recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : stevenstoll   1

Orion Magazine | No Man's Land
"In 1500, no one sold land because no one owned it. People in the past did, however, claim and control territory in a variety of ways. Groups of hunters and later villages of herders or farmers found means of taking what they needed while leaving the larger landscape for others to glean from. They certainly fought over the richest hunting grounds and most fertile valleys, but they justified their right by their active use. In other words, they asserted rights of appropriation. We appropriate all the time. We conquer parking spaces at the grocery store, for example, and hold them until we are ready to give them up. The parking spaces do not become ours to keep; the basis of our right to occupy them is that we occupy them. Only until very recently, humans inhabited the niches and environments of Earth somewhat like parking spaces.

Ownership is different from appropriation. It confers exclusive rights derived from and enforced by the state. These rights do not come from active use or occupancy. Property owners can neglect land for years, waiting for the best time to sell it, even if others would put it to better use. And in the absence of laws protecting landscapes, the holders of legal title can mow down a rainforest or drain a wetland without regard to social and ecological cost. Not all owners are destructive or irresponsible, but the imperative to seek maximum profit is built into the assumptions within private property. Land that costs money must make money.

Champions of capitalism don’t see private property as a social practice with a history but as a universal desire—a nearly physical law—that amounts to the very expression of freedom. The economist Friedrich Hayek called it “the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.” But Hayek never explained how buyers and sellers of real estate spread a blanket of liberty over their tenants. And he never mentioned the fact that the concept, far from being natural law, was created by nation-states—the notion that someone could claim a bit of the planet all to himself is relatively new.

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



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

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

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

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



"Should private property itself be extinguished? It’s a legitimate question, but there is no clear pathway to a system that would take its place, which could amount to some kind of global commons. Instead I suggest land reform, not the extinguishing of property rights but their radical diffusion. Imagine a space in which people own small homes and gardens but share a larger area of fields and woods. Let’s call such legislation the American Commons Communities Act or the Agrarian Economy Act. A policy of this sort might offer education in sustainable agriculture keyed to acquiring a workable farm in a rural or urban landscape. The United States would further invest in any infrastructure necessary to move crops to markets.

Let’s give abandoned buildings, storefronts, and warehouses to those who would establish communities for the homeless. According to one estimate, there are ten vacant homes for every homeless person. Squatting in unused buildings carries certain social benefits that should be recognized. It prevents the homeless from seeking out the suburban fringe, far from transportation and jobs (though it’s no substitute for dignified public housing). Plenty of people are now planting seeds in derelict city lots. In Los Angeles, an activist named Ron Finley looks for weedy ground anywhere he can find it for what he calls “gangsta gardening,” often challenging absentee owners. In 2013, the California legislature responded to sustained pressure from urban gardeners like Finley and passed the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, which gives tax breaks to any owner who allows vacant land to be used for “sustainable urban farm enterprise.”

Squatting raises another, much larger question. To what extent should improvements to land qualify one for property rights? The suppression of traditional privileges of appropriation amounts to one of the most revolutionary changes in the last five hundred years. All through the centuries people who worked land they did not own (like squatters and slaves) insisted that their toil granted them title. The United States once endorsed this view. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres to any farmer who improved it for five years. Western squatters’ clubs and local preemption laws also endorsed the idea that labor in the earth conferred ownership.

It’s worth remembering that there is nothing about private property that says it must be for private use. Conservation land trusts own vast areas as nonprofit corporations and invite the public to hike and bike. It’s not an erosion of the institution of property but an ingenious reversal of its beneficiaries. But don’t wait for a land trust to be established before you enjoy the fenced up beaches or forests near where you live. Declare the absentee owners trustees of the public good and trespass at will. As long as the land in question is not someone’s home or place of business, signs that say KEEP OUT can, in my view, be morally and ethically ignored. Cross over these boundaries while humming “This Land Is Your Land.” Pick wildflowers, watch sand crabs in the surf, linger on your estate. Violating absentee ownership is a long-held and honorable tradition."
2016  onwership  capitalism  land  friedrichhayek  stevenstoll  squatting  property  socialpractice  socialsystems  privateproperty  homeless  homelessness  ronfinley  farming  gardening  agriculture  commodities  markets  adamsmith  us  law  legal  society  karlpolanyi  enclosure 
march 2016 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read