Monday 15 October 2018

Land Ownership: Real or Perceived?

Mower, by Kazimir Malevich, 1930
Posted by Simon Thomas
It is not very often that moderns make distinctions between what is ‘truly stated’, and a ‘statement of truth’. While many write this off as wordplay, the distinction is important, because it draws the line between knowledge that has its base in truth, and knowledge that has its base in presuppositions. 
I apply this to the land question – a question which has been at issue throughout the world, and is at this historical juncture particularly pressing in my home country South Africa.  That is, I here consider how one may approach the issue philosophically.

An assumption is often made without historical reference – namely that the land simply belongs to ‘the people’.  A second assumption goes with it – namely that those who are currently living on it stole it from them. Now when people make these assertions, what they are stating is ‘truly stated’.

It is truly stated because they truly believe what they hold to be true. It is true because they believe it is true. It is not necessarily true because it has its basis in historical fact – rather, it is what they perceive as fact.

But this is to put it too simply. Our perceptions of reality are multi-varied things. One may say, for example, ‘The cat is brown.’ This is a statement based in a perceived reality. Yes, the cat might appear to be brown, but in reality, it is a tortoiseshell – a mixture of colours that merely make it look that way. One could advance many such examples. 

In the case of the land question, a group of persons, or a person, may lay claim to any piece of real estate merely because they say their claim to it is based in prior ownership. In reality, the issue is somewhat ambiguous – like the cat. In truth, while a person may have rights to the land for a given period of time, this is not synonymous with the whole idea of ownership. Land in itself belongs to no one, but it is often confused by the issue of who has rights to the land.

Consider that ownership is the moral right to categorically control something. More often than not, therefore, it is the person who has put in the work who has the greatest right to land. Therefore while it can be correctly stated that land belongs to the people, that is in fact never the case. Land cannot be owned in perpetuity, since it cannot be owned. It must ‘belong’ to those who work it.

And then only as the benefit of the ones who actually work it. Those who merely want to have the benefit of ownership while letting the land lie fallow should step aside for those who want to work the land for the benefit of others.

Ownership is therefore the moral right to control or manipulate the land, and only own it on the basis that the ones owning it are actually working it. The perceived truth, therefore, that the person who has claimed a deed to the land has the right to it, becomes rather obscure, and the one who puts in the labour becomes the actual owner.

So it can be seen that while a thing may be perceived as true, it might not be true in reality.  And while we perceive that something is true, it might only be true within the framework of our knowledge about it. These philosophical issues need to be sifted one from the other.

Not only that, but we need to work within the framework of our worldview, and in many cases, our spiritual understanding, which for many is that humanity is not merely hurtling headlong into space, but has a predetermined goal that is gradually unfolding.


Keith said...

‘More often than not … it is the person who has put in the work [the labour] who has the greatest right to land’. I was just wondering, Simon, what you might think of a related scenario. That is, in a free-market society, capital is also often seen as performing ‘labour’ — or working hard. For example, there’s the vernacular expression in English, right?, to ‘put money to work’. So, do you think that investing in and holding untilled land for eventual development create a similar right to the land for the owner of that invested capital? Doesn’t such investment and development ultimately boost local and national economies, as well as create the skilled and unskilled jobs associated with erecting buildings and running the businesses, and thus in turn count as labour? And in so doing, doesn’t that give the owners of the invested capital equally rightful ownership of the land? Or do you think that, say, tilling land, for agricultural purposes, is a higher-order form of labour in land use and land ownership than is the development work of invested capital?

mylearningsimonthomas said...

Yes Keith it is a multi faceted topic with what I believe many solutions to fit different scenarios no one size fits all answer here. THE land question we are facing g is bringing up the quest4of ownership. Questions like what is the nature of of ownership and would a socialist type system work better?

docmartincohen said...

You raise timeless issues, Simon Thomas! But I don't myself like the way your argument is heading. "Ownership is therefore the moral right to control or manipulate the land, and only own it on the basis that the ones owning it are actually working it. "

There is, for example, the bloody history of the native Austalians, hunter gatherer societies, who lived in the temperate and subtropical forests (and elsewhere) of Australia. I remember reading about how active their custodianship of the land was, including burning off scrub in the underlay of the forests - and most of all, a special protection for the sacred Bunya Bunya trees. Of course, to the European settlers, this long ancient tradition of 'harvesting' the land, coupled with a certain amount of maintenance, counted for NOTHING. The issue came up very directly in the new land registries and courts. The only people who 'owned' the land were those who had (a) fenced it (b) registered it with the 'authorities'. But to today, you do not own the land in Australia unless you keep it cleared of trees! It is a formal legal obligation on the ranchers, and greatly contributes to Australia's spirlling temepratures and salination.

To cut a long comment short, I don't agree that 'working the land' brings entitlements. Custodianship can take many forms and is equally valid.

mylearningsimonthomas said...

Yes Martin, the answer to the land or ownership issue has many possible solutions. But how to do it without one people group not oppressing another people group? Fyodor Dostoevsky touched on this in on of his essays in "letters to the underground' Saying you should only steward as much land as you could reasonably use for you and your family. Which seems fair enough. But for those of us who are city dwellers there are different issues, I would rather own a book shop than have a piece of land to farm!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

My wife's forebears were trekboers. These were farmers who roamed the heights, well into the 20th century. As I understand it, the desire for 'productive' farms ended the trekboers, and an entire culture of farming.

What I pick up in this post is the definition of 'actually working the land'. This could potentially have a very broad meaning, and many interpretations. Take the trekboers for instance. Were they working the land?

docmartincohen said...

Yes, Simon and Thomas, this is one of the many issues: what is it to 'use' land productively. Even today, there is a great misunderstanding of the value of wetlands - crucial to all our well-being yet considered unmanaged, messy, 'natural'. Today I hear of a plan for a huge dam in Congo - this will create many problems not least drowning much land. Is the drowned land then being used? I suppose it is. There doesn't seem to be an answer to Simon's ancient question.

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