A pertinent, wide-ranging comparative study of the unleashing of the “monster” of private property, which has both enriched and enslaved populations.
English historian Linklater (Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister, 2012, etc.) focuses on the history of land ownership as driving human activity from the earliest ages and being the key to the creation of democracy. Were people merely custodians of the land, which belonged to God first and deputized to his representative on Earth, the monarch? Indigenous societies across North America, the Australian Outback and African savannah believed the land was communally owned and used, while in most of the rest of the world—e.g., Russia, China and India—“peasants worked, landlords possessed, but ultimately the earth was deemed to belong to its creator.” Evolving from the collision of crown and chief barons that resulted in the Magna Carta, the impetus for owning land gained steam in the 1500s in England with the land revolution, which displaced subsistence farming via the feudal system in favor of a few rich owners profiting from the buying of land and increasing yields. Enclosures went up, Henry VIII seized monastic land, populations grew and the Pilgrims, flung across the sea in their biblical experiment, decided that possession of New England was earned by the human toil put into it. Linklater pursues the clarification of the rights to private property through writings by Richard Overton, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among others, and the emergence of “two capitalisms”: one, the Dutch model, top-heavy and feudal; the other, unregulated and guided by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand à la Adam Smith. Yet what makes Linklater’s study truly useful is his comparative global view, exploring conditions within Russia, Poland, the Ottoman Empire to China and India, and through the present real estate market crash.
Vast, evenhanded and worthy of rumination.