Reclaiming Commons through Land Value Tax, or a Wing and a Prayer

There are estimates which present the power of a litre of petrol as equivalent to two to three weeks of manual labour. On one hand, that suggests a lot of hard physical work ahead – on the other, that limp dependency on a monopoly may be marvellously replaced by our own actions and those of our friends and neighbours.

We can depend on what surrounds us and can be understood – soil, sea, river, rainfall, sunshine, wind, rock, biomass, biodiversity… We wander through the economy of our supply – the hammering of workshop, the swish of wind turbine, the jokes of market traders… We brush against the leaves of corn and finally at home, note the necessary repair to the garden gate as we identify the wren singing in the lilac tree…..

I don’t mind if those oil versus manual figures are inaccurate, or hold a sophistry invisible to me. The truth remains, that as the immense power of those many millions of Summers of photo synthesis ends, we’ll be provided from the limits of singular seasons as they pass. Our newly-limited, but suddenly visible economics becomes the people and resources which palpably surround us – in short, an economy we can understand.

In a sense, oil did create the end of history. We became demi-gods, aloof from the physics of time and space. We also became aloof from the beauties of time and space – travelling above cultures and terrains and not through them. Meanwhile, Earth has evolved without a conscious humanity, but very much with humanity’s physical effects. Now, we must return to Earth – not only with scorched wings, but to degraded soils and pillaged resources.

As W H Auden reminds us, in Pieter Breugal’s depiction of falling Icarus, a man ploughs on regardless of the silly goings-on of aristocrats – That’s how Sixteenth Century economics worked. Icarus came home from adventuring (such as war, or expeditions to the Sun) and said, “What’s for dinner?” He knew food would be grown and supper prepared. He cared not how. However, for the last few decades, whole societies have followed Icarus. The ploughman now follows instructions on pesticide and herbicide drums supplied by Icarus… He’s no idea what’s in the drums and fertiliser sacks. He cares not how.

Anyway, as history returns, the workings of an economy will become apparent again. If we and our neighbours do not provide, there will be no provision. Ordinary people may steer a course back into history and with luck – a course towards a newly egalitarian and convivial culture.

Two weeks of labour for a litre of petrol! – but much which fossil fuels have provided can no longer be, and so it follows that the energy demands from what can longer be, will also dissolve – cloud-capped towers, air travel, suburbia, the family car, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, matricides… – leaving not a wrack behind (apologies to the Bard). I propose that sudden relaxation of energy demand may liberate a great social relaxation – a delighted communal sigh of relief. It seems that the Prospero was a mountebank anyway.

But how can we pick up new (& old as the hills) tools and have liberty to apply them, in a world of enforced dependencies – debt/mortgage-tied wage packets and massive and daunting monopoly infrastructures of ring road, suburbia, motorway, super market…?

The monetary and taxation solutions to our problem are easy and have been proposed and refined for centuries. They have never been applied. It is probable that they never will be applied. Land enclosure is the primary source of wealth for the powerful and is similarly the primary source of poverty for the rest. It is also a classical cause of economic stagnation, decadence and collapse. All enclosures have that same effect – intellectual property, professional status, resource monopolies… – all command rent without a return of service.

Many who promote basic income today, do so imagining a world progressing to driverless cars, unmanned machines and so on, so that more and more human labour is shed into playfulness. For those people, basic income is a means to an egalitarian redistribution of machine-driven and rent-driven wealth. They pre-suppose a continued oil monopoly, or oil-replacement monopoly.

Many dream of a continued, but green automation. That is a fantasy. But as economies once carried by oil, are shouldered by the much slighter frames of people, basic income can provide security for the necessary trial and error of accumulated skills. It will provide leeway for innovative and increased work – and paradoxically, for increased leisure. (Oil infrastructures have shattered leisure time by the time and wage demands of distant work and shopping places and by rent for monopoly service.) Basic income is a simple replacement for complex social welfare systems and also removes the stigma from that welfare. The necessary evacuation from and re-centring of suburbia, accompanied by a large migration to the countryside will all be assisted by basic income. That migration reverses the clearances of enclosure, which sent rural populations to city slums and across oceans. Now people (not oil) must grow food and people must congregate closer to fertile soils. There will be need for simple housing – on a dramatic scale.

