Article 51

To begin, a reflection on my previous post (feel free to skip to paragraph 3 if you’re in search of this week’s new material…): perhaps ‘Energy in neo-peasant Wessex’ wasn’t among my best, but at least one way or another it underscored the kind of transitions necessary to create a plausible post-fossil fuel future. I guess I’m agnostic on the likely pace and extent of the unravelling of our contemporary industrial ecology, though I very much doubt it’ll stay fully ravelled. And I’m still unsure of quite how to reckon the intermediate economy. But on reflection it was good to get a healthy dose of pessimism in the comments – perhaps indeed the issue is not so much about personal pessimism as making the case for pessimal strategies. So maybe I’ll have a think about devising a more pessimal energy strategy for Wessex on the basis of some of the interesting comments and links that were posted (I also need to get my head around Tverberg’s analysis discussed a while back by wysinwyg). And perhaps I should apologise to Ruben et al for being overly defensive about my projections – everyone has a special somebody in their lives to whom they get inordinately attached emotionally, and in my case it’s my Excel spreadsheets. Though saying that, the debate inclines me to cut short my numerical projections of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex – most models are pretty much nonsense after all, especially ones like mine – and start focusing on the wider aspects of the issue. But I still have a few more spreadsheets up my sleeve – I plan to blow them all, probably in my next post, in one last, giant bonfire of the numbers.

Talking of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I note that Paul Mason has written an article in The Guardian about the possibility of regional government emerging in a post-Brexit Britain, which actually mentions ‘Wessex’ by name as a regional polity. From Small Farm Future to the The Guardian, and then the world! Or at least a small corner of southwest England. You read it here first.

And talking of Brexit, it appears we now have just 5 days to go before that new world is upon us. I’m not sure if I should really be writing yet another Brexit post right now but it seems a propos at the moment, so I hope I’ll be forgiven one more turn of the crank. And in other important news, I’ve been musing over the issues of neoliberalism, immigration, populism and nationalism that prompted such exciting times on this blog a month or two back. I’ve also just finished reading the German political economist Wolfgang Streeck’s fascinating book How Will Capitalism End?1 which bears on many of these issues. As does Mr Dark Mountain himself, Paul Kingsnorth, in his recent article on ‘environmentalism in the age of Trump’. To write about all this now risks stealing some of my own thunder from the slower historical approach I’ve been planning to take regarding a possible future agrarian populist state. But with Brexit news hot and the works of Streeck and Kingsnorth at my side, I’d like to make a few preliminary points.

There’s a logic of accumulation in capitalist economies which left to its own devices tends to commodify everything, including things that can’t ultimately be commodified, like humans, nature, and money (or ‘labour, land and capital’ – the classic ‘inputs’ of orthodox economics). Governments able to harness some of the awesome wealth-creating power of the capitalist economy can use it to promote social ends and political stability, which involves checking the pure logic of capital accumulation – but it’s not a stable solution, because neither the logic of capital accumulation nor people’s social logics of self-determination are amenable to checking, even if unchecked capital accumulation ultimately undermines the conditions of its own possibility. The turbulent politics of the early 20th century represents one phase of that tension: populist and communist revolutions, fascism, anti-colonial movements, the massive shakedowns of global war, as responses to the first phase of capitalist development. Post World War II, capitalism was reined in with Keynesian welfarism, New Deal regulation, decolonisation and so on – which worked for a while largely because strong economic growth enabled most people to get a piece of the pie. But with the slowing of growth from the 1970s, western governments increasingly faced the problem of how to reward both capital and labour sufficiently to keep the show on the road. The solutions they’ve since followed have essentially been variants on staving off political crisis in the present by displacing it into the future – first by pursuing inflationary monetary policy in the 1970s, then by accruing public debt in the 1980s, and then by fostering private debt in the 1990s and 2000s, a strategy which exploded spectacularly in 2008.

In the later phases of this spiralling debt, governments attempted to get some control of it by creating what Streeck calls ‘consolidation states’ – such as the US under Bill Clinton and the EU’s Eurozone, aided and abetted by various other supra-national organisations – the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank. These consolidation states amount to a growing, globalized, technocratic and anti-democratic form of governance which in some ways return us to the rampant logic of capital accumulation that prefigured the political explosions of the early 20th century.

Hence the inevitable counter-movement of populist nationalisms – Brexit, Trump etc. Streeck is scathing about the EU, particularly the Eurozone, and its anti-democratic, neoliberal character. Various contributors on this blog have argued that the EU is an unreformable vehicle of neoliberalism – a position that I found difficult to dispute at the time and even harder now that I’ve read Streeck. Well then, time for me to swallow my pride as a self-confessed Remain voter, admit the contradiction with my aspirations to a green, localist, populism and throw in my lot with the Brexiteers?

No, I don’t think so. Because, as Streeck also makes plain, the problems that led to the formation of the ‘consolidation state’ aren’t abolished simply by exiting it. The global economy in which Britain is utterly enmeshed now runs on credit, and the elaborate architecture of global fiscal governance has an array of carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) at its disposal to ensure that creditors get their returns. There were no significant voices raised in the Brexit debate, and certainly nothing currently on the political horizon, to suggest that a post-EU Britain will do anything other than play along with those structures. Hardly surprising – who’d want to be the politician at the helm when the cashpoints run out of money? Then again, who’d want to be the politician at the helm as a markedly poorer country tries to struggle on servicing its debts? Well, Theresa May, apparently – though maybe she calculates that she’ll have handed on the baton to somebody like Liam Fox by then. Actually, I think AC Grayling calls it right – someone like Fox would quite happily preside over such a government, because the low tax, low regulation, labour disciplining regime it would need to implement would suit his politics and, in contrast to the majority of ordinary people, it wouldn’t hurt his pocket or those of others in the business oligarchy. But it won’t be plain sailing for a Tory government trying to reconcile the demands of global capital with the demands of local labour – its recent difficulties over national insurance for the self-employed are but a foretaste of what’s to come. Expect much more talk of ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘out-of-touch liberal elites’ (but which liberal elites?) to paper over the contradictions.

So the choice before the British people at the referendum was essentially Yes for neoliberalism or No for neoliberalism. For all the heated rhetoric on both sides about what the (politically) correct choice was, to which I daresay I contributed my own small voice, I’m just not moved by the argument that our votes at the referendum had any great traction on Britain’s dependent incorporation into the global economy.

Well, let me qualify that slightly. I’m certainly not moved by the argument that with Brexit we’ve ‘got back control’ in the sense that we could, theoretically, elect whatever party we please to Westminster. For starters, that argument to me lacks a base plausibility in an electoral system where 16% of the votes (for the Greens and UKIP) translated into 0.3% of the seats – one of those being a Tory defector in the form of the astronomically deluded (in more ways than one) Douglas Carswell. And even that doesn’t begin to capture the irrelevance of backbench or indeed frontbench seats at Westminster to influencing the global political economy, nor to the manifold ideological obstacles to getting anything other than a centre left or centre right party into power. To me, all this ‘getting control back’ rhetoric exemplifies what Streeck breezily dismisses as the ‘voluntaristic illusions’2 in contemporary democratic politics.

No, the only qualification I perceive is that living in the impoverished austerity state of Brexit Britain will be so dreadful that it’ll eventually prompt some kind of radical overthrow of the present political regimen (though, to be fair, that outcome could also have played out had we stayed). Would such an overthrow be a good thing? Well, possibly, but it could also be a very, very bad one – which was kind of my argument in my Dark Mountain piece. I think Brexit may slightly increase the chances of delivering an egalitarian agrarian populist government, but also the chances of an inegalitarian, non-agrarian authoritarian populist government. And so the right choice was…beats me.

Now, I know that use of the ‘F’ word (F for fascism, that is) scares some hares, and I’ll concede that perhaps I overplayed it in my initial responses to Brexit, so I’ll soften up on it and instead invoke the notion of an authoritarian populist alliance between an oligarchic business class and an ‘indigenous’ working-class, of the kind that seems to be crystallising in various countries, including England. This, to my mind, is where the shifting norms around nationalism and immigration are heading in contemporary debate.

So let me say a word on nationalism, with particular reference to Paul Kingsnorth’s arguments. Outlining his frustration after years of environmental campaigning that seemed to make nary a dent in the course of neoliberal globalisation, Kingsnorth describes his exhilaration at the Brexit and Trump election results – not because they necessarily aligned with his opinions, but because they showed that change was possible: “I suddenly realised that for the last decade I had believed, even though I had pretended not to believe, in the end of history. Now, the end of history was ending”. Drawing on the writing of Jonathan Haidt, he goes on to suggest that the old political binary of left vs right is being supplanted by a new one of globalism vs nationalism, the latter understood “in the broadest sense of the term” as “the default worldview of most people at most times…a community-focused attitude, in which a nation, tribe or ethnic group was seen as a thing of value to be loved and protected”.

Kingsnorth then draws out the obvious parallels between ‘nationalism’ thus defined and the agenda of an environmentalist localism, and more generally with a sense of primal human belonging to place, which he has consistently and eloquently explored in his writing. He acknowledges that the nationalisms we’ve now got are a long way from this vision: “Globalism is the rootless ideology of the fossil fuel age….But the angry nationalisms that currently challenge it offer us no better answers about how to live well with a natural world that we have made into an enemy”. Effectively, then, Kingsnorth sets up two nested ethical binaries – bad globalism vs nationalism, and bad nationalism vs good (place-loving) nationalism.

My take on all this diverges from Kingsnorth’s early in the piece, and then the gap keeps growing. I can well understand the frustrations of a sometime anti-globalisation activist, and had the 2016 votes gone Remain-Clinton it would have been reasonable to think despairingly, ‘same old neoliberalism’. But you don’t need to study much history to realise that the notion of an ‘end of history’ is bunk. Things always change, albeit sometimes distressingly slowly within the course of a human life, so there’s little virtue in supporting change for change’s sake.

More importantly, I think Kingsnorth casts his net far too wide in defining nationalism. True, people have always defined themselves in relation to in-groups and out-groups. But that’s not nationalism. Nationalism, I would argue, is an ideology specific to modern mass societies comprising a multitude of strangers which tries to reconcile the contradiction between a nominal egalitarianism of individual rights with individual subordination to the state, essentially by arguing that the state embodies the collective will of the people. In doing so, it often weaponises other and perhaps older kinds of identity – religion, language, history, the beauty of the nation’s landscape or the tenacity of its peasant farmers – to create a plausible story of who ‘the people’ are. But it’s not fundamentally about these identifications and it doesn’t arise out of them. Nationalism is about creating or shoring up the legitimacy of the modern nation-state, often by co-opting subordinate groups within it such as the ‘genuine’ working-class as against fifth columnists like ‘cosmopolitan liberal elites’. The idea that there’s a common will of the people embodied in the sovereign state isn’t old, but very new. It would have been alien to anyone much prior to the late 18th century. But in the last 200 years, it’s powerfully shaped the would-be nation-states of the contemporary world, which with few exceptions are now utterly wedded to neoliberalism, whether they like it or not.

So I don’t see much leverage for Kingsnorth’s project of relating more authentically to place from within nationalism. The places Kingsnorth rightly wants to enchant are definite, material places – the streets you walk, the fields you work. The places that nationalism enchants aren’t – ‘England’, ‘the fatherland’, ‘the community’. ‘Community’ is a problematic concept, but it does kind of work at a local level: my family, my friends, my neighbours, and other people I encounter regularly – like them or not, they’re part of my world and I have to figure out how to interact with them. I don’t think the same applies to the national community. In fact, I don’t think there is a national community – the nation is just a story that nationalism supplies. True, perhaps there are likely to be a few more shared cultural reference points between me and another English person than with a foreigner (if only because of the historic success of nationalist ideology in shaping a ‘national’ culture), but there may not be, and it’s a tenuous thing to hang a polity on. In that sense, I think Kingsnorth proceeds far too casually from the idea of community to the idea of nations and nationalism – and he’s not alone among influential voices in the environmental movement right now. I understand why many in the movement are seeking a safe harbour from the stormy seas of neoliberalism, but I think they’re mistaken to suppose the idea of the nation will provide it.

Nationalism defines membership in the national ‘community’ by criteria of both inclusion and exclusion, which brings us to the questions of immigration that loom so large in the Brexit debate. I’ll gloss over the often complex ways in which nationalist ideologies generate notions of who counts as an undesirable immigrant and who doesn’t. I’ll gloss over too the complex and varied reasons people have for migrating, and the many complex empirical questions over the actual effects of EU (and non-EU) immigration in contemporary Britain: to what extent, for example, do EU immigrants actually bid down the price of homegrown labour, and will their likely absence in a post-Brexit Britain create more secure local employment or, as I suspect, merely alienate it abroad as part of larger secular trends in the neoliberal global economy? Let’s just say that, for good or ill, people in Britain want to see less labour in-migration. What’s the best way to achieve that?

Well not, I think, by ever more vigorous policing of borders. That approach is likely to cost a lot of money for limited results, while inflicting a great deal of human misery (more than 20,000 people have died trying to enter EU countries in the last decade or so3). The issue is reminiscent of the debate over vagrancy in Tudor England. When the roads started filling with homeless folk in search of work, the powers that be responded with increasingly draconian punishments for vagrancy, accompanied by a moral panic about the disreputability of the wanderers. Few considered the effects of government agrarian and economic policies in creating the class of landless labourers in the first place.

The bottom line is this: people try to move away from poverty and towards wealth. In a world where wealth is massively concentrated geopolitically, people will come looking for it no matter what obstacles the wealthier states put in their way. If we want to end mass global labour migration, the best thing to do is to end gross geographic disparities in life chances.

I’ve been accused before of irresponsibly wishing to lower the standard of living in the wealthier countries to the level of common misery experienced by humankind in general in relation to my remarks on immigration. On reflection, I’m happy to embrace that accusation, if I’m allowed a few extra lines of defence. I embrace it because, well, what’s the alternative? Historically, capitalist ideology has justified itself with aqueous metaphors of downward trickling and upwardly rising tides that benefit all. It’s become clear that these are mirages. So the argument against a fair global spread of economic resources then boils down essentially to the devil take the hindmost. I can’t justify that to myself ethically, and in any case I think that road leads to a still deeper mire of global misery.

Here are the extra lines of defence. First, as Streeck shows, the global capitalist economy is bloated with liquidity which we’ve endlessly been borrowing from the future on the basis of an anticipated growth which isn’t going to come. So sooner or later another day of reckoning like 2008 will arrive. Globally, we need to be poorer. Second, as with economics so with ecology – we can’t keep drawing down on planetary resources in the way that we currently are, and the only likely way we’ll stop unless nature forces our hand is if we can’t afford to. Third, if we want to be living any kind of sustainable, localist, nature-adjusted life of the kind construed by Kingsnorth, then we need to dispense with a huge amount of fiscal and fossil capital, and spread out the possibilities for local lifeways globally. Along with capital controls and other ways of keeping money under closer political control we need, in other words, a graduated, global, contraction-and-convergence debt default or jubilee, in which the major losers will have to be the creditors of the capitalist economy. At present, the richest eight people in the world hold equivalent assets to the poorest 3.5 billion4. So here’s my first draft for a global economic plan: take it off them, put it in a sealed vault, and distribute the rest of the world’s assets more-or-less equally among the people of the world. Excess labour migration to Britain, and much else besides, sorted at a stroke. Call it Article 51. OK, so a few details need working out, a few t’s crossed and i’s dotted, the odd implementation question sorted out. But the basic idea is sound, no? And the end result of this I think will not be a common human misery, but actually improved quality of life worldwide.

So in the end I’m not sure that Brexit makes much difference to the unfolding, or unravelling, of the bigger global economic plot. Perhaps I should therefore lay aside my gut opposition to it. I guess it’s just that so far it seems to have fostered more of the ‘angry nationalism’ of which Kingsnorth speaks. I think that might make the unravelling worse.


  1. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, Verso.
  2. Streeck, p.187.
  3. Jones, R. 2016. Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, Verso, p.16.

143 thoughts on “Article 51

  1. Ruben may recognize the following, as his blog hosted this piece originally I’ll give him some props. But as its author I’ll take any heat it might generate:

    So a short parable here; at the end I’ll attempt to weave it into a reply to Chris’ Article 51 proposition:

    Once upon a time, three young men were walking down a lonely road on their way home from school. They came upon a can at the edge of the road. Abe carelessly flicked the can up onto the roadway with his boot. Upon catching up to the can Bart kicked it a little further up the road. Charley reached the can next and flicked it sideways toward Bart. Bart kicked the can down the road again. And on it went. Three young men like so many cats playing with a mouse before killing it.

    Eventually Abe offered a deep thought. “Here we are kicking the can down the road, just like all the grown-ups – you know, in the metaphor”.

    Bart wondered aloud about Abe’s being such a deep thinker, and as his words faded back to silence the three reached the can once more. Charley gave the can a big boot. He sent it sailing way down the road. “There”, he said, “we won’t need to deal with that problem now for a long time”.

    “Dude”, said Abe in disgust, “we were playing with that.”

    So to my mind the outfall from taking all the assets of the eight richest and sealing them off and then – distribute the rest of the world’s assets more-or-less equally among the people merely kicks the can down the road. The pessimist in me imagines it won’t be too long before much is taken from those incapable of holding on to what they’ve been given (taken by those capable of accumulating a net increase through their relationships).

    I’d love to imagine this rebooting would have Chris’ intended benefit. I’d love to imagine altruism has grown strong enough among the Homo sapien species that such a political transformation would survive long term. I’d love to imagine – just like John Lennon dreamed in his song ‘Imagine’. I’d love to have faith in love itself. And to a certain degree I’ll confess I do hold out for the possible power of love. But I just can’t look around me and hear the voices I hear, see the spoilage I see, feel the bitterness and ugliness dished out by other human beings that I feel – and after it all imagine a sudden reboot will wash all the pain and suffering out to sea.

    It took an enormous span of time to put us in this situation. I’m inclined to imagine it will take a very long time to work our way out. Not that all this negativity would induce me to give up the task. I’m an optimist at the core. I do think even at the worst there are silver linings; possible paths out. But I am quite convinced that nothing worthwhile is ever handed out for free. If we don’t strive for it we’ll not work to protect it.

    So whether the binary is globalization vs. nationalism or some other narrative of the human condition, I think we need to allow that no matter what tent or tribe the ‘other’ calls home – this same ‘other’ carries a blood such as ours, carries hopes and dreams in some measure like our own. And the ground we both walk should be cared for so that those who would follow us may still have something they can hold and care for in turn. Kicking the can down the road is not the ultimate solution. But playing with it while we work hand in hand in search of an ultimate solution might jut be therapeutic. Don’t kick it too hard.

    • Hi Clem, well I’d have to say that if we’re talking of kicking cans down the road, then it’s hard to beat the present global economy running on pure credit fuel as an example of the same. I’d agree with you, though, that simply expropriating the surplus of the rich isn’t the complete answer (my Article 51 suggestion wasn’t entirely serious, I might add). However, I struggle to find any justification for the present distribution of global income, which basically exemplifies the principle that (economic) might is right. One way or another, it seems clear that we need to extract or at least delimit a lot of the financial and physical energy in the global system pretty fast, or else a lot (more) people are going to suffer.

      • Certainly agree. The devil’s in the details I suppose. One aspect of an overshoot due to fossil fuel loss that I’d consider more damaging than some others would be the loss of global communications which for the present allow us to see what is happening far beyond our own personal horizons.

        The view from my keyboard certainly includes members of humankind with widely divergent levels of security. But this local view, being only a slice of the whole, is quite constrained. If I believed this to be representative of the whole condition of all humankind I’d be less concerned. So while this ability to “see” the rest of the world is not what globalization is all about, it is perhaps a bit of silver lining.

        I can’t imagine that suffering will ever disappear. But by the same token, hope and happiness should never be allowed to die on the vine. Perhaps I should move on to ‘hope vine’ breeding. A little transgressive segregation in the hope vine species may be just what we need.

        Where’s that can anyway?

      • Might is right, and wasn’t it ever thus? As for knowledge of the world via the internet being a silver lining, conversely you have to wonder if simply ‘minding one’s own business’ without the non-stop coverage wouldn’t result in less worry, more contentment.

  2. Agree with Clem. Triggered Article 51 Friday night. Saturday morning, already divisions in individual wealth were beginning to appear, indeed seemed to be widening with startling rapidity. Having idly pondered similar ‘solutions’, I do wonder if education might prove more valuable long-term. But how long (have we got)? And what kind of education, or whose? Then again, politics could have more heft, but where to boot the can? Though I try to stick to mundane matters on a daily basis, I think that in general we’re a somewhat disturbed, certainly mentally restless moonshot species. And yet we’re the most fun, though some dancing parakeets I saw on the internet the other day came close, or at least that’s how I deluded myself at the time.

  3. Article 51 depends on the same binary that now seems so horribly out of favor, good globalism vs bad nationalism. I note in passing that this binary has been the default since WW2 and has so far managed to keep us out of WW3. Good globalism would have to be extremely good to enable a world-wide debt jubilee. Those jubilees used to happen periodically under the aegis of a powerful ruler, but the world has no powerful ruler.

    But why worry so much about financial disparity? When the next global financial crisis happens, it is entirely possible that the whole financial system will come crashing down (and confidence in fiat money with it). Then everyone will be equally financially poor. No one will “own” any server database values that others will accept as real.

    But without a medium of exchange, the physical processes that are managed by the global market economy won’t function, a result that Korowicz describes so well ( And without global supply chains continuing to function people in developed countries run out of food in a matter of days.

    Of course communities or nations with physical resources could still manage to distribute them somewhat. After all even with a total loss of money the real world still remains, but to do so would require a fabulously complex command economy, with bureaucrats telling workers what to do, truckers what to truck and somehow getting food grown and distributed. Somehow I doubt that anyone, perhaps excepting Cuba, has such an economic plan on the shelf, much less the ability to execute it.

    My plan is to prepare to be a peasant farmer with zero money, hunker down and try to stay out of the way of the tumbling bits of a shattered civilization.

  4. Chris, I hope you do not retire your spreadsheets. Any long-haired, wild-eyed jackass with dial-up can wave their hands around and talk about “patterns”—just drop by a Small and Delicious Life for a taste of that.

    But few of us have the breadth of knowledge and ability to remember how to use the damn formulas sufficient to actually make a spreadsheet worth critiquing.

    That is actually not a bad tag line for your donate button, “Small Farm Future; we make spreadsheets worth critiquing.”

    But enough fawning. I recently posted this on the last post, but I will re-share here for those who are just joining in:
    Brace for the oil, food and financial crash of 2018

    Anyhow, your thoughts here, the thoughts of Kingsnorth and others—and what Joe just said above:

    “Article 51 depends on the same binary that now seems so horribly out of favor, good globalism vs bad nationalism… My plan is to prepare to be a peasant farmer with zero money, hunker down and try to stay out of the way of the tumbling bits of a shattered civilization.”

    Yes. Just say not to good globalism vs. bad nationalism. Something more like bioregionalism is a better goal. And I hope there are enough of us with an appreciation of peasant farming to help those who are hit by the tumbling bits of a falling civilization.

    • Ooh. I forgot a whole part:

      I had to look up pessimal, which for the other merely-moderately-vocabularized, is the opposite of optimal. Pessimal is As Bad as it Can Get.

      And I just wanted to point out I was presenting a very moderated vision designed to have no-one set their hair on fire at dinner parties— nowhere near As Bad as it Can Get.

      Speaking of as bad as it can get…

      Scientists made a detailed “roadmap” for meeting the Paris climate goals. It’s staggering.

      Release of Arctic Methane “May Be Apocalyptic,” Study Warns

      I offer these to quibble with the frame that we can “choose” nationalism or globalism, or that we can persuade people to be peasant farmers.

      We are going to be dealing with many impacts of our past behaviour, and literal existential threat is on the table. This is why I talked about the elevator and escalator example on the last post. One breaks down into a trap, the other breaks into stairs.

      I think we need to be planning for the world we are going to get, not the world we want. In the world we are going to get, having a subsistence mindset looks like it may be adaptive.

      On the other hand, if the methane burp scenario comes to pass, The Road may not seem far-fetched.

      • I started reading the Flatland essays that someone posted a link to in the last discussion. Really interesting stuff about human cognition and the problems of what the author terms the ‘Flatland mind’. Essentially optimism is hardwired into human consciousness (or perhaps unconsciousness). The evidence is that depressives see the world more objectively (and seeing it objectively is depressing) but that optimism is the optimal evolutionary strategy. The trouble for us is that it breaks down in the face of the sort of threats we now face and that optimism bias hardwired in our heads just doesn’t let us deal with them realistically. It’s well worth a read for anyone who’s got the time and doesn’t mind a little pessimism in their lives

        • Sounds interesting – Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ is also good on hard-wired optimism. Perhaps the problem of political organisation for us pessimists is judging the optimal degree of pessimism, of which the debate around my last post may give a taste. Could ‘Optimist!’ have the same ring to it as ‘Bourgeois!’ or ‘Capitalist roader!’ once did in various currents of Marxism?

          • In a similar vein, many I have talked to about this almost immediately respond ‘aren’t we hardwired to compete and seek to win?’ in response to wealth redistribution. Some believe the opposite – we’re social creatures that love to cooperate (to win?). I remember Lovelock writing that humans are tribal (and hubrisitc). Perhaps I should look to join a pessimistic tribe intent on working the land to their own advantage 🙂

  5. Your Article 51 doesn’t get my support I’m afraid, Chris. My line for years has been that we need to focus on how wealth circulates rather than how it’s distributed (starting with how it passes from one generation to the next). If we get the circulation right, then we’ll arrive at a fair distribution within a couple of generations, without the need for explicit redistribution (though sensible reforms to circulation would make it much easier to mitigate inequality in the meantime). Whereas, as Simaon pointed out, redistribution without fixing the underlying flaws is purely temporary.

    As for Brexit, we haven’t necessarily reached the last act; it’s perhaps unlikely but the EU could ask for a court opinion on whether Theresa May’s notification really is, as Article 50 requires, in accordance with Britain’s constitutional requirements – which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, could open up a whole new can of worms.

  6. I’d venture to say that my Article 51 suggestion is being taken a bit more seriously than I intended. But let me make a moderate defence of a couple of my points in relation to the comments.

    I agree that circulation is important as well as distribution, but we’re in a situation where those who control the circulation get the distribution they want. It’s implicit in Malcolm’s comment that getting the circulation right involves a huge redistribution, so I’d suggest the distinction is somewhat academic. The other side of it is the need to reduce greatly the physical quantities involved in the circulation.

