Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The land beneath our feet

by Daphne Liddle

LAND is a basic necessity of human existence, along with water and air. Itis also a source of great wealth and power – simply because we all need it and the supply of it is finite. It is held as private property and boughtand sold but many economists do not regard it as a commodity, certainly it is not the usual sort of commodity.
This is because no labour is used to create it, so it does not embody inherent labour value. The useful things extracted from it like food andminerals do embody labour value but that labour has been expended inextracting these commodities from the land. The land retains its value after this because its chief value to us is that we need it to live on.
In the early days of the human race the concept of private property did not exist and land was freely available to all. In feudal times all land theoretically belonged to the crown. The monarch would parcel it out to various friends and allies in return for their loyalty in time of war and as“rent”. This rent could take the form of money, goods or service – usually amixture of these three. When a feudal lord died his lands reverted theoretically to the crown, unless the king agreed to recognise the lord’s heir – this was normally a formality, as was the payment of a fee that was essentially an inheritance tax.
The lords subdivided their lands and rented to lesser lords – again in return for loyalty in battle and rent. At the lowest level the peasants actually farmed the land in return for rent paid to the local lord of the manor. This rent again could take the form of goods – part of the crop – andor service rendered so many days a week working on the lord’s own patch.
But feudal land was not held as private property. It could not be boughtand sold. And the lords did have a duty to ensure their peasants had enoughland to provide a living for themselves (four acres and a cow was deemed thesubsistence level in mediaeval England) and to defend them from attack.The peasant was legally bound to the land and could not leave it, butequally his family could not be turfed off it.
But this system broke down in England after the Black Death plague wiped out a third of England’s peasants. The lords faced a huge labour shortage and soon they were bribing peasants from other estates to abscond and cometo work for them for high wages.
Many villages were totally devastated, leaving the land uncultivated. Itwas then that some lords discovered they could increase their wealth considerably by turning the land over to sheep pasture – giving rise to England’s historic wool trade which was later a factor in the industrial revolution. Sheep farming did not require large numbers of peasants – just a shepherd or two.
This produced so much wealth that soon lords were illegally evicting peasants and enclosing first arable land then even common land to raiselucrative sheep. Over the centuries this process gradually undermined the feudal system, forced peasants off the land and into towns to become thenewly emerging working class and began the idea that land was the private property of the lords.
The enclosure movement – the first form of privatisation – continued on and off for several centuries. It gained momentum at the end of the 18th century when new farming methods led landowners to seek to enclose common lands.They felt justified in doing so because their methods were “scientific”;they increased the productivity of the land and regarded any other use ofthe land as wasteful.
But the impact on village labourers – no longer peasants with rights butwaged labourers who could be hired and fired – was dramatic. Historians J L and Barbara Hammond describe the effects in their The Village Labourer 1760-1832: “In an unenclosed village, as we have seen, the normal labourer did not depend on his wages alone. His livelihood was made up from varioussources. His firing he took from the waste, he had a cow or a pig wandering on the common pasture, perhaps raised a little crop on a strip in the commonfields.
“He was not merely a wage earner, receiving so much money a week or a day for his labour, and buying all the necessities of life at a shop: he received his wages as a labourer but in part he maintained himself as aproducer. Further the actual money revenue of the family was not limited tothe labourer’s earnings, for the domestic industries that flourished in the village gave employment to his wife and children.
“In an enclosed village at the end of the 18th century the position of the agricultural labourer was very different. All his auxiliary resources hadbeen taken from him and he was now a wage earner and nothing more.
“Enclosure had robbed him of the strip of land that he tilled, of the cow that he kept on the village pasture, of the fuel he picked up in the woods,of the turf that he tore from the common.
“And while social revolution had swept away his possessions, an industrial revolution had swept away his family’s earnings. To families living on thescale of the village poor, each of these losses was a crippling blow; thetotal effect of the changes was to destroy their economic independence.”
Before enclosure, villagers had a rich and varied diet. After it, many were reduced to a diet mainly of bread or potatoes and tea. Many villagers found it hard to raise healthy children without resorting to the illegal and dangerous practices of poaching or, if they lived near the coast, smuggling.
The enclosure movement still has not stopped but it has changed its form.Every time part of a town centre is turned into an enclosed shopping mall,it becomes the private property of some company, often operating jointlywith the local authority. And every time a public school or hospital is handed over to a private finance initiative scheme, the land it is on ceases to be public property and becomes private property. The transfer of council housing to the private sector is also a form of enclosure.