And that simplicity may be a pleasure – one expressed by poets, novelists, painters, musicians – themselves, liberated by basic income… The end of oil sends populations home and truly down to earth. And that word home evokes others, such as love, motherhood, fatherhood and family. Basic income gives liberty to the proper raising of children and by that token to a more egalitarian, busy and convivial future.

Am I over ruralising our problems? But the greatest city is always, first and foremost, an emergent property of the efficiencies of fields. If we eat in a city, then we are involved in agriculture. Cities are agricultures.

So, we also need to reverse the parasitic, rentier effects of enclosure and marry basic income to her true partner – land value tax. Land tax combined with a citizen’s dividend provides the simplest, most elegant regenerative tool for social justice.

Readers will be familiar with the following passages, but I present them anyway, because they show how well-expressed truths are seldom applied. Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Henry George, Tolstoy and many others express what many repeat today. Meanwhile, land monopoly continues to parasitize ingenuity and dexterity and to drain wealth down conduits of increasing rent. Of course, over very many centuries, the great religions have expressed similar truths, which the powers have similarly ignored. The truth combined with the ignoring of it are an ancient tradition! – Poets, philosophers, priests and shamans rail at the times as around them economies crash. Rulers always have been stupid. Ideas are a nuisance to power.

Here’s Tom Paine, Agrarian Justice (1797):

“Men did not make the Earth. Every proprietor owes the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.” (….)

“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterwards till heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government. Let us then do honor to revolutions by justice, and give currency to their principles by blessings.

Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is,

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty- one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:

And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”

Here’s Winston Churchill expressing the ideas of Henry George (speech, 1909):

“Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — and all the while the landlord sits still.

Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived.”

We are currently ruled by economically-destructive monopolies. The political parties of consensus politics represent those monopolies and promote them to us in the same way they’d promote rival brands of pot noodles. So, what I and many of the readers of this essay would argue will prove a very tall order to execute. There is no way in to that political system. In truth, there are few ways in to our rentier economy, other than that of an accepted dependency on it – to become a part of it. We can vote for the least-worst political party. We can send market signals by our super market purchases to try and improve the super market. We can buy organic produce and fair traded produce, recycled packaging and so on… – but these improvements only re-enforce the monopolistic provision and our dependency on it. They give the Icarus super market chain acknowledgement, approval and credence…

Yes, if we are to avoid the (let’s make no bones about it) the terrible ecological and economic collapse, which our current rentier monopolies are setting out to achieve, then I can find no other recourse, but the following –

Somehow, that ploughman in Pieter Breugal’s painting (and all plough-people) must take his eyes from the sky, re-shine his plough, and apply himself earnestly, ingeniously and dextrously to the job in hand.

Cultures are not states to be protected. They are methods. They are what we do. What’s more, we make a culture, one by one. Even under monopoly we make a culture one, by one. We may be coerced, enticed, or compelled to do so, but nevertheless, it is we little people, who do it, one by one.

We drive to the retail park. We take that holiday flight…

Bayer, Syngenta, Cargill, Monsanto, oil companies, super market chains, National governments and neo- liberal ideology have not caused climate change. They are abstractions. They don’t exist. One, by one my reader and I have caused climate change. We are the physics. You cannot change the composition of the atmosphere with an abstraction. We are the application.

It follows that one, by one is no small thing.

It also follows that one by one is the only physical thing.

So, it follows that we should take our eyes from the sky to consider that our own feet are the first feet t consider, when taking the first step. Really, those feet are the only thing.

