Property ownership in a small farm future

And so we come to the thorny issue of landownership and property rights in a small farm future, which I discuss in Chapter 13 of my book.

A lot of people I encounter profess complete disdain for the very idea of ‘owning’ land, usually along the lines of the words attributed to Chief Seattle: the earth does not belong to people, people belong to the earth.

Well, I agree. But my interest in landownership is not so cosmological. Less to do with the spirit, and more to do with the stomach. What I want to know is whether it’s OK for me and my folks to fish at this spot in the river, or sow wheat on this patch of land, or take firewood from this part of the woodland. And these are not trivial questions when you need to make a livelihood directly from the land among multitudes of other people, as I believe many or most of us will have to in the future.

It’s this relationship with other people that’s critical, and I believe isn’t as well understood as it should be by critics of the idea of ownership. If I say that I ‘own’ some land, this isn’t fundamentally a claim about my relationship to the land in question. It’s a claim about my relationship to other people in respect of the land – essentially that I have some agreed rights of appropriation in respect of the land that they do not. Fundamentally, property rights are social relations between people. And these relations can be parcelled up in almost endless ways. I may have appropriation rights over fishing a river, but only for certain kinds of fish, or at certain times of year, or if I offer certain gifts to a local dignitary or deity. I may have an exclusive right to plant a field, but not to hunt on it, or dig for minerals on it, or build a house on it, or stop other people from walking over it. In this sense, I think it’s possible to agree with Chief Seattle while still claiming to ‘own’ a piece of land.

So property ownership implies social agreement, even if it’s grudging. If I ask someone not to fish this stretch of river because I own the fishing rights here, I’m implying that both of us are bound by some wider social compact to which we both owe fealty and which by some due process internal to it has accorded me, and not them, the fishing rights. In the absence of that social agreement, ownership means nothing. It’s my word, my fishing rod, or my gun, against theirs.

What is this wider social compact? A word that often springs to the lips is ‘the community’, or some version thereof. In his response to my previous post, Col Gordon discussed the traditional runrig system of Scottish Highland land use in which “the resource base of the land was held communally”. I’m cautious of invoking terms like ‘communal’ or ‘community’ because I think they too often operate as feelgood words that conceal internal politics. Maybe it’s worth substituting a less feelgood word like ‘the government’ to guard against this – “the resource base of the land was held by the government” has a different feel, and in my opinion better captures the messy political realities, even in localized ‘self’-governing situations.

There’s a bad tendency to seek the ‘true’ form of property rights and government by locating it at some historical point of origin. This applies to the founders of modern capitalist ideology like John Locke in their attempts to justify forms of individualism and private property rights. But it also applies to those who justify collectivism as the original human condition. Colonial situations of the kind that concerned both Chief Seattle and Col Gordon are particularly fraught, because the obvious injustice when a private property regime is imposed by force upon a more collectivist one makes the latter seem more original and authentic. This easily obscures the tensions of the prior collectivist system and its own possibly troubled history.

That is not, of course, to say that historical injustices like colonial appropriation of land requires no restitution. But it may mean that achieving the restitution could prove complicated. And this is particularly true if we view property regimes not just as an economic or cultural choice made by given people, but as an ecological strategy followed by people to make a livelihood in the circumstances particular to their time and place. If those circumstances have changed, it may no longer make sense to revert to pre-existing property regimes. This is one of several reasons why I find the idea of solving the problems created by what some call racialized global capitalism by recourse to what some call indigenous land management a bit more problematic than it might appear.

To summarize so far: any claim of ownership or rights to usage over land is a social relation between people which implies a wider political agreement, and it’s probably best not to promote any particular kind of ownership right as inherently superior on the basis of historical origins. Whether we’re talking about fishing a river, the Scottish runrig system and its successors, John Locke’s enthusiasm for private property or Chief Seattle’s scepticism about it, my suggestion is that every possible way that humans have devised to make a livelihood from the land individually or collectively involves problematic inter-human relationships that we can dump in a file called ‘government’. I will try to open up that file in a forthcoming post.

For now, I just want to make a few comments about four broad kinds of property regime around which I’ll organize my discussion in the next few posts.

First, there is distributed private property. In this situation, pretty much everyone has access to an (inevitably small) bit of land that they can call their own. As per my discussion above, their rights of appropriation over it probably won’t be total, but they will have substantial day-to-day autonomy with how they organize their affairs in respect of it.

Second, there is monopoly private property. Here, private landownership is concentrated in few hands, whether a hereditary aristocracy, a moneyed class of more porous membership, or a private collectivity like a business corporation. In this situation, those who aren’t part of the land-monopolizing class may have to rent land or buy its products from the monopolists, probably on unfavourable terms by virtue of the latter’s monopoly. This is called ‘economic rent’ or ‘Ricardian rent’, as discussed at some length in my book – the key point being that monopoly control enables the monopolist to squeeze the unlanded beyond what could be sustained in an evenly distributed land allocation.

Third, there is public property. In this situation, property rights are invested in a corporate body that exercises them exclusively, typically nowadays in the form of a state that claims to do so legitimately because of a sovereignty that derives ultimately from the people it rules over.

Finally, there is common property (or ‘commons’). Here the land is owned by no single person or body, nor by a centralized state claiming sovereignty. Instead, appropriation rights are owned by a specific group of people who in theory have equal rights over it, as determined by protocols agreed among themselves (see A Small Farm Future pp.177-8).

Many of our standard political doctrines pin their colours largely to just one of these four forms of property. So for example, neoliberal capitalism favours monopoly private property, socialism in its various forms favours public property, while quite a bit of Chief Seattle inflected contemporary alternative economics thirsts for commons.

I’m going to look in more detail at each of the four types in forthcoming posts, but I’ll say right now that each of them has some obvious drawbacks, and I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about any single one of them as a fundamental basis for organizing society. One drawback shared by most of them is the tendency for control to fall into the hands of a few relatively unaccountable people at the expense of the many, and to operate at an inappropriately large and unresponsive scale.

So I don’t personally favour any single one of these forms of property. But I do have my preferences. Whereas modern capitalist countries like Britain are typically a mix of monopoly private property and public ownership, with a small serving of distributed private property and the tiniest sliver of common property, I favour on the contrary a small farm future comprising a lot of distributed private property, quite a bit of common property, a small serving of public property and barely a sliver of monopoly private property. So pretty much a reversal of the status quo.

When people profess their opposition to ‘private property’ they rarely seem to grasp how utterly different societies of distributed private property are from ones of monopoly private property, nor – given the separability of different kinds of property rights – how extraordinarily totalitarian are societies lacking de facto private property rights in anything.

