A panoramic view of a mountain range with peaks in Dark and Light Gray, topped with glowing crystals in Bright Red and Yellow. The scene features a Blue river reflecting the sky and crystals, blending natural majesty with fantasy elements.

I still subscribe to a few author’s publications on Substack, although I wish they’d leave the platform. One of these is Antonia Malchik’s On The Commons whose posts often include a turn of phrase which really resonates with me.

This week, I’ve been listening to Ep.24 of Hardcore History: Addendum where the host, Dan Carlin, interviews Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer. Towards the end, Rubin turns the tables and asks Carlin a few questions. One of them is about what life was like before land ownership. Carlin, who usually hugely impresses me, seemed to suggest that humans have always owned land in one way or another, and that it’s only aberrations where it was collectively owned.

I’m not sure that’s true. I think Carlin would do well to read, for example, Dave Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Private ownership of everything is something that seems to be burned into the American psyche. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As Malchik points out in her post, private ownership within a capitalist economy is essentially why we can’t have nice things.

In their book The Prehistory of Private Property, authors Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall repeatedly go back to the main difference that they see in a private property society versus one where private ownership of, say, land, much less water and food, is unknown: freedom to leave. That is, if you want to walk away from your people, or your place, can you do so and still support yourself? Can you walk away and find or make food, shelter, and clothing? In non-private property societies, the freedom to walk away and still live just fine is the norm. In private property societies, it’s almost nonexistent. You have to work to make rent. Land-rent, you might call it. Someone else owns the land, and you have to pay to live on it.

The extent to which this reality runs counter to most of our existence, even if we’re just counting the few hundred thousand years that Homo sapiens have been here and not the millions of years of hominin evolution before that, is mind-bending. There have been territories and civilizations and controlling empires for thousands of years all over the world, but for most of our species’ existence, most humans had some kind of freedom to live on, with, and from land without needing to pay someone else for the privilege of existing. Until relatively recently.

We can’t all spend our time as we would wish not just because capitalism allows a few humans to hoard an increasing amount of money and power, but because the planet’s dominant societies force land to be privately owned, and make access to food and clean water something we have to pay for.

Source: On The Commons