Homage to Henry George
[19 October 2013]
I have launched a new initiative for economic justice on
www.sharetherents.org. This is based on the audit of my performance. I
came to realise that there was never a chance of succeeding with the
language and strategies that I inherited when I first walked into the
London headquarters of the British Georgist movement back in the
1960s. So I celebrate my departure from the past with a homage to the
activist who, in the 1880s, successfully launched the first global
It was towards the end of a decade-long campaign to help the people
of Russia that I realised why we had failed. I identified two reasons.
First, the rent-seeking culture had become so deeply embedded that it
would never allow fiscal reform anywhere in the world. Second, our
tools undermined our ambitions. I share my reflections in case they
are of value to others. I have road-tested them in China (last month)
and the United States (earlier this month). I was left encouraged.
(1) The assumption that ours is a rational society. If I and my
colleagues strained hard to explain the integrity of land value
taxation to policymakers and the media, reason would ultimately
prevail. On the basis of deep historical research, I now understand
that under no circumstances can the Georgist paradigm be negotiated
into existence. I describe what I call the statecraft of greed in The
Traumatised Society and in Ten Theses being serialised on
www.sharetherents.org The agents of power have to be bypassed.
(2) The concept of "land value taxation" obstructs
progress. I no longer use it. Here's why:
(i) land: emphasis on this word distracted me from the
other half of what people were excluded from when land was enclosed.
Rent is the value of the services of both nature and society. People
were excluded from society when they were deprived of their rights
of access to the commons. By failing to demand the restoration of
the right to create an authentic democratic culture, the void was
left for other ideologies to fill.
(ii) land value: this term concedes the right to privately own the
capitalised value of rent. This strengthened people's determination
to avoid public claims on "their" asset values.
(iii) taxation: "tax" shuts down people's minds. Denial
is the default position. I was embarked on Mission Impossible. And:
by threatening a tax on "their" land, I implicitly
conceded that government would only recover a part of the rent (a
100% charge would be resisted as confiscation, as a "taking").
I allowed myself to be co-opted by the rent-seeking agenda!
(3) Language By talking about "increases in the value of their
land", I misrepresented economic reality. The value of their land
did not increase. It was the value of public services that were
further enhanced by tax-funded investments. Derelict governments
allowed land owners to capture enhanced rents. I reinforced
rent-seeking by endorsing the myth that "their" land
increased in value.
(4) Objectivity My books presented an objective account of land value
taxation without the passion that is required to reconstruct
communities on the basis of freedom and justice. I ought to have
offered visions of the future that might flow from the recovery of the
community's rents. Restoration of an authentic democratic culture
would lead to ways of living significantly different from those
bequeathed by the predators. My objectivity lacked the inspiration
needed to overcome the despair and denial which, I now recognise,
helps people to cope with the perverse laws of the land. Over the
course of four generations, the Georgist paradigm was dumbed down.
(5) The Shift We need a culture shift (facilitated by a tax shift) to
control the geopolitical trends that pose an existential threat to
humanity. I am exploring ways to mobilise people beyond the methods
employed by most NGOs (which seek to ameliorate painful symptoms
rather than alter the foundations of a corrupted social system).
Georgists from around the world pitched in to our Russian campaign.
It was a wonderful exercise in collaboration. I do not want that
effort to have been wasted. Failure to save the people of Russia will
not have been in vain if the lessons are learnt. Today, in China, the
World Bank is once again pushing to privatise land and rent. Reasoned
discourse with the international financial institutions and sovereign
governments will not yield change: their mandate is to protect the
We need to foster what Mason Gaffney calls a Great Awakening: a
renewal of humanity's moral/spiritual heritage, the kind that preceded
great reforms of the past. The way to achieve this is to excise the
mind-bending language bequeathed to us by the culture that was
incubated by the predators of the past. Their vitriolic values have
all but erased the last traces of decency in our communities.
I am optimistic, for this reason. The next generation of activists
will be unique in the history of our species. So far, humans have
lived according to the rules of territoriality. This was a necessary
evolutionary strategy. Territoriality, however, has been rendered
obsolete. Time and space are overcome by clicks on keyboards. Cell
phones mobilised tens of thousands of people into the squares of Arab
cities, and their sheer numbers was sufficient to overthrow those who
exercised monopoly power. But they were not equipped with the
knowledge of what it would take to lay the foundations for a better
future: hence the re-assertion of rent-seeking in Egypt by the
military, the owners of one of the country's largest landed estates.
Back in the 19th century, Henry George provided a clear exposition
which empowered the people of the street. He even animated some
policy-makers (who, at the turn into the 20th century, realised that
they were faced with the opportunity to change the course of history).
We now need a narrative that resonates with the realities of the 21st
century. Those realities cannot be adequately articulated in the
idioms that pass for economic and political discourse today. My effort
to scope out new concepts is but one contribution to what I hope will
be a fresh start to redeem the selfless sacrifices of four generations
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