How Land Shaped Political Order in the West

Joel Fulgencio/Rural Taiwan

The word “husbandry” conjures images of a pastoral past, images of farmers and their families picking the year’s bountiful harvest. It hearkens back to a simpler time, to a pre-modern and eternal age. For all its compelling and lasting presence in our subconscious, however, husbandry has been mostly expelled from the modern world, and that expulsion has left a gap in our understanding of politics.

The Nile Delta, and the the fertile crescent at large, has been continuously farmed for 11,000 years. It is hard to find a better example of a sustainable, immemorial economic activity. While cruise ships often ply the waters of the Nile, they have to thread alongside the feluccas, a single masted vessel used by the inhabitants of the villages along the river. Life in those villages has not been significantly altered by the passage of time; the rhythm of life is dictated by the floodings of the Nile. Eleven millennia of sameness, a thought which upon reflection is incapable of being grasped by the modern mind.

As my flight was landing at the Macau International airport, I could spy sections of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge through the window, which stretches 34 kilometers and links the two banks of the Pearl River Delta. Another laurel of the PRC’s Promethean infrastructure development efforts, the bridge is a symbol of the unimaginable change this ancient region has experienced. Inhabited since the 5th millennium BC, the Pearl River Delta has been permanently altered in the past 30 years. An acquaintance of mine in the real estate industry once told me about his first trip to Shenzhen in the early days of the SEZ: “It was a tiny, backwater fishing village. It was hard to even catch a taxi. I thought it was insane for anyone to try and set up a factory there.”

In 1980, Shenzhen had 30,000 souls. Today, it is home to 12 million people. The fishermen and villagers of the region have become Armani clad businessmen and professionals blabbering in singsong Cantonese into their iPhones. All this within our lifetime.

Thirty years was enough to completely uproot 7,000 years of continuity.

The Pearl River is one of the most polluted rivers in China; its water quality is worse than the lowest national water quality standard and is entirely undrinkable. Industrial and household discharge have turned it into a light brown podge more like mud than water. Its dirtiness has become an inescapable fixture. Sitting down at a café at the quaint Portuguese waterfront village of Coloane in the south west of Macau, the distinct stench coming from the water has made a permanent mark on my memory. A visit to the Pearl River Delta region drives home the point argued by some geologists that we have entered the Anthropocene, a geological epoch marked by the alterations made by man upon what was once thought as the unalterable elements of nature. It is no wonder that the apparatchiks manning the ship of the Chinese state count degradation of the natural habitats and geological features as a primary threat to the political stability of the PRC.

The effects of the establishment of the SEZ in the 1980s by the previous generation of Chinese statesmen have been passed down to the new and highly competent technocrats of the Chinese Communist Party. Through this generational transfer of political responsibility, a deep knowledge of the value and purpose of land has also been communicated. In a country rocked by agrarian land reforms and the establishments of SEZs, there is deep-seated appreciation of the importance of land.

It’s something that is not as emphasized in the West. As we drive forward clamoring the advent of the post-industrial and digital age, we have relegated the ownership and management of land to the list of secondary concerns, far more preoccupied by healthcare, education, equity, and immigration.

But historically, the administration and ownership of land, the spatial dimension of politics, is key to political power and stability.

I will not attempt to write a full history of land, even less a brief one, but I can drive home the far-reaching ordering effect of land allocation and ownership on society. The condition of society is deeply affected by the management of the land it sits upon.

Let’s examine several historical examples across different cultures to clarify just how critical land management is to the organization of society and how technology changes the dictates of land:

Achaemenid Persia

As one of the most innovative empires in human history, the Achaemenid Empire can be credited for the creation and dissemination of what we traditionally associate with state power, including but not limited to bimetallic coinage and a relevant taxation system to exploit it, postal service, governorship, and extensive record keeping. Stretching from India to the Balkans, the empire was a well-oiled machine for most of its two centuries of existence, finally succumbing to Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

As a large and multi-ethnic empire, the Achaemenids developed a peculiar system of land ownership. They had three kinds of land ownership: royal land, land owned by temples and religious institutions, and private land. As Muhammad A. Dandamayev from the Oriental Institute of St. Petersburg writes in his Iranians in Achaemenid Babylonia:

[A]rchaeological evidence shows that in most areas of Mesopotamia, the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods mark the beginning of ‘a long phase of general growth, the resettlement and cultivation: of long-abandoned territory’. In the fifth century B.C, there was much cheap land, but water was costly. Oppenheim has shown that in Achaemenid Babylonia there appeared ‘new installations, new techniques, better utilization of the available water’. […] The land was divided into allotments and given to Persian nobles, to collectives of soldiers, and to officials who were not farmers themselves and therefore turned their land over to the other persons to cultivate. […] The king also owned many large canals, which his managers leased out for high prices. In the neighborhood of Nippur, the royal canals were rented by the Murasu house who, in their turn, leased them to groups of small landowners.

