By Johnny Marten
The movement for land reform is gathering speed. It feels like exciting times. First came news of a suite of reforms by Nicola Sturgeon and the appointment of a Minister for Land Reform. Next followed grass-roots organising such as the new Scottish Land Action Movement, the Land Reform Revenue Group (LRRG) and a workshop in Birnam to galvanise around the Government consultation. Such grass roots organising is an essential presence in tackling Scotland’s inequitable land ownership system and promises to move things beyond the political sphere. This momentum presents the opportunity to dig deep within our ideas and ideologies so we can figure out how to achieve transformative change.
Silver bullet or silver tongue
At a recent conference in Glasgow members of the LRRG explained to attendees that zero-rating income tax and “replacing the revenue with a new charge on location rents” would “boost employment by 55,000 jobs,” make everyone in Scotland 2.4 times richer and generally bring the land monopoly tower of cards tumbling down. Fiscal reforms are “central to land reform” as put by Andy Wightman. It appears that we have a silver bullet.
The LRRG gave evidence to show how taxes weigh heavily on the poor and encourage the hoarding of urban and rural land. Dr Sandilands explained that “the failure to capture the social value of land and its rents as the primary and most natural of State revenues has meant that governments have turned instead to taxation.” I.e., there is a fairer way for the State to raise money that could lead to greater equality, including in land ownership. However, such amendments to the neoliberal State may be skirting around the edges. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The land reform agenda hacks at the branches of inequality when it fails to challenge the status quo more fundamentally.
This is apparent from the LRRG’s position that the “social value” should be destined to serve as “the primary and most natural of state revenues.” It is evident that society fails to capture the social value of land, but what lacks is vision as to how society could change.
What kind of society is possible?
Looking to other movements for social change, the writing of social justice activist and barrister Rhada D’Souza is informative in rethinking our approach to land reform. Writing on human rights, she poses that:
“The state is not the same as society, however. Society is a condition of human existence. States are one of many ways of organising social life… By conflating society with state, [human] Rights foreclose debates on what kind of society is possible or desirable…”
By focusing on changes to the State structure we are distracted from challenging the foundations of inequality and from grass-roots means of social organising. Activists depend on Government reforms to bring about changes to their lives when real-time changes often stem from social interactions on the community level. Significant changes to the fabric of social relations are boxed in by considering the State as the only way to organise and the only way to change. D’Souza goes on to write that:
“When activists organise they necessarily invoke social solidarities which are based on social relationships. [Human] Rights to the contrary focus on the relationship between State and citizens.”
Similarly, limiting the land reform debate to changes within the current state system “forecloses the debate on what kind of society is possible or desirable.” Directing our attention towards reforming the collection of “state revenues” stalls discussion on whether the land ownership system is desirable at all.
The private ownership of land gives individuals the power to extract wealth from others by controlling the means to produce wealth. This power gives rise to the injustices inherent within our system of social organising: concentration of land ownership, speculation, rise in land values, lowering of wages and transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The absolute right over private property in land comes from Roman property law, giving the owner the ‘freedom’ to do as they want with their property. However land isn’t the same as other property. It was made by no person, and no further land can be created. It is an absolute necessity for the basic ingredients of life.
The land reform debate needs to challenge whether land should be owned at all and imagine other possibilities. As put by attendees of the Birnam workshop in their ‘declaration’, “the land – all the land – belongs to everyone and to no-one.” This statement is refreshing in a debate clouded by minor reform and such an ideology is essential to constructing a society based on equality.
Are we making progress?
Perhaps more fundamental than this, the land reform movement neglects to challenge the myth of ‘progress’ as a desirable path for human interaction with the earth. The philosophy of progress considers the continual expansion of (industrialised) economic activity towards a pinnacle of technological advance both desirable and feasible. However global climate change, extreme inequalities in wealth and cycles of economic collapse are surely indications that such a path is destructive and unsustainable. The use of land primarily in the pursuit of profit and ever increasing profit at that is clearly detrimental to human and non-human life. The Dark Mountain Project outlines the concept:
“The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free… Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued…We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence.”
Without attempting to tackle the myth of progress the land reform debate fails to approach the relationship between humans and the land. It is ironic that a movement to create a more just system of land use perpetuates a myth that we are somehow separate from the earth.
Fiona McKenzine, author of Places of Possibility, comments that community ownership breaks down the “seemingly unassailable property norms,” to be replaced by something “more socially, environmentally and economically generous…” She theorises that “community land ownership interrupts the givenness of private property and thereby the process of privatization at the centre of neoliberalization.” She argues that by owning land as a community people become part of the land they live on – and that this has repercussions for how people behave and relate towards their environment.
In England and Wales, Community Land Trusts (CLTs) have largely taken the form of community owned housing projects. This model has created an open and democratic structure for providing affordable housing in the long term by “retaining an equity share in each property so they don’t succumb to the extremes of land speculation,” according to the CLT network. There are now over 150 CLTs in rural and urban areas realising an alternative path to housing needs.
In France the organisation Terre de Liens buys farm land to remove it from the commodity market and keep it in organic, productive use. By renting it to food producers on long-term favourable leases, they are creating a system where land is virtually un-owned and the user pays the community for fair use of the land. With 100 farms and growing this is a successful model which “protects agricultural land as a common good” and “holds it in trust for the next generation.”
These are just some examples of alternative models to the private ownership of land. They illustrate how it is possible to realise different ways of social organising. In doing so they challenge the foundations of our relations to each other and to the earth. The land reform movement should shake the platform which supports our unequal society by creating new spaces and realising new ideas. We need to challenge the status quo of land ownership. The risk of neglecting this is reform which looks much the same as what went before.