    On globalism & nationalism, I don’t see my approach as conforming to a ‘good globalism, bad nationalism’ couplet. Generally, I’m supportive of localism over globalism, though localism brings its own problems. ‘Globalism’ is, appropriately enough, rather a catch-all term, however. There’s a certain kind of populist-nationalist thinking that wants to assimilate all the ills it sees in the world to a ‘globalism’ encompassing such things as neoliberalism, multiculturalism, urbanism, and educational elitism. There are connections between these things sure enough, but also dissonances that I think need challenging in the populist-nationalist imaginary.

    In relation to Simon’s points, I’d say that education is always a good thing (well, usually a good thing – depending somewhat on who’s doing the educating, and why) but the massive economic disparities in the world don’t arise from poor education – they arise from a global political system that deliberately institutes gross inequality. For sure, if you start with an equal distribution, inequalities will soon start creeping in. That’s why you need ongoing redistributive political systems. They don’t have to be as crude as a jubilee – ideally they can strike a balance between capital and labour in order to preserve a stable and active economy. But part of Streeck’s argument is that the ability to strike that balance has broken down in the contemporary global economy – to a considerable extent as a result of the inherently accumulative logic of capital which systematically rewards the few at the expense of the many. The choice surely isn’t between a no holds barred global neoliberalism or a local command and control economy. However, I agree with Joe that the right place to start rebuilding is the substantially self-reliant farmstead. I can’t see that happening without major reductions in fiscal and energetic flow, and a major de facto redistribution of economic resources within and between countries. Nor can I see it happening if we mistake nationalism for localism.

    • “we’re in a situation where those who control the circulation get the distribution they want”

      Well, yes and no. The laws that determine how wealth circulates are, in principle, under the control of the public through our elected representatives – and I’m pretty sure we aren’t getting the distribution we want. You can argue that principle is irrelevant when, in practice, our elected representatives look after vested interests rather than what the public wants but, as I see it, that’s our own fault for not properly holding them to account.

      “It’s implicit in Malcolm’s comment that getting the circulation right involves a huge redistribution”

      No, that’s not the case at all. The main reforms I’m proposing could bring about an essentially equal society within a couple of generations without any significant redistribution of substantive wealth. In practice, once those reforms were accepted, I think they would make effective transitional redistribution both easier and more likely, but that would only happen following an additional round of political battles.

      “massive economic disparities in the world […] arise from a global political system that deliberately institutes gross inequality”

      Deliberately? It’s a common prejudice – one I used to hold myself – but I don’t see any real evidence for it. As far as I can see, they arise from individuals taking the world as they find it, making the most of any opportunities that come their way, and resisting changes where they themselves would lose out – within a global system that, largely through accident of history, favours accumulation of wealth and power.

      For the most part, the worst that the beneficiaries are guilty of is wilfully ignoring obvious flaws in how the system operates. But, when the losers accept the basic operational rules and just agitate about outcomes, why should the winners go out of their way to change things? As far as I’m concerned, it’s a far cry from ‘deliberately institutes’ and I think that kind of language tends to alienate people whose support we need if we’re going to change things.

      Well, it does perhaps do more than alienate them. It maybe also let’s us off the hook. If the massive economic disparities are due to bad people deliberately causing inequality then we just need them to stop. But if it’s due to people behaving reasonably, within a system which is skewed through chance evolution, then the onus is on us to properly analyse what’s wrong and work out changes that would put it right.

      “For sure, if you start with an equal distribution, inequalities will soon start creeping in. That’s why you need ongoing redistributive political systems.”

      Minor inequalities within a single lifetime aren’t really a significant problem. The trouble comes from minor inequalities being compounded from generation to generation, without proper distinction being made between primary resources and chattels. With sensible laws governing how wealth circulates (and I don’t consider taxing circulation to be in that category) I don’t see any reason why we would need ongoing redistributive political systems.

      • Malcolm, you’re undoubtedly better grounded than me in economic policy details, but I must admit I’m struggling a bit with your response. Let me come back to you in the hope that you can further elucidate your position.

        1. “The laws that determine how wealth circulates are, in principle, under the control of the public through our elected representatives”.

        This is what Streeck calls the voluntaristic illusion of the ballot box – and I think he’s right that it’s illusory for the various reasons I outlined above, and because of the need to service accumulated debts. True, ‘we’ could collectively decide to abrogate those commitments, but that would be a revolutionary act requiring some kind of consciousness of collective interest, as I outlined above. There’s a sociology of class and power involved here which I think needs elucidating, and goes beyond ‘holding our representatives to account’.

        2. “The main reforms I’m proposing could bring about an essentially equal society within a couple of generations without any significant redistribution of substantive wealth”. I can’t really see how, except by forbidding the inter-generational transfer of wealth, which is essentially only a semantic quibble away from my ‘massive redistribution’ since you’d still have to dismantle the basic structure of private property rights starting right now. Alternatively you could do it by raising everyone else up to the standards of the wealthiest, which is impossible. But maybe I’m missing something?

        3. “Deliberately institutes gross inequality”. You can read that phrase in different ways. Streeck defines capitalism as “a modern society that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation through a ‘labour process’ combining privately owned capital with commodified labour power, fulfilling the Mandevillean promise of private vices turning into public benefits”. It seem to me clear that this structure is deliberately instituted globally, and that it results in gross inequalities. So while you’re right that for the most part it reproduces itself through people (most certainly including me) just behaving rationally and not deliberately badly, I don’t think that undermines my point. Likewise with a whole raft of deliberately instituted global and national policies – the WTO’s green box agreements, the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes, the Chinese hukou system: I’m sceptical that the architects of these policies thought that they wouldn’t result in further entrenching inequality in the short- and probably the long-term, but even if they didn’t I don’t think it really undermines my point. Your comment ‘When the losers accept the basic operational rules and just agitate about outcomes, why should the winners go out of their way to change things?’ strikes me as rather victim-blaming. The losers don’t accept the basic operational rules (hence, among many other things, illegal labour migration), but they have tremendously powerful forces arrayed against them. I agree with you that we need to properly analyse what’s wrong with the system. I don’t agree with you that what’s wrong has emerged from chance evolution. I think you’re eliding class and social power, and the way that they disguise themselves through ideologies such as nationalism.

        4. “With sensible laws governing how wealth circulates (and I don’t consider taxing circulation to be in that category) I don’t see any reason why we would need ongoing redistributive political systems.” I’m sceptical and I’d like to hear more about your sensible laws, but if they maintain substantial equality in wealth or capabilities without ongoing redistributive political systems, then fine. But then surely we’re just discussing the optimum means to a shared normative goal – viz. lack of distributional inequality. And you’d need an ongoing political system that was committed to that goal (and prepared to be potentially redistributive inasmuch as reality fell short of it)?

        • Heady stuff, I look forward to reading Malcolm’s reply. Given an economic reboot of the kind you suggest Chris, is it possible to outline how that might pan out in the real world? Let’s say I’m a full-time worker in mental health in London, I have no pension plan or savings, own no property, and I pay 1200GBP a month in rent and scrape by from year to year on the rest of my wages. How much richer or poorer might I be, and how might my world change following a global redistribution of wealth?

        • I’m conscious Malcolm should get to reply to Chris before this goes further, but just wanted to comment briefly on the ideas apparent in his original post about how history works. It seems to me that we can see history unfolding through ‘chance evolution’ in a series of ‘accidents’, with people presumably at the mercy of forces they can’t possible boy control, or we can see it produced by people acting ‘reasonably’, which is surely a synonym for ‘deliberately’ in this case. We can’t have both.

          Personally I would go with the ‘deliberate’ conception. Sure, there are unintended consequences to any deliberate decision, but the fact that the ‘winners’ in so many societies are able to consistently perpetuate themselves suggests that they at least have sufficient grasp of the possibilities for action available to them. Most may not justify themselves as evil overlords, but even the rhetoric of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ (in the ‘global marketplace’ for example) implies a recognition that their activities create inequalities.

          It’s also true to say that everyone acts deliberately, and therefore that the ‘losers’ have responsibility for their own position was well. But the possibilities available to them to rectify that are often so much harder to articulate than those available to the winners. Redistributive politics seems to me one of the more likely of those possibilities to be effective.

          • (Side point).

            It seems to me that we can see history unfolding through ‘chance evolution’ in a series of ‘accidents’, with people presumably at the mercy of forces they can’t possible boy control, or we can see it produced by people acting ‘reasonably’, which is surely a synonym for ‘deliberately’ in this case. We can’t have both.

            [looks puzzled] Yes we can. You seem to think this sharp dichotomy is self-evident. I don’t find it so at all.

          • Thanks Martin. I do see this as an important distinction. If we view the very wealthy as beneficiaries of a pre-existing system, in which they merely have to conform to the rules of the game, then they can’t really be held accountable for the way that system rewards them, which is I think the point Malcolm makes. But it implies that the system doesn’t require people to maintain it, it’s like a machine that creates wealthy people. I would argue that social structures aren’t like that: they do not simply persist through inertia and have to be constantly recreated. In this case, the actions of the wealthy in seeking to maintain and increase their own wealth ARE the system, and they should be held accountable for those actions. These are two different ways of seeing the same situation, and the difference matters because it affects how we might allot responsibility and justify action when seeking to change it.

          • Andrew, social structures do in fact persist mostly through inertia. If they required attention to persist, we would only have a small handful of social structures because that is all the attention we have.

            But it is definitely very difficult for us to SEE how we support the structures. Since we don’t see it, we tend to keep doing the same thing—and there is out inertia.

            We tend to see collapses of social support. But why, the arguments seldom are radically and recently change.

            So, the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is not like a new fact was suddenly revealed that meant the wall no longer made sense. Rather, for many complex reasons the structure of social support collapsed. It had continued through inertia, not through logic or great argument or economics.

            The wealthy clearly have a a great interest in keeping other people unconcerned with inertia, but almost all of us are supporting the unchanging nature of things in one way or another.

            Hm. I feel like I am not getting my point across. You said:

            “But it implies that the system doesn’t require people to maintain it”

            The system obviously and clearly requires maintenance. But that does not mean the maintenance is conscious.

            It is in fact mostly habitual.

        • I’ll start by clarifying that I’m not interested in allocating blame – I don’t see any value in doing that (unless there’s some compensation at stake) – so I don’t accept that what I said was victim-blaming. All I’m interested in is the question of who needs to take responsibility for changing a system which has been unjust for many centuries. As far as I’m concerned, expecting the winners to do so is unreasonable.

          “The losers don’t accept the basic operational rules”

          But they do, Chris. As you also do, in your statements about “the basic structure of private property rights” and “the need to service accumulated debts”. It’s in precisely those areas that we need to properly analyse what’s wrong with the system, and how it got to be the way it is.

          My argument is that the concept of private property rights as we understand them today is corrupt. Freehold ownership of land was originally essentially administrative, in that landlords held land as local rulers, with a range of responsibilities. Those responsibilities included collecting rent (to pay for government) and nominating a successor to take over those responsibilities when the holder died. I won’t go into at length here but, if you’re interested, I’ve written more about inheritance and landownership on the Derelict Law pages of my site, which include my take on the history and my reform proposals.

          On debt, it’s important to distinguish between essentially monetary debt (which could be inflated away quite easily by a government implementing sensible monetary reform) and asset-based debt. That’s one of the reasons my proposed land reforms would take a long time to complete, because real-estate ownership is entwined with the whole finance system.

          As I’ve said in other threads, a rational monetary system would separate the functions of medium of exchange and store of wealth. Our current system doesn’t do that, but that’s because of historical practical considerations rather than design. I’ve a page on monetary reform on my site as well, but I’ll stick to the one link per comment limit! (Several pages on my site say ‘under construction’ at the top but do have quite a bit on them).

          “forbidding the inter-generational transfer of wealth, which is essentially only a semantic quibble away from my ‘massive redistribution’”

          It’s only a semantic quibble if you think that the value of substantive wealth (like land) lies as much in the right to say who will get it after your death, as it does in your enjoyment of it during your lifetime. That clearly affects the price at which it changes hands but I’d say it’s a fairly minor part of its real value. I don’t consider reframing that power as a responsibility rather than a right counts to be redistributing wealth, though I do recognise that some people will claim it is.

          But it’s not a question of ‘forbidding’ inter-generational transfers of wealth, it’s more just clarifying that all people own outright is a life interest in the property in question. Freehold, they only hold as trustees.

          Streeck’s ‘voluntaristic illusion of the ballot box’ prompted me to look up the phrase ‘useful idiots’. I imagine it serves some people’s purpose well if the public are encouraged to see themselves as powerless but, to me, the reality is that they’re not now and never have been.

          In the past, they had to resort to arms, these days they can do it through voting. In the future, they’ll be able to instigate ballots themselves. Sure, they have to get organised in order to actually change things, and that’s not fair. But it wasn’t humans who made the world unfair so looking for people to blame just wastes time and energy.

          I’m amazed at how you find the time to run a farm and a busy blog!

          • Malcolm, I’m not sure how I find the time to farm and run a blog either, so I’m going to have to keep my response short. But maybe I’ll come back to this again if it feels like we’re getting anywhere.

            1. On accepting the basic operational rules – well, where to go with this? I don’t ‘accept’ the basic structure of private property rights or the need to service debts in the sense that I think we need fundamental change in both areas. Then again, in my everyday life, in much of my behaviour (owning property, paying taxes) I do accept them. But here you need a theory of power, ideology or hegemony – you’re not going to get anywhere near the root of the problem by thinking in terms of ‘holding our electoral representatives to account’. But I’m not even sure exactly what we’re disagreeing about here. I agree with you that we can’t expect the winners to take steps to change the system. That’s surely clear enough from my ‘Article 51’ suggestion, however facetious it was.

            2. “It’s not a question of ‘forbidding’ inter-generational transfers of wealth, it’s more just clarifying that all people own outright is a life interest in the property in question”. OK, but what do you think will happen if you ‘clarify’ to, say, Donald Trump that all he owns outright is a life interest in his property and ask him to pass the necessary legislation to enact this clarification? Another definition of capitalism from Streeck: “capitalist society is distinguished by the fact that its collective productive capital is accumulated in the hands of a minority of its members who enjoy the legal privilege, in the form of rights of private property, to dispose of such capital in any way they see fit”. It seems to me we both agree that that has to change (ie. we need to put an end to capitalism), and it’s not going to be changed by the minority class of major capital holders. Or, to put it another way, I think you’re invoking a legal nicety to avoid the term ‘redistribution’ – fine if that’s what you want to do, but yes I do think it’s a semantic quibble when used as a critique of my argument.

            3. I think you greatly overestimate the independence of electoral democracy from hegemonic and coercive political power, and you therefore underestimate the significance of armed or otherwise coercive force in the present as well as the past. Actually, this is a whole sub-theme of Streeck’s book that I didn’t dwell on, but is quite interesting in this regard – the unhappy marriage of capitalism and democracy, with democracy being far too unpredictable to fit readily with the imperatives of the capitalist economy – hence its increasing alienation in the consolidation state. I agree with you that the public isn’t powerless. But in many situations, including in constitutional democracies, it’s fairly powerless if it limits its power to electoral democracy. This is where the danger of victim-blaming comes in by default if, I’m sure, not by intention – the poor haven’t voted out an anti-poor government, therefore they ‘accept the basic operational rules’. No they don’t. Power. Hegemony. It’s not that simple!!

          • One further thought: I prefer to avoid the term ‘useful idiots’ because, like ‘political correctness’, it’s only ever used pejoratively to apply to people we think see less clearly than us. But the term cuts both ways. I’d argue that there’s a useful idiocy in the notion that if we don’t like the government we have then we can vote in a different one, and if we don’t…well, then, effectively we consent to the one we have, or at least to the rules for deciding. To a degree that’s true – but ‘consent’ is not binary. I don’t think Streeck uses the phrase ‘useful idiocy’, but his argument essentially is that that’s what democracy is in a consolidation state…and you could push the argument further than the consolidation state as such.

  7. Bonfire of the numbers. Marvelous. Ah… word candy. I hope to see a post of that name! 🙂

    As for the difference between circulation and redistribution, it could not be less academic. Picture, for example, an irrigation system in a small arid town in the SW of the US. It is designed in such a way that most of the water goes to the old landed families. (Often true.) Do you barge into their houses, take some of the water and begin to redistribute to all the people in the town, with all the attendant spillage, pilferage, corruption, and trampling on personal rights, or do you fix the problem at the root?

    Money works the same way.

  8. Vera, Ruben – thanks. That opens up some new vistas with which to explain myself further and/or disagree with you (delete as applicable).

    On circulation/distribution, to my mind what actually matters is the distribution, though I’d agree that acting on the distribution via the circulation can be a wiser political approach than acting directly on the distribution – but that’s merely a matter of strategy. Whether we’re talking about water circulating in a town or money circulating in an economy, it doesn’t really matter how much is circulating – what matters is who gets to draw it off, who doesn’t, and how much. I’d agree that an instrument such as taxing the circulation of money (or water) is better politics than expropriating the wealthy – but only because it’s more likely to achieve the redistribution with the minimum of pain. Of course, it’ll be fought tooth and nail by the wealthy – who are themselves expropriators of the poor. Let’s not hide the fact that ultimately this is a directly political conflict over access to resources. To paraphrase Streeck, so long as it’s clear that the US Congress will never approve a wealth tax or a financial transaction tax, it doesn’t really matter who governs France, Germany (or Britain) and on what programme.

    On the flow of money, given the hard time I got for my last post on the energy economy, I’m assuming those who critiqued me there for over-optimistic assumptions about the resilience of the industrial economy would agree with my argument in this post that we need to take a lot of capital out of the global economy? I can’t see that there’s any other logically consistent position.

    On Ruben’s points about planning for the world we’ll get, my comments in this post just simply don’t suggest that we can ‘choose’ nationalism or globalism or persuade people to be peasant farmers – indeed, I critiqued that notion with reference to Streeck’s comments on voluntarism. However, I do dispute the idea outlined by Kingsnorth that nationalism somehow brings us closer to localism, and is more allied with it than globalism. To my mind, that’s plain wrong. But more broadly I don’t agree with Ruben’s implied critique of people agitating for the world they’d like to see. People have agency, so those who organise for the world they’d like to see are more likely to actually see it. Of course, I accept that they may not see it, and indeed that we face an existential threat from the possible collapse of the planetary support systems that we’ve too long taken for granted. But I don’t see that there’s any real way to plan for that eventuality – with the possible exceptions of either isolating yourself in some remote fastness with an advanced set of survivalist skills, or making yourself best buddies with whoever you think is most likely to emerge from the meltdown with the greatest military power. I don’t think either strategy is a great way to spend your life if the meltdown doesn’t come – and in fact I’m not sure it’s a great way to spend your life even if it does. Working towards a neo-peasant future is more fun.

    • That said Chris, what I was getting at was the kind of education that might impress in people the value of a piece of land over a BMW, for example. Peasantry probably begins at home.
      An aside, here’s a link to the book (the only one) my grandfather used while allotmenteering in the 40s. It covers pretty much everything very succinctly, including animal husbandry. I was slightly amused to see the sole reviewer of this title was from Somerset, and goes by the name of Peasant.

  9. Earlier, Chris said:

    Of course, I accept that they may not see it, and indeed that we face an existential threat from the possible collapse of the planetary support systems that we’ve too long taken for granted.

    Perhaps just a pedantic quibble, but I’m of a mind that our planetary support systems are not all that well understood. Even today. So my complaint is that we can’t for ‘too long’ have taken for granted something we still don’t understand and appreciate.

    I can recall a period we now refer to as the Cold War and the rhetoric of MAD and the projection of a nuclear winter if too many nukes were set off. And I’m not objecting to the physics/meteorology of that projection, but holding up a light to the eventual success* of people agitating for a future they’d prefer to see.

    Rachel Carson did us an incredible favor – we were being pretty sloppy with our chems. But she also missed some things… perhaps “missed” is the wrong word as she (we) didn’t have the knowledge then we have now for some of the micro relationships going on. And for the same reasoning I’m not all that confident we have today all the knowledge we should hold to agitate for strategies that will grant us what we seek. We, like our ancestors then, are faced with making choices without a perfect knowledge of their consequences. We are still experimenting. And that’s not all bad. But I do suppose it helps to appreciate we are experimenting, and that from one spreadsheet to another, bits are bits (and sometimes they byte).

    * I will acknowledge that nukes still exist and a possible nuclear holocaust is still a possible event. But somewhat less likely now than then.

    • Well, not much I’d dispute there Clem – except, pedantic quibble rebound, I’d argue that it’s possible to take something for granted for too long even if you don’t fully understand it.

      • Take for granted:
        fail to properly appreciate (someone or something), especially as a result of overfamiliarity.

        I find myself arguing that proper appreciation is somehow connected to a proper understanding. By such I suppose I’d also consider overfamiliarity as mostly a repercussion from fairly intimate understanding. Thus, I’d lean toward using a phrase like ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we find ourselves comfortably (and/or carelessly) accepting a status quo we don’t appreciate or well understand.

        This may be an overly tight distinction, but I think there is cause to make it. There are a great many things we don’t understand as thoroughly as we might imagine. And to casually assert that we have taken them for granted when it is more likely we have merely assumed we have taken them at all leads to further difficulty. Now there is certainly a need to make assumptions, this is not what I’m against. I fully appreciate the need for such. And it’s also not my intention to prohibit theorizing in the absence of complete understanding. How else can we proceed?

        But does the argument that indeed … we face an existential threat from the possible collapse of the planetary support systems that we’ve too long taken for granted. stand closer scrutiny? My rewrite would suggest “that we’ve too long blissfully ignored”.

        Yep, a pretty fine drilling. And that’s why I prefaced with “pedantic quibble”. But I think it brings us closer to the truth – not to assign blame so much as to help point toward more fertile ground in the search for solution.

  10. A few comments in relation to the thread above involving Malcolm, Andrew, Simon & Martin. Oh, and a general comment – I want to express my thanks to everyone who comments on here, to whom I’m genuinely grateful, notwithstanding my grouchy responses. And I’d like to acknowledge the kind things that people sometimes say about this blog (such as Ruben above), which for some reason I tend not to respond to. And now back to the grouchy responses.

    Just a thought on the metaphor of ‘evolution’ – evolution as we understand it in biological terms is not random – ‘chance evolution’ is a contradiction in terms. But nor is it purposive, as is the case with human action. It may be a useful metaphor to apply to human societies, but also potentially quite a misleading one. I guess the issue debated by Andrew and Martin is basically the structure-agency problem which was much to the fore when I was studying social science 30 years ago. I’m not sure I have much to say about it, except that I think the social conditions that people find themselves in act upon them, and they act upon those conditions in turn with all sorts of ends in mind, which have various consequences, many of them unintended, and which collectively set the conditions for future purposive action. However, I agree with Andrew that a common consequence of human social action is that those in possession of material or social power are better able to realise their aims and reproduce that power within their families and social class than those who aren’t – and that this capacity is easily normalised as some kind of intrinsic superiority that redounds to their personal credit.

    Simon’s question is a good one, though I’m reluctant to answer it because of the numerous hostages to fortune that any answer will raise – I’m in favour of utopian thinking in construing future political structures (though I regret that the neoliberals have been so successful in realising their own disastrous utopia), but not so much in construing what society would be like as lived experience. But OK, I’ll give it a quick go (provided I make it clear, lest Ruben be reading, that this isn’t what I think WILL happen…)

    First, bear in mind that a stable, major global redistribution of wealth would spell the end of capitalism, so we can’t look at the effects on an imaginary mental health worker in London as if everything else stays the same. Also, perhaps contrariwise, bear in mind that the existing economy is largely debt financed, so the kind of straitened circumstances I refer to below are likely to become reality anyway – though without structural reform of the global economy they’ll likely bear much more heavily on the world’s poor, as is the case at the moment. I have no quantitative handle on what a global redistribution would look like – I guess what interests me more is considering what a self-generated and non-indebted economy might be able to manage. So let me imagine some kind of agrarian populist regimen where, as I say, capitalism as defined by Streeck (comment above) is no longer operative in the sense that the political economy isn’t fundamentally geared to the demands of capital. Of course, a lot would depend on how this came about – let’s assume relatively mild exogenous shocks in terms of climate change, energy prices etc and the success of strong egalitarian agrarian populist movements globally on the back of the failure of the debt-financed neoliberal economy to deliver economic growth and the failure of reactionary populist movements a la Trump to do any better. Big assumptions, I know. Ah well, here’s a top of the head first draft – perhaps you can help me improve it.

    So, London will be an atypical place in the agrarian republic, but still a major, if declining, city. Its population will be smaller (fewer short-term migrant workers, relatively fewer employment opportunities in the city and relatively more in the countryside). I think your worker would be paying a much smaller proportion of his income on housing, but food and other consumer items would probably cost more – and many of the items that we take for granted today may be virtually unobtainable either by fiat or by price. This would probably be less of a hardship than it might seem for a number of reasons – one of them being that his social identity would be much less objectified in material things and expressed more in social interactions and matters of the mind and spirit. Your worker won’t have much spare cash, though possibly a bit more than his relatives who work holdings in the countryside. On the other hand, they produce most of their needs quite easily and live a pretty congenial life, and he sometimes wonders why he stays in the grimy city spending his hard-earned cash on buying the necessities of life when he might be better off producing them for himself in the countryside. Still, he enjoys his work, which is highly regarded like most occupations that are labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive and geared to producing human wellbeing (farming is another such occupation). Health and social care is, frankly, something of a worry – the government does its best to provide some level of basic provision, and health problems are somewhat offset by better diets, stronger social capital and what we now call a better work-life balance. He’s lucky to have family and friends who’ll look out for him in times of need. But people don’t necessarily get the care they’d ideally like, even though the health and caring professions (another highly valued, labour-intensive sector) are as well-resourced as possible. So kind of a similar situation to the capitalist present in most countries, then. Labour isn’t in short supply in this world, though energy and capital are. A lot of life, a lot of goods and services are provided locally, even in London, by small, labour-intensive businesses (capitalism is history, but private enterprise isn’t). Capital flows are heavily regulated. Among business owners, local reputation counts for a lot – bad labour practices, poor quality services, or dishonest dealing are scarcely worth the risk. Financially, I’d say our Londoner has much less ability to call forth global material resources on the basis of his earnings – no package holidays to the Mediterranean for the price of week or two’s wages, for example. Certainly no car. But hopefully he’d be able to call on enough predominantly local resources to live a tolerably fulfilling life. There would be few other places in the world that were doing vastly better materially – it would be difficult for him to emigrate to them anyway, and few obvious reasons why he’d want to.

