11 Dec 2012

Understanding the property game

Direct action by UK Uncut has been brilliantly effective at putting the spotlight on tax-evading corporations.

The group's recent occupation of Starbucks branches up and down Britain has embarrassed the company into admitting that it pays virtually no tax and even volunteering a token sum.
Of course, the Con-Dems love corporations. Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement included a promise to cut corporation tax even further.
So drawing attention to rampant tax avoidance exposes the coalition's disastrous austerity agenda - it's increasingly clear that if large companies paid their tax bills we could halt the cuts and find new ways of meeting our country's needs, such as expanding the NHS, raising pensions and building new homes.
Raising taxes from fat-cat firms is important, but there hasn't been much discussion of the deeper cause of economic pain and widening inequality.
Politicians, think tanks and the media tend to ignore the issue of property ownership.
Yet without questioning how we own property we will tend only to look at the symptoms of inequality, not its fundamental causes.
Property ownership means owning the sources of wealth in any society. From home ownership to the ownership of land and shares, it largely determines who is rich and who is poor.
If you own access to economically productive resources, the means of creating wealth, you won't have a problem getting by.
And the ownership of property is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority - this is key to the growth of inequality both in Britain and worldwide.
Our country has had some of the most unequal patterns of land ownership in the world since 1066.
Adescendant of a Viking raider - William of Normandy - invaded via Sussex and took all the land in England, then parcelled it out to his trusted allies.
The existing population was dispossessed and, if we're honest, still is - from the Duke of Westminster's properties in central London to the huge royal estates, land ownership is dominated by a powerful minority.
Land is still a big issue in much of the world, as land grabs in Africa and elsewhere show - local people find their resources stolen by a greedy few almost every day.
But it's no longer the key source of wealth in Britain.
Wealth is derived from our collective labour and economic resources are increasingly owned by shareholders.
Shares too tend to concentrate in a few hands, with a handful of big shareholders controlling most corporations.
Con-Dem ideology and conventional economics stress that hard work is the source of wealth.
In a real sense it is, but that doesn't mean the wealth ends up where the hard work was done. Share ownership provides dividends without the need to get one's hands dirty with production.
The rich rarely sweat and while their ancestors on occasion may have done so, the motto originally from the French novelist Honore de Balzac that introduces the great US novel The Godfather still generally holds: Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime.
Neoliberalism is driving further the concentration of property ownership.
The austerity agenda involves countries across the world taking resources - whether those are library buildings, roads, land or radio spectrums - that are publicly owned and selling them off.
The cheap sale of assets transforms public ownership into ownership by shareholders, and the resources controlled by shareholders have to be used not to benefit communities but to provide the most short-term profit.
Thus control of the economy passes more and more into the hands of a minority. Short-term cash considerations lead to environmental damage. And politics becomes more and more distorted by the whims of an elite.
For democracy to function a diverse media is necessary - access to information shapes our ability as voters to make meaningful choices. As media ownership, like everything else, becomes dominated by a minority, groups like Rupert Murdoch's News International gain more and more power over events.
It's a never-ending cycle - control of property gives the ability to raise more cash from financial institutions which can then be used to control yet more property.
Centralisation of property ownership leads to falling incomes for the majority of us and is accelerated by processes of liberalisation.
Ultimately property ownership is a bit like society's DNA. Different forms of property rights give rise to different futures.
That's why we need to think creatively about property. It's interesting that the often far from forward-looking Romans didn't simply have "private" and "state" property but more than six different kinds of property, including community ownership and even ownership by the gods.
We might not wish to give the likes of Zeus a controlling stake in resources, but is it any less rational to sell control of our NHS or our roads to corporations based in Texas or Bavaria?
There are all sorts of alternative options on the table. Radical US economist John R Commons developed the concept of a "bundle" of property rights - instead of having an exclusive right to own and sell property on an individual basis, different users might have different rights to property in terms of access for productive use.
It would build on structures such as common land, of which incidentally there is over 400,000 acres in England and Wales. This land is provately owned but gives "commoners" a range of rights from grazing cattle to flying kites.
We need to put democratic ownership back on the agenda. Whether it's establishing a real democratic input into how existing public property is used, so it isn't controlled by distant bureaucrats, or it's giving workers control of companies, property needs to be owned and enjoyed by more of us.
The aspiration for democratic politics was dismissed as "mob rule" and rejected as utopian extremism before the 1789 French revolution.
Today the aspiration for democratic ownership is seen as so extreme that it is rarely even articulated.
But from Wikipedia to the co-operative movement to communal councils in Venezuela, the idea that we can extend ownership from the few to the many is slowly emerging.
  • Derek Wall is international co-ordinator for the Green Party of England and Wales.

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