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Owning the Earth - some reviews....

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Leonie Humphreys

Joined: 23 Sep 2008
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Location: West Dorset, UK

PostPosted: Mon Dec 15, 2014 5:42 am    Post subject: Owning the Earth - some reviews.... Reply with quote

What if: owning land is not the mark of advanced, modern societies, but “a bizarre mutation alien to most of humanity”?

Having so far only managed to get half way through Andro Linklater's book 'Owning the Earth' I have conducted a little research and found the following review and some links to other reviews which may be of interest to this forums readers - his work also connects nicely with what is happening in Scotland now regarding land reform (see under a separate topic 'LAND RIGHTS IN SCOTLAND' comments from Andy Wightman's blog), and tragically Andro Linklater died before writing his book about the ownership of land in the Hebrides.


Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater

A sweeping history of land ownership is the final work of a master historian, says Jerry Brotton (The Telegraph - 9th February 2014)

In Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, written in 1886, its central character, a Russian peasant called Pahom, meets a nomadic tribe that offers him as much land as he can walk around in a day for 1,000 roubles. Consumed with greed, Pahom runs for miles, dropping dead of exhaustion just as the sun sets. The story ends and its question is answered by Pahom’s servant, burying his master: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed”.

Tolstoy’s grim parable lies at the heart of Andro Linklater’s panoramic history of land ownership, made all the more poignant by the author’s sudden death late last year in the Hebrides, while researching his next book on land ownership in the islands.

Linklater’s loss is felt all the more keenly because in Owning the Earth he has written a beautifully measured and extremely important book on the idea that “one person could own part of the Earth exclusively”.

Since the tragic consequences of nationalisation and collectivisation witnessed in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, the heat has gone out of Left-wing attempts to question the economic sense of private land ownership. But Linklater is no Marxist demanding a return to some Cambodian “Year Zero” of communal living.

Instead he wants to calculate the profit and loss of what he calls the “revolution” that has taken place since 1800, when much of the world’s grassland was still communally owned by indigenous people who shared its produce and believed that the Earth belonged solely to its creator. What, asks Linklater, if owning land is not the mark of advanced, modern societies, but “a bizarre mutation alien to most of humanity”? If so, private land ownership needs a serious rethink as the world’s 18 million square miles of productive but vulnerable farmland are required to feed, clothe and house a global population of nine billion by 2050.

In many ways Owning the Earth is grand, old-fashioned history. It begins in 16th-century England with the Tudor dissolution of the monasteries, which triggered a “land grab” that would ultimately spawn two of the most profound thinkers on private property: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Both believed in the civilising power of owning land. But where pessimistic old Hobbes felt that humanity’s greed and fear necessitated autocratic government, Locke’s experience of the early settlement of America led him to argue that people’s cultivation of land entitled them to ownership, from which grew consensual governance aimed at “the preservation of their property”.

Linklater shows how both philosophies have underpinned global claims to land ownership, veering between Hobbesian greed, chaos and authoritarianism and the Lockean contract balancing acquisition and social equality.

Linklater’s historical and geographical canvas is vast. From unravelling Marx’s idealistic and “simply wrong” belief in the prehistorical stage of communal ownership, Linklater ranges with élan across America, Russia, China and the rise of Europe’s imperial powers.

Russian Romanov serfdom is characterised as “an absolutism moderated by assassination” with a mystical belief “that the Earth belonged to the rulers of the state” – a belief that was appropriated by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Revolution. Tracing similar revolutionary changes in China, Linklater concludes that although Mao was correct in seeing that imperial China’s authoritarian land possession had condemned millions to starvation, his own form of communal ownership would produce the same results.

The finest chapters deal with a subject already dealt with in Linklater’s marvellous book Measuring America, tracing the remarkable late 18th-century surveys that led to “the greatest orderly transfer of public resources to the private sector in history”. Between 1800 and 1820 the US government sold 13.6 million acres of public land into private hands in a Lockean process in which free-market capitalism was born.

What is even more striking is how Linklater follows the consequences of the events of the 1860s, “one of the greatest watersheds in the history of individual liberty”. With the abolition of slavery in the US and the emancipation of Russia’s serfs, more than 50 million people were released from bondage. Once labour needed to be paid for, it was necessary to give “the soil a capital value”.

What should have emerged from this profound moment were societies that were more efficient and stable, based on a contract between property, politics and personal freedom. That this did not happen is what preoccupies Linklater in the final sections of his book, which moves up a gear from being a good historical story to a majestic meditation on our current problems.

Gathering an avalanche of mostly depressing figures taken from events ranging from the monetarism of the Reagan and Thatcher years, through the financial collapse of 2008 and the Arab Spring of 2010, Linklater shows that when political authoritarianism and private financial speculation consume the Earth’s resources, everyone suffers.

In 2009, 110 million acres of farmland, mostly in Africa, were bought by corporate speculators, absentee foreign landlords with no other interest in the soil than its capital value. For Linklater, this is the greatest betrayal of Locke’s original argument: individuals can accept the sale of their land if they believe that its buyers will bring them benefits, the most basic of which include equitable costs of food and water. When this contract breaks down the results are devastating, and will be intensified by the squeeze on land due to population growth.

Owning the Earth is a wake-up call to anyone wanting to celebrate the triumph of economic globalisation. The sadness is that with Linklater’s passing, we have been robbed of an important voice in understanding how to sustain ourselves over the coming decades.

Link to full Telegraph article:

Links to some more reviews of the book can be found here:

Copy reads (but links won’t work here – go to the one above to be redirected):

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by the late Andro Linklater was praised as a historical study with contemporary relevance and political punch. In a five-star review in the Daily Telegraph Jerry Brotton called it "a beautifully measured and extremely important book on the idea that 'one person could own part of the Earth exclusively' … Owning the Earth is a wake-up call to anyone wanting to celebrate the triumph of economic globalisation." Unsurprisingly John Adamson in the Spectator, who saluted the book's "range, argument and erudition", didn't agree with its politics: "the high moral tone of the book's anti-Thatcherite critique fails to compensate for the sometimes gaping holes in the economic argument". It was more eye-opening to read Sean O'Gradyin the Independent complaining that it "often goes all preachy about the iniquities of the Austrian school of free-market economics and the financial crash of 2007-08". For Roger Hutchinson in the Scotsman, the ambitious history stands as "a suitable memorial to an extraordinary intellect".

The Scotsman points out:

Last October Andro Linklater suffered a heart attack while Andro Linklater’s last book makes a strong case against exclusive land ownership, says Roger Hutchinson.

In Eigg on that fatal October day he was exploring a way to bring that concern closer to home. Seventeen years ago, Eigg became the first Scottish island estate in modern times to transfer from private to community ownership. It was therefore a key stepping stone on Linklater’s path towards a new book on land ownership in the Hebrides.

Link to full article in The Scotsman:

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