      • Good for you, sir! Your dedication to this blog is of the highest order. Perhaps more so than mine, as I’m now going to bed…though my guess is it’s not quite bedtime where you are.

        • Not at all near bedtime. I am mid-process of making feta and sourdough bread, and drying some kale leaves to experiment with making kale powder. Soon I will hit the workshop for a little more time on the new little greenhouse I am building. Several more hours of light yet…

          Sleep well.

    • You mentioned in an earlier post that predicting the future is generally a disreputable business but as ever I think you’ve made a good go at forming an answer.
      What first strikes me is how similar this future city scenario sounds to today for our (fictional?) Londoner, the mushrooming of small farms notwithstanding. That’s hopefully all to the good, a sign of things to come perhaps.
      For example, as a worker who deals with the mentally ill for his daily bread, his social identity is already tied to more cerebral matters rather than to material things; this may be atypical but either way is partly down to a disposable income that only stretches to occasional pints and books and the odd tankful of fuel for the moped. He loves the country, especially fishing, but considers smallholding hard work in comparison to the care work he feels more cut out for. The occasional city break flying abroad has been jettisoned in recent years for cheaper holidays in the UK, within a few hours’ train ride from his corner of London, which has over the past decade steadily ‘gentrified’ – small artisanal food businesses have flourished, local pubs that haven’t gone under have mutated into gastro-pubs or reinvented themselves from once typical working men’s boozers to prohibitively expensive bourgeoise sinkholes selling craft ale.
      A possible future of ever more straitened circumstances financially will one hopes be offset by a stronger sense of community and other things that can’t be assigned a fiscal value. Whenever I’ve looked into this area very casually in the past perhaps none of this should surprise. A comparative wealth calculator I once stumbled across on Google revealed that a doctor currently practising in Malawi I think it was, was paid on average the equivalent of a can of Coke an hour (UK prices). Though such global wealth calculators are probably clunky tools in many ways, here’s a link to a similar site revealing a worker earning a basic living wage in the UK to be wealthier than three-quarters of the rest of the world’s population. Time to hunker down.

      • But that’s deceptive, Simon. As an example — when I discovered how much people are paid in Alaska, I thought they were awesome wealthy — until I found out how much more expensive living costs are in Alaska.

        • Either there’s a clumsiness to such a ‘calculator’, Vera, or you and I are among the top 10 per cent wealthiest people in the world!! 🙂

          • That depends on how you add up “weath” Simon. Meself? I prefer to peasant way to wealth. And there is another thing that’s not counted by the bean counters. And that is social capital.

    • Chris:
      Might I inquire what evidence you’d offer that evolution is not random? Not saying you’re wrong about this; but in many circles that assertion is going to get a pretty close inspection.

  11. Chris, it is taxing of the hoarding of money that interests me more. (Demurrage fees.) Although a tiny fee on large financial transactions would have been a no brainer — alas, the neoliberals lacked the brain capacity even for that.

    I think that you are right, “taking from the rich” is another strategy. But there the equivalence ends. Or would you say that working to provide goods to fellow humans, and armed robbery, are simply different strategies toward making a living? Do two wrongs make a right?

    Which brings me to reflect that in addition to the new x axis of “globalism nationalism/localism” there is the y axis of “totality plurality”. These reflect what is currently happening politically far better than the old tool of right/left positioning. Totality teaches one way, one Truth, plurality teaches many ways, many truths. Totality attacks the opposition as evil and aims to silence it, plurality considers the opposition as a useful counterpoint, as another school of thought, therefore giving it voice.

    Much of the talk regarding nationalism and immigration puts people on separate poles of this latter spectrum. So far, the totalitarians have been gaining ground. But Brexit and Trump (and soon Le Pen, IMO) signal a turning.

    I would like to point to an example. Take the disputed child migrants. The totalitarian mind-set handled it thus:
    step 1: allot extra resources to child migrants (I have not met anyone so far who is against this)
    step 2: ignore or prevent application of legal, ethical and commonsense boundaries to counter free-riding; free riding gets worse; the citizenry objects
    step 3: silence the citizenry with ad hominems [bigots! islamophobes!]

    This, THIS, is why the emerging nationalism is angry. Same sort of thing happened in America — them trying to silence half the country by relegating them to a basket of deplorables [viz, more ad hominems].

    And finally, I’d like to say, you Brits, keep your hopes up. Neoliberalism is about immiseration, and sacrificing the locals. Localism/nationalism isn’t (though there are no guarantees). You have the City. There is no reason why you should be pauperized at this particular time — having in your midst one of the few major nodes of financial power. It is in their power to immiserate you, but it is in their power to give you a big push in the right direction. Maybe it all hangs on whether the financial barons still have localist allegiances.

  12. Well, lots more lines of discussion are opened. Thank you, all. But after a long day’s work the prospect of an early bed entices me, so I aim to be brief.

    Competition/cooperation: I’ll be writing a little more about this soon. I’d say we’re hard-wired for both, and it’s the job of politics to interpolate effectively between the two.

    Evolution: I’d say it’s non-random in the sense that natural selection is selection, which is non-random. I’d concede that the circumstances prompting the selection may be random. On the other hand, there appears to be a regular structure of evolutionary patterns (Grime’s ‘evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems’) and recurrent, independently-evolved adaptations, perhaps suggesting that there are also higher-order non-random evolutionary patterns?

    Tax, armed robbery & other revenue streams: a whole interesting arena of debate in which I confess considerable ignorance, so further discussion would interest me. I guess I’d say that armed robbery pretty much captures the nature of revenue-extraction experienced by many people, including peasant farmers, in the past and in the present but, no, I wouldn’t lend my support to it – too random and nakedly coercive. I think like you, Vera, that I’d prefer to see a lighter revenue-extracting touch on what people have worked to accrue and a stronger one on what they haven’t – so financial transactions and land value, yes, while income, not so much. Then again, there’s an entrenched privilege of education, cultural capital and so on – both the lawyer and the manual labourer work hard, but the lawyer earns a lot more – and there’s a diminishing marginal utility of income is there not, so why not tax the lawyer more heavily, relatively speaking? I think I agree with Malcolm above, despite apparently being locked in disagreement with him, that the key thing is to prevent the inter-generational accumulation of wealth. And also with Vera, on taxing parasitically derivative financialisation over actual production – though production itself can involve a multitude of sins.

    Totality, plurality: yes, I’d go along with a good deal of that. Though I’d add that there are historical trajectories between the two. Hayek’s neoliberalism was forged out of an antipathy to the totality of communism and thence a suspicion of government involvement in the economy (‘the road to serfdom’), but 70 years later it’s market neoliberalism which seems totalising and enserfing. My sympathies are with pluralism, but not with a totalising pluralism of the kind that tries to evade distributional questions by saying ‘let the market decide’ – ultimately, societies decide politically who gets what and face the consequences, decisions that sometimes have inescapably total implications (how you cut the cake between group x and group y). My take on nationalism as I defined it above is that it’s always totalising, but that’s a different thing from love of a place or a culture, which needn’t be.

    On taking things for granted: Clem, I understand the distinction you’re making. I can’t get quite as exercised as you about it – I think you can be over-familiar with something you don’t understand, and you can ‘take for granted’ that it’s OK to do things (hunt whales, pump sewage into the sea) that turn out not to be so OK, things whose consequences you may be ignorant about, but perhaps not blissfully so. Anyway, I’d accept your rewrite…but maybe not blissfully.

  13. I’m not entirely sure what we’re disagreeing about, either, Chris – but I suspect it’s the angle we need to approach the problem from in order to bring about change.

    I suggested originally that people generally accept the basic rules but don’t accept the outcomes. You’ve argued that, because you recognise that we need fundamental change, you can’t be said to ‘accept’ the basic structure of private property rights. But unless you’re prepared to say what fundamental change is needed … well, that’s what I categorise as ‘not accepting the outcomes’. A general recognition that something, somewhere is wrong, is a very long way from being a rejection of an entire set of rules. It’s also a long way from being a rejection of identifiable individual harmful rules embedded within a set of generally beneficial ones – which is what we need.

    “the poor haven’t voted out an anti-poor government, therefore they ‘accept the basic operational rules’”

    No, the reason I say they accept the basic rules is that they take them for granted (your definition!) and often object when there’s talk of changing them.

    I’m talking here about specific features of the basic rules that (in my view) are at the root of society’s problems: property owners’ power to bequeath what they own to whoever they like (as I discuss below), and the public’s ability to take the medium of exchange out of circulation (as evidenced by the vitriol that central bankers have faced when they float the possibility of doing away with physical cash). The fact that we accept, comply with and, in many cases, embrace beneficial rules (owning property, paying taxes) is irrelevant.

    In my earlier comment, I said ‘without any significant redistribution of substantive wealth’. What I’m doing is making a distinction between our personal enjoyment of property itself and the privilege of choosing who will get to enjoy it after we die. These are two clearly different aspects of private property. The first of those aspects is fundamentally important to us personally, almost certainly brings major benefits to society as a whole and is easy to justify from first principles. The second is very much less important to us, creates significant problems for society as a whole and results from a distortion of the principles which first gave rise to it. For most people, I’d say, there’s a huge difference between those two aspects, even if they aren’t conscious of it.

    You can certainly argue that re-writing the rules governing the second aspect is as much redistribution as re-writing the rules governing the first (I’ll spare you the counter-arguments at this point). But, pragmatically, it’s important to consider what people generally understand by the term. If you propose redistribution, I think most people will assume that you are talking about taking some substantive property away from the people who currently hold it – i.e. depriving people of the enjoyment of the property itself. That’s certainly what the term suggests to me and it’s something I, along with many others, feel very uncomfortable about, because it violates my sense of natural justice.

    That natural antipathy to redistribution, as it applies to the first aspect of private property, does currently carry over to the second aspect. But that’s largely because we’re not accustomed to treating them separately. Once we start to focus on the differences between them, it will be very much easier to convince people that we can keep the benefits of private property but jettison the inequality that currently comes with it.

    When it comes down to it, if we want to make the world a better place, we’re going to have to be fairly specific about what we want to change.

    “you’re not going to get anywhere near the root of the problem by thinking in terms of ‘holding our electoral representatives to account’.”

    No, of course not. We’ll only get to the root of the problem through proper analysis (which includes teasing out which aspects of the existing rules are beneficial and which are harmful). But once we have got to the root of the problem, we still have to confront a parallel problem, which is how do we get it changed.

    In other words, we have to break it into two distinct problems. What specific changes are needed? How do we bring those changes about? The processes for holding our elected representatives to account are a key part of answering that second question.

    “there’s a useful idiocy in the notion that if we don’t like the government we have then we can vote in a different one, and if we don’t…well, then, effectively we consent to the one we have, or at least to the rules for deciding”

    I agree. But is anybody here claiming that we have effectively consented to this one? What I’m saying is that we haven’t yet properly stepped up to the challenge of changing things. That’s a very different thing.

    “the public isn’t powerless. But in many situations, including in constitutional democracies, it’s fairly powerless if it limits its power to electoral democracy.”

    For many years I believed that effective reform would only come about through violent revolution of some kind. But I was always concerned about how that could be regarded as legitimate and I eventually came up with a definition of ‘lawful rebellion’. Part of my definition was that going outside the system to bring in change could only be justified when all reasonable efforts had been made within it.

    This is partly a moral question but it’s also a pragmatic one; it would be very much easier to get public support for direct confrontation if we can show that every other avenue has been blocked. The current system allows us to get together with others to form a political party, and it allows us to stand for Parliament on a platform of radical change. We haven’t yet tried that. Until we have, all the talk of how difficult/impossible it is, merely serves to drain people of hope.

    It might fail. Of course it might. But if we don’t even try it – if we just presume that the odds are so heavily stacked against us that nothing we do will make democracy anything more than a ‘voluntaristic illusion of the ballot box’ – then I’d say we don’t deserve anything better than what we’ve got.

    And that, I imagine, will also be how the gods see it. But if we do try it, and your worst fears prove to be justified … well, if the gods allow it, I do have a plan B.

    • Malcolm:
      If I’m keeping up with your line of thinking, I suppose you’d be in favor of estate taxation, yes? Do you draw a distinction between land and cash assets as you consider estate (or intergenerational) passing of assets?

      • “I suppose you’d be in favor of estate taxation”

        Not exactly, Clem, though you could argue that my approach amounts to that.

        Basically, I think the law should treat individuals’ ownership of productive assets (real-estate, debt and ownership of corporations) as including an element of trusteeship: the power to make use of the property is the owner’s in their own right, but the power to transfer it is theirs only as trustees. So nominating a successor should be regarded as passing on responsibility rather than passing on wealth.

        It’s difficult to sum it up concisely – ownership of corporations is particularly tricky (and what I’m saying here only partially applies to it) and the justifications are different for the different forms of property. Essentially, as owners die, all privately-owned productive wealth would return to a common pool, to be distributed evenly among a new generation coming of age. That’s relatively simple with things that can be regarded as pure wealth (debt, shares in listed companies, and also much residential real-estate) but much harder with forms of property (like farms and small businesses) where passing on responsibility is key. So … there is a veritable devil in the detail.

        That’s the main distinction I draw, between productive and non-productive assets. I don’t see any reason to put a limit on how much people can bequeath in the way of non-productive wealth (jewellery, works of art etc) because possession of those things doesn’t compromise other people’s ability to sustain themselves. I think a healthy society could allow such things to be passed on without taxing them.

        My approach may amount to the same thing as taxation, in terms of what people end up with, but I think the language we use is important. Giving people a bigger inheritance than can be justified by moral principle, and then taking (some of) it back from them in tax, seems to me to be an irrational way of doing it; it’s far simpler not to give them the excessive amount in the first place. With the tax route, the taxpayers will always feel that they’re being deprived of something that is rightfully theirs and the level of the tax will always be a political football. The other route might be harder to introduce initially but once the principle is established, that all owners are trustees, I think it’s unlikely there would ever be significant pressure to roll it back.

        • Interesting. Yes, I can see the devil poking through already.

          Right now in the U.S. there are estate taxes for very large estates (Republicans love to label them ‘death’ taxes). And there is a growing business opportunity to help the very rich avoid these taxes. I’d suggest this is ‘gaming’ the system, but close relatives whose own professions either serve or benefit tangentially from the business of avoiding these taxes take a different view. My own opinion is that however we approach the matter we’ll likely have some form of ‘gaming’. For instance, in your example (if I’m reading it correctly) productive assets such as land would be returned to a pool whereas non-productive assets such as jewelry would be passed to heirs untaxed. So as a landowner interested in passing wealth to another generation, wouldn’t I be assisting my heirs by trading land for diamonds before I die so that they would have the diamonds in hand to purchase land if they choose?

          I’m not saying your plan is bad, but I am saying the details will matter and that the wealthy will have the means to hire clever folk to assist them in their wealth preservation.

          I feel like I should offer a silver lining rather than end on a negative. Hmmm, let me get back to you on that one.

          • Thanks for helping that little devil poke through, Clem.

            The short answer is that an owner selling land (of which he is trustee of the freehold, for society at large) will receive only the portion of the price that relates to his own beneficial interest – i.e. the personal interest he has in the property during his own lifetime. So a seventy year old (UK life expectancy 15 years) selling land will receive considerably less than his 45-year old daughter (UK life expectancy 39 years) would have to pay to buy the same bit of land.

            The primary problem is the passing on of control of critical assets – things which others have an absolute need for. I think the passing on of purchasing power is far less serious. I don’t rule out the possibility that limiting the amount of non-productive assets that can be inherited might be necessary but I don’t think we can know that until we’ve fixed the more clearly problematic features of the current system and seen how it works in practice.

            The first step has to be ensuring that the direct transmission of land between generations happens in a healthy way. Once that reform is in place, we will have to make further judgements on other things, but that reform on its own will hugely change the way the system works and I think it’s important that we don’t try to pre-empt anticipated problems which wouldn’t in fact materialise in the changed environment.

            That first step will change the perceived value of land considerably. Currently, the price land changes hands at is primarily determined by its function as the ultimate store of wealth rather than its current utility/desirability (and the price, in the current system, is always far, far less than its true value, when you take its productivity over the next umpteen thousand years into account). My reforms (which include separating the market in land from the broader market, through a system of land credits) should mean that it would no longer be regarded as a long-term store of wealth. In addition, since everybody would receive a more-or-less equal allocation of land credits, there would no longer be a pool of people obliged to buy at sellers’ prices.

            As you say, however we approach the matter we’ll likely have some form of ‘gaming’. Taxing the inheritance of chattels, particularly easily hidden ones like diamonds, presents significant practical problems and potentially creates major tensions between state and individuals; many people will see it as the state taking what is rightfully theirs and may therefore be tempted to step outside the law in order to safeguard it. Will the potential benefits, in the changed socio-economic environment, outweigh those potential costs?

            Land is a finite natural resource that nobody can live without and, if some people have preferential access to it, that’s a problem for society at large. We need to make sure that people have fair access to land and my reforms would give everybody a birthright to a fair share of it. Maybe some people will be willing to sell their birthright in exchange for some diamonds – but why should that be regarded as a problem for society at large?

          • Let me see if I’m tracking this so far (and to be honest, I’ve not gotten through all the verbiage on your drafts)… but thus far I’m of the impression that once in place your plan will allocate a birthright to a newborn of let’s say 2 acres. This is their personal limit. This individual is born into a family with a current holding of 50 acres. There are four heirs – so that upon the death of the current landholder the 50 acres are split with 8 acres going to heirs (two apiece) and the other 42 acres going where?

            Mineral rights? If at some point in the future the price of oil escalates to a point where the goo beneath the soil becomes economically amenable to extraction… everyone gets a share? Could be interesting.

            Incident radiation? Prevailing winds, rainfall, all natural resources to be inherited fairly as a share of the nation’s natural resources, right? Nothing too complex lining up there.

            Instead of angels on a pin I’m thinking devils will be dancing on that pin. But let me keep digging at the drafts.

          • “your plan will allocate a birthright to a newborn of let’s say 2 acres”

            Not exactly, Clem. My plan won’t allocate land directly, it’ll allocate a share of land credits. The total quantity of land credits will be essentially fixed, but the amount needed to buy an acre of land will vary according to how desirable the plot is (which might go up and down, relative to the price of other plots, just as it does today). Those price differentials will reflect the things you listed, just as they do today. As you say, nothing too complex lining up there.

            Some people’s birthright allocation of credits will be more than they need for the land they want, others will be less. So there’ll be a market, which will allow people to borrow, rent, buy, sell and lend land credits in exchange for ordinary money.

            In the scenario you outline, the nominated heirs would have the opportunity to buy the property, perhaps at the same price that the departed owner originally bought at, but possibly at a probate valuation (I can see arguments for and against both options). If, between them, they have only enough, by birthright, to buy 8 acres, then they would have to borrow, buy or rent the balance. If they’re unable to get the extra credits, or prefer not to, then it would be sold on the open market, probably through an auction in which the heirs could set a reserve price with an opening bid of their own.

            Whether there should be a single pool of land credits, or separate ones for residential, agricultural and industrial land (with everybody getting an allocation from all three pools) is something I don’t yet have a view on.

          • “Where do the proceeds from the auction go?”

            They go (indirectly) to the new generation who are just coming of age.

            The value of the departed owner’s estate lie in the land credits which he held during his lifetime, which are now returned to the pool and distributed to the new generation. The buyer of the land has to obtain extra credits (above what he has by his own birthright) which he does by buying them, perhaps from the people who have just inherited them. In practice, there wouldn’t be such a direct link as that – but that’s the essence of it.

            The auction itself can be regarded as a process of discovering who values that bit of land most highly and allocating ownership accordingly. The exchanges of land credits which have to take place are essentially a currency exchange, with both parties giving up one form of money in exchange for another.

    • Thanks for responding, Malcolm. To pick up on a few of your points:

      (1) Perhaps where we disagree is how we understand the field of politics. To your way of thinking, it seems to me, there’s a group of individuals who collectively form a society – they need to figure out what laws to institute in order to achieve the right relationships among themselves (though it’s not clear to me from your account how ‘rightness’ is judged). To my way of thinking, there’s a society riven by complex and contradictory relations of power and identity, out of which emerge (also potentially contradictory) senses of individual interest and collective purpose.

      (2) Following your logic, you want me to specify exactly what’s wrong with the rules, saying that if I’m not prepared to do that then I’m merely ‘not accepting the outcomes’. Following my logic, I’d say – darned right I’m not accepting the outcomes, because they’re systematically skewed in favour of particular interest groups. But I’m not an economist or a lawyer, so I’m very happy to delegate to those experts the task of figuring out what’s the best way of setting up the rules in order to achieve the outcomes, or at least the structures, that seem just. However, what ‘seems just’ is a matter of political contestation based on social power, collective identity and interest – it has nothing to do with rules or laws. And I’m not happy to leave the political contestation, the issue of what’s ‘just’, to experts, rule-makers or indeed the court of everyday ‘common sense’.

      (3) “The reason I say [the poor] accept the basic rules is that they take them for granted (your definition!) and often object when there’s talk of changing them.” This is where I think a Gramscian conception of hegemony would serve your analysis much better than all the talk of ‘rules’. For one thing, it would add a lot more nuance to the myriad ways in which people, often simultaneously, ‘accept’, don’t accept or only partially accept the world they find themselves in.

      (4) No doubt it’s useful to distinguish between the enjoyment and the alienability of property as chattels – and I agree with you that this is a key area around which to focus reform. But the distinction isn’t given in the nature of things. Property is a relation between people collectively relative to a thing, which admits to numerous limitations – the limitations being matters that are decided politically. If you start with the individual and her/his chattels, and particularly if you regard those chattels as somehow inherently imbued with their person, then ‘redistribution’ sounds unjust for sure. But if you start with a capitalist society grounded in relatively unrestricted rights over private property, whereby empirically those rights entitle a small minority to superyachts, private islands, jet planes etc while billions don’t know where their next meal is coming from, then intervening in those rights doesn’t seem to me unjust at all. I think where the debate needs to go from here is the relation between private property rights and the inequalities in the economy writ large. To my mind, this will involve talking about conflicts of class and power, not finding theoretically optimum laws.

      (5) How to change things. First, let me be clear that I’m not against parliamentary politicking, and I don’t see the options as a binary between either electing politicians or violent revolution. As in my critique of John Michael Greer on liberalism a while back, I think people tend to miss the importance of a public sphere, the field of politics, the nature of the politically thinkable in what they understand by ‘democracy’. Second, you say that people haven’t yet tried standing for parliament on a platform of radical change. But they have, and they’ve scored some major successes – I don’t think we’d be having a conversation like this without long traditions of liberalism, socialism, social democracy and trade unionism creating the field of politics as we now know it. However, in terms of electoral politics, we have largely the same political institutions available to us now that were available fifty years ago – globally, perhaps even better ones – and yet inequalities are widening and the ability of the poor to gain political representation is weakening. That doesn’t mean there’s no virtue in pursuing political change through parliamentary politics, but it does suggest to me that the real leverage is increasingly located elsewhere – and I think Streeck helps to elucidate this with his analysis of the consolidation state, and much else besides in his book. I don’t have any great answers as to how to achieve better leverage – I don’t think anyone does really, which is why we’re stuck in this impasse of an increasingly moribund and dysfunctional global capitalism with few credible alternatives on the horizon. If you want to put your energy into forming a political party and standing for parliament on a platform of radical change, then great – it’s not as if I have some brilliant alternative up my sleeve. But I don’t think you’ll get far – and I particularly don’t think you’ll get far if your platform is all about changing the identifiable harmful rules embedded within a set of generally beneficial ones. The powerful will find innumerable matters of detail to trap you in the slough of harm and benefit, and the powerless want to hear altogether different stories.

      • “To your way of thinking, it seems to me, there’s a group of individuals who collectively form a society – they need to figure out what laws to institute in order to achieve the right relationships among themselves”

        No, Chris, you’ve misunderstood. My attitude is that we need to find the right relationships among ourselves and then figure out what laws to institute in order to maintain (and entrench) those relationships.

        “I’m very happy to delegate to those experts the task of figuring out what’s the best way of setting up the rules in order to achieve the outcomes, or at least the structures, that seem just.”

        In principle, I’m happy to leave it to them, too. But what if they’re not doing it right? What if they’re not able to do it right, because political considerations prevent them? Are you still happy to leave it to them then?

        “what ‘seems just’ is a matter of political contestation based on social power”

        Yes. But, actually, we’ve already won that contest. Nobody disputes principles like equality of opportunity; the trouble is, principles on which there is broad consensus have not been incorporated into our basic operating procedures. Basically, the law continues to entrench the values of a previous age. It does that because there’s nothing in our current system that requires laws to be consistent with generally-accepted, uncontroversial principles. (When I suggested that particular reform to the Law Commission, they declined to take it up on the grounds that it was ‘constitutionally revolutionary’ and therefore not a matter for them.)

        “I think where the debate needs to go from here is the relation between private property rights and the inequalities in the economy writ large. To my mind, this will involve talking about conflicts of class and power, not finding theoretically optimum laws.”

        For me, finding optimum laws is a secondary step, one that follows understanding the relationship between private property rights and inequalities in the economy. But that relationship can’t be properly understood without considering whether existing laws actually achieve the purposes we intend them to. If they don’t, then talking about conflicts of class and power isn’t likely to lead anywhere useful.

        “people [have] tried standing for parliament on a platform of radical change […] and they’ve scored some major successes”

        Yes, as you say, that’s how we got to be where we are. But we don’t reach our goals by taking a single step and then waxing indignant that we haven’t got there yet; we generally have to take a second step, and then a third …

        So, I’ll rephrase my earlier statement: the current system allows us to stand for Parliament on a platform of radical change – in our current situation, we haven’t yet tried that.

        “the powerless want to hear altogether different stories”

        That’s right, Chris. That’s why the complex reforms I’ve talked about in this thread aren’t even part of my manifesto.

        What I think the powerless do want to hear is relatively simple ideas for how they can feel more in control of their own lives. So the first two of my seven manifesto reforms are for spontaneous democracy and local autonomy. (The other five are equally simple, in essence, though less intuitive.)

        The things I’ve talked about in this thread are discussed on my website, but only as possible reforms which could solve fundamental problems that a well-constituted society would need to address (though some of those non-manifesto reforms might be brought in as a result of my requirement for coherent law, which is part of my manifesto).

        What I think the powerless really don’t want to hear about – what they are sick and tired of hearing about – are ‘conflicts of class and power’. They’ve been hearing intellectuals waffle on about that for years and, as you say, ‘inequalities are widening and the ability of the poor to gain political representation is weakening’. So, if that’s the debate you want, I think I’ll leave you to it.