This passage is particularly revealing of what would account as state ownership of land and its administration. The state investment into the construction of canals and irrigation systems shows how central technological development was to a more fruitful and sustainable exploitation of land in a region where water is still, to this day, scarce. The mention of the distribution of royal land to soldiers is another interesting aspect of the Achaemenid system of land exploitation, since we know that the army was composed of various ethnicities from all over the empire, effectively tying the interests of the elements of society capable of perpetrating violence to that of the royal house. The foresight of the state administrators who understood that imperial power rested on the diligent management of public land, and sought to invest in technologies to improve its output, enabled the establishment and expansion of the Achaemenid Empire.

There are numerous aspects of land ownership in the Achaemenid Empire which significantly resemble our own, namely the commercial bonds between sublessor and sublessee. We know from the historical record that the most of the royal treasury funds did not derive from the direct exploitation of royal lands, but from taxation of economic output from all lands, whether royal, religious, or private. This arrangement of land ownership meant that the state required an effective way of collecting taxes, leading to the creation of bimetallic coinage. Satraps, regional governors, were in charge of collecting taxes and applied taxation according to potential economic output. The governors of Egypt mostly levied taxes in kind, as the region functioned as a granary of the empire, whereas regions where significant trade took place necessitated a larger share of the taxes to be levied in coin. A feature of the rapid expansion of cultivable land was the necessity of vaster amounts of laborers to till the land.

The Achaemenids were able to solve this problem by taking advantage of the large multi-ethnic nature of the empire, whereas workers were brought from neighboring regions and given wages, in addition to food and board being covered by employers. The necessity to direct labor and goods across enormous distances led the construction of the “Royal Highway” and the establishment of the postal service.

Gracchi Land Reforms

The previous example of the Achaemenid Empire shows how an entire society can be organized in a stable manner by diligent administration of land. Rome of the 2nd century BC can provide an example of the opposite. Scullard gives a good summary of the situation in his work From Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD 68:

Thoughtful Romans began to realize the need to attempt some alleviation of the economic situation, if only because it affected Rome’s military strength. The Roman army was a citizen militia: it consisted of men enrolled in five property classes, but if these men lost their farms and became urban paupers they would sink below the minimum property qualification and would be classed as capitecensi or proletarii who were not subject to conscription. The evidence suggests that the needs of recruitment had in fact led to some relaxation of the necessary requirement and that some such men had been enrolled in the armies which fought in Africa and Greece. This would produce further difficulty, because on demobilization men previously had a farm to which to return, whereas now some men might be left resourceless apart from any war-booty that they had won. If the strength of the army was to be kept up under the traditional system of recruitment, the peasant farmers of Italy must be restored to their old prosperity. This concern for the needs of the army might combine with distrust of recent developments in the countryside to induce some Romans to attempt some reform.

Scullard describes the misallocation of land and the insidious, quasi-illegal, acquisition of public land, the ager publicus, by wealthy landowners through various schemes, such as the use of puppet tenant (reminiscent of property flipping in major cities today with over-inflated property markets such London, Sydney, Vancouver, and Toronto). The effects of this degentrification of the Roman people led to a security crisis. It was common knowledge in the pre-modern age that you needed land to support soldiers, and a scarcity of the latter would cause a recruitment shortfall. For a state entity in full expansion, engaged in prolonged conflicts with major adversaries such as Carthage, as was the case with Rome in the 2nd century BC, the effects could be catastrophic. Tiberius Gracchus was the man to try to tackle the issue, which carried undertones of civil war. Scullard writes of Tiberius’ motivations:

It is difficult to be sure which were the dominant motives that turned him into a reformer. Knowledge of Greek political thought and practice, the effect of the Spanish episode, the contemporary slave-rising in Sicily, concern at the changing economic conditions with their impact on peasant husbandry and army recruiting, the consequent growth of unemployment at Rome, all these factors may have combined to urge a generous-hearted man to risk his own political future in an attempt to re-establish the peasants on small-holdings once again.

