Posts Tagged ‘Land Nationalisation’

The Bulgarian Peasant Party’s Solution to the Housing Problem

June 1, 2014

Last week I blogged on the several contemporary issues, which were similar to those tackled by the Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, nearly a hundred years ago. These were a local village power company, which was run as a co-operative by the whole community. It was thus similar to the idea of the Utopian British Socialist, Thomas Spence, for the communal ownership of land by the individual parishes, and also to the idea of the Bulgarian peasants’ party for the transformation of Bulgarian agricultural society through the formation of peasant cooperatives. I also remarked on the way the Bulgarians had also set up a policy of allowing the banks to provide loans on reasonable rates to credit cooperatives as a way of driving out the moneylenders. This is a problem that now besets British society, through the return of loan sharks and payday loan companies, like Wonga, that offer extortionate rates, because of wage freezes and cuts to welfare benefits.

Bulgaria, like modern Britain, also suffered from a housing crisis, made worse by the influx of thousands of refugees displaced by the First World War. They attempted to solve it through a mixture of policies, one of which was similar to the Bedroom Tax. They laid down the maximum amount of space that a family could occupy in a property, so that there would be more space available for the homeless. They also set about building cooperatively owned tenement blocks. R.J. Crampton describes these policies in A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 90).

The principle of maximum holding was applied to urban as well as rural property. The post-war refugee invasion had placed severe strains upon the already hard-pressed housing resources of Bulgaria’s towns, particularly Sofia. According to Agrarian legislation no family was to occupy more than two rooms and a kitchen, with an extra room for every two children over fourteen. Office space was also subject to restriction, and in the case of both domestic and office accommodation commissioners acting on behalf of the ministry of the interior had extensive powers to enforce the new and widely resented regulations. A second and more popular response to the housing shortage, and one much in conformity with Agrarian philosophy, was to encourage the building of new apartment blocks cooperatively financed and thereafter owned by their inhabitants. This reform survived the fall of the Stamboliiski regime and cooperative building continued through the inter-war period.

The German radical Socialist party, the USPD, also had a similar policy in the same period, for the same reasons: to solve the shortage of housing caused by the First World War.

What’s needed isn’t the Bedroom Tax, which is really an excuse to cut Housing Benefit by pretending to withdraw a subsidy that never in fact existed, if tenants of supposedly under-occupied properties don’t move out to suitable homes, which also don’t existed. What is needed to solve the problem is simply building more social and genuinely affordable housing, which the Conservative actively seem to oppose. When the ‘right to buy’ legislation was passed, councils were forbidden from building more council houses, and ‘affordable’ properties are only pegged at 80 per cent of the market worth, which means that in many parts of the London houses are well out of the price range of the very poorest, who need them. It’s possible that cooperation schemes, like those enacted by the Bulgarians, might be part of the solution.

Something like the Bulgarians’ legislation limiting the maximum amount of space families can occupy could also be applied to private housing. The Bulgarian policy was based on the view that you should only possess what you can actually work yourself. Thus there was a maximum amount of land allowed to be cultivated by peasant farmers. Large landowners were forced to sell the excess land to the smaller peasants, so that each peasant farmer had just enough for his needs and those of wider Bulgarian society.

The great French anarchist, P.-J. Proudhon, had a similar view. Much of his Mutualist anarchist system was based on his experience of peasant society in the Jura, where he grew up. While he didn’t set the maximum amount of space people could occupy in their houses, he did recommend that people should lawfully own only what they could actually practically use themselves. Thus, landlords, who held multiple properties, which they rented out, should have all but the property they themselves lived in expropriated and given to the people, who needed them.

I believe a similar policy could be usefully implemented today. Perhaps we need the ‘right to buy’ principle extended to all the private tenants, now forced to rent homes at exorbitant rents because of the way available housing was bought up by people seeking to rent them out later in the housing boom of the 1990s. I also believe that there are many under-occupied private homes, with considerable space going without tenants, in certain parts of London, such as Knightsbridge, Kensington and Westminster.

And possibly Chipping Norton. I can’t see how Dave Cameron, whose government is responsible for the Bedroom Tax, and who has said repeatedly that ‘We’re all in it together’, would possibly object to having to share his home with a couple of crusties.

Village Power Companies, the Spencean Land Plan and the Bulgarian Peasants’ Party

May 29, 2014

A village was in the news last week for setting up its own solar power company. I’ve forgotten which programme it was on. It could have been the local news, Points West, on the BBC 1 for this part of the West Country, or, alternatively on the One Show. The village had initially been intended for fracking, but the villagers had examined that and very firmly decided against it. They had turned instead to solar power. They had set up a massive array of solar panels, which not only provided the village with its own energy, but also sold some on to the national grid. The power company was owned by the village as a whole, and each villager received a dividend from the profits generated by the company.

The feature was accompanied by questions about the practicality of such schemes. It was pointed out that you needed an awful lot of solar panels and would have to wait several years before the investment paid off. The number of solar panels required were so great, that it was well beyond the ability of a single person or family to afford. There were also questions about whether individual villagers should be included in the scheme, if they didn’t want to. The schemes’ inclusion of all the villagers made this a possibility, though the organisers made the point that because of the way it was actually set up, this didn’t actually happen.