        • Malcolm, I’ll try to whizz through some of your points and questions in case it’s useful – but if others as well as Joe find this all a bit angels-on-pins, then I guess I’ll stop.

          “We need to find the right relationships among ourselves and then figure out what laws to institute in order to maintain (and entrench) those relationships.”

          To my mind, your formulation doesn’t much differ from the one I offered – the real problem is the over-simple individual-society dyad involved. You may not want to talk about class & power (I’ll come back to that point in a moment), but without doing so your way of construing the political is too legally deterministic and affectless to work for me. You seem to hold that everyone agrees on the basic normative principles that should govern society, but we’ve somehow mislaid them through simple lack of clarity on our way to the statute book. To my mind, that greatly understates the degree of normative disagreement and political conflict involved.

          “But what if [the experts] aren’t doing it right? What if they’re not able to do it right, because political considerations prevent them? Are you still happy to leave it to them then?”

          That’s a simple one. No, I’m not. I’d like to relegate economists to the role of technicians, kind of like dentists – they know how to fix teeth (though even there you need to keep an eye on them), but you wouldn’t necessarily put them in charge of health or nutrition policy.

          “Nobody disputes principles like equality of opportunity; the trouble is, principles on which there is broad consensus have not been incorporated into our basic operating procedures.”

          I’d say that nobody disputes a principle like equality of opportunity because it’s a cliché that admits to far too many varied interpretations to form the basis of any kind of shared normative understanding, let alone a law. A hardline neoliberal could happily sign up to equality of opportunity – “Nobody should be juridically denied the opportunity of getting filthy rich. But if they fail, well screw them.” Uncontroversial principles get controversial as soon as you try to operationalise them in law or policy. How do we implement equality of opportunity in our education system: Grammars? Comprehensives? Free schools? Kibbutz-style collective parenting? Scholarships to public schools on the basis of examination merit? And so on. The problem lies deeper within both the ‘broad consensus’ and the ‘basic operating procedures’

          “For me, finding optimum laws is a secondary step, one that follows understanding the relationship between private property rights and inequalities in the economy. But that relationship can’t be properly understood without considering whether existing laws actually achieve the purposes we intend them to. If they don’t, then talking about conflicts of class and power isn’t likely to lead anywhere useful.”

          But who is this ‘we’? What are ‘our’ purposes? Existing laws achieve the purposes that some people intend them to, and not those that other people intend them to. There’s an implicit theory of class and power in your notion that there’s a ‘we’ who intends singular things of legislation – and not, to my mind, a very convincing one. And while I agree with you that private property rights are a crucial arena for debate, I don’t think that there’s single legislative key to a just politico-economic system – there are many different related elements constituting the whole. I’d also want to pose a mild query to the distinction between productive and non-productive assets, because of fiscal convertibility that enables high value or high volume non-productive assets (pictures, jewellery) to become productive assets…kind of along the lines of the gaming Clem raises.

          “What I think the powerless really don’t want to hear about – what they are sick and tired of hearing about – are ‘conflicts of class and power’. They’ve been hearing intellectuals waffle on about that for years”

          I’d say that the greatest steps towards justice achieved in democratic politics have occurred through mobilisation by the relatively powerless themselves, when they’ve understood their situation (as their own intellectuals) precisely in terms of class and power – for example, through trade unionism and the politics of organised labour. Over the last few decades the basis for that kind of understanding has been stripped away from democratic politics, often quite deliberately – something that again Streeck analyses very nicely. I think the aura of legal determinism in your framework, and its unacknowledged theory of power, is a symptom of that loss. To me, your critique of waffling intellectuals is a red herring. I’m not convinced there’s any more appetite among your target groups for engaging with ideas of spontaneous democracy or local autonomy than there is in engaging with ideas of class and power (though I’d concede that traditional leftist theories of class need a makeover – actually, they’ve already had one by the likes of Streeck, though the results aren’t always too cheering). It’s not that I’m against your proposals – far from it. I find them informative, and complementary to my way of thinking. But I think you’ll find implementing them harder going than you suppose, because the way you construe the political field seems far too optimistic and far too innocent of the way that political power operates.

  14. Interesting again Chris. I’m slowly gaining a bit of a political education via your posts and the comments sections. Wish I had more to offer to the discourse but I think it’s best I’m more of an observer as I can’t comprehend all that is said!

    Today I learned about ‘passive revolution’ – perhaps that’s the best way to see Brexit? As essentially a hegemonic action by the state to keep the people on board a bit longer? It distracts them whilst the state continues to rob them, but gives them a sense of democracy. Brexit really is more a symptom, than a cause of any change I think, but what it may do is lead to further upset and greater likelihood of trouble down the line when people find out they were deceived.

    Thanks for pointing out differences between Nationalism and Localism.

    Perhaps it might be different in England to Wales (and I’d presume Scotland too – NI I don’t have a clue at all). British Nationalism (just as popular in South Wales as it is in many parts of England (though not Scotland) is right-wing, whereas the Nationalism in Wales is coming from the left. But more than that, I can see how Welsh Nationalism can lead into Localism. It’s quite a big stepping stone towards it in my view, and doesn’t put in place a government that would necessarily be ideologically opposed to it. And given that Wales is a much more manageable size, it may stand us in some good stead for when the plot thickens/unravels. We may be able to stem the bleeding a bit by leaving the UK and get a few important things done now whilst we can – or perhaps I’m too optimistic there! It’s a bit different with UKIP and British Nationalism as you rightly point out. But coming back to the idea of a passive revolution – from what I learnt they can serve to revitalise, which is what’s happened in Scotland post-devolution. In Wales it’s had little difference however, because firstly the Assembly didn’t really give us any meaningful power, and secondly Welsh people weren’t that fussed about it in the first place.

    Perhaps that’s what Kingsnorth is getting at though? I suppose the question would be what does it revitalise? And is it something we want vitalising? I would agree that Brexit may make it more difficult to achieve what the Green Localists would want.

    • Hi Alex. Been thinking about nationalism too. Maybe it’s time to put my thoughts together while it’s the topic, since I haven’t quite got it worked through, what Chris and Malcolm are saying. This is what nation/nationalism looks like from my central European/American perspective.

      I understand nationalism very differently from Chris’ definition. As an early example of my understanding, I would like to give the medieval division of Prague’s Charles University into “four nations”: Czech, Polish, Bavarian, and Saxon (in the sense of Saxony). These nations were the political and cultural vehicle for students and professors alike. Note that, for example, the “Polish nation” included people from the Baltic countries, Russia, Poland, and Silesia. Not even a shared language, but rather a sense of commonality and of being neighbors vis-à-vis the other students and professors. (Also note, no “Germany”. Whew.)

      I propose that this “sense of commonality and neighborliness” is at the root of the old nationalism originating in late medieval times, and localism as far back as you care to go. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nationalism was another name for “regional renaissance”. Which in the Czech Lands had to do with language (once completely marginalized and feared lost) as well as shared culture, cuisine, folk stories and music, customs, shared history, love of land, et al. It had little to do with state – in those days, the state was the Habsburg monarchy, and it in turn was comprised of many nations. In fact, our nationalism was in part constituted as opposition to the Empire. And many discussions raged whether we should go for independence, or whether it would be better to remain part of Austria-Hungary. Seeing later disasters in retrospect, I have come to side with those who would have kept Austria-Hungary as a country, a state. It is unfortunate that the then-emperor Francis had his head so far up his absolutist arse, that shifts in that direction became impossible.

      America is another way of doing a nation. It is not based on shared ancient history and culture, but rather on commitment to certain ideals, and ways of living and doing politics resulting from attempts to enact these ideals in the real world. Those who share these ideals and willing to enact the American story, wherever they hail from originally, are welcome here. And our debate around immigration turns around “how many” so that our key lifeways are not destroyed by too many people rushing in too fast, and on “vetting” which has to do with whether the incomers do support these key values, and even whether they are coming here to undermine them.

      Chris said: “I understand why many in the movement are seeking a safe harbour from the stormy seas of neoliberalism, but I think they’re mistaken to suppose the idea of the nation will provide it.”
      What then? There is a list of powerful social/cultural glues used by humans from prehistory on, but when I was reading up on intentional communities I realized that this list is rather short. If not nationalism/localism/love of home, what then to counter fanatical globalism, or religious supremacy, or corporate fascism, or neo-feudalism? I’d like to know. Because I don’t see anything else that stands a chance. And I’d rather blow on the embers of place-nationalism than old-time religion.

      • If not nationalism/localism/love of home, what then to counter fanatical globalism, or religious supremacy, or corporate fascism, or neo-feudalism?

        Why worry about globalism, religious supremacy or corporate fascism? They won’t be around for long and neither will nations. “Neo-feudalism”, if it happens at all, is likely to be a very local affair and doesn’t belong in the same category as the others.

        “Localism/love of home” doesn’t need to “counter” anything. It is what some would call tribalism and is the default human condition. Just wait a bit. It will be what is left after more complex national and global social structures disintegrate. After they do, we will be lucky to maintain something as complex as “neo-feudalism” even on a local scale.

        I’ve enjoyed reading the political discussion here, but to me it has a counting-angels-on-pins aura about it. I can’t see how any new politics is going to matter much, except the kind that can be created by rural folk who are within walking or riding distance of each other.

        I’m hoping someone here will eventually come up with the recipe for what you might call an ultra-local “social/cultural glue”, one that can be mixed up and applied to rural communities before it’s too late. The survival of agrarian peasantry will depend on it, especially in areas now dominated by industrial civilization.

        Please don’t keep that recipe a secret too much longer, Chris.

        • Much depends on the pace of the anticipated unravelling. There’ve been plenty of people through history who’ve got worked up about political or doctrinal differences, only to find the waves of unforeseen history crashing over their heads, making their disputes seem trivial. Then again, there’ve also been plenty of people convinced that it’s all going to collapse tomorrow, removing themselves to a lofty mountaintop to observe the spectacle, only to creep home sheepishly the next morning. Perhaps I have a foot in both camps.

          I’d agree though that a critical thing is to manufacture some local glue, and the cupboard is looking worryingly bare at the moment on that front. The only thing I’d add is that people often talk about things like ‘community’, ‘love of place’, ‘culture’, ‘identity’ etc as if those things are the glue themselves. The problem is you can have all those things and still inhabit a world of vicious conflict, misery and inequality. I’ll be turning on my glue factory soon on this front through a series of blog posts – however, I fear that its supply will be inadequate to demand, and probably insufficiently adhesive.

        • “I can’t see how any new politics is going to matter much, except the kind that can be created by rural folk who are within walking or riding distance of each other.”

          But some of the people within walking or riding distance of me aren’t within walking or riding distance of each other – but are within distance of others who I’m unable to have any direct interaction with. So, through these overlapping communities, I can hear and pass on news of people hundreds of miles away.

          In fact, living near Lindum Colonia as I do, I hear news all the way from Rome, and indeed all the way from the eastern borders of the empire. There is some talk that the empire is failing and will collapse but … well, civilisations rise and fall.

          I don’t think politics has ever depended on rapid movement.

          • If politics is “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area”, simply hearing the news about the affairs of distant lands doesn’t mean that those lands are affecting the governance of one’s rural community.

            My point was simply that any new kinds of national or international politics are going to be swept away when the high tide of energy and civilization recedes. After that recession, we may know what is going on in adjacent tide pools, but governance will depend almost entirely on the preferences of the co-inhabitants of the pool one is in.

            I think the folks around Lindum Colonia, circa sixth century CE, would confirm how little impact Rome was then having on local affairs. I doubt that changed much even after Saint Paulinus wandered through the area converting local leaders to Christianity. And then, with an incoming tide, came the Vikings.

          • I’m not convinced about national or international politics being swept away, Joe. I can certainly see it as one possible scenario but, to me, it seems one of the less likely ones. My feeling is that, wherever there are channels of communication (and therefore of trade, intermarriage, cultural intermingling etc) there is going to be politics.

            I think a gradual process of disintegration is more likely, accompanied by re-integration of smaller units with less centralisation. That seems to me to be the critical factor; I think highly centralised polities are far more fragile than ones where power is dispersed and local communities have more autonomy. My guess is that any modern societies which voluntarily move towards that could survive the coming descent more or less intact, whereas any which try to cling to a centralised model will disintegrate.

            But I’m not sure that their disintegration will be particularly rapid. And even if it is, I think the subsequent re-integration could be much faster than it was after previous collapses, simply because of widespread literacy and recorded knowledge.

            I agree that sixth century folk hereabouts wouldn’t have been very conscious of Rome affecting them. But then I’ve never been very conscious of Brussels affecting us today. Apparently, though, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, they determine all kinds of things. I think most of Rome’s influence (which I’m happy to acknowledge would always have been limited) would have been well integrated into local culture by the time the empire started its quite slow process of disintegration.

          • This a reply to Malcolm’s comment on March 31 at 22:44 as there was no “reply” link to that comment.

            I agree that the potential for national and international political relevancy is greatly influenced by the speed of economic decline. I personally think the decline will be extremely rapid once it starts in earnest, but I could be wrong. Many astute people, like yourself, believe it will be gradual.

            As an individual who takes a great deal of interest in the welfare of family and friends, I prefer to use worst-case scenarios in planning my responses to dangers we face. While there are plenty of very bad outcomes that are enhanced by slow disintegration (major war and pandemics are two examples), fast collapse has the potential of putting very large numbers of people, particularly those who live in modern cities, at risk of famine before there would be time to construct any kind of large scale collective response.

            So I just think that, as Greer put it, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”, is a prudent rule to follow. Even if descent is gradual, no harm is done to those who have prepared for overnight catastrophe. The same cannot be said for those who are not prepared and find that collapse is very rapid.

            Regardless of the speed of descent, the end result will be similar, a much lower energy economy and far fewer people on the planet. The real advantage to fast collapse will be that climate change will be less extreme, especially if it happens sooner rather than later. Not much of a silver lining after billions of premature deaths, but at least it’s something.

  15. Alex/Vera

    Thanks for that – a very interesting set of geopolitical examples, and the issue of left-wing nationalism in Scotland and Wales is certainly intriguing and something I’d like to ponder.

    Perhaps the key issue here is the nature of the modern state, and its relationship to the ‘nation’. I think the waters get muddied because ‘nation’ refers to a diffuse cultural community whereas ‘nationalism’ in my usage is a modern ideology of the would-be nation-state. My feeling is that, yes, culture, localism, love of home are important sources of identity, but we tend to fall into the nationalist trap of linking them to a monadic political state, largely because nationalist ideologies have been so successful at making those connections for us and eliminating other possibilities for so long (the Austria-Hungary example is especially interesting in that context). For me, this is a problem in Kingsnorth’s (and also David Fleming’s) otherwise very interesting cultural criticism. Taking Vera’s earlier plea for pluralism, I’d say what we most need right now is some creative thinking about a pluralist state – and not a monadic nationalist one. Supposing a culture and local identity, supposing some kind of economy, supposing – to take Vera’s examples – a political order lacking globalism or neoliberalism, theocracy, fascism, neo-feudalism – what might a state look like? What would people want from it?

    More questions than answers. Sorry if that’s a cop-out. I’m planning to write some more about it pretty soon, because I think the question is absolutely key. Though, as with most things, I’m not sure I have many satisfactory answers.

    • For me, this is a problem in Kingsnorth’s (and also David Fleming’s) otherwise very interesting cultural criticism.

      Hah! I’m reading Fleming’s lean logic and have just, this very morning got to “N-for-Nation”. Are you planning to comment further about the book?

      • Yes, I’ve got a review of it coming out in the next issue of The Land magazine, and I’ll publish a slightly longer version of the review on this blog once the magazine is published.

    • Another interesting turn of events is the Kurdish dilemma. Just reading up on what seems to be a push to create a Kurdish state out of 4 regions that are currently contained in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Doable? Probably not. Turkey and Iran are bound to refuse to go along. Turkey would lose a huge chunk of its territory, and Erdogan seems to have taken the megalomania route.

      Maybe it’s time for us to consider federalism seriously. True federalism. In America, the totalizers have forced a retreat from federalism throughout the life of the republic. In my other neck of the woods, phony federalism brought about the break off of Slovakia. And it may yet bring about the break off of Scotland, all those false promises of devo-max. The PTB promise devolution, and don’t deliver. Catalonia too. All this strife… I have been in the past a big fan of devolution, but after closely watching the Scottish dilemmas unfold, I am not sure anymore. Breaking up can resolve some long standing conflicts, but it weakens the political units and can presage new, ever worse conflicts (as the break up of Austria-Hungary showed).

      If Kurds in all those countries could get true federalism-type independence… hm. In any case, I think it’s time to revisit the whole centralization paradigm. It’s never been healthy in any political unit I know. Robbing the hinterlands not only of resources but also talent, and creating megacities that fester. What if the Peasant Republic of Wessex were to be still part of Britain, but as an independent, self-determining part? If I recall correctly, the vision JMG presented of his Lakeland Republic gave the counties the complete right to determine how much development they wanted. Maybe not a bad direction, this.

  16. Chris:
    In a reply to Malcom above
    ( your point #2 is confusing me. Granted, that isn’t a difficult thing to accomplish. But if you can squeeze some time from your busy schedule I’m wondering if you could clear something up for me. On the one hand you appear willing to delegate to economists and lawyers to set the rules. Then you seem unwilling to accept the rules once set. There is the matter of “political contestations”, and this may be where my brain goes off the rails.

    Perhaps my question becomes – where do you, Chris Smaje, citizen of the world and pro-peasant social theorist imagine your own personal responsibility for participation lies?

    • Clem, I guess my thinking is that there aren’t any perfect rules, and that rules often have unintended consequences – particularly if they’re implemented by people who haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the issue in detail (perhaps your recent post on the ACA identifies an example – incidentally, has John Michael Greer written on the ACA…I’d have thought it might complicate his class analysis of Trump’s support?) Another example: a financial transaction tax strikes me as a pretty good idea, but if I understand him rightly Malcolm thinks otherwise. He may have some good technical reasons for that, which I haven’t thought of. My feeling is that the financialisation of capital investment is a bad idea and should be limited politically, but there are different ways to do that and I think various experts would have a better handle than me on what their pros and cons are. I’d be happy for them to bring forward detailed options and draft some potential rules – then I think the decision needs to be made politically, currently by those who have become known on this blog post as ‘our elected representatives’. I’m not sure that’s really what’s happening at the moment, however, which perhaps is one reason for the current animus against the EU, the Washington ‘swamp’ etc.

      More broadly, I wish I knew where my personal responsibility for participation lies. I doubt I’ll ever renege on a commitment to participatory democracy, but as per the post and discussion above I think the likelihood of radical change emerging from that route is increasingly low. So where else, does my responsibility lie? I don’t know. The only thing I can really think of is participating in the kind of civil society debates and activism that might slowly help to foment some different ways of going about things from the ground up. It’s a long haul, but there you go. Oh, hang on – I’ve got it! I think I’ll start a blog…

      • Thanks for this Chris.

        A transaction tax for financial transactions makes sense to me. Here in the U.S. we have sales taxes for most purchases. Buy a book, pay a tax. Buy a vehicle, pay a tax. Buy a thousand shares in Company X… nothing. So if I make a living hauling things from point A to point B and I need a truck to do so – I get taxed just to obtain the means of making my business. If I make a living as a day trader I can obtain the means of making my business tax free.

        So if Malcolm thinks this is wrong somehow, I’d call on him for some enlightenment. [given my previous comment here in reply to him I’d already be posed to imagine the wealthy will find some way to game the system… but hey, until they do].

        Your reference to the ACA I posted on recently… I was more concerned about how districts are drawn here (and gerrymandered to such gross distortion as to be hilarious if it weren’t leading to gross distortions in representation). But thanks for the mention. I’ll expect the major media will be calling now 🙂

        And finally, I really liked the last paragraph. Liked it so much I’d guess hidden in the last sentence is a rationale for my own starting a blog.

        • “So if Malcolm thinks this is wrong somehow, I’d call on him for some enlightenment.”

          I don’t remember saying anything about financial transaction taxes specifically but I certainly have doubts that they would be wise or useful in a fundamentally healthy system. Basically, my attitude is that, if you’re looking to use a tax for redistribution, then there’s an underlying flaw which needs to be understood.

          My primary focus is on society’s foundations and the changes needed there – changes that would alter the behaviour of the whole system in ways which are difficult to predict. And, as I said in a previous comment, I don’t think we should try to pre-empt anticipated problems which wouldn’t in fact materialise in the changed environment.

          At the foundation level, the basic definition of rights is critical to how resources are allocated and how they circulate. If society defines rights to land in a way that makes cross-generation accumulation of land holdings possible, that causes huge problems which distort people’s behaviour in all sorts of ways and create a need for all sorts of mitigating processes. If we fix the underlying problem then the need for those mitigating processes will hopefully disappear.

          Similarly, with the monetary system, if we define money in a way which makes it possible for people to hoard the medium of exchange, then that causes all kinds of behaviour which wouldn’t happen in a healthier system.

          For me, there are a number of essentially distinct spheres: for example, there’s how we regulate debt relationships between private individuals, and between individuals and the state (the monetary system); then there’s how we determine who gets to use what natural resources (land law primarily); and there’s how the contributions we expect everyone to make, to society at large, should be matched to what the state needs in order to fulfil its function (the tax system).

          Although they inevitably overlap to some extent through the monetary system, I think we should aim to keep resource allocation separate from paying for government. Otherwise I think there’s a greatly increased danger that both functions will be compromised. Tax, for me, is essentially a transfer of value from private individuals to the state, so I think it should only be levied in order to pay for government.

  17. So folks, I had a major epiphany yesterday. It was triggered by the Kurdistan dilemma, further prompting reflection on Czech history. And I must give thanks where thanks are due — to you, Chris, for holding out with your discomfort regarding nationalism married to the state. I have changed my mind.

    Overnight, I have become the supporter of something I call “deep federalism,” basically defined as a more profound elaboration of the Swiss canton model, where more of a balance against ‘centralization creep’ can be built in. More of a balance of power between center and periphery, perhaps accomplished by the option to secede in case the central govt forgets its mandate. Likely a small supermajority would be needed. In any case, deepening regional self-rule while still giving to caesar his due.

    Just this morning, in one of the forums hang out in, I witnessed the pretty extreme exchange of some Turk & Turkish Kurd participants.Yikes! This sort of hatred cannot be resolved by American et al nation building efforts which in any case always seem to make things worse. But pressure could be put on Erdogan to concede more autonomy to the Kurds and so diffuse their anger and their grudges. Same with Assad where Russians already have expressed support for Rojava. Uniting Rojava and Iraqi Kurds seems stupid, as that area is much more crazy in the sense that those Kurds, at least in the moment, at in the despotic mood. But if Rojava gets to officially institute the democratic and women-friendly system they already have in place, and if they do well, (and it would be in the interest of both US and Russia that they indeed do well) then Rojava would become the template for the whole of Kurdistan which already exists anyway as a cultural/ethnic sphere. And the Kurds would have the added benefit of having 4 different takes on what it means to be an independent Kurd. Plurality/diversity rather than totality!

    I was so into ethnic nationalism because that’s what I grew up in. But this nationalism was only put into place by purging the Jews (the Nazis) and purging ethnic Germans (post-war power politics approved in London). Originally, Czechoslovakia was a multi-ethnic state, but with Czech historical grudges predominating, the Czechs coming in with the Clinton line: “It’s our turn!” We get to be da boss now after hundreds of years of insults! — predictably, this created new grudges. And a turn of the German-speakers toward Hitler. And so the merry-go-round turned.

    I also bought the accepted truism that the reason many African countries don’t “work” is that the state lines were artificially drawn in ignorance of the various ethnic affiliations. I think now that’s bunk. State boundaries are always artificial, and some toes will always be crossed. The question is, do all participants in that political unit get started as respected equals, or does the largest minority dictate to all others?

    Am I having fun or what? Will leave this to ferment some more. Cheers! 🙂

  18. I think the angels will keep dancing as long as people keep trying to count them.

    “You seem to hold that everyone agrees on the basic normative principles that should govern society”

    No, Chris, of course I don’t think that. However, I do recognise that the people whose job it is to adjudicate in disputes have a practical need for some consistent way of determining what the basic normative principles are. Because of that need, our society, like other societies around the world, has arrived at a set of imperfect working principles that there are broad agreement on.

    You talk of an ‘unacknowledged theory of power’ in my thinking but, as far as I can see, you don’t appreciate how much our world has been shaped by the the wholly practical requirements of exercising power. An important part of that is the feedback between the law and people’s expectations; the need for certainty about how courts will settle disputes has meant that arbitrary rules have often been regarded as better than none.

    That’s how a great deal of our Common Law emerged, through courts adopting rules that they knew were imperfect but felt were good enough for now – kicking the can down the road, leaving it to future generations to work out better ones. But, once a rule has been established, who has authority to say that it should be changed?

    Well, the courts did debate that one, seriously questioning whether, once a rule had been established, they themselves had any power to overturn it. They eventually decided it would be silly if they couldn’t correct their own mistakes and gave themselves the power to change laws they had established themselves – but not laws that came from above.

    “But who is this ‘we’? What are ‘our’ purposes?”

    Those are very good questions, Chris – questions of great practical importance to the courts.

    But it would be a huge waste of time for them to explore those questions in depth in every single dispute that they have to arbitrate on. So, many centuries ago, they arrived at some rough and ready answers. In Britain, for practical purposes, ‘we’ are the people, as represented by Parliament, and ‘our’ purposes are whatever Parliament state them to be through ‘Acts of Parliament’ produced in accordance with a particular formalised process.

    Those are, as I said, just rough and ready answers but, unfortunately, the business of settling disputes can’t wait until the philosophers have come up with perfect ones. So those answers are the ones which determine how we, as a society, settle the practical questions of who has what rights over which bits of property.

    A bizarre result is that well-intentioned Parliaments have sometimes decided to tidy up the tangled web of rules which make up the common law. They’ve done that by taking existing rules (the somewhat arbitrary ones that courts have come up with in previous generations), getting rid of the most obvious inconsistencies between them and codifying them into an Act of Parliament – thereby changing their status from common law (which courts can change, if they recognise them as being wrong) to statute law (which the courts are bound to administer as is, until it is changed by Parliament). “There”, they said, “we won’t need to deal with that problem now for a long time” (thanks for that line, Clem).

    Theories of power undoubtedly have their place but, unless they take into account the vagaries of how the world works in practice, they’re more likely to mislead us than help us understand.

