An aeroplane takes me to the skies above England. Few look out the window on the leaving-side, but I do. I gaze down at the criss-cross tapestry of fields, hedgerows, fences, and the neatly plotted estates with a profuse affection. This is home. Yet if I land in New England, the fields, hedgerows, fences, and neatly plotted estates, look much the same. It wasn’t always so: native Americans lived a different way, many without dispensing populaces into pocketed partitions. The Wampanoag Americans who greeted the English pilgrims, enshrined usage rights in their society. But Europeans took land ownership with them on the Mayflower, alongside influenza, smallpox, measles, and guns. Stealing land from the Native Americans became easier because anywhere between five and nine-in-ten died from incidental disease. Colonisation with this in mind, was a matter of economic disruption: settlers took over land that became vacant due to the pathogens they had inadvertently imported. In a colonisers’ view it was no theft because the land belonged to no one, yet. Taking and ‘improving the land’ with agriculture merited the reward of their endeavours with ownership; although their original promises were communal, even communist (share everything with each other), they lapsed into family and household property units nonetheless.
An aerial photograph of Rocky Mount, Virginia USA
These New Englanders introduced instabilities which stoked in fighting among native-American tribes, which left gaps and vulnerabilities settlers then exploited. They even coerced hundreds of Americans into slave ships in Boston Harbour. Incredibly, such blatant acts of theft endure today. There are 24.9 million illegal labour slaves, for example, whose labour and dignity is stolen. Land disputes between indigenous peoples and coloniser states toy with the idea that because indigenious people have no legal system equivalent to ownership, they cannot own the land their forebears bequeathed; conveniently such disputes omit a non-circular justification for why lack-of-native-ownership entails settlers’ right to ownership, rather than undermining it.
As the quip runs, who judges the judges? Themselves. The whole legal tableau is rigged towards property as we recognise it. In writing the US constitution, Englishman Thomas Jefferson lifted a line from the Englishman John Locke who wrote of the inalienable right to preservation of “life, health, liberty, and possessions”. Jefferson cut out
health and possessions , instead writing “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, but the implication that life, liberty, property, and happiness go together tacitly held sway.
In colonial historical accounts, there are obvious daylight robberies which constitute ‘the pursuit’: landing, beguiling, claiming, conquering, enslaving, and displacing natives. These conquests were horrendous. But we need never romanticise indigenious peoples either, whose societies varied so much, it would be nonsensical to assume communal utopias, as starry-eyed thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at the time did. Some native American tribes, for instance, had slave systems themselves—captives taken prisoner during raids against other tribes—before first-contact with Europeans. Meanwhile other societies had liberal intellectuals, who informed European enlightenment thinkers’ liberal ideals.
Remember, though, that destitution, violence, and disease shaped the United States, with land grabs for English owned land (the six colonies) French owned land (the middle passage up from New Orleans) Spanish owned land (Mexico, California, and Texas) all with tribal peoples displaced, and of course Americans internally warring eventually, too: revolutionaries and royalists at one time (1778-1783), and federalists and confederates at another (1861-1865). The United States became one nation, and an empire. The US bought Alaska from imperial Russia (1867); the United States bought New Mexico (1898); the United States conquered Hawai’i (1898) and imprisoned Lili’uokalani, its queen; American president James Madison invaded Canada (1812) to defend its trade rights; Americans acquired the Philippines and Puerto Rico (1898); Americans’ war-games toyed with invading Britain’s possessions, Canada-India-UK (1919:1939). Property therefore is not a natural or inalienable right, but crudely about power, conflict, and commerce, with the powerful making-up the rules. What is true for land grabs between nations is true for peoples within them. This is the story seldom told, the story of expropriation in European nations, like England.