There’s also considerable contemporary ignorance about the fact that a century or so ago there were powerful currents of political thought opposing the erosion of distributed private property rights through wage labour, industrial work discipline and monopoly capital. In the event, monopoly capital and collective labour politics prevailed during the 20th century, and these older currents of thought faded. But though they lost the political battle in the short-term, they weren’t necessarily wrong. The disasters of 20th century capitalism and communism have delivered us into a historical moment when those older arguments may have some currency again.

The distributists were proponents of one such strand of argument, and Sean Domencic has persuaded me that I’m (more or less) a latter-day distributist inasmuch as I think that widespread ownership of farmland for the production of food and fibre primarily for household and then for wider local use is desirable.

One advantage of distributed farmsteading is that it has a self-limiting orientation towards household need satisfaction rather than an expansionary orientation towards profit or productivity increase. But this requires strong (private) property rights of appropriation, to prevent external pressures for increase.

There’s a second and related advantage that I don’t think is talked about nearly enough nowadays, although it’s a familiar theme on this blog. This is the personal satisfaction of competently furnishing one’s own livelihood through skilled farming, gardening, foraging and craft skills. It’s possible to overdo this point and succumb to questionable ideologies of the rugged individualist sort. But so many people in the world today lack the opportunity, knowledge and skill to provide even the most basic perquisites of daily life, and I believe this is a silent pathology that eats at contemporary society.

Another advantage of local, small-scale, self-provisioning farm tenure is that it makes the ecological harms of one’s farming practices obvious and incentivizes people to avoid them. At the same time, it enables people to tap the economies of small, non-commercialized scale that I mentioned in a recent post.

Finally, as discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of A Small Farm Future, an advantage of distributed property ownership and personal livelihood production is that it reduces the need for thrashing out agreements with other people over exactly how to go about one’s business. People in the alternative agriculture/alternative economics movements often say that we’re too individualist nowadays and we need to create more collective working structures. This is no doubt true in some ways, but it’s complicated. The more people you have to negotiate work routines with, the more time is sucked into the process and the more precious livelihood autonomy you lose. A nodding acquaintance with the agrarian structures of many non-capitalist and non-modern societies should be enough to show that selfishness, free-riding and general human orneriness are not limited to modern capitalist societies and need to be carefully managed everywhere. One of the easiest ways to do this involves the subsidiarity of undertaking everything that you realistically can yourself.

The main disadvantages of distributed private property are, as I see it, threefold. First there’s the flipside of the point I just made – the danger of an anomic individualism, lack of community feeling or hidden exploitation within the household. We’ve already discussed this at some length here, but no doubt we’ll return to it again.

The second disadvantage is that restricted divisions of labour and value extraction in a distributed small farm society may limit its technological possibilities. There won’t be Boeing 747s, Android Smartphones or even Massey Ferguson 135s in a genuinely distributed small farm society. There may, however, be blacksmiths who can keep a lot of useful local tech going. Given the urgent need to decarbonize, decapitalize and relocalize our political economies in view of present crises, I see this as probably an advantage rather than a disadvantage. But it involves a huge and perhaps impossible readjustment of contemporary horizons.

Finally, a disadvantage of distributed private property societies is that it’s pretty difficult to stop them from becoming monopoly private property societies, thereby losing all of the advantages that I’ve mentioned. I’ll talk more about this in a later post. The ghost of Henry George is stirring.

38 thoughts on “Property ownership in a small farm future

  1. Many of our standard political doctrines pin their colours largely to just one of these four forms of property. So for example, neoliberal capitalism favours monopoly private property, socialism in its various forms favours public property, while quite a bit of Chief Seattle inflected contemporary alternative economics thirsts for commons.

    Perhaps “largely” and “favours” are sufficient cover words to acknowledge the presence other types… but I imagine the existence of other types of ownership within a patch allow the residents of said patch to witness how various ownership patterns interact and if not ‘force’ certain behaviours – certainly ‘flavor’ how parcels are perceived within the larger space.

    Using the patch around my Ohio farm (which would primarily fall under the monopoly private property) – this farm exists within a township, a county, a state, and a federal government. Each of those four government entities hold an interest in the patch’s economic existence, it’s environmental impact, it’s ‘neighborliness’ (struggling for a better term there)… hunting/fishing rights, and access. These interests are managed or enforced through taxes, zoning regulations, laws, contracts, easements and so forth. At the same time, just across a creek at the border of the farm there is a state property (public land) that has a whole other set of management protocols. The township has no immediate say for the state property.

    At one end of the property is a public road. These can be quite contentious pieces of property – the road by my farm is a township road – for purposes of maintenance, improvement (or removing), but enforcement of access can be managed at higher government levels (thus township rights are secondary or tertiary to county and state objectives. In many cases the land “underneath” the road still belongs to landowners on either side – the government having a easement such that free ownership would revert to owners if the road is removed.

    A few miles from the farm the township has a piece of property – it must maintain and manage under the rubrics of the three higher levels of government (and this responsibility falls to duly elected members of the township community).

    A few miles further on one finds several pieces of county property, which fall to the county for jurisdiction within state and federal guidance. Some roadways can be part of the county’s responsibilities as well.

    The state of Ohio owns land in the county for various purposes (a penitentiary, state highway garage, non-park wilderness, etc). State highways also part of their responsibilities.

    I’m not aware of the federal government owning any land near my farm. Though in many places there are still federal lands and they will have their own managerial codes.

    Where a particular individual has property that extends beyond a single township boundary they will find the location of their domicile will afford them voting rights for the township of residence – but not for another township where property may lie and be subject to taxes or other controls. For the most part this latter situation (which is very common) is handled by coordination at the next higher level of government (where voting rights will be available).

    I know the purpose of the thought highlighted above was to streamline the conversation… and I would also acknowledge that all the various land holding situations I’ve laid out here are not commonly appreciated. But my purpose in detailing this one particular “community’s” various and varied land holding scenarios is to make the point that property rights (and responsibilities) are complex and attract the attention of many actors – some local and some not so close by. Any landholder who imagines his or her private property is somehow “private” is sorely misinformed (at least where I live).

    • You have well summarized at least five layers of land control, in which the hierarchy of the layers is evidenced by powers of eminent domain law and other mechanisms of law enforcement. Some people might include a sixth layer, that of international treaty, or law, but that layer is far more tenuous than the federal, state, county, town and individual/corporate layers.

      As Chris suggests, future societies will probably operate under circumstances of significant de-layering since the hierarchy of government in a modern nation state requires a lot of surplus energy and technology to maintain and that surplus will diminish ever more rapidly going forward.