    “… a principle like equality of opportunity […] admits to far too many varied interpretations to form the basis of […] a law”

    That’s just not the case, Chris. The draft clauses in my coherent law proposal would establish a requirement for law to be compatible, where possible, with uncontroversial principles; and they lay out various possibilities for cases where the courts decide that requirement is violated. Judges would be perfectly capable of making that decision. It’s the sort of judgement they have to make all the time. (They’re also well used to hearing and rejecting spurious arguments.)

    You give an example of an area where lawmakers would find it very hard to decide what would best satisfy the principle of equality of opportunity, and you point out that there are a great many areas where that would be true. Sure. But that’s irrelevant.

    What I’m looking at is the situation where a court a) recognises that a particular principle is genuinely uncontroversial, b) agrees that existing law violates it and c) is presented with an alternative law which fulfils the essential purpose of the existing one but is compatible with the principle in question. The fact that there are many, many situations where those three conditions couldn’t be satisfied doesn’t change the fact that there are important situations where they could.

    I’m fairly sure the courts would regard equality of opportunity as an uncontroversial principle. I’m equally sure they would agree that existing inheritance law violates it. That’s a and b satisfied. I’m less sure that my proposed reforms would satisfy them but I think they’d have a very hard time finding reasons to reject them.

    I don’t know how many other laws would also fall foul of that requirement for coherent law (quite a few, I suspect) but that one on its own is so fundamental that it could transform the whole economic landscape. Currently, however, there is no requirement for law to be coherent. And, yes indeed, under our existing constitutional settlement, vested interests will almost certainly prevent one being brought in.

    ” I’m not convinced there’s any more appetite among your target groups for engaging with ideas of spontaneous democracy or local autonomy than there is in engaging with ideas of class and power”

    That’s something we can agree on. But my ideas on spontaneous democracy and local autonomy translate into relatively simple reform proposals, which would obviously significantly change the way power works. So there’s something simple that people can vote on, whether they’re interested in engaging with the ideas or not. I’m not sure that’s the case with your ideas on class and power.

    “I think you’ll find implementing them harder going than you suppose”

    I doubt it. I’m not doing this with any great expectation that it will succeed. I’m just doing it because I think somebody has to.

    • Malcolm, it is true that perfect equality of opportunity clashes with inheritance. But my impression is that people will defend their right to pass onto their relations what they have worked for to earn and gather during their lifetime, and that this is not only reasonable, but in accord with how cirtters in ecologies behave. Among critters, your kin comes first. This serves evolution. If you fight this, you’ll lose.

      On the other hand, there are the unearned bits. “Rents.” And rightly, many people have spoken against rentiers and for reform. Henry George only one amongst many. Trouble is, power politics seem to always find a way to scuttle meaningful changes. I myself would support a huge change in this area. I hope though that what is eventually tried diverges from the usual heavy hand of expropriation and rather focuses on how to give value for value.

      And then there is land. Land is obviously unearned, and cannot be earned, though the price put on land can be. This whole thing is a can of worms, and I have spent a fair amount of time trying to find a way to pass on land not to relatives, but to those who will protect it in perpetuity. I have not yet found the legal vehicle for it. I think that deep changes in this area would also be welcome. I know farmers who know if they pass their beloved farm to their city kids, the farm will be sold to the highest bidder and probably destroyed by development. They would welcome another pattern. There are very few lawyers here in the States who are familiar with land trusts and alternative modes of land ownership. And each state handles things differently. It would take a major push to develop something original, that would serve to safeguard land into the future. A major joint effort. In my understanding, land trusts as they stand at the moment do not serve this need. I am reading Berry and he has mentioned a family in Pennsylvania that has been working on developing some such legal vehicle to pass on their forest holdings. I think it goes beyond the efforts of one person or one family.

      I firmly believe that land cannot be and should not be “owned.” That access to it should only be privatized at a cost (per georgist land fee) and that it can only be held in trust for future generations of people and critters.

      • I like lots of the points here Vera.

        There are a couple mechanisms being tried to safeguard land. The Nature Conservancy actually goes the capitalist route and raises money to purchase land. I believe they’ve even taken on international efforts. The American Farmland Trust is very engaged in preserving farmland in the U.S. [a simple search on either of these will lead to more detail – but if that fails, let me know and I can point to resources].

        Zoning and easements can also be employed to protect specific pieces of land from certain types of development. I can point to a small handful of examples where these tools have been employed within a few dozen miles of me.

        I’ve heard of selling off development rights – somewhat akin to selling off mineral rights I believe; but I don’t know of specifics. Sounds like a poison pill idea to me.

        And if you have a minute Vera – would you point to the specific Berry piece that discusses the family effort in Pennsylvania? It sounds interesting.

        • Thank you, Clem. There was a large effort up in Hudson Valley with some group buying development rights on behalf of farmers, in NY state. Not sure how it’s worked out in the long run. There seemed to be a good buzz about it then, they basically allowed the farms to continue as farms despite lucrative offers being floated in the area, and farms disappearing.

          Will look into American Farmland. Nature Conservancy protects land it buys (like ranches, etc.) for wilderness. Have not heard of them preserving farmland as farmland, have you?

          The family Berry mentions several times in his essays is Firth (Firth Maple Products; Troy Firth) near Spartansburg. He is a horse logger who has a large forest holding, and also does horse logging for others in the area. When Berry wrote Our Only World (2015) the family was working on coming up with a new legal structure, but that’s really all Berry says. It sounds like they are a tenacious bunch, so maybe by now, they have something. If you find out more, would you let us know? The essay where he describes Troy’s forest stewardship extensively is called A Forest Conversation, and may be somewhere online, I haven’t looked.

      • “my impression is that people will defend their right to pass onto their relations what they have worked for to earn and gather during their lifetime, and that this is not only reasonable, but in accord with how cirtters in ecologies behave”

        Yes, that’s my impression too, Vera – and also my own instinct (even though I don’t have children) – and that’s part of why I think people should be able to pass on chattels without taxation.

        I am also well aware of the instinct that says ‘I bought this land, I should be able to pass it on to whoever I please’. But if we can get people to look at the numbers … well, which would you choose? For your children to inherit what you leave them (and no more) while Trump’s children inherit what he leaves (and no less)? Or for all those children, yours and his, to inherit equal shares of the combined estates?

        From what I’ve read, most people both hugely underestimate how skewed distributions of wealth actually are currently, and tend to overestimate their own position on the spectrum. The very poorest do know that they’re at the bottom, but for the ones in the middle it’s not nearly so clear – they are constantly reminded of others being poorer (because they live among them) but they only see the super-rich in the pages of magazines. So a lot of people assume that their own children would lose from a fairer system, when in fact, for 85-90% of the population (in the UK and the US), their children would gain.

        Some of my own ideas have developed in answer to precisely the question you discuss: how can we take land out of the current system and develop a fairer one? Land trusts often try to tie land to a specific purpose, which I couldn’t see was a viable long-term strategy, so I envisaged a trust which would essentially allow a private market to operate, using the land credit system I’ve talked about. The market would only be open to people who covenanted to bequeath all their own wealth to the trust, which in turn would covenant to distribute it fairly among all its members.

        Obviously it would be very much harder to do as a voluntary private system than as a state-mandated one, which is partly why I’ve focused on the route of trying to change the law. The other reason, though, has been not knowing how to connect with people who might be interested in a scheme like that. (And also, of course, the fact that there’d be an awful lot of detail to work out … which is a lot of effort if nobody’s interested … which many people won’t be until a lot of the detail has been worked out …)

        I’ve never really understood objections to the idea of land being ‘owned’. To me, it’s just a word, with a range of meanings, which in this context simply defines rights that individual humans have relative to other humans. I’ve never felt that the word itself implies anything about our spiritual relationship with the land, or about humans’ rights relative to faeral rights. And I don’t see the fact that humans routinely ignore the rights of the wild as having much to do with the language we use. (Are you familiar with the Wild Law movement?)

        Even as a purely intra-human thing … well, we all talk about individuals owning the land itself but the technical position in the UK is that the Crown ‘owns’ all the land, and individuals merely own ‘an estate in land’, i.e. a bundle of rights. But the Crown’s ‘ownership’ is itself nothing more than a declaration of a bundle off rights – in particular, the right to arbitrate between the humans living within its domain.

  19. Just want to say that I’m short of time to contribute much further to the debate, but I really appreciate Malcolm, Vera and others for using SFF as a sounding board for these ideas – it’s the kind of thing that makes this site feel worth doing.

    On nationalism I’ll say more in due course. I think deep federalism holds promise.

    On landownership, I hope this debate keeps running – it’s a really crucial one, I think. I hope to come back to it in the future.

    A few concluding thoughts on the discussion with Malcolm:

    “You don’t appreciate how much our world has been shaped by the the wholly practical requirements of exercising power”. Malcolm, I think that’s possibly true to a degree, and your project seems to me a very worthwhile attempt to exploit the potential of the law in positive ways. On the other hand, I’d argue that the requirements of exercising power are never ‘wholly practical’.

    I guess we’re seeing before us at the moment an interesting example of the tensions, differences and overlaps between law, class and power in the US. Trump got elected, I’d argue, because he found a way of gaining class support in a way that, say, Romney (and of course Hilary Clinton) didn’t. But part of that class support derived from his promises to take on the sources of economic and political power – promises that I think will prove impossible to keep. Meanwhile, his programme is getting tangled up in all sorts of legal difficulties, as a result of opponents invoking various widely agreed matters of principle enshrined in the law. There’s no doubt that the law possesses strong conditioning agency, but ultimately I see social identities (class, nation etc) and political-economic power as far stronger historical forces – ultimately, the law is going to fall in behind where the battles over power and identity go, and the ‘uncontroversial principles’ of today (or at least this century) won’t be the same as the ones tomorrow/next century. Talking about class and power may sound a bit old-school and leftist, but it’s not intrinsically either. I’d consider attempts to change the course our societies are taking that ignore or bracket those forces as basically doomed, though I still think the kind of things you’re trying to do seem well worth it within a larger such framework – exploiting, as it were, the relative autonomy of the law…so long as the limited character of the approach is recognised.

    On the notion of uncontroversial principles and the putative irrelevance of my examples concerning implementing equality of opportunity, we continue to disagree. I think you’re a bit too focused on what’s legally possible and coherent – a focus that certainly has its upside, but risks missing a good deal of what actually matters in the end. The education issue I raised is one example. Here’s another one, though I’m not sure if it helps make my point or only introduces further difficulties – but consider someone who tried to determine the nature of equality of opportunity in the USA today by looking solely at its laws. My guess is that they’d be hard pressed to find anything racially discriminatory in them and might thus conclude that racial inequality was a thing of the past. But then if they looked (for example) at infant mortality, they’d find that black rates were currently more than double white rates. That’s not an argument against legal reform. But maybe it is an argument about the importance of class and power, and the limits of legal reform. Perhaps you could argue that this is a case for your (c) of finding a better law – but that’s exactly where it gets tricky, where the class and power issues will start to bite, and where I find it hard to see the issue as a predominantly legal one of formulating laws that are more consistent with ‘genuinely uncontroversial principles’. I’d guess that equality of opportunity not to die before you’re 1 ought to be fairly uncontroversial, at any rate…

  20. Just want to say that I’m short of time to contribute much further to the debate, but I really appreciate Malcolm, Vera and others for using SFF as a sounding board for these ideas – it’s the kind of thing that makes this site feel worth doing.

    On nationalism I’ll say more in due course. I think deep federalism holds promise.

    On landownership, I hope this debate keeps running – it’s a really crucial one, I think. I hope to come back to it in the future.

    A few concluding thoughts on the discussion with Malcolm:

    “You don’t appreciate how much our world has been shaped by the the wholly practical requirements of exercising power”. Malcolm, I think that’s possibly true to a degree, and your project seems to me a very worthwhile attempt to exploit the potential of the law in positive ways. On the other hand, I’d argue that the requirements of exercising power are never ‘wholly practical’.

    I guess we’re seeing before us at the moment an interesting example of the tensions, differences and overlaps between law, class and power in the US. Trump got elected, I’d argue, because he found a way of gaining class support in a way that, say, Romney (and of course Hilary Clinton) didn’t. But part of that class support derived from his promises to take on the sources of economic and political power – promises that I think will prove impossible to keep. Meanwhile, his programme is getting tangled up in all sorts of legal difficulties, as a result of opponents invoking various widely agreed matters of principle enshrined in the law. There’s no doubt that the law possesses strong conditioning agency, but ultimately I see social identities (class, nation etc) and political-economic power as far stronger historical forces – ultimately, the law is going to fall in behind where the battles over power and identity go, and the ‘uncontroversial principles’ of today (or at least this century) won’t be the same as the ones tomorrow/next century. Talking about class and power may sound a bit old-school and leftist, but it’s not intrinsically either. I’d consider attempts to change the course our societies are taking that ignore or bracket those forces as basically doomed, though I still think the kind of things you’re trying to do seem well worth it within a larger such framework – exploiting, as it were, the relative autonomy of the law…so long as the limited character of the approach is recognised.

    On the notion of uncontroversial principles and the putative irrelevance of my examples concerning implementing equality of opportunity, we continue to disagree. I think you’re a bit too focused on what’s legally possible and coherent – a focus that certainly has its upside, but risks missing a good deal of what actually matters in the end. The education issue I raised is one example. Here’s another one, though I’m not sure if it helps make my point or only introduces further difficulties – but consider someone who tried to determine the nature of equality of opportunity in the USA today by looking solely at its laws. My guess is that they’d be hard pressed to find anything racially discriminatory in them and might thus conclude that racial inequality was a thing of the past. But then if they looked (for example) at infant mortality, they’d find that black rates were currently more than double white rates. That’s not an argument against legal reform. But maybe it is an argument about the importance of class and power, and the limits of legal reform. Perhaps you could argue that this is a case for your (c) of finding a better law – but that’s exactly where it gets tricky, where the class and power issues will start to bite, and where I find it hard to see the issue as a predominantly legal one of formulating laws that are more consistent with ‘genuinely uncontroversial principles’. I’d guess that equality of opportunity not to die before you’re 1 ought to be fairly uncontroversial, at any rate…

    • I’m glad you’ve found it worthwhile, Chris. I suspect there isn’t actually any real disagreement between us, just misunderstanding.

      “I’d argue that the requirements of exercising power are never ‘wholly practical’.”

      Well, if you want to argue that, you’ll have to do it with someone else! I totally agree. My position is simply that some of the requirements of exercising power are wholly practical, and those wholly practical requirements have had a huge influence in shaping how society has developed.

      “ultimately, the law is going to fall in behind where the battles over power and identity go”

      I agree that ultimately the law will reflect the victories over power and identity. But ‘fall in behind’? That’s not how it currently works – and that’s actually what my coherent law proposal is designed to correct.

      Andrew said above that ‘social structures […] do not simply persist through inertia [they] have to be constantly recreated’. But laws do persist through inertia. Once something has been written into statute, it remains law until the legislature actively changes it. And it is past battles over power and identity which have made it so.

      Between them, Parliament and the courts have agreed that, in Britain, Parliament is supreme. Once Parliament states something to be law, the courts cannot overrule it. In other words, the legal sphere is totally subordinate to the political. But that puts an onus on people in the political sphere to understand the technicalities, and ramifications, of law – which they are often not well equipped to do, by knowledge or temperament, and sometimes prefer not to do, to avoid upsetting their own supporters.

      The process I described previously – where judge-made law was tidied up by Parliament – had the effect of setting some areas of law in stone. Previously, while it was common law, the courts could amend it themselves and then it would indeed ‘fall in behind’ the politics. But once it was turned into statute law … well, that meant it’s up to the politicians to amend it.

      So what happens when apparently reasonable legislation is in fact unfair, creating inequality which only becomes clear with analysis? What happens when the beneficiaries of the unfairness are easily identified, and may be well organised, but the losers are dispersed and may not understand their loss. In those circumstances, legislators can easily neglect putting the law right; if reform would upset an identifiable group, politicians have no incentive to tackle it unless the public are agitating about it. The battles over equality of opportunity may have been won but, without a mechanism for the law to ‘fall in behind’, a whole new set of battles have to be fought over individual laws.

      What I’m pointing to with this argument is a flaw in the legislative process, a distortion of the balance of power and responsibility between Parliament and courts. That’s what my coherent law proposal is intended to correct – and it’s a reform which is very much rooted in the broader framework of political-economic power that you mention.

      It may have seemed from this thread that I’m too focused on what’s legally possible and coherent but, as I said previously, land reform isn’t explicitly part of my manifesto, and my coherent law proposal is just one of seven reforms I’m pushing – the rest of which are all concerned with how power is distributed (including how it is distributed between different levels of government).

      “On the notion of uncontroversial principles and the putative irrelevance of my examples concerning implementing equality of opportunity”

      I feel here as though I’ve been, as it were, describing a system for automatically putting a shot of water/starter fertiliser under vegetable seedlings as they’re being transplanted, and you’ve been objecting that equipment like that wouldn’t be any help at all in pruning fruit trees.

      As you said previously, “I don’t think that there’s a single legislative key to a just politico-economic system – there are many different related elements constituting the whole”. That means, when we are looking for solutions to one element of the problem, we don’t need to worry about all the other elements. I’ve been describing a possible solution to one of the principal causes of inequality; the fact that it won’t help in solving other issues (issues which may indeed be relevant to inequality in other ways) is … well, irrelevant.

      Hopefully the angels can stop dancing now, while Clem points out the devils.

      • “Andrew said above that ‘social structures […] do not simply persist through inertia [they] have to be constantly recreated’. But laws do persist through inertia. Once something has been written into statute, it remains law until the legislature actively changes it.”

        I can’t argue with the last sentence Malcolm, but that wasn’t really what I meant. It doesn’t matter how long a law sits around on the statute book – if it’s not used, it’s irrelevant. If it is used, then it’s recreating/transforming the social structure of which it forms a part. Every time it’s used in court it reproduces or revises the relationships between the people concerned, and the people and the situations that prompted the use of the law are different in each case. Moreover, there might be many situations in which a given law could usefully be used but isn’t, because the people concerned don’t have sufficient legal knowledge, or don’t have the resources to acquire a lawyer to act for them; likewise, those that do have such resources might use a law against its spirit but nevertheless with ‘the letter’ of it. The point I was trying to make was that the wealthy often actively use resources, in this case laws, to protect or promote their own interests; they don’t acquire and maintain that wealth passively through some sort of natural process because of the mere existence of laws that are favourable to them.

        This might all seem academic, but it has important implications. For example, allowing a person to treat farmland as private property during their lifetime, even (or especially) if it then goes back into a pot on their death, might encourage them to use it to generate movable wealth for themselves, which I think your scheme allows them to pass on (as chattels), regardless of ecological or social considerations. I’m sure you would hedge it all around with legal safeguards, but the point is that those with more resources would be able to challenge such legal niceties. I think others have already made a similar point with the idea of ‘gaming’ the system.

        I realise your abolition of landed inheritance is intended to treat land more like a public good, held in trust, and I find your project very interesting, but personally I do think that land needs to be treated as a public good during the lifetime of the holder, not just at its end. As I’ve said before, only neo-peasant holders should get to use their land privately, because they’re supporting only themselves (more or less).Anything larger needs to be managed publicly, and I like Vera’s comments on managing land in co-ops; the farmer/s would then have the character of delegated public servants.

        • “the wealthy often actively use resources, in this case laws, to protect or promote their own interests; they don’t acquire and maintain that wealth passively through some sort of natural process because of the mere existence of laws that are favourable to them”

          The wealthy certainly do use the law actively to further their own interests, but I think the second part of your sentence is highly dubious. When an investment banker inherits farm land with a third generation tenant farmer, do you really see him as actively maintaining his wealth? Even if a tenant leaves and a landlord needs to find another one, sure, he has to be a little bit active but …

          I don’t generally like iceberg analogies but, on the broader question of the role of law, I can’t resist one. Legal disputes (including the ones that never get anywhere near a court) are only the visible tip of the law. The greater part of its influence lies in defining how the normal processes of living operate. Law is part of the social landscape and, because it’s right under our feet, it’s easy to overlook how fundamental it is.

          “those with more resources would be able to challenge such legal niceties”

          I see Chris’s latest post reinforces this concern over the wealthy using their power to game the system, but I don’t see it being a real problem in a reformed system.

          Remember, we’re trying to envisage how a healthy society would function. A key factor in that is ensuring that it’s economically fairly equal, by eliminating features which encourage huge disparites in wealth to build up. If we do that then, once we’re past the transition period (when additional processes will be needed), we won’t need to be concerned about a lot of the specific distortions which currently happen.

          Basically, healthy systems are more robust than diseased ones, and aren’t affected by factors which debilitate weaker ones. A more-or-less equal society won’t need to be concerned about disparities in wealth in the way we are today. It will need to be concerned about major disparities building up, but it won’t need to integrate defences against them into its day-to-day operation.

          So, if you find yourself thinking ‘the wealthy will be able to …’, you need to ask ‘how, in an essentially equal system, could people become unhealthily wealthy?’.

          “only neo-peasant holders should get to use their land privately, because they’re supporting only themselves”

          Yes, I agree. As I said to Vera, my proposals would treat owners of agricultural land as trustees for the public at large. Co-ops are one way to implement that but I think there are a variety of other ways in which it could work satisfactorily, and different systems might suit different temperaments of farmer and consumer.

          My focus is on the process of allocation – how we decide who gets what rights over which bits of land – and a key consideration has always been that there must be some way for would-be neo-peasants to claim land for themselves. That’s why my proposed reforms include an absolute right to land, which goes beyond the land credit scheme (though, once that scheme was fully operational, I doubt the extra measures would ever be needed).

  21. I have to confess I’m still struggling to figure out how Malcolm’s land auction concept is going to change anything in the end. Here I continue the thread from above at comment 107792:

    And further, I have to confess I’m only familiar with how the U.S. land market works (actually I may even have this all buggered… but at least I participate in it). But back to the question – land is not entirely a fixed asset in the sense that none is created or lost. Gold might serve as comparison. More gold can be mined to increase the stock, while some gold goes out of the market as folk are buried with gold fillings or jewelry. Both the gains and losses are rather slow (or small) relative the known reserves in banks or circulation. Gold as a reserve currency has a well-known economic trajectory (and legacy). Land can be developed or modified from one form to another. It can be wasted or eroded, and likewise can be recovered from spoilage. But like gold, the rates of increase and loss in land are relatively small compared to the overall stock in trade. Biggest difference between the two?… you can’t grow a carrot on a bar of bullion. So I do see the difference Malcolm makes between productive assets and nonproductive ones.

    Where I’m struggling is in connecting the market dynamics with the proposed change(s). Perhaps this is a scale question. If the farmer in question has a very significant land holding – tens of thousands of acres in Midwestern U.S. circumstances then there might be a play for Malcolm’s scheme. But with a smaller holding (400 to 500 acres for instance) I think it will be difficult to affect much change. Would there be no intra-party land sales allowed?

    There is a different sort of land holding market developing in the U.S. and it isn’t too extremely different from some of the land grabbing going on in other parts of the world. REITs (real estate investment trusts) are monetized structures – essentially stock companies that pool lots of capital to invest in farm assets. This is perfectly legal within current market systems here in the U.S. (so no political effort is needed to put it in place – indeed a political effort would be required to prevent it). REITs (and there are already a handful I’m aware of) will operate in their own ways, but many will lease the land they’ve acquired to farmers who essentially become wage laborers (depending on lease terms). REITs appear to be ugly to some, and clever to others. The land grabs mentioned above – where a country such as Ethiopia enters a very long term lease arrangement with a (usually) foreign entity having very deep pockets (something akin to a U.S. REIT). If you are a pastoralist Ethiopian native scraping out a living on a parcel (a parcel that is not private) that is rolled into one of these leases you are displaced… that’s ugly. If the direct foreign investment (in the lease) is used to help improve your future prospects… that’s better. As always, the devil’s in the details.

    • There’s no real difficulty with intra-party land sales, Clem – but the transaction would have to be in land credits, through a regulated exchange. So, if the deal between the two parties involved swapping other assets, their value would have to be translated into land credits. I think that’s not too different to the situation today in the UK where, I believe, the Land Registry always records the value of the transaction in sterling, even though payment might have been made in shares or whatever.

      Land is not entirely a fixed asset, as you say, though the things you mention don’t change the amount of it; they merely change its value relative to other bits of land. The only changes which could be said to increase or decrease the amount of it are projects to build sea walls and drain the newly-enclosed area, and coastal erosion. Though, in legal terms, even they probably don’t, because ‘land’ includes the sea-bed out to some distance (as well as rivers and lake, etc).

      As for the the changes it would bring, let’s go back to your example of the family with a 50 acre farm and four heirs. If the four heirs only have an allocation equivalent to two acres each, there must be another twenty-one people who would not inherit anything under the current system, but will now each inherit land credits to the value of two acres.

      So let’s look at the different ways that plays out under the two systems (treating it as a microcosm). Under the current system, the four heirs will inherit the whole 50 acres, meaning that they have the means to sustain themselves – plus the means to feed the others. The twenty-one, however, are unable to even subsist without food from the four farmers, food which the farmers have no obligation to provide them with. Basically, the landless are entirely subservient to those who control the land, so the farmers can demand as much as they please in payment, constrained only by the possibility of a violent uprising.

      Okay, I hear hollow laughter coming from the farming community at the thought of them having so much power. That’s largely because of the additional factor that your paragraph about REITS is about (though also because a similar dynamic is at play in the investment-dominated market between farmer and consumer). Land, under the current system, is the ultimate store of wealth; what else is there that will be there forever, that is not being made any more, that no thief can pick up and walk away with, and that nobody can live without? Land is unique. As a result, its market price is driven by its value as an investment and it changes hands for much more than just its productive value. That means there’s a constant temptation for small landowners to cash in on that.

      And what drives its price as an investment? Basically, people with a sense of dynasty, or people who feel that they will somehow live on through their descendants, will value more highly – sorry, be prepared to pay a higher price for – land they can bequeath, than people who are more centred in their own lives. If that tendency to think dynastically runs in families (which it seems to) and they tend to offer the highest prices then, under the present system, more and more land will come under their control, reinforcing its value as an investment. That’s the position we’re in now.

      If we effectively take away that power to bequeath land, then we take away the principal reason that it is the ultimate store of wealth. Its market price will then come to be driven by the productive use that can be made of it in a single lifetime. Which brings us back to the situation where the farmer is king.

      But if, at the same time, we are giving everyone a fair stake in the land market, then we’re also destroying the subservience of the landless. The four heirs are now obliged to come to an arrangement with the other twenty-one people, whereas under the current system they could effectively set their own terms. So, the farmer is no longer king, but becomes a service provider on equal terms with everybody else.

      It seems to me that’s quite a lot of change.

