Earth as subject, or Earth as object: private property, capitalism, and the nation state

I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the “feudal nature” of this little eco-pod, where I “own” both houses and the earth they sit on. This difference between me and the others who live here generates unequal social relations, since I always have “the last word.” We are working, this year, to rectify the situation, by establishing some kind of legal trust, but it’s not clear yet which way to go. Meanwhile, today we gather to look at a five-year plan for our community, especially focusing on how to transform this humming little place from a center of consumption to a center of production. We hope to generate both a mission statement and a vision statement in today’s meeting.

In astrological terms, you might say that we seek a creative way of to utilize the Uranus in Aries versus Pluto in Capricorn dynamic to restructure (Capricorn) power relations in community so that each individual (Aries) comes first (Aries)! Interesting that we should synchronistically hold this meeting on the New Moon/Solar Eclipse when the energies for new beginnings are high!

Meanwhile, here’s a deep, juicy background piece to help us begin to penetrate with our minds and hearts the illusory veil our civilization has draped over Earth, calling her “land,” and breaking her up into parts which humans pretend to “own,” while fighting each other for the spoils. (Check with any astronaut about that.) Via Keith.


No Man’s Land

March 3, 2015

by Steven Stoll




Every social system falls into contradictions, opposing or inconsistent aspects within its assumptions that have no clear resolution. These can be managed or put off, but some of them are serious enough to undermine the entire system. In the case of private property, there are at least two—and they may throw the very essence of capitalism into illegitimacy.


The first of the system’s contradictions points to its origins. Land in the English countryside during the sixteenth century was regulated by feudal obligations so obscure and so thick that few people today can make sense of them. An English peasant could use a run of soil for a term of years or for her entire life, but it did not belong to her. Village elders, representatives of the local lord, and even the deacon of the church might have claimed an interest in how this or that field was planted. Everyone from monarch to serf received a different slice of the realm. These use rights could be exchanged only in very limited ways: a lord occupied his ancestral house and manor for as long as he lived, but he could not sell them.

All sorts of events caused the demise of feudalism. The Black Death of the fourteenth century killed so many millions that the labor market tipped in favor of those who survived. The spread of money gave things exchange value and made buying and selling easier. Food production increased during the sixteenth century, creating more calories for work and more commodities for trade. And an international wool market inspired lords to change common fields into sheep walks.

The problem was that lords could not put sheep where they wanted. They lived within the feudal assemblage of obligations and rights attached to social orders and scraps of landscape. Faced with declining returns and proliferating opportunities, they began to curse the old rules—they wanted land for themselves.

Enclosure is just what it sounds like: the physical and legal bounding of an area. In practice it meant the seizure of villages, common fields, and outlying forests and marshes. It allowed lords to evict former residents so that they could do new things with land. Sometimes it happened by agreement, with peasants giving in to demands they feared to contest; other times there was violence. In 1607 at least one thousand peasants tore up hedges in Northamptonshire and filled in ditches that demarcated property lines. The rebels made a statement: “Wee, as members of the whole, doe feele the smarte of these incroaching Tirants, which would grind our flesh upon the whetstone of poverty.” King James didn’t flinch from the whetstone. His forces killed forty insurgents and hanged their leader.

The king’s involvement tells us that grasping lords did not do this dirty work by themselves. Parliament legalized their land grab by granting them something that had never before existed in human history: ownership. Lords could now act without regard to tradition or the needs of residents. Some demolished whole communities. The word pauper dates from the seventeenth century to describe poor people who wandered the roads homeless, eating anything they could scavenge and turning up cold and wet at church doors. Peasants became workers as their only option for survival. Some stooped for a wage on the very land they once tilled as members of villages.

Enclosure created two things at once: private property and wage labor, the essential preconditions for capitalism. Like all social practices, private property has a degree of flexibility. Some of its advantages can and should be diffused among as many people as possible. By eliminating messy titles to land and its embeddedness in tradition, enclosure made possible a new measure of innovation and abundance. But that’s also the first of its contradictions. It generates wealth and unprecedented social power for some by making others poor and dependent.

All of this matters because enclosure never came to an end. It jumped continents and kept on going. The colonial wars for North America, in which Britain and then the United States seized land from hundreds of tribes, can be understood as a rolling dispossession—by purchase, treaty, and ejectment. Enclosure also took place in Australia and South Africa. Wherever nation-states became landowners they turned the commons into private property. The epicenter of enclosure today is Africa. A resident of the village of Dialakoroba, in Mali, which has lost thousands of acres to foreign investors, recently said this: “I do not know, in ten to twenty years, how people will live in our villages because there will be no land to till. . . . Everything has been sold to rich people in very opaque conditions.”


Private property’s second contradiction comes from the odd notion that land is a commodity, which is anything produced by human labor and intended for exchange. Land violates the first category, but what about the second? As the historian Karl Polanyi wrote, land is just another name for nature. It’s the essence of human survival. To regard it as an item for exchange “means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.”

Clearly, though, we regard land as a commodity and this seems natural to us. Yet it represents an astonishing revolution in human perception. Real estate is a legal abstraction that we project over ecological space. It allows us to pretend that a thousand acres for sale off some freeway is not part of the breathing, slithering lattice of nonhuman stakeholders. Extending the surveyor’s grid over North America transformed mountain hollows and desert valleys into exchangeable units that became farms, factories, and suburbs. The grid has entered our brains, too: thinking, dealing, and making a living on real estate habituates us to seeing the biosphere as little more than a series of opportunities for moneymaking. Private property isn’t just a legal idea; it’s the basis of a social system that constructs environments and identities in its image.

Advocates of private property usually fail to point out all the ways it does not serve the greater good. Adam Smith famously believed that self-interested market exchange improves everything, but he really offered little more than that hope. He could not have imagined mountains bulldozed and dumped into creeks. He could not have imagined Camden, New Jersey, and other urban sacrifice zones, established by corporations and then abandoned by them. Maximum profit is the singular, monolithic interest at the heart of private property. Only the public can represent all the other human and nonhuman interests.

Unbelievably, perhaps, the United States Congress has done this. Consider one of its greatest achievements: the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. The act nails the abstraction of real estate to the ground. When a conglomerate of California developers proposed a phalanx of suburbs across part of the Central Valley, they came face to face with their nemesis: the vernal pool fairy shrimp. In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld the shrimp’s status as endangered and blocked construction. It was a case in which the ESA diminished the sacred rights to property for the sake of tiny invertebrates, leaving critics of the law dumbfounded. But those who would repeal the ESA (and all the other environmental legislation of the 1970s) don’t appreciate the contradiction it helps a little to contain: the compulsion to derive endless wealth from a muddy, mossy planet.


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