Wednesday 3 December 2014

Monbiot on Britain's feudal present—an interesting case for agnotology

George Monbiot has been one of the most rigorous journalists in Britain for a long time now, if not the most (who else publishes footnotes with every article?). He's also surely one of the most diverse. Today's article on land ownership in Britain is a particular tour de force. (Entirely incidentally, apparently it's also the first he's written using voice recognition software. I don't know if it has affected his style, as he suggests, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it.)
The Scottish programme for government is the first serious attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. Some of its aims hardly sound radical until you understand the context. For example, it will seek to discover who owns the land. Big deal? Yes, in fact, it is. At the moment the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have been identified.
I've become interested in land politics in general recently and am going to be reading much more on it in the near future; however, it's this sort of agnotology (the study of ignorance or doubt) that really fascinates me. So much has been written on how knowledge is produced but relatively little on how it's prevented; so much on connection, so little on disconnection.

This also links very much to another issue Monbiot has written a lot about: tax havens. The production of ignorance and evasion of tax are closely linked—indeed, tax evasion/avoidance is largely to do with the production of ignorance with regard to who owns what where and when. It's all about having your cake and eating it too (paywalled article), as Ronen Palan has argued most ably—receiving the benefits of state protection without the responsibilities. And this is achieved largely by controlling access to information.

It's interesting that land ownership and taxation have risen together as issues here in Britain in the past few years, alongside the financial crises. Indeed, land and tax are tied closely together in Monbiot's article:
Consider Scotland’s determination to open up the question of property taxes, which might lead to the only system that is fair and comprehensive: land value taxation. Compare it with the fleabite of a mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband, which, though it recoups only a tiny percentage of the unearned income of the richest owners, has so outraged the proprietorial class that some of them (yes, Griff Rhys Jones, I’m thinking of you) have threatened to leave the country. Good riddance.
Why is it that a tax on mansions can have such political purchase but one on land so little? Perhaps sprawling fields and woods turned into grouse hunting grounds don't scream opulence and wastefulness like the oversized and over-marbled pseudo-palaces of celebrity millionaires. But they probably should.