Monday, December 30, 2019

Land reformism (1999)

Book Review from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Scotland: Land and Power (The Agenda for Land Reform) by Andy Wightman, in association with Democratic Left Scotland. Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh, 1999. 126pp

There is much of interest to be found in this book, not least the amazing statistic that 1252 landowners own two-thirds of the 16 million-plus acres of private rural land in Scotland. Scotland has a population of 5 million. This of course is a legacy of the universal process behind the rise of capitalism: the war on common ownership and the separation of people from land, by sword and by fraud. Once enough people were denied the autonomy that access to land provided, a class of exploitable wage workers was produced and the rest, as they say, is history.

What exists in rural Scotland, behind the aristocratic veneer, is not really feudalism. In the true sense this is a system in which all land is held by the monarch (ultimately from god) and parcelled out to “superiors” and “vassals” who control the land inhabited by the tenants. This is a dead system, as Scotland’s landowners (as elsewhere) own the land they hold in fact and in law. They are the “kings” of “their” patch. As the authors point out, the proposed abolition of one of the last vestiges of the feudal system, that of the theoretical status of the Crown as “paramount superior”, would actually benefit big landowners as this is also the last vestige of the idea that landownership was conditional and subject to the “public interest” represented by the Crown. Junking “feudalism” would also give the essentially capitalist system of landownership a ore up-to-date image of course, and perhaps further hide the fact that what we are talking about here is the dividing up of stolen goods.

The authors see a solution to Scotland’s unusually concentrated pattern of landownership in “land reform”—to break up large holdings to enable people to purchase property within a regulated framework which insists on residency and limits monopoly holdings” (p.79). Indeed a similar process was undertaken in Ireland between 1881 and 1903. Whether this will happen is questionable. What can’t be denied though is that any such move would have to take place within the confines of the same “market forces” that have brought hunger, clearance and destruction to both Scotland and Ireland (and England for that matter) and depopulated the land. The market system unfortunately doesn’t give a toss about “social justice”, sustainable rural development etc.

Globally, what are the implications for all this of the march of the fully industrialised agriculture system? As land is effectively changed into a system of huge factories, as agri-business corporations like Monsanto move to patent DNA and unleash the “terminator” gene, what does the immediate future hold for those living and working on the land? From India to the Vale of Evesham, things are not looking good.
Ben Malcolm

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