      • I think I may be getting a bit closer… but I’m still not there.

        Land, under the current system, is the ultimate store of wealth; what else is there that will be there forever, that is not being made any more, that no thief can pick up and walk away with, and that nobody can live without? Land is unique

        Water, at least water in bodies significant enough to be out of reach of thieves – these lessen land’s claim to “unique” in the manner you’ve defined. Thus aquaculture and fisheries maintenance fall into consideration here (seaweed harvest should be included as well). But I still take your meaning. Land and water are very significant resources.

        You point out reclaiming land from the sea, and others could point to reclaiming land from swamps and wetlands. I’m not a particular fan of either route and would push for means to save either approach until a last resort. What I had been thinking of earlier was the restoration of spoiled lands such as surface mine spoils, industrially degraded brown fields, abandoned city lots, and in surface settings that can be enriched through irrigation and/or other management practice allowing food production with a lighter touch (perhaps not sustainable to the end of time Ruben, but sufficient for the foreseeable future).

        So one of the things I see happening all the time in the current system of land tenure here in the US is the care afforded to owned land vs. rented land. Land held within a family tends to be better cared for. This is not always true, but the simple reasoning is that the family (longer term residents) will benefit from additional expense and effort expended to care for the soil. If one rents or leases property they have no longer term reward for better stewardship. Indeed this is my major gripe with REITs buying up farmland. To be fair to REIT entrepreneurs it is possible to compose lease arrangements so that good husbandry is kept in place (and it can also be argued that investors could employ better eyes to care for the land than are currently in place… and so I waffle about the true value of REITs).

        So it seems to me under your plan Malcolm, that as a land steward I have no incentive to improve the health and wellbeing of the soil beyond what I’ll need to scratch out a living for myself. I would invest more effort while young… but as I age I wouldn’t apply myself so diligently as there is no longer term reward for my effort.

        Allotment gardening is probably something more closely aligned with where I see your effort headed. There are gardens that are held by entities – local governments, NGOs, and even commercial property owners who lease allotments. And the operators for said allotments can make and enforce rules for the care of the soils.

        The notion of farmers as kings is hard for me to get my head around. I see the words on the screen, I follow the argument. But the reality I’ve come to know from more than 50 years of being and working with American farmers seems to give lie to the ultimate reality of it. When I hear of a dairy farmer dumping milk in protest I imagine someone whose insides are very twisted and their good will yanked out and trampled. Aspirations of kingship are not the cause.

        • I forgot to add another sign resulting from pride of ownership that might be lost or if not lost crippled under the plan Malcolm advocates. Here in North America Canadian Provinces and U.S. States recognize long term familial land tenure with century farm cognition. These local governments have made clear their appreciation for the value of this form of land tenure.

        • “So it seems to me under your plan Malcolm, that as a land steward I have no incentive to improve the health and wellbeing of the soil beyond what I’ll need to scratch out a living for myself”

          But under my plan, Clem, the heirs have first refusal on buying the farm and, when you consider how the changed market and inheritance regime would operate, it’s highly likely they’d be able to if they wanted.

          Bear in mind that the farm is not only land, it’s also a business (with a lot of chattels in the form of farm machinery). My proposals for inheritance stress the passing on of responsibility, and that would be reflected in any probate valuation (and a possible option is for nominated heirs to be able to buy at the same price as their predecessor – thereby inheriting the value of any improvements). And without the investment premium, the market price of bare land will rest on what potential buyers feel they can earn by working it, so my guess is that prices will fall hugely, relative to prices for non-land assets (such as farm machinery).

          Overall, my feeling is that nominated heirs mostly won’t have any trouble continuing to farm that land if they want to, so you’ll have as much incentive to be a good steward as you have today.

          Maybe even more. Vera mentioned the issue of farmers whose natural heirs aren’t interested in farming, and would merely sell their inheritance to the highest bidder. A system which gives the farmer responsibility for passing on stewardship, but allows the wealth component to be distributed by an impartial system, would perhaps increase the incentive for good stewardship.

          I can understand you struggling with my ‘farmer as king’ notion; it would only work in a world where people were unnaturally obedient to arbitrary laws. In practice, one of the twenty-one would organise the others into a mob, or ‘political party’, and tell the farmer what price he had to accept for his produce. Does that ring more true?

  22. Whew. I think I will have to reread this whole thread to get my head around what has gone by. Quite an education. Want to make a few last remarks.

    Chris, regarding redistribution. I am for the kind of redistribution exemplified by Chiang-kai-shek when he went to Taiwan. He had the army, he could have crushed the few families that owned all the land. But he didn’t. He offered them a stake in modernization. As I understand it, it was some sort of a bond program in exchange for the land, then given to the serfs (probably share croppers, not sure) that were already working it. The bonds were then used by the families to start businesses and industries. I like it because it does not vilify anybody, and recognizes value for value. Aggrandizers (acquisitive, ambitious, aggressive personalities) have value to offer to the commonwealth, and turning them into persecuted kulaks or evil capitalists serves no one. They just need to be watched closely, and have reasonable limits placed on their activities.

    As I understand, slavery was handled by Britain similarly by offering some compensation to the slave-owners. In America, that dream went up in smoke along with gazillion lives, lands devastated, and the promise of “40 acres and a mule” for slave families.

    I am not for taxing income at all. Here in America it was snuck through underhandedly, and it is probably unconstitutional. It goes counter to a basic ‘rule of thumb’ of taxation: what you tax, you get less of. Ergo, tax pollution, tax extraction of virgin resources. Not work or productive investment. The georgists propose that the govt should be run mostly by fees of various sorts.

    Oh and regarding the Kingsnorth article… what the heck happened to the lefties that they went from anti-globalism in the late 90s to “open borders” Soros et al financed globalism now? It boggles the mind. It’s like the left has become the new right.

    Malcolm, I think words matter. Talking about land as ownable is as wrong and misleading as talking about humans as ownable, and I don’t care if it’s “the Crown” or individuals or counties as here in the States (individuals lose their ownership if they fail to pay obeissance to the county in the form of property taxes). And I think land possession should be delegated to private holders by the local community only, where the — say a watershed — can be managed singly (privately, with strong protection from interference), AND along with, on some issues, jointly with the other neighboring “holders” in a coop similar to a fishery coop. I am retraining myself to think of a lot of resources from the point of view of Elinor Ostrom’s rules for managing the commons. I think only some such scheme can protect the health of the soil. It gives the land holder freedom to manage the land as they see best, with the additional stipulation that if the land holder damages the land by soil mining and water polluting practices, the nearby community will know and can act.

    • “I think land possession should be delegated to private holders by the local community only”

      Yes, essentially I agree, Vera – though I approach it from another angle. A key part of the reform I’m pushing is that ‘owners of all agricultural and industrial land are trustees for the public at large whose survival and well-being depends on them’ and, since one of my manifesto reforms is intended to entrench local autonomy, farmers’ performance as trustees would be overseen by the local community.

      That phrase, ‘land possession should be delegated to …’, carries within it some thorny questions. Which bits of land should be delegated to which particular holders? How do non-farmers decide who will make best use of it? Some process is needed which provides answers to those questions. And the phrase, ‘by the local community’, carries a few thorns, too. In practice, as far as I can see, community decisions tend to get delegated to individuals. That can work very well, but it can also lead to decisions being heavily influenced by personal rivalries. So local communities reactively overseeing how land is farmed is something I’m quite sure is needed but, in my view, local communities proactively choosing the people who are allowed to farm it is not such a good idea.

      In the current system, the rights that landholders and local communities have over land are defined in ways that all but guarantee inequality and environmental damage, and that needs to change. But, in principle, as long as the rights being traded are defined sensibly, markets provide a relatively simple mechanism by which those questions of delegation can be answered without interference from personal rivalries – and that’s what my land credits proposal is intended for.

      • Yes, Malcolm, quite. I did not mean to imply that people should not be able to sell or buy their farm without agreement from the local community. I think that’s overreach… let people sell and buy. And let each farm as best they can… but if their practices clearly ruin soil or water, then the local community needs to have a voice. Because such actions affects everybody, but especially the neighbors of such a farm.

        I remember driving through western Kansas in a heavy storm. The vast amounts of water — whole muddy rivers!– pouring off the fields which were unable to contain the water. Why the heck do we keep talking and talking… Berry writing about it for a lifetime, and others — yet the shitty practices continue?! It’s so distressing…

  23. Now Vera… I agree that words matter. But I don’t hold that land ownership is somehow the same as owning a fellow human. [BTW, does anyone know offhand if southern US slaveholders paid a property tax on their slaves?.. I’m doubtful, but…]

    And as a property tax payer in a county in the U.S. I don’t feel there’s any “obeisance” given over to the government by me (at least on this matter). The taxes for agricultural land here in Ohio are assessed at a lower rate than for residential property. One does need to annually certify the agricultural use to remain in the category (and the forms for this do start to teeter toward obeisance IMO) – but in exchange for the taxes paid someone from the county maintains the roads not maintained by other levels of government, maintains some ditches and other county commons (easements etc), provides one source of law enforcement, and holds up the county’s share of collaborations with other governmental authority. And as a property owner and tax payer I have political rights in the matter. You are correct that failing to pay property taxes can ultimately lead to one losing their property – but this occurs very rarely for agricultural land – the difference between the land value and the taxes being so extreme that only after the failure to pay taxes for a very long period does the difference in value slide some. The owner in this situation has essentially abandoned the land (and quite evidently abandoned the responsibility owed to the community for resources provided).

    If anything, I feel closer to the taxing authority in the county because these are local folk. If I need to, I can easily get in touch with them. If I’ve been a decent sort and have friends and acquaintances in the community who will go along with me on an issue it is likely to get rapid attention. Try doing that with Washington.

    Chris has written extensively here in the past about all the difficulties he faced dealing with Mendip Council for matters concerning his holding. And I feel for him in the matter; but I wonder if he’d trade that experience for something similar conducted in London?

    I guess a better way to approach the county government from my perspective is as a partner. The county does not own my land, but the county does own the responsibility to provide for the common peace. As a beneficiary of the peace I should help pay for it. And it makes sense to me that I should pay for my share. As a small(ish) holder I should pay something proportional to the size of the property within the overall district (and thus the degree of assistance received relative to other landholders in the county).

    • I quite agree with you, Clem. We all do need to pitch in with public services. I object to the heavy hand of the law, however, and I admire how Henry George would have handled it. He specified land use fees, not taxes. Land use fees are a payment for being able to alienate the land from the commons for private use, and the rates are in proportion to what other people are doing… improving roads in the area, for example. If you are far from the madding crowd, you pay little, regardless of your “improvements” but if — unearned by you — civilization encroaches and brings certain improvements into your area, you pay more. (It links to economic rents.) So rentiers end up paying more into the common kitty.

      I guess the difference to me is between a government who provides services and charges for them vs a government who says pay up what our arbitrary taxes say, or else. (Plus I think people ought to be able to decide how many of the dubious blessings of civilization they want to pay for.)

      And that reminds me… many people out there have said that absentee ownership of land should be right out. What do people say here? It seems to open a can of worms, and perhaps it’s right that it should have been part of the set up. Maybe the georgist land fees have something to say about it too, it’s been a while since I looked into it. After all, land use fees tie into usufruct. If you are not there using the land, maybe somebody else should be able to give it a whirl.

      • Thanks for clarifying the terminology Henry George used, Vera. I’ve always been put off by the idea of it as a tax.

        “if — unearned by you — civilization encroaches and brings certain improvements into your area, you pay more”

        I’ve never been comfortable with this aspect of his proposals. I think it risks adding insult to injury: not only do I have to put up with all these newcomers, with their ‘improvements’, destroying the remoteness I came here for, but I have to pay for it as well!

        I think it’s fair enough that, when a property is sold, any increase in the price that can be attributed to social factors should go to the community. But I think it should only apply at that time. As I see it, when you’re deciding to put down roots somewhere, there’s a need for a degree of certainty (not for everybody, perhaps, but for many people) on what living in that place will cost you. For that reason, I favour an option of purchasing land with a one-off payment, even though it adds significant complexity to my land credit scheme.

        “many people out there have said that absentee ownership of land should be right out. What do people say here?”

        I’ve been saying for years that remote ownership is a major factor behind many environmental issues. It’s much easier to care about your immediate environment than it is about a place you never even see. I don’t think it should be ruled out entirely, though, because there are circumstances where it could be the only way for people to put down roots. But, as far as I’m concerned, it should be exceptional.

  24. Thanks for these ongoing and very interesting debates, which I think are really striking to the heart of things. I don’t have time to comment in any detail just now, but I’d like to toss a few embers on the fire:

    1. On Malcolm’s proposals – I think I’m mostly on board with them, perhaps with a few differences of emphasis. But I think Clem and Vera are raising some interesting problems. Much depends on cultural context – is there a culture of small-scale farming, is the notion of serving one’s community genuinely motivating or does the Mandeville/Smith idea that private vice generates public virtue prevail, is farming a family affair or a professional business, and what are the implications for succession etc?

    2. Also, the problem Andrew raises about the possibilities for the wealthy to use their power to game the system around the distinction between land and chattels seems to me important. So there’s a bigger picture here, as I think we’re probably all agreed.

    3. Part of that bigger picture for me is the extraordinary amplification of inequality in the contemporary world. Sure, expropriation is an ugly concept, and redistribution may be a word best avoided if possible. But let’s be clear that a lot of the poorer people in the world today have their assets expropriated, and that there’s a substantial redistribution going on in favour of the rich. In that context, high moral scruples about expropriation or redistribution when we talk about the rich strike me as problematic. When, just as an example as cited above, the richest eight people have equivalent assets to the poorest 3.5 billion I think something really big needs to give, whatever you choose to call it. Anyway, I’ve just got a copy of Branko Milanovic’s recent book on global inequality and hopefully will have more considered things to say about this after I’ve read it.

    4. On land – yes it’s unique. So is labour, and so is capital. Polanyi’s three ‘fictitious commodities’… Much to think about there.

    5. On community – agreed, ‘the community’ needs oversight over land use. But this is perilous ground. Who is ‘the community’? Maybe individuals can’t be trusted to deliver public good. I’m not sure ‘communities’ can either. So maybe we need a higher level – we could call it ‘the government’. Dang it, that’s not going to work! A crucial set of problems here…

    6. On Clem’s example of Mendip District Council vs London, I’d say things maybe work differently here – leaving aside the fact that virtually the only way anyone could obtain land in London for food production would be via local authority support, I don’t think it’s true that lower levels of rural government here are necessarily more sympathetic… This brings us back to the problematic of point 5.

    7. I’m not persuaded that ‘inertia’ is a very useful concept for understanding the reproduction of social structures. As I’ve kept saying, really this debate needs to be informed by concepts like hegemony, structure/agency or legitimation crisis that have launched a million sociology theses. The Berlin wall didn’t stand through ‘inertia’ and then finally crumble when people worked up the energy to do something about it. Yes, social structures are reproduced in ways that are partly habitual and unconscious, and partly not, but we don’t get far by asserting one side of the duality. Hey, we could even let a little Marx back into our lives, and find a place for the dialectic!

    • Not sure I was suggesting local governments are more “sympathetic”. I would suggest local governments are less involved in larger agendas. This is one reason I suspect they’re more responsive. Responsive, however, is not the same as favorable to a particular desired outcome.

      And I will accept the conditions on the ground in Mendip are likely quite different from the conditions in Jefferson Township here. After all, Mendip’s population density is likely an order of magnitude higher. So the agenda size I referred to above is also quite different. A township meeting here might end up being an opportunity for trustees to have a cup of coffee (or a beer) and discuss the local sport franchise’s chances in an upcoming match if there isn’t any serious business to deal with. It’s also quite likely that when something does come before them to be contested there will be some personal familiarity with both sides of the dispute (if both are locals; in the case where one is local and the other is not there does tend to be a more difficult road for the alien… but this to me seems just a manifestation of human nature). Recusing oneself from an issue because of knowing the disputants is a tough call. So local does have issues just as higher and higher levels have theirs. Families have political issues too; but we haven’t outlawed families yet.

    • Chris, I will gently push back about inertia.

      One difficulty faced by fields like sociology, or psychology, or economics, is that they, naturally, see the world through their theories. There has been very little, and only recent, cross-pollination with fields like neuroscience, biology, and cognition studies.

      That means, for example, that something as central as the physical world may be largely left out of the theories. The tiny field of ecopsychology looks at the relationship with the ecosphere, but who is studying the relationship with the built world? This is just one example, please do not focus on it.

      So “inertia” is not one side of a duality. It is a useful description of the consequences of our biology. Saying that we have behavioural inertia is true for the same reasons we can say humans cannot flap their wings and fly.

      There is no dialectic that will allow us to fly. There is no hegemony that will allow us to fly. We can build planes, but we will never be birds.

      Now, hegemony, for example, is an emergent property of countless behaviours. If we wish to break hegemony, we must change countless behaviours.

      The great majority of social structures are reproduced in ways that are ENTIRELY subconscious, not partly. The Berlin Wall did not come down, as you say, because people worked up the energy. It can be usefully thought of as falling because of a loss of inertia that allowed the existing energy to change the course.

      • Ruben, much as I’d prefer not to start another major line of argument about this…well, I don’t agree. It’s not clear to me what the relevance of the biophysical constraints you’re invoking are. For sure, there’s no dialectic that will allow us to fly. But our inability to fly has no significant bearing on the way that we instantiate social structures. The way that disciplines see the world through their theories cuts both ways – there are limits to what biology and cognate sciences can tell us about social structures because the latter have emergent properties which aren’t ‘merely’ biological. Maybe we’d need to discuss at greater length our respective understandings of what ‘social structure’ is. There seems to be an implicit chain of reductionist reasoning in your comment along the lines of social structure = behaviour = biology = constraint = inertia, which I’d be inclined to question at each step. I don’t agree at all with the notion that the great majority of social structures are reproduced entirely subconsciously, but perhaps you might define your terms in such a way as to make the statement plausible. I’m not sure we’d then have an easy time agreeing the truth claims involved, however. I don’t agree either with the idea that the fall of the wall can usefully be attributed to a loss of inertia that allowed the existing energy to change the course. That sounds highly teleological to my ears, and it glosses over what seems to me most in need of explanation in that instance – how political power gets legitimated and de-legitimated. However, I’m not so keen on debating social theory in the abstract. Perhaps if our different takes on these matters lead us to different perceptions on an issue of substance in the future, we can turn this over again?

        • On a side point, what I think I’m seeing overall in the comments on this post are differences of intellectual background. What I get from your writing Chris is a view through the very valuable lens of the broader social sciences, and from Malcolm a rather different approach and way of saying things, and from Ruben a set of biases and interests not too disimilar from my own which spring from experimental behavioural psychology.

          I’m not trying to start another hare here – this is nothing to do with the substantives points here – it’s just that I find these ‘lenses’ and influences rather interesting and I can’t resist commenting on it.

          Chris, you often sound (to me) like an exasperated anthropologist! We’re not all as advanced as you ..


          • Excellent observation – yep, ‘exasperated anthropologist’ just about sums me up at several different levels…

            It’s doubtless also true that disciplinary differences are in play – psychology hasn’t loomed large in my education, but I can see how ideas like consciousness, behaviour and inertia might serve in that context whereas I tend to think in terms of culture, power, politics and social structure.

        • Chris, it only seems fair that I take a turn under your withering gaze and give the others a chance to regroup—maybe hydrate and have a snack so they have strength for the next round.

          But I am also happy to not start another whole massive discussion in a thread that is well stocked.

          So how about I lay out my general thoughts. You can respond as you see fit, but at the least you will have a better sense of my position for the next time the topic arises.

          The fact that, as Martin says, there are several lenses used by different commentors, is, I think, a large part of the problem. This is often just a sort of academic step up from saying, “Well, that is just your opinion.”

          In fact, there are higher facts, trump cards, and it would do us well to understand them.

          To start in what I hope is an uncontroversial way, we might order the phenomena different fields study in this way:


          So, there are no biological processes that can violate the laws of chemistry. There are no chemical processes that can violate the laws of physics.

          These phenomena are nested, with the smaller orders existing entirely within the larger greater orders. The fact that we mere humans may mistakes in the academic study of these fields does not change the fact of the ordering.

          Similarly, we can nest

          Currency exchange

          Society is a wholly dependent subset of the ecosphere. The human economy is a wholly dependent subset of the economy.

          So. As an anthropologist, you may wish to quibble about whether farming is a subset only of the ecosphere, or if it is a smaller subset of society. We could probably say that industrial farming is a subset of the economy.

          No need to quibble too hard here, my point is just that everything discussed on this thread is a subset of a larger thing, and therefore must obey the Laws of the larger thing

          I am worried that by using the word Laws people will think I mean the things we use in our legal system, and that is not what I mean.

          Let’s say farming is a subset of society. The legal system is also a subset of society. Farming can follow the Laws of society without having to follow the laws of the parallel subset, the legal system.

          And obviously there is a lot of mixing and matching. I am just trying to be clear that failing to follow the “laws” of a subset of society, the legal system, does not necessarily mean the universe is going to implode.

          And we are well aware that Laws can be ignored for a time without necessarily creating obvious immediate effect. So, while ignoring the Law of Gravity can have quite immediate and fatal consequences, ignoring the Law of Soil Fertility may cause harm in a way that is not immediately visible, perhaps for years or even decades.

          Nonetheless, this is not sustainable, breaking the Laws is unable to be sustained. So, if a subset fails to follow the Laws of the superset, eventually one or both may implode.

          Okay. So…

          Our human society is a subset of our human bodies. We can’t have a human society of flying people because that violates the Laws of the superset, our human bodies, which cannot fly.

          We cannot have a human society that requires every human to never sleep, or to never eat. We cannot have an enduring human society that forbids humans from reproducing (see the Shakers).

          So, all of the things under discussion here are subsets of human society: farming, anthropology, land tenure, inheritance, globalism, nationalism, fascism, capitalism, book publishing, Paul Kingsnorth—all are a subset of human society.

          Which means they are all a subset of our human bodies.

          Which means, just as sure as day follows night, they are generally arranged to function within the capacity of the average human body—generally symmetrical, two legs, two arms, two eyes, mouth, nose, et c.

          Now, a subset of the human body is the nervous system, the sensory and control apparatus without which we could do literally nothing.

          As one looks at the nesting, it becomes apparent that human society is in fact a subset of the human nervous system. All of the things that make our society a society cannot happen without the sensory apparatus and control mechanisms of our nervous system.

          Like with farming, we can break the Laws of our nervous system—for a while. But that is not sustainable.

          A classic example is the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. There were so many alarms, buzzers and flashing lights that the reactor operators literally could not think. The Laws of their nervous system were violated. In order to be able to think, they spent much of the little time they had turning off alert systems—and so they didn’t have enough time to analyze the problem or control the runaway reaction.

          So, our society is a wholly dependent subset of our nervous systems—our sensory apparatus, reactive control mechanisms, and cognitive control mechanisms.

          I want to highlight reactive versus cognitive control mechanisms.

          Your digestion is under reactive control, you do not need to think to get the stomach acids working. Similarly, pulling your hand off a hot stove is a reactive response, not a cognitive one.

          If you don’t like my definition of cognitive or reactive, that is fine, I am not married to the words. We can come up with other words later. The point is, there are behaviours we do not have to think about.

          And the people who study this estimate the amount of behaviour that is reactiveas somewhere between 80% and 99.999% of our behaviour.

          Personally, for reasons I am happy to detail here or another time, I lean much more towards the 99%.

          So, 99% of our behaviour is reactive. So what? Well, society is a wholly dependent subset of our behaviour. Behaviour is not just being loud on the train when you are heading home from the pub. There is nothing about our human world that could be brought into being without behaviour.

          So, behaviour is a subset of our nervous system is a subset of our bodies is a subset of biology is a subset of chemistry is a subset of physics.

          Since all of the social structures we are discussing are brought into existence through behaviour, they are therefore subsets of our nervous system and are products of our reactive or cognitive control system.

          Given the research suggests 80-99.999% of our behaviour is reactive, it stands to reason that A VERY LARGE NUMBER of our social structures are created and/or maintained reactively, not cognitively.

          If you start looking around you, you will see enormous amounts of stuff you react to without thinking. Traffic lights, washroom signs, thirst, fashion. Furthermore vast swathes of our civilization are the products of past generation’s cognitive work, which we now react to. This is the story of the Space Station and the Horse’s Ass, that shows the International Space Station is constrained, not by our thoughts and dreams, but rather by transportation reactions set before the Roman Empire by the size of draught animals’ rear ends.

          So, most of our life is reactive. Civilization progresses by devoting cognitive power intensively to very few problems, so that subsequent generations can for the most part react to the new system, leaving them free to think about new problems.

          Now, the fact that we are bound by our nervous systems means Malcolm’s proposal is essentially impossible to bring about. The cognitive load would be too great, and we only have 1-0.001% of our behaviour under cognitive control.

          We see examples of the failure of excess cognitive demands all around us. We good-hearted and well-educated progressives think we have the facts all aligned, and have analyzed them to propose the best possible system in response.

          But the communication and decision-making demands are too great for our cognition. Remember Al Gore? Brexit. Trump. The facts and analyses do not support our behaviour—but our behaviour is explained by the Laws of our Nervous System.

          At the very least, if we were try to bring Malcolm’s vision into reality, we should probably spend the next forty years in marketing. Say a decade on equality. A decade on the true source of wealth (the ecosphere). A decade on concepts of ownership.

          Just as our ancestors have always done, we are only capable of very small, quite focussed changes, over long periods of time.

          So when the technocrats like Al Gore or the IPCC come along, they have it all figured out, all the technology at least. They assure we can do it with this or that gizmo.

          But they fail to incorporate the Laws of the Nervous System, and so they fail.

          So, I could go through all our posts, linking and describing the ways our social structures obey the Laws of the Nervous System, but that would drag on. Since we mentioned it, though, I will talk briefly about inertia.

          “Inertia” is a demonstrable, tested, described strategy to conserve cognitive resources. Inertia obeys the Laws of the Nervous System.

          Sadly, inertia may cause us to violate the Laws of Biology, but it takes longer for those effects to show up.

          For a bit more on this, please enjoy The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

          • I fear a hare has bolted…

            Ruben, I hope you don’t mind a little flippancy, but I think you’re basically saying that we can’t think of everything. True enough, but my reply would be that we can think of something, and that could be anything. There is no law in any sense of the word that defines what we humans choose to spend our limited cognitive abilities on, or explains how that choice is made. But, as you hinted in an earlier post, it often so happens that people know what they don’t want others to think about.