I am sceptical, actually, about conspiracy-history whereby the powerful planned land grabs to their designs or men concertedly planned the oppression of women; much of it just happened, with Americans in above scenarios for example seeing, presumably, no qualms in taking land as the British King’s men had done—through the opening of the public purse or the shot of the public gun. Nonetheless, there is a striking resemblance between the colonists thieving shared land, and the rich stealing shared land. While anyone readily sees the theft in conquest, fewer see the theft from communal ownership, they see inter-national war but not class-wars; it is a disquieting silence how much blood was spilt in the pursuit of property, if not happiness. I speak of the enclosures, the pillaged commons which happened incrementally across centuries: lords of manors or lords of land, demanded rents from their subjects and imposed terms for what they could cultivate, and how they could go about it. Amid the horrors of the black death, and land communally owned being asserted time again as landlords—to be paid for with labour or extracted rent commodities—a series of peasant rebellions broke out in 1381. This was incited by ultimate causes like the black death lowering the number of labourers and eaters, alongside proximate legislation to set and standardise wages, which left peasants worse off and landlords better off.
The common people, commoners, women communities included, had up till then worked the land with everyone working the land according to their ability, and giving to each according to their needs. Battles broke out between oppressor and oppressed, including in 1549 Norfolk when 13,000 peasants tore down fences landlords had erected, and claimed the City of Norwich (only to be defeated after a third government army attacked them).
This is also the story feminist historian Silvia Federici tells in The Caliban and The Witch. This is also the story economist Guy Standing tells in The Plunder of The Commons. Old-world gender norms were also more flexible than we might imagine—with women tending plants and men tending homes with indifference, before capital specialisation demanded a division of labour to serve third party needs, manor-lords or land-lords, at an industrial scale. The extent and ramifications from which the rich betrayed common welfare for their own gain is staggering. Looking back to such murky history, one might discount the whole thing as an artefact, but it is an artefact built into the criss-cross pattern of agriculture and the fenced gardens which surround us today. One-in-one hundred people own most, above half, the land in England, for instance, as the website who-owns-England makes abundantly clear; feudalism never ended, it just adapted. We have all had our inheritance stolen from us. Thomas Paine, a Norfolk man and the American founding father (the constitution’s early draft consultation with ‘TP’) somehow left out of the family portraits in The White House, proposed for Agrarian Justice in 1797, that each nation should endeavour:
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.
Paine proposed the first social insurance system not as the state giving hand-outs to the unemployed, but the state giving compensation for having taken commoners’ shared property, shared land, and shared livelihoods, and enforcing the need for waged employment in service to landlords to begin with. Paine also suggested a universal pension scheme of “the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years” whose infirm age merited welfare payment. As Paine observed, “To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.” Albeit an exaggeration from ignorance, the contrast between native Americans before and after colonisation is indeed stark—and partly what made Rousseau think ‘civillisation’ to be corruptive—and the life of ‘an Indian’ to be a holiday lark compared to the impoverished, fighting for their daily bread, in England.
There is abundant legal precedent, moreover, for considering nature and land to be a natural inheritance. Magna Carter, for instance, the law statute instantiated proto human rights, which lawyers draw inspiration from to this day; the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Human Rights, writes of it as a loadstar. Yet, leaves out its sister-document, another charter, named The Charter of The Forest in 1215 (forest then meaning ‘land’) which re-established the rights of non-nobles and non-royalty—commoners—to use land to gather, hunt, fish, farm, dwell, and travel without restriction or abuse by the entitled. Vestiges of commons remain, in my home village for instance, but the idea of natural inheritance has lost its way. To redress inequity, a land tax to fund a national compensation fund for natural inheritance has its merits (amid all the furore for basic incomes or basic services) in compensating against a system which thus far is rigged towards owners and against users. As Katharine Pistor laments in The Code of Capital (Princeton University Press, 2017) inequality between have-lots and have-nots outmatches revolutionary France. The Capital Code, the law, serves the minority who just so happen to write the code—80 per cent of contracts for example are made in New York or London state law, so assume retrofitted English Common Law from the-get-go.
There is ubiquitous historical gaslighting about what property means, therefore, and just who owes who: it is made out that the workers owe the capitalists for giving them jobs; that citizens owe states for taxing and pensioning them; that strong property rights foster the greatest benefit for the greatest number; that land and property is sorted organically to those who most need it. These seem however to have the roles reversed; the facts point to the conclusions being the wrong way around. Remedying the situation is much harder, than allowing it to expand out: but a proportional-land tax may be the way to pay for a national fund and the preservation of our natural environment from landlords some among whom hunt animals for fun, and farmers who let loose pollution into public rivers without-paying any price for the privileges.