[Marxism] A history of land ownership

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 2 08:31:40 MDT 2014

London Review of Books Vol. 36 No. 9 · 8 May 2014

That Disturbing Devil
Ferdinand Mount

     Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by 
Andro Linklater
     Bloomsbury, 482 pp, £20.00, January, ISBN 978 1 4088 1574 8

In this case, the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous 
subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of 
the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its 
history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if 
at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: 
capitalism, urbanisation, democracy, industrialisation, the role of the 
state. The question ‘Who owns the land?’ has a musty aroma to it.

Andro Linklater tells us at the end of his ambitious odyssey that he was 
aware that his focus on land ownership ‘might seem old-fashioned to the 
point of eccentricity’. Certainly that is the reputation which has stuck 
to his best-known predecessor, Henry George. In his 1879 bestseller, 
Progress and Poverty, George set out the same thumping principle which 
inspires Linklater: ‘The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact 
which ultimately determines the social, the political and consequently 
the intellectual and moral condition of a people.’

In his day, George had quite a following. Progress and Poverty sold more 
than three million copies and was translated into a dozen languages. 
George ran for mayor of New York and finished ahead of Teddy Roosevelt, 
though behind the Tammany Hall candidate. Henry George Foundations still 
exist in London, Melbourne and his native Philadelphia. Liberal 
Democrats in Britain continue to hanker after George’s single land tax 
to replace all other taxes, as do some American conservatives. All the 
same, George and Georgism remain outliers on the landscape of politics.

Yet George’s marginality gave him an unrivalled view of the emerging 
world. The second of ten children of a struggling publisher of religious 
texts, he left school at 14 and sailed before the mast to Melbourne and 
Calcutta, turned to typesetting when he came home, then lit out for the 
gold mines of British Columbia, before drifting into journalism and 
finishing up as managing editor of the San Francisco Times. In roaming 
the frontiers, he saw how land that was valueless yesterday could become 
worth many dollars an acre after it was cleared, surveyed, settled and, 
above all, owned.

Andro Linklater did not live quite the hand-to-mouth life of Henry 
George, but he too was an outlier. Raised in the Orkneys, the younger 
son of Eric Linklater, he had something of his father’s unpigeonholeable 
talent as a writer and the same indifference to the opinion of others. 
He lived with the headhunters of Sarawak, completed Eric’s history of 
the Black Watch, taught in a tough London school, lived on an almost 
uninhabited Hebridean island for five years, never to be tied down to a 
career, nor a search for recognition, let alone celebrity, though 
capable of charming the birds off the trees if there had been any trees 
in the desolate regions he preferred. It is typical of his ornery nature 
that he should have died of a heart attack the week before Owning the 
Earth was first published in New York, because he was on another 
Hebridean island and there was a fatal delay before he could get medical 

Unlike George, Linklater sets out to provide a historical framework for 
his argument. He begins with the rude irruption of European adventurers 
into the New World. In the royal charter that Queen Elizabeth conferred 
on Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, she granted him full power over the 
soil of ‘those large and ample countreys [that] extended Northward from 
the cape of Florida … to dispose thereof, of every part thereof in fee 
simple or otherwise, according to the order of the laws of England’. 
That raffish, bisexual gallant, Raleigh’s half-brother, was to control 
the freehold of the Eastern Seaboard all the way up to Newfoundland, 
anywhere which was not already occupied by ‘any Christian prince or 
people’ (no look-in for Native Americans, of course).

This arrogation was all the more sweeping because back in England the 
pattern of land ownership was still very varied. John Darby’s huge 
estate map of Smallburgh, Norfolk, dated a year before Gilbert set sail 
and now in the British Library, shows a rich mixture of strip-fields, 
commons and orchards, as well as the large number of fields already 
enclosed by the landowner and dotted with sheep and cattle. But 
Gilbertia – as the new country might perhaps have been named if Sir 
Humphrey’s frigate, the Squirrel, had not gone down in a storm on the 
return journey – was to be freehold from the start, a huge terra nova of 
untrammelled individual ownership.

The early 1500s, according to Linklater, saw ‘the birth of a new 
mindset’, and a uniquely explosive one:

     The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can 
be carried or occupied, but of the immovable near-eternal earth has 
proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written 
history. It has eliminated ancient civilisations wherever it has 
encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but 
it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and 
protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.

