Saturday, 19 April 2014

Orwell on Private Property.

In August of 1944 one correspondent asked a famous English journalist "Are the squares to which you refer public or private properties? If private, I suggest that your comments in plain language advocate nothing less than theft and should be classed as such." The journalist was none other than George Orwell. When faced with such bourgeois casuistry Orwell had just the right response.
If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so. 
Except for the few surviving commons, the high roads, the lands of the National Trust, a certain number of parks, and the sea shore below high-tide mark, every square inch of England is "owned" by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling-houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground landlord in at own area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income. The removal of the railings in the squares was a first step against him. It was a very small step, and yet an appreciable one, as the present move to restore the railings shows. For three years or so the squares lay open, and their sacred turf was trodden by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. If that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft.
It's an admirable response precisely because it accepts the premises of the question and rolls them upside down. Orwell's pen left behind cutting sentences with the historical perspective so neglected in English society: where intuition and common-sense are the prime virtues. Class is the unspoken reality we all live with and here Orwell cuts to the bone and to the marrow. This is not the same gent fetishized and sanitised by the liberal intelligentsia and conservative commentariat alike.

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