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Fred Harrison, Research Director, Land Research Trust, London, UK

THE major challenges facing mankind cannot be resolved without agreement on key issues:

(i) what are “the commons” (in the realms of both nature and society);

(ii) how are property rights to be redefined to secure people’s rights of access to the commons; and

(iii) can complex societies devise practical arrangements to combine rights of individual possession with the imperatives of the common good?

Differences exist about the methods for resolving these issues. The differences are between the advocates of the religious approach, and those who (like Richard Dawkins ), insist that problem-solving must be based on scientific principles. This controversy between the secular and spiritual approaches inspired me to investigate the issue of which kind of society had been successful in devising codes of conduct that secured the common good. The results are set out in The Traumatised Society. Spiritually-based societies were eminently successful, while secular societies have still not found a way to protect people’s rights to the commons.

Pre-literate societies devised a divine solution. Ownership rights to the resources of nature were assigned to their gods. Those gods inhabited the natural world. Humans were stewards. Everyone shared access to nature on an equal basis. Those arrangements prevailed for tens of thousands of years (sustainable communities). The monotheistic religions likewise observed the tradition that God created and owned the world. The Old Testament is nothing if it is not about a land deal. The covenant is the arrangement whereby God granted land in return for compliance to a moral code.

Agriculture demanded a new kind of tenure: the demarcation of boundaries. Private possession was necessary, if people were to invest their labour and capital to feed the present and fund the future. But that was when mankind’s troubles really began, when Neolithic people began to transform fields by selecting seeds, channelling water and tilling the soil.

• Fenced off land was no longer accessible to those who had previously enjoyed equal access to it. Were excluded people entitled to compensation?

• With improvement in production came the surplus that could fund the construction of city civilisations. How should that surplus be invested?

That something was terribly wrong in those emerging city settlements was evident from the abject poverty of able-bodied people, the bloody territorial conflicts that tore nations apart, and the abuse of nature. People had lost the ancient wisdoms. Civilisation was threatening to become a dead-end experiment.

The Metaphysics of Earth

Two South African scholars, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, drew the links between the material and spiritual worlds. Economic activity and social organisation in pre-literate societies were articulated in an overall cosmology, a framework that simultaneously made sense of religious experience, belief and practice, as well as land rights. Religion, embedded in cosmology, validated land rights and the authority of those who managed the construction of monuments and their use.

Each individual was given the equal chance to contribute further to the biological, psychological and cultural welfare of those within the gene pool. A tribal chief or a priest or a prince would act on behalf of supernatural authority to enforce behaviour which satisfied the common interest.

Changing concepts of land ownership therefore came with cosmological shifts and were represented in people’s ‘existential maps’ – their monuments…political entities grew in complexity and ascribed their land rights to founding ancestors whose location, both conceptually and literally, was known and who legitimized those rights.

Before they could learn to paint on Sistine ceilings, write heavenly scores for orchestras or invent technologies to take men to the moon, our ancestors had to resolve the problem beneath their feet. Thanks to the interventions by the deities, there would be no systematic cheating, no profane contests to monopolise nature’s resources, no depletion of the creative energies of people who wished to work for the mutual benefit of themselves and their neighbours. That sacred settlement was shattered by kings who administered the city civilisations.

The Collapse of Civilisations

The early Christian bishops afforded insights into biblical teaching that were complemented by first-hand observations of the civilisations of classical antiquity. The empirical evidence confirmed what they knew about the plight of people in the ancient world who lost their land and lapsed into debt bondage (Box 1).

The Christian bishops had front seats in the unfolding drama that became the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Men like Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215), Ambrose of Milan (337?-397) and Basil the Great (329?-379). One of them, John Chrysostom (347-407), lived almost long enough to witness their warnings come true with the Sacking of Rome in the year 410. They monitored the emerging poverty among Roman citizens, causally connecting it to the way land owners were monopolising the rents from land. Aided with the teachings of the covenant and the Sermons of Jesus of Nazareth, they repeatedly warned that Roman culture was being degraded. Landlessness and poverty were induced by the misappropriation of land.

Charles Avila recovered that wisdom after involving himself in the fight for peasant rights in the Philippines. He drew the threads together in this summary of the state of the late Roman Empire.

Thus the only object of the owners’ drive for even greater wealth was an increase in the capacity for luxury, pleasure, and various forms of extravagance. The crafts and trades that developed among free workers were in luxury items like slaves and pomades, paintings and statues, lavish and showy construction projects, and whatever else the large landowners required for the new competition in pleasure, luxury, and ostentation.

This lifestyle was unsustainable. When resources can be consumed without having to labour for them, the biological boundaries to one’s limitless desires (labour power) are removed. Avarice prevails. And so, the land owners seized more of the peasants’ land, to accumulate and consume yet more rents. Peasants were driven into the towns. The deterioration in the minds and morals of the population set the course for the implosion of a civilisation.