The new ideology was fiercely resisted by the upholders of older 
pieties. In Utopia (1516), Sir Thomas More, though himself a 
considerable landowner, denounces the powerful magnates who ‘enclose all 
into pastures’ and demolish houses and entire villages to make sheep 
runs. ‘The rich men, not only by private fraud but also by common laws, 
do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor some part of their 
daily living.’ The 1553 revision of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer made 
it clear that rapacious landlords were not to expect the approval of the 
new Church of England either:

     the earth is thine, O Lord, and all that is contained therein; we 
heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that 
possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth that 
they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch 
out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines 
and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings.

A century later, the Levellers ratcheted up the rhetoric. Gerrard 
Winstanley declared that the earth ‘was made to be a common livelihood 
to all’ and that ‘your buying and selling of Land, and the fruits of it, 
one to another, is the cursed thing.’ That ‘disturbing devil, called 
Particular Propriety’, stood in shameful contrast to the early 
Christians who had held all things in common (Acts 2.44).

Linklater himself used to believe passionately in Winstanley’s ideals 
and ‘lived for longer than was sensible on communes in the United States 
and Europe, farming unproductive, steeply sloping fields locked away in 
the mountains, unwanted by their original owner’. He experienced at 
first hand the downside of communal farming: the inequality of effort 
put in, the backbiting and the dissension, the disillusioning need for 
rigid discipline if the commune was not to fall apart.

By contrast, he spells out here the unmistakable benefits of enclosure 
by private individuals: the improvements to the grazing and the breeds, 
the need for fewer shepherds because the sheep could no longer stray, 
the higher yields and the higher profits. Farms grew bigger, and so did 
the population (the population of England doubled in the 16th century). 
English workers prided themselves on not being peasants and on enjoying 
mutton, bacon and cheese, while the paysans across the Channel had to 
rely on cereals, generally in the form of gruel. Thus was born the myth 
of English exceptionalism. When Gregory King made his famous first 
occupational census of England in 1688, he reckoned that out of 1.3 
million families, no fewer than a quarter had as their head a tenant 
farmer, a freeholder or a landowning nobleman – all of them possessors 
of land rights.

Minerva’s owl was soon planing over the new landscape and trying to make 
sense of this ‘possessive individualism’, as C.B. Macpherson was to dub 
it three centuries later. In the argument between Macpherson and Milton 
Friedman, both sides recognised, as Marx had, its explosive power. They 
differed as to whether its social effects were malign or benign. In this 
argument, Linklater is always an impartial and insightful referee. In 
becoming disillusioned with the commune, he does not ricochet to the 
other extreme, like a New York Trot morphing into a Reagan Republican, 
but keeps a cool and exact, yet sympathetic gaze on the realities of 
land ownership.

The crucial insight of this book is that ownership depends not only on 
possession but on recognition. Private property cannot survive without 
the guarantee of government. Locke argued that ‘the great and chief end 
therefore, of Men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves 
under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.’ But 
Leviathan’s certificate comes at a price. Once under government, owners 
are locked into a system of justice, and are subject to what Madison 
called ‘the equalising tendency of the laws’, or, in Adam Smith’s 
formulation, ‘that equal and impartial administration of justice which 
renders the rights of the meanest subject respectable to the greatest’. 
Smith tells us bluntly that ‘the mean rapacity, the monopolising spirit 
of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be the 
rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected, may very 
easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquillity of any body but 

It was above all when they were appropriating virgin land that the 
would-be squires needed the stamp of government. Sir Humphrey Gilbert 
clutched his charter from Good Queen Bess. In due course, the government 
of the United States became a brilliant machine for the generation of 
property rights.

Security of title was crucial. As Sir William Petty, that ingenious 
pioneer of statistics who himself acquired huge estates in Ireland, 
pointed out, ‘there can be no incouragement to industry, where there is 
no assurance of what shall be gotten by it.’ Jefferson was the Founding 
Father most hostile to private property, but it was the surveys carried 
out on the instructions of his Committee on the Western Lands which 
divided the whole country into that vast chequerboard we still see from 
the air, not to mention his Louisiana Purchase which added millions more 
acres to the United States. More ironic still, the surveys set in motion 
by the great opponent of the British Empire were copied all over British 
territory – in the square gridlands of Ontario, in the Torrens surveys 
which divided South Australia up into ‘parishes’. In these supposed 
terrae nullius, the original inhabitants had as much reason to fear the 
white man’s theodolite and chain as his guns and muskets.

