Thesis Number: #7 (Page 3 of 8)
The power of life and death stemmed directly from the monopolisation of the means of life – the land. By degrading the rights of access to nature (whether within the household, or within a nation), inequality is institutionalised. This results in the economics of apartheid (Box 2). An unnatural hierarchy of life is established that is offensive to everything entailed by the concept of humanity. My life is superior to yours, not because I am a better person than you are, but because I own the land which you need to occupy.
The Economics of Apartheid
Apartheid is the arrangement whereby owners of land evolve a separate culture from those who are excluded from land, who are driven to the margins of existence. Differential access to land establishes a dynamic of separateness enforced by legally sanctioned violence against those who are excluded. In what is officially designated as post-apartheid South Africa, the failure to devise and enforce a land reform that was capable of re-integrating the whole population has made it impossible to erase the blights of unemployment, destitution and crime (unemployment is 40% of the employable population). The fine words in South Africa’s constitution count for little in the townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Women cannot recover their traditional dignities while an abusive system of land tenure and rent privatisation is sanctioned by the policies of government.
We can trace similar transformations in a country like England. The modern nation-state was established by creating the state of dependency. That was achieved by eroding people’s common law rights of access to land.
Feminists draw attention to the way in which laws degraded women’s rights. They cite William Blackstone, for example, who wrote in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England that “by marriage the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least it is incorporated, or consolidated into that of the husband under whose wing she performs everything”. A woman became known as femme couverte. That meant she owned no property of her own, had no rights over her children, her body or her earnings. But what was the cultural logic that brought this about?
The replacement of common law by statute law began with the intervention of Henry II (1133–1189). The social status of land was in the process of being transformed. Up to then, rents funded the needs of the monarchical state. The king “lived of his own” – meaning, he held estates, the rents from which were expected to cover the Crown’s costs. Feudal aristocrats held land assigned by the Crown on condition that they administered justice and came to the defence of the realm in its time of need.
With the incremental shift of society away from this paradigm – or land rents received in return for performing social service – customs and practises were modified. Modernisation was necessary, as science and technology improved the productivity of farmers. The reforms could have favoured the further evolution of society, raising the quality of everyone’s life. Instead, changes to the law of the land consequently degraded women and their traditional rights.2 Attitudes in the Victorian era indicate the depths to which the status of women had sunk (Box 3).
To Love, Honour and Obey…
Neville Lytton (1879–1951), 3rd Earl of Lytton, artist and brother of suffragette Constance Lytton, wrote in The English Country Gentleman (n.d.: 110-111): “Take, for instance, the question of love and marriage. The heir to a landed estate considered, above all, his relation to that estate. He chose his wife as a suitable queen consort; she was not to be a co-partner. She was to love, honour, and obey him, but he was not to endow her with all his worldly goods, but rather endow all his worldly goods with her”. Lytton was evidently innocent of the facts of life, for he accounted for the relationship between the sexes in these terms: “Such an attitude is only possible in a country where there are more women than men and therefore men have a wide choice”!
The status of women was eroded during the late medieval period which historians call “bastard feudalism”. Women’s status and rights were at risk once the aristocracy sensed that its social function was becoming obsolete. The modern nation-state was being defined by the emergence of a professional standing army, professional judges and professional civil servants. These specialists had to be trained, and the roles were becoming full-time commitments. Feudalism was decaying through obsolescence. The rents of the community would need to be redirected, to fund the new employees of the state. The barons and knights would have to disappear into history. Right?
The knights were not going to go down without a fight. The chivalry of yore went out of the window: survival meant that they would have to challenge the authority of the monarchical state if they were to grab the nation’s rents. They could preserve their social status by transforming the status of land. But to privatise the rents as their exclusive income, they had to deny the social character of land as, ultimately, the property of the whole community. They had to separate possession from social responsibility. This was achieved by a protracted coup d’état against the monarchical state. Parliament, and the “rule of law”, became subservient to class interest.
Private tenure could only be achieved by assaulting the community. One device for extending the financial power of the aristocracy was that of appropriating land from the people who lived on the commons. This was followed by all the legally sanctioned abuses directed at the dispossessed, to contain their discontent. By privatising the land, the aristocracy necessarily prejudiced the status of women. Women were annexed as property. This was a logical outcome of the re-definition of the status of land, as we see in its most virulent expression – the law of primogeniture.
To secure their absolute control, the aristocracy enforced ownership of land in perpetuity through the male line. Daughters became dependent on their eldest brother. Gone was the chivalry towards the fairer sex. Now, it was a matter of crude contract. Men held the trump cards. Women no longer had equal rights of access to land. This exposed them to the potential abuses which became custom and practise once the social status of land had been erased. Women were now chattels.