A space for conversations in a time of global disruption
I'm going to die. I can't be sure how or when (my plan, for what it's worth, is to die of satisfaction on the 21st of August 2066, though I dare say the gods have other ideas); I can be reasonably sure, however, that when the time comes I will hold the legal title to a small plot of land .... and English law delegates to me the responsibility for saying who should become the next owner of it.
Most people don't see it that way, of course; rather than seeing it as a responsibility, they see it as a right - a natural right even - that the current owners should be able to pass on what they own to whoever they please. As a result, inheritance law operates for the private benefit of individuals, rather than for the benefit of society at large. If I could choose to change one single thing towards making a better world, this is the one I would pick; it creates a distortion to the circulation of wealth which takes away people's natural right to land, and thereby strips them of their natural freedom to live independently. It's not the only fundamentally flawed aspect of our society, of course, but to my mind it is central to the disease of our present civilization.
Land is uniquely important because we cannot sustain life without it, and for practical purposes there is no activity we can engage in without using it. Those who control it and can deny others access to it, have a hold over everybody else which tilts the whole economic and social landscape in their favour. Those who are denied access to it become tied to a system in which (at bottom) their only real power is destructive. Over the centuries, our society has developed a host of structures and laws which mitigate that powerlessness, but it has never addressed the fundamental flaws which the whole system is built upon.
The allocation of land and other resources is the core function of any organised society - it's what our existing system developed around, and it will have to be at the heart of any system which has a long-term future - and the process by which it is transferred between generations is a crucial aspect which I don't think any society has yet got right. When I look at the social structures which we've developed over the centuries, I'm mostly very impressed - a lot of them could be incorporated more or less unchanged into a healthy system - but there are undoubtedly a (small) number of fundamental things which do need to be changed. This is one of the most important.
Once we look at the issue properly and think about how the custom might have come into being originally, it's not hard to see that nominating a successor should be seen as a responsibility, rather than a right. The dead, after all, are gone; so what they used to own becomes ownerless - and as such becomes a possible source of conflict. The community has an obligation to assign ownership in order to pre-empt that conflict, and to see that the property is used to best advantage. But (once a society grows to incorporate multiple communities) the state has no direct knowledge of the property, and no knowledge of the relationships which people still living might have with it - and therefore has no way of knowing who would be the best person to take it over. If they had to conduct a full inquiry every time someone died, that would be a huge burden - so they delegate responsibility to the person who is/was best placed to identify who would make the most of it.
And mostly, at the level of personal use, the best person to take it over (historically), would have been someone who had grown up with it, and learnt the way of working with it - the offspring of the deceased. The basic principle of property passing by family inheritance is undoubtedly sound, and I've no doubt it will continue to be the dominant method even in a truly just society (and, as an aside, it can have clear merits even in political dominion; just as a farmer's children are likely to develop a farmer's way of thinking just by growing up with a farmer, so a ruler's children are likely to develop the habits of a mind of a ruler, simply by observing their parents at work). But the essence of the hereditary principle is not that there is a right for children to inherit what their parents leave, it is that there is a probability that they would be the ones who would make best use of it.
I believe that this simple change of perspective - treating the passing on of land (and other finite resources) as a responsibility rather than as a right - would remove a fundamental barrier to social justice. Very few people, I think, would try to argue that there is not a fundamental right to land .... but because land ownership is integral to the operation of the whole economy, as long as all of it is already owned by somebody the political difficulties of getting that right enshrined in law are overwhelming. But until it is enshrined in law, there is no possibility of a world where everyone has the opportunity for self-fulfilment. It's by no means the only barrier, but in my view it is the hub of the treadmill which so many people are condemned to.
I can't see conventional political processes bringing about a change like this - it's too entrenched for politicians to initiate reform without pressure from the public, but the benefits are too remote for large numbers of people to get excited enough to create that pressure. I think it is possible, however, that it might happen through the courts. My feeling is that if the courts can be brought to recognise the power to bequeath land as a responsibility rather than a right, it could allow reform to be brought about on a case by case basis, with large bequests of land being open to challenge if they're not consistent with the landholders' duties as agents of the state.
There are of course a number of questions which would need to be answered for that to come about; how to bring a case which would get the precedent set; who would have the right to make those challenges; and what would happen with the land when a challenge was successful. I possibly have an answer to the first (though I won't go into it here), but I think having answers to those last two questions would also be essential for the courts to accept it - and that brings me to the broader question of what we can do as individuals.
The answer to this - the question of what I myself should do individually - crystallised in my mind after I read something about the Diggers, who, more than 350 years ago, were demanding exactly the same things that land-rights activists are demanding today! Will that still be the situation in another 350 years time? I do have hopes, as I said above, that the laws which cause it can be changed through the courts .... but I also recognise that perhaps they can't. Does that leave us helpless as individuals?
Well, if we're willing to take a long view and accept that, even if we can't mend the present, we can make things better (bit by bit) for future generations, then the law itself offers us an avenue for change. Since the law allows us to pass on whatever we own at our deaths to whoever we like, then we (possibly) have the option of leaving it to people who have bound themselves to pass on their own wealth responsibly, when they in turn come to die. It's a slow route to reform - it might take centuries to bring about a transformation - but it is a sure one, I think .... and by taking it I believe we would in fact greatly increase the chances of rapid reform.
We (possibly) have the option, I said .... and here's the rub. If nobody has taken that step - of binding themselves to pass on their own wealth responsibly - then none of us can do it, because we have nobody we can pass it on to. For practical purposes the only way we can bind ourselves, in any way which would be recognised in law, is in the context of a private society - and by definition that's not something any individual can set up alone.
I don't think our existing social system can ever develop incrementally into a form which would satisfy me, any more than a caterpillar can become a butterfly through growing incrementally; something has to change within it to trigger a metamorphosis. As I see it, for us to move into a new phase of the human story, an embryonic imago society has to form, which will then absorb, from within, those parts of the existing system which deserve to be kept, and shuffle off the customs and laws which deny so many of us our proper freedom. I see this issue - the passing on of wealth from one generation to the next - as something which can catalyse that process.
But a society needs people; the society I'm envisaging needs people who are willing to go beyond aspiring to live responsibly, and make a legally binding commitment to do so. For such a society to come into existence, I suspect, will need someone to embrace it who has a gift for bringing people together .... and I, unfortunately, seem to have as much talent for networking as a tone-deaf elephant has for playing the harp. So where do I go?
[Edit: Below are my replies to something Wolfbird posted here in response to a comment I made on the Dark Mountain main site. Unfortunately his comments disappeared when he left the Uncivilisation network, but the essence of them is there in the parts I quote.]
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