The banker followed on the heels of the surveyor, for a secure title is 
the best security for a loan and the farmer needed cash for seeds and 
tools and livestock. The bank loan and the land registry together bound 
the landowner into a system of law and regulation which potentially 
opened the way to social justice.

For a brief historical moment, private ownership enjoyed a moral 
ascendancy and even came to feature among the rights of man. The First 
Continental Congress in 1774 declared that ‘the people of America … are 
entitled to life, liberty and property’. In Article 17 of the 
Declaration of the Rights of Man, the French National Assembly asserted 
that ‘Property is an inviolable and sacred right.’ But these 
formulations were no sooner enounced than erased, to be replaced by the 
more inclusive goals of ‘happiness’ and ‘fraternity’, not to mention 
‘equality’. In The Origin of Inequality, Rousseau had already fingered 
the institution of private property as the beginning of inequality. The 
first claiming stakes driven into the ground had started the rot. Had 
the sans-culottes gone to the trouble of making a revolution only to 
reinforce the rights of their oppressors?

The same arguments troubled the making of the Universal Declaration of 
Human Rights after the Second World War. The Americans did manage to 
squeeze in Article 17, ‘the right to own property alone as well as in 
association with others’, but there were strong objections from some 
signatories. Two years later, when it came to the European Convention on 
Human Rights, the best that the supporters of private property could 
manage was a non-binding protocol, which asserted the right to ‘the 
peaceful enjoyment of his possessions’, a rather tamer entitlement.


While private property was beginning to produce the economic goods, it 
fell under an ideological blight. Proudhon’s thunderous pronouncement 
that ‘Property is theft’ hit the popular imagination in 1840, just as 
white men were sweeping the natives off their ancestral lands all over 
the globe. To many, this looked like a replay of the destruction of the 
old commons, and a demonstration that private ownership of land was not 
an accidental but an inherent evil, and that government was its 

There is a weird echo of Proudhon in the arguments of the Austrian 
school of economists a century later. Ludwig von Mises asserted that 
‘all rights derive from violence, all ownership from appropriation or 
robbery’. The economy was a self-generating, self-correcting system 
which owed nothing to government or to conscious design, and at its best 
depended on the unfettered play of the energies and appetites of men. 
Hayek modified this alarming thesis, but he never accepted how much 
private ownership depended for its survival and its beneficial effects 
on the guarantees and corrections of government. For Hayek, social 
justice was always a mirage, and progressive taxation penalised the 
‘independents’ who actually created the wealth and needed to be 
protected against the envious predations of their inferiors. In sharp 
contrast, Adam Smith believed that ‘it is not very unreasonable that the 
rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to 
their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.’ This gulf 
between Smith and his supposed heirs has seldom been properly confronted.

The communists, for their part, eagerly welcomed all evidence to show 
that common ownership had been the rule rather than the exception 
throughout history and throughout the world, and that private ownership 
was a recent intrusion. After delving into the records of Irish medieval 
law in the Manchester Public Library, Engels wrote excitedly to Marx 
that ‘the tracts show clearly that in Anno 1600 common ownership of land 
still existed in full force.’ In Russia, the serfs’ communal council, 
the mir, redistributed both land and grazing rights, specified which 
fields were to be left fallow and what crops were to be grown elsewhere. 
Might not the mir offer a blueprint for the communism of the future, 
enabling Russia to skip the stage of industrialisation that was 
otherwise mandatory in Marx’s scheme?

Linklater points out that the mir, or obshchina, was a by-product of 
tsarism, for it was the Romanovs who not only introduced serfdom but, in 
mitigation of that novel form of slavery, decreed that at least a 
quarter of each estate had to be set aside for the use of the serfs. Nor 
was there any straightforward linear progression: Ivan the Terrible had 
distributed land to his favourites (much to Stalin’s later approval); 
Peter the Great, by contrast, had abolished the private ownership of 
land; Catherine the Great had reintroduced it.