Now all the land in Britain belongs to some person, company ororganisation. Most of the working class do not own any land and the principle of private landownership means they are excluded from all dry land unless they comply with the terms and conditions set by those who do own andcontrol access to the land.
Even in public places like streets and parks we have no absolute right toloiter freely if the powers that be decide we must move on. We certainlyhave no right to reside there. Homeless people are subject to endless harassment from those who do own and control access to land.
The right to reside on land is subject to terms and conditions and themain condition is the regular payment of rent. Every activity taking place on dry land – living, working, sleeping, having fun, farming, buying,selling, lending, borrowing is all done under terms and conditions set by those who claim landownership.
Rent is a tax on all these activities. It is the mechanism by which landowners extract wealth produced by others. They sell access to dry landbut still retain full ownership of the land. They can sell this over and over again and still have their land. This is a form of wealth that never loses its value – even when the rest of capitalism is in economic crisis –because people never stop needing land to live on. Landowners regard mere money as an inferior and unreliable form of wealth.
The landowners do not produce the wealth they garner from the rest of the population. All wealth is produced by work and under the capitalist systemit is accumulated in the hands of the few by the confidence trick known as surplus value.
The landowner places his own tax on this activity by demanding rent at each stage of process to allow it to be done on dry land. He is a parasite on theback of the capitalist parasite.
Workers must pay part of their wages to the landowners to be allowed to live and sleep on land. Therefore a subsistence wage, necessary to maintaina worker, must include rent. This raises the level of the subsistence wageand increases industrial production costs. It is a tax on surplus value.
Marx recognised the difference in interests between capitalists and landowners in his Grundrisse. He wrote: “Negatively, when capital has established landed property and thus attained the double aim of:
1) agricultural industry and thus development of the productive forcesof the earth and
2) wage labour and thus the generalised domination of capital over theland;
it considers the existence of landed property itself as a merely transitoryform of development: it is necessary as the action of capital on the old landed property relationships and a product of their dissolution. But once this aim has been achieved, landed property is only a barrier to profit andno necessity of production.
“Thus capital tries to dissolve private property and transfer it to thestate. This is the negative side: a tendency to transform the whole of society into capitalists and wage labourers.”
This has not happened as Marx predicted. Capitalists have not yet tried tonationalise land. Perhaps that is because the capitalist revolution in Britain has never been carried to its full conclusion and the existing British state machine is still an alliance of capitalists and landowners.
The English civil war can be seen as the confrontation between those who were fighting a rearguard action to defend feudal principles of landownership with the crown as the ultimate power in the land, and the new generation of landowners who saw their land as private property and recognised obligations neither to kings over them nor to peasants underthem.
The emergent working class of artisans in the towns allied themselves withthe merchants and gentleman farmers who led the Protestant Parliamentary forces against the reactionary Catholic-oriented Royalist forces.
The Parliamentary forces won and established a bourgeois republic but a decade later, in 1660, there was a partial counter-revolution, with the restoration of the monarchy with limited powers. Charles II had sense not to rock this fragile alliance too much but his successor James II was not sowise and tried to recoup the lost powers of the monarchy. He provoked the“Glorious Revolution”. James was send packing by Parliament and William and Mary invited to take the throne under terms of an alliance between capital and landownership that survives today.
The constitutional-monarchy state produced by this compromise at first was heavily loaded in favour of private landowners. They controlled Parliament and landownership was a condition of voting rights. In addition the landowners, the powerful squirearchy, dominated the higher echelons of the armed forces. They still do. Parliament and the armed forces were the main organs of the state. The armed forces were, and still are, under the controlof the crown, and the crown is supposed to be subservient to the will ofParliament.
This was before the industrial revolution and there were few powerful capitalists but the conditions created by the 1668 compromise allowed capitalism to develop and prosper. British capital, backed by the Royal Navy, used the slave trade to make vast sums of money. The resultant sugar and cotton industries provided the accumulation of wealth that the great Whig families invested in building canals, coal mining, iron smelting and factory building that enabled the industrial revolution to happen. The Royal Navy fought off rivals to secure markets around the world for British goods and itself was a vital customer for the iron industry for guns. Today MI6keeps up the tradition and is known as “the armed wing of the Confederation of British Industry”.