It was in the self-interest of the land owners to reverse the decline of their society, but this required reform of the tenure-and-tax system. They were not willing to heed the warnings of the bishops.

One would have expected [the] decline in the slave economy to have brought about a renaissance of a stronger free peasant economy, dictated by a nation’s self-interest. Yet it did not. The owners of the latifundia simply had no intention of giving up their absolute ownership of the land. To do so would have been tantamount to parting with their power and privileges voluntarily.

The leadership of Rome lapsed into what I describe as a state of trauma. Once the city’s culture had been corrupted by the privatisation of rent – the community’s social revenue – all classes lost the capacity to recover the natural laws on which a viable community relies for survival and growth. The patricians gorged themselves on the rents and could not – would not – yield their power for the sake of national survival. The end became inevitable.

A Sacred Manual on Land Use

The Old Testament provided a comprehensive sociological and psychological account of what happens when people fail to respect their common wealth.

The kings in the Bible refer to those who had responsibility for the land. Kings who mis-manage it are a social disaster. By hoarding rent, they amass the means of coercion (horse-mounted troops), they lavish their homes with silver and gold, and turn people into serfs, leading to landlessness.

To comply with the moral code, vigilance is necessary. Otherwise, there is landlessness again. Solomon’s abuse of power illustrates the way in which morality and culture is appropriated by those who abuse their positions of authority. Solomon enforced bondservice on people and created a bureaucratic state organised into tax districts.

All this is capped by the building of the temple, the ultimate achievement of his reign. The temple serves to give theological legitimacy and visible religiosity to the entire program of the regime. The evidence is beyond dispute that he so manipulates Israel’s worship that it becomes a cult for a static God, lacking in the power, vigor, and freedom of the God of the old traditions. This God, in contrast to the exodus deliverer, is a domesticated preserver of the regime. He dwells in silent, obedient, uninterrupted, and uninterrupting security.

Kings did not have the right to rule as they saw fit, because God’s care for the land was inalienable. Brueggemann summarises the ethic of possession in these terms: “Land is not, if viewed as gift, for self-security but for the brother and sister. Land is not given to the calculating, but to the ‘meek,’ that is, to the ones who do not presume”. But if the meek are not vigilant, landlessness follows. To be landless is to be locked in trauma, endured “as a place of murmur, protest, quarrelsome, dissatisfaction”.

That is what this God does. He speaks to restructure the relation of land and people. What had been threat becomes promise. What had been coveted now becomes gifted.

When God gifts land, order is restored. Brueggemann notes that “The change is to be understood not simply in terms of geographic placement but in terms of an alternative consciousness in which sociological and cultural possibilities were transformed”.

Breaching the Covenant

Modern societies do not comply with the terms of the covenant. While claiming affiliation to one of the major religions, most societies approach public policy in secular terms. There is no doubt about the consequences.

• Money is made out of causing mass poverty.

• Money is made by abusing the environment.

• Money is made through the propagation of instability in the economy.

The financial interests which gain from this are mobilised to prevent change. Do barricades around our minds inhibit us from even thinking about the root causes of the world’s great problems? We need a route map back to terra ferma. To this end, in The Traumatised Society I examine the evidence to test this hypothesis:

Over the past 500 years, those who profited from the appropriation of the rents that we all help to create, messed with people’s minds, to prevent the losers from understanding the causes of the crises that now afflict their communities.

Did the rent seekers skew language to invert reality? Who benefits from the confusion? The impact of mangled language is displayed in economic policy, and the persistent failure to define remedies to the financial crises that exploded in the depression of the late 19th century, the depression of the 1930s and, once again, in the depression of the 2010s. If we are to re-configure our minds and morals to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need to question forms of behaviour that are celebrated as central to the success of the European model of social organisation.

Our intellectual leaders insist that there is no simple, single solution (“no silver bullet”) to the world’s problems. Unfortunately, none of their time-tested remedies have worked. If ours is an evidence-based approach to democratic law-making, there is no shortage of empirical evidence to confirm the failure of that approach.

Pre-scientific communities achieved something that has eluded science-based society. And the secular veneration of “the rule of law” remains problematic. Humility may be warranted among representatives of the scientific community.

Do we have the wisdom to sift the threads of knowledge from the sands of time, to excavate the insights that might ensure the survival of western civilisation? In the past, progressive reform movements which changed the social landscape were animated by spiritually-based Great Awakenings. If secularism is not able to deliver a practical, ethics-based solution the ownership and use of the commons, what will it take to inspire a leap forward in the 21st century in time to prevent the chaos that so many scientists now forecast?