Here in Frome we were lucky enough to have an excellent programme of evening discussions recently entitled Generation Next. A common theme of the evenings I attended was the need to come up with something to replace the dysfunctional and unsustainable systems of power, finance and knowledge that currently hold us in their grip. And this was a ‘common’ theme literally inasmuch as several speakers referenced the idea of ‘global commons’ as a way of transcending these current difficulties. The term has a nice ring to it. It’s surely right to emphasise that we’re common denizens of just the one globe, who must all ultimately share its risks, responsibilities and opportunities. But, beyond that rather basic point, I have some misgivings about the concept of a global commons, particularly when I think about it from my perspective as a local grower. And no, it’s not just because I’m a private landowner. Or maybe it is, but not simply because I fear the expropriation of my humble plot. Let me try to explain…
The first point to make is that we need to think about what a ‘common’ means in practice. People often think of it as a place that nobody owns but everybody has a right to use. But actually this isn’t a common, it’s an open access regime. The classic example of an open access regime is a fishery in international waters, and it’s not a very promising model for an ethic of ecological care. In an open access regime it’s in everybody’s individual interest to grab as much as they can for themselves, and there is no collective check on them doing so. That in a nutshell is why cod are on the endangered species list, and we’re still eating them.
A true common, though, is not an open access regime, but a common property regime – that means that while nobody owns it individually, people’s individual usage rights are carefully allocated within the community. In enduring common property regimes, it’s usually very clear who is allowed and who isn’t allowed to exercise some precisely defined right (eg. summer grazing for so many cattle).
It’s easy to romanticise the process of allocating common rights as something benign and communal, but often it’s anything but. In medieval England, common rights were essentially a sop to the labouring classes accorded by the gentry, and rural life for those classes generally entailed a grim struggle to hang on to what scraps of property rights were available so as to avoid sinking into the category of servile labour. Deplorable though the enclosures that removed commoner’s rights may have been, what they were replacing was hardly benign.
The appeal of commons seems to me to owe more to the misgivings many people have about the usual alternative – private landownership – than anything especially benign about commons as such. Those misgivings about private property are usually twofold: the human conceit of ‘owning’ the earth, and the unfairness of access to land.
I think the first objection is quite easily overcome, because it’s based on a misconception. Ownership is not fundamentally a relation between a person and the thing they own, but between them and other people – it’s a usage right that the owner has in respect of the thing they own from which other people are excluded. But, particularly when it comes to land, those rights are limited – public footpaths, planning restrictions, sporting and mineral rights, environmental regulations and so on create other usage rights in which people other than the owner retain interests. We can argue about whether those rights should be extended further, but the basic principle that property is a non-exclusive, social relationship between people is clear enough. And anyone who thinks that ‘owning’ land gives them, Canute-like, some kind of special sovereign control over the earth is quickly disabused of that notion as soon as they sow their first crop or experience their first winter storm.
Unfairness of access to land is more serious. There are various dimensions to the problem, but I’d suggest that mostly they boil down to three things:
- land values are inflated to the point that few people can afford to buy land (much the same applies to the private housing market)
- it’s not possible to cover land costs through farming income
- land inheritance creates a relatively closed class of landholders who are then able to extract economic rent (ie. a price beyond free market value)
But all this is a result of the regulatory and tax framework that our political leaders have put in place, not an inevitability. Suppose we created a different framework through land value taxation, inheritance tax, agricultural ties, environmental regulation and so on so that young people could get a mortgage for a farm, earn a modest income from farming the land well, pay off their debts in the course of their farming career, and then fund their retirement by selling the land to the next generation of farmers. Would we still object to private ownership of farmland?