As the power of the capitalists grew, the British state developed to reflect this. A huge civil service grew; a succession of reform acts extended the voting franchise to non-landowners; a bourgeois civilian police force was created and local government in the form of elected incorporated municipalities was established.
By and large this process was very lucrative for both landowners andcapitalists but there were a few instances of their interests clashing. One of these was the Corn Laws, which was a tariff imposed on important of foreign corn, introduced during the Napoleonic wars to protect Britishfarmers from cheap foreign imports. After the wars were over the Corn Laws raised the price of bread to the working class. Industrialists resented this because it meant they had to pay higher wages to keep their workers healthy.A long political battle resulted in a victory for the industrialists and theCorn Laws were abolished.
Many landowners also opposed the new forms of elected local government because it undermined their power as local authorities.
The landowners resisted when sons of wealthy capitalists tried to move intothe armed forces and take over their role as officers. Up until the mid-Victorian era a young man would become an army officer by buying a commission. Only in the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, where certain basic technical and mathematical skills were essential, was any training provided for officers. For all other regiments, growing up a gentleman accustomed to giving orders to the lowers classes was knowledge enough.
But when capitalist families became wealthy enough to do this, the armychanged the rules and introduced the Cardwell reforms. This meant the only route to becoming an officer was through a military college. This was when Sandhurst was established to provide officers with “the right attitude” –that of the squirearchy. Sons of capitalists or anyone with egalitarianideas was unlikely to get through.
Another famous clash between the bourgeoisie and landowners came in 1914in the Curragh mutiny in the north of Ireland. Parliament had just passed a Home Rule Bill for Ireland but Ulster loyalists, led by Carson, had rebelled against it. The army was ordered to quell this rebellion and impose the will of Parliament but army officers refused to carry out these orders.Parliament could do nothing and the eventual result, in 1921, was the partitioning of Ireland and all the troubles that have resulted from thatsince.
Lenin wrote at length on how this clash between Parliament and the army revealed the true state of class power in Britain.
He said: “This revolt of the landowners against the British Parliament, the‘all-powerful’ Parliament (as the Liberal dullards, especially the Liberal pundits, have thought and said many millions of times), is of tremendous significance. March 21st 1914 will be an epoch-making turning point, the day when the noble landowners of Britain tore up the British constitution andthe British law to shreds and gave an excellent lesson of the classstruggle.
“This lesson stemmed from the impossibility of blunting the sharpantagonisms between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie by means of the half-hearted, hypocritical sham reformist policy of the Liberals. This lesson will not be lost upon the British labour movement; the working classwill now quickly process to shake off its philistine faith in a scrap of paper called the British law and constitution, which the British aristocrats have torn up before the eyes of the whole people.
“These aristocrats have behaved like revolutionaries of the right and thereby shattered all conventions, tore aside the veil that prevented thepeople from seeing the unpleasant but undoubtedly real class struggle. All saw what the bourgeoisie and Liberals have been hypocritically concealing (they are hypocrites everywhere, but nowhere, perhaps, such consummate hypocrites as in Britain).
“All saw the conspiracy to break the will of Parliament had been preparedlong ago. Real class rule lay and still lies outside Parliament.
“The above-mentioned medieval institutions, which for long had beeninoperative (or rather seemed to be inoperative), quickly came into operation and proved to be stronger than Parliament.
“And Britain’s petty bourgeois Liberals with all their speeches about reforms and the might of Parliament designed to lull the workers, proved infact to be straw men, dummies put up to bamboozle the people. They were quickly ‘shut up’ by the aristocracy, the men in power.”
This balance of power probably explains why capitalists in Britain havenever ventured to nationalise the land, as Marx thought they would.
In the 1920s Lloyd George did try to chip away at the wealth and power ofthe big aristocratic landowners by introducing inheritances taxes. His aim was that gradually, as each landowner was succeeded by his heir, they wouldbe forced to sell off some of their property and their wealth and power would dwindle gradually.
But that has not happened. The landowners moaned as though they had had their arms and legs cut off. They did sell off some stately homes that werebecoming more expensive to maintain than they were worth. Then they turned themselves into property companies fronted by commercial sounding names –like Grosvenor Estates – and kept a low profile, avoiding any public attention to their obscene wealth. They also found ways of avoiding paying tax on their land and other assets.
Many on the left believe that landowners are no longer distinguishable from capitalists – the landowners invest in capitalist enterprises and somecapitalists buy land. But the old powerful landowners are still there. Their interests do not often clash with the capitalists but when they do, in time of economic crisis, they will sell off their stocks and shares and hang onto their land.