      It’s surplus energy that allows the creation of the mechanisms of law creation and enforcement at each level of government. Police departments and armies are expensive. We think more easily about the energy embedded in physical infrastructure like roads and power lines, but social infrastructure takes energy, too.

      As energy availability declines, our modern societies will de-layer. Managing that process well is going to be extremely difficult, since the underlying reasons for de-layering will also be causing a great amount of distress to the general population.

      The best course of action would be to engage in deliberate de-layering prior to dire necessity, but that would require the abandoning of a lot of important interests vested in each separate layer. It would also require an accurate determination of the minimum number of governing layers required for a low-energy society and applying those layers to an existing higher-energy society.

      I think it is likely that the whole process of de-layering will be rather uncontrolled, unorganized and potentially violent. It’s a process that isn’t even being discussed yet except in a few obscure places. Time is running out.

      • “I think it is likely that the whole process of de-layering will be rather uncontrolled, unorganized and potentially violent. It’s a process that isn’t even being discussed yet except in a few obscure places. Time is running out.” Definitely, Joe, the biggest question.

      • except in a few obscure places
        so as we’re discussing it here, then SFF is an obscure place? OK, I suppose I can understand that. ‘Tis a shame though.

        You brought up the international level – which did cross my mind as I typed. I passed on it even though the UN and some international treaties do have some minuscule role (more perhaps from an international trade angle – as farmgate prices for the commodities produced on my farm are subject to international markets). But I also considered adding a non-legal or non-governmental layer to my comments. This latter level should likely set immediately next to the property itself (or ahead of the township level) – and this is the immediate neighborhood. Where I was trying to come with a good term for neighborliness, or what passes for land management by custom or local habit. I’m thinking here of things like not raising tillage radishes as a cover crop in a field 10 meters from the neighbors house (which when they die can give off un-neighborly odors.

        I agree there will likely be much de-layering, and not all will be pretty. But the most local layer(s) will, in my view, need to be either held somewhat intact or most carefully negotiated.

  2. Two thoughts:

    How do the various levels of legislation regarding access rights play out in a supersedure state?

    I know I argue that what people think of as high tech may well be “available but expensive” — at least in my own lifetime. But in all honesty I’m a lot more concerned about the continued existence and availability of antibiotics, vaccines, insulin and various other medicines than I am about smartphones. It’s still less than half my life that I’ve even had a smartphone, I know it’s possible to cope without them.

  3. Excellent and clear Chris.

    There’s also considerable contemporary ignorance about the fact that a century or so ago there were powerful currents of political thought opposing the erosion of distributed private property rights through wage labour, industrial work discipline and monopoly capital.

    I wonder if some of the resistance to the small farm vision is that so many people have not experienced the sense of meaning found in self-provender and so all they see is a lot of work, which they don’t want to do. A common response to this is Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which promises we can have all the things but not have to work.

  4. Great post. My main concern is with your last paragraph, which in turn has implications both for the nature of “ownership” and for “markets”. In Europe, I would say that ownership is pretty much tied to the right to sell whatever it is that you own. And in a market economy) this leads almost by design to that land will be sold and that some people will amass a lot of land and then you get tenants, sharecroppers or landless etc, etc, In my view, “private” (be that for any social grouping) tenure combined with some community utlimate control and without the right to sell woul combine the benefits with the main drawback being the community big man not liking you and giving the land away…..

    • That is an excellent point, Gunnar.

      At the risk of belaboring the North American Real Estate Disaster that has been ongoing for the last 500 years, this business of selling was one of the primary obstacles to the natives here understanding the Europeans.

      My understanding is that at least on the coast of what became New York and New England, the natives had a strong set of boundaries and conditions for who owned the land and therefore could benefit from its produce. They also had a set of rules for selling the use of the land – something like a land lease. But my understanding is that they had no concept of ‘fee simple title’. Because ‘owning’ the land was something only a crazy person could believe in.

      Doubtless my understanding is much less complex than what really happened.

      It seems safer to restrict all kinds of selling. There is long tradition of property held (firmly) in perpetuity with no possibility of selling, but still benefiting the nominal owner.

      But as Chris says, property ownership is always a social arrangement agreed among the residents.

      And as we have seen down through history, there are those among us who are not averse to using deadly force to make the residents agree with them.
      Such people are not interested in what has been written in the books at the county courthouse.

  5. If the transition towards a distributed small farm future is not simply the result of a social trend but rather led by an explicit policy implementation then presumably the risks of returning to monopolistic land ownership can be avoided by an appropriate regulatory framework? This is already often argued for, for example, in relation to housing such as ruling out second home ownership and heavily taxing any increases in capital values etc.

    A more general question is that the picture of a distributed small farm future looks to be a very able-bodied society if “many or most” are self-provisioning from the land. How would the frail elderly, those with long term disabilities, serious mental health problems etc have their needs met? Will there be a societal level surplus big enough to undertake this or would this revert to family/local community provision, which would have many risks attached? Would the social issues of the early 19th century re-appear?

  6. I’ve spent several years living and working in semi-rural Switzerland, and I was struck by how much land is owned and managed by the local municipalities (typically the uninhabited higher elevations and mountains). Some areas of the country have communal ownership by the local citizens, with one example being the valley of Ursen in central Switzerland.

    93% of the land in the Ursen valley (175 square-kms) is owned by a long-standing corporation consisting of all the established citizens in the valley. This corporation is an autonomous entity which collaborates with the cantonal and local municipal governments.

    “The corporation has a democratic structure… Once a year in May all the men and women of the corporation meet in front of the Church in Hospental for the elections and for the vote about budget, financial statements, citizenship for new members and new rules.”

    “The corporation is responsible for the sustainable grazing of the alpine meadows, owns hydroelectric power stations, deals with the military, which uses the area, and takes care of the avalanche protection together with the municipalities. The corporation is also involved in the local retirement home… Until 1974 the corporation and not the official municipalities was responsible for the support of poor people in the valley.”

    “Easy admission to the corporation is only possible for women through marriage. Other people can become a member of the corporation (citizen of the valley) if their family lived in the valley for at least 50 years and they pay a CHF 1’000 admission fee. However the corporation is currently thinking about lowering the 50 years to 30 years. The right to exclude outsiders had been an important principle in the past because of land scarcity.”

    COMMUNITY-BASED MANAGEMENT OF ALPINE PASTURES AND RESOURCES IN THE VALLEY OF URSERN, SWITZERLAND
    https://cases.open.ubc.ca/community-based-management-of-alpine-pastures-and-resources-in-the-valley-of-ursern-switzerland/

    • While reading more about the Swiss municipal ownership of common land, I encountered an unfamiliar usage of the term “bourgeoisie” .