At this point Linklater gets a little entangled in his own outline. He 
began with a more or less familiar Whiggish, Marxish version, in which 
feudal practices continue as late as the 16th century, with communal 
rights well to the fore and the buying and selling of land a novel and 
controversial development. But now we are told that Marx’s evolutionary 
scheme does not fit the findings of modern research. There was no 
straight progression from community to selfishness but rather ‘an uneasy 
equilibrium that occurred in a variety of forms in different countries, 
sometimes lasting for centuries’. Under Irish Brehon law, for example, 
more energetic families did manage to accumulate landholdings and pass 
them on to their families. Marx himself found the same in German-Swiss 
cantons. The community would dictate periodic reallocations of land, but 
something akin to private ownership did emerge. In England, it is clear, 
the buying and selling of land had gone on for centuries. Magna Carta, 
after all, protects every baron and freeholder from being ‘disseised of 
his freehold’. The Statute of Merton (1235) guarantees the lord of the 
manor’s right to enclose common land. Alan Macfarlane’s The Origins of 
English Individualism confirms the view that private ownership and 
alienation of land had always been features of the English scene as far 
back as records go. Sir Keith Joseph’s delight on discovering Macfarlane 
was as great as Marx’s on receiving Engels’s report from Manchester.

The search to find legitimacy in the distant past does not, of course, 
offer cast-iron guidance for the future. And it is in the more recent 
past that the achievements of ‘land reform’ – as it came to be politely 
known – have been most startling, and most undervalued. The remarkable 
economic surge over the 19th century in the United States, Canada and 
Australia was blighted by the forcible expropriation and slaughter of 
the original owners of the land. But no less remarkable things happened 
as a result of land redistribution in other countries where there was no 
such moral shadow.

Britain’s record in Ireland over the centuries has been so wretched that 
few now remember the succession of Irish Land Acts which the Westminster 
Parliament passed in response to the agitation of the Land League in the 
later 19th century. As a result, 90 per cent of Irish land passed at 
knockdown prices from mostly Protestant landlords to mostly Catholic 
tenants – a mirror image of what had happened at terrible cost in the 
1640s. Long before the Easter Rising, the British Parliament had 
effectively destroyed the Ascendancy and created a nation of small 

In Denmark, Count Christian Reventlow (1748-1827) embarked on a 
comprehensive programme of land reform, so that by the 1820s two-thirds 
of all Danish farmers had become owner-occupiers. The rest of 
Scandinavia followed suit over the course of the century. Modern 
Scandinavia’s rare combination of egalitarian spirit and entrepreneurial 
energy has land redistribution as its originating cause. In Russia too, 
all through the years in which intellectuals were bemoaning the 
hopelessness of everything Slav, there was in fact a tremendous land 
revolution in progress. In 1861, the nobility had owned 80 per cent of 
European Russia. By 1912, two-thirds of the land belonged to newcomers 
like the nekulturny Lopakhin, who wants to cut down the cherry orchard 
to build holiday homes. Like Madame Ranevskaya, the Russian nobility 
were undone by their own improvidence.

On top of this, in Siberia there was a land rush of Californian 
proportions, aided by the government allotment of forty acres per 
family. One pioneer wrote home ecstatically: ‘Here you can plough as 
much land as you want, and as much hay as you want! Life is possible!’ 
If Stolypin had not been murdered and if Nicholas II had not been such a 
pigheaded idiot, without a world war Russia might have evolved into a 
sustainable democracy. At least it can be argued that by 1914 its most 
pressing problems were political, not economic.

Even in Britain, land ownership was transferred, almost unnoticed, on a 
very large scale – as in Russia, driven by the indebtedness of the 
landlords rather than by government initiative. To counter the virulent 
assault on the mid-Victorian concentration of land ownership, Lord Derby 
had in 1872 set up an official inquiry, a sort of new Domesday Book, in 
the hope that the results would refute the vulgar accusations. But when 
the Return of Owners of Land was published in 1873, Derby turned out to 
have scored a spectacular own goal.