The issue would remain contentious for the remaining days of the Republic. Julius Caesar would capitalize on the sentiment of alienation from land monopolization to propel himself against the senatorial elites. We have in this history of the Republic examples of how land mismanagement and monopolization stifled economic growth, generating unemployment (as large landowners had access to mass slave labor) and pauperization, which eventually led to civil strife then civil war and culminated in the abolition of the Republic.

Feudalism, the Nation-State, and Democracy

The collapse of the Roman Empire and the degradation of the security situation in Western Europe led to the abandonment of a large amount of cultivated land. The feudal system of vassalage was able to reestablish sufficient security to allow for organised agriculture (a dépassment of sustenance agriculture) to progressively return to the European countryside. The equation for serfdom was essentially protection and land for labor. In order to keep crops growing, the lord had to guarantee the protection provision of vassalage, which required maintaining troops.

As the lords were not sufficiently wealthy to maintain large standing armies, and since the fields required manpower to be plowed, they relied on a small core of professional soldiers drawn from wealthier classes as armor, weapons, and training were expensive. Knights were given lands, which were exploited by their own vassals, while men-at-arms and archers were drawn from the landed gentry, yeomen, and craftsmen. Mercenaries were also profusely employed. The requirements of land and labor thus essentially dictated the political ordering of Medieval Western Europe, resting largely on military professionalism.

Although feudal relations, notably that of serf and lord, would decay from the Renaissance onward, particularly because of the shortage of workers induced by the Black Plague, the security infrastructure of Europe would not change notably until the end of the 18th century. Even through major conflicts such as the Wars of Religion and the Seven Years’ War, the growing authority of the monarch still relied on wealthy aristocrats to raise and maintain professional regiments at their own expense, with mercenaries playing a significant role in bolstering military forces. As noted in our previous examples, the disproportionate role that land and its exploitation plays in the ordering of society would be a factor in the disordering of feudal Europe in the late 18th century.

Agriculture experienced a revolution in the mid 18th century in Western Europe, primarily in Great Britain, which forever destroyed the established order. The agricultural revolution was entirely technological in nature, set into motion by the development of the four crop rotation system, the first forays into the use of mineral fertilizers, advances in metallurgy and, consequently, plough design, further investment into food transportation infrastructure, and canal construction. As a significant quantity of capital was dedicated to the development of the agricultural section in Britain, the legal system caught on and adapted to this new manner of organizing land exploitation.

By passing the Inclosure Acts, the British parliament mandated the enclosure of private property, effectively reversing acts of customary law established in the Middle Ages, which set aside portions of the manorial lands for common use. No longer able to access common lands, the small peasants were unable to feed themselves and were forced to sell their small lots, as they could not shoulder the costs of enclosing their properties. The wealthier landowners, however, consolidated their smaller lots and significantly increased the size of these estates (not unlike the previously reviewed Gracchi period). The peasants who had become landless were hired as farm hands for wages on these estates. In combination with the aforementioned technical advances, these changes can be considered as the first instance of industrial farming and the initial reordering of the economic system along capitalist lines.

Agriculture was the primary use of land up until the 18th century, but innovations in agricultural production upended that order and led to a new system.

What happened to the peasants driven off from the countryside? They went to the cities in search of employment for wages, which marks the beginning of capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie. The landowners, by exploiting technical and legal advances in agriculture, provided the bourgeoisie with the labor necessary for the rapid expansion of their economic power. Although liberal mythology usually pins the changes of the 18th century on the reassuring and lofty ideas of the Enlightenment, it is no coincidence that liberal ideas took hold immediately in the aftermath of the agricultural revolution. Even the darling cause of historical progressives and reformers (who at the time were the early capitalists), the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, was passed at a time when the principal source of labor in the driving sectors of the economy (manufacturing and mining) were wage laborers and not slaves. It was easy for the new bourgeois elite to abolish something it had no use for.

It is also no coincidence that the first nation-state was established in France in 1789, or that the French republic declared war on the monarchies of Europe in 1792, or that the French republican army invaded the Rhine region, the industrial and commercial heartland of Europe. Why is it that the French bourgeois elite established the nation-state and used it to invade the wealthiest region in the world? Why indeed.

