This article was originally published on rap and stow.
Scotland’s forms of land ownership have always been askew from the forms found elsewhere. For some, including Karl Marx, this was a point of some interest. Marx believed the clearances demonstrated particularly well the way in which the development of industry could fundamentally overturn existing forms of society:
What “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.
This ‘peculiar form of property’ was the clan system, in which land was owned and used in ways that did not accord to the traditional laws of private property. In some senses, claimed Marx, Scotland was one of the last bastions of this system of pre-feudal ownership which had at one point been widespread across Europe. Some communists, including Marx, believed that pre-feudal systems of common ownership that were still in existence in Russia and in pockets of Europe could bypass the capitalist stage of production via a great leap, and realise new forms of ownership which would challenge the very foundations of system of private property.
Sometimes land activists in Scotland advocate something similar – community buy-outs of land leading to communal ownership – and in doing so they challenge not just the specific owners of land but the principle of private property. Their tactic is alien to most modern political forms, and grates against the 21st century in an interesting way. In the past few years the Scottish political debate has veered between the subjects of sweeping constitutional change, disastrous welfare cuts, and insufferable bad work. In amongst all this, Scotland had a land debate, always in the background, occasionally raising its head. Land ownership in Scotland is bizarre – feudalism was abolished in 2004, and it is claimed that 50% of the private land in rural Scotland is owned by around 430 people, and that Scotland has a more concentrated pattern of large scale private land ownership than is found in any other country in the world. The land debate has a propensity to more directly target the principles of private property than many other debates that socialists are engaged with in Scotland today.
From 1770 to 1810, radicals in Britain were responding to changes in the conditions of working people and the French Revolution, but had not yet become overly focussed on the organised labour movement. The debate around private property at this time amongst both moderates and radicals near-universally considered private property to have arisen after a stage of communal ownership. This was justified by Enlightenment luminaries both conceptually, in that it was considered impossible to maintain private property before a suitable collective power had been instituted to enforce it, and historically, in that many histories described such a state of communal ownership. More persuasively to the early modern mind, those people who were at what were considered to be earlier stages of the development of civilisation seemed to hold property in common. In the 18th century the past was indeed a foreign country, which could be accessed by encountering indigenous peoples in North America or, embarrassingly for many of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, going to the highlands.
This idea of the original common ownership of property, and particularly land, was the foundation for many of the proto-communist movements in the British Isles up until the early 19th century. Gerard Winstanley’s True Levellers had set the tone in 1649, declaring the earth ‘a common treasury of livelihood for all mankind’. In 1776, Thomas Spence declared that since land had originally been owned in common, the purpose of radicals should be to realise this state of affairs again. In the catchphrase of the time, this was for him, as for many of his political allies, common sense. Spence used his own nut-gathering experience to persuade people of the absurdity of the private ownership of land.
In order to show how far we are cut off from the rights of nature, and reduced to a more contemptible state than the brutes, I will relate an affair I had with a forester in a wood near Hexham. Alone by myself a gathering of nuts, the forester popped through the bushes upon me, and asking what I did there. I answered gathering nuts. Gathering nuts? said he, and dare you say so, yes, said I, why not? would you question a monkey, or a squirrel, about such a business? and am I to be treated as inferior to one of those creatures? Or have I a less right? But who are you, continued I, that thus take upon you to interrupt me? I’ll let you know that, said he, when I lay you fast for trespassing here. Indeed! answered I, But how can I trespass here where no man ever planted or cultivated, for these nuts are the spontaneous gifts of nature ordained alike for the sustenance of man and beast that choose to gather them, and therefore they are common. I tell you, said he, this wood is not common, it belongs to the Duke of Portland. Oh! my service to the Duke of Portland, said I, nature knows no more of him than of me; therefore, as in nature’s storehouse the rule is, “First come, first served,” so the Duke of Portland must look sharp if he wants any nuts. But in the name of seriousness, continued I, must not one’s privileges be very great in a country where we dare not pluck a hazel nut? Is this an Englishman’s birthright? Is it for this we are called upon to serve in the militia, to defend this wood, and this country against the enemy?
But there was another radical narrative going on at the same time (and one that we might say eventually won). This was the narrative of Thomas Paine, connoisseur of the American and French revolutions, and superbly popular pamphleteer. After he had pretty much lost interest in the development of the French and American revolutions, Paine wrote a pamphlet entitled Agrarian Justice. This pamphlet took the line that the original relationship of the earth to mankind was one of common ownership – property, as every good radical knows, is theft. But Paine’s solution was not redistribution: instead the owners of land needed to make up for the original appropriation of land for private use by paying a rent to society. This rent would be distributed among the landless as welfare payments. If we are to place Paine and Spence side by side, it’s pretty clear that Paine’s idea is the more popular today. Social democratic states require a rent from the owners of land and capital which is then distributed among the poor, but they rarely if ever challenge private ownership itself.
