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This land is your land (or maybe not)

Author Kevin Cahill is wrong. Wider landowning is not the answer as we are excluded from ownership of the means of production in general not just land

So you’ve paid off your mortgage and now you own your house and the land on which it stands. No, you
don’t — the land still belongs to the queen, who is the sole legal owner of land in the United Kingdom. So-called freeholds are actually leases from the Crown. This is one of many startling facts revealed by Kevin Cahill in Who Owns the Land (published by Mainstream at the end of last year).

In fact the queen also owns all the land in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and a number of other
Commonwealth countries. In all, according to Cahill, she owns well over six billion acres (one-sixth of the earth’s land surface), making her by far the largest landowner on the planet. She’s not the only monarch who claims ultimate ownership of their country’s land, and various kings, sultans and sheikhs make up the rest of the list of the largest landowners. Countries without kings or queens may still operate on a comparable principle: in Ireland the state is the sole owner of land.

When there is no such system of legal ownership by a monarch or state, there can still be massive landholdings. The Catholic church, for instance, is the second-largest  landowner in New York, and the other big religions are pretty wealthy too. Although they are in theory just tenants of the queen, the British aristocracy own plenty of land — around a billion euros’ worth in the case of the Dukes of Atholl and Westminster. The biggest landowner in the US is Ted Turner of CNN fame, though other individuals or families have more valuable holdings as the land is in richer areas. Fewer than one-fiftieth of one percent of the population of Europe (77,000 people) own 5 percent of the farmland and receive massive subsidies from the government.

At the same time, all this massive concentration of landownership is largely concealed from the general public. Few countries have comprehensive, accurate and easily available land registries, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to discover who owns what. A comprehensive account for the UK (then including the whole of Ireland) was published in 87 – , as The Return of the Owners of Land. At that time, 9 percent of the population, over 7 million people, owned no land at all, while a third of a million owned more than an acre. Nothing of comparable scope has been published since then. But in 00 , Cahill argues, only 30 percent owned nothing, while 70 percent had a stake in land, i.e. a home. This is one of the themes of his book, the way in which private home-ownership has increased and so made most people relatively prosperous.

If Cahill had simply compiled and organised a mass of information about landownership throughout the world, his book would still have been a most useful work of reference. And there’s no doubt that that is what it is. If you want to find out, say, the largest landowners in Estonia, this is the place to look (it’s the Estonian state, a Finnish milk cooperative and IKEA). However, the book is far more than that: it is also written in support of a particular analysis of capitalism and a programme for change. The argument, basically, is that enabling people to own land and a home outright, with a proper free market in land, will lead to ‘universal prosperity’. Further, it ‘creates the essential condition for the universalisation and democratisation of capital.’ The claims here need to be assessed very critically.

For a start, what difference does it really make if in the last analysis the queen owns the land your house is on, supposedly making you and everyone else serfs rather than free individuals? In Britain the government can no longer legally seize land in the name of the Crown, but in theory the queen could sell Canada (just as Russia sold Alaska to the US in 8 7). However, converting land to be genuine private property of its owner rather than something held on a kindof sufferance from the monarch would have not the slightest impact on workers’ daily lives. Those who now really owned a bit of land would still have to work for a living, just as they do now, and just as those in rented accommodation have to under any system.

Furthermore, home-ownership, whether true ownership or via Crown lease, is not all that it’s cracked up to be. It does not in itself remove a person’s status as a wage worker, and a mortgage is an enormous burden on most workers (witness the number of repossessions). Cahill asserts that increased home ownership leads to increased prosperity, but he never considers that the causality might be the other way round, that higher wages might lead to more workers owning their homes. In fact, from a comparative viewpoint, there seems to be no necessary connection here at all: his figures for owner-occupation in Europe show that Ireland, Spain and Greece have the highest rates (over 70 percent), while Sweden, Germany and France are at or just under 50 percent. Cahill’s bizarre description of Ireland as ‘the most advanced capitalist country on earth’ only makes sense on the basis of a very odd idea of how to measure such advancement.

He also goes wrong in describing a home as ‘capital’: the house you live in is not used for investment or productive purposes. And there is no such thing as a right to shelter, nor any point in putting such a ‘right’ in a country’s constitution. What matters is the effective ability to buy or rent a house or flat, not some abstract unenforceable ‘right’.

Much of this book is directed at landowners, complaining about the kind of subsidies they get from the taxpayer, which means other members of the ruling class. The capitalists think that landowners are unproductive and merely monopolise something which is in short supply and can therefore receive massively high rents, which are a drain on the capitalists’ profits. The idea of taxing land values as a way of hitting landowners and cutting taxes on other capitalists has been around for many years and was recently revived as a way to ‘make the New Labour project actually work’ (Ashley Seager, Guardian, 8 January). Socialists have always refused to take sides in debates about how the capitalist class distribute the paying of tax among themselves.

Cahill’s pro-capitalist views are clear from a throw-away remark about the unions having been out of control and needing to be tamed by Thatcher. He does at one point come close to seeing the real problem, when he writes that poverty is caused by exclusion, specifically by exclusion from ownership and use of, and access to, land. However, there is an extra step (or giant stride) which needs to be taken, to realise that this exclusion must be seen in terms of workers being excluded from ownership and access in the means of production in general, not just land but also factories, offices, shops, warehouses, etc. It would be unreasonable in the extreme to think that one book, written by one individual, could have assembled information about the ownership of all this as well as the land. But increasing home ownership and letting people own land directly will make no impression on the capitalist class’s monopoly of the means of production, and that is what needs to be done away with.

Paul Bennett