They are very secretive. There have been only two occasions in the past 1,000 years when land in England has been fully registered. Once when the Doomsday Book was compiled 20 years after William the Conqueror invaded in1066. The second, 800 years later, in 1872. The Return of the Owners of Land managed to register every acre in England and Wales. Today’s Land Registry is able to tell you who owns only 50 per cent of the land. The other half is unregistered. Scotland is different, there land registry is much more comprehensive.
In just over 130 years more than 30 million acres have mysteriously gone missing. For example back in 1872, the second Duke of Wellington is registered as owning 15,800 acres. Today the Land Registry has no record of his holding. The Land Registry is hoping to persuade him and those who ownthe unregistered half of Britain to own up by 2012 – the target date for full registration.
This means we can only estimate who owns the land in Britain today. Thereare 60 million acres in England, Wales and Scotland and just under one-third of it is still owned by aristocrats and traditional landed gentry.
The crown still owns huge tracts of land but George III signed away incomefrom this land in return for a regular allowance known as the civil list.Nevertheless the royal family have extensive estates that they own privatelyand enjoy a huge income from them. They have only recently started to payany tax at all on this.
Since Thatcher the tax regime is far more lenient on big landowners. There is a whole raft of tax breaks available to landowners who recognise an obligation to conserve the land and make it and their properties accessibleto the public.
Only in Scotland has there been any measure of real land reform. Crofters are now allowed to buy their freeholds at a reasonable price. The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland’s biggest landowner with nearly 300,000 acres, calls this “shameless, legalised theft”.
The Leasehold Reform Act 1993 is now nibbling away at some of the bigLondon estates. Tenants with longer leases are now able to buy the freeholds. The Duke of Westminster was so outraged by this attack on his land that he resigned the Tory whip in the House of Lords in protest.
It is a mistake is to regard land as purely a rural issue. The most lucrative land for generating rent lies under our towns. And it is surprising how many town centres are still owned by aristocrats.
The big London estates include the Cadogan estate headed by Earl Cadogan;the estate has the ancient manor of Chelsea at its core. Today the £2.2 billion estate owns some of London’s most desirable retail space includingdepartment stores Harvey Nichols and Peter Jones.
The 100-acre Howard de Walden estate owned by the de Walden family is bounded by Wigmore Street to the south, the Marylebone Road to the north, Marylebone High Street to the west and Hallam Street to the east. It alsoowns much of Harley Street and houses about 1,400 doctors, surgeons and dentists.
The Portman Estate is centred on Portman Square but also includes Oxford and Baker Streets. The current Viscount Portman manages more than 650 properties.
The Grosvenor family has owned the 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia since1677. The northern part of the manor, today bounded by Oxford Street, Park Lane, Berkeley Square and Avery Row, took its name from the May Fair, “a place of vice and impurities” held annually until the 19th century. Today Grosvenor is an international property group, with assets under managementof £9.1 billion.
Recently Britain’s big landowners have been growing more wealthy and morepowerful. They have looked on European Union farming subsidies as a pot of gold and are now better off than they were before Lloyd George tried to clip their wings.What should be the socialist attitude to private landowners? Ultimately we want to see all land restored to common ownership with total security ofresidence for all workers.
After a socialist revolution homes rented from a socialist state would havevery low rents, to cover the maintenance and administration of the buildings and no more. Homes would be provided by the state or local authority according to need. Planning policy would be determined democratically.
But in the early stages of socialism it would not be necessary to seize the land of small scale landowners – people who own their own homes, small businesses, shopkeepers and farmers – who do not use the land to exploit thelabour of others through rent. These people would definitely benefit from living under socialism because their mortgages and other debts would be wiped out.
All land that is used to gain income through rent must be nationalised andso returned to common ownership. The right to a secure home would be recognised.
Getting rid of rent as a form of parasitism would be the priority: it makes profit from a basic human need. Making profits from supplying water comes into much the same category. So far they have not yet found a way to charge us for the air we breathe but they’re probably working on it.
While we remain under capitalism we must call for highest possible taxes on all income from all ground rents. We must also call for more council housing at rents which cover costs and no more.
And we must call for a law to allow workers in serious arrears with their mortgages to apply to local authority to buy them out and henceforth be council tenants. This would bring more land into public ownership.
The private finance initiative must be abolished and land under shopping malls, former council estates and so on be restored to public ownership.