            A word also on unconscious behaviour. Psychologically the unconscious is not unconnected to the conscious mind, and psychologists of various hues have argued that it drives much conscious activity. So, just because someone is unconsciously oppressed by a prevailing system does not mean that it has no effect on them. On the contrary, the anger and frustration that emerge from the situation drive conscious efforts to subvert it, whether through political activism, the acquisition of mind-altering substances, or something else. There is no inertia here, but constant writhing tension.

            I think the whole inertia thing initially came about when discussing whether the wealthy should be liable for the inequity of their social positions, not simply in the sense of finding someone to blame, but with a view to creating an ethical demand on them to do something about it. Redistribution makes sense if you think they have a responsibility to make things better, but not so much if they’re passive ‘victims’ of a system. That’s why this abstract stuff matters. I still don’t believe in inertia, because that suggests the wealthy couldn’t have done anything differently. I do believe in the unconscious, and the tensions it creates beneath an unchanging surface, and would say there’s always the possibility of a choice to do something differently.

            Not my most coherent response, but my perspective is that of a historian, and we tend to pinch lenses from all sorts, though mostly social scientists, and mostly twenty or thirty years behind the times…

          • Ruben, apologies about my withering gaze. It’s not really how I’d like to be regarded, but maybe there’s some truth in it.

            A brief answer to your thoughts: yes, there are lower and higher levels of organisation, with the latter nested entirely in the former – a hierarchy in other words. But it’s still not necessarily true that the kinds of explanation that work for the lower levels must work for the higher – kind of a feature of hierarchies. Perhaps akin to the fact that you can derive a cake entirely from lower level entities (flour, fat etc.) but you can’t derive flour and fat from a cake, because it’s an emergent property of the combination of the elements. So while it’s true that the actions we call, say, ‘the French Revolution’ must conform to the principles we know are operative at lower levels, like the laws of thermodynamics, it’s not necessarily true that the kind of explanations that are appropriate to those levels are also appropriate to higher levels like the French Revolution. For that reason, while I agree with you that a huge part of the way humans operate as biological organisms is ‘unconscious’ (like digesting), it doesn’t follow that the way we operate as social beings (like instituting property relations) must also be ‘unconscious’. Consciousness is no doubt a useful concept for understanding humans as biological organisms – I’m not sure it’s so useful for understanding their constituent parts (cells, atoms), or the parts that they in turn constitute (societies).

            I agree with you about the difficulties in store in implementing Malcolm’s programme – but, for me, those difficulties are better understood through concepts like culture, power, ideology and class, not through consciousness or inertia. A danger of the latter is the implied teleology – the ‘truth’ which will be uncovered when inertia and unconsciousness are stripped away. But the ‘truth’ itself is an emergent product of the culture or ideology.

            So I don’t find examples like digestion very relevant, and I think there are some non-sequiturs in your chain of reasoning. However, I’d agree that there’s a (more interesting) set of unconscious blinders to do with perception and cognition that you’re touching on and that certainly is relevant to social ideologies. I don’t doubt that there’s some fertile interdisciplinary ground for social psychologists and sociologists to analyse it. Still, for me there’s little in what you’ve written that isn’t better conceptualised through concepts like culture, ideology etc., which readily encompass what you’re calling ‘the unconscious’. Doubtless that reflects my own disciplinary biases. Ah well, disciplines of thought are constraining, but also enabling – and that applies to psychology and physics, as well as to anthropology and economics. There isn’t a ‘law’ that lower level or more fundamental levels of analysis furnish better explanations of higher level ones, such that we might conclude that something like the French Revolution is better explained in relation to the space-time continuum than the class structures of pre-revolutionary France.

          • Andrew, thanks for your thoughts.

            I agree wholeheartedly on your points about the unconscious—though I prefer to call it the subconscious, to show its position as the bottom of the iceberg, or the base of the mountain. Unconscious implies “without”, which is not at all right. I agree it is massive and powerful. Sadly, it is not well-wired into the conscious, so we need have workarounds like “gut feelings”.

            I was also corrected once, by a very high-profile researcher in this area, because I described the subconscious as irrational. He rebuked me, as the subconscious is quite rational, he said, though it may not have the same definition of rationality as the conscious.

            Anyhow, I think this is the single greatest gap in my model of behaviour, and the single greatest opportunity for us to make significant change. How does our subconscious shape our behaviour, and how can we use its power more effectively?

            So, you said:

            I think you’re basically saying that we can’t think of everything. True enough, but my reply would be that we can think of something, and that could be anything.

            I have no argument. What I am saying is that we can think of something, but we can’t think of ALL things.

            This is disastrous, because our societal narrative is that change happens through thinking and choice, when in fact that is extremely rare, and even when we do it, we seldom do it well.

            So, you don’t seem to have an argument with the fact we have cognitive limits. The result of that is that we can’t think of all things. Because we have such limited cognition, we are actually terribly defensive about our puny mental resources, which means we tend to ignore people who are trying to tell us things.

            The irony.

            So, we have a few hours each day of good thinking, and we are pretty much using it up at work and family and worrying about the bills and stuff. To truly engage with a plan such as Malcolm’s would require each person to devote YEARS of leftover cognitive capacity.

            And clearly that is not going to happen.

            So yes, we could think about anything. But since we have such a faulty understanding of behaviour, we tend to structure things in such a way that we need everybody to think about the same thing, and that is pretty much impossible.

            Again, this results in Brexit and Trump. (I am not actually so anti-Brexit, though I totally understand that under the mainstream narrative, it is a disaster.)

            So don’t confuse inertia with free will. Though if you are interested in free will, you should read Sam Harris’ book. You may finish it more convinced that the wealthy could NOT have made a different choice.

            If 99.999% of our behaviour is reactive, how can we be said to have free will?

            Anyhow, let’s suppose we do have free will. So, we have a few hours a day which is our physical capacity for conscious contemplation. In that amount of time we can get almost NO new work done due to the pre-existing demands on our atttention. And so we tend to continue in the same direction we were before.

            That is inertia. It is not that we couldn’t apply force in a different direction, it is that we are using that limited supply of force elsewhere, and so we DON’T apply force to change the direction.

          • Chris, please don’t take the withering gaze crack as anything other than admiration. I am sure no one comes here for the kitten videos, but rather for the relentless investigation of some the biggest problems of our time.

            But one had better be carrying a water bottle if one wishes to disagree, because it can get hot in here… 😉


            I am glad we agree with the nested hierarchy, and I agree that the rules followed at one level are not necessarily parallel at another. All omelettes need eggs, and no omelettes can be unscrambled.

            And, I agree that just because our digestion is automated does not mean our social interactions will be automated.

            But, both digestion and our social interactions must follow the Laws of the Nervous System. Our cognitive capacity is physically limited by our biology. Therefore, we have evolved automatic responses for digestion, and walking, and getting a glass of water, and rolling over in bed, and almost everything we choose to look at.

            So, our cognitive capacity is physically limited, really to just a few hours of focussed thought each day. That is a reality our social interactions are nested inside.

            And so it turns out, observably and measurably, that we do automate many of our social interactions.

            Again, I really do recommend the book Honest Signals, by Dr. Sandly Pentland of MIT.

            When you are walking down the street and someone says hello, do you think about whether you should respond? Do you run their family tree and contemplate old rivalries? Do you fret about social station?

            Of course not. You just say hello. And if someone asks how you are? Fine.

            You know how you suddenly realize a new fashion has passed you by? Ugg Boots, maybe. Or those little visored army caps. Suddenly you realize you are surrounded by people who are wearing the same thing.

            This is not the product of evaluation. This is the product of contagion. And again, I will very strongly recommend I’ll Have What She Is Having , by Dr. Alex Bentley.

            So pick a topic, healthcare, say. Are you an expert? You may well be. But who else is? Really, there are a scant handful of people who are truly experts on healthcare systems. And yet we are supposed to vote on changes, support or topple governments, direct bureaucrats.

            We can’t do that based on information and expertise. So we do it based on other things.

            Enter Donald Trump…

            You seem to have locked onto the unconscious, and so clearly I have not been clear.

            What I am talking about is not the unconscious, it is cognitive limits.

            Our biology has nested within in it our nervous system, which has nested within it our cognition, which has nested within it our deliberative thought and choice making.

            So, choice must obey all the limits set by the systems it is nested within.

            I am really trying to drive home here how immutable the physical limits to our cognition is.

            And so fine. You want to talk about culture, power and ideology. I presume that is because you want to change those things, as we progressives like to do.

            What do you propose?

            And then right there, you run into cognitive limits. You certainly cannot change culture without respecting cognitive limits, nor ideology, nor can you shift power.

            Changing ideology is a MASSIVE undertaking that is extremely demanding of our cognitive resources. Because it is so demanding we will NEVER get a majority of the population to pay a significant amount of the their attention to us.

            So yes, we should be working with the subconscious to shift ideology, working more like marketing with fashion.

            But while we are doing that, we are consuming the cognitive capacity. And so what of the polar bears, what of the girls who would like to go to school in Afghanistan, what of the sheepwrecked hills, what of racism and sexism?

            The drum I bang on is that since we have such harsh cognitive limits, we should be using systems for everything we possibly can.

            Again, I tried to show where our the lenses of our specializations fit in the hierarchy.

            We can say we like to look at things through the lens of anthropologist, or psychologist, or historian. And that is great, but all of those fields must obey the rules laid down by our cognitive capacity. They are not equivalent. These fields are wholly dependant subsets of our cognitive capacity, and of our biology, and of the ecosphere, and of physics.

            So, I am not trying to describe the Meaning of Life. I am trying to understand how to make change, such that perhaps our children might die natural deaths after a somewhat happy life.

            Over and over again, in my work and volunteer life, I see how people have very little idea about how we humans behave, and so we make very poor choices about how to change behaviour.

            I am not proposing we will uncover the “truth”. In fact, I am saying that is an incredibly difficult task, because after we have gone to work and made dinner and washed up, we likely have almost no cognitive resource left for contemplating the “truth”.

            The physical fact is that we do not have the blood glucose to think intensively for more than a few hours a day. Which means outside those few hours we are reacting, not thinking.

          • Hm. I sure wish I could edit comments.

            I was thinking I may not have been clear that subconscious choice is not the same as automated—habitual—behaviour. And somewhere in between these two is a great deal of reactive behaviour.

          • Ability to edit comments might not be a good thing – it would allow changes to be made after the fact. If you write a longish comment and are concerned about it representing what you really intend to say, you can copy it to a word processor on your computer and have a closer look. Spell check and grammar check may be available there, and you should be free to see a much wider range of your thought at once (vs the little screen allowed within the blog software). Satisfied? Copy it back to the blog page. Not perfect, but it works.

            I know, cognitive limits. But hey, eventually one learns a few life hacks, creates a few, and then you die. It sucks.

  25. In relation to the debate with Malcolm, it feels to me like it’s come full circle. Given a strong societal emphasis on equality – and not just a theoretical equality of citizenship, but a strong equality akin to Sen’s capabilities – I’d say this is what Malcolm would call a healthy society, and he has some excellent suggestions as to how to retain equality in relation to land and inheritance. But how do we get to being an egalitarian/healthy society? I’d suggest when people identify the unhealthy ways in which social power can operate, and seek to overcome them through identifying an alternative collective interest – ie. through a class identity…

    In relation to Clem’s points on local government, perhaps it’s a case of different political cultures… The British system really is very centralised, with basic local decisions (reluctantly) devolved to local authorities of various tiers, the relevant one in this case being the district council which oversees a population of about 100,000. I don’t want to knock the dedication of some of its staff and elected councillors, but the words that spring to mind to characterise it for me are ones like ‘reactive’, ‘conservative’ and indeed ‘inertia’, rather than ones like ‘responsive’, ‘proactive’ etc. We got to live on the farm after the local council refused our application and then we appealed to the higher authority of a bureaucrat appointed by central government, and won. It’s a strange business.

    One other potential model for creating small farms in the here and now is being pursued here by the Ecological Land Co-op: Funnily enough, one of the main problems they face is the opposition to new smallholdings by the local ‘community’. And one of the other ones is the extravagant price of land relative to the returns you can get from farming it. Which brings us back to Malcolm’s proposals…

    • “how do we get to being an egalitarian/healthy society? […] through identifying an alternative collective interest – ie. through a class identity”

      I’ve never really understood the notion of class identity (perhaps people from my class never do?) but I think identifying collective interests is crucial. To my mind, a significant barrier to radical reform is many people’s belief that it has to come one step at a time; that turns reformers into competitors, vying for whose favoured reform should be the first step, when they should be allies.

      I don’t see my economic reforms getting enough support to drive the move to an egalitarian society (which is why they’re not part of my manifesto). If there is anything that unites enough people for there to be a reasonable chance of meaningful reform, I’d say it’s a widespread sense of powerlessness in the face of political systems which don’t deliver either justice or effective government. So, after the success of ‘Take back control’ in the Brexit campaign, my slogan for Local Sovereignty is ‘Bring back control – from Westminster!’.

      But perhaps, with Ruben’s hare on the loose, how we get to being an egalitarian/healthy society should wait till you’re ready to come back to it in another post.

      I suspect the council and local community resistance you refer to, have a common cause: the fact that planning authorities are expected to pre-determine potential disputes between neighbours, with the planning decision being seen as ruling out any redress if a permitted development does in fact interfere with neighbours’ rights. The effect, as far as low-impact developments are concerned, is that neighbours have an incentive to object to imagined problems which, in reality, may not emerge at all. With large commercial developments, on the other hand, developers have an incentive to keep pushing for permission because, once they get it, they effectively have an indemnity against future objections from the local community. (I’ll spare you more details of the argument but, if you’re interested, I put it in a submission to a Lords select committee a couple of years ago).

      • Malcolm:
        Interesting piece submitted to the Lords. If you’d allow me to go out on a tangent – as I’m not familiar with the commercial aspects of land issues in the UK… would you have any feel for the land value of a parcel such as the opening between the Falkirk and Bonnybridge Golf courses west of Falkirk and bisected by A883 and A803? From where I sit it would seem these fields will likely sprout some sort of housing before much more time elapses. Any thoughts?

        • Something else Malcolm – in point 8.2 of your submission to the Lords you make the point that courts do not hear hypothetical cases – which is spot on of course. But legal minds do concern themselves with hypotheticals in both the classroom and for bar exams. Such that a term (Blackacre) is commonly used in the sense of a hypothetical piece of real property.

          So while there may not be a precedent in adjudicated practice, I’d imagine jurists should be sufficiently acquainted with the scholarship available on matters of land rights.

          Back to your piece sent to the Lords – have you had any feedback?

        • I’m afraid I don’t have much of a clue about land values, Clem. I just try to look at it from the perspective of a jurist.

          I didn’t get any feedback from that submission (not that I really expected any, though that never stops me hoping), nor from my local planning authority when I made the argument to them, suggesting they allow a large local development to go ahead at the developers’ own risk.

          What local authorities have to do isn’t exactly the same as adjudicating hypothetical cases but it is similar in some respects, and it’s no wonder it causes so many problems.

    • I read the business report for the ELC, but I still fail to grasp some of the details of their model. To me it looks like the only real value added is in the form of getting permission to build houses on vacant agricultural land.

      From the figures presented in the plan, for a typical 5 acre parcel, it looks like a residency permit quintuples the value of a parcel, from £8,000 per acre to over £40,000 per acre. Can this be true?

      If so, it must mean that getting permission to build a home on farm land is extremely difficult. I remember your stories of getting permission to live on your farm, but didn’t really grasp the difficulty involved, thinking that it just took a bit of time and paperwork.

      With such fantastic profit to be made by virtue of getting a residency permit, I would think that there would be a large number of businesses grinding away at getting the permits, building homes and selling off the parcels to people with the means to purchase (typically not young farmers). Does the ELC get some kind of special preference from the permit issuing entities by virtue of their tenancy agreements?

      I have lived in rural areas in the US almost all my adult life. I am used to restrictions on the type and number of structures one can build on rural land and the building codes that go with those structures, but having the most common restriction be that no home can be permitted is quite amazing. Is this common elsewhere in Europe too?

    • One more question, though this may be best for Malcolm. It appears to me that the issue of who owns land may not be as relevant as who controls the use of that land. How would changing inheritance law affect the prospects of peasant smallholders if has been collectively decided that, regardless of who owns the land, no housing for peasants can be built on it?

      • Yes, I’d say residential permission generally would at least quintuple the value of the land. The logic of it is that farmland is much cheaper than residential land, so without planning restrictions there would be an incentive for people who had no intention to farm to buy up agricultural land in order to get a house on the cheap. But the result is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone to buy up a small lot of bare agricultural land and establish a new farm enterprise on it – it envelops you in a long, drawn-out bureaucratic nightmare. So the idea of the ELC is partly to take that burden off the would-be farmer, and partly also to make the farm a little more affordable essentially by crowdfunding the purchase.

        There aren’t lots of businesses acting as middlemen in the way that you suppose, because the permission is always specific to a given enterprise – basically, you have to persuade the powers that be that you personally have a farm business idea which is going to be profitable and which demands your round-the-clock presence on the site…and they’re notoriously un-persuadable on both counts. So the ELC assume both a big bureaucratic burden and a big financial risk of not getting permission.

        You’re right that control of land is more important than ownership, though in a sense they’re part and parcel of the same thing – ‘ownership’ meaning that bundle of rights and responsibilities you have with regard to a thing owned in relation to other people. Malcolm has been talking predominantly about inheritance of farm property but presumably he has something similar in mind in relation to residential property – I’d be interested to know. I’d imagine that his proposals could operate like a Georgist land value tax so that there was no point buying farm property unless you planned to farm it, and no point buying residential property unless you planned to live in it.

        Obviously Malcolm’s proposals are based on the assumption that existing legal and political structures otherwise persist largely in their present form. Introduce the notion of political revolution or rapid social breakdown, and the issue of ‘control of land’ looks different – though an interesting issue then is how much the pre-existing frameworks of thought translate over into the new reality.

      • Yes, I’ve generally treated ownership and planning as parallel problems; essentially, one deals with the question of how rights are allocated, the other concerns the question of how those rights are defined in the first place.

        So I have also proposed planning reforms, as per the link above. Basically, what I’ve suggested is that the planning system should be treated primarily as a risk discovery process, in which would-be developers can find out if there’s likely to be a lot of opposition, and go ahead at their own risk. I think that would make it much easier for low-impact projects (and much harder for huge housing estates).

        That would work alongside the trusteeship element of my ownership proposal. As trustee, an owner would have to consider the public interest in deciding whether to build a house on a bit of agricultural land, and that decision would be open to challenge from the local community. So someone buying a plot of land and just living on it, having declared an intention of farming it, would risk forfeiting it – getting the price of the land itself back, but losing the cost of any ‘improvements’, and possibly having to pay for restoring the land to its former state.

  26. Interesting – I thought Flannery & Marcus’ book ‘The Creation of Inequality’ was quite good on the historical career of inegalitarianism and the place of ‘big man’ societies. Maybe such societies get it about right…earned not hereditary privilege…well, if you’re a man, I guess…though gender is also an interesting topic in the South Pacific.

    Another thought – in a straitened future, people will need any capital that’s available to do useful collective work. So Malcolm’s suggestions would be sensible here in order to prevent an inflationary land scramble and force capital to find more useful things to do with itself?

  27. To Ruben’s point above about the cognitive thinking riding herd over a mere 1% of our thinking:

    I suppose I’m not persuaded it’s such a small fraction. And if you’ve not had a peek at the post he’s put up at aSaDL (which he provides the link to in the comment above) he does make a reasoned argument for his side of it. And I will agree that we do take quite quickly to behaviors based on decisions made by our forebears. But after having thought about what Ruben wrote at his blog and rereading a chapter or two from Thinking Fast and Slow I’ve stretched the credit I allow to the cognitive to a whopping two digit percentage.

    The geneticist in me wants to allow that there’s a great deal of variation between different people for the degree to which they employ their cognitive faculty, but without conjuring a eugenic ghost I still imagine even the laziest thinkers ponder their choices more than those few moments subscribed to a measly 1%.

    Take the writing of a comment here. You’ve learned how to use the computer and the appropriate software (and some level of language, grammar, etc). You’ve read something you think bears a reply from yourself. Now in order to communicate your thought you have to make choices about how to present them. Should I turn on the italics? Should I choose a synonym here rather than repeat the term I used earlier? You are creating. I suppose some creativity is still partially rote. But most of our social interactions seem to me to be considered, chosen, created – even if they are stale and predictable. We choose to not rock the boat, to follow convention… unless and until we have something we want to be noticed for. We want the unconscious recognition from the other that comes from stepping away from the thoughtless abeyance to conformity.

    Choosing at more significant levels – choosing a mate, choosing a career path, these are truly life altering cognitive endeavors. But I think we make a multitude of other, smaller and less significant choices all the time. Appreciation of some of the less significant choices often only come to our notice if we’ve made them poorly (did you really mean wear that?).

    At the end, however, I do agree the reactive is still far and away more responsible for behaviors… I place the split closer to 90% and allow our free will the chance to have a 10% say in the matter. [and I’ll choose to skip the italics in this comment 🙂 ]

    • Thanks for thinking about this Clem.

      The definition of behaviour I think is most useful is”It is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli or inputs, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.”

      Which I like to say means, if you are not a rock, you are behaving.

      Part of the problem is that we treat behaviour as ONLY that which we deliberate on, which means the reactive stuff is…. what?

      So, let’s break it down. We are typing this, no doubt on QWERTY keyboard. Did you ever give real consideration to the multitude of other keyboards? Maybe you thought about DVORAK, but I bet it never went beyond that. So, you cannot honestly say you informed yourself, considered the many ramifications, and chose a keyboard.

      You are sitting at your computer. Why? Because there is a chair there. Why? Because it would be weird if there wasn’t a chair there. So you can’t really say you informed yourself, considered the many options, and chose to sit.

      You turned on the lights. How? By flicking a switch. If you did not build the house, then you had no choice or input in the location or function of the switch. Have you ever wondered what other methods of light control may be available to us? Probably not, but your hand knows where the switch is. Have you ever really debated whether or not to turn on the light, really given that the full weight of your attention. Probably not, in which case you can’t honestly say you have informed yourself, deliberated, and made a choice.

      Go through your day, from the moment you wake up in the morning, and try to break your travels down into specific behaviours, then try to notice which of those behaviours you actually give much contemplation to.

      Now—and thank you for reading my blog—I write a bit about what it would take to make real decisions in this post. Forest fires show the failure of democracy.

      But a better one to read is The Science of Muddling Through. The author shows how our decision making method—education followed by analysis and conscious choice—falls apart when presented with problems of any complexity. No part of this fantasy works in real life—we can’t get all the information, we can’t possible weight it, and we can’t understand the thousands or millions of possible outcomes.

      And so we muddle through. Which is fine, but it means we can’t honestly say we are informing ourselves, deliberating, and making choices.

      And then there are the things that are zero choice options.

      Have you ever debated whether you should drive on the right side of the road? If you drive on the left you will die quite promptly, but it is an option that is available to you. No. You have never evaluated your options, you just drive on the right, like everybody else on this continent. Perhaps you do so several times a day, most days of the year, year after year…. You can’t really say this behaviour is conscious.

      Keep going through your day, try to notice everything you do, and try to see if you really made a choice, let alone an informed, deliberative choice.

      I bet you will end up close to 99%.

      • So Ruben, where does dreaming come in the hierarchy? If I let my imagination run wild and conjure up some potential future, or imagine some sort of desired outcome without the limitations or constraints of reality until the dream passes? Having a dream may not immediately change the world, but having a dream may influence how we deploy the few cognitive moments available to us.

        I ask because I’m breaking down the 86,400 seconds I’m allotted in a day’s time.

        • I am not sure if you mean literal sleeping dreams or just utopian flights of fancy.

          I don’t know how literal sleeping dreams play in. There isn’t yet consensus on why we dream at all.

          As far as flights of fancy, I don’t know that either. I think the safe conservative position is that words don’t really matter to behaviour change. I think most of the time our words are kind of like the set in a theatre—the play feels kind of weird if the set is not there, but the set is not what the play is really about.

          Certainly it is clear that facts and argument don’t do what we think they do. Donald Trump illustrates this perfectly.

          But Trump also illustrates the power of communication without words. No part of his schtick makes sense from a policy analysis standpoint (except maybe protectionism). But people are clearly getting the message of aggrieved, wronged, fed up, not going to take it any more.

          I think it is safe to say this is the case in most wars and revolutions throughout history. Very few people could well articulate the rationale and analysis behind whatever mass movement.

          But they are hearing the change in tone. Whether that be overthrowing your country or dying for your country, they are hearing the tone.

          So utopian flights of fancy—dreams—are, I think, useful tonally.

          I think they also signal to our subconscious the sort of thing we would like to work on, with its power and mysterious relationship to our behaviour.

          So sorry, I don’t have any good answers, just specualtion and wonderings.

          But, if you are really interested in maximizing your daily times, I can tell you to use systems.

          If you regret spending so much time watching TV, get rid of the television. It doesn’t work to fight your desire to watch TV, and furthermore, fighting yourself actually drains cognitive resources, leaving you even less to do the work you want to get done.

          Instead of getting angry at my family for taking long hot showers, I had a very small hot water tank installed.

          Swap all your lightbulbs for LED and stop thinking about electricity.

          None of this will make the weeds stop growing, but it is the best I have. Try to shape your context to shape your behaviour, so you do the right thing without thought or effort.

          • Great life hack suggestions. But let me return to the dream factory for a sec.

            In the sixties on our side of the border there was this relatively significant Baptist minister who delivered a speech on the Mall in Washington in which he famously repeated “I have a dream”. And while it can be argued pretty convincingly that his dream is yet to be fulfilled, I think it can also be argued convincingly that we are much closer to the dream today than we were when he made that speech. Long way to go; a few steps forward with some steps taken back. But my point harkens back to the dream in the first place. Without the dream and the frames it enabled, the discourse it encouraged, the will demonstrated, how far would we have come? Obviously a rhetorical question – we have no control system to gauge against. But I think the dream and its presentation are significant elements.

            In the work that I busy myself with on a daily basis I run into the same sorts of trials and tribulations… one idea works, another not so much. What worked last year is less effective this year. But overall we have been able to witness progress and this satisfies. And in many of the efforts we make there are controls to gauge against – so I imagine we’re actually learning something as we go along.

            I was encouraged to see Lindblom use the phrase “flying by the seat of his pants” in relation to a practitioner (administrator) choosing one path vs. a path suggested by a theorist [from the Science of Muddling Through]. With limited cognitive resources to hand, flying by the seat of one’s pants is still flying. It just leaves you hoping not to crash.

