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For thousands of years human beings lived in very small communities, commonly referred to by anthropologists as “band societies.” These were egalitarian, democratic societies, based on the principles of reciprocity. Given this long history, one could argue that this is the normal social structure for human beings. The basic moral principles of these societies were altruism and solidarity. Land and natural resources were common to all.
In these democratic societies there were differences in personal property, but there was no concept of private property in the means of production, which is the standard today. Everyone had access to natural resources and was guaranteed adequate food, clothing and shelter. Customs, rules and moral codes were established on the basic democratic principle of utilitarianism. Political decisions were made by popular participation. Anthropologists have noted that in these societies, sharing among the group increases when there is a shortage of food or a threat of starvation.
In all these societies, land and natural resources belonged to the people as a whole. The different communities often had territories where they operated, recognized by others, but even here there was no strict territorial notion of ownership. These band and tribal societies have been held up as the earliest examples of democracies. The fundamental value was the recognition of the equal worth of all human beings. (See Fried, 1967; Hindess and Hirst, 1973; Lewellen, 1992)
Unequal access to land and resources
Change started to come with the neolithic revolution, the development of modern agriculture. Through the use of improved staple crops, the introduction of draft animals, and the use of irrigation, those who farmed the land were able to produce an economic surplus. The storage and distribution of cereal grains, in particular, allowed the development of a social division of labour. This new social system first occurred in Mesopotamia.
We see the creation of social classes, the fundamental division between the political, religious and economic elite, who had some form of special use rights over land and resources, and the majority who were the producers: serfs, slaves, peasants, peons, independent farmers who paid a tax, those under debt bondage, etc.. It was common that the producing class was forced to surrender 50% of the crop that their labour had produced. This was called “rent,” surrendered supposedly for the right to have use of the land. However, in reality this was a system of appropriation of the “surplus labour” from the agricultural producers, the surplus over and above what was necessary for the survival of the producing family.
In these new hierarchical societies, where the farming classes were grossly exploited and often faced starvation, the political state became necessary in order to enforce the social division of labour. With clear class divisions, laws and rules were established and implemented by the dominant classes. The military, the penal system, and the death penalty became central characteristics of these states. It is in Mesopotamia that we first see the use of organized religion as an important ideological institution in the defence of hierarchy and inequality. (Bellwood, 2005; Bottero, 1992; Flannery and Marcus, 2012; Gamble, 2013; Leick, 2001; Weaver, 2003)
Rebellions by the producing classes had to be contained. But while access to land and resources was unequal, the concept of individual ownership was virtually non existent. As territorial states were developed, land and natural resources became state property, to be allocated by the ruling political elite. (See Harris, 1977; Balandier, 1970; Krader, 1968)
In Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, the decentralized political system led to the development of the feudal system of ownership and use of land and other resources. Local lords and tenant farmers had rights to land; the serfs paid a rent to their landlords, in the form of products, labour time and then later money. But there was no private ownership of land, and serfs had rights to the use of land.
The shift to private ownership of land and resources came during the early rise of capitalism, the period commonly referred to as mercantilism, roughly between 1500 and 1750. Mercantilism was characterized by the formation of the territorial state, the development of the modern state political system, and the expansion of European imperialism and colonialism around the world. The territorial state became the new owner of all resources, and the absolutist kings and queens granted land and other natural resources to privileged individuals.
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For Canadians, what is most important is the changes that were occurring in England. The Norman invasion of 1066 began the process of establishing a more centralized political order. William the Conqueror laid claim to all of England by the right of conquest. As the absolute sovereign, he then allocated all the land of the country to a special group of aristocrats. These lords in turn granted land use to other subsidiary lords, then down to the tenants who actually did the farming. Peasants had the right to land use, for which product and services were rendered as rent. But there was still no concept of private ownership of land; lords could not buy and sell land and resources as if they were private property. The Crown still held absolute property rights.
However, the landlords strove always to increase their control over the land. Parliament was originated as an instrument by which the landlords used their political power to gain the right to private ownership of land and resources from the absolute monarch. By the 17th century men with property had used their complete control of Parliament to establish a new legal system which granted them private property rights. Whereas the feudal system had been based on relationships between persons, by the 17th century this had been replaced by the capitalist concept of the exchange of things. (Hindess and Hirst, 1975; MacPherson, 1962; Vogt, 1999)
The other major development in Europe over the mercantile period was modern imperialism and colonialism. England and the other major European nation-states embarked on extensive military assaults around the world. This involved not only the subjugation of the majority of the people of the world but also the imposition of absolutist colonial regimes. In all the conquered areas of the world, which included almost all of the non-white and non-Christian peoples, the colonial powers ended all systems of common ownership of land and resources. As one political economist noted, these acts of piracy “signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Not only did the imperial states seize all land and resources, individuals and their families arrived from Europe bent on grabbing “free land” from the indigenous populations. (See Weaver, 2003)
Those of us who live in western Canada know this from our own history. On May 2, 1670 the British Crown created the Hudson Bay Company and gave the company “the sole trade and commerce of all these seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds ... that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly called Hudson Straits and the possession of all such lands and territories not already possessed by other subjects or the subject of any other Christian prince or state.” The mercantile corporation was declared to be the “true and absolute lords and proprietors of the entire territory.” It mattered not who lived on this land.
