Friday, 19 April 2019


The cramped room in which Julian Assange has lived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London these past seven years can credibly be considered a "site of memory", in Pierre Nora's famous phrase, even if its historical resonance and layers of accreted history (and shit, apparently) are no match for Notre Dame de Paris. The latter has been described without a hint of irony by various commentators, from the far right to the centre of the political spectrum, as a symbol of "Western Civilisation", as if that term was free of any negative historical connotations. Few of these enthusiasts have focused on the cathedral's emblematic role as a place of refuge, despite Victor Hugo's best efforts on that score, presumably because asylum remains a touchy subject, not least in view of the same commentators robust insistence that dragging the dishevelled Assange out of his bolt-hole was entirely right and proper. The substantive connection between these two lieux de mémoire is, of course, the concept of sanctuary.

Though it has come to mean a place of safety, often for endangered plants or animals (such as "a cracking owl sanctuary"), it was originally a privileged piece of land where secular law did not apply. This didn't mean it was anarchic, but that ecclesiastical law and traditions dating back to Roman practice took precedence. In other words, the concept of sanctuary was itself a site of contest between church and state and could be seen as emblematic of a wider struggle over the ownership and control of land (similarly, "liberties", in the sense of areas enjoying commercial or social privileges, marked the contest between crown and bourgeois). The topic of land ownership is once more in the news with a report that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. This sort of eye-catching statistic is a reliable news filler both because it functions as an emblem of inequality and because it rarely changes. We can safely rediscover it every decade. However, that immutability has little to do with the persistence of inequality and owes more to the nature of land as a store of wealth.

The high concentration of land ownership in the UK dates from late Tudor times. Though the dissolution of the monasteries initially broadened ownership in the form of the "landed gentry", the emergence of an agrarian capitalism committed to "improvement", which was memorably delineated in Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origins of Capitalism, soon created a dynamic towards consolidation that would persist across centuries. Land was highly productive relative to other stores of wealth, it was increasingly tradable and rents were set by market forces rather than feudal convention. The agricultural revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain stimulated enclosure and the growth of larger farms, along with the dominance of tenancy over owner-occupation, but it also reduced the demand for agricultural labour, thereby helping to grow the larger towns that provided both a livelihood and a market for agricultural produce.

The industrial revolution amplified this process, both by reducing the proportion of the population directly dependent on the land, and thus having an interest in ownership, and by providing a safe store of wealth for the reinvestment of industrial profits that had the added bonus of providing social status through the "rinsing" effect of absorption into the gentry. Though this tendency would later be denigrated as a chief cause of 20th century decline - the bourgeoisie seeking to ape the aristocracy by buying country estates for the sake of prestige - it actually made perfect economic sense. While globalisation would lead to a domestic agricultural depression in the late 19th century, land remained valuable, not least because of the demand for new build homes and factories as suburban railways and arterial roads were built out beyond the still-expanding towns and cities. Though agricultural rents would remain depressed until the 1950s, land ownership remained central to wealth.

One significant change in the composition of ownership over recent decades has been the extent to which the public sector has given way as a significant landowner to corporations. This is not just because of privatisation (notably of utilities such as water and energy) and the relentless trimming of local government responsibilities and funding. It also reflects the recycling of redundant land following deindustrialisation (the London Docklands Development Corporation being a notable early example) and the tendency of corporations to buy land both as a safe asset and as a speculative investment in an era of high property prices, a development that has been fuelled in part by foreign wealth flowing into the UK (Russian oligarchs buying country estates etc). "Land hoarding" does happen, but it is often done by businesses with an eye to wider commercial opportunities rather than just builders looking to ration the supply of land suitable for housing.

The problem of land ownership is not its inequitable distribution across the population. Land reform, in the traditional sense of breaking up large estates and distributing freeholds to small farmers, hasn't been an appropriate solution for all bar the fringe of the UK since the seventeenth century. What reform has taken place saw land taken out of private hands for public benefit, whether in the form of nationalised coal mines, council playing fields or national parks (in 1979 the public sector owned 19% of the land - it now owns under 9%). The problem with the debate over land ownership is that it treats land as a fetish. Consider this from the Guardian report cited above: "The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across England’s population, each person would have just over half an acre". We're clearly not going to revert to a society based on subsistence farming and recurrent famines, so this sort of statistic in irrelevant. The issue is clearly not the distribution of land itself. The problem of land is one of taxation.

Not only is land privileged through lower taxes on capital gains and dividends, and not only is it easy to avoid inheritance tax on large estates, but many landowners enjoy significant subsidies from the state. Land has become a sanctuary from taxation. While this might conjure up images of tweedy aristocrats posing in front of imposing country piles, it is worth emphasising that the overwhelming majority of the beneficiaries do not wear wellies or own a Labrador. They are more likely to be City bankers or large shareholders in agri-businesses. That homeowners only account for 5% of land ownership should remind us both that developed land is a small fraction of the total and that the vast majority of "property" has nothing to do with bricks and mortar. The solution to the "land problem" is not initiatives to encourage more diverse ownership, or even a reversal of public sector sales, but the introduction of a land value tax (LVT). Likewise, the way to fund the rebuilding of Notre Dame is not to rely on the faux-generosity of individual billionaires but to tax them as a class.


  1. Because my brain is fuzzy, I could do with a quick refresher on the Marxist case against LVT. Any chance?

    1. Marx was cool with an LVT as a transitional demand, but he did not see it as a desirable goal both because it reinforced the state and because it ignored labour in favour of a focus on rent. He saw the emergence of the LVT as evidence of a tension between capitalists and landowners. See:

  2. Thanks! I have 1980s memories of Dave Wetzel of the Labour Land Campaign getting nowhere with comrades on LVT. They saw it as a poncy liberal measure, I guess on the basis of what you say above.