      The bourgeoisie (Bürgergemeinde in German) were the established citizens, back when the tenants and servants were not citizens. Only the citizens (or bourgeoisie) of the towns and villages had rights to the community property, along with political rights.

      Later, when Swiss citizenship was extended to tenants and servants, the municipality (“commune” in French, “gemeinde” in German) became the political community comprising all resident citizens, but the bourgeoisie were still the owners of the community property.

      The municipalities eventually acquired rights to public property and the rights of taxation. Out of all the Swiss municipalities in 2004 (including cities such as Zurich and Geneva), half of them had a population less than 1,000 and only about 5% of the municipalities had a population greater than 10,000.

      “The beginnings of the modern municipality system date back to the Helvetic Republic. Under the Old Swiss Confederacy, citizenship was granted by each town and village to only residents. These citizens enjoyed access to community property and in some cases additional protection under the law. Additionally, the urban towns and the rural villages had differing rights and laws. The creation of a uniform Swiss citizenship, which applied equally for citizens of the old towns and their tenants and servants, led to conflict. The wealthier villagers and urban citizens held rights to forests, common land and other municipal property which they did not want to share with the “new citizens”, who were generally poor. The compromise solution, which was written into the municipal laws of the Helvetic Republic, is still valid today. Two politically separate but often geographically similar organizations were created. The first, the so-called municipality, was a political community formed by election and its voting body consists of all resident citizens. However, the community land and property remained with the former local citizens who were gathered together into the Bürgergemeinde/bourgeoisie…”

      “The relationship between the political municipality and the Bürgergemeinde was often dominated by the latter’s ownership of community property. Often the administration and profit from the property were totally held by the Bürgergemeinden, leaving the political municipality dependent on the Bürgergemeinde for money and use of the property. It was not until the political municipality acquired rights over property that served the public (such as schools, fire stations, etc.) and taxes, that they obtained full independence. For example, in the city of Bern, it was not until after the property division of 1852 that the political municipality had the right to levy taxes.”

      “It was not until the Federal Constitution of 1874 that all Swiss citizens were granted equal political rights on local and Federal levels. This revised constitution finally removed all the political voting and electoral body rights from the Bürgergemeinde… However, the Bürgergemeinde has remained… The Bürgergemeinde also often holds and administers the common property in the village for the members of the community.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Municipalities_of_Switzerland

    • The “bourgeoisie” form of collective ownership is alive and well in Switzerland, with “possession and management of most of the Swiss forests and mountain pastures,” according to this news story from 2020 (translated by Google). At least 1,500 bourgeoisies “continue to exist alongside the municipalities.” Some areas have more bourgeoisies than municipalities.

      https://www.24heures.ch/vaud-regions/riviera-chablais/saintmaurice-celebre-850-ans-bourgeoisie-pleine-forme-ailleurs/story/19453347

      ‘Saint-Maurice celebrates the 850 years of a bourgeoisie in great shape. And elsewhere?’
      by Christophe Boillat

      ‘They existed before, but we know of the existence of the bourgeoisies only from the 13th century, thanks to written documents when they decide to adopt statutes. From their origin, they have possessed important goods and properties, particularly forests and mountain pastures which they exploit ”, indicates Georges Schmid, president of the Swiss Federation of Bourgeoisies and Corporations (FSBC)…’

      ’18 out of 26 cantons. In the majority of the cantons, bourgeoisies with different privileges remain in a significant way. This is the case for 18 of them… The umbrella association brings together some 1,500 bourgeoisies. Valais is the third largest member, with 141 registered bourgeoisies (for 126 municipalities).’

      ‘Note that here, the bourgeoisies continue to exist alongside the municipalities, also after a merger. “Val d’Anniviers, for example, has six bourgeoisies for a single municipality”, further notes the president of the FSBC.’

      ‘Saint-Maurice has 450 bourgeois, a tenth of its population. “It is one of the oldest and most important in Switzerland. And therefore from Valais, with Sion, Zermatt, Visp and Brig ”, specifies Jean-Marc Koller, one of the five members of the Bourgeois Council (Executive), elected for four years. All its decisions must be validated by the primary assembly, sovereign and composed only of bourgeois, which meets as many times as necessary but at least once a year.’

      ‘Two thirds of forests. The bourgeoisies therefore still retain major advantages such as the possession and management of most of the Swiss forests and mountain pastures. “For the former, two thirds belong to the bourgeoisies. In Valais, the figure is 90% ”, specifies Georges Schmid.’

      ‘The Noble Bourgeoisie of Saint-Maurice owns 550 hectares, including 78 in Bois-Noir, a precious biotope made available to the population. But that’s not all. It has an important heritage, “such as buildings, land, cover, a campsite, a quarry, partly a wood-fired heating plant, still partly a forest yard, and even the Town Hall that it puts available to the Municipality free of charge, ”explains Jean-Marc Koller, president of the organizing committee for the 850th anniversary.’

      ‘Very active, pragmatic, the bourgeois Agaunois, in addition to their historical mission linked to forests and mountain pastures, have embarked on real estate by building, for example, the first low-cost housing in Saint-Maurice, making it possible to welcome many newcomers, and therefore taxpayers.’

      ‘Above all, the bourgeoisie is a philanthropist. “It still plays a big role in social and cultural life and financially supports local societies and various actions”, adds Jean-Marc Koller, like the local brass band, the passport-vacations, the mixed choir, the vocal ensemble, of many sports clubs, various events (monastic market, abbey jubilee festivities, etc.). Tens of thousands of francs are thus redistributed annually to the community.”‘

  7. Nicely summed up, Chris. It is complicated, and as with so much in our era, moving fast. I always have enjoyed these discussions on property, as much for the alien British landholding insights, as for the intelligent back and forth.

    But the former has been on my mind as land ownership in the US is changing fast. The billionaire class is working hard to be the new landed aristocracy. We had a family friend who wanted to expand his family rice farm. His neighbor was selling out and 500 acres was coming up for auction. He was out bid by someone from out of state, a man by the name of Bill Gates. BG is now the largest landowner of farmland in Louisiana.

    Now, for what purposes does a tech-billionaire want to acquire over 240,000 acres (and still acquiring) of productive farmland? What does that mean for landownership patterns in the US? Which, as Clem points out, has a diverse group of property stakeholders. But if one class can come in and change the property dynamics, unfavorable to the small property holder, almost overnight, what does that mean for a small farm future?