Very many people now have solar panels on the roof, providing them with cheap electricity, or selling it to the electricity companies. This was the idea expanded from a single household to a whole community. Way back in the 1990s New Scientist had also carried a story about scientists working to develop power units, which would allow household to generate their own electricity and sell also sell it to the power companies, very much like the system with household solar panels.

It also reminded somewhat of Thomas Spence’s land plan. Spence was an early late 18th and 19th century Socialist. He advocated reforming Britain into a federation of autonomous parishes. Each parish would own the land in common, with the profits from the rents given out each quarter day to all the parishioners, whether men, women or children. It was effectively a form of land nationalisation, with the land turned into a co-operative.

It also reminded me somewhat of the programme of the pre-Second World War Bulgarian peasant party, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union under its leader, Stamboliiski. BANU weren’t Socialists. They strongly supported private property, but believed in an egalitarian world where each individual would own enough, with no one having too much or too little. But just as humanity had an individual dimension to its nature, which demanded private property, it also had a social aspect with required co-operative action. They thus advocated that the Bulgarian peasant farmers should unite in a system of co-operatives that would allow the country to develop and enjoy modern prosperity.

R.J. Crampton describes this part of their ideology this in the book A short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 87.

It was only in 11918 that BANU adopted an official programme, the ultimate objective of which was to create an egalitarian society based upon private ownership of the means of production and the absence of the exploitation of one man’s labour by another. The focus was primarily but not solely upon the peasantry. The party’s, and especially Stamboliiski’s vision, was of a society in which no peasant owned too much and none too little land, in which they lived in clean, modernised villages furnished with electricity, communications and recreational facilities and a developed educational system. Though private property was to remain the basic form of ownership – Stamboliiski had once described it as ‘the motive force for work and progress’ – individual properietors were to help each other through the cooperative system, which was to provide credit, to store harvested crops, and to market produce. The cooperative idea was a fundamental aspect of Agrarian ideology, and was meant not only to provide material benefit, but, through that provision, to lead to the evolution of new forms of civic political morality and organisation. Stamboliiski’s long-term vision saw a society in which all producers had voluntarily joined the cooperatives, and in which the latter had become so influential that they provided the basis for local government and administration. Cooperation was not only to provide a new form of local organisation, but could, it was felt, even lead to the merging of nation-states into a free association of peasant communities – a true peasant, or green, international.

It seems to me that the village power company in rural England was merely a modern form of Spence’s land plan and BANU’s village co-operatives, except whereas Spence had based his utopian society on communal land, this was based on communal power. Nevertheless, it also shows that as society and technology develop, the old, Utopian Socialist and radical ideas return. They are still relevant, even in the Tories’ supposedly new age of cut-throat Thatcherite individualism and private enterprise.

Henry Hyndman and the Democratic Federation

May 10, 2014

Henry_hyndman pic

Henry Hyndman, founder of the Democratic Federation

One of the first Socialist parties in the latter 19th century was Henry Hyndman’s Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. Hyndman corresponded with Marx about reviving Chartism, and intended his new Federation to be a working class organisation continuing ‘the great work of Spence and Owen, , Stephens and Oastler, O’Connor and O’Brien, Ernest Jones and George J. Harney’. Beer in his History of British Socialism considered that his ideas were derived from Marx, Bronterre O’Brien and Benjamin Disraeli. At its founding conference in June 8th, 1881, the party decided on the following programme:

1. Universal suffrage.

2. Triennial parliaments.

3. Equal electoral divisions.

4. Payment of members.

5. Corruption and bribery of the electors to be punishable as criminal offences.

6. Abolition of the House of Lords as a legislative body.

7. Home rule for Ireland.

8. Self-government for the colonies and dependencies.

9. Nationalisation of the land.

They presented a more Socialist programme in their 1883 pamphlet, Socialism Made Plain. This urged working people to campaign for the following:

1. Erection of healthy dwellings by the central or local authorities and letting them at low rents to working men.

2. Free and universal education and at least one free meal for school children.

3. An eight-hour day.

4. Progressive taxation on incomes over £300.

5. Establishment of national banks and gradual abolition of private banking.

6. Nationalisation of railways and land.

7. Organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles.

8. Rapid redemption of the national debt.

Most of their programme had become law by the late 20th century. However, we’re now seeing these reforms increasingly attacked. Workers are increasingly required to work far longer than eight hours as part of their normal working day under various clauses in their contracts. Free education is under attack as the government engages on its programme of piecemeal privation of the school system. The railways were privatised by John Major. And the system of council housing was destroyed by Thatcher and her policies continued by Tony Blair. These reforms should all be revived and actively demanded.

One of the points that has not been put into practice, but which I strongly believe should, is no. 7: organisation of the unemployed under State control on co-operative principles. This was harking back to the National Workshops of Louis Blanc, which were opened and undermined through government hostility in the Revolution of 1848. They were intended to provide work for the unemployed, who would manage them and share the profits. Under the Tories, the present system of unemployment benefit is deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible in order to drive the jobless into any kind of work, no matter how poorly paid and with poor working conditions. They are moreover seen as a source of cheap labour for the companies participating in the Workfare programmes. We desperately need a system of unemployment benefit and state provision of work that builds and empowers people. I’d like there to be ways in which the unemployed themselves can seize power so that they can force the government to treat them with humanity and dignity. The government’s lauded campaign to create a more entrepreneurial Britain by forcing the unemployed to classify themselves as self-employed in order to keep receiving benefits is woefully inadequate and doesn’t even come close.