Of course, we can vote for least-worst monopolistic provision of coercion, enticement, bullying… We can suggest, one by one, perhaps warmly huddled in an NGO, to the abstraction that is governance, that the rentier economies of today are self-destructive – that a land value tax to fund a citizen’s dividend, combined with removal of taxes on work and work’s products may liberate a common economic good. Income tax and particularly, VAT stifle the productivity and increase the poverty of those who make things and grow things and have little effect on the wealthy – nearly all of whom are rentiers. The sick, old and disabled contribute a far higher proportion of income to the exchequer (through VAT) than do the fabulously wealthy. Of course, we also know that monopolies will not listen to proposals to destroy monopolies.

But on the other hand, it is also important to our souls to testify – to speak – even though we know that only our friends are listening.

Transition towns, organic agriculture, local currencies, locally-issued shares, or bonds, community projects in renewable energy, village/corner shops, pubs, post offices… – all shed dependency.

To testify the truth to power also sheds dependency – although we know that power does not listen and may occasionally supress that truth by physical violence. We know that no economy founded on land monopoly (such as ours) will adopt a land value tax to fund a
citizen’s income, just as people have known for very many centuries that though a truly egalitarian way of life is possible, it remains extremely unlikely.

But here’s a remarkable thing – the end of oil will provide an earth-shattering loss of bearings to oil- dependent monopolies. They’ll find themselves in a new landscape with no compass and a forgotten ability to navigate by sun and stars. We can pick up some tools and begin. Of course, remaining powers will remain in denial – coercing people to live and consume as before, until the chaos of climate change leaves every one of us utterly lost at sea…

My ramble leads me from manpower/oil-power, through enclosure and parasitic rentier effects, to elegant remedies to rentier effects, to the fortressed deafness of enclosure, through the abstract nature of governance, towards the real effects of ourselves. It leads me through hopelessness and hope and back again…

What about the abstract nature of government and corporation? It can only act through acquiescence of societies and what’s more, through people one at a time. It follows that I am as significant as any other. So we finally return to what must surely be the primal and central hope – albeit one which has eluded success in historical memory.

I mean a contagious, fashionable surge, or folk movement towards proper behaviour – towards the deliberate construction of commons – a moral, heritable framework for the future of children.

That hope can only be infused one person at a time, but what if it’s side by side in a surge as fashionable as Beetle mania, or high-heeled shoes?

Fashions in people and other eusocial animals have a deep and anciently-evolved purpose. They are a means to a quickly-adapted change of social behaviour.

Such surges can happen. This writer cannot predict that one will. But he can see no another solution.

With regards to the stupidity of Power – nothing has changed. Power never has, and never will listen to reason.

But with regards to our period of history, everything has changed. It is unique; extra-ordinary; suicidal.

Here’s a simple truth – Power is settled on a course to destroy civilisation and to drive many thousands of species of life to extinction.

This is the most epic of all human times. No Icarian legend can match it. Let’s be honoured. The only step is the first step and for me, the only step is mine.
For a start, would you book a holiday flight, when booking a flight (by power of fashion) has become an utterly shameful thing? Would you proudly boast that extensive international lecture tour to further your career? – For shame! Although the last few proper shops are fading in your local town, would you brazenly use the economically/ecologically-destructive super market sat brashly and brazenly nearby?

Those monopolies – in energy supply, food supply, land supply, medicine supply, travel supply, governance supply – are driving us to the edge. If we cannot redress the enclosures by taxing monopolies (principally land) to fund a regenerative citizen’s dividend, then we must refuse those supplies.

Don’t lobby your monopoly to stock more fair-traded, recycled and organic produce. Find a proper shop or market square and then begin the conversation.

For God’s sake, for the First Cause, for the Quantum Coherence of atoms, molecules cells – testify! Since cultures are what we do – do it. On a wing and a prayer? Yes. Do it. Perhaps we can’t go far wrong if we simply sit on a wing (of that home-built hang glider) and pray….
(July 2016)

This is an excerpt from Patirck Noble’s book Towards a Convivial Economy.