    Not on the Bill Gates level, but our area of East Tennessee is awash in people fleeing certain key cities and states. Recent studies show that most property acquisitions in these counties come from emigrants from New York, California, and Oregon. Our property prices are a bargain. A modest home on an acre, which sold ten years ago for $110,000, just sold for $425,000. This meteoric rise in property values is effectively locking out the local working population from landownership,

    That the rich and the slightly better off have always acted thus, is no surprise. That it is so quickly happening is surprising, at least to this observer. I just throw this out to complicate the building a better world narrative. Because it seems a soon as we put a pin on the map, the border changes. It would seem that we are all residents of Alsace-Lorraine these days.

    • Now, for what purposes does a tech-billionaire want to acquire over 240,000 acres (and still acquiring) of productive farmland?

      The answer is easy: productive farmland is one of the few things that has intrinsic worth. Anyone with financial assets can protect against inflation risk by purchasing something that will always have consistent value. And since “they aren’t making it any more”, land actually tends to increase in relative value. Debt-free land, especially agricultural or timber land, is one of the best things one can own.

      Unfortunately, unless you’re very wealthy, owning land is not compatible with moving around to find work or move up a career ladder. If you devote yourself to acquiring land, you’re also committing yourself to living in the country, something that is hard to do in a modern economy.

      Chris (channeling Henry George) is going to tackle this trend toward “monopoly private property” soon. I’m curious to see his suggestions. Policies that work against monopolists may have unintended consequences for smallholders, too.

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  9. A quick comment on comments. There have been some excellent ones under recent posts – thank you very much. I’ve wanted to engage with them but I feel pretty squeezed these days between debating with people’s responses, writing new blog posts and, er, everything else in my life. So please forgive me if I don’t engage as much as you might like, and please keep commenting! I do read and learn from every comment, even if I don’t respond to some of them. I wish I had more time to do so.

  10. And so to the present crop of comments…

    Clem nicely points up the complexity of public landownership (taxation of course is a whole other bag), its multiple levels and the fact that ‘private’ ownership is, as I mentioned above, always a social relation and thus a relative term. My brief description of public ownership is obviously over-simple, but ultimately as I see it there is only a single seat of sovereignty within the modern concept of the nation state repurposed from older Christian political theologies that now holds sway over the whole world, although sovereignty can be delegated to lower geographic levels.

    Joe is also right of course that there are also higher levels of global governance, which I agree are more tenuous but still quite critical. The US experience of all this is I suspect quite untypical, firstly in the degree of tensions that have arisen for historical reasons between different levels of government rather than between competing would-be nations within extant nation-states (states’ rights in the US vs ethno-nationalism in most other places). This I think somewhat conceals the fact that sovereignty in the US as in every other nation-state is still basically unitary. Secondly, since the US is still just about holding on to its status as the world’s only superpower, the higher levels of global governance Joe refers to are less important to it than to most other countries, including the UK, where we’re just beginning to learn what the world looks like outside the umbrella of the EU. Even so, I think the US’s cavalier use and abuse of organisations such as the UN, NATO, the IMF and the WHO is beginning to come back to haunt it.

    To Kathryn’s points, I prefer to hold fire regarding landownership in a supersedure state until I’ve discussed both land tenure and supersedure in more detail in later posts. Perhaps for now I’ll just say that I think Steve’s Swiss case study is very important in pointing to the grey areas between forms of sovereignty – basically, when does a commons become a miniature state, and how does it then relate to other states large and small around it? Something that I think is really critical here and will be critical in future supersedure situations is the implicit social agreement invoked in claims to property. If I have no gun or police officer to hand and I tell you that I own something, I’m invoking some penumbra of legitimacy that I’m expecting you probably share. How that plays out in future is going to be absolutely critical to the kind of societies that emerge, and I’ll be saying more about it soon.

    Regarding medical technologies, that’s a good catch since I often complain about over-emphasis on electronics as exemplary of ‘technology’ and yet succumbed to the fixation myself above! Again, I’ll say more about this in another post soon (perhaps I’ll post here the chapter I wrote on social welfare for A Small Farm Future that didn’t make it into the book). This also speaks to some of Philip’s points. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that multitudes of the world’s people at present have little or no access to decent health and welfare services – and that this isn’t because modernity hasn’t reached them yet. So a global small farm future with more equal access to welfare services – but poorer access than people in the wealthiest countries are used to – may not involve a diminution in total global welfare. Maybe the present crisis in the NHS here in the UK is a sign of things to come.

    Philip rightly points to the problems of family/community welfare provision. There are also, I would argue, many problems with public/bureaucratic provision, so trade-offs abound. Anyway, more on that soon. As to whether a small farm future is slanted towards the able-bodied, that’s an interesting point inasmuch as I understand one strand of argument within disability theory is that disability isn’t something individuals have but something that social organization imposes. If a small farm future is intrinsically an able-bodied future that would suggest this argument is mistaken and there’s an objective material check to the power of human society to overcome limits – something I believe to be the case, but that’s often a hard argument to make for fear of being (mistakenly) dismissed as ‘Malthusian’. Anyway, as I see it there are many kinds of disability (especially mental ones) that are perfectly compatible with farming or gardening, but yes some kinds that aren’t – so, as with any other society, how people care for each other in a small farm future is an important question.

    Nice point from Ruben. Further thoughts on ‘work’ versus ‘labour’ coming up soon.

    Nice points also from Gunnar, Eric and Brian. Karl Polanyi calls land, labour and money ‘fictitious commodities’ inasmuch as they’re treated in capitalist societies as if they can be bought and sold like any other market commodity but they are obviously not simply items produced for sale. The complexity here as I see it and as I discuss in my book is that making land purchasable for money is a good way of dissolving various problematic status distinctions (e.g. if women are able to amass money and purchase land with it, this kicks away a major prop for patriarchy) but if there’s too much liquid capital in the system this is inimical to an equitable small farm society (as per the comments about Bill Gates’ land acquisitions, or – here in the UK – James Dyson’s). Gates’s ecomodernist enthusiasms are perhaps cautionary here – a mix of electronic gewgaws and philanthrocapitalism to keep the masses happy while sealing power through land acquisition.

    • I am not quite ready to throw away the social model of disability — the idea that disabled people are disabled not primarily because of some inherent deficit in their own capabilities, but because those with the power to make decisions on a societal level do so in such a way that excludes some. I had a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis a few years ago and for much of a period of about eighteen months could only walk short distances, and that with considerable pain; however I could cycle pretty much indefinitely. I was very aware of how much the built environment favours people who drive cars and people who can walk; I was very aware of the lack of step-free access in public transport, and the way some mobility aids are accommodated on buses and trains and others (such as my bicycle) are not. I experienced more pain than I otherwise would have, and missed out on some activities entirely, because the social infrastructure (built environment, legal distinctions, interpersonal expectations etc) makes certain assumptions about able-bodiedness.