Liberalism and the right to steal land and resources
The European monarchs had no problem justifying their conquest and domination of other peoples around the world. The indigenous people were described as barbarians, were not Christians, and were by definition inferior. The Europeans were bringing Christianity and civilization. It took a while for the Church in Rome to determine that the non-white people around the world were actually human beings. The Church then ordered an end the practice of indiscriminately killing these people; instead , they were to become slaves and serfs to work in agriculture, forestry and mining.
But some English capitalists felt the need for a moral justification beyond conquest for seizing other people’s land and resources and ending their freedom. The most influential defence of the new capitalist imperialism was set forth by John Locke (1637-1704), generally considered to be the founder of liberalism and liberal political economy. He set down the ideological justification for individual rights, the right to own private property and the justification for imperialism and colonialism in The Second Treatise of Government (1690) and Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money (1691).
Locke argued that England had the right to seize land abroad as their settlers and business enterprises would be productively using the land and resources. The land not under cultivation by the indigenous population was considered “waste land” and could be seized at will. But Locke went farther in advancing the liberal view of private property. Since the indigenous populations of North America cultivated their lands in a collective or democratic manner, Locke argued that they had no claim to it. Under the principles of liberalism, those who farmed could only establish a legal claim if the land or resources were used on an individual basis; it had to be enclosed and fenced off by individuals. Since this was not the case in North America, new local governments, enterprises and settlers were free to take any land that was being used by the indigenous populations.
Equally important to establishing the liberal capitalist view of private property, Locke argued that those individuals and enterprises which seized land and natural resources did not require the consent of others or the community in general. North America was “wilderness” or “vacant space” and any use of the land by colonizers would be a beneficial improvement. He also stressed that it was not necessary for those who seized this land and resources to pay any compensation to the general public. Furthermore, the indigenous populations could only claim the right to use the land and resources if they were selling their product on the world market.
Finally, Locke argued, government was needed to establish rules to defend the rights of the owners of private property. This is the first task of governments. It is only logical that those who participate in politics, those who can be classed as “citizens,” who can vote and hold a seat in Parliament, is limited to men who own property. (Arneil, 1996; Macpherson, 1992)
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The traditional liberal view of ownership and control of natural resources by a small group of men did not gone unchallenged. Over time we have seen the struggle to revive the democratic tradition. In the political area, men without property mobilized in a broad fashion to achieve equal political rights with those who had property and the right to form trade unions. Those who were slaves struggled to achieve freedom. Non-whites fought to obtain the same rights as whites. Colonized peoples took up arms to achieve independence from the European empires and establish their own governments. Women continue to struggle to be recognized as persons with equal rights with men.
As democracy spread across the world the majority who did not own private property in the means of production took political action, formed political parties, eventually formed governments, and pushed for economic and social rights and greater equality. Part of this broad democratic struggle has included the demand that natural resources belong to the people as a whole. Elected governments, with sovereign power, can redefine ownership and how resources are developed and used. It is clear that in the period since the rise of capitalism and liberalism, the central political struggle around the world has been between the supporters of the liberal order of privileges for the few and those who support the democratic value of equal rights for all.
Arneil, Barbara. 1996. John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press.
Balandier, Georges. 1970. Political Anthropology. London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press.
Bellwood, Peter. 2005. First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Bottero. Jean. 1992. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning and the Gods. Chicago :University of Chicago Press.
Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus. 2012. The Creation of Inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Fried, Morton H. 1967. The Evolution of Political Society. New York: Random House.
Gamble, Clive. 2013. Settling the Earth: The Archeology of Deep Human History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harris, Marvin. 1978. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York: Random House.
Hindness, Barry and Paul Q. Hirst. 1975. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Krader, Lawrence. 1968. The Formation of the State. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Leick, Gwendolyn. 2001. Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. London: Penguin Books.
Lewellen, Ted C. 1992. Political Anthropology: An Introduction. London: Bergin & Garvey.
Macpherson, C. B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. New York: Oxford University Press.
Megarry, Tim. 1995. Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Vogt, Roy. 1999. Who’s Property: The Deepening Conflict Between Private Property and Democracy in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Weaver, John C. 2003. The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650 - 1900. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.