          • Sure, MLK was a firecracker. And yes, to this day an unarmed black man is shot by the police every two or three days in the US. Just black, just men, just by the police.

            So, I would say the dream is far from realized.

            I would further say that I think this is because Civil Rights focussed on changing the systems, and that helped enormously. But we are up against the limits of those system changes.

            I don’t think the entrenched racism will be addressed through further system change, which means it requires focus and attention—very cognitively demanding. We need to address the leaks to our cognitive systems—TV, hot showers, eating organic, etc using systems so we can save energy for the stuff we CANNOT address with systems, like racism.

            So, I am not saying we can’t think, and that we don’t reason. MLK’s words did something.

            But I am saying we only think and reason ~1% of the time.

            I think MLK illustrates the complex dynamic I am trying to tease out. He used words, but mostly he communicated tone. The facts were already clear, black people were viciously and racistly oppressed. So this was not an argument or evaluation of facts.

            MLK was about tone. Oppression was not acceptable.

            And we must remember, when we are listening to MLK with rapt attention we are not fighting the corporations blowing the tops of mountains down into the river valleys. We are not fighting the infection of wild salmon with sea lice brought in by foreign aquaculture companies. We are not fighting for women’s rights, or for an end to income inequality.

            We have finite limits, and we can only do so much.

            As far as flying by the seat of your pants, I think that is your subconscious guiding. So, we hoover up data and social signals. Our consciousness may or may not give some guidance, but the subconscious goes to work on figuring things out. We get get feelings or senses from the seat of our pants. That is not some mumbo-jumbo, it is quality analysis performed by our subconscious. It is just that there is no phone line between our conscious and subconscious.

            So, in addition to changing the systems context you are in, I would also add I think it would be a good idea to have a meditation or spiritual practice designed to smooth the path between your inner and outer world.

          • Ruben said:
            most of the time our words are kind of like the set in a theatre—the play feels kind of weird if the set is not there, but the set is not what the play is really about.

            By golly, Ruben, I might just have to quote that (you really are a cracking writer).

            You could be right, but my preferred metaphor would allow language a bit more power. I think it does no more than lubricate changes that are being driven by other factors. Mind you, this alone is certainly worth doing. If you extend the metaphor and think of a machine that is seized up, then lubrication is not trivial!

          • Thank you very much Martin.

            I like your metaphor of lubrication as a description of how language functions.

            Though following on the work of Sandy Pentland, which I mentioned elsewhere, I would love to study how much the words matter to the lubrication. You know those examples of how you can mess up most of the letters in the words, but the sentence is still legible?

            That seems to be what a lot of political speech is—a lot of speech in general.

            Words are the thing that allow us to intone and move our faces. Without words we would just be screeching and grimacing like baboons.

            Now that is a good image.

            So, I like the idea of lubrication, but it is descriptive, not prescriptive.

            Donald Trump intoned his word-oil. But what they got is Donald Trump. He doesn’t make sense, like his policies and economics don’t make sense, but also his actual sentences don’t make sense.

            So lubrication does not save us. We end up in an arms race between oil cans. Obama had better lube than McCain. Trump had better lube than Clinton. This is not the world I want to live in. I would actually like to live in a world in which facts and analysis matter—it is just not this world.

  28. Just heard from someone elsewhere on ownership, it being highly pertinent to our discussion here. The commenter said:

    “Custodial and extractive: something I read on Ran Prieur’s site, but I’m afraid I never worked out where he got it from. The idea is that ‘custodial’ ownership is a traditional model where when (say) a tribe says they ‘own’ land they mean it’s in their care. The flourishing of the land and its future are in their hands. Contrast with the ‘extractive’ ownership of the typical invading colonist throughout history: this is my land; I can do what I want with it; if I want to pollute it with mining operations that’s my problem and no-one else’s.

    It applies to other things too: I once read that if I have two rare and valuable paintings, and by destroying one I can increase the market value of the survivor to make an overall profit, then it is my moral duty – no less! – to do so. That’s extractive ownership.”

    • And then there’s arbitrage; Lange’s idea of market socialism. Can the asset be moved? Is there a fashion element (as opposed to purely functional aspect – thinking a ton of phosphorus vs. a painting). Let’s keep piling on all the various angles. Our cognitive selves will approach their asymptotic limits and *poof* a dystopian outcome for sure.

      Or maybe there’s still a different path. Maybe we could dream something up.

  29. I probably shouldn’t open another strand but Ruben has offered a temptation I can’t resist.

    “To start in what I hope is an uncontroversial way, we might order the phenomena different fields study in this way:


    A lot of people would think that’s uncontroversial, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a can of wyrms.

    I never studied physics formally but I got very interested in it in the eighties and nineties. However, I never bought the ‘can only be understood mathematically’ line that physicists come out with in the face of conceptual difficulties. So I spent some time exploring how we might understand physics from first principles and, as a result, came to appreciate how much physicists’ models – including their dismissal of older ways of understanding the world – rest on questionable assumptions.

    I’ll spare you the discussion about the structure of space (and the implications it might have for the disconnect between classical and quantum physics) and just say that, for me, the hierarchy is:


    Implicit in that is the possibility of more fundamental levels directly affecting other levels – i.e. biology being affected by metaphysical factors that are not detectable at the level of physics.

    Impeccable reasoning can mislead in all kinds of ways if the underlying assumptions are wrong, and people with backgrounds in science often don’t seem to realise how much of their own thinking actually rests on faith.

    “the fact that we are bound by our nervous systems means Malcolm’s proposal is essentially impossible to bring about. The cognitive load would be too great”

    How does one calculate the cognitive load of a decision? And how do my proposals compare, cognitively, to, say, a proposal for the UK to leave the European Union?

    “To truly engage with a plan such as Malcolm’s would require each person to devote YEARS of leftover cognitive capacity”

    Yes, indeed, if we needed the whole electorate to explicitly agree the details of reforms then they probably would be impossible. But I think you’re overlooking the fact that most people live in a state of permanent cognitive overload and effectively delegate much of their thinking to others who they choose to follow.

    So the way reforms get introduced is either by convincing established leaders that they’re worthwhile or by concentrating on the narrow range of factors which cause people to follow one leader rather than another. My proposals will certainly be difficult to get implemented but the biggest barrier I see for them is misconceived beliefs that they’re impossible.

  30. You are not going to get any argument from me if you want to put metaphysics up there. But the fact remains that all the subsidiary orders must obey the rules of the orders above.

    Again, as Chris wanted to clarify, that does not mean all orders, or categories, or if you want to be metaphysical, planes, obey the same rules. Each plane has its own rules. But no plane can violate the rules of the plane above it.

    As far as cognitive load—with a nod to Clem, I will say that by the seat of my pants I would estimate your proposal as being a higher cognitive demand than Brexit.

    Brexit does not challenge capitalism or ownership, it simply returns the economy to a relationship such as existed within living memory of a good chunk of the population.

    What you are doing however, challenges almost all known European history. You have to get to a very different, more indigenous, worldview before the notion of land not being owned and inheritable by someone, even if only the king, makes any sense. Tip of the hat to various failed movements for a Common Treasury For All, but they did not alter the course much.

    So, you want to change ideas of ownership, stewardship, wealth, and inheritance, and if I sat back for a while I bet I could quadruple that list. These are some of the most core parts of our cultural identity, and in many ways are amped up even higher in the “New World”.

    So I think that is a pretty big task.

    How do we judge cognitive load? It depends how serious you are about democracy. If all you care about is winning, then Donald Trump showed a great model for winning that requires very little demand for interaction with facts.

    But if you actually think change should come from informed choice, then the choice needs to be actually informed. I would guess to be truly informed on a topic like Brexit would take two or three years of full-time study. Per person.

    Obviously that is not going to happen. So yes, we delegate our thinking to others.

    I am actually wildly in favour of that, but only in favour of doing that with our eyes open.

    Currently we delegate to politicians. Do you suppose they put in two or three years of study on Brexit? I would say no. How about their flunkies? Somehow I think those people are keeping their eyes on political concerns, not the interplay of trade and labour agreements, let alone the sustainability of trade and labour agreements based on a model of infinite growth on a finite planet.

    So Brexit was fought on tone— on the emotional tenor of immigration, jobs, and faceless technocrats.

    Once we admit that, things look a lot weirder. What is democracy if it is nothing more than combat of tone and emotions that most resemble a Harry Potter wizard battle?

    So we delegate to experts. Just like we did for neoliberal globalization? Just like we did to deregulate banks? Just like we did when we sprayed DDT over children playing? Just like we did when thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women?

    Our model of behaviour, change, decision-making and democracy is a myth that does not conform to the rules of the hierarchy—and therefore it doesn’t work. You can press the gas pedal all you want, and no matter how hard you try the car will still not slow down.

    So, it seems like you have spent at least two or three years in education and analysis on the topic of land tenure, and you seem to have truly built an impressive understanding and body of knowledge.

    But if you want democracy, this can’t be just assigned to technocrats.
    And if all you care about is implementation, how shall we be sure you aren’t just another Margaret Thatcher, come along to help us better give our money to the rich?

    If all we are trying to do is nudge the political system one way or another then we are playing the same game in a slightly more genteel way as Donald Trump. And sadly, progressive attempts to play that game have resulted in a constantly eroding standard of living by many measures.

    So my own personal wormhole is that we should understand and acknowledge these physical limits to our ability to think. Asking an electorate to vote on a topic they cannot possibly understand is not only stupid, it is abusive.

    And I think the answer is to delegate decision making. That is how we actually make the majority of decisions anyway, but we could do it a lot better if we were open about it and formalized it.

    In my corner of the world, we had the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. This was a group of 100 people, selected by lottery, balanced for gender and racial representation, and augmented by First Nations representatives.

    The Assembly spent about a year studying electoral systems. They listened to experts, they talked to other countries, they read the research. And at the end of it, they recommended a change to our system.

    Which our cowardly government put to referendum requiring a supermajority, and it narrowly failed.

    This is as good as I can imagine right now. Delegate small groups of citizens selected by lottery to deeply study and decide what we all should do. At the same time they are doing that, you will be on a different Assembly, and I will be in a different one. In this way we can actually use facts and analysis, while avoiding the pressures of politics and vested interests and silo thinking of municipal and regional government engineers.

    Again, if you are interested in the delegation of decision-making and the outsourcing of knowledge and memory, I strongly, strongly, recommend I’ll Have What She Is Having by Dr. Alex Bentley. It is simply fascinating.

    • “But no plane can violate the rules of the plane above it”

      I agree that no plane can violate the rules of the primary plane or any that it is wholly a subset of. But I see little reason to presume that even biology lies wholly within the domain of physics, never mind cognitive processes.

      “What you are doing however, challenges almost all known European history”

      Not really, Ruben. At most, it challenges a popular interpretation of European history, the ‘robber baron’ narrative. Land ownership in Britain, both before and after the Norman Conquest, was undeniably tied up with government and the exercise of power. I argue that freehold ownership of land was essentially administrative, right from the start, and that nominating a successor was essentially a matter of passing on responsibility.

      That too is an interpretation of history, and it’s one which is certainly open to dispute. I don’t suppose the Norman barons separated political power and wealth in their minds the way we do today – because that separation is the result of both centuries of political struggle and the development of forms of wealth which didn’t exist when laws on ownership and inheritance first took shape – but we need to understand it through the lenses of our own experience and values.

      From that perspective, I’d say the reason the current system took root originally was that it provided a framework of (relative) political stability. It established a system, an admittedly highly imperfect system, which has lurched from crisis to crisis through many centuries, but a system nonetheless. Whereas the robber baron narrative, in which land is just regarded as wealth to be taken by the strong, doesn’t provide an explanation for the longevity of our current system. It wasn’t the private property aspect of ownership which laid the foundations of our current laws, it was the administrative system which was interwoven with it.

      And don’t forget, too, that the robber baron narrative is also a part of our cognitive framework, along with centuries of subservience of the poor to the rich. Those ideas may not dominate the practical direction of our lives the way ideas of ownership, stewardship, wealth, and inheritance do, but they’re just as much part of our cultural identity. Getting support for reform isn’t a matter of uprooting a deeply-entrenched cultural identity, it’s more a matter of tipping the balance between competing narratives which have been in constant conflict all our lives.

      The ‘New World’ inherited our legal system well after the administrative and personal aspects of ownership had diverged, so it’s a more complicated argument over there. But, if we win the argument over here, my guess is that other ‘common law’ countries will find it hard to resist similar reforms.

      “You have to get to a very different, more indigenous, worldview before the notion of land not being owned and inheritable by someone, even if only the king, makes any sense”

      That’s not what my reforms would do, Ruben. Land in private ownership would remain in private ownership and, apart from the details of how the transfer operates, most of the population would be able to leave their land to their offspring, as they do today.

      As I’ve explained, nominated successors would have the option of buying land, or a residence, from a dead person’s estate. Being expected to buy something which currently they get for free might sound as though they’ve been deprived of rights but, in practice, in the UK and the US, 85-90% of the population would receive more from the general inheritance pot than they currently do from their parents’ estates.

      Cognitive load would be relevant at two levels: during the process of debating the reform, and during the process of implementation. I envisage the reforms being brought in gradually, taking 30 to 50 years to be substantially complete so, at that stage, the direct cognitive load will be well spread and the adjustments most individuals would have to make would be fairly small. I don’t see that as a significant problem.

      The earlier stage – getting the reforms into law – would certainly be more challenging. But we shouldn’t underestimate people’s capacity for ignoring proposals for reform, even when they themselves would be seriously affected. Given that what I’m proposing would benefit 85-90% of the population (though, admittedly, significant numbers of them would fear they would be adversely affected) I think the main debate would be over current wealth distributions rather than the reforms themselves.

      And the initial reform, establishing the fact that nominating a successor is primarily a responsibility rather than a right, would not even change anything directly – it would simply alter the dynamics of the system. It wouldn’t prevent Lord Tomnoddy from nominating his investment banker son as heir to his 30,000 acres, it would just ensure that the bequest could be overturned easily, so that it went instead to a trust (which would be responsible for distributing the nation’s inheritance pot fairly). I don’t see that a proposal for a reform like that will challenge people’s cognitive capacity in the way you’re suggesting, Ruben.

      But, as you say, it won’t be the technical arguments that swing it.

      “Brexit was fought on tone— on the emotional tenor of immigration, jobs, and faceless technocrats”

      Which is how a campaign for my reforms would probably be fought — on the emotional tenor of fairness, security, and self-serving plutocrats.

      Within that battle, there will be much more tightly focused engagements, fought by ‘professionals’, over the technical details of how the reforms would work and how they would be brought in. Only a very small minority will join in those arguments, but they will be watched by a larger minority – people with a more tentative grasp of the technical aspects – who will debate among themselves, not about the details of the proposed reforms, but about which team of professionals is winning the technical argument. And they, in turn, will be watched by a still larger group who’ll decide who to cheer for on the basis of who, in that second group, seems to be making most sense – and the wider public will go with whichever side is cheering loudest.

      “how shall we be sure you aren’t just another Margaret Thatcher, come along to help us better give our money to the rich?”

      I don’t see any way we can be sure our representatives are honest, or that the policies they’re promoting will in fact be beneficial. The most we can do, as far as I can see, is make sure that we have effective processes for holding them to account. That’s something we’re not yet doing and that’s what my manifesto focuses on. My land reform proposals wouldn’t be initiated until some major changes to political processes had already been implemented.

      Chief among those reforms is a proposal, Spontaneous Democracy, which would establish a jury-moderated petition process for recalling elected representatives or instigating referendums. Under that proposal, when a petition gets a threshold number of signatures, it’s considered by a randomly-selected jury, who hear arguments for and against, and decide whether to accept or reject it – i.e. whether a by-election or referendum is called. That reform, along with the other six in my manifesto, would transform the power relationship between the public and our representatives.

      The Citizens Assembly method you describe is fine for an issue like electoral reform but I’m not sure it’s a practical approach for most aspects of developing public policy. Electoral reform is a relatively simple issue, without any pressing urgency, without any life-or-death implications, and without any significant impact on how people live their lives. Despite its simplicity, they spent a year studying it. In my view, we’re not going to get away from the need for permanent representatives, who don’t need to spend a year or two getting up to speed on just the basics of whatever comes up.

      But I certainly see a place for sortition. As I said above, I propose using juries to moderate recall motions and citizens’ initiatives, and another of my proposals is for Sovereign Juries: randomly selected samples of the electorate brought together to witness the work of officials and elected representatives at critical points, with the power to challenge what they witness. I also propose that elections should allow people to vote for an indirect sortition candidate – a representative chosen by a randomly-selected jury.

      To my mind, if we have proper processes for choosing them and holding them to account, elected representatives are more likely to deliver good government than the kind of processes you described.

      • “I argue that freehold ownership of land was essentially administrative, right from the start, and that nominating a successor was essentially a matter of passing on responsibility.”

        Hmm, OK – but to whom was the responsibility usually passed? What you call the ‘robber baron narrative’ may be simplistic, but if anyone were asked to summarize the dominant tendency of global history in agrarian societies in two words ‘robber barons’ would be hard to beat. It’s surely hard to argue that anything approaching the equality of opportunity you’re seeking through your proposals was realised in pre-industrial societies except for a few fleeting historical moments here and there?

        • I’m not arguing that equality of opportunity has ever been a feature anywhere, Chris, at least not since prehistoric times. For most of history, it hasn’t even been a guiding principle; in fact, for most of history, maintaining a stratified society has probably been a central purpose of law.

          But equality of opportunity has now become an accepted principle, and the only reason necessary for introducing the kind of reforms I’m proposing is to help establish it in practice as well. However, since it does have to be weighed against other principles, the line of reasoning I put forward above is offered as a rebuttal of a likely objection; it isn’t aimed at justifying the reform.

          Ruben argued, as a practical difficulty of getting it accepted, that it challenges all known European history. Opponents will argue the importance of respecting long-established tradition and the sanctity of private property etc, as reasons for not implementing the reform. Personally, I don’t see those arguments outweighing equality of opportunity, but they do undoubtedly carry some weight, and I think having rebuttals will help win the argument.

          As I said, the Norman barons probably didn’t separate political power and wealth in their minds the way we do today. But it’s not how they thought about it that matters. What’s important, from a modern perspective, is what that tradition contributed to the development of today’s world. History is full of robber barons who didn’t leave any social legacy, so what was different about the ones who did? My case is that it was the integration of landownership into government which entrenched the pattern of it in our current system, rather than any intrinsic social value in the passing on of privilege.

          “but to whom was the responsibility usually passed?”

          To their offspring, of course, as it had been for many, many hundreds of years. They followed tradition just as much as we do today. But is there, in principle, any less merit in passing on rulership than in passing on a farm?

          From the collective point of view, a farm passing to the old farmer’s children makes good sense. Who would know the land, and how it had been farmed, better than the people who had grown up on it and helped work it? In societies where children grow up with their parents, a similar dynamic operates with every (home-based) trade: the children acquire some understanding of it simply by seeing their parents working, and they quite likely get drawn into helping. That applies to rulership as much as any other trade: a ruler’s children will learn a great deal about what it involves, how different types of problem need to be approached and how different types of people need to be treated, just through the process of coming to know the world around them.

          The social value of family inheritance doesn’t lie in it being a right, it lies in the fact that, everything else being equal, offspring are likely to be the best qualified to take over what their parents were doing. So it’s not surprising that traditions of family inheritance developed and took root, in administrative roles as well as productive ones.

          As I see it, the pernicious aspects of inherited rulership would only have emerged later. In the earliest societies there would have been much less disparity in wealth and rulers abusing their position would have been much easier to remove. But once meta-communities started to form, replacing self-serving rulers would have become much harder because it meant that local rulers could call on outsiders to help maintain their position.

          The development of democracy has brought huge changes, but they’ve all been built on foundations laid down in much smaller and simpler societies. What we’ve not done yet is institute effective ways of holding our leaders to account in larger societies.

          • Ah well, once again I think we mostly agree despite apparently disagreeing. I’d perhaps take issue with one or two of your points above, but not so much that it’s worth trying to sustain an argument. I’ll be addressing some of these historical points soon anyway. Your proposals are especially interesting in a contemporary agricultural context where family succession no longer carries the weight of inevitability that it once did.

  31. Ha! A long day’s work on the farm comes to an end, and then a long list of blog comments when I turn on my computer. Thanks everyone – but I have my cognitive limits, so I’m not going to engage as widely as I’d like.

    But I’ve been thinking about your comments during the day, Ruben (haven’t had time to incorporate your latest in the below). I think I understand where you’re coming from a bit better, and the degree of difference is probably quite slight. But I guess I’d still place my emphasis elsewhere. To my mind, you’re overstating the problem of cognitive limits. True, a lot of our social interactions are automated (as in your ‘How are you?’ ‘Fine’), but these are mostly insignificant politically. What we focus an awful lot of our conscious minds on is gossip, assessing people’s motivations, judging them against their own or other standards, and so forth. And this, essentially, is politics. It’s true that nobody has the time to become an expert on everything. But I’d question the assumption that this in itself compromises our ability to do politics well – what compromises it more, I think, is our contemporary tendency to recoil from the notion of collective interest in favour of technocratic solutionism. Also, you do seem to imply that everybody individually has to think through political solutions from first principles. But clearly we build on other people’s thought at various levels. Malcolm’s proposals and the subsequent discussion here have saved me an awful lot of thinking time, for example.

    And an interesting thing about Malcolm’s proposals is that although they’re extremely radical, they leave uncontested a very large part of the canvas of our political culture – which perhaps was one of his points. All change is like this, however apparently radical – nobody recreates social order anew. Maybe this is your ‘subconscious’ point, or what sociologists might call doxa, the universe of unquestioned assumptions about the nature of the social world. I don’t see this as a problem for those of us seeking social change. I see it as a relief.

    In terms of political change, clearly it’s not about everyone thinking through the issues from first principles and then reaching unanimity. It seems like we agree that what actually happens is we latch onto stories and sources of authority. That’s what culture, and political culture is. I’d say that this is both cognitive and reactive – I wouldn’t go with your ‘reactive vs thinking’ dichotomy in this context. And sometimes the stories and sources of authority change. Your Berlin wall example is probably a case in point. When that happens, things can change politically very fast (notwithstanding the deep continuity of shared assumptions). From any given individual’s political standpoint that’s not necessarily a good thing. But it can be – despite the fact that political reality can never really meet political ideals.

    In my judgment, the likelihood of the world going in the kinds of direction I’d like it to go in as charted on this blog are very low. But that’s not really because of the issues I think you’re highlighting – cognitive overload, subconscious reactivity, inertia etc. It’s more because you need a particular and fairly unlikely alignment of cultural/ideological forces to push in that direction. But that’s also true of any social order, including capitalism or neoliberalism, which only looks ordained with hindsight. What’s especially interesting is the point of narrative change – which is where I continue to find concepts like hegemony or legitimation crisis vital tools.

    So I’m not suggesting that the path of progressive change is necessarily any easier than you say. But I’d construe the obstacles a bit differently.

    A couple of closing thoughts. I’d accord much more to power to words than you. I agree it’s often more about the tone or the story than the logic, though I think it’s possible to overstate the irrelevance of logic – even after Trump’s election. Your theatrical metaphor is nice, but a slightly curious choice inasmuch as you’re obviously right that people don’t go to the theatre to see the set – they go there to listen to the words. Words can have immense power in shaping the world. Which is partly the problem, since as you point out we can’t ultimately use words to overcome the biophysical limits we face, though we often behave as if we can.

    And finally, in relation to your driving example, I’d just like to say that I took a conscious decision many years ago to drive on the left as a matter of course. It’s worked out very well for me. I’d recommend others to try it – you might be surprised at the results.

    • Ha! No fair begging off because our countries drive on different sides.

      Just a quick note on words—I want words to matter. I was raised by books, my best friend is an author, I have a blog. But from the perspective of behaviour change , it is clear their power is limited.

      I am not at all sure how powerful cultural narratives are. I would say there is a Venn diagram of “cultural narratives” overlapping greatly with what Lakoff would call deep frames.

      I want to believe in them—indeed, my cultural narrative is that they are supremely important. But I have not seen convincing evidence. I see a lot of people telling the same story…but that has nothing to do with truth.

      Just touching briefly on a “fairly unlikely alignment of cultural/ideological forces”.

      Remember, I am not interested in anthropology, per se. I am interested in making change now. So how would we usefully shape cultural and ideological forces to accomplish our goals?

      Clearly a great deal of cognitive effort has to be put into it, as the Right started doing decades ago. The Left stuck with facts and argument about issues, and has relentlessly lost ground to the Right, that was fighting specifically on cultural and ideological battlefields.

      So, I would say the cognitive limits we first encounter are in the parties of the left, who are holding to how they have always done things.

      Again, culture and ideology are coping mechanisms to help us deal with our great limitations in a very complex and sometimes harsh world. Culture and ideology help cohere as group, and expand the scope of what we can accomplish.

      Anyhow. I am glad we have arrived at a place of greater understanding, if not total agreement. For whatever reasons you have picked your life’s work, I think it is in alignment with the choices our cognitive limits leaves for us. So that is good.

      Thanks again for all of this, and now I must return to building a greenhouse.

  32. Before I reach my cogniti)#@(^@! oops, too late

    Before I run out of cognitional capabilities for today I wanted to leave a reference that might be worth a closer peek: The Role of Conviction and Narrative in Decision Making under Radical Uncertainty. This is a conference paper and thus not a refereed publication (at least not yet) but appears to be fairly thorough.
    The link:

    I was a bit disappointed to see SFF was not cited as a source of deep thinking on the subject. To their credit the paper was presented in August of last year so I’ll wait for their next edition to see if they’ve caught on to the wealth of scholarship available here.

    The authors are from the University College London, so perhaps Chris can jump on a train* the next rainy day and go interview them for a follow-up piece here. This would have the advantage of putting SFF on their radar screen so some representation in their future efforts can be realized. And who knows, this sort of attention might snowball into governmental efforts and the onset of a real peasant life appreciation. Oh to dream.

    *taking the train keeps him off the left side of the road, saves his cognitive capabilities for the in depth nature of the interview, and allows him a chance to type up his thoughts on the ride home while they’re still fresh. Which leaves me to wonder if that’s what they mean by ‘train of thought’.

  33. Thanks for those comments. Ruben, I think I’ll leave the issue there, but doubtless we may come back to it in some form in the future. Clem, thanks for that link, it sounds interesting – though of course I’m as shocked as you are that they failed to incorporate Small Farm Future into their analysis, especially as UCL is my alma mater and they really ought to be keeping up, no?

  34. Pingback: The Ecological Land Co-op - Resilience

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