      Similarly, I have (mild) asthma which I’m almost certain is caused by air pollution (in the first lockdown in spring 2020, it went away entirely). If so, this is absolutely a consequence of car culture. My breathing is affected, to a level that means I sometimes need medication, by the choices made in the society around me. I’m sure most of them don’t think “oh, I should probably drive less so my neighbour can breathe.”

      That doesn’t mean the medical model is useless. People who suffer from, say, migraines or epilepsy might be disabled by society in that they are expected to navigate spaces full of flashing lights (or similar) which can induce migraines or seizures, but some people will get migraines or have seizures even without such stimuli; including warnings about strobe lighting is important in such cases, as is making sure we have a society where people who are in so much pain they cannot work are still supported, but so is finding medication that helps. I’d rather the people around me stopped driving than be reliant on occasional use of an inhaler, but most people drive and the medication does help. And it isn’t always possible to alleviate such problems. Some injuries or deficits are unavoidable or accidental or congenital or whatever. Some pain is intractable, with any resource we have.

      I suppose one way of thinking about this social model of disability is to say that we have tended to be rather selective about whose lives we make easier with the technology and energy we have access to. We tend to design our spaces and our social structures with the assumption that, for example, everyone can see; but my friend who was born blind reads Braille instead, or uses a screenreader, and internet memes with pictures of text are illegible to her when people don’t think to include a plaintext description. In a much more trivial example, I am tall enough that mass-produced women’s clothing usually doesn’t fit me: the efficiencies of crapitalism put me at a (minor) disadvantage, there, compared to someone six inches shorter.

      I expect that some of the technologies that make life easier for some disabled people will become much more expensive or much rarer. For me, a smartphone is a convenience; for a blind person living alone it is a crucial tool for independence, a huge step up from what laptops could do previously. (When my friend and I used to dine out, before the pandemic, I would often text her the url of the restaurant menu on their website, because that was often easier than finding out if they had a braille menu available, and saved time compared to me reading the entire thing out. Her screenreader interfaces via bluetooth with a braille device, so she could read the menu that way instead — as long as it wasn’t pictures of text…) So I think our various vulnerabilities, and the ways we depend on one another, will become much more obvious in a lower-energy, non-industrial future. You’re certainly right that how people care for each other in a small farm future is an important question.

      Another point that is common in disability discourse seems important here, too: accommodations that help disabled people participate more fully often help others, too. Ramps improve access for people using wheelchairs or unable to use stairs for other reasons, but also for parents pushing prams; audio books enable my blind friend to read books faster than she can in Braille (especially taking into account the conversion time) but also enable me to listen to a book while doing work that requires the use of my eyes and hands (in practice I rarely do this, but I imagine I might if I had a regular car commute or something).

      I expect changes in the availability of cheap energy and cheap travel and industrial manufacturing to be a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. I think it will be much more difficult for a blind person to live alone. Perhaps my clothes will fit better (or perhaps not), but I’ll have much less choice of material or colour, and own far fewer of them than I do now. My asthma should improve (though I’ll probably have to be careful cooking with a woodstove), but I might struggle if I have another bad bout of plantar fasciitis and nobody around who can take on some of my physical work for a while. Few or no audiobooks, maybe more working songs or oral storytelling.

      One of the strong arguments for moderately sized intergenerational households (whether of “biological” family or some other attachment) is that people’s ability to do different types of labour changes over time. Joe has written before about how elderly people who have been farming all their lives have huge amounts of knowledge about what does and doesn’t work; this is true even when they don’t have the ability to dig up potatoes or sow peas. And in a household with enough people of varying ages and capabilities, the work of looking after a profoundly dependent person (whether a baby, or a teen or adult with developmental problems, someone who is blind or deaf or both, or a physically spry but senile 65-year-old) can be shared around a bit, rather than falling mostly on one or two people as it might do in a nuclear family.

      This is, of course, a recipe for all kinds of problems, but as with abuse of people who are vulnerable because they are children or because they are women or for whatever other reason, I think it’s important to look at what modernity has to offer and acknowledge that where we are isn’t exactly wonderful either.

  11. The nature of ownership in a small farm future will depend on the existence of money. If paper wealth evaporates when we hit hard limits to growth will Bill Gates be able to enforce his ownership of land in Louisiana ? I doubt the land will remain vacant in a time of genuine ‘hardship’. Whether anyone could grow anything there without fertility inputs would remain to be seen.

    One of the positive attributes of land ownership is the willingness and ability to maintain it in a productive state.

    • Yup as with gates and the rest of us , owning land will become holding on to land . Who decides what will be interesting , who negates previous land ownership , compensation for the landowner who enforces the decision ? how much land per family and where , water rights , it’s endless .
      Watching the defund cops debacle should be one of the canaries in the coal mine warning is about what happens when states decide to remove services .

  12. As far as I know the land parcels here in New England are too small to attract the attention of any billionaires, but property prices are rising here too. There is some resentment of wealthier people from the cities and suburbs driving up prices and tying up available land in their second homes, but it’s possible that in the longer term today’s second homes will be tomorrow’s homesteads and we will all end up as fellow farmers. I don’t see this class of people winding up as our overlords.

    I do find myself wondering how property rights will be administered and enforced in a low energy future and share the concerns of others that the transition could be messy and possibly violent, but I hope that we will be able to evolve into a less complex society without collapsing into complete anarchy. New England (and probably most other regions) were able to govern themselves and maintain the rule of law before modern times, so I find the anarchy scenario fairly hard to imagine but perhaps that is just wishful thinking.

    I am much more concerned about land ownership and access for people of color in my region, because right now the land is nearly all in white hands. There are some interesting organizations and funds with the ambition of redressing this, and I plan to support them because land ownership could well be a prerequisite for a life of dignity and self-determination in a future where many more people live on the land.

  13. Very interesting post Chris, and the comments above also draw out a lot of thought-provoking points. It sounds like this is just the beginning of an exploration into this topic, and I’m sure many issues will be treated in more detail down the road. So just a few initial thoughts.

    First, the idea of landholding as a social agreement. This seems fair enough to me, and my own approach to historical landholding has emerged wholesale from Susan Reynolds’ study of feudal property (a book I think you might have used yourself in your earlier historical essay), in which she defines landholding in any situation as basically a bundle of rights and obligations.