Proponents of both the universal basic income and of states with a strong system of welfare payments are excited by Paine’s early formation of the idea of state ‘benefits’. The original idea of welfare payments – Paine’s idea – was based on the concept of the original appropriation or theft of land, and the compensation that must be therefore payed to the landless. It is seldom asked today what the moral basis for our redistributive welfare system is. For some it is very similar to Paine’s conception: the rich appropriate capital and surplus labour, and therefore owe something back. For others it is a moral duty of society to support those who struggle through times of need, and those who can most easily bear the burden are the rich. And for certain people it is more economistic – labourers need to be fed, healthy and able to reproduce, and so taxation should provide the welfare payments which allow this harmonious state to be maintained.
Paine’s proposals were considered a great insult by Spence and his allies the ‘Spencean Philanthoprists’, since under Paine’s system the landowners would be allowed to keep 90% of their proceeds. Spence made a long list of the distinction between Paine’s system of Agrarian Justice and his own system. His points add up to a curiously fitting critique of the 21st century welfare state.
Under the system of Agrarian Justice [Paine’s system], The people will, as it were, sell their birth-right for a mess of porridge, by accepting of a paltry consideration in lieu of their rights.
Under the system of the End of Oppression, The people will receive, without deduction, the whole produce of their common inheritance.
Under the first, The poor must still look up for aristocratic benefactions of rotten potatoes and spoiled rice, and other substitutes for bread in the times of scarcity, to preserve their wretched existence.
Under the second, What with the annihilation of taxes and the dividends of the parochial rents, together with the honest guardianship of their popular government, we may reasonably suppose that the people will rarely be driven to the dire necessity of using a substitute for bread.
Under the first, After admitting that the earth belongs to the people, the people must nevertheless compromise the matter with their Conquerors and oppressors, and still suffer them to remain as a distinct and separate body among them, in full possession of their country.
Under the second, After insisting that the land is public property, the people’s oppressors must either submit to become undistinguishable in the general mass of citizens or fly the country.
Under the first, The rich would abolish all hospitals, charitable funds, and parochial provision for the poor, telling them, that they now have all that their great advocate, Paine, demands, as their rights, and what he exultingly deems as amply sufficient to ameliorate their condition and render them happy, by which the latter end of our reformation will be worse than the beginning.
Under the second, The quarterly dividends, together with the abolishment of all taxes, would destroy the necessity of public charities; but if any should be thought necessary, whether to promote learning, or for other purposes, the parochial and national funds would be found at all times more than sufficient.
Most of Spence’s problems are rather obviously existing problems in the British welfare state, and with ideas of welfarism such as the ‘Universal Basic Income’. People receive some compensation for living in a world that exploits them, but not enough to make it bearable. In times of austerity and disaster, the continuing power of the rich becomes bleakly obvious, and the people are forced to beg. There is still a powerful elite controlling politics and capital, considered to have a rightful place at the bargaining table. And most starkly, systems of social provision like education and healthcare can be tampered with and destroyed by governments, with the excuse that the system of Universal Credit provides quite enough to prevent people falling out the bottom of society.
The idea that those who benefited from the appropriation of land would give back a proportion of the gain they got from it seemed to the Spenceans to fly in the face of all common notions of justice. Why, they asked, was the correct solution not to give the land back into common ownership? Communists level a similar argument against the welfare state and the UBI today. These solutions are dangerous in their lack of acknowledgement of the injustice of original appropriation, as well as leaving power in the hands of the rich.
In the end, Paine’s idea won and Spence was forgotten. Land gradually became a curiosity rather than a fundamental aspect of communist thought, as urbanisation and industrial development made the city into the primary site of the struggle. The end of the romantic ideas of the Russian commune and the clearances seemed to signal the end of the radical issue of land.
Yet in Scotland, land must be a consideration for communists, and is too often forgotten by those who rarely consider the Scottish population that lives outside the urban centres. There is a sort of consensus in Scotland that the issues of most relevance to working people are issues of welfare payments and taxation. But the land debate persists, and contains a strange seed that might uproot the very principles of private ownership. I hope that this seed can be nurtured on Rap and Stow in the coming months: the radical potential of land in Scotland has been ignored for far too long.