
property ownership.

  Yet without questioning how we own property we will tend only to 
look at the symptoms of inequality, not its fundamental causes.

  Property ownership means owning the sources of wealth in any 
society. From home ownership to the ownership of land and shares, it 
largely determines who is rich and who is poor.

  If you own access to economically productive resources, the means 
of creating wealth, you won't have a problem getting by.

  And the ownership of property is increasingly concentrated in the 
hands of a smaller and smaller minority - this is key to the growth 
of inequality both in Britain and worldwide.

  Our country has had some of the most unequal patterns of land 
ownership in the world since 1066.

  Adescendant of a Viking raider - William of Normandy - invaded via 
Sussex and took all the land in England, then parcelled it out to his 
trusted allies.

  The existing population was dispossessed and, if we're honest, 
still is - from the Duke of Westminster's properties in central 
London to the huge royal estates, land ownership is dominated by a 
powerful minority.

  Land is still a big issue in much of the world, as land grabs in 
Africa and elsewhere show - local people find their resources stolen 
by a greedy few almost every day.

  But it's no longer the key source of wealth in Britain.

  Wealth is derived from our collective labour and economic resources 
are increasingly owned by shareholders.

  Shares too tend to concentrate in a few hands, with a handful of 
big shareholders controlling most corporations.

  Con-Dem ideology and conventional economics stress that hard work 
is the source of wealth.

  In a real sense it is, but that doesn't mean the wealth ends up 
where the hard work was done. Share ownership provides dividends 
without the need to get one's hands dirty with production.

  The rich rarely sweat and while their ancestors on occasion may 
have done so, the motto originally from the French novelist Honore de 
Balzac that introduces the great US novel The Godfather still 
generally holds: Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime.

  Neoliberalism is driving further the concentration of property ownership.

  The austerity agenda involves countries across the world taking 
resources - whether those are library buildings, roads, land or radio 
spectrums - that are publicly owned and selling them off.

  The cheap sale of assets transforms public ownership into ownership 
by shareholders, and the resources controlled by shareholders have to 
be used not to benefit communities but to provide the most short-term profit.

  Thus control of the economy passes more and more into the hands of 
a minority. Short-term cash considerations lead to environmental 
damage. And politics becomes more and more distorted by the whims of an elite.

  For democracy to function a diverse media is necessary - access to 
information shapes our ability as voters to make meaningful choices. 
As media ownership, like everything else, becomes dominated by a 
minority, groups like Rupert Murdoch's News International gain more 
and more power over events.

  It's a never-ending cycle - control of property gives the ability 
to raise more cash from financial institutions which can then be used 
to control yet more property.

  Centralisation of property ownership leads to falling incomes for 
the majority of us and is accelerated by processes of liberalisation.

  Ultimately property ownership is a bit like society's DNA. 
Different forms of property rights give rise to different futures.

  That's why we need to think creatively about property. It's 
interesting that the often far from forward-looking Romans didn't 
simply have "private" and "state" property but more than six 
different kinds of property, including community ownership and even 
ownership by the gods.

  We might not wish to give the likes of Zeus a controlling stake in 
resources, but is it any less rational to sell control of our NHS or 
our roads to corporations based in Texas or Bavaria?

  There are all sorts of alternative options on the table. Radical US 
economist John R Commons developed the concept of a "bundle" of 
property rights - instead of having an exclusive right to own and 
sell property on an individual basis, different users might have 
different rights to property in terms of access for productive use.

  It would build on structures such as common land, of which 
incidentally there is over 400,000 acres in England and Wales. This 
land is provately owned but gives "commoners" a range of rights from 
grazing cattle to flying kites.

  We need to put democratic ownership back on the agenda. Whether 
it's establishing a real democratic input into how existing public 
property is used, so it isn't controlled by distant bureaucrats, or 
it's giving workers control of companies, property needs to be owned 
and enjoyed by more of us.

  The aspiration for democratic politics was dismissed as "mob rule" 
and rejected as utopian extremism before the 1789 French revolution.

  Today the aspiration for democratic ownership is seen as so extreme 
that it is rarely even articulated.

  But from Wikipedia to the co-operative movement to communal 
councils in Venezuela, the idea that we can extend ownership from the 
few to the many is slowly emerging.
Derek Wall is international co-ordinator for the Green Party of 
England and Wales.

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