Friday, December 30, 2011

Radical or not?

On another blog I sometimes comment on, I was recently very gently accused of being "radical" and "anti-private property" by someone who surveyed the posts on this blog. I think there's a little more nuance needed here, so let me explain myself.

First, let me say that I embrace the term "radical" in its etymological sense of "going to the root" of something. Yes, I have radical views. I am not satisfied with explanations or solutions that scratch the surface of issues. I also like to look at the historical and cultural contexts of ideas. Relating to this, then, I wouldn't say I'm "anti-private property." I'm not keen on sharing my underwear with anyone else. I am, however, against the commodification of land. I do not think access to land should be determined solely by ability to pay. And I think community ownership and commons should be more widespread.

Historically, the idea of land as private property that was bequeathed upon North America is only a few hundred years old. It was by no means a "natural" progression, even if one does believe in a teleological notion of history. It stems from the British enclosures, a centuries-long process with two thrusts: changing and consolidating open-field systems to enclosed fields owned by individual farmers, and eliminating rural peoples' use rights to common and waste land.

In this process, many farmers were robbed of land – their means of production/reproduction – and the feudal guarantees of security they once had. Enclosure changed land from a life-support system to a commodity to be owned and exploited for private profit. And it did not happen smoothly or easily; generations of people resisted, were killed, were impoverished.

Prior to the enclosures in Britain, there were complicated rights and obligations of various resource users. For example, villagers often had the right to collect fuel from uncultivated land, and pasture animals on common land – all subject to local and frequent negotiations. The enclosures appropriated the commons, and took those various rights and bundled them all together and gave them to the owner of the ground.

This “dominium plenum” (total lordship) way of thinking about property is “common sense” to us today. The owner has a right to use his/her property; it is wrong for all non-owners to interfere with the owner in his/her use of it, and non-owners may use the property of the owner if and only if the owner gives permission. The owner has also transference rights. There are rules in place to punish non-owner interference, regulate cases of damage and liability. (This is more complicated, since rights can variously be permanent, temporary, absolute, exclusive, transferable or nontransferable, etc. One small example: the state retains the right to expropriate land for a highway)

Although private property is dominant in Canada, there are other ways of organizing ownership in natural resources, such as land or water, today. The suggestion that land should not be treated as a commodity is admittedly fairly radical in North America, outside of the land trust movement. But it isn't just an idea relegated to those heathens in the Global South who have not received the enlightenment of capitalism in all its glory. There are two examples from northern Europe - Norway and Scotland - that could teach us a thing or two.

Norway has extensive areas of land owned in common, basically governed by the same legislation since the 12th century. There are three types: farm, community, and state commons. In the case of farm commons, a farm usually holds infields privately and the outer uncultivated lands, for timber, grazing, hunting, fishing etc., are held jointly with other farms. More than 50,000 farms had shares in jointly owned land in 1986. Community commons also exist – their profits (under law) must first be used to secure and improve the commons, then can be used for developing more industry, activities, and community projects such as hydroelectric power generation. Thus, lots of resources go back into the local community.

This type of ownership is possible because property rights are not unified, but more like a “bundle” of rights which may be parcelled out to different owners. This is called resource-specific property rights. For different types of resources there are different rules regulating who has access to the resource, how regulations of use come about, and how it can be transferred to any successors. The ground-owner and the user/owner of a specific resource are often different persons. On joint farmland, for example, one farm may own timber rights to coniferous trees, another a certain percentage of grazing rights. These rights are negotiable between parties and local solutions are more easily arrived at. Note that I said the farm owns: in Norway the right to use the farm commons is attached to a particular property rather than a person. This was intended to keep farmland in the hands of farmers.

Is this possible here in Canada? Or perhaps a form of community ownership, being undertaken in Scotland, is more appealing? I'll go into that example in the next post.
Further reading:

Sevatdal, Hans and Sidsel Grimstad. 2003. Norwegian Commons: History, Status and Challenges. Landscape, Law & Justice: Proceedings from a workshop on old and new commons, Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo, 11-13 March 2003. Available at:

Berge, Erling. 2002. Varieties of property rights to nature – some observations on landholding and ownership in Norway and England. In Schmithüsen, F.; Iselin, G.; Herbst, P., Eds. Forest Law and Environmental Legislation – Contributions of the IUFRO Research Group. Available at 
Berge, Erling and Hans Sevatdal. 1993. Some notes on the terminology of Norwegian property rights law in relation to social science concepts about property rights regimes. Revised version of a paper presented to the IV. World Conference of IASCP, Manilla, 15-19 June 1993. 

Goodale, Mark and Per Sky. 2001. A comparative study of land tenure, property boundaries, and dispute resolution: Examples from Bolivia and Norway. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 17, Issue 2, 183-200


  1. Radical? So what?

    They tried to dismiss the Famous Five as radicals but that group of five would not be stopped. Nor should you!

    "Never retreat, never explain, never apologize--get the thing done and let them howl." --Nellie McClung

  2. I love "Our Nell". No fear, I am not about to tone my beliefs down.