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Modernity as a Land Crisis

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th February 2013


So here is the hypothesis I draw: the problem with modernity isn’t capitalism or government per se; the problem is land and the way capital and government have been tied to it. The land reform movement of the nineteenth century was the most courageous attempt to reform those dealings, and the crises of not having reformed them linger with us to this day.

Republished from Jo Guldi:

“Land is unlike any other form of commodity. In R. H. Tawney’s words, it was “orgies of land speculation” that resulted in the displacement of peasants and the linking of capital to real estate. Land trade, rather than capitalism itself, has been behind some of the most lasting and damaging aspects of advanced capitalism: the clearance of black neighborhoods, the creation of segregated cities in South Africa, India, and the United States where property ownership was backed up by law; and the economic isolation of the poor.

Some of the reasons land ownership has been so linked to power in the modern era is the legal restrictions that accompany real estate but not other forms of property. As Avner Offer pointed out in his history of nineteenth-century land movements, land is slower to trade than other commodities; it is more hampered with legal restrictions and covenants. Many of these — duties of road maintenance, the law of lights, restrictions on entail — went back to medieval and Roman times. But even if we imagined away the laws of trade in land, the ownership of land still gives rise to other powers that other capitalists don’t have. Land ownership means buying into the right to engineer the experience of other individuals. Even the mere owner of a shopfront in a city has purchased the right to interfere with the perceptions, rights, and choices of his fellows, through how he organizes that space, through accoutrements like benches or air conditioning or street trees with which he amends his property, through what he displays and refuses to display — powers that the owner of a yacht or the mere dealer in corn at the market has not purchased. Land ownership is implicitly linked to the governance of others’ experience, and so removing land ownership from the feudal system to the capitalist system created after effects too broad to be summed up by a study of abstract capital markets themselves.

I draw here on the writing of Elizabethan historian R. H. Tawney and his reflections on the massive turnover of land that transpired in Europe between roughly 1500 and 1700 with the draining of northern Europe and enclosure of its forest frontier. Everywhere, land exchange resulted in the rapid escalation of prices, with the result of new political relationships with the peasantry characterized by enclosure, depopulation, riot, and suppression. In England, these patterns were intensified by an added factor: the breakup of monastic lands, which were turned over first to the crown and then to agents who sold them to the highest bidder. For these reasons, the turnover was greater, the gentry turned over more rapidly, their hold and rights to land were preserved more tenuously, and they had more to fear from an outright peasant rebellion of the kind embodied by the Levellers.

Based on his study of the English Civil War, Tawney reached the conclusion that land politics, rather than democratic ideas, were at the heart of the age of revolutions that created modern nations and the system of classes. Ownership in land, he reminded his readers, meant more than ownership in other forms of property. It presented political status — the right to vote, the right to a title — for the vote was linked to land ownership in England until 1867. It also gave social status. Land owners built country houses and began to participate in a world of political influence based on hospitality given to royalty and political office holders. Finally, ownership in alienable land meant unprecedented powers of social engineering rarely seen in Feudal systems. Land owners cleared villages and built new ones; they *had* to, in order to keep up with the increasingly extensive use of agriculture by their competitors. The regime of alienable property in land that emerged from the Civil War, buoyed by the theory of Thomas Hobbes, was in almost every sense — the sense of creating a power elite, the sense of depriving the working class of economic and political access — based on how it preserved the rights to property in land.

According to the subdiscipline of moral geography, this centrality of land ownership to modern liberalism in fact masks many of the most urgent issues of class, race, and gender participation in the modern era. We accept the built environment — the separation of mother’s house from father’s work, the segregation of black and white neighborhoods — as entirely natural. Looking backwards from the postwar twentieth century, the reform movements that receive the most press have been those dealing in abstract rights involving court and market. Yet the spatial structuration of our cities, farms, and nations conceals within it boundaries that demarcate access and inclusion. They are invisible to all except a radical tradition that has stressed the significance of land to the experience of contemporary governance.

Twenty-first century events threaten to again put the land at the center of analysis. Rapid turnovers in the foreclosure crisis, the devolution of state infrastructure, the spiraling cost of real estate, reverse white flight, and new back-to-the-land and utopian movements taking over the abandoned cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, mean that land ownership issues have captured attention. In addition, new methodologies like collaborative mapping and GIS have offered the infrastructure for participatory efforts to make sense of these new forces that determine so much of contemporary inclusion in market and politics. Finally, the fabrication of the digital commons creates a plane of virtual real estate where the same issues of participation, visibility, social engineering, alienability and exclusion apply as with land. The enclosure of this virtual commons and its contestation through the Net Neutrality movement are among the most important political crises of our day. We could even point, with Eleanor Ostrom, to connections between death of the commons in traditional cultures and the increasing likelihood of exhausting natural resources linked to land — which after all can be turned over at rapid rates.

So here is the hypothesis I draw: the problem with modernity isn’t capitalism or government per se; the problem is land and the way capital and government have been tied to it. The land reform movement of the nineteenth century was the most courageous attempt to reform those dealings, and the crises of not having reformed them linger with us to this day.”

In another article, the author thinks we may be seeing a revival of sorts:

“At the same time, the crisis in the Rust Belt has prompted the formation of a new generation of radical organizing. There, emergent counter-movements have begun to assert the right of people to form a relationship with territory. In the upper midwest, courts have begun to uphold the rights of squatters. Progressives have begun a new back-to-the-land movement in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. Time banks, land banks, and local currencies comprise a new movement towards regional autonomy. In May of 2010, the NYT reported on the wealth of abandoned property in the Rust Belt, and how back-to-the-land punk squatters in Buffalo are changing land law to protect squatters’ rights. The swarm of radical movements suggests the revaluation of the relationship between people and their territory.”

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