For the analysis of the nation-state and the rise of democracy, Lenin’s seminal work, State and Revolution, is instructive. Let’s review the definition of state that Engels gives in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

It is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

In the stated example of the Agricultural Revolution, the enclosure of land and the pauperization of the countryside led to civil unrest—food riots being particularly common. Another major source of antagonism in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century was the conflicting economic interests of the established landowners and the upstart bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie sought access to markets abroad and favored free trade, while the landowners were supporters of mercantilism. The Corn Laws, which prohibited the importation of grain, were examples of this dynamic. The bourgeoisie and their new-found laborers agitated for more political representation to overturn the policies set by the landowning classes (the village of Grampound and the city of Manchester had the same number of MPs, two, despite being of vastly different sizes). In order to manage the conflicting interests of these economic classes, the state sought to impose order, thus avoiding a repeat of incidents such as the Peterloo massacre.

Engels notes here in this passage something crucially ignored by the current left, which views the bourgeois state as directly implementing the interests of the bourgeoisie. Engels, and by extension Lenin, understood that in order for the state to exercise its powers, it must be above and alienated from society, which means the bourgeois state must and does resort to measures which allow its perpetuation, even if those measures directly hinder the interests of the bourgeoisie at large.

In the case of the French revolutionary republic and later the French Empire, the state of total war required the adoption of measures detrimental to the interest of the bourgeoisie in the immediate course of the war, while the general impetus of state policy, in the long-term, was towards the achievement of goals strengthening the power of the bourgeoisie. The access to the ports and manufactories of the Low Countries in the wars of the Coalitions (1792-1815) and later, during the Second Republic, the Second Empire and the Third Republic, the access to mineral resources in the same Rhine region (containing the majority of iron ore and coal in Europe) were exactly aligned with the interests of the French national bourgeoisie.

Yet in order to accomplish its objectives, the bourgeois state must create a national state militarily capable of competing with the state apparatuses of other hostile national bourgeoisies. Lenin described the aforementioned mechanisms of the bourgeois state as follows:

Another reason why the omnipotence of “wealth” is more certain in a democratic republic is that it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell […], it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois democratic republic can shake it.

Why is the democratic republic the very best shell for capitalism? Because of its ability to mobilize large numbers of men into the service of its ends. In 1792, the French legislature voted into force the Jourdan-Delbrel law. Here are extracts from the principles of the law:

“Tout Français est soldat et se doit à la défense de la patrie.” (article 1)

“All Frenchmen are soldiers and must rally to the defense of the country”

“Hors le cas du danger de la patrie, l’armée de terre se forme par enrôlement volontaire et par la voie de la conscription militaire.” (article 3)

“At the exception of immediate dangers to the country, the land forces will be constituted by voluntary enrollment and by way of military conscription”

This is the first and final blow to the centuries-long established tradition of the European professional army. This would be apparent during the first engagements between the French and Prussian armies. The Prussian army was considered, by far, the best-drilled, most disciplined, and most professional army in Europe, and a quick Prussian victory over the “French mob” was anticipated. That victory would never take place, and the Prussian defeat would be all the more humiliating. This very “French mob” would go on to conquer the vast majority of Europe, laying to rest any doubt as to the advantages of conscript armies. The old monarchies of Europe soon learned that the age of the bourgeoisie was one where numbers mattered. They also learned that democratic republics were able to field more and more troops.

Why would conscripts fight if not for funds? They had a vote; that was their compensation. The bourgeoisie was willing to grant universal suffrage, thus forging a kingdom of disparate ethnicities (Bretons, Provençals, Normands) into a nation of French citizen-soldiers, which they would weaponize for the eventual and final victory over their class enemies, the hereditary landowners and monarchs of Europe. The nation-state is the security apparatus of the national bourgeoisie, and the stronger it is, the better served are its interests. What began as mere technical advances in land exploitation led to the end of an order established for a millennium.

Land and the techniques for its exploitation are crucial for the ordering or disordering of society. We would do well to pay attention to changing land use and its downstream effects as a major factor in the future development of society.

Avetis Muradyan is a Chief Technology Officer and emergent markets expert based in Singapore. He is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in Computer Science and English Literature. You can follow him at @AvetisMuradyan.