The figures showed that a quarter of the land in England and Wales was 
owned by 710 individuals, 12 aristocrats owned four million acres 
between them, and nearly three-quarters of the British Isles was in the 
hands of a few thousand owners. But this was the blazing autumn of the 
plutocrats. Debt and Sir William Harcourt’s introduction of death duties 
in 1894 combined with repeated agricultural depressions and the Great 
War to cause a headlong dispersal of the great estates. Those country 
squires who had feared that the repeal of the Corn Laws would be the 
death of them were not wholly wrong. By 1924, Edward Wood, later Lord 
Halifax, told the House of Commons that ‘there was a silent revolution 
in progress … We are, unless I mistake it, witnessing in England the 
gradual disappearance of the old landed classes.’ As David Cannadine 
remarks in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, ‘five 
hundred years of patrician landownership had effectively been halted and 
reversed in seventy.’

True, if you draw up a list of the great property owners today, the same 
names appear at the top: Buccleuch and Devonshire (rural), Grosvenor and 
Cadogan (urban). But most of these great holdings, vast though they 
still are, are a fraction of their old size. A further revolution within 
a revolution has reduced the proportion of land farmed by tenants from 
90 per cent in the 19th century to a mere 35 per cent today. Landowners 
who are too idle or too busy to farm their own land prefer to install a 
manager, often under a sharecropping arrangement.

But these bouleversements are trivial beside the spectacular land 
reforms in East Asia after 1945. Here Linklater introduces the nearest 
thing in his book to a hero. Wolf Ladejinsky was reared in a shtetl in 
Western Ukraine. Within living memory, his homeland had been transformed 
from a serf economy to a private-property squirearchy before the land 
was nationalised by the conquering Bolsheviks. When Ladejinsky fled to 
the United States in 1922, he took with him the conviction that ‘the 
foundations of the social structure must stand or fall in the 
countryside, and the peasant and his interests and aspirations must be 
placed at the centre of the piece.’

As a land economist seconded to General MacArthur’s military government 
in Japan, he drew up a programme in which no absentee landlord could own 
more than nine acres. By 1950, 90 per cent of Japanese farmland was 
owned by its cultivators. Ladejinsky then brought off the same trick in 
Taiwan and South Korea. Linklater argues that he came within touching 
distance of success in South Vietnam too, if only the US had not wearied 
of the war and he himself had not fallen out of favour in Washington (he 
was wrongly denounced as a Communist stooge). Everywhere Ladejinsky 
preached his simple message that ‘land ownership … is the real vehicle 
of security and opportunity upon which a more resourceful economy can be 
built.’ Everywhere he seemed to be proved right. Certainly his legacy 
was infinitely superior to that of Walt Rostow, who beguiled Washington 
with his five-stage programme for ‘The Take-Off into Self-Sustained 
Growth’, which, by contrast, claimed that industrialisation was the key. 
Rostow tied the United States to a series of unsavoury autocrats and 
littered the world with unprofitable steel mills.


Where land reform failed, it tended to be because it was not carried 
through in good faith. In Iran, for example, where the shah’s original 
good intentions were eroded by cronyism and corruption. India (not 
really covered here) is another instructive case. The British 
‘Modernisers’ (almost the first use of the term) of the 1830s and 1840s 
believed that if the government got rid of the idle landlords and dealt 
direct with the peasants, Indian farming would really take off. 
Unfortunately, the East India Company still needed vast quantities of 
rupees to support its great military apparatus, and the reforms created 
a bunch of aggrieved ex-landlords and a peasantry groaning under the 
British collectors, who tended to be more relentless than the old 
taluqdars and zamindars. Thousands of small farmers were driven into the 
hands of moneylenders and, under new British regulations, were 
eventually forced to sell up for not paying their taxes. A British 
official at the time lamented that ‘in the landed property of the 
country a very extensive and melancholy revolution has been effected’. 
Rather than warding off discontent, the land reform helped to 
precipitate the most terrifying mutiny in the history of the British Empire.

Which makes one wonder whether Henry George’s single land tax could ever 
have worked. In India, at any rate, a better answer seemed to lie in the 
new income tax devised by James Wilson, the founder of the Economist, 
when he came out to India after the Mutiny. In Britain, Labour 
governments have repeatedly tried to capture the development value of 
land for the public revenues: by the Development Charge in 1947, the 
Betterment Levy in 1967 and the Development Land Tax of 1976. All were 
seen to have failed and were later repealed, their most noticeable 
effect being to dissuade landowners from bringing land forward for 
development. An impartial single tax on all land, developed or not, 
would not have that defect, but it would still be a burden on enterprise 
and would hardly encourage the release of land to the people. Britain 
still lacks its Ladejinsky.