    As some of the comments above make clear, the devil here is in the detail, the specific form the bundle might take. Property rights of whatever kind always imply obligations of some kind to an outside authority. In particular, what strikes me is that your four different kinds of property regime all represent forms of landholding that exist in the world today within existing legal frameworks. You seem to invoke this legal envelope in your reply above when you mention a shared ‘penumbra of legitimacy’. Assuming that any landholding situation in the future that we would find desirable is protected by institutional structures rather than personal ones (by which I mean anything legitimised by the patronage of ‘big men’), then the form of those structures, their accountability, the extent of democratic process within their operation, will be crucial, and is therefore as I see it crucial to any discussion of landholding.

    My second point concerns your use of the term ‘property’. Collectively, here at SFF, we have a long history of debating keywords, and property appears to be a notably slippery example. Any given use of it likely can be read in a number of different ways, only one of which was intended! I wonder if it would be useful to use (or at least augment with) other terms drawn from the legal world of landholding. Usufruct, the right to use land and it’s fruits, seems to be me a useful one as it distinguishes these property rights from the right to alienation, whether through gift, sale, inheritance, etc.

    Thinking through your four property regimes, monopoly and public property imply the complete set of property rights, as it’s the right to alienate, rent and sell that empowers the monopolist landlord in the first place, while a public institution presumably lives forever in theory and therefore doesn’t have to worry about inheritance. Common property deals in usufruct, and represents the interesting situation in which explicit arrangements are made to ensure that a right to alienation does not exist in one person’s or authority’s hands.

    Distributed property could, as I see it, mean several things. Each small landholder could own the complete set of rights, and I think this is how such a regime might be understood by many today, especially when it is contrasted with the disadvantages of a landlord system dominated by leasing. However, as (possibly) in Steve L’s Swiss example, distributed property might imply only usufruct, with the right to alienation held by a public corporation, here defined at a smaller scale level than the nation state. This, for me, is where things start to get interesting…

    • I agree — the specific form of the bundle of rights and the context in which they are enforced will be important.

      One of the things that’s difficult about puzzling this out, at least for me, is that I have grown up with particular assumptions about which rights are implied by ownership or property, to the point that it is easy to accidentally insert those assumptions into my reasoning. If nothing else, use of the term “usufruct” begins to avoid this problem.

      I’m also very aware that where there is a power imbalance, the rights I have in law are not necessarily a guarantee of anything much. We rent a house and have the right, allegedly, to “quiet enjoyment of the property” — but the reality is that if the letting agent, on behalf of the landlord, prevents this significantly (as has happened recently with some entirely cosmetic but extremely disruptive work on the kitchen ceiling), our options are to put up with it or to move somewhere else. Theoretically we could take legal action, but they have more resources than we do and they know as well as we do that it isn’t a renter’s market right now, so (as is often the case in crapitalism) in the end it comes down to power again. (In this case we’ll probably be fine: our landlord is somewhere between a friend and acquaintance and is also furious with the letting agent, and this alliance of landlord and tenant changes the balance of power considerably.)

      • And as far as power imbalance and the enforcement of legal rights is concerned — anyone who has experienced something similar might well have concerns about violence.

        I take some comfort from the idea that if medical technology and electronics are in short supply due to deindustrialisation and lack of transport, ammunition is also eventually going to run out, and a bit more comfort from the idea that anyone who does me serious harm is doing harm to someone who a) probably knows more than they do about how to grow food and b) probably knows more than they do about which plants and fungi are poisonous, and a bit more comfort that I know most of my neighbours. But if there is significant violence, I don’t have any real defence beyond that.

        • Look at CA , the $950 limit on theft arrests is destroying local shopping , too many people would rather steal someone else’s property than work , claims of food deserts will resume , the state is in effect giving away someone else’s property and that property being subsidized by the rest of us with higher prices , its your legal looting , the state has given up on law and order , one of the first stages of collapse / degrowth .

  14. Pingback: Property ownership in a small farm future | Small Farm Future

  15. Thanks for the further comments. I will attempt to address some of the points raised by Andrew & Kathryn in upcoming posts. I think the concept of usufruct is important, but (as argued in my book) quite problematic. I’m no legal or political theorist, but as I see it any kind of property right is ultimately a right claimed against a wider collectivity so is implicitly always usufructuary though I suppose alienability rights invested exclusively in the owner are unusual and specific. The bigger problem is when the community can easily alienate land from the owner, which I think is likely to be inimical to a small farm future. But here, we’re deep in the file called government I mentioned above, and I will try to open it properly soon. As I see it, the fact of alienability is less important than the nature of the economy through which it flows.

    Likewise, I hope to say a little more soon about A.J.’s important point concerning land access to people of colour (and about rural gentrification that we’ve discussed here previously, but I hope to write a specific post on soon).

    Interesting & thorough analysis of the disability point from Kathryn, and no disagreements with it from me. My point was simply that it’s hard to hang onto a social model of disability if one claims a small farm future implicitly favours the able-bodied. But maybe it does, with interesting implications…

  16. Miss a few days around here and one can miss quite a bit…

    I’d like to draw out something Chris left earlier in response to one of Joe’s comments:
    The US experience of all this is I suspect quite untypical, firstly in the degree of tensions that have arisen for historical reasons between different levels of government rather than between competing would-be nations within extant nation-states (states’ rights in the US vs ethno-nationalism in most other places). This I think somewhat conceals the fact that sovereignty in the US as in every other nation-state is still basically unitary. Secondly, since the US is still just about holding on to its status as the world’s only superpower, the higher levels of global governance Joe refers to are less important to it than to most other countries, including the UK, where we’re just beginning to learn what the world looks like outside the umbrella of the EU. Even so, I think the US’s cavalier use and abuse of organisations such as the UN, NATO, the IMF and the WHO is beginning to come back to haunt it.

    While not agreeing completely with this analysis I do imagine it very worthwhile and it helps me as a US citizen gain some insight into the view of someone on the outside looking in. Naturally I’ve biases and blind spots as a US citizen, but I’ve benefited from a little international travel, working for an international corporation, and some university experience with many international students.

    So the US has played the role of a global superpower for more than a generation now. Thus even the eldest among us are tempered in this fire. On the scale of recorded human history this a mere blip… but it is still difficult to imagine other possibilities when all of one’s personal experience is set like this.

