1 March 2021 — Internationalist 360°
It is not that the earth is ours and that it belongs to us. It is that we all belong to the earth. From it we live, with its fruits we feed ourselves, from its lakes and rivers comes the water we need, with its wood and stones we build our houses, even the most modern ones, because the metal of their frames also comes from the earth. We are buried in the earth when we die.
And although we can travel the skies and seas, we will always be safer when we set foot on land. Because planes fall, ships sink, cars crash. And since they are now made of plastic and run at almost supersonic speeds, in the bloody mix of heads, legs, pieces of plastic, glasses, glass and shoes left by crashes, there are few survivors and many corpses. We are left with highways and urban streets to wander. And if we live in towns and walk a little along the neighboring roads, from them we see on each side extensive lands that must have owners, because they are fenced. But those owners, which everything indicates are rich, never let themselves be seen and we only see from afar cows, and a few peasants always sowing in other people’s fields, bowed, sweating, and sometimes wearing hats to protect them from the sun.
In the streets of the cities we can at least step on the ground, that earth that gives us security. But it is not earth that we tread on because urban streets are usually asphalted; moreover, many of them are private, and are closed with guard booths that protect them from strangers and criminals. And, rightly or wrongly, the truth is that those who walk the streets now are always considered suspicious. And also those who travel on motorcycles or in cars, perhaps even more so. Apparently, we all are.
But returning to the central issue, the issue of collective or private ownership of land, what is clear is that the struggle for land has been a central and permanent theme of human history for millennia.
In the beginning everything could have been more peaceful. Humans were few and land was plentiful. So it was free, owned by all, and there was plenty of it. But human societies began to grow while the land did not, and not all of it could be appropriated. And so the struggle for it began. Human societies became stratified, began to urbanize, divided into opposing social classes, and as a result some minorities began to dominate and control the power, becoming rich, owners of the land, and subjecting others, the majorities, to their exploitative domination.
From then on, human history became the history of the struggle for land, a struggle that has varied, yes, but has always been fierce and has never ceased. I will not attempt to summarize it in this short article. I will recall only several phrases or texts that are unforgettable traces of that struggle.
The Fathers of the Church said that the earth belonged to all. Lactantius says that God gave the earth in common to all men so that they could all enjoy the goods it produces in abundance, not so that a few greedy people could appropriate it, depriving others of the goods it produces for all.
And St. John Chrysostom is even more radical. In his discourse he affirms that everything is common: the earth, the springs, the pastures, the valleys, and that no one has more than another. And he condemns the man who, by appropriating the land that belongs to all, appropriates the livelihood of thousands of poor people. But the Church became a rich landowner and texts like these were forgotten.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men, Rousseau wrote that social inequality was born of the emergence of private land ownership: “The first man who, while fencing a piece of land, thought of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders; how many miseries and horrors would he have spared the human race who would have cried out to his fellows, pulling up the stakes: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the land to none!”
It was too late. Six decades earlier, Locke, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, dictated the guideline that the ruling bourgeois class required and imposed it without delay. Locke affirmed that land should be private, being the only way for it to produce. And that those who want to keep it as collective become enemies of progress and should be exterminated like vermin. This was the liberal model followed by the white settlers in Europe, and especially in the United States, who exterminated the American Indians.
In the middle of the 19th century, the great chief Seattle, of the Swamish tribe, wrote a letter in response to Franklin Pierce, president of the United States, who wanted to buy his land from the tribe:
“The great chief of Washington wishes to buy our land… How can one buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the earth? This idea seems strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air or the brightness of the water, how can you buy them? Every piece of this land is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every grain of sand on the banks of the rivers, every drop of dew in the shadows of the forests, every clearing in the grove… The dead of the white man forget the land where they were born… We are part of the land and it is part of us… We will consider your offer, but it will not be easy. This land is sacred to us.”
The result? The continuation of the massacre, the genocide of the indigenous American population sacrificed by the white supremacists on the modern altar of progress, of “capitalist civilization”, privatizing the land, with more vigor.
And in Africa, at the end of the same century, a black South African leader, referring to the occupation of his land by European settlers, racists, Calvinists and white supremacists who had become their masters by dispossessing them of it, summed up in a few devastating words the issue of land ownership in the colonial world. He said, “When they came, we had the land and they had the bibles. Now we have the bibles and they have the land.”
In capitalism that dominates the world, land is private.
In fact, we ordinary humans no longer need land even to be buried. Now cremation of the remains is being imposed – complete with urn. And the bereaved receive a container filled with ashes that are kept for a while and then thrown into a river or blown away by the wind. The idea is good and healthy, so they don’t waste and contaminate the earth. Nobody rots. It just shouldn’t serve as a justification for that land that is saved and protected to be privatized. Those who don’t want to be cremated are buried by their relatives. But it is not always forever. In Caracas, a large cemetery rents plots of land to the dead. And after fifty years, when the rent expires, they have to be removed, because the demand for land for burials is very great.
The fact is that privatized land continues to be key. Collective, communal property is marginal, and the overwhelming majority of the land is owned. And demand is growing. It would seem that we are doing well. Bill Gates has become the largest private landowner in the United States and Elon Musk, a mega-billionaire even richer than Gates, already has a plan to start buying land on the moon.