Or indeed its Deng Xiaoping, for the most spectacular land reform in 
history was to come in the most unlikely place – Communist China. Deng’s 
amazing feat is more often described as the introduction of a market 
economy, but its key feature was the chengbao system (1978), of 
thirty-year leases on specific parcels of land, the produce to be sold 
on the free market after having first supplied the state with fixed 
quotas of rice or wheat. Ancient precedent could be found for such a 
system, dating back to the Confucian era, but it was an undeniable 
affront to Lenin, who always believed that ‘small-scale production gives 
birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie constantly, daily, hourly, with 
elemental force and in vast proportions.’ It also nonplussed those 
ideologues of the right who had always preached that only a democracy 
could give birth to a market economy. Lenin’s fears were confirmed when 
widespread protests from farmers at the confiscation of their land for 
industrial development led the authorities in 2007 to go one step 
further and bring in laws protecting private ownership, or wuquan.

Nor is there much reason to suppose that the work of land reform is yet 
done. Linklater does not mention Hernando de Soto and his 1986 
bestseller, The Other Path, which proposed that the shanty-dwellers of 
his native Peru could be weaned away from the Maoist guerrillas of the 
Shining Path by being given proper legal rights over their patches and 
small businesses. De Soto’s thesis has been eagerly taken up across 
South America and Asia (China included). His critics argue variously 
that his reforms favour better-off squatters over the poorest, who would 
be more effectively protected by communal tenures, or that his reforms 
do not go far enough. Linklater, I think, would have concluded that de 
Soto was at least on to something. He would certainly have been eager to 
point out the lead role of the state in guaranteeing those squatters’ 

It is arguable that the state is still obstructing the welfare of the 
worst off in the West too. In Britain today, the rigidities of the 
planning system, still basically governed by the 1947 Town and Country 
Planning Act, continue to restrict the supply of land for housebuilding 
and for industrial and commercial development, and so to keep land 
prices at a prohibitively high level. The Nimby is the modern analogue 
of Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, only more successful.

In his final chapters, Linklater drifts away from his main theme to 
examine the causes of the 2008 financial crash. There is nothing much 
wrong with his analysis, but it distracts him from the interesting 
question whether land reform still has work to do in unexpected places. 
Might not marginal farmland be opened up to small-scale bidders, just as 
urban and coastal wastelands were released for bungalows, chalets and 
allotments after the Great War, the so-called Plotlands which were so 
loathed by the Bloomsberries and so loved by their owners?

If this beguiling and provoking book has a larger fault, though, it is 
in its historical perspective. Linklater constantly seeks to present 
private ownership as a mysterious irruption into a world which had known 
nothing but various forms of communal ownership. This ‘strange 
16th-century way of owning the earth’ apparently had no precedent and no 
roots. Here and there, Linklater does concede that something like it can 
be found several centuries earlier. What he does not do is look back to 
classical antiquity.

In ancient Greece and Rome and across their empires, absolute land 
ownership seems to have been taken for granted. Its abuses certainly 
provoked tirades and alternatives. Horace protested against the nouveaus 
who defiled the Bay of Naples with vulgar villas. The early Christians 
stood out as remarkable precisely because they held all things in 
common. Both Plato’s vision of common ownership in the Republic and 
Aristotle’s passionate critique of it are presented in terms familiar to 
us. Aristotle was no friend to usury or indeed to moneymaking generally, 
but he argued strongly that common ownership led to slacking and 
squabbling and that private ownership was more productive, that it had 
always existed and was implanted in human nature. We need not accept any 
of Aristotle’s arguments, but we do have to recognise that even in the 
fourth century BC those arguments were up and running, as were the 
counter-arguments for collective ownership. The ‘uneasy equilibrium’ 
seems to be a longstanding part of the Western tradition. It can be 
detected as clearly in the clay tablets of old Mesopotamia as in the 
regulations of New York condos. We are unlikely to see the balance stop 
swinging in our own time.

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