I can’t see any strong grounds for doing so. Such a system would require a lot of state regulation – some might argue that we should go further and put land in public or community ownership. But the likelihood of achieving that in present political circumstances is even slimmer than the minimal chance of implementing the kind of private ownership I’m proposing, and it would have some disadvantages too. I suspect that its allure stems to some degree from the peculiarities of English history, in which successful political radicalism has mostly been urban and collectivist. The English working class, harried out of a countryside dominated by the gentry and into industrial labour in the cities, built over time a municipal socialism that championed the provision of collective goods free for all at the point of delivery. There is much to celebrate in this tradition, especially its emphasis on universalism, from which all other approaches must learn. However, away from the cities – which I’ve argued elsewhere are probably an unsustainable form of social organisation long-term, despite much media commentary to the contrary – the petty proprietorship model does confer certain advantages. Among them are the principles of individual and community self-reliance and whole system thinking locally, which I’d argue are key to future resource sustainability. Most left/eco collectivists that I know seem reasonably comfortable with private house ownership but less so with private rural landownership – it would be interesting to trace the roots of that distinction.
Perhaps the main disadvantage of private small-scale farm ownership that’s often touted is that it may foster sensibilities of private gain rather than community flourishing. That perception is grounded in a view, common among left and green thinkers today, that the motives of small-scale proprietors and large-scale corporations are the same. But I think that’s rarely true. In a farmer-oriented society of the kind I suspect we’ll need in the future, in which it’s hard for anyone to extract economic rent from local landownership, small-scale proprietors would gain much and lose little from investing in their local communities – and while we doubtless should not take too rosy a view of small farm communities historically, a good deal of the history of such communities tends to bear this out.
Anyway, so much for future ideals – how should small farm landowners such as myself behave in the imperfect present? At Vallis Veg, we’ve tried to make our land available to other people locally pursuing various aims and activities that seem to us worthwhile. These include garden allotments, alternative schooling ventures, beekeeping, school and other visits, outdoor courses, and parties/social events. Often, I’ve found that these ventures aren’t as simple to arrange as I’d anticipated. For one thing, people of goodwill on both sides of the arrangement can still bring slightly different sets of assumptions to the table about what the arrangement means – assumptions that aren’t always obvious at first blush. In this sense, for me the experience has been a portent of how extremely difficult it would be to establish a functioning, sustainable commons without some kind of final political arbiter (…which is one of my doubts about anarchism). In my situation, as a landowner I can ultimately decide that an arrangement isn’t working and put an end to it. Common rights would create – literally, and potentially endlessly – a much more contested field.
Another issue bears on getting the financial side of arrangements right. The fundamental fact here is that it costs a lot of money to buy land and to run a farm, money that it’s very difficult to recoup through agricultural income. So while it might be argued that the earth should be a “common treasury for all”, this creates some problems for the small proprietor. If s/he creates rights for others in respect of the land at little or no cost then s/he is effectively subsidising their activities out of already unremunerative farm activities. More importantly, by providing this implicit subsidy s/he is helping to foster the common misconception that the products of the land (food, fibre etc) are cheap and easily procured. If, on the other hand, s/he charges higher rents then s/he risks alienating potential users, and inviting the usually unfounded suspicion that s/he is recouping an economic rent rather than simply a contract rent that contributes to a modest income.
I’m not sure what the best solution is here. In general terms, I think much could be gained if the quality of the dialogue between agricultural landowners and rural land users were improved. Farmers are doing a difficult and poorly paid job which a lot of people – even those who’ve lived in rural areas all their lives – don’t always understand. Equally, land possesses other social values which cannot be commanded by farmers alone.
For my part, I think I’ve made various mistakes in the past in the way that I’ve gone about organising access to our land. The lessons I’ve learned, I think, are that it’s always good to try to make land available to people of goodwill in the wider community, but that it’s important to be as clear as possible about the assumptions involved in the agreement, that it’s probably not helpful in the long term to undervalue such land agreements financially, but equally that if you consider such agreements primarily through the lens of money you risk losing much of what makes them worth having. But of course all of that is easy to say in general terms, and much harder to realise in practice. I hope I’ll get better at it when future opportunities come along.