    Besides ethno-nationalism, I’d like to offer language as a sort of overriding political force. English is so hegemonic that if one tries to de-mark an English speaking from a non-English geography it would be difficult while accounting for how significant English is as second language. I think this plays along with Chris’ observation about US attitudes toward international structures (UN, FAO, etc). The serious lack of foreign language skill among my fellow citizens is embarrassing. So too a general lack of appreciation for foreign cultural nuance. If a BigMan politic is ugly, then also a BigNation global situation.

    Brexit I’m guessing will indeed sharpen the British eye toward the larger global experience. And COVID has at least made some pay a bit more attention to international events. International supply chain interruptions have highlighted international experience of late as well. These thoughts lead me to another area I think ripe for discussion here: the role of localism vs. international cooperation. The mantra of ‘think globally, act locally’ is a fine place to start IMHO, but as always the other cliche… the devil’s in the details.

    • No diesel , no large farms no giant tractors , no 40 foot cut combine harvesters , no 60 foot seed drills no feed hauled across country to feed animals or people .
      No food , period .

  17. Quick response to some of the new comments.

    Thanks Steve L for that fascinating exploration of the ‘bourgeoisie’ in Switzerland. I think this corroborates a point I’ve often made in the face of over-romantic discussions of commons that commons are often closed shops, such that the interests of the commoners aren’t the same as the common interest. It’s surely ironic that people often argue for commons as a corrective to bourgeois individualism, whereas here we find one of many cases where bourgeois collectivism is inimical to individuals’ interests. Anyway, more on all this soon, but in the meantime thanks again for the example.

    Steve C – I wrote a bit about Mock’s essay here: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=1870. I have issues with it too!

    And much to agree with in Clem’s latest. Localism with wider cooperation, or ‘cosmopolitan localism’ as some call it, indeed is front and centre in my political thinking – we’ll come to it when we get to Part IV of my book in this blog cycle (incidentally, the anniversary of my book’s publication recently came and went – apologies this blog cycle is taking so long!)

    • Perhaps there’s something to be said for the way we can, in comments here, chew things over and throw ideas around, in a way that we (or I) certainly couldn’t keep up with if you were making a new blog post every day. We could call it “slow blogging” or something.

      It’s easy and understandable to rush things given the urgency of climate catastrophe, but investigating issues deeply and with an appreciation for both breadth and complexity takes time, like making good compost or growing healthy trees. It’s a feature, not a failing.

      • Problem is time is short , we passed peak conventional oil in 2005 , I think TPTB are aware but conventional.politics has no answer the lockdown’s are just a way of attempting lowering energy use .
        There is no way conventional politics can sort this one , there are too many 80 year olds running the planet with limited ability to think outside the box and as with the Soviet union they made damn sure no one would challenge them leaving a vast hole with few intelligent politicians who could think outside the box .
        Today’s shortages are just a for dinner of what’s to come .

    • Fascinating steve… and I agree it will be worth watching. Though as a glass half full sort I put this under the ‘desperate ploy’ half of your dichotomy.

      If you read the article with the realization that a farm is essentially a NAC… and appreciate that farms have been capital assets for several millennia…. that many farms have already been destroyed for the mineral rights beneath them… then this is actually not a ‘new’ form of selling of the Earth, but more a natural extension or further development of capitalism. We will still have to be vigilant to prevent abuses (as we are now for abuses to farmland and rural resources with pesticide handling laws, animal waste handling, stocking densities, and so forth).

      Perhaps our next venture will be to discuss a Small NAC Future?

  18. I realise things have moved on to COP now, but I can’t yet face the question at the end of the next post, so I’m stubbornly persisting with this one for now. Specifically, with Steve L’s investigation of the Swiss bourgeoisie.

    I’m unfamiliar with the Swiss case, but can certainly speak to a similar historical form of bourgeoise more generally in western Europe. Originating in medieval towns and cities, the ‘bourgeoise’ were indeed the established and privileged citizens of their settlements, as Steve says, usually holding a privileged form of urban property and rights to sell toll-free in the local market. The English version were called burgesses, and they owned burgage plots in their towns, but the French term persists in more current usage. The Marxist use of the term ‘bourgeoisie’ derives ultimately, via the early modern period, from the connections between such townspeople, their trading and capital investments.

    In contrast, the ‘community property’ with which they are connected in Switzerland has a different origin, and it is important that such property in Steve’s Swiss case is held by the ‘chief’ citizens of both towns and villages. As the predominance of pastures and forests indicates, and as Chris notes above, this property derives from the managed commons of these settlements, and is again a widely observed phenomenon in the medieval and early modern history of western Europe and beyond. The rights of the commoners were initially solely usufructuary, but developments in the early modern period often resulted in commons being converted into more substantial forms of property, but owned and managed corporately, by a body descended directly or indirectly from the commoners of earlier centuries.

    There are other examples of this kind of thing. In the town where I live in the English Midlands there is still a ‘townlands trust’, which holds property that was used in earlier centuries as small areas of pasture within the town’s open fields (the latter long since built over). The trust now donates to and funds local activities and events. In another town I’m studying at my work the trustees of the common heaths and woods enclosed the land in the eighteenth century and turned it over to charitable uses, to be managed subsequently by the trustees of the town’s charities. Trustees of these bodies today are small groups of established residents, not elected except by themselves.

    Two points worth making here. First, the linkage of Swiss bourgeoisie with collective property looks purely formal to me, and the ‘bourgeoise’ here should not be understood in the same way that the Marxist-infected term has been understood and discussed on this site in recent months. Instead, what we have in this ‘community property’ is, I think, a kind of ‘public property’ as defined in Chris’s post, but at a smaller scale than the state, and managed by groups not formally representative of the public but instead informed by an ethos of ‘public’ interest, however that might be defined.

    The second point follows from this. Chris says ‘commons are often closed shops, such that the interests of the commoners aren’t the same as the common interest’. I don’t believe this is wrong, but I do think ‘often’ is doing a lot of work, and that in many cases there is in fact a very interesting connection between the interests of the commoners and a common interest, at least as they perceive it. The link is visible today in the fact that the income from this ‘community property’ is often put to local community or charitable uses; likewise the Swiss bourgeoisies are clearly intending to be seen as good stewards of the Alpine pastures and forests in a broader sense than is simply beneficial in a local way.

    None of this is to say that ‘community property’ on this model is necessarily the way to go in advocating for a better future more generally. Small groups of trustees are almost certainly not always the best judges of broader interests, both locally and further afield, and are no doubt still drawn from a more ‘established’ stratum of society, the ‘best’ and ‘chief’ citizens of earlier ages. But I think there is something to be said for more democratically managed experiments with forms of ‘public property’ at a scales smaller than the state.

    Now, back to pondering my plan for climate apocalypse…

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